Repost: the value of having a muse

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This has been another one of those tricky articles to write – mainly because a lot of self-reflection went into it, and as we all know, it’s very difficult to do that and remain objective. The essays is illustrated with images that are representative of experiments that worked – things I was inspired to try with various muses, and in turn learned something from.

What is a muse? In its purest form, a muse is perhaps best defined as something that triggers inspiration in an artistic or creative sense. It doesn’t have to be an inanimate object; most artists’ muses tend to be people; in fact, most artists tend to land up romantically involved with their muses. Creativity is impossible to separate from inspiration, and inspiration is a very close bedfellow of attachment – attachment to an idea. (I know this sounds like Inception, but bear with me here.*)

*On an unrelated note, that movie contains one of the most spectacular dining rooms I’ve ever seen – from a design and architectural point of view. And I suspect it would be pretty cool as both a photographic subject and backdrop, too.

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On vision and postprocessing

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Before and after – starting point of RAW file in color (right), final presentation mono (left). Is that ‘photoshopped’? To most audiences, it probably is; but it’s no different to using black and white film, processing with a certain chemistry and doing a little dodging and burning of the print. Nothing has been added or removed that was not physically present in the original scene.

Though the mainstream population has now been firmly in the digital era of photography for more than a decade, I’m sure we can all remember a recent time when we were asked ‘so how much photoshop did you do?’ when presenting an image. The misconception that a good image must have some degree of implicit trickery is problematic; to the public, ‘Photoshop’ has become synonymous with ‘digital illustration’, ‘compositing’, or worse, ‘deliberate misrepresentation’. As much as we do our best to explain that Photoshop is really no different to the darkroom and chemical processes of the film days, we are at best regarded with some skepticism. But it does beg the question: why not use all the tools at one’s disposal, and what’s wrong with it if we do?

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The difference between trimming and cropping

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This may seem like nitpicking, but I assure it isn’t. There is a fundamental difference between trimming and cropping; I had a lengthy email discussion with a reader recently on exactly why it makes a difference – both compositionally and conceptually. There’s a third ground too, which is very much intention-driven – and unlike situations that require attorneys, photographic/creative intention is much easier to prove.

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Photography is a conversation

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For the longest time, I’d always thought of photography as a visual presentation. A single photograph should be a story, and that story is whatever you choose to present. A series of images should be a a complete epic narrative, with beginning, end and some drama. That is still true, but doesn’t really take into account the dynamic between photographer/artist and viewer: the truth is that no two individuals are the same, and even if one person in that relationship remains static, the other brings with them their own set of biases and expectations and associations. In that way, the story can told can never really be the same with each telling: it’s really more like a conversation.

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Creator or consumer?

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Entropy is the way of all things

I have a theory: there are only two kinds of people in this world when it comes to content and creative output. Either you are primarily a consumer, or primarily a creator. We also have to take two other parameters into account: quantity and reach; total impact is determined by both – little quantity and widespread reach is probably about the same as high quantity and narrow reach, with high quantity and high reach of course having the greatest net output. A consumer is a person who has little quantity or reach; certainly less than the media they consume. A creator is a person whose output exceeds their input (reflagging and distribution doesn’t count; that’s not creating anything new). Of course, a much simpler way of looking at this is by time: do you spend more time reading and watching, or making/ shooting/ posting/ writing/ sharing?

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Tension and balance

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Two of the most common words I hear used when describing images are ‘tension’ and ‘balance’. I’ve got a good idea what the latter means, and how to translate it into an image – but the former is much more nebulous. A brief look around online also showed that they’re both not that well understood, or badly defined, too. At the risk of putting my neck on the block, I’m throwing my contribution into the ring, too. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section…

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Photographic étiquette, part two

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Following the lighter post on the topic, I felt it’s probably a good idea to discuss some of the more serious grey areas as a photographer; especially when it comes to photographing people, locations or property that might well be private. In general, in most countries, if you can see it from a public location, photographing something is fair game. However, there are exceptions and degrees: anything with security or government links is probably a bad idea. Getting too close to anything without permission is probably also a bad idea. Crossing lines – even if they’re arbitrary – is potentially a bad idea, and might land you in more trouble than the shot is worth. Bearing these things in mind, I’ve generally managed to stay off toes and still get the images I want…

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The what-if game

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In workshops and correspondence with readers over the past six months or so, there’s been a lot of discussion around what constitutes an exceptional image – the kind of thing which (at very least) you remember for the rest of your photographic career, and preferably more than that. It’s the sort of image that stands out as being exceptional by virtue of a combination of things – aesthetics, clarity of idea, and to my mind the ‘just-so-ness’ of every single element in the frame – both subject and background. And this of course assumes suitability of technical execution to the subject matter at hand; sophisticated enough to look deliberate and suit the mood/style/idea, but not over the top for the sake of it. We’ve discussed this before, of course – in the thoughts around the idea of a ‘5’. But I think I may have nailed down one very important element of the undefinable. Or if not that, at very least a technique.

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Creative development for working pros

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The Crawick Multiverse, Scotland. Part of one of my most satisfying commissions from 2015

Here’s a serious consideration for all working professional photographers: how do you ensure your work stays fresh? We face several challenges. Firstly, unlike those in conventional employment, there is no obvious career development path; no HR department or performance review officer to ensure you attend the right courses to (supposedly) give you the right skill set for the next position up the ladder. Secondly, our clients almost always hire us on the basis of our portfolios: this is work we’ve already done, i.e. historical. It would be nice to be hired on the basis of imagining what we could do, but for obvious reasons, this is unfeasible. At very best, we are hired based on what we might do for a client in a given situation which might be outside our current scope of experience, but still based on an extrapolation of what have previously done.

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To filter or not to filter?

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For some odd reason, one of the most frequently asked questions I encounter is which, if any, filters I use on my lenses. “Especially to protect the Otuses and other rare glass”, I’m asked. I would point such questions to an article here, except I found I didn’t have one – today’s post is to rectify that oversight. The answer might surprise you somewhat…

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