OT guest contribution: The pathology of ‘fanboyism’ and a little advice to MT

IMG_8819b copy
A representation of photographer logic; image suggested by MT.

A first for me: today’s post is an article courtesy of guest contributor, psychologist and photographer Dr. P.L., a London-based practitioner of some note who wishes to remain anonymous to avoid spam from said fanboys. I have asked him to keep the terminology as readable to the non-psychology layperson as possible.

I write this piece as a concerned reader and friend of MT: of late, I’ve started to notice a lot of hostility starting to creep into the comments, which must be addressed lest it be to the ultimate detriment of all.

Photography is a pursuit that is attractive to individuals who a) are creative, or believe they are creative; b) tend to be somewhat analytical; c) in general prefer to operate somewhat independently. As much as teamwork is required for a Crewdson-style production, ultimately there is still only one creative vision and one person aiming the camera. A) is necessary to be able to distil scenes of interest from the common. B) tends to be the case because some technical proficiency is required for the degree of control required to reliably translate vision to output. Photography is also an anthropological and psychological pursuit: we are reflecting ourselves in our observations, whether we share them with others or not. And more often than not we are observing others, too. I believe herein lies an explanation as to why photography seems to generate so many fanboys – and so much irrationality.

[Read more…]

The format matters, but not in the way you might think

_R020346 copy

Having shot extensively with oue 645Z over the last few months, I’ve developed a new hypothesis: the format – i.e. the physical size of the recording medium – matters to the output, but not in the way that we’d expect. Naturally, we assume that the larger the sensor or film, the higher the image quality. Since so much of that is both subjective and perceptual and thus affects the final impact of the image, perhaps it’s important to understand exactly what’s going on.

[Read more…]

Being a photographer is an attitude

_5029720 copy
There are a lot of people here. A few are taking pictures. How many of them are really photographers?

The media, commercial entities – camera companies, software companies, cellphone companies – are all trying to convince us that anybody can take great pictures, and is therefore a photographer. Right and wrong, I think. Being a photographer is far more than equipment, more than luck, more than intuition, more than practice…it’s an attitude.

[Read more…]

Film diaries: thoughts on the psychology of shooting film vs digital

_8038501 copy
Would I do anything different in digital? Probably not, other than be frustrated at my inability to obtain this tonality.

Here’s an interesting question: why is one’s yield (or keeper) rate so much higher with film than digital? Let’s take the stats from my excursion to Europe, and keeping in mind I apply the same quality thresholds to both film and digital:

Ricoh GR, single shot: 137/1795, for a 7.6% yield.
Olympus OM-D, mostly single shot, some burst: 54/2370, for a 2.4% yield.
Hasselblad with B&W film (Fuji Acros 100): 76/168 (14 rolls), for a 45% yield.
Hasselblad with slide film (Fuji Provia 100F): 28/60 (5 rolls), for a 47% yield.

Digital overall: 191/4165, for a 4.6% yield.
Film overall: 104/228, for a 46% yield.

That’s ten times higher. What gives?

[Read more…]

The attraction of clouds, water, fireworks, trees…

_TM10333 copy

Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that there are a few subjects that tend to be universally attractive to a wide audience – and I’m not referring to cats, bikinis or brick walls (or strange combinations of all three). They tend to be of the type clouds, water, trees, fireworks etc. I’d like to explore that a bit more in today’s article.

[Read more…]

Film diaries: choosing film or digital, and a little rationale

_G001695 copy
Amsterdam Arch, color – Ricoh GR

For serious photographers – the kind that buy cameras to take pictures with, not for bragging rights or spec sheet counts – creative choice is good. And perhaps the largest and most divisionary of all of the creative choices available to a photographer has been whether to go film, digital, or a combination of both. Don’t expect to get a concrete answer one way or the other after this article; rather, I’m going to explore the less obvious rationale and strengths for both options.

[Read more…]

Why photography satisfies

_DL5T_L1000981 copy
Photography is like food: the variety is endless, and it can satisfy on many levels. But how many of us can make world-class, award-winning food in seconds with minimal equipment?

My earlier article on why we photograph led me to spend a little more time thinking specifically about what it is about the photographic process that is enjoyable. It seems that it’s engaging on many levels – firstly, there’s the anticipation of buying new equipment, and continually pursuing gear – I suppose you could call that the ‘collectors’ itch’. As much as I see cameras as tools, I admit there’s a certain satisfaction in finding, acquiring and owning/ using something rare; the F2 Titan, for example. Like every other accessory or object we choose to use – it signals something about the tastes of the owner. (There’s also the ego-stroking fact that it promotes jealousy amongst other photographers, but I’m going to ignore that and say it really is all about the image.

[Read more…]

Photography and psychology, part two: how we view images

_8035022 copy
Woman, umbrella and street scene 1 – think for a moment, how does it make you feel?

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.

[Read more…]

Photography and psychology, part one: it’s all a mind game

_5025010 copy
This is one of my more successful recent images: on Flickr alone, 2,500+ views and 125 favourites: but why? After this pair of articles, I think all will be clear.

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.

[Read more…]

Deconstructed photography, part two: compact camera masterclass

IMG_1780b copy
Imprint. Iphone 4

In part one, we deconstructed the essence of photography, and identified the critical qualities required for a good general-purpose camera. What about the candidates?

On this basis, we have a few potential candidates, in alphabetical order with specs and particular standout qualities:
– Canon G15 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 28-140/1.8-2.8 – optical finder, zoom range, external controls
– Canon S110 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 24-120/2.0-5.9 (!) – compactness
– Fuji FinePix X10 – 12MP, 2/3″, 28-112/2.0-2.8 – mechanical zoom, optical finder
Fuji FinePix XF1 – 12MP, 2/3″, 25-100/1.8-4.9 – mechanical zoom, compactness, JPEG quality
– Leica D-Lux 6 – 10MP variable-aspect, 1/1.7″, 24-90/1.4(!)-2.3 – variable aspect ratios, lens speed, macro, extended warranty and Lightroom (over the LX7)
– Nikon P7700 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 28-200/2.0-4.0 – telephoto reach, external controls
– Olympus XZ2 – 12MP, 1/1.7″, 28-112/1.8-2.5 – a safe middle of the road choice
– Panasonic LX7 – 10MP variable-aspect, 1/1.7″, 24-90/1.4(!)-2.3 – variable aspect ratios, lens speed, macro
Sony RX100 – 20MP (!), 1″, 28-100/1.8-4.9 – low light use/ resolution/ dynamic range/ overall image quality, speed, video
– The Ricoh GR-Digital IV is a possible too, if you don’t mind a fixed 28mm lens – 10MP, 1/1.7″, 28/1.9 – steath, compactness, street/ hyperfocal photography, configurability

_RX100_DSC2925 copy
Church reflection, Melaka. RX100

Of these, I think the G15, X10, XZ2 and P7700 are probably on the large side of what you might want to carry, that said, they are loaded with external controls, and the most tactile of the group. The smaller cameras are more button-and-menu-driven, though they all have control dials whose functions can be assigned to your preferences. The X10 and XF1 are the only two cameras here with physical zoom rings; a neat touch that improves responsiveness (especially since the rings are linked to power-on). Almost all of them are based around the same sensor, and offer fast lenses at the wide end; the LX7 and DL6 are really fast (f1.4); others are consistently fast throughout. The more compact cameras (S110, XF1, RX100) trade off lens speed at the long end.

If you’re expecting me to pick a winner, you’re going to be disappointed. All are similar enough and offer sufficient control, image quality and responsiveness that any one will do for the majority of situations. Yet, they are also different enough in control philosophy and particular feature speciality that if you particularly need any one of these features, your choice may be skewed. If not, pick the one that feels best to you, the one your brand loyalty dictates, the one whose design you prefer – whatever. It doesn’t matter. You just need to like the camera enough to use it, and it should be intuitive enough that you will actually do so. Lower end cameras will work just fine, too – I’ve had great results with the ultracompact Canon SD780 IS and superzoom Panasonic TZ3.

_RX100_DSC2931 copy
May arches. RX100

Let’s get something straight upfront though: there are things you can do, and things you can’t. It’s important to know what falls into each category so you a) don’t waste your time attempting to shoot in a particular way then being disappointed by the results, and b) can play to the strengths of your equipment.

– Stealth
– Compressed perspectives
– Getting everything in focus/ hyperfocal photography
– Low key photography (in low light)
– Moderate to high contrast images
– Long exposures, with a relatively lightweight tripod, or IS system: the leaf shutters used in compacts have almost zero vibration, and hand shake can be eliminated almost entirely when paired with the self timer.
– Odd points of view, when used with a swivel screen

Don’t waste your time:
– Getting any sort of shallow depth of field. Only close up, with a distant background, maximum aperture and whatever lets you focus the closest. Otherwise, forget it.
– Tracking moving objects
– Very low light
– Manual focus – why bother?
– Working with thick gloves in cold environments

_RX100_DSC2958 copy
Two old ladies framed, Melaka. RX100

For the most part, there are few limitations. Most of the troubling ones can be worked around; the depth of field control one I consider to be more a compositional thing the photographer needs to learn around rather than a limitation of the camera. More problematic is the inability to track moving objects; AF-C is my preferred setting for street photography and reportage scenarios because it counters the effect of subject motion. That said, if you’re using a compact, you could either prefocus at the desired spot and release as your subject passes it, you can pan, or you can rely on the extended depth of field for a given field of view to cover you. Any one of these three approaches will work just fine. In very low light situations, a mini-pod can save you; alternatively, there’s self-timer and IS. But by far the best method is simply to shoot a low key image, or embrace the grain.

_RX100_DSC2245b copy
Tranquility. RX100

There are only a few key settings for general photography, in my mind; all of the cameras on the list above will be able to cope.

Program mode. 99.9% of the time, you will be at a focal length/ aperture/ distance combination that means everything in your scene will be in focus anyway; aperture control is meaningless. I’d rather have the camera able to shift exposure automatically to prevent overexposure/ underexposure rather than miss a shot.

Auto ISO. If you set the right limits for maximum ISO (probably around 800-1600 for the smaller-sensored cameras, and 3200 for the RX100) and minimum shutter speed (not always an option), combined with P mode, you’ll avoid missing shots because of insufficient shutter speed or exposure – but at the same time, not have to use an ISO higher than strictly necessary to maintain image quality. Yes, it appears that we’re basically transferring control of exposure over to the camera – but unless you really need to freeze motion or add it (panning, soft water etc.) then I cannot actually think of a situation in which you need to set these parameters manually.

_RX100_DSC2317b copy
A night out. RX100

Spot or center-weighted meter. The main reason I’m not an advocate for matrix metering on compacts is that it both tends to be a bit unpredictable, as well simultaneously critical due to the limited dynamic range of small sensors. Nothing screams unnatural in an image more than a blown highlight with a harsh edge transition; taking control of your meter by understanding how it responds to certain situations will help immensely to avoid this. If you use the spot meter, then add between 1/2 and 1 stop to bring the highlights up to the point just before they clip; if you’re using centerweight, then make sure you have a good mix of tonal ranges within the central spot. In either case, the priority is to ensure that the subject is exposed correctly; it’s also almost always the place where you want to focus, so having a spot meter linked to the focus point and exposure lock with a half press of the shutter is ideal – fortunately, this is also almost always the way compact cameras are set up to behave by default.

Exposure compensation easily reached. Regardless of whether you’re using spot or center-weighted meter, you’re inevitably going to need to use exposure compensation at some point – all meters are thrown out by very bright or very dark objects. Better that you either have a dedicated command dial for this, or better yet, a physical dial with the increments permanently marked.

_RX100_DSC2614b copy
Tokyo nights. RX100

Single point AF. As much as I’d love to turn over focus selection to the camera, I find that far too often it doesn’t focus on what I want it to, or it picks faces when I don’t want it to, or it finds faces in random geometric arrangements. Whilst this technology has come a long way, it’s still not perfect and can’t determine distance accurately – so the subject picked is almost always the most contrasty one, not the nearest. Just use the center AF point for focusing and metering, then recompose once both are locked.

Prefocus. A common myth is that compacts have huge shutter lag: they don’t. If anything, they have less shutter lag than most DSLRs because there’s no mirror to get out of the way before the exposure. The confusion comes when people include focus acquisition time in the mix; this is not right because you can seldom compare situations in a consistent manner. Prefocus shutter release lag for say the Nikon D4 – arguably one of the fastest cameras out there – is 42ms. By comparison, the RX100’s prefocus lag is just 13ms – so short that it takes your finger longer to physically move to depress the button by that additional fraction. Prefocusing thus obviously reduces overall response time, meaning fewer missed shots. You have to shoot a bit differently with a compact and a moving subject: with a DSLR, I’ll use AF-C and track my subject until it hits the point I want relative to the rest of the composition, then release. With a compact, I’ll frame and prefocus first, wait statically with the final framing intact, then shoot when the subject hits the point I want.

_RX100_DSC2452b copy
Duplicity. RX100

Stabilizer on. Small cameras held at arms’ length (and not braced against one’s face) are not the most stable of shooting platforms; without a stabilizer, you’ll probably need 1/2x focal length – or higher with higher resolution cameras – to maintain a pixel-sharp image. You can probably claw back around 3 stops with the best of the stabilization systems, of which Panasonic is currently king. Make sure it’s set to the mode which is always active so you can frame more precisely, too – some cameras only activate the stabilizer when shooting to save power.

RAW (with exceptions). Other than the Fujis – whose JPEG files, especially with DR400 set – are amazing – there are gains to be made by shooting RAW and postprocessing for all of the above cameras. The gap is smaller for the Sony RX100, but still noticeable. Note that some cameras like the LX7 add in-camera processing to remove CA and distortion; whilst you might get more detail and dynamic range in RAW, you’re going to be trading off automated lens corrections.

_RX100_DSC2014bw copy
Crossing. RX100

Burst mode. I don’t spray away at 10fps on my RX100 all the time, but I do have it set to CL and 4fps in case I need to shoot a sequence of something interesting; it’s the same way I have my DSLRs and OM-D set up. In lower light, keeping your finger down can partially alleviate any camera shake caused by the depressing motion.

Flash off. Unless you’re triggering remote speedlights, are shooting social images in a dark place, or perhaps trying something with rear-sync, then avoid the small built-in unit. It’s just going to look horrible, not to mention lack power to fill in daylight beyond a meter or so.

Highlight warning in playback, with zoom-to-focus-point. I find this particular combination of review settings useful because it lets me quickly assess if I nailed the shot or not: is it critically sharp (magnification amount for this will differ from camera to camera)? Are there any overexposed areas? Critical underexposure? The latter is especially important when you have both only the LCD to use in daylight to evaluate images, as well as limited dynamic range.

_RX100_DSC2054b copy
In front but not driving. RX100

Have a spare battery handy. Continuous live view drains batteries very quickly. Even the best of cameras will only manage perhaps 3 hours of continuous running time with the LCD on, which is probably about 200-250 images or thereabouts. If you are careful and turn the camera off between exposures and minimize your chimping, you might eke this out to about 5-600 shots; for me, this is bare minimum for a full day of shooting. A spare battery is therefore a must have, and allows you to keep going even when the main one is being charged.

I want to talk a bit about RAW, processing and sufficiency. Although I’ve been repeatedly revisiting the whole idea of postprocessing recently – first with film, then with medium format, and as a question in and of itself – I know I haven’t taken a position either way yet, but I don’t think not processing is an option for most compacts, with the exception of the Fuji X10 and XF1. This is because none of them have the native tonal qualities that are desirable in a photograph – namely smooth highlight and shadow transitions with reasonably punchy midtones – straight out of the camera. The files certainly have the potential to be that way, but they do require work post-capture; perhaps a bit more than a good file from a larger sensor camera. However, I wouldn’t be too worried about image quality: a good 12MP file that’s critically sharp at the pixel level will print just fine to A3 and perhaps one size beyond; needless to say it’s more than enough for web viewing. It’s often important to take a quick reality check in the pursuit of megapixels: when was the last time you printed larger than A3?

_RX100_DSC0645b copy
Imagined patterns.

In the end though, it all comes back down to the pictures, and the ideas encapsulated and communicated therein. The camera is merely a box, a tool; why should it be over-promoted to seemingly also be the endgame? My personal journey for creative evolution has taken me in a different direction: an increased focus on the purity of the idea, and continued liberation from equipment requirements. I want something that can capture what I see in a variety of perspectives; something that is unobtrusive, stealthy and doesn’t attract attention; something that’s flexible enough for most situations I might randomly encounter, but doesn’t require a great commitment in bulk or weight, preferably I shouldn’t even know it’s there. I don’t mind if it imposes some limitations on the way I shoot or the way I meter; these might turn out to be good things which provide small creative nudges in the right direction. As good as Micro Four Thirds is, by the time you load up on a lens or two, you still know you’re carrying a camera – and I would still take the OM-D for serious personal work – but for experimentation, and the kind of ligthbulb moments of experimentation that happen when you’re not planning them, it seems that for now a serious compact or two is the way to go. And the best thing of all is that if (and probably when) I get bored of it, it’s not going to be too painful to swap it for a new one and start the process all over again. MT

The various cameras mentioned in this article are available here at their respective links from Amazon: Canon G15, Canon S110, Fuji FinePix X10, Fuji FinePix XF1, Leica D-Lux 6, Nikon P7700, Olympus XZ2, Panasonic LX7, Sony RX100, Ricoh GR-Digital IV.


Visit our Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including Photoshop Workflow DVDs and customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 34,948 other followers