Creative anxiety

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You’ve just spent a ton of money on a large, shiny new lens. The one youtube and the rumours sites have been on fire about for the last few months, proclaiming it better than caviar on truffle on foie gras. Gilded. You managed to actually get one in your hands, ahead of most of the mere hoi polloi. You found an ideal location by trawling instagram and looking at the number of amazing images that came out of that particular geotag. You booked a flight to the ends of the earth with a company specialising in adventure photography travel, endorsed by the gurus themselves. And just in case that wasn’t enough, there was a whole bunch of other ancillary support gear you had your eye on that you added – new SSDs, a kickass backpack that’s bulletproof, that compact tripod that folds to the size of a stick of gum but can hold an elephant, raised twenty million dollars on kickstarter in two minutes AND managed to save a schoolroom full of burning children whilst winning miss universe.

Yet when you step off the van into that sunrise…you can’t make a picture worth spit. Why?

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At the risk of losing your customers…

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Build it and they will come…for a while, and then it becomes an antiquated and cancerous white elephant. First published in the May issue of Medium Format Magazine.

Advance doom and gloom warning: If the photographic industry continues in its current trends (turning spec sheets up to 11; increasing launch prices then decreasing them dramatically over a product’s lifecycle; being inconsistent/imbalanced with design intent – tiny bodies, enormous lenses; ever shrinking ‘incremental’ improvements between generations; poorly implemented software UI/UX; launching of what is basically beta hardware; influencers who produce rubbish images but have large numbers of “followers” “likes” etc.) – expect to see some serious contraction and consolidation soon. In fact, the hard financial numbers suggest this has already begun. The reasons why are not rocket science, but pretty much every company is acting like a paralysed ostrich hoping that if they continue as they have been and pretend it’s all okay, it will be. It won’t, and the ones who survive are going to need to find some cojones.

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Stream of consciousness

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Thoughts, truths and insights from the years presented in no particular order…

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Computational photography: what ‘format’ is it?

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Gratuitous header; moment of enlightenment.

One of the unavoidable buzzwords of the last couple of years has been ‘computational photography’. Besides sounding slightly oxymoronic and insulting to the ‘real’ photographer who presumably represents what they see and doesn’t attempt to manipulate objects into (or out of) being that aren’t physically there, the reality is that it’s unavoidable and has been unavoidable since the start of the digital era. Everything that requires photons to be converted into electrical signals and back to photons again (whether off a display or reflected off a print) – must be mathematically interpreted and altered in some form before output. It is not possible to avoid this: the Bayer interpolation, in-camera JPEG conversions, any file format saving, conversion to print color space – a ‘computation’ has to be performed to translate the data. Hell, there’s already an implicit computation in the analog to digital stage (although arguably photons are already ‘digital’ since they represent discrete quanta of energy, but that’s another discussion for another time). However, what I’d like to discuss today* is something one step further down that road, and following on from the previous posts on format illusions: in light of the broader possibilities of computational photography, what does ‘format’ even mean?

*I.e. excluding things like subject recognition for tracking, depth mapping and simulated shallow DOF transitions etc. for the time being; we’ll revisit that later.

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OT: Hobbies and diversions

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Photography for me started off as a diversion – just as it probably did for many of you. It was the ideal hobby for a busy corporate person: without predictable chunks of free time, looking for something piecemeal that could be satisfying in a ten minute gap or stretched to fill an unexpected day. It combined elements of unpredictability, reward for improvement in skill, as well as instant gratification (between instant results and gear lust). As I developed my skills and found other things I wanted too communicate, it turned into a tool to let me express ideas in a way that could be understood by others. And then it became both a calling and a career. But at some point in the last couple of years, it also became all-consuming – to the point that there was no longer any boundary between work and not-work, and thus between photography for creative fulfilment and photography (and related activities) for a living. Photography used to be a break that forced me to refocus my thoughts and allow for creative experimentation; inspiration would flow between different kinds of photography, different approaches for different subjects (i.e. client-subjects and personal-subjects) and different creative processes – photography and non-photography. But without the break: how does one you find inspiration?

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Back to basics: Turning an idea into an image

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Alienation and transience in Prague, I

Judging from the correspondence and comments flying around recently, it’s about time we did a refresher course here on the fundamentals of composition and image-making. As usual, there’s far too much obsession over hardware and not enough thought about what it’s actually being used for. This will be the first of several posts from the archives in this theme. That said, those people are unlikely to read these posts anyway…

Today’s article has proven to be another one of those significant challenges to write, once again for reasons of limitations of language to describe visual elements. On top of that, there are three conceptual leaps that have to be made: abstract idea, to descriptive language/ elements to characterise and quantify the specific unique traits of that idea so we conceptually understand it, then the final translation to a visual idea that can be understood by a wider audience than just the creator. There are really two questions at hand here: firstly, what is the idea, and secondly, what’s needed to convey it – and what do we need to avoid overdoing that results in dilution or confusion?

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Back to basics: Cut points and edges

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Symmetry and clean termination points – lowered contrast at the edges helps, too.

Judging from the correspondence and comments flying around recently, it’s about time we did a refresher course here on the fundamentals of composition and image-making. As usual, there’s far too much obsession over hardware and not enough thought about what it’s actually being used for. This will be the first of several posts from the archives in this theme. That said, those people are unlikely to read these posts anyway…

In the past, I’ve written about the importance of conscious exclusion in the process of composition: you don’t want to confuse your audience by including elements that are irrelevant or worse, distracting and visually stronger than the main subject. As we know, the very act of composition itself is one of both cropping and curation: we are choosing what not to show as much as what to show, based on our own preferences and biases. How we structure the rest of the composition around that is very much up to us, and of course the intended story or message of the image. But where do we end things – and in what situations is a little trimming necessary? How can we achieve a clean frame and a clean idea?

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Back to basics: subject isolation

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The man: color, texture, contrast, motion. We’re not really missing shallow DOF, are we?

Judging from the correspondence and comments flying around recently, it’s about time we did a refresher course here on the fundamentals of composition and image-making. As usual, there’s far too much obsession over hardware and not enough thought about what it’s actually being used for. This will be the first of several posts from the archives in this theme. That said, those people are unlikely to read these posts anyway…

Regular readers will know that I’ve distilled down four common traits of a strong image: quality of light, clarity of subject, balance of composition and ‘the idea’. The first is very simple: does the light present the subject in a flattering way or as you would desire? Is it directional (i.e. are there shadows) so that it’s possible to determine spatial layout of the scene? The last two require some practice, and the final one is really an never-ending quest for every photographer because there is no limit to the complexity of message that can be conveyed. Today, we will look at the easiest yet most commonly overlooked one of the four: subject isolation.

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Back to basics: Rules of vision – part II

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Upside down, or?

Judging from the correspondence and comments flying around recently, it’s about time we did a refresher course here on the fundamentals of composition and image-making. As usual, there’s far too much obsession over hardware and not enough thought about what it’s actually being used for. This will be the first of several posts from the archives in this theme. That said, those people are unlikely to read these posts anyway…

Continued from part I – hopefully the first part has had time to settle and digest; let us press on…

We draw temporal inferences from direction of shadows
The length and direction of shadows also suggests time of day: this is one of the indelible subconscious rules dating back to the very beginning. It is a consequence of observing sunrises and sunsets and being able to judge approaching darkness accordingly, by both overall luminance of a scene and the shadows cast by the sun. Sadly, for a lot of us, this is somewhat academic as there are far too many offices with hours that extend beyond daylight and further have no natural light whatsoever…

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Back to basics: Rules of vision (or, things we can’t help seeing) – part I

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Did you notice the sign above the man’s head? What about the house number? Or what appears to be a Cuban flag in the doorway? Or was the moving man the first ‘anchor’?

Judging from the correspondence and comments flying around recently, it’s about time we did a refresher course here on the fundamentals of composition and image-making. As usual, there’s far too much obsession over hardware and not enough thought about what it’s actually being used for. This will be the first of several posts from the archives in this theme. That said, those people are unlikely to read these posts anyway…

Regular readers will know that I hate arbitrary maxims labelled as ‘photographic’ rules simply because there is no such thing as a ‘universal scene’ or universal set of parameters for every image. Every composition is different, and every creative intention is different, which means the whole premise of there being a fixed set of laws that make a ‘good’ image or ‘image that works’ can only be nonsense. However, I do think there are some fundamental principles of human vision – and consequently psychological response to elements in an image – that we cannot ignore since they directly influence the response of our audience to the ideas we are trying to present. That is what I wish to address today: what are the autonomous/ subconscious/ reflex/ automatic – pick your preferred term – visual responses that we should be aware of and seek to utilise when we compose an image? Think of this post as the predecessor to The Four Things: it’s the underlying reason why some of the Things have to be the way they are.

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