Personal evolution: changes in style

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This essay is a loose continuation of the previous article on Ignorance, fear and photographic freedoms in Malaysia; increasing paranoia and protection of perceived rights. It’s just the latest driver in the evolution of my photographic style over the last couple of years. There are two reasons for writing this essay: firstly, as an exercise in self-reflection and analysis, and secondly, to help my readers understand the effect of environmental factors on one’s photography. Actually, a good place to observe this trending is on my Flickr stream; there are lots of images dating from several years ago, in mostly chronological order, and it’s regularly updated.

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2007. No way I’d be able to shoot that today; I tried using an RX100 two months ago and was confronted by security – this shot was with a D200 and 70-200VR.

Restrictions in subject

The aforementioned limitations on where I can shoot have forced me to revisit the easy places – cityscapes, street photography, and any abstracts I can get from public property. One of my favorite subjects – geometric architectural abstracts with human elements for scale – is now pretty much a no-go. I’m even trying out minimalist landscapes and general abstracts now; though the subjects aren’t as strong, it is forcing me to pay even closer attention to the strength of my compositions. An image with an abstract subject must be very strong indeed to stand on its own, because you’re effectively removing one of the four fundamental must-haves – leaving you only with light, composition and the idea.

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A preference for physically smaller cameras

Many years of intensive laptop use (I blame this entirely on consulting), air travel and simply carting around far too much junk are now starting to take their toll on my back and neck; I simply can’t carry around as much as I used to without feeling sore after a couple of hours. I even use a roller bag on assignment now, where previously I’d have made do with a backpack for better mobility.

Although I’ve always had a compact camera for as long as I can remember, my preference has always been for larger sensors due to the benefits in image quality. It is only recently that technological evolution has permitted the quality of small sensors to reach and surpass the point of sufficiency for the majority of applications. Of course, the image quality from larger sensors has improved by a similar margin; the bigger the better continues to hold true in situations where ultimate image quality is paramount. Of course, there are restrictions involved: mostly around lenses and depth of field control. On the former, there are few high quality fast telephoto equivalents in fixed-lens compacts – Micro Four Thirds is a nice exception – which shifts one’s shooting style to prefer wider perspectives.

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Less bokeh, more context

A general lack of depth of field control on smaller formats forces you to avoid relying on bokeh as a crutch to save what would be an otherwise boring image – I see this as a very good thing, because the focus returns to light, strength of composition and overall balance. Depth of field control is a nice bonus when you do have it – I find I can now precisely control just how much context I want in a shot. Conversely, I also find that I’m making a lot more compositions that work with or without shallow depth of field; this can sometimes lead to paralysis by choice.

Although I think this shift in shooting style was brought on largely by my increased use of small-sensor cameras, I think it’s also a related consequence to an increasingly commercial mindset to my images; clients usually want to have more of the overall scene in focus.

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2012 – I was on holiday, but it looks pretty darn commercial to me.

The shift from personal work to commercial work

This is a change that’s been a double-edged sword for me. Although it has forced me to up my game when it comes to lighting control and compositional variety, the fairly conservative nature of all of the industries I cover mean that there are generally accepted styles and norms, and a very low client appetite for something different. I’ve noticed the majority of my work now trending towards a very standardized, clean-looking style – I feel the unconventional angles and compositions that used to be my hallmark eroding somewhat.

There’s now a definite trending of my personal work towards the commercial style; it’s almost as though I’m almost unconsciously avoiding the grit of reality. I’m taking a lot more time to set up a shot that previously, paying more attention to potential still lifes and lighting control. Needless to say, I’m doing very little to no reportage these days – a friend’s wedding I recently attended brought home just how out of practice I was. (I suppose it didn’t really help that I chose to use two manual focus lenses that are known to be rife with field curvature.) At least I’m still continuing to put my individual stamp on color; if anything, I’m even more picky about it, because color accuracy is absolutely critical for product work.

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2012. Shot RAW, converted with a little curve. That’s all – 30 seconds of work, maximum.

Efficiency in postprocessing

A part of me used to enjoy the Photoshop portion of the workflow – in some ways, it was the place where all the ingredients came together with a little alchemy to make something special. I suppose it’s akin to finding a sculpture in a rough block of marble. To put it bluntly, spending large amounts of time in front of the computer is no longer a preferred activity for me. Perhaps it’s due to the time spent on keeping this site running; then again, it’s more likely to be the D800E: the enormity of the files place huge demands on my computer and slow down the whole process by a factor of two or three. And when you’ve got a lot of images to process, this can make a huge difference in one’s tolerance. Furthermore, time spent on postprocessing is effectively dead time: you can’t do anything revenue-generating, or lead-generating, so it makes sense to keep it to a minimum. And when you work freelance for yourself, these two things are what keeps you afloat. (That, and debt collection.)

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2012. Almost zero postprocessing – just dust removal.

Practically, instead of visualizing the physically impossible, getting a good base image to work from and then spending time on it in Photoshop, I’m now trying to do everything I can in-camera to minimize the amount of postprocessing. Granted, there will be some things that have to be done post-capture, but the more you can get right the first time, the faster your workflow can be. This has always been the case for commercial work – I’ve always believed that if you have to do heavy postprocessing on an image to make it look right, you’re not really in control of your lighting – but it’s increasingly also becoming the case for my personal work. If it doesn’t look 95% there in the actual scene, I probably won’t bother taking the camera out. It’s one of the main reasons I’m revisiting film.

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Seeking control with consistency

Another upshot of being more commercially-focused with my photography is increased consciousness of elements you’re changing in order to be able to replicate the shot later. This is especially true with watch photography where you might have several models of the same type where you need to have identical or near-identical images for catalogs etc; you might not be able to shoot them on the same day, but the lighting had better damn well be identical. (There are, of course, postprocessing tricks to get around this and make up for any small differences.)

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From cinematic to natural

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to do is create a very natural-looking image from a natural, human perspective and still have it appear unique and arresting; I suppose having mastered the cinematic, perceptual color style and growing bored of it, I’m being masochistic and forcing myself to take on a new challenge. Or perhaps it’s a consequence of heightened color-awareness due to increased commercial work; or maybe even because small-sensor cameras do not lend themselves well to cinematic work: you need extensive depth of field control for that.

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This site

Reviews require images, and I simply don’t have the time or budget to be able to travel somewhere new every time I want to get to know a camera; similarly, I can’t take the risk of using something untested on a commercial job, and even if I do, I frequently can’t release the images due to licensing agreements. So this means that whatever I shoot for a review has to be located relatively nearby; being nearby and having reviewed hundreds of cameras and lenses in my past life as a magazine editor means that I cannot avoid revisiting the same places multiple times. The tough part here is avoiding repetition: you don’t want to see the same test images as the last review, nor do I want to produce something boring; it is after all also my personal work. I am thus forced to revisit familiar places with eyes for a different image and composition every time; it gets increasingly difficult, but I think it’s also forced me to open my mind to different subjects and angles. In short: I am forced to experiment, and in experimenting, evolve my skill set.

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Workshops and articles are the complete opposite to reviews: they rely on repetition and consistency. I have to have enough understanding of both the shooting process and my thought process to be able to give an objective account and description of the mostly qualitative elements involved. In a workshop, I have to be able to structure and demonstrate the techniques I use when I shoot. The trouble is, there are a lot of them which may be minor variations on a few major themes, and you may need to use one or several in any given situation. How does one decide what is a conscious technique choice, and what is a fundamental skill that runs on autopilot in the background of a photographer’s brain? It’s not easy to find a balance – too basic and you appear patronizing, and too complex and your students get frustrated or confused.

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I’ve always found photography to be fascinating because it involves mastery of both quantitative and qualitative skills: there is only one correct exposure to get a certain luminance value in your image, but how you decide what that luminance value should be is an entire matter altogether. This of course is just one of the hundreds of tools a photographer has at their disposal; the evolution of style is a process that requires one to continually test, evaluate (objectively, but with a consistent level of personal and artistic bias) and experiment. I have no idea what or how I’ll be shooting a year from now, but I’m almost certain there will be value in repeating this evaluation exercise. MT


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved