This last fortnight we have covered ROC round 3 and it was our turn for the WCPF prints, where we could exercise our own critiquing skills. This is always popular as members can be more involved than is necessarily the case on competition nights. On my table we got into some earnest questions not so much as which pictures we favoured but why that was so. Agreement wasn’t necessarily required, and we came to our 1,2,3 decisions for each category through a simple majority vote. That wasn’t really the point of it all though. The theming of those prints gave me an idea for this weeks blog.
When we look at other people’s work we are looking at other peoples way of seeing, which is not ours. Sounds deep. Essentially if we want to improve we have, at some time or other, to challenge our own way of seeing, discuss our way of seeing. Using the WCPF and viewing the competition work we can put that into some sort of perspective. Yes I like that – why? No I don’t like that – why not? The Japanese have a saying that if you want to know the answer ask, five times, why? Basically break down the reasons to the core. That teaches us something about our own preferences and we can, if we take note of these things, start to make a difference to our own work through it. Or, as I am sure I have quoted to you before: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – get it out with Optrex” (Spike Milligan). It has to be a conscious decision though, to do something about it.
Sounds like a slow process? Well it is. Our world is awash of nail-it-in-five-easy-lessons advice, yet that isn’t how humans learn. Sure you can get the basics right in about 20 hours but making the learning our own, that takes longer. Practice makes perfect as I am sure you have been told. Along with “Fail is just the First Attempt In Learning” and other useful things you want to strangle people for. And until we start to take on the critical eye, start taking and rejecting opportunities as part of a conscious effort, we just go round in one big circle until we are torpedoed by our own failed expectations. Bit like the sinking of the Bismarck.
But it’s a hobby. We do because we enjoy. There is no other compulsion than the one that gnaws at us to get the camera out of its bag and go shoot something (in the nicest possible way). There is always something on to point the camera at, the local “What’s On” tells us so. Left to the random too much can get missed or we end up trying to do too much in too little time. Opportunity generally isn’t a problem. Having a direction, some rails to run on, some clues as to what to look for, that is a great way of focusing the attention. Welcome to the world of the photo-project.
In its simplest form a photo project is a theme, a camera and a (regular?) space in the diary. There are as many projects as photographers, it seems, and that is because, to work, it has to be personal. We have to have some emotional attachment to what we are doing or it simply will not get done. The first point to take on board is that a 365 day project, a photo a day, sounds great when we start out but I am willing to bet that most of them don’t get completed, or get modified into something more suited to time and effort available. 30 day and 7 day projects are also popular and are more feasible. Timescale has a role to serve as we are effectively making an appointment with ourselves. The subject can be anything, but has to be something we have to put more than the usual amount of effort to complete. Then there are subject variations like: shoot 100 strangers (the serial killers favourite); A-Z; 52/26/12/any random number Photo-walks; pick a colour/theme; one focal length; the Roll of 12/24/36 (back to the old film days where you limit yourself to a film roll on a shoot); The 100 ISO challenge (fixed ISO can also be done with fixed aperture or speed); manual only focusing; plus a host of others.
Of course there is also the ongoing project, the one that lasts over months and years, that can involve deeper immersion in the subject where the style you develop adapts to the conditions your subject is most commonly found in. Osmosis, by and large is not a thing that produces results particularly quickly, if at all. The whole planned thing gets you thinking. The whole well I didn’t expect that thing we find when we get to a location challenges us to adapt. These two things help us develop but the third leg of the stool – looking critically at what other people have done and why we like it or what we would change about it and how we apply it to our own work- puts what we are trying to do in a context. That gives us something to learn and to improve with.
OK so this is based on a my-best-shot-is-my-next-one philosophy, but continuous development builds over time. It is about DELIBERATE practice. Now practice does not have to be devoid of fun, again I say this is our hobby, not our penance, but if we take Henri Cartier-Bresson’s point quoted in the last blog that “Your first ten thousand photographs are your worst” we miss the point and that point is the our first ten thousand deliberate photographs are our worst. And that is OK. Deliberation is the difference, and that can be as simple as going through your latest batch of images and thinking “If I were to take that one again I would ….” and then doing it. That is where we came in. Five members of a photographic club sitting around a table deciding what attracts them to different photo’s, and why, as a basis of going out and doing something about it.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Club member Julie Kaye on underwater photography.
That time of year again and we made good use of the 100+ prints in the travelling critique by taking a clue from the title and doing a team critique. Split into four groups we did a round robin to see if the clubs judgements matched the WCPF’s. That there was some correspondence between our groups and the WCPF is suggestive of something, but how much that is fashion and how much is warranty of excellence is always going to be open to debate, which is why the WCPF have their own judging guidelines. By having such guidelines there is a basis for standardisation.
Standardisation produces a number of benefits. It provides a start point from where interpretations can be made and also provides a reference point that can be used on review. With something that has as much variation as photographic images – each one, after all is unique – the technical, basically the exposure triangle plus composition, represent the common variables. No, you cannot overcome people’s visceral likes and dislikes but you can have a common framework and if people are open about their likes and dislikes – and at least attempt to compensate for them – then you have room for an interpretive framework.
By having such an interpretive framework then notions of quality can be established – but only within the terms of the chosen controls. This blur factor is necessary in photography exactly for the reason outlined above. The uniqueness of each image. Replace unique with the term “Art”. Art is an expression, an attempt to, through the application of skill to materials to craft an object that conveys meaning in the estimation of an audience. It’s what we do in our club competitions. That is not going to be the same meaning in every viewer. To legislate for that is to tell people what to think, never a wholly successful enterprise. Thus we look to regulating, mostly, the application of craft and the bigger thing that creates, the art if you like, of the picture.
This rather raises the question of what purposes such art serves, what effect are we trying to create? Broadly, and I do mean broadly, this fits into three categories. The physical, the social and the personal. The physical relates on a scale from something to nothing. A fountain pen has a physical function, writing, but can also be a functioning work of art. Art is not measured by monetary value, as this example might suggest, the amount that someone is willing to pay and why they are willing to pay it is a function of value, present and future, something quite different. Money is just the way of keeping count. I frequently find use for a tea cup, way beyond most people by volume, but never yet a tea cup covered in fur. I have none because I have no use for them, at least the covered in fur part. I may understand, or attempt to understand, the symbolism of such a statement, I may even add one of my own (futility in case you were asking, though I suspect that was part of the original message), it doesn’t mean I am going to become a furrier to my tea service. The sum is greater than its parts.
The social looks to our notions of a shared life, rather like street photography does, or environmental portraiture, or even portraiture itself in some aspects, as opposed to one persons outlook. Think of the work of social photographers like those involved in the Farm Security Administration sponsored documentary of 1930’s Dust Bowl America. It wasn’t just a record for of the resettlement of those dispersed by a man made ecological disaster. It had a political dimension. War photography isn’t just about two militaries engaging in what Von Clausewitz called “The continuation of Politics by other means“. It has news (therefore commercial) value, it has deeply personal meaning for the photographers there, it can be a contact point for those who weren’t, it is about humanity at its opposites of best and worst. Above all it has a collective purpose.
The personal aspect is probably the most like nailing water, because it is subtly different from person to person. However, as hobbyists it is perhaps easiest to generalise that we take photographs – make art – for our own gratification, as matters of self expression, either to share an emotion or feeling or for no particular reason other than we can – or did. Still this has two aspects, what the photographer meant is not necessarily what the viewer sees and that is a good thing, because otherwise we wouldn’t employ our curiosity, probably the most successful of human characteristics, which is the same as gets us to come to a camera club to learn and share about our hobby.
Just goes to show what you can do with the exposure triangle and the rules of composition.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Annual General Meeting. Important because without one we don’t have a club, so please attend, members.
Please note that there will not be a meeting at the club next week instead we are away at Backwell for a club camera battle. Said battle commences at 19:30 hours come along and support the club. Details are as per Gerry’s flyer here>>> Backwell Battle.
We were fortunate to have to the WCPF travelling exhibition again with us at the last club meeting, these prints were the ones that didn’t make it to the final cut. It was, as ever, as instructive as it was occasionally puzzling. We also had gold silver and bronze award prints to compare these to and there was much lively discussion about the relative merits. As has been said before, beyond the basic and accepted technicalities of the exposure triangle, focus, composition and subject and competition specific rules lies the more fraught ideas of what makes a good subject and a good image. What follows are some reflections from comments made and brief discussions had on the evening.
There were a couple of things that stood out quite strongly in the negative camp: one was to do with the style of mounting and the other was the overuse of the clarity slider in post production.
Let’s take the mounting issues first. Nothing says that the print has to be bang in the middle with an even border all the way around in order for a printer to be properly presented. Indeed variation can really bring a print to life. There were, and not just in this correspondent’s view, a number of prints that used letterboxing but set them in the top third of the frame in portrait giving undue prominence to the thickness of the bottom border. The effect of this was to immediately draw attention to the frame and distract from the picture because of the depth of the bottom part of the mount. Never in human history has the utterance “Nice frame” been a compliment. It was a shame that the frames swamp out some rather interesting images which were otherwise of very good, certainly club level, competition standard.
The Golden Ratio again rears its head and is supposed to produce the optimum border calculation (I will save you the maths, 6.05 cms on a 40 x 50 mount, for other sizes I direct your attention to the calculator at the bottom of the link). Nothing, though, says that a border has to be the same all round, it is a question of perspective. Think of the hinges on a door. When properly hung the top and bottom hinges are set at different depths from those extremities because we generally view these things from a standing position and if evenly spaced the perspective looks wrong. The bottom hinge is actually set higher so as to create an illusion of even spacing. otherwise it looks “wrong”. The frame of a print can be a powerful statement, but shouldn’t be so powerful as to overwhelm the statement the image itself is supposed to be making.
The clarity slider is a great way to boost mid-tones, or cut them back. It is an invaluable tool. Like everything else it can be overdone. There were a couple of black and white images that had the grit in the mid-tone turned up to eleven. Clarity works by increasing contrast but with a bigger effect on both the highlights and the shadows, essentially pulling out the histogram from the centre. Texture is more refined and certainly there is a case for a higher input when it is in need of a boost, and it does seem to work more effectively in black and white. Move the slider to the left then it has a softening effect (often the chief culprit in the charges of unrealistic portraiture or death by post-production). It’s not just clarity that can be overdone of course, saturation can become garish with very little input in the right (if that is the correct word) circumstances. Vibrance is the smarter sibling of saturation. It will select the dull colours and boost them whilst leaving the vibrant ones alone. It will leave skin tones untouched. Taken as a trio these are very powerful tools but need to be handled with care.
For all that these things are a matter of taste and therefore personal. Judging – and these were the entries that just fell short in the judges view – is as subject to fashion as anything else. HDR, partial colour remain controversial, not least because they are difficult to do subtly. That said, how dull would it be if every photograph was conducted purely to competition standard? I, for one, am glad of the variation.