Or how to annoy just about everyone at the camera club.
I shouldn’t knock camera clubs. They can be fantastic places to learn. As a group you have the means to get interesting people to talk to you: you can give them a decent-sized audience and can afford to pay them, plus you can spread the costs amongst the members. I’ve seen some fantastic speakers and images that I would never otherwise have had the chance to. But what is it about club competitions? Verily is it written that comparison is the thief of joy.
I love looking at other people’s pictures, and seeing the different approaches and interpretations of a theme is an education. I believe that creativity thrives under constraint, so setting a theme or conditions triggers the whack-a-mole to escape the limits and pop-up elsewhere. But awarding points and prizes? What makes a photograph better? And what is it with people now that they have digital cameras? Was everyone so very concerned with sharpness and detail in days of yore?
Does anyone remember the photography year books? They were a curated set of images drawn from all over the world (or the bits that were free to contact the publisher). My pal and I used to borrow every one we could get from the library and critique every picture like old pros with camera-bag shoulder and dev-stained fingers. I’ve looked back at a 1980 copy I found in a charity shop. Whether it was the printing or the source material, some of the technical quality is rough. (There is also a huge deference to anything to do with the British royalty, which really stands out) But that’s not the point: I still get a thrill from seeing a different way of looking or presenting. So why the fascination with sharpness? I have an opinion that a photo needs to be sharp enough to see what the photographer intended but it is not the most important attribute.
Perhaps the interest in sharpness was a carry-over from the swap from film to digital. The early digital cameras had less resolution than film and prints had a strange flat, posterised sort of look. You could tell digital because it lacked detail or tonal variation. So perhaps it was the joy of seeing fine detail emerge as the technology improved that led the race for resolution. There was a push for pixels as we went from three to five to ten to whatever, and then there was the discussion about having the right type of pixels on the right size of sensor. But when the best you can say about a picture is that it’s sharp, I think the plot has been lost.
Digital cameras now routinely outperform 35mm film with huge resolution and dynamic range and the ability to pick whatever ISO you want for individual shots. And amusingly, there is now a growing interest in using classic lenses with lower resolution and more aberrations. I used to think bokeh was something you bought for Mother’s Day. Now there are people who are more interested in the background than the subject. How many pictures of flowers do we have to see with out of focus backgrounds, where the point of the picture is the nature of the blur?
The mighty Hamish Gill wrote a very good article on his 35mmc site about bokeh. Basically, it’s either good or bad. Good means that it either contributes to the picture or is not distracting. Bad is when it’s ugly or distracting.
I must admit to never thinking about it beyond being able the throw the background out of focus to separate the subject or lose things I didn’t want to see. I think the market and reviews at the time were all about how many lines per millimetre a lens could resolve. I knew that some of my kit gave pretty shabby results if the lens was wide open, but I didn’t really have an alternative.
Then I started listening to the Classic Lenses podcast and learned a new four-letter word. Lenses I thought were crap were actually cult. Fuzzy was cool again. I wasn’t though: I admit to getting all my lenses together and arranging a blur-off in the garden. A head-sized foreground object with surface texture (a football; no family members were harmed in the making of this experiment) and a white object with linear detail in the background (a garden bench). And yes, I admit that the direct comparison was interesting. Some lenses give a sort of clumped look to the out of focus areas and some showed an odd effect in the closely-spaced white lines of the bench. A couple had a background so smooth it was like fog. And you can get the nicest portrait lens effect for peanuts using an old slide projector lens. So then I snap my fingers and I’m back in the room. In real life I am likely to remember only the main points of the comparison, and I could have guessed those without the test just based on my experience of using the things. It’s useful to have the confirmation though, all in one place.
The classic lens thing may have gone a bit far though when I see wide-angle lenses advertised as bokeh monsters. Really? Only if the monster ate your bokeh. And the whole thing about how many blades you have in your aperture? That’s something that only magicians’ assistants should worry about. Luckily I bought my bad lenses when they were just bad, so cheap. Who’s the silly cult now, then?
But back to the idea of sharpness. The Professional Photographers of America use 12 criteria in judging photographic prints. None of them is lens resolution. By some quirk of synchronicity I heard someone on a recent podcast saying that the most import three from the list of twelve were lighting, composition and impact. What, nobody is going to dock me points if my lens isn’t sharp enough? How many times though have I heard a judge at a club photo competition remark that a picture is very sharp or well exposed? It’s like praising a rally driver for changing gear.
So a little devil appeared on my shoulder. I put pictures in that had motion blur or poor resolution because they were taken in the dark on dodgy film or a wonky lens. Or had extreme grain or contrast. It was very childish. It helped me get over competing and comparing, as I set out to have the worst pictures in the room, and let me concentrate instead on analysing what I liked about what I was seeing. And I’m happy for you if your camera has more pixels than mine and your lens can resolve atoms. This is why I love the Sunny 16 Cheap Shots Challenge – it’s less about “look at the coma on that” and more “that was a stroke of luck”. More power to them.
So, fuzzy duck? Ducky fuzz!