The WCPF travelling critique was our last evening, and as ever there is something to be got out of sitting down and critically discussing the works of other photographers, especially if we then extend that to our own work. Some photographers get too caught up in the notions of developing a style or shooting a particular way thinking that their body of work will evolve through consistency alone.
That is like braking going uphill, sometimes it is necessary, but it involves a great deal of wasted energy. It is understandable though when the idea that photographic style is a filter we apply to an image. No this is not an anti-Instagram rant, and if that sounds like something we use to combat the symptoms of hay fever then now is an opportunity to catch up by clicking here.
But Instagram is a good place to start. Kevin Systrom, who was a co-founder of Instagram and who did very nicely, thank you, when it was sold to Facebook, had the idea seeded for the app when a Professor in Italy introduced him to the Holga camera, a cheap everything-you-pay-thousands-for-your-glass-not-to-do sort of camera that produces very retro looking pictures on 120 roll film. But that quirkiness actually forms the basis of the Holga’s modern-day appeal and yes, you can get filters to modify your everything-you-pay-thousands-for-your-glass-not-to-do to do Holga-esque images, just make sure you are well braced when you do because the weight of the irony of that is going to hit your wallet pretty hard.
The fact is film had/has its own look. Each brand would have their own unique ways of capturing and processing the light. Just in slide film: Kodachrome went through several “looks” over its life; Fuji was noted for its blue tones; Agfa was something else again; ditto Scotch, the list goes on.
Then there are/were the options/limitations in printing. Papers, inks, chemicals, sizes, frames, viewing options and conditions all have an impact. What they cannot do, however, is cover for lousy composition. Poor lighting. Wrong exposure. Unengaged subject. Surely filters / looks / processes / post-production can lend atmosphere to an image but unless the style is “Never mind the quality feel the width” they are not going to do much for our artistic integrity.
What we are looking for is a quality of the imagination, showing our individuality by drawing with light (Greek: photo – light graphy from graphe making lines or as we would call it, drawing). Style in the literary sense is about how the tools of language, clauses, spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like are put together to make an impression on the reader. We use light and shadow, directionality, the tools of composition and a photosensitive surface capable of recording the fall of light and dark on a subject in the same way. We fashion a statement on a subject.
What other people are doing is a start, but it is only a start. Copying what others have done, making a re-interpretation of something that has gone before, making our own statement, is a great way to learn but it is a means to an end. However, it is not the reason we pick up the camera (at least before we disappear up our own dirt pipes like the voice over on any given perfume advert). Understanding the technicalities by replicating the image is a learning tool, not an end in itself.
That said there is a notion that we can move between taking snapshots to making photographs. In so doing we develop, through habit, a photographic style. Whether it is a conscious statement or not. Perhaps we keep making the same mistakes, is that a style? Broadly yes but it is the elimination of the incidental and replacing it with the deliberate that makes a difference. It is that interpretation that is the seedbed of the individual’s style. That is when we start bothering less about what everyone else is doing.
Defining our style is one thing. Refining it is something else. Technical skills matter, you have to be able to apply the rules before you can start breaking them successfully. Purpose is the key. And lots of lots of practice. Lots and lots and lots.
Longtime sufferers of this blog will know that the world is divided into two. The Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-istas and Ye-Accolytes-Of-Photoshop. I err towards the former, but that is a personal thing. The fact is we need skills in both, but that we are probably better at one than the other.
That said there is a lot of time effort and money to be spared in getting the thing you have in your head onto your computer file (that is what we are creating until the image is printed) in as close to finished form as we can in the place where most of the important elements and all the results of those irreparable decisions are made. The camera. Just don’t let it get in the way.
Having the camera and lighting skills gives us the option to manipulate what we see in the fashion we want it seen. Post-production then tidies up and polishes. That sequence is the one that lets our style evolve and show through. Is it the only way? I doubt it. Having the confidence in using the materials we have to hand to make our statement makes for a stronger more assured one. When the “rules” are broken it is to a deliberate effect. Style thus evolves through confidence.
Colin Wall CPAG addressed us last meeting as the “Opportunistic Photographer” donating his fee to the Sight Savers Charity, as is his practice. Colin’s philosophy sits well with the club motto, “To us it’s not the camera but the picture that counts” (you knew that though, didn’t you?) and whereas there are many long conversations to be had around the topic, Colin preferred that his pictures prove the point and we gained some valuable insights to that line of thinking on the way. Although we may not be interested with what an image was made or indeed how it was made (though replicating looks and subjects and techniques is a great way to learn) there is still a fascination versus need thing going on the customer side of the counter. I don’t know of many photographers who can’t retroactively justify buying new-to-them kit. There is a need there that has to be fulfilled sooner or later.
Explaining to the significant other is a whole different aspect, of course. They may not, poor souls, understand the need. I find window shopping in camera shops quite easy when stony broke, find it quite easy to be price sensitive when the price tag feels like a lot. The most dangerous time to lurk around the nearest camera shop, I find, is when I can nearly afford it.
The how it was made thing Colin extended to post production. Certainly he feels that there is a division growing one we have related to before here on many occasions, as the Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-istas versus Ye-Accolytes-Of-Photoshop. The photography magazines do seem to be getting fuller of obvious post production work and there are some that, whilst being quite stunning in their appearance do make me wonder whether the original has got lost in the production. Not that I wouldn’t mind better post production skills, certainly I find it absorbing, but sometimes I wonder if some people use RAW so they have to fiddle. At what stage does a photograph become a digital photogram? Cue everyone’s pet hate rants.
So how do you know when you’ve over processed? Well that is a leading question because one photographer’s meat is another photographer’s poison. The analogy works with tofu too, so vegetarians need not feel left out. I have had a competition judge tell me that an effect (sepia) was “slapped on” for no reason, but then ignorance is bliss, his and his alone, I uncharitably thought at the time, and also tell me that the background should have been blurred, on a tree that was about half a mile away across a body of water. Well no and maybe. The second could only have been done post process (I didn’t have the tools then anyway). So, yes it does have its uses but ultimately the success of a photograph is that first impression, the thing that draws you in. That is a matter of taste and tastes change over time. That doesn’t stop anyone, and I am not suggesting that it should.
Colin told us that attention to the basics of composition pays dividends. Yes it’s an old saw, but one that directly relates to the impact subjects have within the frame. When we frame an image we exclude as much as we include. We have to do the exclusion thing in order to achieve the inclusion thing. It relates directly to the impact that we create in that image. This is where the “I’ll fix that in post” thing comes in. A Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-ista will tell you to move around, varying your angles through moving the subject left and right, up and down and in and out. Then when you have the best and if you can’t remove distracting objects from view, you go to post. Often it has merit, sometimes it is a case of fixing it in editing software. Looking for and framing shapes, textures and details are the things you do camera-in-hand. Strong diagonals and repetitive details, colour or black and white can be considerations too. The details take you beyond the merely documentary, or if being rude about it, point and shoot. He also mentioned something about policing the frame for distracting detail. Specifically he told us to beware bright spots, the colour red, faces and text as they can distract from the main subject. Even those people who wonder in and out of shot when shooting in crowds can be avoided by waiting, as even the largest crowds, as long as they are moving will have gaps appear in them. It can be a lot quicker than painstakingly airbrushing people out of your shot. Doesn’t count in Wedding Photography though. The crowd is rather the point ….
Ye-Acolytes-Of-Photoshop (True Believers Branch) will quite sensibly answer this with one word. Workflow. Workflow is the organisation of materials in such a way so as to transition efficiently and effectively from one sub-process to another in order to get a job done with minimum resources consistent with maximum impact. It starts in camera as the closer to the desired result the raw material is the less processing it needs. If you are processing a large number of photographs then you need to get this right, especially, but not exclusively, if you are being paid for it, you are effectively diluting your hourly rate, a thing called opportunity cost – that which you have lost by undertaking this choice. Taking this a step forward: for every hour you spend getting something wrong costs you three hours – the hour you spent getting it wrong; the hour you spend putting it right and the hour you lost when you could have been doing something more productive instead. So £18 rapidly drops below minimum wage.
So our thanks to Colin for a thought provoking evening and one given in a good cause. We look forward to seeing you again.
T O N I G H T ‘S M E E T I N G
Light Trails – the goodly number of us who attended the light trails session on the centre get to show and discuss our results. As long as you bring those pictures with you! Or its going to be a long evening ….