Opinion: Sensible perspectives on film and digital in current times

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Today’s post has been a long time brewing. The recent resurgence in the popularity of film is undeniable, to the point that there are both new brands and revivals of old ones happening on a fairly regular basis. It seems to be not so interesting for the big guys – look at the continual Fuji price increases as prime exhibit – but this has meant that there business is more open to the enthusiasts and those creating film specifically for the demands of those markets (such as JCH Street Pan). Anybody who gets off their comfortable chair to put money and action where their mouths are deserves a round of applause, in my book. Given all of this – it’s only natural that there have also been a lot of people rising to the defence of the medium, in the comments here, and sometimes much more aggressively over email. In the interests of saving much angst, it’s probably about time I make my personal position on film clear, and more importantly, the rationale behind it.

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Seeing and familiarity

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Everything must be evaluated before we have expectations of it

A few months ago, I explained why I believe there is no such thing as an absolute decisive moment; and examined how my own point of reference has shifted over time – both of these posts lead to some discussions in the comments over the whole question of why we seem to shoot better when taken out of our usual environments. I think that answer is fairly simple, and has to do with the same underlying principles of subject isolation: if something looks different, it will stand out, and if we can observe/see it, we can notice, compose for and photograph it. But the first part of that flow – the ‘standing out’ – can only happen if we either train ourselves to continually and consciously evaluate every portion of a scene, or we are thrust into a place where there is no familiar frame of reference so our minds cannot subconsciously pattern recognise and dismiss. The real question for a photographer is: how can we control this to some extent?

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Discussion points: Critical features

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For most of the history of photography, we only had shot-to-shot* control over four things with our cameras: focal plane, exposure via shutter and aperture, and the moment of capture via the shutter release. There were of course myriad ways of implementing this – but eventually, either camera makers did what was easiest from an engineering standpoint, or buyers voted with their wallets – and the modern control paradigm was born. We have ergonomic grips, control dials for shutter and aperture (either on the top deck within fingertip reach, or on the lens barrel) and some means of controlling focus. Fundamentally, all images can be made with control over these parameters. Yet somewhere along the way, we’ve decided that we cannot live without tilting LCDs, live view, sensor shift and optical stabilisers, auto white balance, panorama stitching, eye tracking AF…the list goes on. I firmly believe that it’s possible to get far too distracted trying to master the technology and remembering which menu item and button was set to do what – and as a result, make an image that’s compositionally and creatively compromised instead of technologically enabled.

*One could also switch emulsion sensitivity, color/monochrome and focal length – I consider these secondary controls because not every camera permitted this between subsequent images.

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Shutter Therapy

Shutter Therapy is a phrase I created several years ago and one I use frequently throughout my articles. I don’t remember defining it, and, inexplicably, the phrase is now widely used by many friends and photographers, in Malaysia and around the world. With a little time on my hands post-Olympus Malaysia, I found myself introspecting on what Shutter Therapy was, what it signified when I started using the phrase, its origins and why I set time aside for some Shutter Therapy every weekend? This post is a result of that introspection and my attempt to answer these questions.

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Crystal ball gazing: Predicting the photographic ecosystem in 10 years, part II

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That impending sense of something looming just out of view…

Today’s article continues from Part I in the previous post: where will photography land up in the next ten years?

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Crystal ball gazing: Predicting the photographic ecosystem in 10 years, part I

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During a recent flight and some (unusual) downtime, my mind started to wander idly towards both how much photography has changed in the last ten years, and idle speculation towards how photography would change in the next ten. The pace of change has been rapid, limited by technology; but I think the next big shift is that it’s going to be limited by the operator. Let me explain why: for hundreds of years, the fundamental principle of using photosensitive chemical media and printing onto non-photosensitive ‘permanent’ media has not changed; whether that media is larger or smaller, celluloid or glass or paper or something else. The process of photographing was destructive in a way: you had only one chance to fix the chemicals to preserve the graphic interpretation of luminance – i.e. the photograph – during which if you messed up, there were no do-overs. The biggest change from a single-use chemical medium to a digital one has really been getting the public used to the concepts reusability and easy post-capture manipulation*. Whilst the start was slow due to a) incumbency of film and film devices; b) cost of entry; c) output options – like a runaway train, we’ve now lost control of our collective visual output. Where does this leave us in another ten years?

*Always a popular/controversial topic: but reality is that manipulation in many forms has not just been around since the very beginning, but is very much at the core of the whole photographic process: you could not even view the image without applying some chemical changes, which might make areas of different brightness more or less visible. In reality, nothing has changed other than your average consumer can now do it at will and with greater ease and flexibility than before. Taste, as always, remains a subjective matter.

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On photographing architecture

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This feels like an appropriate post given it follows both discussions around inspirations and a photoessay on buildings: good architectural photography is a bit of both, I think. (I also realise that I’ve never really written about architectural photography, or its close cousin, interiors – though there are subtle but significant differences between the two.) The subject has to be inspiring enough to motivate the photographer to spend a bit more time in, around and using the building to better understand how the intentions of the architects translate into practice; and on top of that, we must work around limitations in access, vantage points, light – and of course an immovable, living object that’s still in use. In short: it’s not quite as easy as one might think after casually getting a good image or two; read on to understand why and how to work around it.

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The design process

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Not a camera, but a watch is as good an example as any – perhaps more so, especially when you’re producing just one and it has to satisfy the most demanding client: the designer.

Whenever a photographer ‘has some ideas about camera design’, they often forget they’re only seeing one small portion of the puzzle. Inevitably, there are significant other considerations beyond the obvious – sometimes to the point of being physically impossible or functionally incompatible with their own intended result. At this point, having significantly more involvement in the design process will allow me to clarify why some things are the way they are, why some things should or don’t change, and where manufacturers shouldn’t have any excuses. Think of it as a candid ‘message from the other side of the fence’.

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More images may not always be a good thing…

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@mingthein; I’ve been there for about a year or so. Benefits? None that I can see…

Social media = instant updates = easy consumption of new content = necessarily easy production of aforementioned new content. With the proliferation of cameraphones, this is course the era of the snapshot – more so than in the tourist film compact days, because not only does pretty much everybody in the developed world (and much of the developing world*) carry a smartphone; they’ve also been conditioned to use it. When your parents and parents in law -= people previously uninterested in photography beyond normal family documentary – now take more photos than you do with their phones, you know a switch has flipped. But what does this mean for the image-making business and image appreciation as a whole? I have a theory, and I suspect you’re not going to like it.

*In Malaysia, it’s not uncommon to see people earning $700-800 a month before tax but owning the latest iPhone. The mind boggles, since this is easily a purchase that’s two months’ net pay.

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Subconscious associations – or titling, redux

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The Empire of Light

The repost of the titling article a couple of days back was a deliberate choice to set you up for today’s somewhat more abstract and surrealist discussion. I was recently re-looking at the way Rene Magritte handled day-night transitions or zones in the same painting to see if there were any ideas there which could be translated to photography in a beyond-literal way, specifically inspired by the above painting. It’s one of my favourites for several reasons. There are physical elements which I personally find appealing, such as the fluffy clouds and the heavy, tonally-rich shadow areas; it’s non-literal in that the image shown is actually impossible to see in reality given the physical constraints of the world; and finally, the use of colour to split the mood of the painting so decisively in two (relaxing, safe, pleasant above, slightly sinister and potentially dangerous below) – yet maintain a complimentary color palette and aesthetic that still tricks the audience into believing it’s physically plausible. I think the implied continuation of the scene outside the edges of the painting (especially at the right  – no neat cut points here!) contributes very strongly to this. Actually, all of the above is true and not true: there are several paintings in the series, which Magritte gave the same titles: The Empire of Light. All of them have the same elements, however: fluffy white clouds against a blue sky; a dark, slightly foreboding urban element with a high ambiguity factor at the bottom of the frame, and a single street light. After viewing this and many others of Magritte’s paintings, the real question I’m left asking is usually around the titles: how do they clearly manage to relate to what’s visually present whilst simultaneously neither being literal but giving you the feeling that there’s something philosophically deeper going on? And moreover, how does one learn to title like that?

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