Working with difficult subjects

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Negative space in pastel

…Or, “how to shoot without inspiration”.

Pessimistic? Depressing? I’d see it as the opposite: this line of thinking wouldn’t even exist if that was the case. We’d have packed up the camera and gone home otherwise. But sometimes: we’re either masochistic, or working pros*, and we want/need/must make an image. Example: you’ve finally manage to scrape together the leave and spousal permission for a photography trip…and it rains all week, or worse, it’s overcast and rain is threatened but not implicit. It’s Alanis Morissette’s updated Ironic. Or you sign up for a job that turns out to have quite different subjects in reality to what the client claims; or the model arrives and let’s say heavy photoshop is probably insufficient and one should consider illustration. Consider today’s post not quite a tale of woe, not quite an instruction manual, not quite a catalog of humour, but perhaps a little of all three. What all situations have in common though is that some (well, quite a lot) of creativity managed to squeeze out images the client and photographer were happy with, but at the time – all early in my career – they were the cause of a lot of stress…

*Arguably, the former group also includes the latter.

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The best value in photography today?

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Fighting words. When your three year old decides she wants to be like daddy and bugs you pretty much every day for a couple of months for a ‘real camera, not a toy one’ – what do you do? It seems a little painful to sacrifice a new camera to what will almost certainly be death by something that makes perfect sense only in the mind of a toddler, but at the same time I’d really rather she not start helping herself to the Hasselblads. Cue every photographer’s favourite activity: gear shopping*. Initially, I considered something shockproof, waterproof and submersible; but the good ones weren’t cheap, the cheap ones were really quite painful to use, and the controls were oddly not very small-finger friendly – requiring a lot of force to press and cryptic icons to decipher. She recognises ‘on’ and ‘play’ icons thanks to iPads and youtube, and that’s about it. Perhaps the big silver button too, since that makes a noise to take a picture. By now you’ve probably seen the header image and figured out my solution…

*To be read with extra sarcasm.

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Creativity by the yard

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The split

I’ve heard it said more than once that the world is divided into three kinds of people: those who create, those who support, and those who criticise. The former see the world differently and as a result land up being mostly societal misfits; at least until you become successful (which is nearly never, since the deck is stacked against you for reasons I will explain later). The corporate world wants to have the output and the commercial results, but is unprepared to support the infrastructure and requirements. The second group forms the majority of the population: ‘support’ can mean anything from consumption and patronage to supplier of key enablers such a services, environment or tools. And the latter – some serve as useful moderating reality checks and balances, but most just become bitter and jealous internet trolls. Today’s post is several things: an exploration of these roles, a series of suggestions from the point of view of a creative, and perhaps an apology (excuse?) for my wandering attention.

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Leica M mount lenses on the X1D

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f1.4, medium format, comparable size and weight to ‘pro’ M4/3. What’s not to like, other than the price?

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been shooting with the rather unorthodox combination seen above. I’ve found it answers two questions/ solves two problems for me: firstly, the desire for something that operates in the way you want (i.e. transparently) and that makes you want to shoot with it; and secondly, the small/light question. (There’s also a whole separate discussion on the concept of practical equivalence and envelope that I’ll discuss at some later point). But the journey getting here wasn’t quite so straightforward, unfortunately, and this combination is not a Swiss Army knife – it’s got some pretty big limitations. But when it delivers, I find that it delivers something quite special by the truckload.

Additional X1D coverage is here: long term review; assessment with Nikon F mount lenses; field use in Iceland.

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On emotion and images

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The previous image post with leftover single images from Iceland got me thinking: what exactly makes it so difficult to let go of them? The simple answer is one of emotion: they appeal to us at some level which is irrational and defies explanation. It is almost certainly experiential: the images trigger a memory of the surrounding events and conditions, or the making of the image is the memory – you’re far more likely to be attached to an image if you had to climb a mountain to get it, even if the image itself is nothing particularly special. The more effort and emotional investment in the subject and making of, the less objective we can be as curators. Notice I didn’t say photographers: I think there has to be emotional investment at some level as a photographer otherwise it’s too easy to treat the subject with cold dispassion and land up with the resulting image simply being purely an image of record and nothing more.

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Create or document?

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From the series ‘Gravitation is relative’

I’ve come to believe that all photography falls into one of two categories: created, or documented. It’s also rather difficult to switch between the two, and people tend to find either one or the other more intuitive. I suspect this may well have something to do with left brain-right brain dominance, too. This underlying split is important because it dictates the kind of photographer you are, and the kind of work that best suits one’s intuitive vision. It isn’t a continuum, because the one thing that splits the two sides of the divide is binary: was something in the scene added or removed at the control of the photographer, presumably for the express intent of translating and communicating the vision of the photographer to the audience?

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To be a specialist, you have to be a good generalist

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Here’s today’s provocation of the day: there is really no such thing as a specialist. I’m going to explain why, using photography as the background context. The general expectation is a specialist in one particular topic or subject or tightly defined discipline should be familiar with and understand how to handle the vast majority of variations encountered around that topic or subject. They would probably have to keep up to date with new developments or changes and do enough experimentation to answer any self-doubt or uncertainty: an expert sports photographer, for instance, would know how to deal with indoor arena lighting, outdoor high noon and night games – and still produce an image that would pass muster for their clients. An aerial photographer would know how to deal with haze – either to minimise in post, or to use as a feature of the image. Yet I keep encountering this odd resistance…even amongst supposedly educated and image-savvy people. Why?

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To photography competition entrants

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“…we who are about to die, salute you!”

Whoops, wrong scene, wrong side of the dock.

I’ve been on the judging panel for a few competitions this year – and on discussion with fellow judges, found we were encountering the same things across not only different competitions, but different geographies. Today’s post is intended to be a little behind the scenes guidance on what makes an image stand out to a jury, and hopefully win you a prize. It is of course impossible to turn this into a formula: the very nature of competition means that the benchmarks shift every year, and so does the whole idea of ‘different’. There’s so little QC these days it’s almost easier to judge competitions by people who don’t mess up than those who excel; that said, there are fortunately still a few who manage to surprise us. Read on for the breakdown.

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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…]