“Ugly boring boring boring. Such boring images despite having good equipment.” “Talentless.” “Mediocre”. Just a few of the choice statements this image brought out on Facebook for some odd reason; I have no idea why that kind of response only happened with one particular photograph; perhaps the commenters woke up on the wrong side of the bed, had an argument with their spouses or were served inferior coffee. In any case, it’s difficult to take such things seriously if there’s no body of work or any sort of artistic conviction displayed by the critic. But it did make me think about something else: what determines beautiful and ugly? What is the purpose of a photograph, if not to be a record of a unique point of view? Ideally, that point of view should trigger some sort of emotion – good or bad, because surely if there’s no emotion elicited in the audience, then the image has no impact at all – and thus won’t be remembered? Taking one step further, does it matter if the emotion is positive or negative?
85mm lenses and equivalents on native or adapted formats – yes, I probably have too many. Upper left row: Nikon 85 PCE Macro, Zeiss 1.4/85 Otus, Nikon 24-120/4 VR, Hasselblad HC 2.2/100; middle row: Zeiss 1.4/85 Milvus, Canon EF-S 18-55 STM (APS-C), Nikon 85/1.8 G, C/Y Zeiss 2.8/85 Leitax converted to Nikon mount; lower right row: Zeiss Hasselblad CF 2.8/80, Zeiss Hasselblad C 2.8/80 T*. I wanted to add the Hasselblad HC 35-90 zoom, but it wouldn’t fit in the picture. And there also used to be a Zeiss 1.8/85 Batis, Zeiss ZM 4/85, Nikon 80-400 G VR and Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO, but I’m recovering now…
Though this post may seem like a hoarders’ justification more than anything – I can assure you, it isn’t. Whilst you could probably pick one lens in each focal length or angle of view and hack your way into making it work, there are some pretty solid reasons why you might not want to – and this is something I’d like to discuss today. Trust me, there are reasons why I’d prefer not to have to carry two or three seemingly overlapping lenses on assignment – but often there’s simply no choice. Here’s my logic, using the 85mm-equivalent focal length as an example.
A combination of arts and senses in the appreciation: the feeling of weight; the design, composition and balance of visual elements; the subtle sound of the movement and even the sensation of temperature when you pick it up. Yet I doubt few will home in on any single one of these elements – but if you did, and only looked at the design for typography or prose, for instance, you might find quite a lot lacking…
I have a little hypothesis which I think many of you will appreciate. It’s somewhat off topic, so those of you expecting a how-to or review may want to skip today’s post. The creative person is not limited to one field: often, they have interests in other subject matter, and will try to apply themselves in a similar fashion. Musicians who enjoy photography or painting; chefs who sing; singers who cook. And often one tends to be not only good at the other, but there’s also a translation of style of sorts between the different disciplines, too. I can’t cook, or play music, but I do appreciate those two skills and can comment to some degree, in the same way that I can comment on design work which I do in addition to photography. And like my photography, people have noted my design work tends to be balanced, precise, and structured, but not necessarily simple…
I’ve often thought that this is perhaps both the easiest and hardest subject to shoot, and shoot well. It’s also the most accessible human documentary subject for all of us, and almost always one of the chief motivations underlying our own photography. As I head into 2016, and with an increasingly active young daughter, I’m personally finding myself pointing the lens at her – as is the same for any parent, I think. Yet unlike with other forms of social or commissioned documentary photography – I find it much harder to make an image I’m happy with, even though the subject matter means more to me personally than any of my other work (to which I think most pros in the audience will agree, too). And it’s not because toddlers are fast and active little humans; I think it’s got to do with subject familiarity and some principles that also underpin quantum mechanics. Have I completely failed to make sense yet? Let me try a little harder…
A photograph is an observation of a scene at a given moment in time. It’s an effectively instantaneous snapshot of the state of a scene or person or other subject, given the relative rate of change of those subjects. If we extend the duration of observation – i.e. with a long shutter speed – we might see some hints at that change in the form of motion blur, or eventually, averaging. If we get lucky, or observe for a long period of time, we might eventually be able to capture an interesting change or temporary state of the system; however, this assumes two further things. Firstly, that we can differentiate what is ‘interesting’ and have a good benchmark of what to look for; secondly, that we are aware and responsive enough to capture it. I think we can already see why there are some serious challenges here.
I’ll admit first off that this sentence is both somewhat disingenuous and incomplete: the more you shoot, the harder it gets to make something you’re happy with. Still confused? How about now: the more you shoot seriously, the harder it gets to make something you’re happy with. No, it’s not clickbait: it’s a personal observation from my own photography. And I think it’s both a good thing and a good barometer of whether the work you’re producing is really for you, or for somebody else. Knowing the normal demographics of this audience, the majority of readers are producing work purely for themselves – not for a client or crowd. (The actual/personal reasons for the production of images may be something else entirely, of course; none of us are beyond the siren’s lure of social validation and fame.)
Borrowing the title reference from the John le Carre novel and (later) movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – I think nicely encapsulates the multitude of hats the modern photographer must be comfortable wearing in order to be a producer of compelling images. I’ve said before that photography is both a dialog between photographer and audience and that the process of photographing is really an exercise in curating and excluding elements of the world according to one’s own personal biases, then sharing the results with an audience such that they might be interpreted in the desired way. The technical process of capture, and the creative one of composition, are no more than enablers to that translation: the capture allows recording and sharing; composition is arrangement with the intention of direction and influence over the audience. The whole photographic process – vision, composition, capture, presentation, viewing – is really simultaneously as much and as little as the sharing of an idea inspired by already extant objects.
Not a people mover, and never meant to be. Similar things abound photographically: resolution, or bulk? Reach, or size? Ease of file handling, or quality? Edge resolution, or weight and filter size? Controllability or compactness?
The story of photography is really a series of compromises – I suppose the same can be said of life in general, though there are specific consequences and considerations when it comes to making images. At the risk of appearing to contradict myself*, I’m writing this post somewhere over the South China Sea, after having a little epiphany. The difference between life and photography is that compromises made in the former usually come with a mixed bag of consequence that are both unknown since we have affected causality and the flow of events by making a choice, but in photography, we almost always know what we’re giving up – or we think we have a fair idea of it. Surely this should make creative and technical choices in image capture easier to make?
*Forcing creative development through restriction is not the same as knowing you’ve stopped before you’re done.
Something here is off: but why? And how can we make it better?
The above image is meant to be an example: something is deliberately off. But if we didn’t know, how can we fix it? I feel the art of the critique is something that’s unfortunately both underappreciated and under-utilised. There’s no shortage of images online, and this number keeps increasing – but on the whole, it’s difficult to say that volume has any correlation with quality or discernment or curation. If anything, the opposite: volume smothers refinement. Responses to images have been simplified to ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ or some very strange animated GIFs, or worse, vitriol about something relatively minor and unimportant element of the image. Neither is really constructive – the photographer receives no useful information with which to make a better image the next time around. Consideration is rarely given by the audience when making a comment – this can be very dangerous because as the audience, you have no idea if the image was a throwaway or something the photographer believed was the absolute best they could do, and put their heart and soul into. Encouragement and discouragement are equally likely outcomes. Given photography is really a conversation – it is important to talk to (or at least gauge responses from) one’s audience – today we ask, ‘how can we raise the creative and technical bar for images?’
Sophie, the mime: the image resonates and means something to me because I have an emotional connection to the subject, to the setting, and I know the narrative story on either side of the frame. It may resonate with you because you happen to like children, or because the facial emotion is a strong an unambiguous one, or you like monochrome documentary portraiture, or for some other reason. But if it were executed differently, you may feel different about it – but not necessarily or consciously know why. It is up to the photographer to control the unconscious influences in such a way that at least their intended communication is fulfilled, but not in a way that draws attention to itself (and thus breaks that illusion).
After the huge amount of very interesting and thoughtful discussion that ensued in the comments – thank you for your thoughts, everybody – and a few days of settling time, I couldn’t leave the previous article on soul hanging inconclusively. There are few very interesting observations made, higher conclusions that one can draw from the responses here, and further logical leaps from contemplation of one’s own work and raison d’être. Firstly, a clarification though: I’m not looking for a magic formula to ‘inject soul’ into my own work, and I’ll explain why later. I was and am simply seeking to understand why certain images move certain people in a certain way – and if there’s anything one can use there to make a stronger image, given the choice, and providing of course it fits one’s own idea.