On visual economics and scarcity

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No longer special if you see it every day, but stands out precisely because you don’t.

Alternative title: why exceptional photographs will always be rare

Economics 101: value, regardless of how it’s measured (price, time, social media kudos, etc) is proportional to demand. Demand is regulated by intrinsic attractiveness to a given market, the size of that market, and the supply available. Regardless of how few of something there are, if nobody likes or wants it, then it has no value. Similarly, something that may be intrinsically cheap but in short supply with a huge demand might see its price rise out of proportion with the the actual cost, utility or materials of the goods in question. But it’s not just physical goods that obey this rule; intellectual property and even more nebulous intangibles that do not have a limited supply (e.g. there is no theoretical limit to the number of people who can view a photograph) do, too. Even the compositional elements of a photograph. If you’re ready for another one of my strange philosophies, read on.

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Repost: Derivative works and photography

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Influenced by the architect? Surely. Created by him? About as much as it was created by Apple, because it was shot on an iPhone.

I originally wanted to call this article ‘is anything truly original?’ – however, I think that’s the concluding question I’d like to leave the reader with rather than the opening one. There has been a lot of debate recently – both in the comments here, offline amongst my usual correspondents and in various places on the internet about why a) photography is perhaps not perceived as ‘highly valued’ as other art forms; b) obviously derivative works and the creative value – or lack of – contained therein; and the greater question of whether c) the medium as a legitimate creative art form rather than merely a recording/ documentary one. Perhaps the biggest question is in the title: ‘but is it art?’

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Bigger isn’t always better, or why you can’t see the difference most of the time

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Quasi-gratuitous header image: large format golfball, anybody?

I start this article with a deliberately provocative title, at the risk of being taken for one of those forum sensationalists that proclaims OMG NEW BEST CAMERAR EVARRRR SINCE THE SECOND COMING OF SLICED JESUS!! . But as always, there are caveats: I’m examining the situation under practical implementation, practical shooting constraints, and real world limitations: i.e. non-ideal circumstances, which I believe to be fair since this is how most photography takes place. And since we’re interested in hardware towards the practical application and implementation of photography, this is a fair approach to take. The crux of the argument is this: we have now reached a point in technology where the tradeoffs associated with upscaling your format do not translate into significant gains in shooting envelope or even practical output most of the time. Actually, I’d go even further and say that your hardware choices really hinge on a few factors, which we’ll discuss shortly.

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Off-camera lighting 101: the ‘five things’

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I frequently get asked about lighting: specifically, how does one best approach the daunting challenge of knowing where to put what lights, how to set them up, use modifiers etc. I’ve written about some of this in the past but realise that I never tackled conceptually where to start. Fear not: in true Ming style, it’s now a list of Five Things ๐Ÿ˜‰ Though the whole process of conceptualisation and setup becomes increasingly intuitive over time and practice, I still find that this list helps quite a lot when you’re either a) working with very complex setups where multiple lights can start creating interference with each other, or b) trying to simplify. Remember, a shadow does several things: it provides spatial context for three dimensional placement of subjects in a two dimensional presentation; it creates texture; and it provides separation and definition from the background. The more complex the lighting setup, the less well defined the shadows are going to be. Ultimately, the purpose of any controlled lighting setup is to place the shadows where you want them to go, and control the relative brightness of the subject elements, allowing you to precisely manipulate the structure of your image so that it is ‘read’ by your audience in a certain way.

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New year’s resolutions, 2019 edition

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Perhaps a more accurate title for today’s post isn’t so much ‘resolutions’ as ‘expectations’. I like to think that after a while in the same industry*, one acquires the maturity to know what you want to do, what you can do, and what you realistically might be able to expect. Here’s my plan for 2019, both photographic and otherwise. Some stuff I’ll have already said to various individuals or gotten lost in various comments, but as yet things have not been unified. So, to hopefully stem the tide of ‘are you going to x’ emails, here goes…

*Shooting since 2001, for clients part time since 2005, and full time since 2012 – that’s a good 18, 14 or 7 years, depending on how you want to measure it. Even 7 years in the digital era is an age given how fast things change.

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The most important things in photography

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In the better part of 17 years’ worth of shooting – there are just a few critical things I find are inescapable when taking the shot. I perhaps have the benefit of having gone full circle a couple of times around the effort and equipment wheel, and shifting priorities force me to work both faster and smarter. Please note that the descriptions following have some subtlety and may at first seem contradictory, but bear with me…

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Understanding color, from a workflow perspective: part 2

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Continued from part 1

It is possible to make a calibration profile for every camera that takes you back to neutral color and tonal response; I do precisely this in PS Workflow III because I need to use a variety of tools for the range of work I do. It allows me to have a consistent color palette/ tonal signature across all of my images, regardless of hardware: this is important because some projects last for years and I may change hardware several times across the duration; but I cannot change the way the images look too much, else you sacrifice visual consistency. I also do this to get control over the output palette: subtle biases can influence viewer emotional response; this is one of the many tools in a storytelling photographer’s arsenal. Note: whilst some cameras allow for a wide range of adjustability of the in-camera processing, none of them allow full HSL adjustments (which would be required to get a totally neutral profile). Currently, the Olympus Pen F comes closest – but you still can’t fully escape the slightly warm default tuning, nor can you compensate on the fly for scenes of wildly different contrast levels (which our eyes do automatically).

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Understanding color, from a workflow perspective: part 1

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We first need to understand a bit of history to appreciate the origins of ‘house color’ or ‘company color’ or a particular tonal palette: in the early days of color photography, it simply wasn’t possible to make a film emulsion that responded equally to every color, much less mirrored the response of the human eye to the visible spectrum. It’s also important to note that a recording medium’s color response and luminosity (tonal) response aren’t the same thing but they are linked; further complicating things. And we haven’t even started talking about how different individuals’ eyes respond differently to color*. The best manufacturers could do was offer a range of emulsions (corresponding to a range of different chemicals that had different responsiveness to light) that gave photographers choice. It’s one of the main reasons images from certain eras have a particular look to them: the world didn’t offer different colors or fade; what we’re seeing is a mixture of time-sensitive oxidation of pigment in the output image, and the limitations of the recording medium at the time. As emulsions improved, so did the spread of color that could be recorded. The world didn’t become more realistic: our means of recording and displaying the recording did.

*As you get older or if you have cataracts, certain frequencies become blocked/absorbed by the lens or liquid portion of your eyeball, limiting what reaches the retina. And the retina itself may well not be operating at peak tonal response, too.

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Unpreparedness vs opportunity

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Seen, and shot on the way to a meeting.

Or, more accurately: the fear of unpreparedness. (The actual chances of me going into a photographic job without sufficient planning, prethought creative options or backup hardware is somewhere close to nil.) Within the confines of an assignment or professional engagement, I would say the fear only manifests vis a vis elements you can’t control – weather, for instance. This isn’t debilitating and most of the time, there’s a workaround (chances are blue hour commissioned images exist because it was overcast all day, and the color temperature difference between artificial light and the fading twilight is the only thing giving the sky some color other than grey; flashes can be added if ambient is ugly). But my guess is that all amateur* photographers face the same kind of anxiety of limitation to some degree or other. So what can we do about it?

*I always use the word ‘amateur’ in the professional sense: i.e. you don’t make a living from it and there is no third party client, irrespective of your skill level. If I’m not commissioned, I’m also acting as an amateur.

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Faster isn’t always better

*Or, an example in construction series.

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Like most photographers…I am not immune to the siren’s song of very fast lenses. And even less immune to the lure of lenses that are fast and designed to deliver performance at maximum aperture – think of the Zeiss Otus series, for instance. We’re even willing to compromise with older designs that perhaps don’t perform or resolve quite to the level we’ve come to expect from modern lenses on modern high resolution sensors, but write it off as being ‘characterful’ or ‘nostalgic’. Or even trying to rationalise that we don’t need such high resolution since most of the frame is out of focus anyway, plus we want a smooth transition between the bits that are and the bits that aren’t. And then we try to adapt lenses to systems they were never designed for (here, and here) – with varying degrees of success. However: the reality is we probably don’t need such tools the vast majority of the time, and even from a creative standpoint – a wider aperture doesn’t necessarily make an image better.

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