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.
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:
- I don’t shoot much outside commercial jobs…
- …and when I do, there’s an ever-increasing stylistic gulf between the commercial output and my personal work.
- This is making work, well, feel very much like work rather than creative expression
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)
One of my reasons to photograph: because I see beauty of form in the mundane I want to share. I’m sure the man on the bicycle has passed by this building enough times that he didn’t pay it a second moment’s notice, though. Hasselblad 501C, 120/4 CF T* on Delta 100
This post is a continuation of the previous essay on the image making process. It’s a question I’ve often asked myself; rationale being that if I could understand the triggers that drove me to take an image in the first place – or perhaps not so much what drew my eyes to the scene, but held them there – I’d be able to make a more conscious effort at being aware of these things, and thus make even stronger images.
Firstly, let me say that personally, photography is almost a compulsive addiction. It something that I always feel I need to do; I get anxious if there’s any possibility of an interesting moment or scene going observed but unrecorded. I’m constantly looking out the window if the light’s nice – something I’ve got to be careful of doing too often, because non-photographers will think you’re just being rude. As a result, there’s almost always one or more cameras on my person, usually only separable by surgery. The funny thing is, even though I’ll see a huge variety of scenes, I don’t feel compelled to have a camera that can capture all of them; I’ll get jittery if I have no camera, but I’ll be perfectly happy with just 28mm – even though I’m seeing things at 200mm or beyond.
This leads me to wonder if it’s the image itself, or the production of the image that is what keeps me going: it could really be either, or both. Hell, I enjoy a good camera as much as the next guy – there’s no reason not to – but it isn’t the endgame, either. A good photograph is satisfying irrespective of the tool used to make it; but yes, I admit there’s more pleasure in getting it out of something that’s enjoyable to use – that way you enjoy both the image and the process. Undoubtedly there are people who photograph simply because they like cameras – and there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever.
Not to be confused with the previous article on workflow, or what makes an outstanding image, this essay is a collection of more detailed thoughts on what goes on outside the technical portion of photography, and in a way, how the creative evolution of a photographer affects this chain. Understanding how this works can help us to make stronger images that have a bigger impact on their target audience – all the more so if we can push specific buttons of the intended viewers.
The typical process involved in producing an image for most people looks like this:
Trigger -> Capture -> Share/ View
The Trigger is the external or environmental factor that makes a person want to take a photograph in the first place. It’s composed of both a why, and a moment or scene; inevitably, the why is because there’s an event or location or object that is out of the ordinary for the photographer, and they therefore wish to preserve it for personal remembrance, or to share with other people of a similar background and persuasion. Next comes capture, which is usually little more than aim, and press – I’m not going to call it framing, because that implies some care with composition. Often it’s just a case of making sure the subject is inside the middle of the screen or viewfinder. Sharing/ viewing, the final portion, is where the image is seen by somebody other than the original captor. Most of the impact of the image is generated at this point: the greater the response it triggers in the viewer, the more likely it is to provoke thought and be remembered, and therefore the stronger the image.
In part one of this pair of articles on seeing photographically, we examined our mental expectations of art, and considered whether it was a product of nature or nurture, and if it could be taught; in part two, we’ll approach seeing from the opposite end of the continuum: what if you can’t stop seeing? The images used to decorate this article are a series of perhaps non-obvious compositions that may not have appeared immediately apparent to the unconscious observer.
Although I touched on this somewhat in the article dealing with the stages of creative evolution of a photographer, I think there are several ‘levels’ to seeing; and by seeing, I mean the ability to create an aesthetically pleasing and balanced composition that conveys the meaning or message intended by the creator, lit in a way that enhances the presentation and makes the subject obvious. Firstly, one needs to be aware and conscious of any available opportunities, interesting subjects or potential frames present in one’s surroundings. Next comes awareness of light and the quality of light; where the shadows fall and how harsh/ hard those shadows quite seriously affects the overall balance of the composition. Such shadows must be thought of as additional shapes within the frame, not extensions of their parent objects – they can overlap their parents (thus reducing apparent size) or be projected onto other parts of the frame, thus requiring space in their own right to ‘breathe’.
A few weeks back, I got an email from a reader that peaked my intellectual curiosity: he effectively asked, ‘can art be taught?’ I pondered this question for a while before sending back a cursory reply: yes and no, and to wait a while for this very article I was in the process of writing. Of course, it’s taken me much longer than expected to complete it because like what makes a good image, it’s proven to be one of the more difficult questions to answer.
First, we need to define art: obviously, it’s anything involving some form of creativity that goes beyond the barely functional; yet you’ll undoubtedly find people who will argue that there’s a form of art in that, too. And you’ll get no dispute from me over the reduction of an object or thing to its simplest form requiring a degree of creativity and artistic thought, too. In a loose way, I see art as anything superfluous or not strictly necessary to accomplish a task or goal; you can get from A to B on bare feet, but if you choose to drive a handmade 1930s landau, then clearly your choice of transport has something beyond the ordinary in it. Art is for situations when a conscious choice exists: you can have a bare ceiling, or you can commission a master painter to spend years on it. We also have to consider the difference between art and craftsmanship: the building above was finished by crafstmen, who are perhaps ‘limited’ artists; it was designed by an architect, who had to be an artist to give it that synthesis of form and function in the first place. The artist has to see beyond their immediate subject: taking the example of the building again, the architect was undoubtedly influenced by traditional forms, which in turn relate to religion, culture and history; the craftsman doesn’t need to know any of this in order to cut and fit a marble panel well.
Frequently asked, but rarely answered is the question of what makes a good photograph; rarely, if ever, asked is ‘what makes a good photographer?‘ In the first place, does it matter? I think the answer is yes, both because of the importance of self-assessment in the grand scheme of things if you want to continually improve as a photographer, and because we can all benefit from a goal to aim for. Obviously, the answer to this question is going to depend very much on the type of photographer you want to be; being loud, brash and in-your-face might serve you well as a paparazzo, but it’s almost certainly going to result in early retirement if you’re a war photographer.
However, before examining those details – and I’m only going to write on the genres of photography I’m somewhat familiar with (please feel free to weigh in under the comments section if you have any further thoughts or experiences to share) – there are definitely some general traits that are beneficial to all photographers, and we’ll examine those first.