Photographic aspirations, part two: reality, and getting there

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Light at the end of the tunnel: but it’s a long climb, and are you going up, or down?

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.

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Travel photography

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New York City

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.

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The photographer as philosopher, part two

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.

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The photographer as philosopher, part one

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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?

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To carry or not to carry?

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.

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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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Why we photograph

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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.

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The image making process

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Yangon. Ricoh GR1v, Delta 100.

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.

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