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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Photoessay: Carflections, Lisbon

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This post is probably going to read as odd to a lot of people, and I apologise in advance if any local Lisboans are offended by it.

During the week or so I spent in Lisbon, one thing kept nagging at me: what is the ‘essence’ of the city? After a lot of walking around, I came to three observations: firstly, there were a lot of cars – especially for an ‘old’ city with narrower streets and lots of elevation changes. Secondly, ornate architecture, some in good repair, some not. Finally, a surprising absence of people – I’d expected more inhabitants, but as it turns out, population contraction and economics issues have meant that there is far more real estate available than people to fill it, let alone people to buy it. If Lisbon were viewed from space by another species, I can’t help coming to the conclusion that more than many other cities – except perhaps LA – that the dominant species was the car. And here we have the genesis of this photoessay, which I personally feel was quite representative of Lisbon. Visually, I feel the juxtaposition between classical/hard/strong/colorful buildings and more organic, curved and ‘cleaner’ cars is quite interesting; there’s a sort of flow between them that is suggestive of water and progression of time. MT

This series was shot with a Hasselblad H5D-50c with various lenses, a Leica Q 116 and processed with Photoshop and Lightroom Workflow III

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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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New: Workflow III for Photoshop or LIGHTROOM

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In the four+ years since launching the original A: Intro to Photoshop Workflow, much has changed. Cameras have more dynamic range; Adobe has added more tools to ACR; Lightroom has matured. The underlying engine now handles highlight recovery much better. We use more different cameras, so consistency of output matters more than ever. It is therefore only natural that workflow also progresses; after a good six months of development and testing under a very wide range of shooting conditions, cameras and subjects, I’m proud to offer A3: Workflow III for Photoshop and Lightroom. You can use either PS or LR, though PS will still give you a slightly better result with more control. I have been using this for my own work since January, and it’s cut my processing time by a good 15-20%. The proof of result is here: almost every image you’ve seen on this site since the beginning of the year has been processed (or reprocessed) with Workflow III.

Workflow III unifies workflow across Photoshop and Lightroom, works with a single curve in RGB mode only, eliminates the need for color correction and includes my custom profiles for most popular recent cameras (the full list below), compatible with both PS and LR.

It’s faster than ever, and for CC users, makes the most of the new tools and supersedes the previous two workflows. Buyers of previous Workflow videos will know just how fast and consistent we can get – Workflow III is better; allowing you to spend more time shooting.

Click here to buy, or read on for the full list of changes, and testimonials. We are also offering two discounted launch bundles paired with the complimentary Monochrome Masterclass, and the Outstanding Images Ep. 4/5 Style episodes.

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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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Photoessay: Atlantic coast II, Foz do Douro

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Continued from the first part.

Whilst the previous companion photoessay deal with the people of the location at a more macro scale, the aim of today’s conclusion is to convey a feel for the place itself – the power of the sea; the repetition of the waves and the romanticism of the coast and nautical travel. There’s the certainty that the waves are trying to pound the human intrusion into submission, but for now the manmade is holding steady – yet in the long run, nature always wins. My choice of presentation for this set was deliberately painterly in nature – there’s something about those 18th century oil seascapes that I personally find both fitting and appealing… MT

This series was shot with a Hasselblad H5D-50C, various HC lenses and processed with the Cinematic workflow in Making Outstanding Images Ep.5.

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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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Photoessay: Dark Porto

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‘Sinister’ is perhaps the best description for the undercurrent that you feel when walking through the old town of Porto at night or under a cloudy sky; it’s as though the dilapidation and decay is hiding a sort of madness or mania – the anguish of knowing that survival is not assured, or that one’s best days are perhaps past. Color speaks of faded glory and perhaps a bit of whimsy/ nostalgia – but monochrome does much better in conveying the weight and ominosity…MT

This series was shot with a Hasselblad H5D-50c, various lenses, a Leica Q 116 and post processed with the Monochrome Masterclass workflow.

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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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Photoessay: People of Penang, with the Hasselblad X1D

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I’ve spent the last week producing some material for Hasselblad with a pair of preproduction X1D prototypes; I’ve teased the results of that in this post and the full content is in final production right now. In the meantime, I wanted to share some images from that shoot and thoughts on use of the X1D for street photography/ documentary. The portrait samples go up first because I’ve received quite a lot of mail asking about a) bokeh; b) available light performance; c) people.

Additional X1D coverage can be found here: announcement, first shooting impressions, teaser

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