Aesthetics beyond the image

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Opening questions: What is beauty? What is elegance? What is ugliness? What is refinement? What’s the difference between functionality and art? What do we prefer one object over another, given choice, and identical function/ consumption of resources? These are not easy questions to answer: they require us to address fundamental challenges of not just personal preference, but also identity. We like something because we choose it over something else; we find that beautiful but that preference is a consequence of personal biases, needs, requirements and ultimately – experiences which make our personality and preferences the way they are. Yet our instinctive responses to things are often both immediate and quite strong: the like or dislike is established within moments of contact, and whilst prolonged exposure might breed some latitude born of understanding and tolerance, it’s unlikely to change love into hate. I want to address a very difficult set of questions today: what is the aesthetic sense? How can it be developed? Does it matter for photography, and if so, how does it make us better (or worse)?

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Stabilisation is good…but only up to a point.

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Look at the 100% view: clear smearing at 1/60s and 32mm-e – on a 16MP camera, with stabiliser on? Does not compute. Important to figure out why, yes?

I’ve been party to several discussions of late in which the merits of stabilised systems have been discussed at length, and wanted to share my experiences here for the simple reason that I don’t think the benefits – or not – of stabilisers are quite so clear cut anymore. To clarify, because I wouldn’t be surprised if my comments were taken out of context: I think stabilisers have their place, but only up to a point. Beyond that, we either need improvements in the underlying stabiliser tech or we need to accept that it’s not as effective as we’ve previously been used to.

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Cut points and edges

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

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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On critiques and critiquing

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Something here is off: but why? And how can we make it better?

The above image is meant to be an example: something is deliberately off. But if we didn’t know, how can we fix it? I feel the art of the critique is something that’s unfortunately both underappreciated and under-utilised. There’s no shortage of images online, and this number keeps increasing – but on the whole, it’s difficult to say that volume has any correlation with quality or discernment or curation. If anything, the opposite: volume smothers refinement. Responses to images have been simplified to ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ or some very strange animated GIFs, or worse, vitriol about something relatively minor and unimportant element of the image. Neither is really constructive – the photographer receives no useful information with which to make a better image the next time around. Consideration is rarely given by the audience when making a comment – this can be very dangerous because as the audience, you have no idea if the image was a throwaway or something the photographer believed was the absolute best they could do, and put their heart and soul into. Encouragement and discouragement are equally likely outcomes. Given photography is really a conversation – it is important to talk to (or at least gauge responses from) one’s audience – today we ask, ‘how can we raise the creative and technical bar for images?’

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Soul, redux: or, interpretations reflect the audience

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Sophie, the mime: the image resonates and means something to me because I have an emotional connection to the subject, to the setting, and I know the narrative story on either side of the frame. It may resonate with you because you happen to like children, or because the facial emotion is a strong an unambiguous one, or you like monochrome documentary portraiture, or for some other reason. But if it were executed differently, you may feel different about it – but not necessarily or consciously know why. It is up to the photographer to control the unconscious influences in such a way that at least their intended communication is fulfilled, but not in a way that draws attention to itself (and thus breaks that illusion).

After the huge amount of very interesting and thoughtful discussion that ensued in the comments – thank you for your thoughts, everybody – and a few days of settling time, I couldn’t leave the previous article on soul hanging inconclusively. There are few very interesting observations made, higher conclusions that one can draw from the responses here, and further logical leaps from contemplation of one’s own work and raison d’être. Firstly, a clarification though: I’m not looking for a magic formula to ‘inject soul’ into my own work, and I’ll explain why later. I was and am simply seeking to understand why certain images move certain people in a certain way – and if there’s anything one can use there to make a stronger image, given the choice, and providing of course it fits one’s own idea.

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Soul

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Let me start off by saying I’m probably the wrong person to write about this topic, but that’s also precisely why I need to. My critics are always fond of saying my images are too cold, too precise, too unemotional, too lacking in soul. There are no right or wrong absolutes when comes to art and photography, only subjective preferences; this of course means that there’s probably a nugget of something legitimate in there. I’ve spent some time contemplating what this last bit might actually mean: what is soul in an image? Why do some images have it, and others don’t? I will also say that whatever I put forth after this point is pure conjecture on my part (more so since I apparently don’t know what soul is), and I’m sure there are as many definitions as there are photographers. So, feel free to add your two cents in the comments…

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The Four Things, redux

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One image that appears to break the rules, but really doesn’t: relatively flat light prevents texture from being too harsh, but it’s directional enough to create the curved shadow between the mown and unmown grass, with the line leading to the yellow flowers – that stand out from the rest of the meadow. Order in chaos, guided nature.

In the past, I’ve written about ‘The Four Things’ – what I consider to be the cornerstone elements of a good image. I’ve also written about subject isolation and finding that extra unpredictable magic element that lifts an image to the realm of the memorable. I’ve not written about ‘the idea’ yet, but that’s in the works. What I’d like to do today is revisit the core structure of an image with the benefit of hindsight and simplify those four things as much as possible, with the background context of understanding how our brains work. It might seem like photography and psychology all over again; but remember that photography is really a conversation between photographer and audience – and like all forms of communication, the rules are both cultural and somewhat more deep-seated at an anthropological level.

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Off topic: Just in case

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That proverbial sink

I was playing equipment tetris* for a job recently – a regular occurrence. It occurred to me that most of the hardware I was packing was ‘just in case’; contingency planning if something happens to go pear shaped or I encountered a situation at the very edges of the envelope. There are of course no excuses for not delivering what the client wants, at least if you intend to keep your clients. This means I basically had two complete Hasselblad medium format kits – including backup lens coverage – a set of filters, double the number of batteries and triple the number of cards, critical backups, etc. Add a spare tripod head and brackets to the mix, plus a day bag to work out of, and you’re soon seriously encumbered. This wasn’t even a job requiring external lighting, which brings the packed weight to somewhere in the 50kg region once you include stands and modifiers. In practice, for that once in a blue moon occurrence, you’re glad when you have it – but the rest of the time, your back is cursing you. The rest of the time, you shoot with one body and the zoom. There’s probably got to be an easier way, right?

*Attempting to fit in various camera bodies, lenses and accessories into the smallest possible volume for that amount of gear, but the largest possible volume that would pass for carry on – my record is 24kg overweight for hand carry, at which point Air France forced me to buy another seat. At full price. In one of the front cabins, because the rear one was full – and with a penalty fee for cancelling the old one. I definitely didn’t want to repeat that.

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The photographic bucket list

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Havana, Cuba

We all have places, things and events we’d like to photograph – my mind was drifting on a recent drive back from Singapore, and I thought it might be interesting to compile a list in one place both for me to share some of my ideas with readers, and for you to contribute your own in the comments. Some I’ve done/been to, and others remain aspirational. We may well become aware some things locally that we hadn’t considered exotic or interesting, and if some interesting images come out of it – why not? There is one caveat, though: the bucket list has to be feasible (i.e. ‘the moon’ is out).

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The principles of Philippe Halsman

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Dali ‘Atomicus’, unretouched. Source: Wikipedia, used under the terms of the Creative Commons

One of the less commonly cited photographic greats, Philippe Halsman is perhaps best known for his Atomicus portrait of Salvador Dali, above. He also photographed a number of other personalities of the time for Life and other magazines; I personally get the feeling his work is about as close as you can get to a constructed biography in a single frame. I had a discussion with one of my students recently about his six rules for the creation of photographic ideas – and the execution of that portrait. There was no Photoshop in 1948, and retouching was limited to painting over things – in this case, the removal of some of the supports for the various elements in the frame. The final image was take number twenty eight: by that point, the cats had probably had enough. The salient points of Halsman’s life and career are better summed up by Wikipedia, here. Today’s article is a few thoughts on that portrait and his principles in general.

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