Creative integrity – or, the Struggling Artist Myth explained

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For the past six years, I’ve shot for pay full time, and occasionally for the better part of the preceding ten years before that. During the last six, the proportion of images of any sort shot with my own creative vision as primary motivation vs those shot with somebody else’s – i.e. for a client or as part of a commercial assignment – has swung from 100-0 to perhaps 5-95. This is expected, and both good and bad. It’s what actually had me stumped in my early pro days: every time I met a successful or established photographer, they almost never had a camera with them – or if they saw something spontaneous, they’d use their phone to shoot it. I wondered why, especially given their access to ‘better’. I think I know the answer to this, and to be honest: I’m not sure I or anybody else is going to like it. Read on if you dare.

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The paradox of all creative professions

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Imagine you’re hired to do something on the basis of the work you’ve previously done: the client likes your previous work, and wants you to do the same for their brief – within limitations, of course. You have of course taken care to show only the kind of work you want to do, so that there’s no possibility for misunderstandings. But yet the inevitable happens: as the job progresses, the scope changes, and suddenly you’re being asked to do something that’s either a duplicate of what’s been done before – by somebody else – or worse, a mishmash of incoherent ideas that were clearly a case of design by committee and completely unsuitable for the original subject or brief. Sound familiar? Sadly, this is far too often the state of play in most creative industries, not just photography.

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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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Getting over the hump

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There comes a point in the growth of every photographer where they reach a ‘hump’ which appears to be insurmountable in any obvious way: you just don’t think you can get any better, no matter what you do. This may be at a very low level, or a very high one; depending on your natural visual aptitude. But it happens to everybody – it’s happened to me several times in the past. Today I’d like to talk about things you can do to move past it and up your game. After all, everybody wants to make better images, right?

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Does the audience matter?

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Work like this, I produce for myself and myself only: I don’t care if anybody else likes it; frankly, I wasn’t even going to upload or share it, but it got accidentally included in a batch. I know it certainly has zero commercial potential. Perhaps that makes it amongst the purest images I create?

Here’s a sticky question I’ve been battling with for a few months: does it matter what other people think of my images? Although it may sound rather egotistical, I think it’s actually a very valid consideration from several standpoints: that of the hobbyist/ amateur; that of the commercial/ professional, and that of the artist. And I’m pretty sure the answer is different for each one. I’m not even going to try and answer the question of what one should do if you fall into all three categories…I suppose it requires a healthy dose of schizophrenia.

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What it means to be a professional

Ostensibly, professional photographers are people who make their living – or the majority of it – from photography or related activities. A profession is a vocation: you take pride in your work, and don’t dabble. Clients rely on you to deliver what was agreed in the contract or letter of engagement, and there is always a letter of engagement with clear terms. Bottom line: money changes hands for services rendered.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about skill. This isn’t to say that there is no skill required to be a good professional photographer, but rather than it really doesn’t seem to be the determining factor in whether one gets the job or not – I’ve been learning this the hard way over the last few months. An event photographer who just randomly aims his camera at groups of people and blasts them with flash can be a professional if all he does is that, and pays his rent with the proceeds. Similarly, perhaps one of the members of Magnum might be an investment magnate on the side; clearly he doesn’t need the photojournalism income, and this doesn’t make him a professional.

Do you see something wrong with those sweeping statements? I certainly do. Yet this is the perception of the industry, and the public at large – and most importantly, that of the majority of clients, too. I’ve always thought of honesty as the best policy – there’s no point in pretending you’re a pro if you’re not. I’ve always told my clients (at least until March this year) that I’m not a full time photographer, but I do deliver professional results.

What does this mean? One thing above all else: consistency. Anybody who takes enough photographs can pull together a portfolio of 10 decent ones; or even 10 excellent ones; however, that may be all they’ve gotten out of say 100 or 200 tries*. On the other hand, if you see similar quality across the board, in every shoot, and the portfolio just happens to be full of slightly better images than the rest – you’ve found a true professional. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, or who the client is, or what conditions they’re working under, they deliver the goods every time. This is particularly important for photojournalists, who must be conditioned to react instantly or miss the shot. And the gear doesn’t matter: a pro will use the right tool for the job, but you could give him a box brownie and the image wouldn’t be that fundamentally different: composition, lighting etc should not change. (Image quality is a different matter altogether, of course).

In every every other industry, being a professional implies that there is a minimum standard that you can expect – a professional dentist or doctor would have a degree, and some years of housemanship, for instance; a professional electrician would be able to wire something without electrocuting themselves (or you); a professional accountant would be able to file your taxes without landing you in trouble with the authorities**. I say ‘implies’, because like with all things, there are varying standards of service. But for the most part, the vast majority of people charging money for that service do know what they’re doing.

*One try would be one event, one wedding, one set of watch images, etc. – with several dozen, if not several hundred images per try.
**Taxation is perhaps the only branch of accountancy where creativity is not only encouraged, but rewarded.

The creative sector is a bit more of a minefield, because everything is subjective. Value is relative – if what you want is a reproduction, then shallow depth of field and soft focus isn’t going to cut it for you – similarly, portraits don’t generally flatter if they’re shot so as to optimize for resolution. Although there are general rules as to what constitutes a good image, and what constitutes a bad one, one can push the envelopes so far that there no longer becomes any clear lines – ultimately, it’s up to whoever is paying the bills. And this is the second thing that differentiates a true professional from an amateur: they deliver what the client wants. This implies a few things: they have the technical ability to execute; they may or may not require the creative ability to translate the client’s vision into a frame, and endow with with their own touch; or they may be required to create an execute the entire concept and shoot. I’ve had the whole spectrum; we must be prepared to wear many hats. Even if the client’s idea may not be the best possible solution you can see for that particular problem (e.g. the lighting is boring, or the framing or angle is too conventional) – we still execute as best we can, and try to tweak it to put our mark of individuality on it – after all, the work will eventually become an advertisement for ourselves, so we must put some pride into it. And it’s also for this reason that inevitably professionals will also try a few creative variations that aren’t on the shot list, in the hope that the client goes for them over or in addition to the original images.

The next distinction is choice: for most working professionals, there is no choice: we take all the jobs we can, partially because volume correlates directly to our income, and partially because you never know what contacts or leads an assignment now may open up in the future. In an increasingly tough photographic market, the reality is that most pros cannot afford to turn down jobs; for every well-paying assignment with a good amount of creative freedom, there are plenty of run-of-the-mill ‘shot factory’ type jobs; though we try, standard pack-shot images from these shoots will never be portfolio-grade material; these clients will probably never make our CV or be publicized; but as much as we don’t like these jobs, we still accept them because they pay the bills, and keep us afloat until the next dream assignment comes along. We know how to price jobs to take into account contingencies, equipment, bad weather, things we need to hire for the job. We understand licensing, intellectual property, and how to protect our image rights***. People who do not make their living from photography do not need to do this, and have the luxury to shoot only the subjects that interest them – consequently, this gives risen to a lot of highly skilled amateurs, and a lot of jaded, creatively-stagnated professionals. However, put the amateur outside his comfort zone, and the results will be decidedly mixed. The pro will soldier on and deliver the expected level of quality, but there’s a good chance that he won’t produce anything exceptional, either.

***Using images without permission is theft, people. A jeweler makes rings for a living – you wouldn’t take one without paying for it. A photographer makes photographs for a living – yet plenty of people either expect images for free, or just help themselves…this is not cool.

And that brings me to the final easily quantifiable distinction: being prepared. Even if something outside the normal course of work happens, the pro is prepared and ready to continue; an example could be as simple as having a spare body, extra lighting equipment if the client changes their mind and wants an outdoor shoot, or even being ready to work under pressure with an audience.

So where is the happy medium? If you can make some of your living from photographic assignments, and some of it elsewhere, perhaps. I don’t know because I’m still trying to figure out what the balance is; the months where I’ve got plenty of commercial work tends to end with a very drained, tired, uninspired feeling; but the months where I’ve got time to be creative also tend to be financial black holes.

Above all, though, I believe that ‘being professional’ should mean something beyond just making your living off it – it should be an embodiment of the term when taken out of context, as in “he acted professionally in that situation”. In summary, here’s my opinion of what makes a true professional photographer (and you’re welcome to differ):
– Doesn’t have any other occupations to distract his/her commitment.
– Consistently delivers the same quality shown in his/her portfolio, i.e. the portfolio is representative of the person, not an exceptional set of outliers.
– Accepts assignments out of financial necessity, but gives them 100% effort and commitment regardless of whether they are interesting or not.
– Continually seeks to improve their personal development and skill level
– Is always prepared for any conceivable eventuality, and has the experience to deal with it and still fulfill the contract.
– Should always act with the client’s best interests in mind, in a fair, ethical an honorable manner. What does this mean? Price equally, don’t discriminate. If you make a mistake, fix it. You’ll be surprised how many photographers don’t do this****.

Now to work on increasing the income bit. MT

****The infamous wedding photography fiasco that’s been making the rounds across the Singaporean forums over the last month or so, for instance.


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Commercial work vs personal work vs experimentation vs development

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This shot was the result of creative white balance use, and getting up early because I wanted to try it. Nikon D700, 28-300VR

One thing I’ve noticed since turning to photography full time is that the amount of personal work I do has greatly reduced. It’s not because I don’t have time to do it – on the contrary, I should have plenty more opportunities to sneak out and shoot for half an hour or an hour here and there – I think it’s because I’m starting to fall into the trap of complacency. Or perhaps I’m reaching a photographic saturation point of sorts.

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This shot was the result of experimenting with large amounts of blu-tack to keep the watch in place for the shot. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro

I definitely still enjoy shooting, and I still feel the same rush when I nail the frame – what I’m missing is the feeling of wanting to go out and do it in the first place. I think a large part of it is because once you start running your own business, there are always more things you can be doing on the development front – either sending out feelers to potential new clients, following up on existing ones, or doing post processing from jobs past. And that doesn’t count this blog, either.

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Up to this point, I’d never used dinner plates as props for watch photography before. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G Micro

It’s odd, but equipment choice paralysis also seems to be a contributing factor. I’ve now got three systems – Nikon FX, Leica M and Micro 4/3 – each for a specific purpose, but also each with enough lenses to make a general purpose kit that I can comfortably go out and shoot anything with, be it an assignment or a holiday at the beach. And that doesn’t count the various compact cameras, either. Sometimes I honestly stand in front of the equipment cabinet before going out and feel plagued by indecision – even if I pick a system, which lens(es) should it go with? What do I anticipate shooting? What kind of look or style am I going for?

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Divisive symmetry. One of those experiments. Nikon D3

Constantly planning shots and thinking about the end result does make you a more conscious and prepared photographer, but it also means that to some extent you’re either paralyzed by indecision, or micromanaging everything in your control to the point that it doesn’t become fun anymore. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is the feeling that you definitely have the wrong piece of equipment on you, but the right one is sitting in the cabinet at home. (At that point, the best thing you can do is figure out what you can do with what you’ve got and just shoot, but that’s an entire post on its own for another day).

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The ephemeral missing sushi. One of my favorite near misses – even though nothing is in focus, you can make out enough of the shot to know that there should be something between the fingers and on it’s way to the diner’s mouth. To my eyes, the blurriness of it all actually helps to reinforce the implied surrealism. Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini, Panasonic 20/1.7 G

So what’s the upshot of all of this? Well, not doing as much personal work means that that the times you do shoot are mostly bridled by the requirements of your clients, and frequently do not result in you pushing the creative envelope – especially if you have conservative clients. The importance of photography for yourself is that it gives you time to experiment and develop your style and technique; without it, it’s too easy to stagnate into a creative rut and consequently land up being unproductive, or worse, uncompetitive. Not having an end client to please takes the pressure off you, and leaves you free to try things that you might not have time to do while on assignment, especially if time is tight and shot list is long – which it almost always is.

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It was extremely dark, and empty – there were no people to fill the frame and provide context, motion and life – I didn’t even know if the shot would work technically, let alone aesthetically. I’m very pleased with the result, though. Leica M9-P, 50/1.4 ASPH

Inevitably, the early results of any experiment result in failure, or at best, partial success. Whilst this may not be acceptable in a client scenario, it’s a crucial part of the learning and development process – if you succeeded at something straight away, chances are you will develop that style far less that somebody who has to work at it. The reasons is down to understanding: assuming we don’t give up, humans understand things by doing them; the more times you have to try something, the more parameters you have to change, the more complete a picture you will be able to build up of how things work. This in turn results in better control over the end result, which of course culminates in better output.

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Same with this shot – one of those surreal, but fun experiments that came to mind after passing by the gorilla for sale in a store window. Leica M9-P, Zeiss 28/2.8 Biogon

Without this experimentation, one stagnates creatively; it’s actually very obvious in the work of various ‘famous’ wedding photographers in this country. Many of them revert to the same portfolio of five or ten compositions and apply them to every shoot – which has several consequences; firstly, they are increasingly pigeonholed into a particular style or look, and that’s what clients expect; secondly, they can’t take the risk of doings something else because of client rejection; finally, they can’t break out of that way of seeing because they’ve been doing it for so long, and the creative process has atrophied. It’s a dangerous cycle.

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Reflections – another experiment. By this point in the shoot (shooting a launch gallery for the Leica V-Lux 3) – I’d had a whole card full of standard shots, but nothing different and interesting – there wasn’t any clean water in sight for a neat reflection, so had to try and make do.

What I always find interesting – and inspiring – is the work of serious amateurs; Flickr is one of the best places to see this. Whilst there are a good number of pros on the site (myself included), it’s also home to a lot of people who fall into the former category. Serious amateurs are in an enviable position – one I didn’t appreciate myself until recently – most of the time, they have the skills to be able to make the shot they want, the lack of pressure to execute it, and the lack of cynicism that stops them from trying things that might fail in the first place. The result is that browsing uploads from my contacts shows me a wide cross section of work; some of it really quite excellent and inspiring; some of it utter rubbish; however, the most interesting to me are the experiments that are near misses, or clearly out of style for the individual: you can almost see how the compositional mind of the photographer works, trying to adapt their old way of seeing to a new style. It’s almost like seeing how something is made.

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If I hadn’t brought the D-Lux 5 along, and packed the light panels on a whim, then this series wouldn’t have happened, and I wouldn’t have known that it’s very possible to make commercial-grade food images with a compact.

I often get ideas through looking at other people’s images, period – especially of places I’ve been before, or things I’ve shot before. This gives you the ability to see things through the eyes of another person – and find what you might have missed from your own perspective, which in turn makes you want to go out and shoot again to try and perfect your vision once more, and capture the essence of that particular subject…

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Making do with the relatively slow f2.8 aperture of the 28/2.8 ASPH and the limited low light capabilities of the M9-P resulted in long shutter speeds, and the slight softening which lead to this rather surreal image – and the hidden gorilla in the shadows.

Creativity is an iterative process; one that must be built on, nurtured, and continuously pursued. Without it, it’s impossible to develop as a photographer. At the same time, it can’t be forced – something that a lot of people (our government included) don’t seem to understand; you can’t just throw time and money at it and hope that new ideas sprout. It doesn’t work that way – the inspiration, or the ‘ah ha!’ spark has to be there in the first place. The tough part is creating an environment for yourself in which you feel inspired and inclined to experiment. Stress, expectations and tight schedules aren’t conducive for creativity. But over-relaxation and laziness isn’t, either. It’s a tough balance, this one. And that’s one of the reasons why from now on, I’m going to make sure there are a couple of days a month – usually tacked on to the end of location-based assignments – which permit me to go off, explore and experiment. I highly recommend it. MT

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Professional photography with compact cameras

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Regent Square architecture, London. Ricoh GR-Digital III

The title of this article isn’t a contradiction: I did really just suggest shooting for clients, for money, with a compact camera. I’m not talking about compact system cameras or ILCs like Micro Four Thirds; those have recently come of age and are very, very competent indeed – in fact, for most purposes, they produce indistinguishable final results (think print, or web, rather than pixel-peeping at 400% on a perfectly calibrated monitor) from larger cameras if used within their limits.

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GuB Marine Chronometer. Ricoh GR-Digital III

The reality is that while the big guns have been steadily improving, and have almost all surpassed the image quality level any professional photographer may require, there have been steady improvements in compact cameras (fixed lens, small sensor) too. It’s often not clear which arm of sensor development leads which: the desire for lower noise and improved photosite efficiency has undoubtedly helped improve dynamic range and noise properties of larger sensors. And vice versa, development of CMOS technology for larger sensors is slowly finding its way into point and shoots.

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Gas Malaysia. Ricoh GR-Digital III

What does this mean? In the real world, my clients almost never have final uses for the images that require more than 12MP when properly shot and composed (i.e. not heavily cropped). We can delude ourselves into thinking more is better – all else equal, it usually is – but most of the time, it makes no difference. Even if you’re doing a billboard, you don’t need medium format – I’ve done a couple with the mere 4MP Nikon D2H – simply because the individual pixels are about the size of golf balls, but nobody notices because you never get any closer than 20 meters.

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Selfridges, London. Ricoh GR-Digital III

I recently shot some wildlife images for the local Malaysian launch for the Leica V-LUX 3 (a full review is here on the official Leica Blog). The spec is ambitious: a fixed 24-600mm lens,12MP, and full resolution images to ISO 3200. Did I mention the sensor was just 1/2.33” in size? It doesn’t get much smaller in the compact realm; there’s 1/2.5”, 1/3”, and then you’re into cellphone sensors.

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Scarlet Ibis. Leica V-Lux 3

In any case, the images were printed to at least 20×30”, and in some cases, larger. I even used ISO 400 (base of 100) and very dodgy shutter speeds for some of them. Was the color odd? Did they look grainy and horrible? Not one single bit, even with your nose pressed up to the print. I shot raw and did zero noise reduction – zero. Would they pass for fine art, let alone commercial use? Absolutely. In fact, the results were on par with the Nikon D200 and it’s APSC sensor that I used for the same kind of thing about five or so years ago.

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Leica Visoflex III on M9-P. Leica V-Lux 3

I did some other testing with that camera, too: studio product work with flash. Here, the result was even more difficult to distinguish from a larger sensor camera – at base ISO, controlled lighting and optimal apertures, everything looks superb even to the pixel level. In fact, possibly better, because to achieve the same depth of field in the final image, I’d have to stop down so far on a full frame camera that I’d be incurring a softness penalty due to diffraction.

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Tulip staircase, Queen’s House, Greenwich. Ricoh GR-Digital III

So what about putting my money where my mouth is? I have already. There are photos I submitted to Getty Images – which were shot with an iPhone 4 (5MP) – and accepted. I swear the file quality is fine for A3+ prints, so long as you’re shooting at base ISO and watch exposure carefully – I’ve tried. I recently shot another job (to be the subject of a future On Assignment article) with another compact – the Leica D-LUX 5. Yes, it has a slightly larger sensor, and I was using LED light panels, but the result was successful: the client (and I) would not have been any happier had I used a larger camera.

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KL Drift. Ricoh GR-Digital III

We all know Alex Majoli made his name shooting with compacts – famously half a dozen Olympuses C5060s – because of their silence, unobtrusiveness and low replacement cost, especially important in combat or hostile environments. (I’m told he uses an M9-P now, though.)

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Welders; Hommage a Majoli. Ricoh GR-Digital I

I should probably talk a bit about the situations in which a compact would be more useful than a larger DSLR or even ILC:

1. When size or weight is a priority. I haven’t done it (and probably never will) – but I wouldn’t want to climb Everest with a Nikon D4 and suitable lenses. There’s plenty of light, so I’d probably go with one of the more robust compacts.

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Shipyard inspection. Ricoh GR-Digital I

2. When you don’t want to stand out. Sensitive or covert photojournalism/ documentary photography immediately springs to mind. Nobody is going to pay you a second thought or glance if you’re ‘just shooting with your cellphone’ – everybody else is doing it, so you just blend in. Compacts are pretty much socially acceptable and transparent in most situations; if you’re not 100% sure of that, adopt the shooting pose of a complete photographic ignoramus and you’ll soon see what I mean.

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Nepalis protesting in London. Ricoh GR-Digital III

3. When there’s a lot of light. This sounds stupid: it’s not, because you’re going to have a to stop down a DSLR in the tropics if you’re shooting in bright sunlight; I’ve hit the 1/8000s limit even at f4 or f5.6 and base ISO before – especially with anything even slightly reflective, like water or glass. Short of using a grad ND so you can open up the aperture a bit more, you’re going to land up having to stop down anyway. And guess what: compositionally, there’s no longer any difference between the images cameras of a different sensor size produce. (Dynamic range is something else entirely).

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Tea time. Ricoh GR-Digital III

4. When you need extended depth of field. There are compositions that only work with compact cameras precisely because everything is in focus – something which may be optically impossible with an SLR, especially if you need a telephoto perspective. You’re probably wondering why I don’t use one for macrophotography: simple, nobody makes something that delivers the right perspective, and since you can’t change lenses, there’s not a lot I can do to rectify that. Secondary optics and adaptors are an option, but then you’re going to be getting compromised image quality because you’re adding components to an optical system that’s optimized for something else.

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Trees. Ricoh GR-Digital III

5. When you want a different look. There are times when the harsher, higher contrast look that’s a property of smaller photosite sensors (specifically: lower dynamic range, because the electron wells are physically smaller and can’t collect as many photons before reaching full charge capacity and overflowing – i.e. blowing out or saturating). If you’re shooting in bright daylight, this could look like exposing for the shadows and completely losing the highlights to white; or exposing for the highlights and leaving the shadows dark (or even black). The latter produces some very arresting black and white work, actually. Or if you’re totally masochistic, perhaps you like the look of massive chroma and luminance noise.

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Croissants a Poilane. Canon SD780 IS

The one final piece of advice I suggest is that you talk to your clients beforehand to make sure they’re okay with you using a small camera: very often, it’s about perception rather than reality; your client may not be aware that you can deliver the same image quality or unique images through your choice of equipment – it may negatively affect your reputation. Most importantly, make sure you have enough practice and confidence that you can actually deliver what you claim with your compact – don’t experiment on paid work, unless it’s B-roll. And as ever, always carry a backup. MT


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