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.
Borrowing the title reference from the John le Carre novel and (later) movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – I think nicely encapsulates the multitude of hats the modern photographer must be comfortable wearing in order to be a producer of compelling images. I’ve said before that photography is both a dialog between photographer and audience and that the process of photographing is really an exercise in curating and excluding elements of the world according to one’s own personal biases, then sharing the results with an audience such that they might be interpreted in the desired way. The technical process of capture, and the creative one of composition, are no more than enablers to that translation: the capture allows recording and sharing; composition is arrangement with the intention of direction and influence over the audience. The whole photographic process – vision, composition, capture, presentation, viewing – is really simultaneously as much and as little as the sharing of an idea inspired by already extant objects.
I’ve recently been accused by several people of ‘not being objective’ and ‘losing credibility’ since representing a brand, and I’d like to address those critics today. Firstly, I don’t get paid for doing so. I enjoy a somewhat higher level of support and some loan equipment, but I still have to buy a good proportion of my own hardware. Secondly, the whole of photography is subjective in itself – equipment is only fit for purpose or not, there is no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ since no two people shoot the same way or same subjects. Sure, we can do quantitative measurement – but as most people (correctly) point out, there’s more to it than numbers. Thirdly, if the only thing you associate me with is equipment reviews, then I breathe a sigh of relief: you might be missing out on 90% of my site, but the gear-related questions and emails I don’t have to answer leave me time to focus on making pictures and the philosophy of photography. Lastly, the philosophy of photography and image-making and human psychological response has nothing whatsoever to do with hardware beyond its necessity as a tool for achieving a certain expression – you cannot have a compressed perspective with a wide angle, but two 500mm lenses are going to give you the same perspective regardless of pedigree.
Technically: out of focus foregrounds. Whilst much emphasis is placed on the way a lens renders out of focus areas – the oft-overused ‘bokeh‘ – it’s almost always used to describe the areas that fall behind the focal plane. I think we can generally agree on a few things – ‘good’ bokeh doesn’t distract from the subject with uneven or sharp luminance transitions, double images, harsh rendering, rings or irregular textures in the ‘highlight balls’, patterns, bright edges, coloured fringing etc.; too much bokeh might be pretty but completely negates any sort of context other than what mood can be inferred by the feel of the light and some bokeh is always preferable to none because it helps with subject isolation. However, few outside cinematographic circles talks much about the way the foregrounds render. For that matter, few outside cinematography actively seek to use out of focus foregrounds as part of the underlying structure of their compositions. I think that’s a shame, and here’s why.
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.
‘Quality of light’ is one of those phrases I use often, but perhaps should explain a little better. Similarly, we are all guilty of overusing the ‘good light/bad light’ phrase; but what does it (and we) actually mean? To a certain degree, we photographers are programmed both with preconceptions of what constitutes favourable light – based on our own or others’ historical work – and what constitutes ‘bad’ light. At the same time, we also have our own aesthetic biases and preferences – some of us may prefer flatter or more diffuse light as a consequence of spend childhoods at extreme latitudes, or be predisposed towards hard contrast because we’re tropical people. Here’s the kicker, though: I believe there is no such thing as truly bad or wrong light; there is only suitability for a given subject and set of aesthetic preferences.
Now that the dust has settled on the biannual equipment celebration that is Photokina, we can (somewhat) more objectively opine and speculate on a) interesting individual releases and company activities and b) the industry as a whole. What I’m seeing are three trends:
- The effects of the sensor monopoly held by Sony, which aren’t good;
- A few courageous companies pushing the envelope wildly;
- The conservative ones iterating in ever small increments.
I actually believe this is a signal of the start of maturity and perhaps a bit more rational sense for photographers as a whole – or, perhaps not. There wasn’t really anything from anybody that made me itch and reach for the wallet, and I suspect the same is true for most people; partially because a lot of the more interesting releases already happened (5DIV, D5, D500, X1D, X-T2, X-Pro2 etc.) earlier in the year, and partially because just about everybody is dependent on one sensor maker.
When is a photograph not a strictly a photograph?
This is a little question that I’ve bumped up against now and again with increasing frequency as I produce personal work that’s less literal and more abstract. I think at simplest, what we have here is a continuum from ‘straight’ untouched images of literal objects that happen to be taken from an unusual vantage with unusual light that contributes to them feeling abstracted, surreal or both, to the opposite end where there is so much manipulation going on that we are no longer sure that what we are looking at can be classified as photography instead of mixed-media art. Some ‘conceptual’ commercial work can fall into this latter category, too. What is clear is that none of these images are in any way attempting to represent themselves as transparent photojournalism. The question that I’d like to address is not so much the definition of photography as at what point we must start to unburden ourselves of conventional notions of image-making and really start trying the crazy stuff.
I recently attended two exhibitions. First was a semibiographical retrospective of Yves St Laurent at work by French photographer Pierre Boulat, and the other was Steve McCurry’s ‘Iconic Photographs’. Both were in Asia, but held at two of the top galleries in the region – Galeri Petronas and Sundaram Tagore, respectively. There was no faulting the presentation or hanging in either case. For both shows, print quality was frankly disappointingly mediocre. I’m prepared to give Boulat some latitude since he was working in relatively early film days and under ‘documentary’ conditions; McCurry’s film work often has obvious motion blur and focus misses, and his digital compounds that with oversharpening haloes – all of which land up being distracting from the image. He should really have tighter control on his post production, or stop outsourcing altogether – as the recent cloning scandal demonstrates. It’s not so much the use of postproduction enhancement, but the addition or removal of elements in what is expected to be work of a documentary nature. All of this has raised two questions in my own mind: firstly, if either photographer was starting out fresh today, would they have anywhere near the notoriety and fame, and secondly, has the game changed so much that we modern photographers have little hope of making a truly widely-recognized ‘iconic image’?
How often do we either a) edit the results of a shoot immediately after said shoot, or b) leave the curation so long that we forgot what we shot – and worse still, forget of the post processing intentions and final vision we might have had at the time? Too often, I think. Either eagerness leads to the former, or time pressure to the latter. I know a friend who’s still got images from more than a year back he hasn’t looked at – yet he keeps shooting more. I’ve also shot with people who are done with everything – curation, post processing and posting to social media – before they go to bed on the same day as the shoot, no matter how late that might be or how many images had to pass. I try and find some balance, personally – enough time to have a bit more objectivity, but not so long that I forget why I wanted to make that image. Yet occasionally, one slips through…