Off topic: thoughts on turning 30, or – the trouble with choice

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The barrier: mental, physical, or simply too much confusion?

How many careers will the average 30 year old have by the time they retire – if they can even afford to retire? My guess is anywhere north of five. This is a stark contrast with my parents’ generation, where working with the same company for life wasn’t unheard of – and 20+ year stints were pretty common. A move after anything less than five years was seen as ‘unstable’. When I began my career 14 years ago, that timetable was down to three; these days, a year is just fine. Are we learning faster? Probably not. Are we getting more impatient? Definitely. Tomorrow, I’ll turn 30. I am aware that this is probably a bit younger than most in the audience, if the workshop demographics are anything to go by, but I’m both here and I’m not; having graduated and started work at 16, I’m now on my second career and the vast majority of my friends and peers are in their 40s and 50s – which puts me in a rather unique observatory position (or eternal no-mans’ land, depending on how you look at it). If you’ll permit me the digression – I promise we will talk photography at some point later in the piece – I’d like to share some thoughts.

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Formats and creative intent

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The term ‘format’ has come to represent two things in photographic parlance – firstly, the aspect ratio of the capture area or composition (e.g. 3:2, square, 16:9) and also the physical size of the recording medium (compact, APS-C, M4/3, ‘full frame’ etc.) – to the point that we have somewhat generic terms like ‘medium format’ and ‘large format’. How medium is medium? Is that 44×33, or 6x9cm? How large is large – 4×5″, or 20×24″? Capture medium choices are more of a continuum than anything, and all other things being equal, to see a significant difference a good rule of thumb is that you’re going to have to double the linear dimensions – i.e. 4x overall area. But what does all of this have to do with the actual making of images, and is it possible that larger isn’t necessarily better for some things? Absolutely.

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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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Artists, creatives and critics

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Positive/creative

Almost everybody falls into one of two categories: creator or consumer. Do you spend more time making content or material, derivative or otherwise, than consuming it? Do you prefer to make or view images? Of the creators, there are positive, derivative and negative. The positives try to advance art, science and and knowledge by providing a point of view or product or device or service that hasn’t existed previously, whilst maybe or maybe not benefitting personally from the provision of said novelty. The line between positive and derivative is a blurry one, and perhaps doesn’t cleanly exist – in my mind, it’s down to whether the creator tries to add some element of originality or not; there’s no such thing as 100% uniqueness or 100% invention from nothing. We cannot create without some base of precedent or inspiration, no matter how remote or seemingly unrelated. But the more remote the connections that are made in the creation of something, the more the creator contributes by joining the dots, making the logical conclusions and helping the rest of us see what we might have missed.

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A creative frame of mind, redux

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Things are not as they seem: experimentation, in capture and post

This is an alternative take on an earlier piece I wrote, also on a creative frame of mind: from a different frame of mind, no less. There are some professions where you don’t have to be in the right mood to do your job well. You can be an effective consultant, accountant or middle management without having to be particularly inspired; in fact, imagination is generally not a good thing when it comes to accounting and finance anyway. (At least that’s what Inland Revenue said; if you’re Prime Minister, that’s another thing entirely). However, for creative professions – photography, videography, design, writing, music etc. – there’s no question that your state of mind has a direct and very tangible impact on the outcome of the work. As a photographer, professionalism – the ability to deliver at a minimum standard that’s above your client’s expectations under effectively all circumstances – is the bare minimum. But inspiration is what really make the difference between workaday and brilliant. [Read more…]

Digital resolution: why enough will probably never be enough, and how to solve it

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How often do we have nice regular subjects like this? Hardly ever.

The pixel race continues: more resolving power is being crammed into smaller and smaller physical sizes. The recent Hasselblad X1D announcement is at the pointy end of that: we now have medium format resolving power and tonal quality in a package that’s smaller than many 35mm solutions. I have a theory about resolution and the megapixel race and perception. Aside from the marketing reasons why 100>50>24 and must therefore be better, there are much more fundamental reasons why we feel the resolving power limitations of digital far more acutely than film. And it isn’t just our ability to pixel-peep with ease; it’s more to do with the fundamental nature of the world. Yes, there’s sufficiency in output because of the limitations of the output device itself, but I suspect these will catch up and exceed capture very easily. Allow me to explain why, and why I think there’s a way out that might well result in a very different sort of sensor…

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Das Wimmelbild in der Fotografie

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During one of the many discussions on composition that took place during the Lisbon Masterclass a few months ago, one of the participants suggested that my compositions were reminiscent of something called Wimmelbild in German. Loosely translated, it’s the concept of ‘teeming pictures’ – or a composition that is extremely full of detail and sub-scenes within the main composition. Two of the better-known examples of wimmelbild are the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and childrens books by authors such as Richard Scarry, Ali Mitgutsch, Rotraut Susanne Berner, and Eva Scherbarth – and of course the ‘Where’s Wally’ series by illustrator Martin Handford. If there’s a single gestalt that best describes the nature of most of my compositions – wimmelbild would be it. So it’s probably worth spending a little time explaining exactly what it is…

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Some (possibly unexpected) advice for aspiring pros

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Sink or swim: except in the real world, there’s almost never a life preserver.

There are any number of articles on this topic already existing: how to ‘make it’, how to be successful, how to market, how to run a business. There are courses, books and videos. And there are people, who make a business out of teaching others how to run a business. And then there are people who actually make a living doing what you want do: being paid to create and deliver images. For some odd reason, I’ve been getting a lot of emails in the last few weeks from people wondering how to make photography work as a career: corporate switchers, graduates, pre-graduates, people who were doing something else creative but want a change of medium. I have no qualifications to answer these questions or offer absolute advice other than a) I make more than 80% of my income from selling images, mostly commissioned, and b) I’ve been doing this for a few years now. Market conditions in your country are probably going to be quite different to mine, and even if they aren’t, things have no doubt changed from five years ago. So, with that disclosure out of the way, here we go.

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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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