Tag: opinion (page 1 of 1)

Then and Now

As a photographer, what do I do now that I did not do when I was starting out? Or, to put it the other way round, what do I no longer do that I once did? Here are seven things off the top of my head accompanied by some random photographs that have no direct relation to the words but which happen to appeal to me today.

I don’t chimp. Partly, this is because as I get older and my reading vision declines I find it harder to see anything on those tiny screens, partly because I have more confidence in my ability to shape the picture the way I want, and partly because I have more confidence in the combination of my judgement and the camera’s technology to deliver a well exposed image. Mostly it’s because while I’m looking at my little screen the world is happening and I’m not paying attention and that’s how to miss great pictures. There’s time enough for chimping on the big screen once I get home.

I don’t look for approval. While I have never been overly obsessed with this, there was a time when I posted on social media and photo sharing sites hoping that people might see my pictures and say nice things about them or at least click a button to indicate their approval. Then I deleted everything, closed the photo sharing accounts and got off social media. Now I post my pictures on my blog and on one forum I’ve been posting to on and off for about ten years. This is because…

I don’t worry. If I like a picture it’s a good picture. If the rest of the world thinks it’s rubbish, the rest of the world is wrong! Of course affirmation is nice but maturing as a photographer means maturing in your ability to judge the worth of your own images. If the worth of your images is determined by the opinions of Facebook or Flickr users you will never develop the capacity to judge your own work. If the worth of your images is determined by technical considerations you are prioritizing what is secondary.

I’ve stopped looking for the ‘Lightroom killer’. Like many Lightroom users I have, from time to time, considered alternatives that might more perfectly meet my needs. I have discovered that many so called ‘Lightroom killers’ are laughably inadequate by comparison. Only Capture 1 is in the same league. Instead of looking for the perfect software, I’ve spent my time getting to grips with the full potential of Lightroom. One of the key things I have learned in the process (photography pun intended) is how to use that great potential with subtlety. Not every image needs to be bludgeoned to sterile perfection.

I’ve abandoned processing gimmicks. No HDR, no selective colour, no AI skies or photo-shopped moons. When I process now my goal is to end up with something that looks like what I saw, or imagined I saw. To paraphrase Dieter Rams, ‘good processing is as little processing as possible’.

I keep my gear small and simple. Thankfully I’ve never been overly afflicted with Gear Acquisition Syndrome, though in the past that didn’t stop me looking. Now, I don’t even look. I have a Fujifilm X-T2, a camera from 2016 which in digital years in practically vintage. I have two lenses for it – an 18-55mm zoom that came with my previous Fuji and a 35mm. The less I have, and the less I switch cameras and brands, the better I know my camera and lenses, the more familiar they become, the more they ‘disappear’ into the background and allow me to focus on the one thing that matters.

I print. Even the biggest, brightest, most hi-tech display on the planet can’t equal the pleasure of a print. This is partly because I have yet to see a display that matches the complexity and subtlety – that word again – of a good print, but mostly because the best display in the world can’t match the tactile joy of a print in your hands.

I’m sure there are many more but those are the ones that I’m conscious of and that come to mind when I try to think about the ways my approach to photography has changed.

Meaningless Pictures

Every once in a while I come across a post on a photographic website purporting to present the author’s philosophy or defining the meaning of that photographer’s images.

Generally the former is nothing more than a statement of how a particular photographer works or a kind of mission statement often aimed at potential clients. The latter, though, is a different kind of claim and one that I find unconvincing, for the individual photograph purely as photograph has little defined meaning.

This came home to me forcefully on a visit to Kyoto in 2015 where the Hosomi Museum was hosting a travelling exhibition of one hundred single images by Japanese photographers. Every image carried a brief label but that label was entirely in Japanese. The only information I could gather about any image from these labels was a date — presumably noting the birth (and occasionally death) of each photographer.

Not being an expert in Japanese photography almost all of the images were new to me. Some looked vaguely familiar while a few were recognisable including Moriyama’s Stray Dog image. Of those I had never seen before I had little or no idea what any of them meant. I could have inferred some meaning from the images (though with some it was difficult to do even that) but there was no obvious reason why my understanding of the meaning of these images should be identical with the meaning ascribed to them by the photographers who took them (assuming they actually did ascribe some particular meaning to their images).

Of course I was able to find some meaning in the Moriyama image but the only reason I could do so was because I was not only familiar with a wide range of his other images but also because I had over the years read and listened to discussions of and interviews with Moriyama. The meaning I could find in this image presupposed a much more extensive knowledge of his work and and a verbally communicated understanding of the photographer.

I think this is equally true of any iconic photograph whether it be Dorothea Lange’s Mother of Seven Children, Robert Capa’s The Falling Soldier or Ansel Adams’ Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico. We assume that we understand the meaning or intent of these images but what understanding we have derives not from the images themselves but from the verbally communicated knowledge of the wider context in which the photographs were created. Even Nick Ut’s The Napalm Girl which seems to have a very clear meaning irrespective of our knowledge of the background to the image is more ambiguous than we think.

We might see the meaning of Ut’s image as a comment on the suffering of the innocent in a time of war. But is this a judgement on war in general or on a particular war? Or on a particular way of fighting a war? Perhaps Ut meant the image as a specific judgement on the use of this particular weapon or as a wider judgement on the US involvement in a war that was not its own. Most recently this image has been taken by Facebook to ‘mean’ exploitation of a naked child, a view that was initially shared by the Associated Press which meant the image very nearly didn’t get published:

…an editor at the AP rejected the photo of Kim Phuc running down the road without clothing because it showed frontal nudity. Pictures of nudes of all ages and sexes, and especially frontal views were an absolute no-no at the Associated Press in 1972.

Horst Faas and Marianne Fulton, How the Picture Reached the World at The Digital Journalist.

Moreover, the meaning of Ut’s image is bound up not only with the wider story but with the later story of the woman’s life and the photographer’s relationship with her. Obviously none of this can be read from the image alone and we only come to know of it through other forms of communication.

Few of us will ever be in a position to take such a photograph but many of us still wish to believe that our photographs have meaning or that we can control that meaning for others. It’s an illusion. As Clive Scott notes,

because the photograph is so weak in intentionality, in its ability to say what it means, so it must either outbid itself, make its case with the crassest obviousness, or it must fall back on language to make its case for it. More particularly, the photograph shaves context down to something wafer-thin. The photograph can never tell us enough of the story.

Clive Scott, Street Photography From Atget to Cartier-Bresson (London, 2007) p8

While this may be a cause for concern for some I perceive it to be enormously freeing. Yes, I can use photography as one medium among many to convey a story but I don’t have to believe that any particular image or even a set of images has to mean something, or that even if it means something to me that I have any way to accurately communicate that meaning to anyone else. Photography’s meaninglessness, its wafer-thinness, is a liberation.

On Watermelons

Our neigbourhood store was on Skender Luarasi. I don’t know if that’s what the street was called back then when I lived in Tirana but that seems to be how it’s known now. It was just round the corner from my house on a nameless street now called Rruga Liman Kaba. The store was owned by two brothers, an assumption on our part. They looked like brothers, but since they spoke no English and I spoke only a few words of Albanian there was no way to know for sure. It was a tiny place no bigger than the front room of a small house with a covered outdoor space for the fruit and veg. They sold a little of everything, not unlike the corner stores that dotted Belfast when I was growing up. I shopped there because it was convenient and I wanted to support them but also because the fruit I got there tasted better than most of the fruit I had ever eaten up to that point.

Fruit was seasonal, picked when it was ready and sold as long as the season lasted. I never knew from one week to the next what would appear or what would disappear. There were a few glorious weeks of peaches or cherries or whatever happened to be in season and then they were gone. Often it looked a little rough, a little battered and bruised and it probably wouldn’t have made it past quality control in Tesco or Sainsbury’s but it tasted better than anything I could get at any supermarket.

Watermelons piled high in front of the store announced the arrival of one of Albania’s most popular fruits. I have seen claims that Albania has the highest watermelon consumption per capita in the world (though I saw this unsourced claim on the internet so feel free to take it with a pinch of salt). They were certainly abundant in the shops in Tirana and on the roadside stalls during the season so people were clearly eating a lot. In the heat of an Albanian summer cool, wet, sweet, flavourful watermelon was blissful.

Watermelons — from the Philippines in the absence of any pictures from Albania

Meanwhile a Norwegian expat of my acquaintance was working with the Albanians to develop export markets for agricultural produce. It was a tough job. He told me about the many challenges of trying to set up the administrative structures and processes necessary to get Albanian produce into the wider market of Western Europe, and of changing mindsets among Albanian producers and bureaucrats who didn’t understand why it had to be so complicated. But the problems weren’t all on the Albanian side.

My Norwegian friend saw the potential of watermelons as an export crop. They grew in abundance in Albania, they were a little more robust than some other fruit, they were delicious. But there was a problem. They had seeds. Western consumers had got used to ‘seedless’ hybrid watermelons and so some Western consumers resisted the idea of a watermelon with seeds. If both kinds tasted the same perhaps there might be some sense in choosing seedless over seeded (though spitting out the seeds is part of the fun of eating watermelon) but they don’t. The industrial agriculture that produces the hybrid watermelon has also produced the shelves full of beautiful but largely tasteless fruit and veg that stock Western supermarkets. So potential consumers given a choice of flavourful seeded watermelons or flavourless seedless ones chose to forgo flavour for the convenience of not having to remove a few seeds.

It’s been more that ten years since I lived in Albania but I thought of these things one day when I bought a quarter watermelon at Whole Foods in Washington DC. It looked fine, it was ‘seedless’, it tasted vaguely like watermelon, though mostly it just tasted wet. Yet for many consumers it seems even seedless watermelons aren’t enough. Above the shelf with the watermelon quarters was another shelf lined with plastic cups of pre-sliced watermelon. At a generous estimate each cup may have contained the flesh of one sixteenth of a watermelon but was 30% more expensive that the unsliced quarter watermelon.

Who are these people, I wondered? Who are these people who apparently don’t have the time (or perhaps the skills) to slice up a watermelon? Granted, something like a mango or a pineapple requires a little more effort to slice so perhaps people feel its worth the extra, but a watermelon?

My parents were teenagers during the second world war and entered adulthood in the years of austerity and rationing that followed. The values of that war and post-war generation, my parents’ generation, have stuck with me even though my life is more comfortable than they could ever have imagined. Perhaps choosing seedless over seeded watermelons or paying extra for sliced watermelon is a marker of how sophisticated we have become as consumers, but I can’t help thinking that ‘I don’t like seeds’, ‘I want it sliced’ sound like the exclamations of an overindulged child.

Three Years with Film

A little over three years ago I took the plunge and ordered a Nikon FM2n and five rolls of Ilford HP5+. At the time I was open to the possibility that I might lose interest after six months but I still have my FM2n plus a few other film cameras and still enjoy shooting with them though I still use my digital cameras regularly as well. In those three years I have come to a few conclusions about my approach to film photography. Here they are in no particular order.

First, I’m a 35mm SLR bloke. I tried a few rangefinders along the way – a couple of Konicas and a Yashica – and have occasionally been tempted to try medium format but I have ended up with three main cameras all of them 35mm SLRs. The rangefinders are fun little cameras but I prefer the size, adaptability and solidity of SLRs.

Second, I like classic 1970’s SLRs. I tried a couple of newer models – the Nikon F100 and F75 – but I preferred a more hands on approach and concluded that if I was going to use an auto-everything camera I would go with a digital model. That my preferred digital camera, the Fujifilm X-T2, is as well built as the F100 and a lot better built than most film SLRs from the 1980’s onwards only confirmed this for me. There is an element of nostalgia to this as well since I was a teenager in the late 1970’s just developing an interest in photography and the SLRs I now own are all cameras I dreamed of back then but could never afford.

Third, I don’t really care about data. When I first loaded a scanned negative into Lightroom the emptiness of the Metadata panel unnerved me. I started trying to work out how best to record data manually and organise it in Lightroom and physically in a film archive. I even wrote an article about it for the Emulsive website. Now? I don’t really care. Camera, film, lens (though sometimes I forget to note this) and the approximate date is all I record. The rest is detail.

Fourth, I don’t feel the need to archive my negatives. I started out keeping them all but then reasoned that since some or most of the pictures were rubbish and not worth five minutes to scan why should I keep the negatives? Also, I don’t do this with my RAW files. So now I just keep negatives for the pictures I like and bin the rest. These negatives still need a little organisation so I can find them again but I keep it simple – year and roll number.

Fifth, the process is more important than the outcome. Truth be told if I never take another shot on film worth publishing or printing I would still go out and shoot. I find film photography with mostly manual cameras and a limit of 36 shots therapeutic. The pleasure is in the process of shooting rather than the creation of pleasing images. The latter is a bonus but nothing more. When the outcome is important I use my Fujifilm digital cameras.

Sixth, and following on from the previous point, I have no interest in developing or printing my own film. I can understand that this might be a critical part of the process when the outcome – the final negative or the final print – matters more but for me the pleasure is being out with the camera taking pictures.

If you would like to see the bonus pictures that I do think are worth keeping you can find them all in my Granularity category.

Lightroom Classic

I’ve been using Lightroom since version 2 which I picked up back in 2009 I think. Lightroom – now Lightroom Classic – is currently on version 10.1. Along the way I’ve had my gripes and complaints. In the early days it was mostly to do with missing features. With more recent versions the big issue is speed – or the lack of it. I also did my share of complaining when Lightroom finally went all in with the subscription model, though I do find the intensity of the hostility that this move generated a little excessive. From time to time I have also experimented with Lightroom alternatives, but every time I come back to Lightroom.

Partly this is down to familiarity. I’ve been using Lightroom for more than a decade now. It’s second nature to me. The Lightroom alternatives, try as they might to replicate Lightroom visually, all have a steep learning curve to use to their full potential. I’m not sure I have the time or energy to for that.

Mostly, though, its down to the simple fact that there is only one viable Lightroom alternative. Over the years I’ve seen no end of articles purporting to introduce the next ‘Lightroom killer’. I’ve tried most of them and while the best are very good they still have some way to go until they can match Lightroom while others aren’t even close. The only genuine alternative in my view is Capture One.

I have downloaded the thirty day trial for almost every version of Capture One over the years and always been impressed but Capture One precisely because it is so capable has the steepest learning curve of all when transitioning (even though with more recent versions Phase One has tried to make the transition easier.) That it was also quite expensive also put me off. Last year, though, I got an email from Phase One offering the full version of Capture One Pro for $90 per year on subscription. Normally Capture One is $20 per month or $300 for a perpetual licence so I signed up on the basis that I could use it for a full year then decide if I wanted to keep it. Better yet, a closer reading of the offer revealed that the $90 price was not just for one year but also applied to annual renewal. I was a little sceptical but this year my subscription did indeed renew for $90. I have no idea how long this will last since I assume at some point Phase One will raise the standard price, but at least it means I can run Capture One alongside Lightroom without feeling I’m wasting money.

Despite slowly learning the ways of Capture One and appreciating some of its superb capabilities Lightroom remains my default choice and I don’t foresee that changing. Only if the price of either Lightroom or Capture One were to jump would I consider choosing between the two. Even then I would probably stick with Lightroom. For all the gripes it remains very reasonably priced at $120 per year bearing in mind that also include Photoshop and a handful of other Adobe products like Portfolio and Spark. Lightroom’s latest release has brought yet more capability to local adjustments with the option for localised hue adjustment. Used together with the colour range mask it is now possible to fine tune the hue of a specific colour in a localised selection. No other application I know of offers that degree of detailed control.

So what about the Fuji ‘worms’? If you are not a Fujifilm user you will probably never have heard of this. Even if you are a Fujifilm user you may not have heard of this. Without going into detail some uses have an issue with how Lightroom renders RAW files from Fuji’s X-Trans sensor. I’m on of those Fujifilm users who has never seen this as an issue, which I think is the case for the great majority of users. If you are interested just take a deep breath and search for ‘Fujifilm worms’.

The Rule of Fifths

There appears to be no end to books, DVD’s, training courses and much else besides on the subject of photographic composition. I’ve read or watched a few of these works and they can be valuable up to a point. Perhaps they have their greatest value when starting out, offering beginning photographers or those wanting to further their photography a helpful set of guidelines to build on. One of the most commonly recommended guidelines is the ‘rule of thirds’. The shot below taken in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC illustrates the rule of thirds, with the main elements placed on vertical and horizontal lines marking the ‘thirds’ of the image and the key element – the man’s head in his hands – at a point where vertical and horizontal intersect.

At some point having grasped the basics we all have to venture out, exploring the limits and boundaries they set, perhaps choosing to reject some of them entirely. This comes from practice and observation. With practice comes confidence, the confidence to know your own mind when it comes to composition rather than conforming to a set of guidelines no matter how established. Beyond practice observation is crucial, not merely of the world around us, but of the work of others. Obviously this includes other photographers but we lose so much if we stop there. A few hours in an art gallery can offer instructive lessons in composition.

My approach to photographic composition has been influenced and changed by spending time in galleries looking at the work of Dutch and Flemish painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I had always liked those grand naturalistic landscapes and seascapes, providing such a contrast to the claustrophobic and highly mannered works depicting biblical and classical scenes. So perhaps it’s not surprising that when I started to be more serious about my photography these works influenced my approach, at least on those occasions when I photographed landscapes and seascapes.

Here are two works representative of this northern European tradition both of which are in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The first is by Aelbert Cuyp, A Pier Overlooking Dordrecht.

The greater part of this painting is that beautiful open expansive sky. The horizon lies only about one fifth of the way from the base of the painting. The particular subject of the work, the pier and those who have just landed from a small boat, occupy only a very small area of the picture tucked into the bottom left hand corner. Yet the low perspective highlights the people, the sails of the boats and the distant town of Dordrecht against the sky. The result is an image that is open, airy and spacious yet still manages to draw the viewer’s eye to the pier and the people on it.

Something similar can be seen in Aert van der Neer’s A Snowy Winter Landscape.

In this painting the horizon is set a little higher, perhaps a quarter of the way into the frame, yet the picture is once again dominated by a richly textured cloud filled sky. Life is concentrated into a narrow strip across the bottom of the picture, but what an astonishing variety of life it is. It’s hard to see in this small reproduction but standing before this work your eye is drawn further and further into the image discovering more and more going on in this narrow frozen space. There are people arriving, people leaving, people skating, people fishing and so much more.

I find it fascinating that the artist has chosen to portray his subject in this way. Surely it would have been easier to ‘change the crop’ as it were, expanding the space in which life is overflowing, something he did in a number of other works such as River in Winter and Sports on a Frozen River that demonstrate a more ‘conventional’ rule-of-thirds composition. Yet doing so would have resulted in a much less pleasing and compelling image.

Applying this approach to my photography the first picture below of Manila Bay uses a ‘rule of fifths’ (or even sixths) and emphasizes the spectacular sky, though the couple sitting on the bay wall are in a more ‘traditional’ rule of thirds position. In the second picture, of Lake Michigan, I pushed both horizontal and vertical elements beyond the ‘thirds’ so that the focus of the picture is concentrated in the bottom right hand corner.

I have often heard and more often read the famous Robert Capa quote, ‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough’. Perhaps that’s true some of the time, but not always. Sometimes if your pictures aren’t good enough you need to step back, widen your perspective, open your images up, let them breathe.

Car Park

What’s the difference between a bad photo and a boring photo? I was wondering about this as I trawled through pictures from ten years ago and found some that I had kept despite repeated culling over the years. I think ‘boring’ is a quality that a picture can have that makes it something more than merely bad. Bad pictures on the other hand don’t even rise to the height of being boring. Below is one of my favourite ‘boring’ photos. This is an exit from an underground car park at the Allianz arena in the suburbs of Munich.

I like the subdued colour palette with just that splash of red, and the lines and angles, but there’s no getting away from the fact that there’s a lot of tarmac and concrete here. Still, much of the urban world is like this – functional, unremarkable, to the point where we don’t even notice it. Perhaps the ‘boringness’ of a picture can tell us something more, whereas the only thing a bad picture tells us is that its a bad picture.