I have to be a professional so I can be an amateur.

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Angles

At first glance, the headline makes no sense whatsoever. But contemplate a bit further, and you’ll find that it’s a perfect summary of what happens when you turn your passion/ hobby into your job. It’s taken me a while to figure out where the balance lies – and I admit I nearly gave up a couple of times – but I think we’re just about there. Let me explain…

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Originality is dead: or is it?

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Today’s post is going to be something of a counterpoint to yesterday. Every time we frame up an image, we ostensibly try to capture something different, unique – in essence, to take a photograph that has never been taken before. But more importantly, the resultant outcome must actually look like it has never been taken before, by appearing quite distinctly different from anything else. That’s the part which is not so easy.

Each of the images in this set represents the outcome of a new experiment for me: subject, idea, execution, processing, equipment or something else. They are almost certainly unique, but I cannot say that they have not been attempted before, by somebody else. Take, for example, the fact that they were all shot on film: film is not new, even to me. But developing my own film and looking at the tonality achievable undoubtedly influences the way I process my digital files. Just as composing in squares does affects the way I see the world, too; and so on.

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Managing the creative commercial populist disconnect

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What a mouthful of a title. It should really also have the subtitle “what pays isn’t always what’s popular or what I want to shoot” – but that would have exceeded the string length for post titles, run off onto three lines on the title, and completely ruined the front page design aesthetic of the site.

But I think there’s really no simple or concise way to express it. What sells/ what clients pay for is not always what is popular with the viewing public; in fact, it’s usually completely uncorrelated since the commercial side of things seldom elicits an emotional response in the way personal photographs do. And on top of that, what photographers actually enjoy photographing is seldom what pays – sometimes also because the nature of the subject matter means that it has no commercial value in the first place. So, as a commercial photographer, what do we do?

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Shooting for yourself, part two

Continued from part one.

I’m wondering where the happy medium between the pro and amateur camp lies; the pro has to be both, and the amateur wants to be a pro (usually) – until reality intervenes. It’s too easy for pros to slip into the ‘shoot only for pay’ mindset, and lose their sense of personal style and creative edge – which is probably what made them successful in the first place. And by the same token, it’s easy enough for amateurs to get a little paid work here and there, and either be disillusioned about how easy it is to make a living out of it, or not realize that doing too much of something can take the joy out of things very quickly. (If you haven’t already, I’d recommend reading my advice for photographers thinking of turning pro.)

The period of non-shooting got me thinking: I need to spend some time being an amateur, doing work for myself, and then find some way of linking that into my commercial work so that the two don’t diverge too far. I suppose there has to be commercial potential in the personal work that elements of style could translate over into something people would pay for. Or perhaps this is a load of bull: personal work should reflect the personality and thoughts of the individual, and those are never the same as those of the corporate, therefore making it impossible. The short conclusion is, I just don’t know. But I’d like to figure it out, because it doesn’t feel natural for me to be two different photographers most of the time.

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Shooting for yourself, part one

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Personal work – you could never sell this commercially. But it doesn’t make it any less compelling as an image.

There’s a limit to how long you can make a title and still keep things punchy; what I really wanted it to say was ‘the difference between pros and amateurs: shooting for yourself vs shooting for pay’ or something along those lines. There was a period in late February/ early March of this year where I did pretty much no photography at all for a couple of weeks. I wrote it off as time spent recharging, but the reality is that I think I experienced yet another large shift in mindset – I’m noticing a couple of personal trends, neither of which make me particularly happy:

  1. I don’t shoot much outside commercial jobs…
  2. …and when I do, there’s an ever-increasing stylistic gulf between the commercial output and my personal work.
  3. This is making work, well, feel very much like work rather than creative expression

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Feast, famine and creativity

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On reflection. Hasselblad 501C, 50/4 CF FLE

I’ve noticed that my periods of creative productivity tend to come and go in cycles. I’m going to use as a gauge the number of folders of portfolio grade images I produced in a year. It’s a reasonably proxy given that my ‘hit rate’ has remained relatively consistent – about 1/5 to 1/10th of the images that survive the multiple editing cuts and make it through post processing, and that I keep folders to approximately 40 images so as to be able to find things easily (the number must be some psychological holdover from the earlier film days to do with the length of a roll).

2002 – I didn’t know what a portfolio was and was just pleased to have images vaguely resembling the things I saw at the time of capture
2003 – I knew what a portfolio was, but didn’t think any of my images qualified
2004 – 13
2005 – 21
2006 – 21
2007 – 31 – a peak year for camera testing during my editorship of CLICK! – I had to get out and shoot
2008 – 20
2009 – 26
2010 – 22 – a very, very busy year at work
2011 – 29
2012 – 30
2013 – 6, (and it’s only early Feb; if I keep going at this rate, I’m looking at a whopping 52 this year)

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Film diaries: thoughts, truths and realizations

During the course of the last few months – shooting a grand total of a roll and a half, and processing one – I’ve had a few thoughts. Admittedly, these may be premature given that I haven’t even seen what came out of roll 2 yet, but I’ve already had a number of observations along the way which I thought I’d share with you all here.

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Muse at work. F2T, Delta 100, 45/2.8 P

The look is very different. I think it’s very polarizing: what you gain is highlight headroom, at the expanse of shadows (to some extent). And there’s grain everywhere, even in the highlights; but it’s non-uniform, non-digital, and varies in size enough that it adds texture rather than distraction. I find that I definitely like it when the light is directional; I don’t like it at all under harsh sun/ midday especially in the tropics, because it seems you lose most of the midtone definition. Here, digital’s linearity seems to help considerably with exposure latitude.

Digital passed film resolution a long, long time ago. Even shooting fine grain film and processing it in a reasonably clean developer – Delta 100 in DDX – the grain is still very noticeable. Oddly, it doesn’t seem to affect the ultimate resolving power of the medium, but what fine details are there are somewhat indistinct compared to what can be achieved with digital (duh, due to the digital nature of the constituent medium – i.e. uniform block pixels.) I will try PANF in colder developer next time to see if that helps. The last time I shot/ scanned seriously, I came to the conclusion that there was at most somewhere between 8 and 10 MP of equivalent resolution in a good negative or slide – I don’t think that’s changed; I’m just not seeing any more of that regardless of the lens used. In fact, if I had to compare the output, I’d say Delta 100 feels much like a D700 shot at ISO 3200+, with similar tolerance for lenses. I must have messed something up in the developing, because I don’t remember Provia 100 being this grainy. Bottom line: we’re utterly spoiled by modern digital; even the RX100 handily outresolves 35mm film – if it had better dynamic range, I’d probably use this as my copying solution instead. Whoever is still complaining about resolution out to have their head seriously examined, probably with a baseball bat.

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The Vase. Hasselblad 501C, 80/2.8 CF T* on Ilford Delta 400

That said, I’m seeing a very healthy amount of detail from my Hasselblad negatives: single pixel detail is being resolved at the 20MP level (the magnification limit of my ‘scans’), and I suspect that there may be about ~40MP worth of real detail in a low-ISO 6×6 negative. This makes sense, since the area is approximately four times the area of a 35mm negative.

The Noct-Nikkor has some noticeable focus shift issues wide open. Even on film, you can see the focus plane move as you stop down (or shoot wide open). I think this lens is going to have to be partnered with the D700 for future use, or a D600 with live view and an LCD magnifier.

35mm film is very forgiving of lenses. By f5.6 and sometimes even before, all of my ~50mm lenses (45P, 2/50MP, 58 Noct) all look equally sharp and pleasing. I actually prefer the 45P’s rendition wide open because its slight field curvature I feel adds to the image in the same way the 2/28 Distagon’s does. The good lenses, remain good, of course; some of that magic still comes through – the 2.8/21 Distagon comes immediately to mind – but it’s not as obvious as on a D600 body, let alone a D800E.

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Graphic inverse. F2T, Delta 100, Zeiss 21/2.8

I like the negatives more than the positives sometimes. This appears to be a consequence of the scanning process (or, specifically, the D800E imposing its own tonal response curve onto the reproduction) more than anything; still, some of the really abstract, graphic images seem to work better if tone-adjusted and kept as a negative. Perhaps there’s a creative avenue to explore here…

I work faster with film than digital – even if my camera has no meter. The inability to chimp or make iterative improvements to subsequent shots means that subconsciously, you put all of your effort into getting it right the first time and being absolutely sure before you shoot: this is both efficient, and makes you better. One, or at most two, frames, and I’m on to the next shot. This definitely wasn’t the case with my previous experiences – perhaps my skill level has improved a bit since then.

Each roll is a bit like receiving an old-fashioned letter. Both in the fact that you have to open the container to see what’s inside, but more so because you aren’t 100% sure how it’s going to turn out – you remember most of the images (I suppose that’s like anticipation when you see the sender’s address) but there’s enough variables in the developing that the tone – no pun intended – of the message might not quite turn out how you’d expect – either good or bad. I suppose there’s also the aspect of ‘will-it-or-won’t-it-arrive?’ anxiety when you’re doing your own developing, too.

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Zigzag. F2T, Delta 100, 58/1.2 Noct

Individual style is much more difficult to impose without lighting or postprocessing. I suppose this seems obvious in hindsight, but I’d say that 50% (or more, if you rely on filters and HDR) of an individual’s style is imprinted during the postprocessing phase. I know that personally, it affects my tonal map and color signature; the latter is gone with B&W film, and the former is highly dependent on the film type, developing and scanning process (and subsequent conversion). I’m trying to write a conversion action that takes my raw file and turns it into something approximating the image I expected at the time of shooting; it’s not easy because there are multitudinous variables. I suppose I could process each one individually, but that would defeat the point of shooting film: I actually don’t want that much control, otherwise I might as well shoot digital – there are fewer steps to achieving an output image, and far more repeatability.

I’m not really seeing any differently with 35mm, but the shots that work are not the ones I expected. I think compositionally, nothing much has changed. But I’m even more acutely aware of the quality of ambient light now; situations in which I’d make up any deficits in the scene for with postprocessing (uneven light, overly harsh light, colour casts etc.) are pretty much no-go with film. The positive upshot is that the scenes that work are simply gorgeous in tonality. I suppose this does actually affect the way you compose, since shadows always define the shape of an object.

It’s different for medium format, though: 6×6 really has a neat zen balance about it that I’m rather enjoying.

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For film, bigger is definitely better. Or harder/ faster/ stronger/ whatever adjective you prefer. And if you’re going to be shooting it in old, manual, quirky cameras without meters anyway, it’s never, ever, going to be convenient – so you might as well go large. Different story with digital, of course.

I keep forgetting to remove the damn dark slide. Enough said. One of these days, I’m sure I’m going to bend or lose it when I’m in a hurry.

Developing is both simple and hard. There aren’t that many steps to it – mix chemicals, open cannister, load reel, put inside tank, seal tank; add developer and time; rinse; add fixer and time; rinse. Hang to dry. Scan, or print to taste. The trouble is, many of the critical steps are both impossible to repeat exactly one time to the next, and there are several of them. And batches of film aren’t always consistent. I’m sure there’s an art to all of these things, but that’s something much like digital processing: you can only get a feel for it through experience. Perhaps once I’ve developed enough rolls I might get some of the touch too; and maybe then I’ll write about it (i.e. when I have something worthwhile to say). Also, 120 film is considerably more difficult to load on the reels than 135; I suspect it’s because the film is both wider and seemingly slightly thinner, too.

To say a particular film has a ‘signature’ seems to be as much a fallacy as saying a particular sensor has one. The development process affects the outcome to such a large extent that I don’t think it’s possible to separate it from the outcome – i.e. it’s really not all down to the film. I certainly don’t have the experience yet, but I’m pretty sure I could make most B&W films turn out the way I expect once I have some handle on their native tonal characteristics and that of the chemistry – much like the various raw files from different cameras.

I need to figure out this drying business. By sheer dumb luck, my first roll turned out okay; the problem was drying it. I rather unwisely decided to hasten the process by wiping the film with a microfiber cloth – it worked fine for the first few frames, then really buggered up the ones at the end with streaks and scratches (presumably from something that got stuck in the cloth). Moral of the story: go buy some hydroflow agent, hang and have patience. Or maybe a rubber squeegee thingy.

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Dust spotting isn’t as bad as I remember it to be. It seems that my early slides picked up a considerable amount more dust than these B&W negs – no idea why. But what used to be easily 10+ minutes of spot removal is perhaps 30s on a bad image – a very fragile-emulsion negative such as PAN-F, for instance; and one or two strokes on a clean one. Incidentally, it’s the same technique that I use for retouching dust on watches.

Highlight roll-offs are gorgeous. I suspect this is because most of the dynamic range is in the highlights – something to do with reciprocity error or perhaps the underlying photochemistry of the medium. There’s always a bit of gradation left in even the brightest zones, and nothing ever seems to truly overexpose (unless you do so by more than three or four stops).

That said, there’s not as much dynamic range as I expected. Perhaps this is not entirely accurate. The dynamic range is there, it’s just not distributed as I expected; I’m used to the extreme linearity of the D800E and its brethren, which let you basically expose to the right and be almost sure that all of the shadow information will be there. With film it appears the cost of the wonderful highlight tonality are very compressed shadows. Personally, this means to get the tonal style I’mm after, I’ll have to expose my primary subject highlights in zone 7-8 and let the rest fall where it may, but specifically look for scenes which work with heavy shadows.

How much of the tonal qualities of them D800E are being imposed on my ‘scans’? Unfortunately, without printing, there’s no real way to know – any digital conversion is going to result in some…reinterpretation, I suppose, of the original tonal values.

I doubt I can get anywhere near the same color accuracy with film. Although color films have some latitude to their working ambient light Kelvin temperatures, there’s simply no way you can have film that works at 5500K for one shot, and 4375K for the next – but you can with digital. For this reason, I’m just not going to bother with color film – for now.

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Inverse (this is the negative). Hasselblad 501C, 80/2.8 CF T* on Ilford Delta 400

Ah, grain. I’ve always been of the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with it, so long as your image is in focus and your idea is clear; film has just made me recalibrate my expectations. Hell, ISO 1600 from the OM-D looks better at equivalent magnifications than ISO 100 35mm film…

So far, it’s been an interesting experiment – both creatively and in an attempt to better understand some of the technical and artistic history behind photography and why some particular images look the way they look. For instance, I now understand why most film street photography is both grainy and very high contrast; similarly, I’ve developed a new appreciation for Salgado’s developer and printer – I would still love to see his negatives though, to figure out how much of his look is down to light at the scene, how much is down to developing voodoo, and how much of it is down to skillful printing. In the meantime though, I think so long as I’m shooting with a serious focus on creative development, film is probably here to stay for me. Time to pick up more 120 for the ‘Blad; I have a feeling I won’t be doing much 35mm film shooting because it isn’t quite the creative break I wanted. 6×6, on the other hand, is absolutely magnificent. MT

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Film diaries: the first roll

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Some months ago, I acquired a vintage Nikon F2 Titan in the hopes of both fulfilling a longtime photographic dream, as well as perhaps shooting a little film again in the name of stimulating creativity. Many of you have been anxious to see the results; I bet none more so than myself. The trouble is, I feel that I’ve set a standard here that I must uphold; if the images from this roll don’t meet that standard, then I think there’s going to be a lot of hand-wringing, rude gestures and cries of ‘pah, amateur’. In this post follows the highlights of that first roll.

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Before I show any images, I want to give some background: I’ve shot film creatively before. I’ve even processed it before, as part of my dissertation on improving measurement precision using short-wavelength laser holography (don’t ask, because I don’t really remember). But I’ve never done both, and my processing days predate my creative photography days by a considerable period of time. Finally, the last time I shot film was in mid 2009, with a Leica M6TTL. Before that was 2005, with another Nikon – an F2A. Note: EXIF data will say ‘D800E and 50mm’, because that’s what I used to digitize the negatives.

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This roll is both the first roll of true B&W I’ve shot*, processed and scanned entirely singlehandedly. It shows, too: it’s grainy considering it’s Ilford Delta 100 exposed at ISO 100; in places it’s uneven, and there’s a streaking problem from where I got impatient and decided to try to wipe the film dry with a microfiber cloth. In hindsight, one of those Dyson Airblade hand dryers would be awesome for the task.

*An embarrassing, dirty confession: all of my previous film B&W work was C41 process (BW400CN, XP2-400) for convenience – finding somebody to develop black and white film in Kuala Lumpur is not a trivial task because serious shooters do their own, and consumers don’t do it at all.

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The ‘scanning’ was accomplished with an interesting hack-rig: my product photography lightbox, lit by a speedlight within, film passed through a cardboard mask (to prevent scratches) and the camera resting above, spaced perfectly with the long hood from a Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar but fitted to the 2/50 Makro-Planar which coincidentally has the same bayonet. Add a 20mm extension tube, and the spacing is not only perfect, but I now have a 4000+DPI scanner.

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I’ve spent some time in Photoshop to automate the conversion process as much as possible, to try and keep the character of the film intact and consistent, and minimize the amount of individual work required on each image. I can’t say I’m 100% happy with the results yet, but we’re getting there. If I can run an entire roll of RAW files as an automated action – cropping excepted – then the total scan and process time is actually about the same as a comparable number of digital files.

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Anyway, more on that in another article. For now, I just want to leave you with one thought: resolution both matters, and doesn’t – we’re seriously spoiled by the degree of image quality obtainable from the current state-of-the-art FF digitals. Enjoy! MT

These images were shot with a 1979 Nikon F2 Titan on Ilford Delta 100, with a mixture of lenses – Voigtlander 28/2.8, Nikon 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor, Nikon 45/2.8 AI-P, Zeiss ZF.2 2.8/21 Distagon, Zeiss ZF.2 2/50 Makro-Planar, Zeiss ZF.2 2/100 Makro-Planar. Can you tell which is which, other than through perspective? I can’t.

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Film Diaries: Revisiting film under the pretext of creative development

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Followers of my facebook page and those who joined me for the Tokyo workshop will know that I’ve recently acquired two vintage cameras, ostensibly in the name of investment, however in reality it’s simply because I enjoy using cameras of this generation; they really don’t make them like they used to.

For the curious, my acquisitions were a 1979 Nikon F2 Titan, and what is approximately a 1986 Nikon 58/1.2 Noct-Nikkor Aspherical*. In my mind, these two represent pretty much what is the pinnacle of 100% completely manual technology. The camera body is 33 years old, and looks just as pristine as the day it left the factory floor. (I doubt my D800E will be functional 10 years from now, much less 33; I think the batteries will be long dead and unavailable, and the media and file formats either unsupported or unreadable. Hell, my D2H is already dead, and judging by the slow disappearance of cameras from just six years ago on the secondary markets, it’s likely that a lot of those have either died or entered a quiet retirement too.) Testing the shutter speeds using a digital stopwatch and point-and-shoot on long exposure with the film back open is proof that despite its age, the mechanicals are still functioning perfectly. This is actually fairly amazing given the condition of the camera, because either it has not been used, or was shot by exceedingly careful and paranoid photographer. It is unclear, though unlikely, that the camera has ever undergone a CLA. At the time of writing, the accompanying lens has not yet arrived from Japan so I will refrain from drawing conclusions; however, given the relatively simple nature of the mechanics inside lenses, I’m not expecting any issues.

*In case you’re wondering why I selected this combination, there are some simple reasons: firstly, because I’ve always wanted an F2T since seeing one – the paint finish and weight are much like a modern Nikon, but the rest of the camera is entirely classical. Secondly, it’s familiar to me because I shot extensively with an F2A before; thirdly, the camera distills everything down to the bare minimum – no custom functions or AF issues to worry about; you focus where you want, you adjust exposure manually, hell, it has no meter, let alone DX coding or exposure compensation. Part of what I want to do is retrain my eyes to be my meter – I have this skill, but it isn’t accurate enough for my liking – a stop plus minus isn’t good enough for slide film or digital. At the moment while I’m learning, my Sony RX100 has now become a ridiculously over-specified meter.

For a person whose photographic credo throughout the digital age has pretty much followed the pursuit of perfection through control, you probably are going to think that the use of film is a little unexpected, to say the least. My history and experience with film so far has been somewhat chequered. Not counting my use of film cameras in the days before I had any meaningful interest in photography, I had a brief affair with a Nikon FM3a in my early digital (D70) days; I couldn’t get along with it and in the end landed up trading it in (with one of the rare black 45/2.8Ps) for a 12-24. I think I shot all of four rolls with it. Then, when I got serious, I picked up another film camera (Nikon F2A); the majority of my learning of photographic techniques was accomplished in parallel on both film and digital. In fact, I even shot watches on slide film (of all things), manually calculating guide numbers, diffusion factors, magnification factors and bracketing just to make sure. I got so used to shooting film, that I was almost treating it like digital. This led me to put on the brakes once again; I simply could not afford to pay for the amount of slide film and processing that I was running through on a weekly basis, much less find time to do the scanning.

At this point, we enter a silver halide desert. The next time I even so much looked at a roll of film was in mid 2009, when I picked up a Leica M6TTL as a backup body to my M8. The two biggest things I remember about that experience were that I completely wasted the first roll because I loaded it incorrectly, and as a result landed up with precisely zero images on it; and secondly the feel of the horizontal cloth focal plane shutter of the film Leicas is completely different – much smoother and quieter – than the vertical-travel, metal-bladed units in the modern digital Leicas. I think I must’ve used it on and off for a couple of months, and then decided I wanted the 50 Summilux ASPH more – so off it went.

By this point, I was too preoccupied with both work and the seemingly newfound degree of control that I was able to obtain through digital capture. There were also things I simply could not easily do with film – such as dodging and burning – unless I developed it myself – and I definitely didn’t have time for that. Ironically, this is one of the reasons that I am choosing to revisit film at this point. I’m finding myself spending far too much time in front of the computer post processing. It isn’t because I’m slow – far from it; it’s because I’m trying to do more with each image, and I’m simply shooting a much larger number of images these days.

Of course I am not shifting my commercial work back to film; that would just be stupid. There is no way, I can achieve the same degree of control and quality as I can with digital. And I’m certainly not going to take the risk of something unforeseen happening to the film in the intermediate process between shooting and client delivery. For the mall, there is simply no way I can keep up with the volume if I have to develop and scan every single print plus don’t forget this also dust spotting, retouching and color/ density correction required. Needless to say, I don’t think any of the clients these days would be impressed if you had to bill back the film costs – especially if you shot the same number of images as you normally would with digital.

For my pistol what however, I feel that it’s time to shift gears. I’m definitely experimenting and shooting more, but the improvement seems to be incremental and diminishing. Perhaps part of the problem is that I’m simply shooting too much. I need to be more selective before I take the picture; and again after take the picture. If this sounds like a breakdown in the editing process, that’s perhaps because in some ways, it is. Even though I usually throw away 98% of what I shoot in the quest for perfection every single frame, that 2% is starting to become quantitatively a very large number. Combined that with ever increasing file sizes, and the usual photographers attachment to the images which they shoot, and you have a recipe that’s going to eventually result in either of two things: you spend all of your time processing your personal work and doing nothing else, or you eventually give up shooting for yourself altogether. Obviously, neither of these is a ideal; the first results and you not having any income; the second, creative stagnation. (I’m not sure which is worse for a photographer. I suppose we’re all somewhat accustomed to the former.)

The unstriped come up with, is that I need to find a balance. A change to my shooting process that forces me to think even harder about the image before capture; to minimize the amount of postprocessing I have to do by ensuring that the critically important elements of a strong image are already in place before I press the shutter; and moreover something that forces me to think differently from a creative point of view. I need to play mind games with myself in order to improve to the next level. I suppose I could accomplish most of the former by forcing myself to shoot cameras with relatively small files, and even then only with a very small card – say 2GB, which is probably good for about the equivalent of two rolls of film in a D800E, or even 512MB, which would get me just over a roll from a D700.

The problem is really the creative portion. Although I find changing equipment does frequently force me to think differently, I spend just as much time figuring out how to get the most out of the equipment as shooting, which of course results in more experiments, more files, and even more computer time. This would just land me back in square one, not to mention significantly worse off thanks to the depreciation costs of new equipment. I even seriously considered switching to medium format at one point. However, this would have to be as much a commercial decision as a creative one, and the market in Malaysia, plus the majority of my overseas work being macro-centric simply does not justify the increased expenditure.

It seems as though once again there are good reasons to revisit film. In some ways, it’s much like shooting with a compact; you are removing an element of creative control so that you are forced into making the most of the others. This element of course is postprocessing and post-capture control**. The other added bonus is somewhat progress; every time you press the shutter it cost you money – I calculated to be around $.40 per shot, including processing. This makes you think very carefully before you push the button. I’ve met a lot of people say, that if you get one keep up on a roll you doing well; however, I think my keeper rate is far, far higher with film the digital; simply because it forces you to do everything you can to get the image right the first time. A nice bonus is that it’s also possible to try larger formats for not that much money; possibly because nobody seems to want the equipment anymore, and partially because the gear will be second hand, and therefore not lose a lot of value when you eventually move on and resell it. (You might well even make money on some of the rarer equipment – at least, that’s part of my plan with the F2T and 58/1.2; I also see a Hasselblad 501CM in my future.)

**Granted, I will be digitizing the negatives using one of the Nikons and a slide coping adapter, which of course creates the opportunity for me to intervene digitally at this point, but that’s not the objective of the exercise – there will be far fewer images to deal with, and I’m almost certainly not going to be doing any heavy duty RAW processing.

You’re probably wondering why there are no images to accompany this post. The reason why is simple; it’s because I haven’t developed any film yet. Instead of shooting hundreds of image a day, I’m now shooting perhaps half a dozen, if that. And I’m fairly sure (providing I didn’t mess up loading the camera), that the images I do eventually show will have helped my creative development. You’ll just have to wait and see. MT

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Commercial work vs personal work vs experimentation vs development

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This shot was the result of creative white balance use, and getting up early because I wanted to try it. Nikon D700, 28-300VR

One thing I’ve noticed since turning to photography full time is that the amount of personal work I do has greatly reduced. It’s not because I don’t have time to do it – on the contrary, I should have plenty more opportunities to sneak out and shoot for half an hour or an hour here and there – I think it’s because I’m starting to fall into the trap of complacency. Or perhaps I’m reaching a photographic saturation point of sorts.

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This shot was the result of experimenting with large amounts of blu-tack to keep the watch in place for the shot. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro

I definitely still enjoy shooting, and I still feel the same rush when I nail the frame – what I’m missing is the feeling of wanting to go out and do it in the first place. I think a large part of it is because once you start running your own business, there are always more things you can be doing on the development front – either sending out feelers to potential new clients, following up on existing ones, or doing post processing from jobs past. And that doesn’t count this blog, either.

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Up to this point, I’d never used dinner plates as props for watch photography before. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro

It’s odd, but equipment choice paralysis also seems to be a contributing factor. I’ve now got three systems – Nikon FX, Leica M and Micro 4/3 – each for a specific purpose, but also each with enough lenses to make a general purpose kit that I can comfortably go out and shoot anything with, be it an assignment or a holiday at the beach. And that doesn’t count the various compact cameras, either. Sometimes I honestly stand in front of the equipment cabinet before going out and feel plagued by indecision – even if I pick a system, which lens(es) should it go with? What do I anticipate shooting? What kind of look or style am I going for?

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Divisive symmetry. One of those experiments. Nikon D3

Constantly planning shots and thinking about the end result does make you a more conscious and prepared photographer, but it also means that to some extent you’re either paralyzed by indecision, or micromanaging everything in your control to the point that it doesn’t become fun anymore. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is the feeling that you definitely have the wrong piece of equipment on you, but the right one is sitting in the cabinet at home. (At that point, the best thing you can do is figure out what you can do with what you’ve got and just shoot, but that’s an entire post on its own for another day).

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The ephemeral missing sushi. One of my favorite near misses – even though nothing is in focus, you can make out enough of the shot to know that there should be something between the fingers and on it’s way to the diner’s mouth. To my eyes, the blurriness of it all actually helps to reinforce the implied surrealism. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7 G

So what’s the upshot of all of this? Well, not doing as much personal work means that that the times you do shoot are mostly bridled by the requirements of your clients, and frequently do not result in you pushing the creative envelope – especially if you have conservative clients. The importance of photography for yourself is that it gives you time to experiment and develop your style and technique; without it, it’s too easy to stagnate into a creative rut and consequently land up being unproductive, or worse, uncompetitive. Not having an end client to please takes the pressure off you, and leaves you free to try things that you might not have time to do while on assignment, especially if time is tight and shot list is long – which it almost always is.

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It was extremely dark, and empty – there were no people to fill the frame and provide context, motion and life – I didn’t even know if the shot would work technically, let alone aesthetically. I’m very pleased with the result, though. Leica M9-P, 50/1.4 ASPH

Inevitably, the early results of any experiment result in failure, or at best, partial success. Whilst this may not be acceptable in a client scenario, it’s a crucial part of the learning and development process – if you succeeded at something straight away, chances are you will develop that style far less that somebody who has to work at it. The reasons is down to understanding: assuming we don’t give up, humans understand things by doing them; the more times you have to try something, the more parameters you have to change, the more complete a picture you will be able to build up of how things work. This in turn results in better control over the end result, which of course culminates in better output.

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Same with this shot – one of those surreal, but fun experiments that came to mind after passing by the gorilla for sale in a store window. Leica M9-P, Zeiss 28/2.8 Biogon

Without this experimentation, one stagnates creatively; it’s actually very obvious in the work of various ‘famous’ wedding photographers in this country. Many of them revert to the same portfolio of five or ten compositions and apply them to every shoot – which has several consequences; firstly, they are increasingly pigeonholed into a particular style or look, and that’s what clients expect; secondly, they can’t take the risk of doings something else because of client rejection; finally, they can’t break out of that way of seeing because they’ve been doing it for so long, and the creative process has atrophied. It’s a dangerous cycle.

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Reflections – another experiment. By this point in the shoot (shooting a launch gallery for the Leica V-Lux 3) – I’d had a whole card full of standard shots, but nothing different and interesting – there wasn’t any clean water in sight for a neat reflection, so had to try and make do.

What I always find interesting – and inspiring – is the work of serious amateurs; Flickr is one of the best places to see this. Whilst there are a good number of pros on the site (myself included), it’s also home to a lot of people who fall into the former category. Serious amateurs are in an enviable position – one I didn’t appreciate myself until recently – most of the time, they have the skills to be able to make the shot they want, the lack of pressure to execute it, and the lack of cynicism that stops them from trying things that might fail in the first place. The result is that browsing uploads from my contacts shows me a wide cross section of work; some of it really quite excellent and inspiring; some of it utter rubbish; however, the most interesting to me are the experiments that are near misses, or clearly out of style for the individual: you can almost see how the compositional mind of the photographer works, trying to adapt their old way of seeing to a new style. It’s almost like seeing how something is made.

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If I hadn’t brought the D-Lux 5 along, and packed the light panels on a whim, then this series wouldn’t have happened, and I wouldn’t have known that it’s very possible to make commercial-grade food images with a compact.

I often get ideas through looking at other people’s images, period – especially of places I’ve been before, or things I’ve shot before. This gives you the ability to see things through the eyes of another person – and find what you might have missed from your own perspective, which in turn makes you want to go out and shoot again to try and perfect your vision once more, and capture the essence of that particular subject…

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Making do with the relatively slow f2.8 aperture of the 28/2.8 ASPH and the limited low light capabilities of the M9-P resulted in long shutter speeds, and the slight softening which lead to this rather surreal image – and the hidden gorilla in the shadows.

Creativity is an iterative process; one that must be built on, nurtured, and continuously pursued. Without it, it’s impossible to develop as a photographer. At the same time, it can’t be forced – something that a lot of people (our government included) don’t seem to understand; you can’t just throw time and money at it and hope that new ideas sprout. It doesn’t work that way – the inspiration, or the ‘ah ha!’ spark has to be there in the first place. The tough part is creating an environment for yourself in which you feel inspired and inclined to experiment. Stress, expectations and tight schedules aren’t conducive for creativity. But over-relaxation and laziness isn’t, either. It’s a tough balance, this one. And that’s one of the reasons why from now on, I’m going to make sure there are a couple of days a month – usually tacked on to the end of location-based assignments – which permit me to go off, explore and experiment. I highly recommend it. MT

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