Not a people mover, and never meant to be. Similar things abound photographically: resolution, or bulk? Reach, or size? Ease of file handling, or quality? Edge resolution, or weight and filter size? Controllability or compactness?
The story of photography is really a series of compromises – I suppose the same can be said of life in general, though there are specific consequences and considerations when it comes to making images. At the risk of appearing to contradict myself*, I’m writing this post somewhere over the South China Sea, after having a little epiphany. The difference between life and photography is that compromises made in the former usually come with a mixed bag of consequence that are both unknown since we have affected causality and the flow of events by making a choice, but in photography, we almost always know what we’re giving up – or we think we have a fair idea of it. Surely this should make creative and technical choices in image capture easier to make?
*Forcing creative development through restriction is not the same as knowing you’ve stopped before you’re done.
From interactions with others and my own past experience, I’m inclined to say that this is rarely true. If anything, knowing what we might be missing out on creates even more anxiety knowing that it isn’t anything really out of your control holding you back from the shot – it’s your own decision. Let me give you an unambiguous example: a scene can be framed as a telephoto or a wide shot, but that critical moment of action you want only happens once. What do you do? You could pick your best tele and get that shot, or pick your best wide, and frame accordingly. If you can’t decide before going out, you’ve probably brought both or a zoom – but it still doesn’t change the fact that you cannot have both images*. Do you isolate the detail and eliminate potential distractions or include context? We are thus forced to make a choice – and both will have compromises.
*And don’t say bring two cameras, two tripods, and a cable release. That is a different set of compromises, but still very much a compromise.
Second example: you are deciding what to pack for a trip. You might own all lenses and cameras, but you can’t carry them all on the plane, and you’re much less likely to carry them every day in the field especially if you’re going to be doing a lot of walking. Complicating things further is the fact that no one system is going to be ideal or sufficiently versatile to cover every situation you encounter; some may be better for ultimate image quality, others for responsiveness, and others still for certain lens ranges or special functions (tilt shift comes to mind). This is not news: we know there is no one-size-fits-all and there never will be.
If you are shooting for a client, they may well have multiple and conflicting objectives/requirements for the shoot; you have no choice but to carry whatever is required to deliver the minimum image quality. In that sense, things are simplified: you are professional and get the job done. The compromise is more subtle: you may not get to shoot what you personally want to shoot or how you want to shoot it, but chances are, you’re probably not being paid to do that anyway. On the other hand, self-photography is much more confusing and I suspect the reason that most people do not progress beyond a certain level. What’s holding them back is the inability to make a consistent choice in compromises and stick to it.
The thing with being an amateur – and I use this word with the sole meaning of ‘not shooting for a living’ – is you have no real restrictions on subject, style, location, timing or equipment – only those which you choose to impart yourself. You are free to shoot with one camera and lens one day, and another one the next – nobody is stopping you from using only a 400mm on the streets, or a 12mm on safari. You may well produce some very interesting images, but you are also likely to miss out on a lot of other opportunities too – or be forced into a compromise. In this situation, I suspect a lot of people will just come back the next day with a different lens – whatever was perceived to be ‘missing’ the day before. You get the image you were expecting, and never figure out a compositional solution to the previous day’s challenge. The compromise is not consistent, and there is no incentive or need to push oneself. I think it is not difficult to see the net result is going to be one of mediocrity and conformation to expectation** rather than creative growth.
**The expectation may be self -imposed, but is still a product of all of the images you’ve seen before under those situations. The influence is subconscious, but you are still effectively going to be producing somebody else’s work. For obvious reasons, that isn’t going to break new ground, and the resultant image will almost certainly not be memorable.
Having said all of that, I think it is beneficial but not necessary to experiment with as many options as possible to see what appeals – but one has to do it for long enough that you give yourself a chance to face some compositional or executional challenges and figure them out; whether the result is something you find pleasing or not is not something I can answer. How long this is depends on how much you shoot, and how much you experiment. For me, I find a solid week is enough. Then once you find something that either feels like a minimum compromise or a massive one, I’d suggest sticking to it. In the former case, it allows you to shoot instinctively and experience/enjoy the moment then translate that into an image without having to think about the formation and execution of the photograph too much; I suppose it’s emotionally weighted rather than intellectually weighted.
The second, highly challenging situation, is one in which you are forced to get creative and really challenged to break existing preconceptions about framing and execution. The results are usually somewhat ‘cold’ or ‘structured’ or ‘stiff’ – it’s because you must consciously observe and consider every element, and that’s almost impossible in a dynamic situation outside your control. Either you will break the deadlock, or it will break you. For the longest time, I found 28mm a challenge – up to the point I used it every day for a year, and then it became instinctive. I’ve since done the same with 50mm and 35mm, and the former I now find instinctive and versatile, but 35mm still eludes me on the instinctive level – no matter how much I shoot it. I can make intellectual compositions but they just don’t feel fluid to me.
Notice the compromise again: photographing with one focal length/ camera/ other restriction that doesn’t initially seem to challenging actually forces us to not consider all of the other possibilities and constrain our minds to what we can execute, sometimes forcing intuition and emotion and at other times analysis. I don’t think this is a bad thing – even if it means knowingly giving up and image or two in the process because we had a view camera on a tripod and not a D4 with a 400mm for that fleeing glimpse of a rare bird whilst photographing a landscape. The tricky bit is balancing maintaining awareness and the ability to see – you can’t turn that off – with the anxiety of not being able to capture everything you imagine.
Whilst anybody who’s seen me work – either at a workshop or on a job – might think that I carry every bit of hardware to cover every possible eventuality – the reality is I agonize for days planning the precise bare minimum I can get away with for the photographic possibilities that I want to cover. This may be quite varied at the behest of the client, or because I’ve got students with highly varied objectives in a masterclass (landscapes to product macro to street in one week has happened before). For personal work, I apply the same philosophy: how little can I carry to ensure a) if I capture something worthwhile I can print it at a size and quality that is commensurate with my other work; b) I want to keep shooting rather than feeling tired; c) I enjoy shooting and experimenting rather than feeling frustrated with what I missed or couldn’t make work because the equipment wasn’t suitable; d) it doesn’t get in the way if my primary objective for that particular outing is not photography (increasingly common with a child). It’s usually just one camera and one lens, with a tendency to go a bit wider than what might initially seem prudent: you can always compose in more context or use geometry to fill in the gaps and/or emphasise lines to draw the eye in, but you might not be able to back away.
This is almost certainly why working to an idea of a specific portfolio or project yields a much stronger set of images than just photographing instinctively and ‘seeing what you get’. Curation of course remains critical, but is no replacement for being focused on the idea and thus in the right state of mind at the time of capture. You have to be looking for something in order to be able to see it. It’s of course only fair that I share the epiphany in a condensed form: make a choice, stick with it for a meaningful amount of time until you feel confident of being able to get something out of any situation presented with those compromises, and focus on what you can get rather than lamenting what you can’t. It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how much of a difference it makes. MT
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