A creative frame of mind, redux

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Things are not as they seem: experimentation, in capture and post

This is an alternative take on an earlier piece I wrote, also on a creative frame of mind: from a different frame of mind, no less. There are some professions where you don’t have to be in the right mood to do your job well. You can be an effective consultant, accountant or middle management without having to be particularly inspired; in fact, imagination is generally not a good thing when it comes to accounting and finance anyway. (At least that’s what Inland Revenue said; if you’re Prime Minister, that’s another thing entirely). However, for creative professions – photography, videography, design, writing, music etc. – there’s no question that your state of mind has a direct and very tangible impact on the outcome of the work. As a photographer, professionalism – the ability to deliver at a minimum standard that’s above your client’s expectations under effectively all circumstances – is the bare minimum. But inspiration is what really make the difference between workaday and brilliant. [Read more…]

Das Wimmelbild in der Fotografie

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During one of the many discussions on composition that took place during the Lisbon Masterclass a few months ago, one of the participants suggested that my compositions were reminiscent of something called Wimmelbild in German. Loosely translated, it’s the concept of ‘teeming pictures’ – or a composition that is extremely full of detail and sub-scenes within the main composition. Two of the better-known examples of wimmelbild are the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and childrens books by authors such as Richard Scarry, Ali Mitgutsch, Rotraut Susanne Berner, and Eva Scherbarth – and of course the ‘Where’s Wally’ series by illustrator Martin Handford. If there’s a single gestalt that best describes the nature of most of my compositions – wimmelbild would be it. So it’s probably worth spending a little time explaining exactly what it is…

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Some (possibly unexpected) advice for aspiring pros

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Sink or swim: except in the real world, there’s almost never a life preserver.

There are any number of articles on this topic already existing: how to ‘make it’, how to be successful, how to market, how to run a business. There are courses, books and videos. And there are people, who make a business out of teaching others how to run a business. And then there are people who actually make a living doing what you want do: being paid to create and deliver images. For some odd reason, I’ve been getting a lot of emails in the last few weeks from people wondering how to make photography work as a career: corporate switchers, graduates, pre-graduates, people who were doing something else creative but want a change of medium. I have no qualifications to answer these questions or offer absolute advice other than a) I make more than 80% of my income from selling images, mostly commissioned, and b) I’ve been doing this for a few years now. Market conditions in your country are probably going to be quite different to mine, and even if they aren’t, things have no doubt changed from five years ago. So, with that disclosure out of the way, here we go.

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Repost: the value of having a muse

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This has been another one of those tricky articles to write – mainly because a lot of self-reflection went into it, and as we all know, it’s very difficult to do that and remain objective. The essays is illustrated with images that are representative of experiments that worked – things I was inspired to try with various muses, and in turn learned something from.

What is a muse? In its purest form, a muse is perhaps best defined as something that triggers inspiration in an artistic or creative sense. It doesn’t have to be an inanimate object; most artists’ muses tend to be people; in fact, most artists tend to land up romantically involved with their muses. Creativity is impossible to separate from inspiration, and inspiration is a very close bedfellow of attachment – attachment to an idea. (I know this sounds like Inception, but bear with me here.*)

*On an unrelated note, that movie contains one of the most spectacular dining rooms I’ve ever seen – from a design and architectural point of view. And I suspect it would be pretty cool as both a photographic subject and backdrop, too.

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On vision and postprocessing

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Before and after – starting point of RAW file in color (right), final presentation mono (left). Is that ‘photoshopped’? To most audiences, it probably is; but it’s no different to using black and white film, processing with a certain chemistry and doing a little dodging and burning of the print. Nothing has been added or removed that was not physically present in the original scene.

Though the mainstream population has now been firmly in the digital era of photography for more than a decade, I’m sure we can all remember a recent time when we were asked ‘so how much photoshop did you do?’ when presenting an image. The misconception that a good image must have some degree of implicit trickery is problematic; to the public, ‘Photoshop’ has become synonymous with ‘digital illustration’, ‘compositing’, or worse, ‘deliberate misrepresentation’. As much as we do our best to explain that Photoshop is really no different to the darkroom and chemical processes of the film days, we are at best regarded with some skepticism. But it does beg the question: why not use all the tools at one’s disposal, and what’s wrong with it if we do?

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Photography is a conversation

_5R02199 copySearching for pearls of wisdom

For the longest time, I’d always thought of photography as a visual presentation. A single photograph should be a story, and that story is whatever you choose to present. A series of images should be a a complete epic narrative, with beginning, end and some drama. That is still true, but doesn’t really take into account the dynamic between photographer/artist and viewer: the truth is that no two individuals are the same, and even if one person in that relationship remains static, the other brings with them their own set of biases and expectations and associations. In that way, the story can told can never really be the same with each telling: it’s really more like a conversation.

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Creator or consumer?

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Entropy is the way of all things

I have a theory: there are only two kinds of people in this world when it comes to content and creative output. Either you are primarily a consumer, or primarily a creator. We also have to take two other parameters into account: quantity and reach; total impact is determined by both – little quantity and widespread reach is probably about the same as high quantity and narrow reach, with high quantity and high reach of course having the greatest net output. A consumer is a person who has little quantity or reach; certainly less than the media they consume. A creator is a person whose output exceeds their input (reflagging and distribution doesn’t count; that’s not creating anything new). Of course, a much simpler way of looking at this is by time: do you spend more time reading and watching, or making/ shooting/ posting/ writing/ sharing?

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Tension and balance

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Two of the most common words I hear used when describing images are ‘tension’ and ‘balance’. I’ve got a good idea what the latter means, and how to translate it into an image – but the former is much more nebulous. A brief look around online also showed that they’re both not that well understood, or badly defined, too. At the risk of putting my neck on the block, I’m throwing my contribution into the ring, too. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section…

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Photographic étiquette, part two

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Following the lighter post on the topic, I felt it’s probably a good idea to discuss some of the more serious grey areas as a photographer; especially when it comes to photographing people, locations or property that might well be private. In general, in most countries, if you can see it from a public location, photographing something is fair game. However, there are exceptions and degrees: anything with security or government links is probably a bad idea. Getting too close to anything without permission is probably also a bad idea. Crossing lines – even if they’re arbitrary – is potentially a bad idea, and might land you in more trouble than the shot is worth. Bearing these things in mind, I’ve generally managed to stay off toes and still get the images I want…

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The what-if game

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In workshops and correspondence with readers over the past six months or so, there’s been a lot of discussion around what constitutes an exceptional image – the kind of thing which (at very least) you remember for the rest of your photographic career, and preferably more than that. It’s the sort of image that stands out as being exceptional by virtue of a combination of things – aesthetics, clarity of idea, and to my mind the ‘just-so-ness’ of every single element in the frame – both subject and background. And this of course assumes suitability of technical execution to the subject matter at hand; sophisticated enough to look deliberate and suit the mood/style/idea, but not over the top for the sake of it. We’ve discussed this before, of course – in the thoughts around the idea of a ‘5’. But I think I may have nailed down one very important element of the undefinable. Or if not that, at very least a technique.

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