Goodbye, 2013; photographic resolutions for 2014

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Things on a distant horizon are not as far away as they might seem; it’s all a question of perspective.

Some of you will be disappointed to learn that this post does not involve any megapixel numbers. At the end of 2012 – precisely one year ago, in fact, I published a similar post for 2013. It got a surprising amount of attention, so I’d like to both turn it into an annual tradition, as well as examine whether I was able to keep any of the promises – now that the year is over…

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Photographic resolutions for the new year

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Cheers! D700, 85/1.4G

Firstly, it’s been one hell of a year. I don’t think I’ve ever written and thought so much over such a sustained period of time; in producing content for the site and its readers, I’ve been forced to thoroughly think through all aspects of my photography and workflow. In fact, I’ve written so much that the keys on my primary computer have gone from brand-new-Apple-matte to mirror-polished-in-the-middle in that nine months. (I’m now on my way towards wearing out a new keyboard.) Thank you all for the support and the encouragement.

I’m assuming that those of you who are still here are the kind of photographer who cares about the kind of images they produce more than the equipment – or at least just as much as the equipment. Whilst I write a lot about gear – a good tradesman needs to be familiar with his tools, after all – I never forget that ultimately, it’s all about the images. I would love to find a set of equipment that works for me which I will never have to replace; give me two of those bodies and I’m all set. But, as we also all know, there is no such thing. So gear reviews will continue.

But, if you care about your images, then you surely care about the process of improvement and getting to the outcome you want; this necessarily means that it can also sometimes be a bit painful. We have to force ourselves out of our respective comfort zones in order to progress artistically. Even subjects, styles or locations that on the face of it might not have anything to do with our preferred material might well prove to impart a valuable lesson or two which we can use alter on. I’m all for cross-pollination of ideas; I know for a fact that my wildlife stalking certainly improved my street photography, and attempting to replicate the various lighting styles in paintings have helped both my commercial work and my personal work.

With that, I’d like to share my own personal photographic resolutions for the new year.

1. Shoot less.
Quality, not quantity*. And if you can have both, then tip the balance even further in favor of the quality mark. I’m shooting a lot – more than I’ve ever done – and the upshot is that I don’t always have the time to process all of that. Yet I realize that experimentation is very much part of the creative evolution process; for the two days I had on my own during the last Tokyo workshop, I shot over five thousand frames, 800 of which I kept to review in detail later on a computer, and about 200 which made the final cut. That’s still too many, in my mind: what if I could capture the essence of a place in say, 100, or even 50 truly outstanding images? I have to be even more ruthless with my seeing and editing process; conditioning yourself to throw out the crap is the only way to keep improving.

*This applies to my personal work. Commercial work is a slightly different matter; you simply can’t negotiate down a shot list – nor would you want to – if you’re being paid per-shot or billing an hourly rate.

2. Use what you’ve got.
We’re all guilty of buying something with a flimsy ‘rational’ justification when in reality it’s because we just want it; it’s about gratification rather than necessity. I think that has to stop; we need to recognize real necessity – if a job calls for 300mm, then you have to get a 300mm lens – as opposed to ‘I’ve always wanted a big lens therefore I’m going to get a 300/2.8.’ I’m sure there are pieces of equipment in my stores that are severely underused – the 45/2.8P for example – I should either pare down what I’m not using, or use it. I’m one of those strange people who feels guilty for having something sitting there, underutilized.

3. Try a new format.
If you shoot large, go small. If you shoot small, go larger. And that doesn’t mean going from a compact to medium format digital; you can try MF film for not that much money, and lose very little (if anything) if you procure all of your gear second hand. Different formats have different properties in the way of depth of field and sometimes also tonal rendition (to do with sensor/ film characteristics etc.); consequently, they can also help you to see and compose differently – which adds to the mental list of options for a particular scene. Alternatively, try shooting with a different aspect ratio – perhaps square or 16:9 – which will also help to find frames where you might perhaps have seen a photographic desert, or create something non-cliched in a popular spot.

4. Reverse your lighting.
Shoot with flash where you normally wouldn’t, and vice versa. Yes, the look will be odd and different at first, but it will help to improve one’s familiarity with light – both recognizing it, and creating it. I find that using lights makes me focus more on the composition because it imposes a higher level of discipline over your shot; you’re setting up and taking time which means that all of the elements are within your control. Similarly, shooting with available light forces you to have a higher awareness of the quality of ambient light, and the way it renders on your sensor/ film – it can really help you to previsualize compositions.

5. Travel more.
My wife always says I’m guilty of not taking enough time out to see the world – she’s right. Part of the reason why is that a consulting career completely killed the joy of travel for me; in one particularly memorable year, I’d flown 120 sectors. But travel for work and travel for personal exploration and education are completely different, and it’s taken me a while to realize that – all airports and airplanes look the same in the end. But perhaps instead of spending money on gear, I should spend money on finding new subjects. After all, there’s nothing better than a completely fresh subject to train one’s seeing and observation skills.

6. Share your knowledge.
I of course plan to continue this site in the forseeable future; I’ll certainly have to find more things to write about, but so far that doesn’t seem to have been a problem. One thing I do realize is that I rarely post on-assignment articles anymore; part of the reason is that I don’t have time on site, and part of the reason is that I’m so focused on the job at hand that I simply forget to shoot B-roll. I really need to hire an assistant.

7. Experiment with video.
One of the questions I’m frequently asked has to do with the video capabilities of the various cameras I test; to be honest, I’ve been a bit frightened of video production up to this point – I don’t really see things in sequences, and the whole production part scares me. What I’d really like to find is software that lets me edit video the same way I edit images – bulk color/ tone curve corrections etc – but I’m not sure I want to spend thousands on something I might not even use that often. I am advising on a number of small productions next year, however, so I’ll have an opportunity to have an in-depth chat with the production people – and hopefully shoot some interesting B-roll (or at the very least, stills) for the website.

8. Develop my own film.
I actually learned to do this many years ago at university, in the pre-digital days. My dissertation involved investigating the use of shorter wavelength lasers for increasing measurement precision using holography – we’re talking down to nanometers here – and of course the holograms had to be produced on film; if I remember correctly, it was Ilford PAN-F and some glass plates. (I still have those somewhere, but have no idea where exactly.) The process was slow and laborious – one exposure, three hours of developing time in a completely dark room – no safe light – and then repeat if you got the exposure wrong. Months and months of it. I think I bought my first music player around then. Now that I’m shooting with the F2T again, I want to regain control of that portion of the process – it’s not so much about throughput and efficiency as it is about furthering my understanding. We’ll see. I’ve got to somehow convince the wife that turning the spare bathroom into a darkroom is a good idea.

9. Conquer 35 and/or 50mm.
For some odd reason, I’ve always had a strong aversion to both focal lengths; 35mm more so than 50mm. They both just seem unintuitive to me – I don’t natively ‘see’ in either. I even sold a particularly excellent copy of the superlative Leica 35/1.4 ASPH FLE because I simply couldn’t get used to the focal length. 50mm I make do with on a rangefinder because it’s the longest practical focal length – the 75s and 90s tend to be a bit hit and miss with focusing due to the relative size of the frame and RF patch – but it’s not my favorite. 35 always seemed a bit tight to me, or not quite long enough – compositional no-man’s-land. The funny thing is that I have 40, 45, 50, 58 and 60mm lenses – yet I only use them for commercial work when required, and not for my own personal shooting. I suppose I should do the requisite shoot-for-a-month thing with one of them.

10. Streamline my workflow even more.
You can never be too efficient – the more throughput I can manage, the more work I can take on, or the more time I have to spend on other things – either site-related, or family related. The problem is the workload per image has increased because of file sizes; even if the compute/ conversion time is faster, the retouching time doesn’t speed up simply because I can only physically work so fast. But perhaps if I could improve the throughput for the files that don’t need retouching, I might find some time that way; I might well investigate Lightroom…

That’s it for me – you’re welcome to try any or all of them if you feel they might give you the creative kick you’ve been looking for. If you have any of your own, please feel free to share them with the other readers in the comments below – I’m sure we can all benefit from some ideas! In the meantime, enjoy the festivities and here’s wishing all of you a happy, creative, fulfilling and prosperous year ahead. MT

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

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