Photographic maturity

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I am immature enough to know that a giant farting cloud elephant is not that interesting to most people and of zero photographic merit other than it exists and was captured in its transience; but I am mature enough to know that I like a window seat on an airplane because looking out helps pass the time, and occasionally you see things like this that give your inner five year old some joy. I also know that it matters not one whit what I shot this with so long as it looked like the intended farting elephant. (Side note: I have been photographing seriously for nearly 20 years now, nine of them as a full time pro. I’ve shot all the things I’ve wanted to shoot, worked with all the people and companies I’ve wanted to, and probably quite a bit beyond – in short, I have the luxury of knowing what I want to do/be/shoot as photographer.)

The journey for every photographer involves a few things:
– Figuring out what it is you want to photograph [motivations]
– Figuring out how you want to present it, or your [style]
– Seeking affirmation
– Not needing affirmation
We’ve discussed the first two items at length here before. We haven’t discussed the last two – and I think it’s about time we did, having firmly felt that I have been sitting in the final category for some time now. Right about after leaving Hasselblad and shifting my primary focus away from the photography industry to watchmaking, actually. It’s no coincidence that once you stop worrying about something, you feel increasingly liberated as to what you can ‘get away with’; it’s the gift and curse that the amateur fails to appreciate compared to the professional. There is fundamentally no need for the amateur to care what anybody but themselves thinks of their own work – yet most do, more intensely than the pro whose paycheck is dependent on client affirmation. Why?

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Alternate theories of inspiration

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Anachronism

What do photography, food, time and EDC objects have in common? If you can answer this to your satisfaction, then you probably don’t need to read the rest of today’s article. In the past I’ve talked about the more systematic approach to composition from a structural/ compositional point of view – the Four Things – and how to translate an idea into an image. Both deal with the mechanical part of arranging the elements in your frame and ensuring that they are ‘read’ in the expected way by your audience, they don’t really deal with something a bit higher up the food chain: where do the ideas come from in the first place?

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The limitations of language, redux

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Cloud I.

I have a bit of a problem. In fact, it’s becoming an increasingly large one. Put simply, I’m running out of words to describe the things I’m seeing and the visual concepts I’m trying to explain; and I don’t know if the vernacular even exists. I suspect it doesn’t, but then again, I’m sure there are English speakers with greater vocabulary than me for whom it does. A large portion of you probably think this is stating the obvious; it is. But we reach a point beyond which it becomes impossible to progress further without some sort of common baseline accurately and consistently describe what it is we’re intending to convey; or more specifically, to ensure that what I’m saying and imagining are the same things as what you’re hearing and seeing in your own mind.

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The beginning of the end?

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Yesterday, Olympus announced that it was selling off the camera business – which for most photographers probably seems a bit strange seeing as that’s their primary association with the company; after all, if a camera company doesn’t make cameras, what’s left? As it turns out, medical and scientific divisions account for nearly 78% of revenue; scientific a further 13+%, and cameras – just 6.1%. It’s also the only loss making division – and loss making for some time. And let’s not even begin to talk about the corporate scandals of the last few years. From a corporate point of view, no matter how storied, you look at the numbers and it becomes pretty difficult to justify continued operation especially in light of a global photographic market that is itself contracting and stagnating. I’m going to try and answer three questions now: what happens to Olympus next? What does this mean for M4/3 and its user base? And what could this signal for the rest of the industry?

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Repost: Design, photography and visual priorities

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Today’s repost is specifically intended to cue up your design sensibilities in advance of the next two photoessays, and put into context why I find these things so darn fascinating.

Some of you probably know that beyond photography, I’m involved in design work on two fronts – as lead designer at Horologer MING, my watch brand, and as a consultant at Hasselblad. There is a popular misconception that design is mainly about a few things: style, function/ usability/ UI/ ergonomics, and differentiation. In reality, design is really about making a set of coherent choices in an environment where there are choices to be made I’d argue that beyond and above this, there’s really only one overarching principle that should be the basis of all good design: I think of it as one of composition.

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Near misses

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Today’s thoughts are on a slightly unusual topic, especially;y given my usual obsession with curation – after all, your audience can only see the work you choose to show, not all of the work you shot. I also realise that I say plenty about what I believe a good photograph should include and exclude, but not a lot about why some things don’t work – and worse, what constitutes the kind of near miss that I’d reject (or at very least, not show at all). So, at the risk of showing the ugly side – today’s post is illustrated with images of mine that seemed good in theory, but didn’t make the cut in execution for whatever reason. It’s probably also helpful to talk through the initial idea at capture and some of the context – this is not always obvious, and often the reason of an image’s failure to meet the intent of its creator.

Let’s take the header image, for starters: in person, there was very strong layering created on the physical background objects due to the angle and intensity of the sun; the shadows were perceived to be almost as dense and solid as the physical objects themselves. Moreover, the sense of spatial separation between shadow, physical object and reflection off the floor was a lot stronger than in the image, no matter how it was processed. I had to increase black density to give the shadows the same sense of solidity, desaturate to create abstraction and remove the distraction of certain color highlights in various portions of the image, but somehow lost that sense of spatial separation. I don’t believe it’s a tonal zone problem, because the shadow, reflection and physical object zones only overlap just enough to create continuity in the image (say I-IV, IV-VII and VI-X respectively).

The problem is actually a physiological one on the part of the viewer – both viewer of the scene and viewer of the image – in that the focal planes of the various elements are slightly different (reflection effectively further away) but the overall focal distance is quite close, meaning that 3D spatial perception from two eyes comes into play. This is a large contributor to our perception of depth and dimensionality – especially when it comes to reflections in objects, since they are further away than the (physical) foreground. Using depth of field cues to suggest separation does not work as you lose definition that your eyes have – and which creates that sense of surrealism of superimposed objects or images. Conflictingly, I am attracted to these kinds of subjects for precisely that reason; unfortunately, they rarely work in 2D capture.

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Reasons I photograph, 2020 edition

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In the past, I’ve written about both personal and general motivations for photographing; I’ve also discussed a sort of real time seeing checklist of sorts, which isn’t so much underlying reasons for picking up then camera as what we do once we have it in hand and that initial impetus has happened. In general, a given scene or subject must offer sufficient emotional or intellectual motivation to make us pick up the camera, aim it in the right direction and go through the whole process of both framing and curation* and the requisite effort. The more experienced one is as a photographer, the higher that threshold becomes because the number of subjects you’ve seen and/or photographed in the past only increases. One’s personal ‘activation energy’ increases, if you will. I’ve not only photographed a lot of things, but at this point in my career I’ve also photographed everything I’ve wanted to and beyond – so I figured it worthwhile to discuss what personally motivates me to get out the camera these days.

*Really, the same thing but one happens before the shutter is preset, and the other, after.

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Fully mirrorless, six months in

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At the end of last year, I sold my last DSLRs. In a way, they represented the apex of development in the smaller format: the D850, with high frame rates, resolution, high ISO capability, color accuracy, AF tracking and a great viewfinder – if you must still have an optical finder, and unless you need much lighter weight or crazy frame rates, this is probably as good as a DSLR is going to get. The D8xx line proved so good that the D3X high resolution pro body never even got a successor – there was simply no need. It challenged the medium format cameras of its day, and arguably still continues to do so at the 50MP 44x33mm end, especially if you need AF tracking, frame rates, or do a lot of low light work that needs fast lenses. Sitting at the other end of the spectrum, I also bid farewell to the D3500 – the synthesis of consumer manufacturing efficiency; complete with a decently performing, stabilised lens and state of the art sensor at a price less than most entry level mirrorless – or even a decent 1″ compact. Cheaper even, than a spare battery for some cameras. Yet with all of this, you get performance and image quality pros would have done highly immoral things for not that long ago. Despite my various hardware experimentations and diversions, I’ve always kept a DSLR of some sort somewhere in the lineup – even if not primary body. Since then, I’ve been living a mirrorless life – to make up for it, today I offer some reflections on the topic.

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Photography, philosophy and psychology

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In a sense, this entire site has revolved around these three topics*: the way we experience it and share this experience with others (psychology, and to some degree, physiology), and the way we interpret it (philosophy) – expressed by means of a static, 2D visual medium (photography). Today I’m going to attempt to tie it together in a deceptively simple way in today’s post: photography is capturing a still image. Good photography is capturing something unique or transient and sharing it; really exceptional photography says something meaningful about the subject and the interpretation – and in a way that an external audience can understand.

*Despite what others may think about my views on or approach towards hardware: that is merely a means to an end, and I think sufficiently resolved now to the point of being effectively unimportant.

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Inspiration and creativity in times of crisis

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There is a cliched saying “necessity is the mother of invention” – I’ve always felt this to be only partially true. Reality is probably closer to being that solutions are found in times of desperation when there is no other choice, but this is only possible if some latent seed of imagination exists in the first place. Without that, no amount of need is going to force an intelligent answer or inspiration to materialise. This is true whether it’s something as vital as escaping from captivity or saving a business in time of crisis or finding something to cook for the evening with the ingredients to hand or even just staving off the boredom of being confined under COVID lockdown. I think it’s probably both easier and harder to survive this period for those of us wired to be creative – on one hand, we have a surfeit of time to sit down and get on with it without the usual interruptions or social expectations, but on the other we also have not just limited resources but limited inspiration. As we’ve discussed previously – creativity isn’t something that can be switched on and off at will, nor is it something that operates in a vacuum. At one end, you have the inclination, resources and inspiration and something gets produced, or you are missing any one of those elements and you feel frustrated. Or – lack inclination entirely. The bit that concerns us most in the current global situation is probably the inspiration part. But maybe it isn’t entirely hopeless…

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