This week three for the price of one: an exchange visit with fellow WCPF club Hanham, things being helped by the clubs regular meetings being on consecutive nights. So we showed them ours at Hanham on Wednesday and they reciprocated on Thursday. This was followed by the return of former member Tony Cooney this week, who, last year, graced us with his pictures from his time serving in Iraq and this time showing his work with portraiture and a variety of models.
These three events set themselves squarely in our development as photographers of whatever level. Looking at, thinking about, talking about our and other people’s pictures is an absolute essential of developing not just appreciation but also a store of looks, effects, puzzles and things to try out.
In order to so we need to have some sort of method to regularise and make useful comparisons. This is generally known as a critique and is something we have used before (using some prints leant to us by Hanham by coincidence). It is what we have competition judges do for us, where they give is feed back from an outside perspective, and a great deal of experience.
We can use this to our advantage by rationalising our own reactions to others opinions. Nobody rational is going to like 100 percent of our output equally (nor dislike). In that we can garner likes and views and favourites on social media that has as much, if not more, to do with niche marketing than actual photography. And a lot of people seem to make it an end in itself. It, like the histogram of our last image, lies between perceptions of absolute light and dark because the image and our true opinion lie in the range in between. We critique to articulate these ranges. We learn by applying this through the viewfinder.
And we do this over time. Tony showed us a development line going back several years and made the point that the single biggest early improvement came from investing in a lighting course. Now there are good courses and there are mediocre ones and price is not really a good indicator of anything other than this is what your provider can afford to charge and still get enough people to engage.
Personally I rate these things, among others, by the number of people on the course. One where you get 20 minutes a day, if you are lucky, with a superstar of that genre is worth far far less in terms of personal development and value than one where you get an hour or two hours individual attention. You might get some excellent photographs, much time in course development is spent on making sure of that because then your customers become your champion marketeers, but unless you develop the faculty of seeing rather than looking, that is not going to teach you much.
Of course we are in a position nowadays that access to opinion and information is instantaneous and in volumes we cannot hope to handle. The self taught route can be very rewarding, of course, but the accelerating the pace needs some sort of external input. Quality not quantity and when you have grasped the basics that provide quality, consistency, was something that came across from Tony’s set and certainly this was evident across both the evenings he has done with us.
The “Studio” portrait conjures up images of large format cameras, assistants, assistants to assistants, big lighting rigs, expensive clothes on professional models and an equipment bill most of us don’t have sufficient kidneys to sell to pay for. Try scaling down expectations a little and the basics become more do-able. When learning a new skill it pays to Keep It Short and Simple (an extension of Kappa’s If-it’s-not-good-enough-you-are-not-close-enough mantra) and in something practical like this, plenty of do and review. Improvisation is part of the fun and the skills set of photography.
Of course there are the intermediate courses that you can buy on line and these range from good to bad as does anything else. In these cases finding people who have used them and have something to say about them and explain why they came to that conclusion (not testimonials) are few, far between and invaluable. In this case forewarned is fore armed. Managing our own expectations is also part of the process. It isn’t just about talent and it is also about recognising that hard work is a talent in its own right. If we have this capacity then a little direction is what we need.
Sooner or later we end up taking photographs of people. Before the days of mass photography that was almost the soul purpose of the art. OK, a bit of landscape thrown in. Today’s social media probably hasn’t done a huge amount to change that ratio, neither has it done a huge amount for the overall quality of photographs taken. Being in it counts for more than the quality of it.
There are things we can do to improve this easily enough. Last post we talked about the effect of sensor size on quality in the main part of the post. It has another impact too – depth of field or how much of the image is acceptably sharp. This is important because of the requirement to make the eyes (both eyes) the point of focus. That is the area of a face we will look to first. Not in focus? No second thought.
A camera phone has a deep depth of field. Shooting with a wide open aperture on a larger sensor means that that which we perceive as being acceptably sharp is far more limited. Both eye-focus is easier if we fill the frame with our subject, photographer Robert Capa once famously remarked, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, it’s because you aren’t close enough”. Aperture controls depth of field.
This applies to all sorts of cameras. With that in mind try replicating this video.
Our thanks to David Southwell not only for a sterling job in judging the Hankin and Scantlebury Trophies round but for doing so at short notice. Always a model when it comes to his consideration and feedback. Our continued run of no shows, reasons aside, continued as the 2015-2016 season goes down as “The year the Judges didn’t”. Results will be posted on the club website made available and the awards made at the end of year bash.
As ever, the last two rounds of the ROC have shown that the interests, eyes for an opportunity and styles of club members are very different. They are, if we let them be, calls to go out and do some things afresh, to get better. In the final analysis the only person we are competing against is our self. We have visited this improvement theme more than a few times but that does not alter the fact that it is our own experience and limitations that go into taking the next frame. It maybe a little dispiriting when people/clients are name-checking a 9 year old over you, or when the fourteenth consecutive judge has failed to notice your genius, but that doesn’t matter because you are following your passion.
Except it does matter.
It matters because you don’t need to let your passion get in the way of your passion for. Passion here, we could also read as ego, passion for as motivation. I am not going to launch into a Freudian lecture on Id Ego and Super Ego, but the point was made on Petapixel this week in an article built around a Mike Rowe video entitled “Don’t follow your passion“. Essentially it is about blinkering ourselves to opportunity by focusing on what we desire, or think desirable, or think we should think desirable.
Someone, actually it was Ralph Waldo Emerson and in answer to your next question, yes I do know where he is, said that life is a journey not a destination. Well thinking about it he might be right but actually that doesn’t actually mean anything nor does it indicate what we should do next. Let’s put this into photographic terms. Your eye sight is fading, it was always better in the days of film, you were once the proud owner of an Austin Allegro and your favourite colour is beige. Conclusion? Go and judge some club competitions, who will then marvel at your beige enhanced, photochemical scented nostalgia and razor perception of the necessary width of a border. A fairly accurate description of the judge who doesn’t pick your photo for at least a commendation, obviously.
What we have here is not so much a matter of perspective as a matter of investment. The landscaper who hacks across perilous marshlands in the dark in order to get that glorious sunrise, slightly over exposed, but that can be “fixed in post”, with the horizon bang in the middle, but that can be cropped out, the dynamic range in the frame more than JPEG can handle, did that for effect, and with the tips of branches intruding from one side, strong vignette will sort that out, is left with a sense of achievement imbued by the difficulty of the journey and the glory of the post shoot slap up breakfast. The journey becomes the point and the spectacles distinctly rose hewed because of it. Along comes the judge, who has trekked that very path, taken that very scene, made it part of their successful RPS panel and basically says “Should have gone to Specsavers”. If a good ‘un their feed back will provide a map to get them there. Obviously, our landscaper is the victim of myopia, poor taste, jealousy, misunderstanding etc etc. Yet, following their passion, and as we seem to be in the middle of a quote-fest, they have fulfilled the Yogi Berra observation that “If you don’t know where you are going you might find yourself someplace else”.
It’s not the trek over the perilous path that the judge is judging, it’s the image that resulted and it is being judged against the other entries in that part of the competition. Yes, it is all relative, and if the competition regularly shoots for and is commissioned by National Geographic then the standard you have to hit to be good enough to reward is going to be far, far higher. In this rather extreme case you have a decision to make. Buckle or learn? If you are following your passion then the former is easier, eventually than the latter. If you bring your passion with you, as Rowe points out, then the latter becomes a lot easier – if you have a system for and a willingness to put it into operation.
There is a negative side that can raise its head here and that is to do with confidence. Lack of confidence is, I would speculate, the number one reason members don’t enter club competitions and whereas it is true, or maybe, it can also come across as a bit glib to say, nothing ventured nothing gained. The essential truth doesn’t take the sting out of failure. Experience has taught me that if you don’t “fail” (come up to expectation, yours or someone else’s) you cannot learn. Fail is just an acronym. First Action In Learning. Don’t fail, can’t learn, can’t learn won’t improve. Enter the competitions not to win but to learn. That is where the judge’s feedback is so very important. If you have a system for and a willingness to put it into operation. Simply put, take what the judge said could be improved, go take two similar shots, one with those sins included and one with them omitted. Which seems better? Make a note, as in write it down in a note book. Practice the better outcome. Read your notes often.
All of which takes motivation. Actually two things it takes, the first I have just mentioned, repetition, the second is the spur to action. The pattern for most people who are not obsessive/compulsive is to have a whole lot of enthusiasm at the beginning which tales off to mild interest and finally redundancy over time. In that way motivation carries the seeds of its own destruction. The key is to vary. Not one technique done to death but two or three practiced together, and always with a critical eye, a positively critical eye. Technique is more important 99 times out of a hundred, than gear, but that is not to diminish the role that gear can play. It’s just better to invest in it gradually and purposefully. Know why and what you are going to achieve by investing in it. What it isn’t is a crutch for bad technique. Which brings us back to the top of the page.
N E X T M E E T I NG
Practical outdoors, bring your cameras. If weather inclement then we will be indoors.