Today’s article is the conclusion of the previous article on photography, psychology and why it’s all a mind game; we’ll explore how our subconscious and conscious mind views images, and how the photographer can exploit that to gain control over the way an image is interpreted. Understanding how your audience views an image is critical to determining how that image should be optimally constructed to deliver the right message, and in a way that’s memorable and impactful.
Today’s article is one I’ve wanted to write for a very, very long time. Such a long time, in fact, that it’s taken me several months to condense my thoughts into some semblance of order. I’m going to start with a question: how many times have you seen an image that provokes an unexpectedly strong emotional response in you – either good or bad – and you haven’t been able to figure out why? How many times have you looked at the work of a photographer and thought – not only is there something remarkably consistent about his or her style that makes the creator instantly identifiable, but also makes me as the viewer feel a certain way? Wonder no longer. As ever, these articles are written to first and foremost, make us think a bit more about why we shoot the way we do, and in doing so, hopefully become much better photographers. We all have the tendency to get caught up in the technical side, the equipment, and lose sight of the end objective: the images.
One commonly asked (and commonly mis-answered) question on the internet these days is around the definition of what constitutes a ‘professional photographer’. The usual definition is that it is somebody who is shooting for pay, and deriving the majority of his of the income entirely from photography for photography related activities. I suppose in the strictest sense of the definition, that is true. However, it says nothing about professional conduct or skill. What I’m going to attempt to do in this article is express my own views on what I believe constitutes professional behavior in photography. It is important to note however that this is a very much personal, though shared by many of my colleagues in all areas of the industry – both primary providers of photographic imaging, as well as supporting services and videography/ cinematography.
Some weeks back, I had a little Monty Python moment – specifically bringing to mind the sketch mentioning “shrubbery”. A potential client called:
“Hello, is this Ming Thein, the photographer?”
“Yes, what can I do for you?”
“How much do you charge for…a photography?”
“Sorry, but you’ll have to be a bit more specific before I can quote you – different types of photography require different amounts of work, so the cost will vary. What type of images do you need exactly?”
This last line was said in a semi-whispered voice, as though commercial photography is a dirty word. Needless to say, I did not get any more details than that; on pressing them they said they would email me.
Clients like this worry me, not because they don’t know what they want, but because their expectations are probably so different from reality that you will never be able to satisfy them. Past experience makes my alarm bells trigger. It’s not because I’m not confident of doing the job; the problem is that in not having dealt with professional photographers before and being influenced solely by popular preconceptions, such clients typically expect the impossible for next to nothing, and that photoshop fixes all flaws. Typically, what happens is neither photographer nor client gets what they want out of the engagement and both parties go away harbouring a little unhealthy resentment.
Image from B&H.
The internet is going to be full of anticipation, excitement, speculation and various forms of virtual hand-wringing over Sony’s latest announcement: full frame mirrorless. I’m sure some bloggers have already had a chance to use one, but given the local market entity’s attitude, don’t expect to see a review from me anytime soon (if at all). As interesting as it is, I simply won’t be able to get a camera. What I can do is put together a few initial thoughts. I don’t normally join the equipment frenzy, but I think this is significant enough that it warrants some serious consideration.
In my earlier photographic period, I’d often made the mistake of thinking abstract photography was just a catch-all bucket for images that didn’t fit anywhere else; I even had a folder for that kind of thing called ‘Random’. From time to time, during my many photographic excursions, I’d find my eye deviated from the ‘objective’ – not that I had one. Admittedly, at that point, I’d mix shooting with an objective – say wildlife, or street, or architecture – with sessions where I’d just go for a walk with camera in hand and shoot anything that appealed. It was during one of those sessions that I started to be drawn towards arrangements of objects that were visually appealing for reasons I couldn’t understand or put into objective terms; there wasn’t a real subject per se; sometimes, I just found the whole scene/ frame appealing. ‘Click!’ went the shutter, and one more image got consigned to the ‘Random’ folder.
I was certainly noticed here. Apparently in the middle of a high-stakes gambling game, seconds later I was shouted at by about forty people and chased away. Invisibility would have certainly made for an interesting documentary series.
Here’s an interesting concept: photographic invisibility. By this, I mean the ability to take a photograph of anything, anywhere, or anybody, without being noticed. Nothing would be off limits, nowhere would be inaccessible, and everything you see would be just a shutter-click away. Assume for a moment, technical limitations don’t really apply – we don’t have to worry about image quality or low light or too much or too little depth of field, or buffers or file handling or curating the enormous mountain of images that would be the product of such an exercise. Of course, this is impossible – or nearly impossible unless the subject is heavily distracted, or you’re a photojournalist or street photography ninja – but stay with me for a while.
The hunchback of Kuala Lumpur has a Hasselblad.
Continued from part one.
My return to London immediately after that trip saw me a) dispose of the D70 and purchase a supposedly more robust D2H – in reality, I just liked the way it felt in my hands – and also begin to seriously explore Photoshop and Wacom tablets; by the time my D2H arrived in the mail, I’d decided I’d only shoot raw and focus on extracting as much detail as possible out of those relatively small files. That camera was not a forgiving one: get everything right, and it rewarded you with images beyond what you’d expect for the pixel count; get it wrong and you can pretty much junk the file. It taught me shot discipline and the importance of getting as much right in-camera as possible; these traits have continued to serve me well today. Unfortunately, the camera met a watery end after shooting in a tropical downpour in Kuala Lumpur two years later in 2006; I opened the battery compartment indoors and failed to consider condensation. A zapping sound and puff of smoke later, and I’d pretty much toasted the internals. By that point though, I’d shot enough frames – heading towards a quarter million on its second shutter – and jobs with that camera that it’d a) paid for itself several times over, and b) made me learn more about photography than anything else since.
You’d think that after 13 years of this I’d have mastered the art of camwhoring for decent self-portrait, but no. At least the collage shows two things: firstly, a relative progression of personal style over the years, secondly, that file sizes have continued to balloon…all of these are at the correct relative size to each other. Also, that I’ve gone through a hell of a lot of gear. You might even spot a Canon in there if you look closely enough.
Today’s topic is a rather personal one, but something which has been asked with remarkable frequency: how did I get into photography in the first place? I’ve been shooting seriously for the better part of thirteen years; taking commercial assignments on and off since 2005, and full-time pro for the fourth time since the beginning of last year (2012).
Here’s a provocative question: is this image art? Why? Why not? Have a think about this carefully, for a moment. Today I’m going to crack open the lid of one of the biggest cans of worms in the whole of photography, peer inside, give you my 1.53 cents* and try not to fall inside.
*Devaluated from two cents since 2009 due to underdeclared inflation, quantitative easing, foreign debt and other economic screwups