We have had Round 4 of the ROC (see website for results) and a presentation by the Dream Team which both show what you can do with a bit of application – and a lot of planning. So, is there a magic formula to improving as a photographer?
The simple answer is “No”. Anybody trying to sell you an alternative is peddling snake oil and the likelihood of success is about the same, though that wouldn’t stop them claiming any advances as proof positive.
The “Through hard work” answer is a partial truth, there is no denying that application is part of it, but a Protestant Work Ethic alone isn’t going to affect the desired outcome. After all if you just do what you have always done, you are going to get what you have always got, as someone, maybe Henry Ford, or was it Mark Twain? Could have been Albert Einstein, or somebody else, once said. And there is truth in it. But not the whole truth.
Direction comes into it. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else”. That was Yogi Berra, and yes we’ve used it before. Direction and hard work, we are starting to get somewhere. The right direction and hard work. The work might be hard but it doesn’t have to be unenjoyable. Rewarding, directed, hard work. The reward and how hard we work for it are linked are for sure. Nothing quite gives us a lift as an image that comes out as we saw it.
None of this, otherwise sound, advice gives us a point to start from. Again there is an obvious but not very helpful answer to this. We can only start from where we are. “I wouldn’t be starting from here” said the eponymous Irishman when asked for directions, and I know what he meant. The first job, then, is to decide where we are.
And this involves looking, but looking with a purpose, looking critically at what we are doing and finding some photographers whose work we admire and practising (here’s a start if you need one, but it is just a start) what we like in their photo’s. Join sites like Flickr (the club has its own page, put some contributions up) or 500px where you can build galleries of your own favourites and try doing your own versions of them. Keep experimenting around a theme and you will start to see some improvements as long as you apply a critical eye to the results.
If we want a starting point then we could do worse than take Robert Capa’s dictum that “If your photograph isn’t good enough then you aren’t close enough”. A photograph tells one story well and cropping in on the essential detail leaves less room for confusion. It doesn’t matter whether you zoom with your lens or zoom with your feet (there are differences but they are subtle, real but not really for today’s argument, and all to do with perspective) but it can have an effect, will have an effect.
We are aiming to tell a story with a single detail. When we are looking at our scene through our viewfinder our mission is to find the detail that makes a difference. That can be a look, the curve of a line, the repetition of pattern, a contrast in colours, or something else. There will have been a something though, and that something is the thing that caught our attention. This is when working the scene comes into its own. This works whether we set out to take a particular picture or are just wandering through the landscape looking for inspiration. Once we find the something, the key, we can use it to unlock the potential in something that has taken our attention.
Or as Aristotle sort of put it, we start seeing when we stop looking. Technically it is known as Inattentional Blindness, and happens when we exceed the processing speed and capacity of our brains. We can use this to our own advantage by letting go of putting everything into context and just following the things that catch our attention (paying due consideration to our own and others Health and Safety of course). Basically our brain is trying to tell us something, so shut up and listen.
And the best camera settings for that? Three options. The camera decides, you decide or something in the middle. Most photographers go for something in the middle. Essentially we are playing with the exposure triangle and the notion that the best that our camera will produce is a combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO according to the prevailing light conditions. You deciding is full manual. This is a preference, rarely a necessity, but it is worth learning because it teaches you about how your camera captures light and the worth of capturing light and shadow.
The other two options are let the camera decide, “P” or “Auto”, or something in between, shutter priority, aperture priority, exposure compensation. Full on auto will get you an acceptable picture most of the time, after all camera companies spend an awful lot of money on researching these things and writing algorithms to match. But it can be fooled. The in between range from scene selection where you alter the elements of the exposure triangle by selecting the symbol closest to the conditions you are shooting in, to setting the importance of the aperture or shutter relative to the ISO you are using. Control is what you are opting for or out of in various degrees. Most “Serious” photographers seem to shoot in aperture priority if that is any guide because that gives the most direct control over depth of field without having to fiddle with the other two sides of the triangle.
There is no right side, there are preferred sides there are sides that make certain situations easier. The fact is that, as a hobby, we have the luxury of having the time to play, experiment and fail a lot on our way to getting better. Joining a Photography club or an active photography interest group is part of that.
N E X T M E E T I N G
1st June 2017 19:30 – Guest Speaker: Sue Winkworth: “On The Road To Mandalay.”
(Deadline for John Hankin and Stan Scantlebury shield entries)
Last evening the event was about making photography fun. Thank you to our speaker Margaret Collis. Fun, who could be against that? Well debates on Puritan Philosophy and outlook aside, fun is, generally, in the words of Sellar and Yateman “A good thing” (1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates). Fun with a camera, well what else?
Sometimes, some people make me wonder if the fascination with the craft squeezes the fun element out of it. Margaret pointed out that some people do seem to let competitions dictate their style and habits, which is a shame because that is also limiting of the ability to develop and learn in new directions. For the amateur fun forms a big part, there are plenty of other, less expensive hobbies out there after all. But even the best hobbies have their ups and downs, few though have the capacity for variation that photography offers. So, this week the blog is going to be dedicated to making pictures work. Basically we are limited by our own imagination, one of those useless truisms because if we can’t imagine it in the first place we are unlikely to do it ….
So let’s assume we are feeling lazy or for some other, less fortunate reason, we are housebound, where to start? There are plenty of things around the house. A favourite is to use toys or miniature figures to play with scale around common household goods, even foods. Then there are water droplets, frozen flowers, oil on and in water, the list goes on. You don’t need to sail the world to get your photographs, though that does sound like a great idea. Peering over the duvet or over the crater of a volcano the successful picture has variations around a common technical theme, the exposure triangle, but however well the technicalities are executed, all successful pictures prompt an emotional response. Avoid the technically proficient, artistically deficient. The key to that emotional response is to make a story out of the elements: a simple, bold, cleanly framed, single element which in the balance of everything in it, we call a narrative.
Narrative, is about events linked by common elements, a thread, a story. We are familiar with the idea of spoken or written narrative, of those told in films and on TV. Making the one frame narrative is actually more familiar to ourselves than we may think. In thinking it we can think it too difficult, but actually it is quite natural to us. We contrive these all the time because, it seems we are hard wired to make stories of things in order to make sense of them. We become photographers when we stop taking image of things and start making images about things.
There are two situations this covers, the individual photograph always and photographs in series, from a collage (which can be very difficult to get right) to a sequence around a common theme, which we will label a project. I stress the point about the individual photograph because even if it is being part of a wider story (the Kingswood Salver is an excellent case in point), it has to stand in relation to the others on its own technical and aesthetic merits. The technical we have talked about and talk about all the time, not least because it is generally easy to agree about. The aesthetic, what we consider beauty in relation to a person or object, is both what we are talking about and a subject all of its own. A philosophical one, a scientific one, a personal one, too big for this little blog, beauty is a context of a combination of qualities, including shape, colour, or form, that pleases the imaginative senses of an individual, especially the sight. Look at these photographs culled from Friday’s Guardian (14 October 2016) newspaper website, pick your favourite and decide what you like about its shapes, colours and forms.
So can we use a bit of logic from what we have said about the connectivity at the centre of our photographic narrative? Well a couple of points I think. Firstly it is made, on purpose by framing and lighting and positioning. It is a product of selection. It is made by context. Secondly, and derived from this, it is deliberate.
Now it is beginning to sound very complex and a little off-putting. It is actually a question of looking, actively looking, pictorially, at what is around you. Now we make images for more than one reason. It can be a quick note, a documentary record, a statement, a creative impulse, a memory, and so on and so forth. Our guides to looking are the rules of composition, they help us find those connections that we alluded to above. This is as much about learning to see in the picture format as anything else. That is the key to starting, being deliberate, we referred to this last week and before when we talked about opportunities falling to the prepared. Serendipity. That can be aided by putting in another step before we press the shutter and that is to ask ourselves why this picture appeals.
Essentially, then we are going to end up with a mixture of pictures (point, click and chimp) and images (see, compose and capture) and that is OK. In fact we can see the differences between them and that can help with our own development. But it should not be a trial, it is about moving and direction and seeing and taking those pictures for the same reasons as always. Because it is fun.