20 Stories, part V

Continued from Part IV

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Above and Beyond

I am used to having two kinds of clients: the first type tends to want things that have already been done before; they don’t want to take risks because previous photographers might have over promised and under delivered, or they lack the imagination to see something that hasn’t been done before. Or they simply are unwilling to pay for creativity over duplication. These are the kind of shoots that never go into your portfolio because it’s not the kind of work you want to be known for, but we pros have to do because they put food on the table and keep us in business; hopefully for long enough to get the chance to work on a project where we have full creative control and feel the pressure of our own limitations. It’s the kind of project where the client is willing to seriously consider your crazy ideas and trust your ability to deliver them.

My introduction to Koenigsegg came through Hasselblad and DJI. I suggested to Christian (von Koenigsegg) that we combine a bit of everybody’s technology: long exposures on a moving car to show dynamism and suggest a journey; high speed flash to freeze the car to make it distinct; very large prints and expansive compositions to fully use the camera’s resolution – and then top it off with an aerial perspective by putting the H6D on DJI’s largest aircraft. Execution would be tricky as there were a lot of moving pieces to coordinate and a very small window in which ambient daylight would be sufficient to see the surroundings, but not so much as to overpower the car’s lights. It would require a long exposure and a stable aerial platform. Honestly, I wasn’t 100% sure we could pull it off – and there was a backup documentary shoot within the factory to detail the construction process for the times of day where ambient light wasn’t suitable for the outdoor car sequences.

In the end, the shoot only produced five images – each one requiring a couple of hours of setup, test positioning for car, lighting and aircraft. We had to have a coordinator in touch with air traffic control and override codes from DJI HQ to allow us to fly as the Koenigsegg test track was on the edges of a live airfield. In the end I landed up triggering the lights manually with the trigger in one hand, a radio in my ear to direct the driver, and an ipad with the camera gimbal controls in the other – with the pilot next to me. The only time I’d had to do multitask more heavily was during another automotive shoot – a TV commercial where we added a crane car and crane operator to the mix.

I always feel mentally fried at the end of these shoots – but in the good kind of way where you know you’ve pushed your limits, the team’s limits, the hardware’s limits, and come out with something really unique. I’m just grateful there are still clients like this giving us photographers the chance to keep pushing.

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20 Stories, part IV

Continued from Part III

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The 14th Century Jedi

I have a close friend who previously used to shoot for National Geographic in South Africa, but has since retired and just makes images for himself. Those tend to be the opposite to the very serious material he made professionally; as he says, he needs to have a means of decompressing at the end of what often turned out to be very dark or heavy assignments.

His personal work deliberately seeks out an element of irony or humour or whimsy; somehow, these compositions come naturally to him. I’ve tried to do the same myself, but somehow the elements don’t come together for me. Maybe it’s what one is conditioned or trained to see; maybe the laws of attraction manifest different things for different people.

I had just finished a session with my final student of the day and was walking back over the bridge to my hotel in the Old Town. I turned around to see if anything interesting was left behind – turns out I nearly missed a medieval Jedi statue doing a little gardening with his lightsaber. I like how this composition manages to blend my usual formalist structure (reducing scale elements towards the bottom of the frame, also increasing in brightness, darker, more open areas framing the outsides) but add that little surprise.

This frame always makes me think of that friend and the subconscious creative influences a photographer exerts over any and every person who has seen their work; we cannot un-see things. All creative work is derivative; it may just not be from near proximity or even the same field. But it would be extremely arrogant of us not to acknowledge the work of others who had gone before to allow us to shortcut the creative process and take things even further.

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20 Stories, part III

Continued from Part II

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Land’s end, part I

It’s amazing how different two nearby cities in the same country can feel – take Lisbon and Porto, for instance. Both are in Portugal and on the Atlantic seaboard; both have old world charm, the beginnings of a renaissance and the visible effects of entropy. They are blessed with interesting architecture and the kind of topology that makes for both burning thigh muscles and interesting perspectives. The weather was great in both places when I was there. Yet whilst I instantly fell in love with Lisbon, I felt this underlying sense of unease and being haunted whilst in Porto. At the risk of simplification, Lisbon was happy, and Porto was sad – I don’t think I ever managed to figure out why, either.

On the last day I was there, a friend and I took a short ride out to a town on the coast called Foz do Douro. In summer, it’s known for its beaches; in winter, its spectacular waves. We were there sometime in between, and the sea was frothily moody, if not quite fully enraged.

There are times when vision just clicks and the frames compose themselves; in the two hours we spent at the start and end of the seawall, lighthouse and the places in between, I probably shot more frames than in the previous two days in Porto city proper. The light was dynamic and changing as fast as the sea conditions; the waves hinted at the power of the ocean and the other gathered to watch only put that even more clearly into context. Every frame held a different mood – dark and moody to ethereally backlit; this particular photograph freezes the sea in a position reminding the onlookers it is not to be trifled with, yet with the same onlookers in defiant poses suggesting the spirit of exploration. The water itself is frozen with texture and delicacy, in contrast to the scale of elements; I probably wouldn’t have blinked if a caravel came into view over the horizon, but lamented not bringing my 250mm.

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20 Stories, part II

Continued from Part I

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Glitches in the Matrix

Limitations can sometimes turn into catalysts if they force you to find creative workarounds, or give you another tool in the arsenal to work with. This tale is one of regret – that I recognized the limitation, but came to be so annoyed by it I sold the tool instead of being mature enough to recognize the opportunity.

Almost all large sensors – including most of those today, and certainly all of the high resolution ones – have a gated electronic shutter that requires a certain readout time. Light collection is limited and governed by the mechanical shutter, ensuring synchronization of exposure of all parts of the image – but the actual capture time may go on beyond the closing of the shutter. It’s fast enough now that high frame rates may be sustained, but you can still see these artefacts in electronic shutter modes as a distortion from top to bottom of the frame of any moving elements (or moving camera).

The CFV-39 was a bit different: not only did the CCD have an extremely long readout time – I believe at least a second – but the camera portion and the digital portion were only synchronized by a button; the same pin that advanced the frame counter on a film back also started and stopped the digital back capture (and actual sensor on time was much longer than the shutter-governed exposure).

The upshot of this is if your fingers were fast enough to cock the crank and hit the shutter, you could fire off two frames in less time than the CCD required to read out completely. In effect, this disrupted the readout process with a fresh signal onto the sensor – it appeared something like a double exposure but with some other strange and unpredictable artefacts. I learned to count to three before firing the back again to avoid this, but there were times of peak action where one or two very strange frames such as this one were produced. Between the color, the subject matter, and the alien feel – I couldn’t help but think of the déjà vu scene in that 1999 cult classic movie…

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20 Stories, part I

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Introduction

Today is the first of a series of five posts from a long-form feature written for Medium Format Magazine earlier in the year (some of you may be familiar with my philosophical musings from my column in the magazine In Pursuit of Transparency). This series will be a bit different to anything I’ve done before on the site; usually we tend to focus on either a sequence of images with minimal commentary – in the form of a photoessay – or detailed discourse around a single topic. This series of images are from personally significant points in my medium format shooting career. They have had to pass curation not solely for being visually interesting and having a self-contained narrative, but also having a back story that is often more interesting than the photograph itself – and without the creator to tell the story, there’s no way you’d get to hear it.

Sometimes it’s around an idea or a particular inspiration; sometimes it’s around the execution; sometimes it’s about serendipity. There’s planning and there’s luck; there’s preparedness and there’s the mad scramble. There’s the behind the scenes peek into the chaotic life that’s necessary of a modern photographer – much less of it is about making pictures than building relationships. More often than not there are stories about the people involved – subject, client, production. It has not been easy to select these as there is always a strong emotional attachment to your favourite images – and there tend to be a lot of them if you’re prolific. It’s almost as bad as asking a parent to select their favourite child.

Let me know what you think. If the response from these posts is positive, I’d like to do more of this in the future…MT

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Creative anxiety

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You’ve just spent a ton of money on a large, shiny new lens. The one youtube and the rumours sites have been on fire about for the last few months, proclaiming it better than caviar on truffle on foie gras. Gilded. You managed to actually get one in your hands, ahead of most of the mere hoi polloi. You found an ideal location by trawling instagram and looking at the number of amazing images that came out of that particular geotag. You booked a flight to the ends of the earth with a company specialising in adventure photography travel, endorsed by the gurus themselves. And just in case that wasn’t enough, there was a whole bunch of other ancillary support gear you had your eye on that you added – new SSDs, a kickass backpack that’s bulletproof, that compact tripod that folds to the size of a stick of gum but can hold an elephant, raised twenty million dollars on kickstarter in two minutes AND managed to save a schoolroom full of burning children whilst winning miss universe.

Yet when you step off the van into that sunrise…you can’t make a picture worth spit. Why?

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At the risk of losing your customers…

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Build it and they will come…for a while, and then it becomes an antiquated and cancerous white elephant. First published in the May issue of Medium Format Magazine.

Advance doom and gloom warning: If the photographic industry continues in its current trends (turning spec sheets up to 11; increasing launch prices then decreasing them dramatically over a product’s lifecycle; being inconsistent/imbalanced with design intent – tiny bodies, enormous lenses; ever shrinking ‘incremental’ improvements between generations; poorly implemented software UI/UX; launching of what is basically beta hardware; influencers who produce rubbish images but have large numbers of “followers” “likes” etc.) – expect to see some serious contraction and consolidation soon. In fact, the hard financial numbers suggest this has already begun. The reasons why are not rocket science, but pretty much every company is acting like a paralysed ostrich hoping that if they continue as they have been and pretend it’s all okay, it will be. It won’t, and the ones who survive are going to need to find some cojones.

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Computational photography: what ‘format’ is it?

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Gratuitous header; moment of enlightenment.

One of the unavoidable buzzwords of the last couple of years has been ‘computational photography’. Besides sounding slightly oxymoronic and insulting to the ‘real’ photographer who presumably represents what they see and doesn’t attempt to manipulate objects into (or out of) being that aren’t physically there, the reality is that it’s unavoidable and has been unavoidable since the start of the digital era. Everything that requires photons to be converted into electrical signals and back to photons again (whether off a display or reflected off a print) – must be mathematically interpreted and altered in some form before output. It is not possible to avoid this: the Bayer interpolation, in-camera JPEG conversions, any file format saving, conversion to print color space – a ‘computation’ has to be performed to translate the data. Hell, there’s already an implicit computation in the analog to digital stage (although arguably photons are already ‘digital’ since they represent discrete quanta of energy, but that’s another discussion for another time). However, what I’d like to discuss today* is something one step further down that road, and following on from the previous posts on format illusions: in light of the broader possibilities of computational photography, what does ‘format’ even mean?

*I.e. excluding things like subject recognition for tracking, depth mapping and simulated shallow DOF transitions etc. for the time being; we’ll revisit that later.

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OT: Hobbies and diversions

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Photography for me started off as a diversion – just as it probably did for many of you. It was the ideal hobby for a busy corporate person: without predictable chunks of free time, looking for something piecemeal that could be satisfying in a ten minute gap or stretched to fill an unexpected day. It combined elements of unpredictability, reward for improvement in skill, as well as instant gratification (between instant results and gear lust). As I developed my skills and found other things I wanted too communicate, it turned into a tool to let me express ideas in a way that could be understood by others. And then it became both a calling and a career. But at some point in the last couple of years, it also became all-consuming – to the point that there was no longer any boundary between work and not-work, and thus between photography for creative fulfilment and photography (and related activities) for a living. Photography used to be a break that forced me to refocus my thoughts and allow for creative experimentation; inspiration would flow between different kinds of photography, different approaches for different subjects (i.e. client-subjects and personal-subjects) and different creative processes – photography and non-photography. But without the break: how does one you find inspiration?

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Back to basics: Turning an idea into an image

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Alienation and transience in Prague, I

Judging from the correspondence and comments flying around recently, it’s about time we did a refresher course here on the fundamentals of composition and image-making. As usual, there’s far too much obsession over hardware and not enough thought about what it’s actually being used for. This will be the first of several posts from the archives in this theme. That said, those people are unlikely to read these posts anyway…

Today’s article has proven to be another one of those significant challenges to write, once again for reasons of limitations of language to describe visual elements. On top of that, there are three conceptual leaps that have to be made: abstract idea, to descriptive language/ elements to characterise and quantify the specific unique traits of that idea so we conceptually understand it, then the final translation to a visual idea that can be understood by a wider audience than just the creator. There are really two questions at hand here: firstly, what is the idea, and secondly, what’s needed to convey it – and what do we need to avoid overdoing that results in dilution or confusion?

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