Photographic detox, part two

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Part two: get creative (continued from part one)

The camera companies and retailers are going to hate me for writing this, because it’s not going to sell any more equipment. If you were hoping for a quick solution that involves a credit card, I’m sorry too – there is no substitute to better photographs other than hard work. But this doesn’t mean it can’t be fun or creatively liberating – after all, isn’t that one of the key reasons we shoot at all?

6. Use something really basic.

This isn’t to punish you or a sign of inner sadistic tendencies, but rather it’s to force you to focus on the parameters you can control: light, timing, composition. Notice how none of those are hardware-dependant. I like to use my phone or a basic point and shoot for this exercise. It’s also to make you forget about the execution/technical part and concentrate on honing your own abilities. If you’re thinking too much about which AF mode you should be in, I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be thinking about what difference the position of the man in the red shirt in the background makes to the overall composition. Beyond shifting attention away from the hardware, limitations paired with objectives (i.e. producing an interesting image in this case) have always resulted in one of two outcomes: failure, or a creative solution. The former forces you to try harder, and the latter is the outcome we want. Really interesting images come out of situations where you want to get the shot, but aren’t able to make it in the way you usually</em would – the only way to do it is walk away with that gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction, or try something else. Work around the limitations – or use them to your advantage; if your camera has terrible dynamic range, make a creative choice for exposure towards high key or low key. If focusing is slow, prefocus or try still life. Sometimes having too much freedom can also result in decision paralysis: ask yourself, what would you order if you were at a restaurant that could serve anything, at the same price?

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7. Shoot even more than usual

Gotta get out of the comfort zone. Force yourself to consider just subjects you wouldn’t have considered previously, but do it regularly so anything and everything becomes a subject. If you normally average a handful a day, double it. Keep increasing the daily quota for the duration of the exercise. Whatever the case, you’ll be more productive than if you don’t do it. And in the process, some experimentation will undoubtedly take place. Even if this is just a small percentage of the total output – sometimes a small shift of perspective or experiment is all it takes. If you run out of ideas, you can try cross-shopping technique and preconceptions of style or methodology: try to shoot street like you’d shoot architecture, or still life with a dynamic wide perspective and available light, for example. In my experience, being multidisciplinary and asking the creative ‘what if’ questions are a good way to come across pleasant surprises.

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8. Repeat, repeat, repeat

The easy way out would be to set motor drive to CH and blaze away, but that defeats the point. It might sound cool, but will accomplish nothing other than wearing out your shutter and producing hundreds of identical images. The point of shooting a lot is to experiment, not to repeat. So why have I just stressed repetition? Because there’s repeating something for the sake of repeating it, and repeating something to refine the outcome. It is of course the latter we’re aiming for here: holding the shutter down for 20 seconds produces a very different outcome to taking a shot, assessing it deliberately (now, you may use The Four Things), consciously fixing the mistakes you see, and then iterating. It results in an incrementally improved result every time. Even with enforced restrictions, there’s still a huge range of outcomes possible: the same subject can be lit a dozen different ways. The same viewpoint can be shot with different perspectives or balance biased in different ways. Even if the fundamental composition or angle of view does not change, the edges matter – conscious exclusion and examination of those edges removes distraction and results in a much cleaner image. But you wouldn’t know that without trying it, of course.

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9. There should be no difference between ‘shooting seriously’ and ‘shooting casually’

Being a good photographer is really a mindset, not about your purpose or how much you happen to be carrying on the day. At the core, it is about going through life with your conscious observer hat over a head that isn’t so much skeptical as curious: notice things that are normal, ask why; notice things that aren’t normal, ask why. And then capture them. Being able to switch in and out of this mindset at will is the ideal goal: you can focus on whatever you need to focus on, but notice if an opportunity shows itself – and then make the most of it. When in that mindset, then be fully there: sloppy composition and sloppy shot discipline and settling for something you wouldn’t normally deem good enough simply because you are not carrying ‘serious’ gear is a barrier that has to be taken down. Compose, expose and release with care and it will show in the results. The opposite is also true, of course. Erosion at the edge cases comes where that sloppiness starts to spill over into times when you’re trying to ‘be serious’ – that might be too late.

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10. Curation is the final gatekeeper

The story I always tell here is one of two photographers: the one who shoots a million images but only shows his ten best; and the one who shoots ‘just’ a thousand and shows all of them. You can bet that the former will be remembered, even if the average level of their work is much lower than Mr. 1000. Unfortunately, it isn’t good to be too prolific, either – your audience may not be able to keep up. But fundamentally, your viewers can only see what you choose to show them, and this should be used as the final filter. It’s also the best way to improve your work: if you shoot average and only keep good, eventually you’ll know the result will be average before capturing; you’ll only shoot good. Curate to excellent, and the same thing will happen. Note that it’s also very important to take into account the output objective when curating, too: photographs of butterflies probably wouldn’t work for a street photography exhibition, no matter how good they are; what works in print may not work on screen due to the difference in quantity of information presented.

Printing is actually one of the best ways to curate: in trying to decide what to print, you will find even the most difficult digital curation deadlocks broken. For whatever reason, deciding what to print pushes you to another level of consideration. Images that were good enough on screen get thrown out, and images that may have been dismissed before get reconsidered. Perhaps it’s because we’re now thinking about committing to those images irreversibly; they last in a much more immediately tangible and permanent form than just on a hard drive. Or perhaps it’s just because we know there will be a bill and a real cost at the end of it – I suspect saying ‘print at 6×4″ postcard size’ will result in a very different set to ‘print at 20×30″‘. Even with relatively small or low quality files, I find that printing completes the output: image quality issues such as noise or resolution that are obvious and distracting on screen frequently disappear because of the dithering process involved in inkjet printing; somehow it puts all images on a much more equal footing of pure aesthetic/artistic considerations rather than technical ones. It will also tell you very quickly which images really don’t work, too.

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The images used to illustrate these two articles actually came from a tight curation of my own experience with this exercise; I consciously shot with my phone for several months during times when I didn’t feel like photographing ‘conventionally’; there are twelve images here from a thousand or so. I usually start the moment I start to feel uninspired or jaded. I usually don’t consciously carry a camera and just use my phone (as I’ve done here). It’s a limited yet liberating device, and I have to say I am personally pleased with the results. Could I print them larger if I’d used something else? Sure, but given my personal state of mind at the time, I don’t think I’d have the image at all simply because I’d either have not felt like ‘shooting seriously’ or felt under pressure to produce a sure thing and not experiment. And I think that lets me safely say ‘objective achieved’. MT


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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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  1. The two parts were certainly an inspirational read. Thanks for your (by me much appreciated) insights and words of experience (maybe even wisdom!) 🙂

  2. Frans Richard says:

    Great read (again)! However, I think you are overrating your influence on equipment sales 😉
    I think camera sales are down because the camera companies are not making what we photographers want. Adding more megapixels, a bigger screens, moving buttons and creating increasingly complex menu structures doesn’t solve any of the modern photograper’s problems.
    What I want is “a better iPhone”, that is, a proper ILC that is easy to use, smart and connected.

    • Ah, perhaps the lazy principals were just looking for somebody to blame 😉

      But yes, the camera companies are missing the point entirely. There’s no innovation, and more isn’t always better.

  3. Tom Forker says:

    You live in a phantasmogoric visual landscape (as do we all) : thanks for bringing back all these trophies from the edges of the perceived world. “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” William Blake. I have tried to apply this from my earliest forays into the world of psychedelia in the 60’s to my current status as an elder traveler and it has always resulted in dropping the veil, pausing to see what is actually there before me and not the rote recital of number and tense that takes us from numbered point to numbered point. Thanks for all the work that goes into posting these images, day by day. They are closely observed.

    • A pleasure – though the reason this article exists is because sometimes everything starts feeling a bit ordinary and we have to reset our eyes…

  4. Lucy March says:

    A wonderful pair of essays and images, Ming. For over twenty years, I have walked the same three blocks to pick up lunch; today I saw things I had never noticed before. Thanks for hitting my “refresh” button!

  5. NancyP says:

    I find post shot evaluation far more strenuous than actually shooting. A lot of what I do in the first cull is to identify what went wrong – technical goof? trying to get something out of a shooting scenario that just won’t transfer well (my usual dynamic range woes)? taking photo just because I am out there with a camera in hand and – don’t just sit there DO something? too busy futzing with experimentation to notice that I am working on a weak image? insufficient experimentation in the face of a potentially good image? not good light for intended subject, and I should have gone home sooner? keep a weak image as a reference and reminder to go back and shoot it right? I find that I am also hampered by my lack of sophistication in post-processing.

    • I think it’s great that you’re aware of all of the possible pitfalls – you just need to move that to the during-capture part, which will simplify the curation. Taking a photograph to experiment is fine if you know what result you want and can throw away the duds; taking a photograph for the sake of it is probably not worthwhile, however.

  6. A good point about the quality of the printed image vs the on screen image. We know this from years of printing, but it still amazes me. While the dithering may be a factor, for a number of reasons, there is a disconnect with the image in memory with that which comes up on the monitor. Could it be that the monitor and/or printer interface is an issue? Consider “jitter” affecting audio reproduction. With audio there are clearly audible differences with interconnects. Why not with video?

    • I’m sure there is, to some degree. But dithering, dot size and transmissive vs reflective media are much larger factors.

  7. Mosswings says:

    Wonderful coup de grace at the end, there, Ming. I looked at image #1 in the last article and just marveled at how beautifully it was exposed and processed. Same thing with the heating ducts. And now I learn – I should have known – that they were all taken with a phonecam. I am indeed glad that you really practice what you’ve preached: “as long as it doesn’t get in my way, I’m happy to use an automatic camera”

    In a somewhat parallel experience, we just replaced my wife’s travel zoom with a Stylus 1 primarily because she was having trouble composing off the LCD under most conditions, and the Stylus 1 has a very nice viewfinder. I of course “helped” her set it up and learn how to work with the viewfinder. What both of us found is that just leaving the camera set to “P”, with a decent range of ISOs, freed us up to simply go out and shoot. Composition, light, all those things rose naturally to the top of our awareness, and the experience was liberating. She carries the Stylus now with her on her daily walks quite regularly, something she never did with the old P&S. It’s fun to watch her enjoy the process of working with a tool that helps you.

    But it’s sad to realize that I find myself looking less and less at my arguably better DSLR, all bulked up and bristling with controls that for the most part compel somewhat anal-retentive me to consider first the craft of photography rather than the art.

    Perhaps it’s time to set the Incredible Hulk to “P”.

    • Thank you. Apple actually a) thought about what you really need; b) reduced the controls to the bare minimum; c) made the rest transparent. And it shows – I still think it’s the only shooting experience that’s actually reflective of the technology and accommodating of the new state of the game. It’s not so much setting things to P as not losing the big picture – take ISO, for instance – you almost never need anything other than auto within a predefined range (for convenience) or base (for speed). Why on earth such a fuss is made about a mechanical ISO dial with 1/3rd increments is beyond me…

  8. Thank you Ming keeping me inspired over and over again by posting one important essay and article after the other. I have mentioned earlier I don’t know of any other place where to fuel up and having one’s shooting habits polished and even broken for the better image to come.

    How you can cough up one article after the other pointing at new views to the photographic process is a mystery for me. This site has become the most treasured place for me to visit in all times. Thank you very much for that.

    • Thanks Gerner – it’s a mix of whatever I’ve been through/ got stuck on/ am going through/ observe happening from submissions to the reader pool…

  9. Wonderful set of articles that focus on the essence of thinking and acting as an image maker! Hand held devices allow one to sketch and be playful. – all the time anywhere. Sketching and experimenting in this manner exercises our photographic muscle. Thank you for showing proof that these daily efforts are not time wasted when they are made with purpose.

  10. John Weeks says:

    This is why this site is so awesome!! Really…I am going to read and reread these last two articles. While other blogs or sights show photos and talk about camera settings, reviews of equipment, or people they do not expound on developing the photographer. this is so why I want to be involved in a masterclass. These articles have impacted me…THANK YOU!!! You help so many of us develop internally…again…awesome!

  11. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Thanks for the “boot”.

  12. Patric Gordon says:

    Thank you, Ming

  13. Crazyp says:

    Great 2 articles Ming. from someone who went through a bit of a rut I can agree with most of your observations and suggestions. Curation can be depressing when going through a creative block, but you are ultimately rewarded in the long run.

  14. Ming – a quick question regarding use of phones…
    Currently I just use the standard phone app on my iPhone 5. Touch screen to focus, and touching different points adjusts the exposure value. There is nothing to indicate what the phone will select for ISO, aperture or shutter value, let a alone a histogram.
    Do you use a more sophisticated camera app on your phone, and how do you control metering / exposure? Take the last image in the series here – very tricky to meter and expose correctly with a phone I imagine.

    • Nope, I use the standard app too. It’s the only one you can access from the standby screen. Touching focuses and semi-spot meters; sliding up and down controls exposure compensation. Tap and hold gives you AE/AF lock, though you may need iOS8 to have all of these features. I haven’t found myself needing anything else…in many ways, they got the ultimate distillation of the essence of a camera right.

  15. Really enjoyed this Ming. It is very helpful. For some reason I am hungry for steak and lobster… 🙂

  16. Nice one.

  17. many useful thoughts here. you certainly are right about the purchase of gear being barely related to the strength of an image. it terms of comp most certainly. also agree re repeating, “casual shooting”, and curation. all 3 are certainly related.
    tangential question:
    what do you approximate is the focal length of an iphone (in 35mm terms).
    maybe 30mm or so? as an exercise i’ve been shooting almost exclusively at 35mm recently (not too wide, not too long) to sort of reset my eye/brain. i’ve also noticed that some of my favorite film directors tend to use a limited number of lenses on a shoot (often shooting the majority of a film on a single lens) and it really helps make sets of images cohere, a completely different effect from lots of cutting between wide, normal, and long lens shots.
    for whatever reason 35mm is noticeably harder to neatly compose with as compared to a 50mm (for my style of shooting).
    either way nice strong images and interesting thoughts.

  18. Shooting film is one way to accomplish a lot of these stated objectives. At least it has been for me, with the added benefit that I really enjoy pulling my negatives out of the dev tank and seeing the images there. Plus film smells really nice… 🙂

    • It lacks the immediate feedback to know whether the experiment worked or not though. But perhaps the uncertainty isn’t a bad thing…

      • I shoot film occasionally. Not being able to see the outcome right away makes me focus very hard on doing it right the first time, and I find myself experimenting less than with other photographic equipment. The liberating part is that I usually develop film weeks or months after capture, so I’ve mostly forgotten what I’ve shot. That makes curating much easier, it’s like looking at someone else’s images.

        • I think it also helps that the ratio of work done in-camera to postprocessing is much more skewed towards the former. For digital it’s 50-50, and if you leave things too long…you might forget what it is you wanted to do to begin with.

          • Martin Fritter says:

            Well, Gary Winogrand used to leave his film on the shelf for weeks or months before developing it. His idea was that he could see the pictures afresh, without any hangover of what he felt at the time he took it. Of course, he was a genius. As for me, I shoot film, and frequently find that the pictures that I think will be great when I release the shutter, often aren’t and the ones I think will be sort of ho-hum, are the better ones. Anyway, I think there’s room for slow cooking in the creative process. Oh, also, as a musician, I’ve found that when dealing with a technical problem and practicing and practicing, I generally make no progress. Then, if I’m lucky, the solution will appear in my muscle memory completely realized. OTOH, bad practice habits can cause problems to become intractable habits. (Worst case: injury.) Oh well, the middle way, one supposes.

            • He also didn’t look at 6,000+ of his rolls and admitted to taking pictures because of the act or sound – you also don’t see much growth or development in his work through the years because the feedback cycle was so long…

              • Martin Fritter says:

                Well, a certain amount of mania seems to be a hazard of the trade. You might find this article on Gene Smith’s darkroom techniques interesting: I wonder about the creative life-spans of the great art photographers. Is it really something for the young?

                • It seems they manage to keep it up for decades, in some cases. But I wonder too if that’s because the film process simply took longer, and the millions of images a dedicated photographer can accumulate in a decade now would have taken a lifetime before. I do know that it’d have taken me a lot longer to perfect certain styles or techniques without digital, and some things – ultraprints for instance – would be impossible without serious hardware (think 16×24″ view camera).

                  • Martin Fritter says:

                    Very true. What I admire about you is your willingness to go up to the limits of digital, making something that is supposed to be easy, at least nominally, difficult and technically demanding. But the discussion has circled around from from being about a kind of minimalism, or parsimony of means, to the importance of technique. So simple, but maybe also unforgiving of sloppiness. In a way, there is probably nothing simpler than a view camera. Regarding the careers of photographers, it’s hard to think of a kind of late style florescence. Maybe Friedlander. Cheers!

                    • Personally, it’s not so much making it difficult as seeing how far we can push the envelope of the new technology – we don’t always have to do it, but it’s also important to know what’s achievable. My most fluid shooting experience for static subjects is always with the view camera – you have perfect control over everything and no excuses. But for documentary work – something with as few distractions as possible; there the iPhone and GR excel.

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