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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Repost: Titling and Storytelling

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I’ve always believed a strong image should be able to stand on its own without a title – after all, sometimes images and titles get separated (quite often, actually) – and if it isn’t self-explanatory to some degree without it, then the image itself isn’t clear. However, a good title certainly enhances impact of an image; it can explain, direct, add another layer of meaning, put into context, force the thoughts of the audience in a certain direction, create contrast or tension between perceptual reality and actual reality (visual content vs asserted content or vice versa) or merely serve as an easy method of reference to an image. I’ve frequently been asked how I pick a title for my images; today’s essay explores that in a bit more detail. There really isn’t a lot of science in it, though a large vocabulary probably helps, as does a ready store of cultural references. Firstly, I don’t think choosing – or perhaps more appropriately, creating a title can be entirely spontaneous and retrospective. In fact, it really all boils down to the fourth important thing.

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Shifts in subject matter over time

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2017

A recent discussion with some photographer friends centred around changes in our output over time – with almost all of us present (7/8) remarking that what we shot now was very different from what we shot when we started out – or even halfway through our careers. The eighth man was a relative beginner, with 3-4 years of experience compared to the 10 (or 15, or even 20+) years in the rest of the group’s case. The funny thing was that most of us never even noticed it happening; it sort of just did. In a lot of cases, we don’t really feel that different about working with our current subjects as compared to earlier ones, either. I left thinking that a lot of what is commonly perpetuated in the art and commercial worlds (“So-and-so must be great because they has 30 years of experience shooting the same thing”) may well be both untrue and a deliberate delusion.

Here’s where the alternative working title for this post comes in: You won’t be shooting the same thing forever.

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The art and science of observation

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Pigs sometimes fly – if you look at the right moment.

Curiously, the question I’m most frequently asked (right after ‘what camera should I buy?’ and that ilk) is ‘how do I make my photos better?’* This is a dangerously loaded question: for many reasons: it assumes firstly that there’s something wrong with your images (in whose opinion?); that I am the arbiter of judgement (I am not, and cannot be, because like all audiences – I am biased); that my personal taste and opinion is in line with yours (inevitably, we all differ) and that you didn’t already manage to get the best possible image to your own taste given the circumstances under which the image was made. My point is that ‘better’ is always subjective: nobody can pass absolute judgement on an image. We can merely give suggestions as to why we may prefer one variation or adjustment over another. But I do believe there’s one thing we can all do more of – and never enough of.

Think of today’s post as a coda to the compromise of the decisive moment article from a few months back.

*Of course, the question is often asked as a thinly veiled way to seek justification for a hardware purchase, but we’ll discount such instances. In very, very few situations is hardware truly the limiting factor, and if you’re good enough to maximise your current setup, you’ll already know it without having to ask.

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Off topic: on coffee

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Anybody who spends any length of time in the creative industry will soon realise that it’s really coffee, not money, that fuels everything from ad campaigns to shoots to postproduction. Models don’t shun it like energy drinks because you can have it without sugar, and in small (espresso) volumes, and it’s still just as potent. It’s also legal and relatively easy to obtain when travelling, and you can bring your own without being questioned about what those pills or powders are. I’ve long been reliant on the drink (finance and consulting run on it, too) but only in the last couple of years developed more than a passing interest in it. Like the drink, think of today’s post as a little refresher/ break from the photographic content…

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Off topic: On customer service

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Pro photographers have to be two things: able to deliver (i.e. technically and creatively competent) and fully aware that the whole business hinges critically on being a relationship game: if anything, this is more important than the execution. We are not just service providers, but in a way also providing confidence and reassurance on a product that is both intangible and highly subjective. Uncertainty can be self-reinforcing and the beginning of a negative spiral. Yet the longer I’m in this business, the more shocked I am by what I’m seeing – especially at the ‘developing’ end; both from a country/locality point of view and an immature service provider’s point of view.

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Diminishing returns and cutoff points

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The look of money evaporating in frustration

Written as a counterpoint to the earlier justification for being a lens hoarder, I have a feeling this is going to be one of my most unpopular posts ever. It will be widely circulated by I will be metaphorically burned at the stake for it, because it will not make me popular with camera companies, fanboys, enthusiasts or anybody who has a single bone in their body that appreciates a good piece of hardware – I know I do, and it pains even me to write it. But the common sense logician in me demands a stage, so here we go.

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Optical finder or EVF?

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Continuing on from the ‘right tool’ discussion, I thought I’d address one of the recurring topics amongst photographers: optical finder, or EVF? Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and oddly they seem to be converging towards the middle of late. That’s to say: optical finders on the whole are getting worse, and electronic finders are getting better. Where does this game end? Is there an ideal solution for you? Let’s take a look…

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Discussion points: An ideal format?

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Flexible? yes. Practical? Not exactly…

Today’s post will be the first in the experimental ‘discussions’ theme proposed a little while back.

We all know there is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ format or system – there are myriad considerations for selection, based on creative properties and technical ones – for example, depth of field, dynamic range, ‘graphic-ness’, color depth, shooting envelop, ability to deploy under certain conditions that might be weight restricted, system completeness for specialised lenses, camera movements etc. And this is before we even get into any thoughts around cost (for hobbyists) or return on investment (for pros). In most cases, we’re left either stuck with a single system that fills all needs but perhaps not perfectly, or multiple systems and formats and the inconvenience of both overlap and lack of it. For example – I love to create graphic images with a lot of compression and infinite depth of field, but this requires a narrow angle of view and thus longer equivalent focal length. I could do it with my H6D-100c, but the sensor on that is so large that I can clearly see a difference in focal plane at f8 and just 150mm-e, with a subject 100m away. Clearly, this is not workable – so I also have an E-M1.2 and Canon 100D with their respective telephotos for that kind of work. The graphic intent of the output means that limited dynamic range and crushed blacks aren’t so much a problem as desired most of the time.

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