Personal truths about photography

Photography is an ongoing journey, there is so much to learn and explore and so much to experience. Some lessons come easy, some difficult. It is crucial to acknowledge that there is no one right way in photography, given that it is so open and subjective. I  believe that we all want to improve and get better at what we do. After all, something is more enjoyable only when you continue to get better at it.  What is the point of photography, if it’s not fun?

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Life after Olympus

I left Olympus Malaysia not too long ago, which came as a surprise to many, and subsequently Ming Thein on this awesome photography site as an active contributor. Since then, I’ve been asked by many curious people how my life has been, what I’ve been doing, which manufacturer I’ve jumped ship to (Sony? Fujifilm? *gasp*) and how the hell I can still afford that expensive cup of coffee? [Read more…]

Drone diaries: differentiated aerial perspectives

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More months, more flying. I’ve come to believe that real appeal of aerial photography lies solely in one thing: the ability to see familiar places or objects or classes of objects from a drastically and otherwise physically inaccessible perspective. An image shot from a slightly elevated level with gimbal only slightly down is not that different to standing on a hill or building; an image shot from some altitude and entirely top down is at the other end of the scale. Most of the really interesting drone images I’ve seen or personally captured seem to fall into the latter category. We are coming dangerously close to the automated and the formulaic, here. Or are we?

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Opinion: Sensible perspectives on film and digital in current times

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Today’s post has been a long time brewing. The recent resurgence in the popularity of film is undeniable, to the point that there are both new brands and revivals of old ones happening on a fairly regular basis. It seems to be not so interesting for the big guys – look at the continual Fuji price increases as prime exhibit – but this has meant that there business is more open to the enthusiasts and those creating film specifically for the demands of those markets (such as JCH Street Pan). Anybody who gets off their comfortable chair to put money and action where their mouths are deserves a round of applause, in my book. Given all of this – it’s only natural that there have also been a lot of people rising to the defence of the medium, in the comments here, and sometimes much more aggressively over email. In the interests of saving much angst, it’s probably about time I make my personal position on film clear, and more importantly, the rationale behind it.

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Seeing and familiarity

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Everything must be evaluated before we have expectations of it

A few months ago, I explained why I believe there is no such thing as an absolute decisive moment; and examined how my own point of reference has shifted over time – both of these posts lead to some discussions in the comments over the whole question of why we seem to shoot better when taken out of our usual environments. I think that answer is fairly simple, and has to do with the same underlying principles of subject isolation: if something looks different, it will stand out, and if we can observe/see it, we can notice, compose for and photograph it. But the first part of that flow – the ‘standing out’ – can only happen if we either train ourselves to continually and consciously evaluate every portion of a scene, or we are thrust into a place where there is no familiar frame of reference so our minds cannot subconsciously pattern recognise and dismiss. The real question for a photographer is: how can we control this to some extent?

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Discussion points: Critical features

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For most of the history of photography, we only had shot-to-shot* control over four things with our cameras: focal plane, exposure via shutter and aperture, and the moment of capture via the shutter release. There were of course myriad ways of implementing this – but eventually, either camera makers did what was easiest from an engineering standpoint, or buyers voted with their wallets – and the modern control paradigm was born. We have ergonomic grips, control dials for shutter and aperture (either on the top deck within fingertip reach, or on the lens barrel) and some means of controlling focus. Fundamentally, all images can be made with control over these parameters. Yet somewhere along the way, we’ve decided that we cannot live without tilting LCDs, live view, sensor shift and optical stabilisers, auto white balance, panorama stitching, eye tracking AF…the list goes on. I firmly believe that it’s possible to get far too distracted trying to master the technology and remembering which menu item and button was set to do what – and as a result, make an image that’s compositionally and creatively compromised instead of technologically enabled.

*One could also switch emulsion sensitivity, color/monochrome and focal length – I consider these secondary controls because not every camera permitted this between subsequent images.

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Crystal ball gazing: Predicting the photographic ecosystem in 10 years, part II

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That impending sense of something looming just out of view…

Today’s article continues from Part I in the previous post: where will photography land up in the next ten years?

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Crystal ball gazing: Predicting the photographic ecosystem in 10 years, part I

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During a recent flight and some (unusual) downtime, my mind started to wander idly towards both how much photography has changed in the last ten years, and idle speculation towards how photography would change in the next ten. The pace of change has been rapid, limited by technology; but I think the next big shift is that it’s going to be limited by the operator. Let me explain why: for hundreds of years, the fundamental principle of using photosensitive chemical media and printing onto non-photosensitive ‘permanent’ media has not changed; whether that media is larger or smaller, celluloid or glass or paper or something else. The process of photographing was destructive in a way: you had only one chance to fix the chemicals to preserve the graphic interpretation of luminance – i.e. the photograph – during which if you messed up, there were no do-overs. The biggest change from a single-use chemical medium to a digital one has really been getting the public used to the concepts reusability and easy post-capture manipulation*. Whilst the start was slow due to a) incumbency of film and film devices; b) cost of entry; c) output options – like a runaway train, we’ve now lost control of our collective visual output. Where does this leave us in another ten years?

*Always a popular/controversial topic: but reality is that manipulation in many forms has not just been around since the very beginning, but is very much at the core of the whole photographic process: you could not even view the image without applying some chemical changes, which might make areas of different brightness more or less visible. In reality, nothing has changed other than your average consumer can now do it at will and with greater ease and flexibility than before. Taste, as always, remains a subjective matter.

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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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Subconscious associations – or titling, redux

[Image removed – Société des Auteurs dans les arts graphiques et plastiques does not permit Magritte’s work to be used for editorial or educational purposes, but you can still google it]. 
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?

[Image removed – Société des Auteurs dans les arts graphiques et plastiques does not permit Magritte’s work to be used for editorial or educational purposes, but you can still google it].
The Treachery of Images

The more I look at Magritte’s work (who was also a somewhat less art notorious photographer in his day), the more I believe the titles and the image are inseparable; however, some historical research suggests that he worked in two ways with paintings: either starting from a philosophical idea – which often later got condensed into the title – or he worked completely in reverse, with elements of themes that dominated at certain portions of his life* and then played a sort of parlour game with friends in the same surrealist philosophical circle to try to give the work a name. I personally think is much easier to understand The Treachery of Images than The Empire of Light; in some ways, even though the former is not anywhere as literal, it’s conceptually more straightforward because it was intended to represent the distillation of an idea into a simple visual form, which goes along the lines of:

  1. Every painting or picture, no matter how realistic or good or easily recognisable, is not the original object.
  2. The image presented is a stand in for the original object and merely represents or conjures by association the qualities and physical properties and of that object – an effigy, in effect.
  3. The initial visual impression of the above image is a very literal one, because the image is unambiguous: we see a representation of a pipe, and our brains make the associative leap to assume that it represents the pipe and its physical qualities.
  4. The text then serves to break this association by forcing us to read, notice and comprehend it because it is unusual and out of place (breaking pattern, thus drawing attention to it) in the painting: “This is not a pipe”.
  5. The title of the image could be something literal, like “The pipe”, or something conceptual, like “Illusions”; in this case, the idea behind the image came first, and was refined down to “The Treachery of Images”: in that we can make potentially dangerous mistakes assuming something is, as opposed to something represents.

*Clouds, birds, spherical bells, chess pieces, men in suits, pipes, trees, picture frames, food items etc. – it actually seemed like he was mostly staying within a fairly universally recognisable vocabulary for the time period; this is interesting because use of anything obscure would have greatly increased difficulty of interpretation of the paintings, which were already not exactly literal or straightforward to begin with. We don’t have quite as big a problem with this in photography because we can only represent real objects, which greatly increases recognisability and reduces the potential for misinterpretation/ confusion.

In many ways, The Treachery of Images is a very solid distillation of the conceptual side of Magritte’s images: they aren’t literal, and the elements used represent something – sometimes ideas in  themselves, or historical/personal associations, or something else. But whatever the case is, an apple is never just an apple. The titles exist to both help us through the interpretation (avoiding ‘the treachery’) by giving us a window into Magritte’s thought process, but also to force us to stop, really think about subconscious, almost reflex assumptions about the world – and subsequently look harder.

[Image removed – Société des Auteurs dans les arts graphiques et plastiques does not permit Magritte’s work to be used for editorial or educational purposes, but you can still google it]. 
The Son of Man

Perhaps the most famous of Magritte’s paintings, The Son of Man has a title that feels like it almost carries all of the information necessary to decipher the idea, but not quite; you can feel it tugging at the edges of your brain, but the viewer is still forced to make that final logical leap themselves. My interpretation is a biblical one: the apple represents knowledge and original sin; Eve is no longer in the picture, but her descendant is once again clothed and hiding their shame – the face can represent individualism, identity; a visible face, honesty and openness. (The garb is also typical of what Magritte wore; is he referring to himself?) A hidden face becomes shame or ambiguity or simple untrustworthiness; the obscuring apple is presumably hiding behind knowledge. What throws us out a little here are the visual qualities of the picture: it’s far too ‘clean’ and ‘happy’ with traditionally flattering and ‘good’ light to imply the sort of malice we’d expect from a businessman hiding his face (and implied activities). That lends a sense of hope, I think, which is confirmed by the title: ‘son’ implies this a subsequent (and possibly better) generation.

There is of course no way to know if was thinking all that when he was painting it, or simply set out to make a self-portrait without his face, and saw some apples on the counter – and then presented the painting to his surrealist philosophical circle and they named it after what they saw; it could be that the strong resonance of title with image was the result of the audience, not the creator**.

**Interesting idea: allowing your audience to title an image based on what they see, which may be very different from what you saw or intended at the time of capture.

[Image removed – Société des Auteurs dans les arts graphiques et plastiques does not permit Magritte’s work to be used for editorial or educational purposes, but you can still google it]. 
The Banquet

In a lot of cases, the process must have been quite a lot more iterative than that – the result of a discussion, rather than a straw poll or a single person thinking. I suppose we can think of this as the evolution of a title: the above image is a good example. If I had to guess, it was more like a stream of consciousness and series of associations, which probably went something like this (individual lines representing steps in logical progression):

  • Sun dominates sunset / egg / country estate
  • Evening / power / food / formal – stuffy – official
  • Official event in the evening at formal location…
  • voila: The Banquet!

Having already created singles and series around an idea or theme – I’m going to have to try this second method for a future set of images, with the ultimate goal of combining the two…MT

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