A little while back, I made an offhand comment about a certain camera being my choice for ‘serious’ work which spurred a lengthy subsequent discussion offline with a reader; it got me thinking: what exactly constitutes ‘seriousness’? But beyond that, how does a photographer’s choice of camera, or format, or medium, influence the final image? More importantly, is there any way we can use that to make stronger images – because ultimately, that’s what photography is all about. We’ll explore that in some detail in today’s article.
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.
One question you tend to see publicly discussed ad nauseam on forums is the one that goes something along the lines of “If you could only bring one camera/lens to a desert island, what would that be, and why?” I’m sure it’s something even we more serious photographers give some consideration to from time to time; if only because one day we might find ourselves facing such an eventuality. In the greater interests of this site’s readership, I put myself in precisely that situation a couple of weeks ago.
Reality often isn’t as glamorous as the dream.
In the first part of this essay, we explored the dissonance between the photographer we are, the photographer we think we want to be, and the photographer we actually want to be; today, we’ll wrap up by looking at how you can get there.
After writing the article on why we photograph and fresh off the back of several overseas trips, I wanted to share a few thoughts on travel photography. It seems that like street photography, the ‘travel’ genre is almost a generic catch-all bucket for images that don’t fit anything else; it’s a bit of portrait, a bit of landscape, a bit of street, a bit of still life, a bit of architecture, and, well, just ill-defined.
Continued from part one.
Even though these articles might have differing substance to the images, it’s the images that people are drawn to because they contain information that comes in a much more easily digestible form than words; you can look at an image for a few seconds to understand what’s going on, but you can’t do the same with a two-thousand word article. Our brains are just hardwired that way; predators in the jungle didn’t write essays about why they were dangerous; they just looked scary. This dissonance itself is quite dangerous: an increasingly frequent trend I’ve noticed recently is that the pictures don’t always match the words; whether this is laziness on the part of the editor or lack of choice remains unclear; but there’s definitely a growing disparity betweens what the words say, and what the images say – or at least the impression they give. Logically, one would think that the overall message should be consistent: if you’re going for a particular angle, then the images should support the story; if no suitable images can be found, then the angle and story should be altered slightly so that at least the complete article is self-consistent.
I bet many of you saw the opening image in part one and wondered how on earth it related to the title; it’s an example of the dissonance. I’m even more certain that in a few months, one of three things will happen:
1. You’ll remember the article because of the example dissonance between images and words;
2. You’ll remember the pretty bokeh and forget the article;
3. You’ll remember neither.
Some weeks ago, I was exchanging emails with a reader from New Zealand; he threw out an interesting thought which has stuck with me since and definitely bears further examination (and I paraphrase to retain context): Where does the work of a photographer begin and end? Have we partially taken over the job of philosophers to interpret the world?
Advance warning: I’m going to butcher Hamlet here, or as close as I can to it. Modern English isn’t really suited to the meter, nor is technical photographic jargon. I’ve done my best.
MT: To carry, or not to carry – that is the question:
Whether ’tis more sensible to pack your camera
At only when the time and mood suits
Or to always be loaded for bear
And in preparation, bag the shot. To hear the shutter
The flow of pixels, the fizzing chemistry of halide
Whatever your medium. Tis a satisfaction
Confirmed by the rush of hits. To travel unburdened
With no magic box: ay, light of shoulder you be,
For who knows what frames yet unseen may lie ahead
The imagined torture of being able to see but
Unable to capture gives the photographer pause.
There’s the problem with going without.
For who would bear the unfortunate light,
The tripods and accessories, the TSA-man’s probe
The aching shoulders, the impatient spouse,
The ‘NO FOTO!’ shouted, and the frustration of
Lugging the gear without it seeing use,
When he might delude himself into making do
With just an iPhone? Whom but the most hardcore
Would insist on two bodies and four lenses?
But that dread of missing the shot,
The heavenly light, which transforms the
Mundane into the magical, frustrates the hell,
And makes us bring the f1.4s, and a flash
Just in case, rather than wing it and go blind.
Thus the anxious photocondriac in us all
At the least burdens pockets, usually bags,
Empties our purses upgrading, enforces visiting
Of the chiro and desire for just one more stop.
With this, I break down and hit order
Hoping this is The One. To the ‘Bay the others go.
O Hyperion, give me contrast but hold the range
My sensor is now but one-inch.
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.