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The look of film

I hear the nouveaux filmistas talking of ‘the look of film’, but what is it? Is there a magic or secret sauce that film has and digital can’t do?

From looking at old Photography Year Books or magazines I could say that the traditional film look is low dynamic range, odd colours, grain and blur. But equally, I’ve got digital pictures that look like I doodled them in crayon while blindfolded.

I know in the early days of digital it was easy to tell them apart. Digital had a visual smoothness – a lack of fine detail or grain. Not so much the grain though – it was perfectly possible to make smooth and grainless film images (if only I’d learned how). I think it was the lack of fine detail. And then digital got more pixels and a wider dynamic range and it could be as fine or as gnarly as film. So what now is the film look?

Film or digital, and why?

I can add grain to a digital picture if I want to. I can emulate the colours of Kodak or Fuji or almost any brand or age of film. Crush the shadows to black? Put a halo around the highlights? All easy enough. Double exposures? I used to think this was only possible on film, but then I learned how to do it with digital. So what is the magic that only film has?

Film or digital, and why?

I wonder if the look of film is actually the rendering of the older lenses we used? If I put an old film-era lens onto a digital sensor, would I get the magical look of film without the inconvenience? Maybe what people call the look of film is the look of older lenses? And what happens if I use a modern digital-era highly corrected lens on a film camera? Do I get the look of digital?

I think film has a couple of unique things, but you won’t see them in the final image. One is longevity: film is a physical medium and if you hold it up to the light you will understand that it contains pictures. This is less obvious with a memory card. So even if we can no longer read an old storage medium, we can scan or project film. The other is that you can revisit film with newer technology and get more out of it. I upgraded my scanner some years back and got better scans. Then I learned to use my scanner and got even better scans. My digital files will never reveal more detail than they already have. Actually, there’s a third thing – I can tell my analogue images apart from my digital by the scratches, dust and hairs.

But am I missing something? Is there a film look that only film has?


The power of the dark side

How much time do you spend organising your picture files or negatives? How about documents or files? Compare that with how much time you spend looking for them.

I worked at a place where one department in the business made large efforts to properly file their shared documents. They built trees of folders within folders (within… you get the idea). They made recursion into an art form. This meant that some files could rightly be saved in more than one place. So they did. So they lost track of which version of the file was the most recent, or they edited one copy and caused the others to be inaccurate. And unless you completely understood the filing system, you couldn’t find anything or you saved your files somewhere that made sense to you. Then they hit the next wall – that Windows needs the name of a folder tree to be unique within the first 256 characters. As the folders became ever more nested they hit the limit. Files could be seen but not saved or moved. There was a sense of humour crisis and an outbreak of tetchyness.

What’s this got to do with you? Because sometimes the appearance of organisation causes harm and frustration.

There are some simple methods of filing and finding pictures that go wide rather than deep. Search tools are very good. I use Agent Ransack but if you are at the commercial level of filing and storage, go for the full version (File Locator Pro). It can find just about anything, anywhere. If you think you may have duplicate copies of files, try Duplicate File Detective. If, like me, you may have several copies of the same picture in different places, use something like Duplicate Photos Finder. Another tool that is a charm for files spread across multiple drives is a utility from the Sith Lords of computing themselves. SyncToy can compare pairs of folders or folder trees and move the most recent copy of each file into one of them. Basically, grab the most recent versions of files from a bunch of drives or storage cards and put them all into one place. I also use it to make backups, as it can copy only new or newer files and so saves time.

Was it under B for bird or L for lunch?

… And a brief diversion – before we moved house I had a lot of books; around 750. They were spread across multiple shelves and rooms. I catalogued them using a phone application that scans the barcode and uses the ISBN to get the book’s details. I recorded which shelf each book was on and saved myself wandering about the house. It also meant that if I found some pre-loved treasure in a charity shop I could tell at once if I already had a copy. The key thing though was that the location had no finer detail than which set of shelves a book was on. That was good enough to find it, and resilient to putting the book back in a different place on the shelf. The lesson learned was from the Department mentioned above, where perfection failed to survive reality.

You could also try an organisational tip that comes from caching theory, called LRU or least recently used. Whenever you take a physical file or folder out of a filing drawer, put it back at the front of the drawer. Very soon the things you use most will be at the front. If it’s a stack or pile, put things back on the top and the things you want most will be where they are easiest to find. For files on a computer, see if you can change the view to put the most recently used or changed items at the top.

Why do you care? Because as the number of files and folders increases (like 1,000 picture shoots) things get harder to find. And as even Obama said, life is too short to bubble-sort.


If good means perfect then we have seen the rise of the good, followed by the return of the imperfect. Digital killed analogue, then analogue rose from the grave, but digital is winding-up a super double-punch to be launched by AI.

What got me thinking was an (old) essay by Glenn Gould on the rise of recorded classical music and the possible demise of live concerts. He wrote about the heinous crime of splicing tape recordings together to make a perfect performance from multiple takes. He also wrote about how recordings had changed the sound of classical music. With a recording the sound is not at the mercy of the concert hall’s acoustics and even solo instruments could be made audible.

Compare that with digital photography and tools like Photoshop. The analogy would be a change from something like slide film, where everything had to be right first time, to digital where ‘fix it in post’ became a thing. I’ve written before about how older analogue pictures weren’t technically very good. But now we praise pictures for their sharpness and employ software to make them sharper or reduce the appearance of noise.

And then, just as we were putting on our shades because the future was so bright, analogue awoke. I never thought I’d see cassette tapes again. I thought the same of vinyl records, but even Ikea is selling a record player. Film is making a gradual revival, even though we’ve lost a lot of the ability to make it (or the cameras to use it in). But where there is a demand there will be someone to take money for it, such as the Leica M6. I doubt we’ll ever see an Ikea camera, but there may yet be something that fills the gap between Lomo and Loco.

Forgotten, but not gone

But then there is the Rise of the Machines. AI-based utilities can generate pictures from a description. This can remove the need for any craft skill and allow anyone to be creative. I still expect the best pictures will be created by the most creative people though, as it’s their imagination that counts, not their tools. So where companies once hired people who were good with Photoshop, they will be hiring people who can imagine the best descriptions or can train the AIs on the best sources.

Perhaps I need a better description? This was ‘elephant riding a bus’.
So was this.

Give it a few years though and we could be seeing the resurgence of darkroom printing or the use of live models in reaction to (what will be thought of as) effortless automation. Grant Morrison dealt with the waves of changing approach as style superseded style.  He invoked the Sekhmet Hypothesis, which says that there is an 11 year cycle of solar magnetism that moves us between hippy and punk, or introspective to explorative. Not that I can even pretend to understand the theory, but I can see how styles or movements break out, dominate and then fade as they are seen to be establishment, ready to be crushed by the New Wave. Indeed, if you want to know how this works with art, read What are you looking at? by Will Gompertz.

What shall we do then? If you are an artist, then I expect you will be either exploiting the potential of the new or creating it. As new tools arise we can use them, but we will be guided by what we want to be able to do. I suppose this is a plea to use the tools rather than let the tools use us. Just because I can shoot sharp pictures doesn’t mean that all my pictures must be sharp. Just because I can ask an AI to make me a picture of hamsters doing the dance of the seven veils, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have more fun and reward from making a picture of which I’m capable. I might take a look at the clever noise reduction tools to see if I can rescue some old pictures, but I’m not going to make a career out of it.

But apart from all the wittering, it looks like we’re living in interesting times. But I think we always have. What about you though? Surfing the AI wave, making mix tapes or looking for a new stacked stereo system? Or waiting for the next sunspot cycle to bring back flares?

Not even funny

Seth Godin has a view on this that may resonate: “If your work isn’t more useful or insightful or urgent than GPT can create in 12 seconds, don’t interrupt people with it. Technology begins by making old work easier, but then it requires that new work be better.”

Or there is always XKCD.

Just before going to press, I saw that the Canny Man has done a good piece on promtography.


Can you, or should you, separate the artist from their art? If someone made fantastic pictures but was a complete rissole (as we say in front of the kids), could you continue to like what they produced? Would that change if your appreciation gave them money, perhaps from buying their work?

I’m thinking of a cartoonist I used to like. Initially I liked his work so much I bought some of his books, that were collections of his cartoon strips. Then a couple of his books had writing in, which the author used to express his ideas on management and physics. The first was misguided and the second was crazy. Or to use Murray Gell-Man’s phrase: ‘not even wrong’. Then the author became a supporter of Trump. And then made some racist comments. I had stopped reading his stuff when he went off the rails with his written ideas and had given his books away to a charity shop. I’d stopped following his cartoons after I heard his paean to Trump, but I was still disappointed that he followed-through as a racist. I should have listened to a real artist – “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time”.

In this case it was easy to drop the art with the artist. But there are other artists whose work is better, but who are also rissoles  of the first degree. Racist and anti-vax musicians, violent and misogynistic painters, Nazi photographers. So is it possible, or even morally right, to appreciate the art while disliking the artist? The problem is of course, that appreciating the art often sends money to the artist. There is also an odd halo effect that people who are good at one thing are thought to be good in general. Why else do artists or actors get asked their views on current affairs? The same effect makes us think that people who are beautiful or rich are also good. So a talented artist who looks nice and has a bit of cash is assumed to be both clever and correct. And when we pay for the art, our money makes the artist famous and virtuous. This confirms to them that their beliefs must be correct. Unfortunately, we give them status.

Imagine a picture here. I have the picture but I’m not sharing it. I was walking on a beach and found a cardboard figure stuck in the sand. From the back of the beach it looked like a person coming in from the sea and up the small dunes. The figure was a caricature of one of the Black and White Minstrels. I can hope that the figure was planted in the sand as a protest and to make fun of our Home Secretary. But I have no wish for anyone to have access to this picture and potentially cause harm or distress. Private Eye maybe, but nobody else.

Equally contentious, in many places

Which leads to another question: can nice people make good art? Do you have to be at odds with society or yourself to be creative? Probably not – there are people who are or were very creative but who also seem to be decent and normal. Let me reinforce that: I don’t think there is any justification for being bad, no matter what art you produce. Being a bad or nasty person detracts from your art, because it makes me question the value of it (plus being nasty is bad in itself, whether you make art or not). I might like what you have produced but I will always worry that liking it validates your views or behaviour. I believe it is true though that to make art you must be vulnerable, in the sense of being open to the world. But perhaps I’ve shot down my own argument, in that bad people can also make good art? So I’m back to trying to separate the art from the artist, or wondering if I should.

Of course there is a counter-argument that people with unpopular views are unfairly repressed in what John Stuart Mill called the tyranny of the majority. But I think we are generally smart enough to tell the difference between hate and dissent. If you seek or cause harm or deficit to others, you are hateful. I think this solves what is being called cancel culture – the way filtering should work is that we do not support anyone calling for harm or deficit to others, but we should listen to anyone wanting to challenge our ideas or beliefs.

So I think I need to vote with my morals and try not to fund or support people who are bad (as I defined it). Of course they have a right to free speech (as long as they don’t try to harm others and take responsibility for their views), but I have the right to not pay them attention. In debating it is considered bad form to make an ad hominem attack: to criticise the person and not their ideas, but that is in an artificial environment where it is only the ideas that should be argued. If we separate the art from the artist, I think we can legitimately criticise a person’s behaviour independently of their work.

I agree totally with John Stuart Mill’s set of basic liberties, and these mean that the artist of whom I disapprove is free to do as they wish (causing no harm), but I don’t have to pay them any money or time. Actually, I have an example of just that thing. I went to a talk by a famous photographer who turned-out to be a rather unpleasant character. I’d been uneasy about his work, but the talk was an opportunity to hear the photographer’s intentions. What he did was to clarify my dislike. His attitude to his subjects means that I can’t now look at his work without remembering his views, so I won’t be following his work or recommending it. As the motto has it brevior vita es quam pro futumentibus negotiam agendo.

Camera, lens or light?

I heard it said (I’m sorry, I can’t remember where) that amateurs are interested in cameras, enthusiasts in lenses and photographers in light. It makes a nice pithy aphorism but does nobody any favours.

So ‘real photographers’ can’t be interested in cameras? And anyone who knows how their camera works can’t be a photographer? I think the phrase we need here is bollocks. I’ve argued elsewhere that technical aptitude is on a scale and that we should ideally try to combine an interest in both outcomes and methods.

What is more useful to think about is not camera, lens or light, but camera, lens and light. They are three variables that can be combined to make a result. You could think of them as another exposure triangle.

The camera makes the picture possible and dictates the type of picture you can make. I wouldn’t use a large format camera to shoot sports or action, for example. I know it’s been done, but so has Morris Dancing. There are better ways, unless the difficulty is part of the intended process. So the camera should be selected according to the job it has to do.

The lens makes the camera work and controls the type of picture. It lets you compress everything into the frame or isolate a detail. Without a lens of some kind you can’t form a picture. That light won’t just focus itself, you know. So the lens should be selected to frame the subject and to achieve an effect in the image.

Ooh, that’s a big Canon

And neither the camera nor the lens have any point without some light. But I think it’s useful to also distinguish light as the subject from a subject which is lit. It’s possible to make pictures where the subject or purpose is the beauty and placement of the light. It’s also possible to make pictures where the purpose is the subject and the light serves to make the subject visible – think of photojournalism.

Interrogation time

Perhaps the ideal, and the art, is to be able to see and combine a good subject with the best lighting. Then to use the best lens to render the subject and lighting in the way you want. Then to use a camera that allows you to capture what you intended.

So I don’t think the camera, lens, light axes are exclusive: you need to combine them. But perhaps what the original claim really means, and which I believe, is that your picture starts with a lit subject. You then work back to the equipment and settings needed to capture what you saw. If you start at the other end, say with the camera, then you are led to find things to put in front of it. I think this is why I have some cameras and lenses I seldom use. Taking a camera for a walk feels boring and restrictive. What I prefer is to go for a walk and take a camera plus lens that suits the conditions, the things I might find and the type of pictures I have in mind. But, saying that, I have used the constraint of a particular combination of camera and lens as a method of getting out of a rut and trying something new. It was never meant to be the starting point though, just a way of taking constraints to an extreme. It does make the point though, that starting with the camera is the wrong way round.

Fiat lux, as the Romans used to say.

Fed 5b rangefinder adjustment

I’ve written about picking up a battered but working Fed 5b body. When I put a lens on it I found that the focus was off at closer distances. The point of actual focus was further away than the rangefinder focus point, meaning that the lens was not as far out on its helical thread as it should be. So the rangefinder mechanism needs to be adjusted so that it thinks the lens is closer,  so that I then have to wind it out a bit further, which brings the point of focus closer. That’s a lot to digest. A diagram might help.

The lens is moved further out to focus closer.
The rangefider mechanism has a little lever that feels how far out the lens has moved.
The rangefider thinks the lens is further out than it is, so thinks the point of focus is closer.
So the solution is to move the lens further out to focus closer, and fill the gap so that the rangefinder agrees with the lens.

What I need to do is compare the actual point of focus of the lens with what the rangefinder mechanism thinks it is. (Now you see why SLRs are such a good idea.) The ideal way to do this is to put a ground glass plate over the film gate to be able to see the actual focusing point of the lens. The back of the Fed comes off, so access to the film gate is easy. Only, I don’t have any ground glass. What I do have is a thread magnifier. Basically a small magnifier with a clear plastic plate at the point of focus. The plate is engraved with 1/10mm lines to allow small flat objects to be counted or measured. I had it from when I worked in a paper mill. So perhaps a bit of translucent tape or tracing paper fixed over the plate might give me both a focusing screen and a focus magnifier? I do also have a small sheet of clear 2mm plastic that is an off-cut from another job. I will try cutting a piece of the right size and matting it with some emery paper. And the winner is … the thread magnifier with some tape on it.

For my next challenge I had to get access to the rangefinder adjusters. They are under the faceplate around the viewfinder. Online sources say to slide the metal plate to the left. So I gave the protruding nameplate a push to the left but it wouldn’t budge, even with harsh language. So I took a closer look at what I might be missing, and found that there is a metal decorative plate on the front of the eyepiece that can be slid sideways. And there were the adjusters.

The method for adjusting the focus of the Fed is two-stage. Infinity focus and vertical alignment are adjusted with the main rangefinder controls (see my initial tweaks here). As the lens is screwed out away from the camera body to focus closer, a spring-loaded metal finger bears on the rear of the lens and moves out with it. The tip of the metal finger has a small cam, which is a tight press-fit onto the end of the finger. Twisting this cam makes the contact point with the lens move further in or out on the end of the metal finger.

So the method is to get infinity focus right, then focus closer and adjust the cam so that the image in the rangefinder concedes with what you can see in focus at the film gate, then check and adjust infinity focus again. You repeat these to hone-in on the best settings that work both far and near. I picked 2m as my close distance test as it’s easily achieved indoors and also suits the sort of distance you might shoot pictures of people.

And did it work? Well, it’s a faff juggling the camera with the shutter held open on B and holding the thread magnifier I’m using to check focus. Until I remembered I have a locking cable release. That held the shutter open and gave me back a free hand to focus the lens. I was wary of how much force to use to twist the cam on the end of the rangefinder arm. And the screw for the rangefinder adjustment was locked with dab of paint which needed some initial force to break its seal. But then, I used to maintain my own motorbikes. When the manual says to drift out the spindle, you might think it’s a gentle nudge. What it means is to put a piece of metal rod against the end of the spindle and belt it with a hammer. You know you’ve drifted it when you hear the spindle hit the far wall of the garage. So it was ‘just’ a case of offering a suitable level of violence to the camera. Once I thought it was adjusted, I took some test shots.

Right on the spot. Previously it was focussing behind the target.

The other thing I thought about was whether the focus worked with different lenses. The lens I’m using on the Fed is (I think) a Tessar design. I have another lens on my other rangefinder that has a Sonnar design. I’d heard that Sonnar lenses can shift their focus point depending on aperture. But the only way to do this would be to put the camera on a tripod, focus it and then take a series of shots at differing apertures. One day perhaps, when I have nothing better to do. Until then, the Fed 5b is back in business.

Photo books

So the frog had read everything and was bored. He went to library in the hope of finding something new. The librarian, a chicken, took him round the shelves. The chicken walked along the shelves, pointed and said “book, book, book”. The frog said ” read it, read it, read it”…

But seriously, photobook or ‘zine, yes or no? Should you publish, and how do you do it?

The first thing to realise is that you probably won’t get a publisher interested in making your photobook, not unless you are already famous. The economics just don’t work for them: it will need expensive printing on expensive paper and it won’t sell enough copies to make a decent return. You could always self-publish, but you don’t have the publishers’ distribution and access to bookshops. Of course you could sell online, but you don’t have their marketing reach either. It all sounds grim. But just supposing you wanted to have a go, how could you do it?

Actually, the first question is why, not how. You need an audience, so who is this work for? You may have some lovely pictures, but who will want to look at them? Why would they want to look at your pictures and not someone else’s? So the very first question is to identify your audience. Next will be why they want to read or look at this work? If you have identified your audience, the reason may be as simple as curiosity. People will look at things that interest them.

You might intend to use your publication as a form of business card: a show-piece for your work. In that case the design and production needs to be excellent and relevant to the work or your style. Be prepared to spend money on both the physical object and on getting advice and help on the design. If you think your pictures are better than random snaps or selfies, then just imagine how a publishing or design professional might view your attempt at a book.

This prompts the next question – why a physical book? A printed book or ‘zine requires an initial investment to print and deliver to you a number of copies. The more you print, the lower the unit price but the bigger the investment. And then, when your garage or spare room is stacked with boxes, you have to market, sell and post every copy. Oh, and deal with complaints, postal damage or loss and returns. So why not make a virtual book? An Acrobat PDF file (or epub or one of the reading app formats) is easy to distribute, takes no space and costs nothing for additional copies. Think of all the carbon you will save. What you lose is the chance of profit and the control of your print quality. It may make it much easier to reach an audience though, as people can download a copy to try with no risk or expense and no time-lag before fulfillment. As we know, what everyone wants is for everything to be free, perfect and now.

What about print on demand though? This is where you lodge a copy of your book with an online printer. Your audience can then use a link to the work to order a printed copy. You will still need to make a pleasing design and to choose suitable paper and covers. It’s worth a look, if you know what you want (or can get help to design it) and can reach your audience. I can’t see it beating a PDF version for a speculative audience though – why would someone pay for a printed and posted book unless they are sure they will like it? Richard Osman can sell books because his name is on the cover. People will buy it because they know they will like it (and it’s on the shelf in the supermarket at a discount). A book on Fup Duck Photography by some unknown hopeful that you have order online and costs £15 posted is less of a tantalising proposition. But a downloadable PDF – why not give it a try? It may also help you build an audience that will eventually buy a ‘real’ book.

Speaking of which, if you photograph events, your audience is self-identifying. If you regularly attend a sport or activity, how about printing some slim ‘zines with recent pictures in and offering them at cost? If your contact details are included, you could get orders for prints or more work from it. That’s more useful than an unread coffee-table book that your mum will display for a year and then quietly lose.

Or even go guerilla. Print your tome, put an ISBN number on the back and mark it clearly as free promotional copy. Then slip it onto the shelves at bookshops. Actually, don’t do that – it’s annoying. It’s also been done before, and better.

The magic code that makes a book visible.

I’ll come back to one of the basics though – your book or ‘zine needs a narrative. It must have a reason to be and a story to tell, or it’s just a bound copy of your photo album. You may love your pictures, but your readers want a story. If you can’t describe briefly what your book or ‘zine is about then you don’t have a story and won’t have an audience.

Did you take your photo today?

As the story goes, a tourist in New York asked a passer-by how to get to Carnegie Hall. The answer was “practice”. I think Gladwell’s idea of 10,000 hours of practice has been debunked though, as hours alone won’t do it. As proof, I’m sure I smile at someone at least once a day, but in all these years it’s not made me a nicer person.

So what I’m talking about is mindful or reflective practice. And while it’s possible to get all Zen about the meaning of mindfulness, what it really means is trying things, looking at your results and picking out the good stuff. The thing about the good stuff though, is that it doesn’t happen without the other stuff. You may have to kiss a lot of frogs to find that prince, but you’ll never find the prince without some froggy-snoggy action.

This is where digital beats film. Your snaps are essentially free, and the camera usually records in the picture file what its settings were. So there is no excuse against trying variations to see what works best. The mindfulness bit comes in when you pick which shot you like most, then look at what settings made it happen.

If you do this at every opportunity, you should begin to learn what you like and how to get that sort of picture. It’s a lot less stressful to know what sort of shutter speeds you need or how high you can push the ISO before you are doing it for real. Always dig your well before you are thirsty, Grasshopper.

This ties-in with the idea of journaling or keeping a notebook. Jot down ideas for or about pictures as they occur to you. Then try those ideas out and see what works. Or do it the other way round: take lots of pictures at any time, then make notes about the ones that worked so that you can do more of it.

Possibly the most-photographed viaduct in Yorkshire

There is also the benefit that the more you use your camera, and the more often you use some of the obscure features it has, the better you will be able to use the camera. As an example, I went out to do a bit of night photography. It took me a while to find out how to dim the rear screen. I did remember that it could do in-camera HDR though, so I tried that on a few things. What did I learn? That I need to set a wider range of exposures to get the full range. I also had a go, while out for a walk, at some ICM. My Canon G9 has a built-in ND filter function. Couple that to its lowest ISO setting and shutter-priority mode so that I can dial the speed right down and I might get some nice blurries. Save the configuration to one of the user profiles and I can have this ready to use when needed.

The Ouse, oozing

Except it seems the G9 can’t have both the ND filter and aperture priority at the same time. No worries, and better I found that out when I’m playing than when I try to use it. This is where the notebook comes in useful again.

So what did I learn? Well, I dragged the dog out on a couple of walks around previously boring landscapes so that I could play with some ICM. I learned that there is a knack to using old manual lenses on my dSLR that is not obvious but works perfectly, and I will now remember. I made a couple of impressionistic autumn landscapes that I actually like. I didn’t take any of it too seriously, so there was no pressure to be a Real Photographer. I had some fun, and having reviewed the results I’ll be out to try this again. But better.

Searching images

This is a very interesting article on searching for the locations of old pictures. The exercise itself is fascinating, but so are the tools for doing a reverse image search. It’s easy to type red apple into a search engine and get pictures of red apples. Putting up a picture of a red apple and having the search find similar pictures is much more difficult. What’s even more interesting is putting up one of your own pictures and searching to see if it turns up in places you weren’t expecting. Not that anyone would ever steal or copy one of my pictures. Why would they? My pictures only have value to me and are probably of no interest or use to anyone else. Unless they are the before in a before and after comparison. Even so, the reverse search is an interesting tool.

What would be awkward though, would be to find a near-duplicate of one of your images and then find that the copy pre-dates yours. Then you have to either be honest and admit you copied something you’d seen, be amused at the synchronicity, or recognise you had taken the same tourist shot as everyone else. (If you want more synchronicity, try the insta_repeat account on Instagram.)

My go at luminosity masking

So where is this going? Obviously, don’t copy other people’s work. Or rather, don’t try to pass off other people’s work as your own. By all means copy, but do it to learn, not to earn. I definitely copied a certain look I had seen for infrared pictures, in order to learn how the method worked. I have no intention of pretending to be Pierre-Louis Ferrer; what I wanted was to learn how to do luminosity masks. But that’s not the point and you don’t need my virtue-signalling. The main thing is that there are some powerful tools out there for doing reverse image search and they can be used to locate an old photograph or to find similar images. I’m also currently playing with an image searching utility on my computer (rather than the internet) that should be able to find pictures based on content. This could be a useful addition to my filing system for when I have an idea what the picture was like but I’m not using the right key words to find it.

Anyway, have a go and see what you can find.

Explore/ exploit

You could spend all your time exploring new things, or stick entirely with what you know and look no further. But perhaps there is a good working balance between exploring and exploiting?

Look! Over there- new stuff!

There is a mathematical calculation of the ideal balance that uses the Gittins Index, but it’s complicated. Or you can focus on minimising regret, meaning “if I look back at myself from the future, will I regret not doing this?”. This is why it is always worth learning something: the future you will have the benefit of what the current you learns. But you can’t learn everything, just as you can’t try everything. Plus you get a lot of benefit from using what you already know. So this brings me back to working out the best balance between finding new stuff and using what I’ve already got.

All very theoretical, but what has it got to do with photography? My balance has always been more to explore than exploit. I have tried different cameras, lenses, film and methods because I could, and because I was curious. I could instead have settled on a single useful combination and worked it hard. There is a lot of value in sticking with something you know and working the arse off it. You will know exactly how your lens, film or sensor will record the subject; you will know how every feature and option works. But you’ll never have a new trick in the bag. The alternative would be to chase every new thing, but this means you will never have a body of competence.

The research says that the more time you have, the more you should explore the new. The depressing down side to this says that the less time you have (the older you are), the more you should stick with the known and ignore the new. The antidotes to this stagnation are things I have written about before: how to introduce chance and trigger new directions; how to recognise you are repeating yourself and break out. But aside from that, I do appreciate that I have accumulated a lot of files and negatives and a lot of notes and records on how to do things. Many years ago I had a copy of Photoshop Elements – probably version 4 or 5. I upgraded it gradually, I think I’m now on 7, and made notes of how to achieve effects. This cookbook has turned into a useful resource. I am still exploring, in the sense of adding to it when I find or learn something new, but the collected notes are very useful to exploit.

I could put some effort into learning Lightroom (or more likely, Darktable and GIMP), but I’m not sure the eventual benefits are worth the investment. GIMP would be worth it for when I hit the limits of Elements, but I don’t have to process large batches of images, so I don’t really need a workflow. It’s the same with video: I have a copy of Kdenlive that I use to edit together video clips into a short film. I’ve learned it well enough to do what I need, but I’m not a video maker. And yes, I did explore shooting video. Of course I did.

There is another point of view that’s relevant, and it came from some writings of Glenn Gould. He drew some interesting parallels between known knowledge and the unknown. His view was that the known was a basis for exploration and we should avoid freezing it into The Method. He also wrote about the liberty of performing (music, in his case) in the recording studio rather than in public. He felt that public performances led to safety and the avoidance of risk, while in the studio he could take risks and do difficult work, knowing that he could combine the best parts and drop the mistakes. So he was combining the exploitation of his abilities and learning with the exploration of the new. Did he get the balance right? Probably, but he was quite exceptional.

I think the best I can do is to turn down my curiosity dial a little and turn up the wick on exploiting more of the work I have already done. Or perhaps I let it match the seasons, and do my exploring when the days are longer? What do you do?

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