Last meeting was our annual thumbing of the collective nose to Cartier-Bresson’s fear of the contrived, the Creative Round. In that all of photography, from one point of view, is contrived, we can take comfort in a Sontagian view that Photography is a “Promiscuous way of seeing” and here are we. It is also another way to open the arguments between the Get-it-right-in-the-camera-ista’s and Ye-accolytes-of-photoshop, but we won’t.
Congratulations to the winners, (Check out the Facebook page or the website) this in some ways is the hardest round of all to to enter, not least because the definition of what we mean by creative is quite fluid. It stems from an original thought or vision. This gives us less chance to take the image we want by accident, the surrealist streak in photography if you will, as it tends to involve a lot of planning and preparation. The flip side of this is that the deliberation it involves is good for us in all the other forms of photography, because it is a productive habit.
“A skilful photographer can photograph anything well” according to John Szarkowski. So that doesn’t mean just slapping on a filter over an existing photograph and calling it creative, though there is nothing to say that you cannot. Passing a superficial inspection is one thing but the photographs that hold the attention are rarely going to be constructed that way. Skill in photography is as much about practice and deliberation and attitude as it is in any other form. The trick for the hobbyist is not to make it a burden, but to enjoy and enjoy learning.
It’s why having a theme works for our development. Yes it is fun (for us, the rest of the family can feel a little left out) to take a camera everywhere and photograph what takes our fancy or arrests our attention, but when we narrow ourselves down we concentrate on looking, and looking for associations with this idea, which we are using to organise our output. A photograph.
It brings us back to that deliberate frame of mind again. This is also something that helps when we feel that we have plateaued in our development. It can be frustrating to not quite get what we visualised, but also it can be the brain’s way of telling us time to try something different. To create a random element in that, basically to set the challenge, use the theme link above and use this preset random number generator to pick a topic from those 328 themes; get a camera; your least used lens or least used camera even, and get right on it.
There is something to be said in rekindling the simple pleasure of just taking a photograph in a spare five minutes. It can be as simple as arranging things to hand on a desk or a table and practising the basics of composition, because nowhere is boring when you have a camera in your hand.
To give a couple of examples:
Whilst waiting for the potatos to boil I took about four frames of a satsuma and a couple of apples, altered saturation and played a bit with curves and made them presentable if not earth shattering images. Of course, if I wanted to become rich I should have taken photographs of the spuds.
Waiting for a relative to get ready I was struck by the incidental arrangement of my Works ID badge and glasses on a side table. Nudged things around very slightly, took it, cropped it square, painted a bit of blur on it. Quite like it. Doubt I will see it hanging in the Royal Society of Arts any time soon, but hey, I got a small sense of achievement out of it.
Same occasion at the other end of the trip, I was waiting in a coffee shop and set myself the challenge of getting the branded coffee cup and the illuminated sign in the window. A bit of cup shuffling, bit of Dutching (avidly watching all those 60’s Batman shows as a kid finally paying off), applied a saturated, bluish, filter to tone down the harsh lighting, job done. No need to buy a new dickie bow for any award ceremony on its account, but that’s fine. I had observed, visualised, framed, captured and post processed in under two minutes, made a photograph that gave me a small sense of having done something, enjoyed doing it and the result. All this by taking a camera to (some) things that make you go Hmmm.
All these were shot and processed and uploaded to Flickr via my decidedly mid-range mobile phone, which has three times as many pixels as my first digital camera had, two very capable editing apps and a link to the internet, all in something that fits in the palm of my hand. The fact is, for a very high percentage of the day I have access to a camera. Yes I prefer to shoot with my camera body and detachable lenses, yes I can potentially do more with it, but the equipment isn’t the point, making the image is. And no one knows what camera was used and very few actually care.
Restriction is as much an opportunity as a wealth of opportunity. This can be shooting with a different lens or one you don’t use very often, a different camera (including your phone camera if you don’t use it very often) close ups (not necessarily macro), wide angles (making sure to include something in the foreground) there are plenty of variations. A simple one is to deliberately frame a portrait and a landscape version of the same image, being careful to compose the best image in each.
As we gave him the first word we will give him the last, in the interests of symmetry, a noble subject for an image. Henri Cartier-Bresson said of taking a photograph that the thinking should be done before and after the taking of a photograph. Make that gap your Zen Moment. Take that time just to enjoy being a photographer.
Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”. A bourgeois concept is one that makes the holder appear self important and materialistic, shallow, pretending to be deep, unsophisticated and generally lacking in true class. He never once won a club competition round thinking like that. He did co-found the rather classy Magnum photo agency though, which he described as “…. A community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.” Well he would say that, I mean, not even a commended? Obviously a case of if you can’t join them beat them.
Our last session on the endlessly fascinating light painting and the impromptu follow up at Abbots Pool on Sunday techniques set me to thinking about this. Not particularly to bourgeois concepts, you understand, but how the technique generally requires stripping the camera electronics to the basics, especially when not combining any ambient light. Full manual set on a tripod and long exposures, at least we can sympathise with a William Fox-Talbot or a Roger Fenton, though we still have it a lot easier. Equipment is smaller and lighter, we can get, with digital at least, instant review and no messing about with chemicals – though that is a different kind of fun in itself.
We are still paying attention to the same basics then. Pre-focussing the lens in the general area of the soon to be action is more guess work than we are used to with auto-focus but we still have to maintain a level of sharpness. What we don’t want is our lenses hunting for a spot with sufficient contrast to lock on to. Most of the time it’s not going to find one in the dark. So, manual focus it is on two grounds. Most people at Abbots Pool seemed to be shooting towards the end at F10, yours truly, different as ever at F8 (actually from aquick excif check it was F8 all night), but that might be the difference in using an SLT camera as opposed to a DSLR. We want our images to retain the lines and patterns in what is technically known as an acceptable circle of confusion. Basically a zone of focus we register as “sharp”.
Shutter speed. Bulb is the order of the day with light painting, at least in the conditions we were shooting in at club and at Abbots Pool. If we are shooting traffic in town in order to capture the light trails then we are probably looking at somewhere between 6 to 10 seconds as a start point (again at F8, maybe F11) but that is just to find a base line. Similarly we would want to keep a constant aperture and most likely exposure time if we were painting a large object with a single light source (and that would be across frames).
The usual advice for a sharp picture is to use the reciprocal of the focal length, so a 50mm lens would suggest 1/50th of second minimum, a 210mm lens 1/250th. Theoretically at least. However this rule of thumb (tool) has been around a long time. Certainly on a full frame 35mm camera with no vibration reduction then it’s no bad way to go. However, should we lengthen the time by 1.5x or 1.6x to account for an APS-C lens? 2x for a Micro Four Thirds? And how much do we need with VR built in and turned on? Firstly that full frame thing is a bit of a false lead. As magnification increases the degree of movement needed to register as blur decreases. Magnification does not change with sensor size, the field (and depth) of view does (and low light capabilities and quality given the same number of photo-sites – or pixels as they are commonly called – and the relative numbers on the exposure triangle).Think of it as Width not depth, you won’t go far wrong. Practically, by the way, if it’s too big to see in the viewfinder, it aint gonna fit on the sensor. Secondly VR does allow us to lower shutter speed but how much depends upon the individual and the situation.
But hey, we are on bulb (shutter stays open as long as the shutter mechanism is activated), so all that doesn’t matter. And if we are on bulb then we are on a tripod or the camera is stabilised by some other means like a bean bag or a wall etc. The bulb by the way comes from the history of photography as it was a rubber bulb shaped object used to fire the trigger. As long as it was depressed (squeezed) the shutter mechanism remained open. Sound familiar? There is some question as to whether the VR should be turned off on tripod, I have never had to and I have VR on both my camera body and my main lens. Other people have and it has made a difference. Test it and find out for your camera. Then move on.
Shooting RAW or JPEG is a personal choice, get those things above right then it doesn’t matter. If you want or need to do a lot of playing around with colour channels, contrast etc then RAW is better. Otherwise do not fret. Fretting about RAW or JPEG is probably a bourgeois concept. Arguing about it rather than taking pictures is definitely a bourgeois concept. Move on.
Composition still counts. When in doubt about the area that is going to be used to complete the picture go wide and crop in post. You can take things out, you can’t put things in that you haven’t got a record for. Generally with the sort of light painting we were doing then going wide was not a bad strategy.
Post production is certainly a matter of personal taste. It can be fun to play around with effects and balances but, by and large, we don’t want it to look over processed. Unless we do. That’s why it’s a matter of personal taste. Printing your results though means that we are going to want as much colour space as we can get to reproduce the tones and subtleties of colour. sRGB is best for monitors, so we need to make allowances for this.
It doesn’t have to be complex, it gets better with practice and it is fun. Get out there and try some.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Speaker – Welcome to my outdoor office – Stephen Spraggon
Happy New Year as we enter the 2017 portion of the season. We kicked off with the first of two editing related sessions, next week we have a speaker talking about the Photoshop Plug In, Topaz. This week it was members to turn to sharpen, hue, pare, crop, colour, desaturate and or generally mangle, torture and deface – depending upon your individual tastes – a common set of five images. The proof of the pudding being in the consumption it is fair to say that though the number of source images was small, no two interpretations were the same.
At the risk of being thought to have imbibed too much of the new year spirit we are going to look at what it is we are actually presenting. Taking this right back to basics then no two images, once altered, are the same. They bare the imprint, however minute, of the person who altered them and the peculiarities of the tools that they were altered with. Also they are most definitely not, cannot be for reasons of time, geography and interpretation be the same as the photographer – s/he who pressed the shutter and was witness to what was captured. What is actually being photographed is another perspective again, because it is in a different place in time and space to the camera.
So much is true, essential in that we are talking the laws of physics, but nonetheless not particularly of great importance when it comes to our taking photographs. Except in two circumstances. One is in the circumstance of where we are using the image as the basis of a piece of art – The conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful, as in the arrangement of forms, sounds, or words (Freedictionary.com) – a pleasing representation of something we have seen, framed, captured and post processed in the hope of making something that the viewer can form an emotional attachment to. The other is a claim that what we are showing is the truth (as opposed to a truth) – Conformity to fact or actuality (Freedictionary.com). The first is an opinion the second is an assertion, for unless present we have no way of knowing just how truthful a claim that is.
So what? Well in the former, I agree with you, so what? Not being a collector of fine art, or otherwise, prints. Apart from the fact that a lot can be learned by looking critically at other peoples work, it is a personal matter as well as something that is subject to fads and fashions and more or less informed opinions. That is not to say that certain commonalities cannot be agreed in what we accept as pleasing to the eye.
It is said that “The Camera never lies” (Robert Louis Stevenson), which Caesar Romero contradicted, “It lies every day”. Stevenson was making a point about the difference between fine art and photography though I prefer David Bailey‘s assertion that ” It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter, because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the ordinary. (In “Face,” London, Dec 1984). The fact remains that certain physical limitations endure and it takes a certain skill to get round it.
Does it matter, then, if we alter images? Of course not and yes, absolutely! As ever context is all. The camera is neutral. Whatever is in front of it it will render a more or less recognisable facsimile of, depending on our mastery of focus and the exposure triangle. Our job, behind the camera, is to let this story making tool tell a story. If we are claiming that the story we are telling is a true one, then absolutely it matters if and what we enhance/remove. This is especially the case in photojournalism where the reputation of the publication using an image can be severely tainted by the manipulation of a photograph to tell an enhanced story.
So there is, in some areas, a tension between truth and beauty. That is before we come back to matters of taste but there is still a question of whether it matters if an image is a photograph or a graphic design? Again, of course not and absolutely! It counts in the matter of work flow, especially when editing. We have, many times, referred to the opposing camps of Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-istas and Ye-Accolytes-Of-Photoshop. In truth we probably aspire to the former but fall back on the latter, but there is a reason why the Camera-ista has a point and it is linked to a number of themes we have looked at over the past couple of years.
First off is the argument about artist/artisan. Frankly I find this to be an empty one. If you take something and make something else of it then you have created art. Art may not be the end which you had in mind, for instance if you took wood to make a chair I am guessing that you would rather sit on it than look at it, but there will be a reaction to the way that it has been put together and thought about, its design, that will include an overall effect. This overall effect is where the art concept lives. It is not all of it, but it is an integral part of it.
Secondly, fine motor skills and the ability to pick up a pencil or a brush and create a representation of a person or thing is the same as picking up any other tool and making the same. The camera is a tool. Mastery of the tool leads to mastery over the final result. It does nothing to add soul to the final result, but it is a gate keeper to others interacting with that same soul. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, Pentax, Olympus, Hasalblad, Phase One and the rest, immaterial. Light and the laws of physics work the same way for them all. Post processing may be able to put things in but it can only bring out soul if soul is there to be found in the first place. Post processing, and by far the most commonly found is the Photoshop/Creative Cloud family but I mean post processing in general, is just another tool. You can be good bad or indifferent in using it.
So get out, photograph, think about what you photograph, look at others photograph, learn the ways of light, bring it home, polish it, present it and go again. Sounds like some sort of hobby to me.
Happy New Year.