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…

@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

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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Repost: Titling and Storytelling

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I’ve always believed a strong image should be able to stand on its own without a title – after all, sometimes images and titles get separated (quite often, actually) – and if it isn’t self-explanatory to some degree without it, then the image itself isn’t clear. However, a good title certainly enhances impact of an image; it can explain, direct, add another layer of meaning, put into context, force the thoughts of the audience in a certain direction, create contrast or tension between perceptual reality and actual reality (visual content vs asserted content or vice versa) or merely serve as an easy method of reference to an image. I’ve frequently been asked how I pick a title for my images; today’s essay explores that in a bit more detail. There really isn’t a lot of science in it, though a large vocabulary probably helps, as does a ready store of cultural references. Firstly, I don’t think choosing – or perhaps more appropriately, creating a title can be entirely spontaneous and retrospective. In fact, it really all boils down to the fourth important thing.

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Shifts in subject matter over time

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A recent discussion with some photographer friends centred around changes in our output over time – with almost all of us present (7/8) remarking that what we shot now was very different from what we shot when we started out – or even halfway through our careers. The eighth man was a relative beginner, with 3-4 years of experience compared to the 10 (or 15, or even 20+) years in the rest of the group’s case. The funny thing was that most of us never even noticed it happening; it sort of just did. In a lot of cases, we don’t really feel that different about working with our current subjects as compared to earlier ones, either. I left thinking that a lot of what is commonly perpetuated in the art and commercial worlds (“So-and-so must be great because they has 30 years of experience shooting the same thing”) may well be both untrue and a deliberate delusion.

Here’s where the alternative working title for this post comes in: You won’t be shooting the same thing forever.

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A small change in workflow…

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…can yield surprisingly major results. Think of this post as something of a continuation of the previous On Assignment; the reasons why will become apparent shortly. Over the last year or so – I think coinciding with switching to Hasselblad – my shooting/curating workflow has become quite different, and I think the shift in my output has as much to do with the change in process as hardware. In some ways, the change is due to hardware limitations – but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What I’ve always done in the past is some level of during-shoot curation; both for technical qualities (exposure, sharpness etc.) and aesthetic/ creative ones. During personal or teaching outings, I’d be much more disciplined and ruthless in throwing away what I’d consider marginal images; for client work, somewhat more relaxed – keeping doubles and variations just in case (which has proven fortuitous in the past).

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The art and science of observation

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Pigs sometimes fly – if you look at the right moment.

Curiously, the question I’m most frequently asked (right after ‘what camera should I buy?’ and that ilk) is ‘how do I make my photos better?’* This is a dangerously loaded question: for many reasons: it assumes firstly that there’s something wrong with your images (in whose opinion?); that I am the arbiter of judgement (I am not, and cannot be, because like all audiences – I am biased); that my personal taste and opinion is in line with yours (inevitably, we all differ) and that you didn’t already manage to get the best possible image to your own taste given the circumstances under which the image was made. My point is that ‘better’ is always subjective: nobody can pass absolute judgement on an image. We can merely give suggestions as to why we may prefer one variation or adjustment over another. But I do believe there’s one thing we can all do more of – and never enough of.

Think of today’s post as a coda to the compromise of the decisive moment article from a few months back.

*Of course, the question is often asked as a thinly veiled way to seek justification for a hardware purchase, but we’ll discount such instances. In very, very few situations is hardware truly the limiting factor, and if you’re good enough to maximise your current setup, you’ll already know it without having to ask.

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Off topic: on coffee

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Anybody who spends any length of time in the creative industry will soon realise that it’s really coffee, not money, that fuels everything from ad campaigns to shoots to postproduction. Models don’t shun it like energy drinks because you can have it without sugar, and in small (espresso) volumes, and it’s still just as potent. It’s also legal and relatively easy to obtain when travelling, and you can bring your own without being questioned about what those pills or powders are. I’ve long been reliant on the drink (finance and consulting run on it, too) but only in the last couple of years developed more than a passing interest in it. Like the drink, think of today’s post as a little refresher/ break from the photographic content…

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Off topic: On customer service

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Pro photographers have to be two things: able to deliver (i.e. technically and creatively competent) and fully aware that the whole business hinges critically on being a relationship game: if anything, this is more important than the execution. We are not just service providers, but in a way also providing confidence and reassurance on a product that is both intangible and highly subjective. Uncertainty can be self-reinforcing and the beginning of a negative spiral. Yet the longer I’m in this business, the more shocked I am by what I’m seeing – especially at the ‘developing’ end; both from a country/locality point of view and an immature service provider’s point of view.

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Diminishing returns and cutoff points

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The look of money evaporating in frustration

Written as a counterpoint to the earlier justification for being a lens hoarder, I have a feeling this is going to be one of my most unpopular posts ever. It will be widely circulated by I will be metaphorically burned at the stake for it, because it will not make me popular with camera companies, fanboys, enthusiasts or anybody who has a single bone in their body that appreciates a good piece of hardware – I know I do, and it pains even me to write it. But the common sense logician in me demands a stage, so here we go.

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