Clubbing together

I got into a real rut during the covid lockdown and isolation and just about stopped taking pictures. I had packed a lot of my gear away to do some house decorating and didn’t feel like taking it out again. My scuba diving was on hold and although I was taking lots of country walks, landscapes are really not my thing.

Lethargy is a terrible feeling – you are blocked from doing something, then you lose interest in it. Work didn’t help – working from home turns out to be more intensive and less enjoyable than working in the presence of other people. What I needed was a kick up the aperture.

So I have joined a photography club. Or rather, a camera club. It seems that it was called a photography club when it was formed but changed its name. Perhaps I’m making something of nothing, but I do hope the emphasis is on photography and not cameras.

I know I have been critical of club culture in the past, but this was a way to change what I was (not) doing and challenge myself with something different. It was also a reason to get out of the house. And to unpack the camera kit, too.

The first thing to look at, of course, is the programme of speakers. Double drat that I missed someone talking about underwater photography, but he’s coming back to talk about sports photography. Beats still life.

What could I contribute? Well, I did run a learning session on PhotoShop at the previous place and I do have my cookbook for obtaining certain effects, so that might have some value. And after writing that I remembered that I also write a blog (duh!). Not that I can preen, but it shows that I put at least a little effort into my photography.

The first good news was that my local library, where I saw that the club actually existed, had an exhibition of their work. All pictures of animals (although aren’t I supposed to call it wildlife?). Pretty good. They also had a small box of leaflets with little posting box. The leaflets were a few questions asking the reader what aspects of their photography they were struggling with or wanted to improve, with space for contact details. Even better. This looked like a group that were helpful and inclusive. Not like the attitude you often see online where anyone who knows less than the respondent (troll) must be stupid. Or even worse, female. (You know what, guys? You can also use your finger to press the shutter button).

Oops! Deep breath. Put down the troll-hammer. These look like nice people.

So the first meeting was judging the entries to a club competition. And being the plague years, it was done online. This is actually way better than the club judgings I have been in before. Everyone can see the picture, for a start, plus everyone can hear the judge’s comments. And there is no muttering from the back of the room. I’m sure there is plenty of muttering, but it’s on the chat channel and not out loud.

The subject of the competition was minimalism, and as we know, I do like a bit of that.

And straying off the subject, as I do, it got me thinking about how you judge a picture. The obvious subjective judgement is how it makes you feel. I’m not talking about cute pictures of kittens here, but what emotions does the picture create? The good ones will have you running around with your hair on fire, the other stuff makes you shrug.

That doesn’t help in a competition though, when you are supposed to use objective and repeatable criteria. And, like all good standards, there are several to choose from.

The Guild of Photographers lists 12 items. A club may have its own scoring. How about some criteria that survived the scrutiny of Mensa? Or something quite specific to macro work?

This is the kind of thing the judges like

It looks like all of them broadly agree on what is good and bad. Or perhaps compliant and not. What would be interesting would be to score some of the great photographs against these schemes. Or perhaps not, because what makes a picture great is my simple rule 1: how does it make you feel? This leaves no way of comparing one against another, which is what the competition is supposed to do.

Technically, a bit rubbish

So I’ll leave it as it is. A club is a social thing and we run little competitions as much to get feedback and appreciation as anything else. And I am very happy with that.

But, do I enter pictures that I think have impact, even if they are technically poor? Or do I enter my technically best pictures? Or do I enter the stuff I’m experiment with to get some feedback? Do I put photos in to impress the judges and get points, or do I show the pictures I like most?

To be true to myself I think I am going to show the pictures that I like and I would be happy to show other people. It’s as simple as that.

Amateurish

I love being an amateur photographer. I am not a professional – I don’t need to make enough (or any) money from my pictures to live on. I don’t need to do marketing or sales. I especially don’t have to do accountancy.

I don’t need likes, which is probably just as well. I am not an influencer and I don’t need reader traffic to generate income. Out of curiosity, visits to shops was called footfall (when we used to go to shops). What do you call visits to your Instagram – eyefall?

I don’t even need to please other people. That makes it sound like I’m some weird Onan the Cameraman, but I do this thing because I want to and I like the results. Actually, that still fits the Onan label, but bear with me…

My wife, who is clever and learned, tells me about internal and external locus of control. In this context, are you driven by internal standards or external targets? That of course led down the rabbit hole – if you could take anything you liked from a shop without paying and nobody would ever know, would you? Would you still be good if nobody was looking and would never know?

So what has philosophy and ethics got to do with photography? Quite a lot, though it’s not really the point of this piece. Perhaps another time…

What it all means in this context is who your pictures are for. I’ve taken pictures at the request of other people and those people are the measure of my success, where that means they are pleased with the results. But the amateur stuff, the pictures I take most of the time, are taken to please me. I am my audience and my critic.

It’s taken a while to get here. Over the years I have taken pictures just for the pleasure in taking them. I always wanted to take good pictures, but I was happy to snap everything that came along. By good, I mean good to me: results I liked. What it took a long time to realise is what subjects I really liked. That let me relax and stop fretting about the things I didn’t like and focus on what I did. For example, cars are boring, but details of cars or cars doing things? Much more interesting. People are always interesting, but people doing things are fascinating. Or there is the odd and the weird that sometimes turns up in juxtapositions or looking with a alien eye. This sort of stuff I love. Which is the meaning of amateur.

Nobody tells me what pictures to take or how they should look. Nobody judges my pictures (well, of course they do, but in their head). Comparison is the thief of joy (as someone said), but I’m not asking to be compared.

It all sounds very self-congratulatory though, doesn’t it? Like humble-bragging. It’s not meant to be and I’m sorry if it sounds like it. What I am is happy that I like taking pictures that please me, and they don’t have to be for anyone else. It’s a great freedom and I intend to stop worrying and enjoy it for what it is (satisfying, difficult, engaging) and worry even less about what it isn’t (successful, famous, etc). I will cover my walls with pictures that make me happy.

Pictures of other people

I can see this getting more difficult.

I know I’ve written before that I don’t see the point in taking pictures of people I don’t know or who are not doing something interesting, but this is different. What got me thinking was an article on Photofocus arguing that taking a picture of someone against their wishes was assault. It could be, but it also gives the power of claiming assault to anyone photographed in public. There was a recent case of someone apparently photographing women breastfeeding in public. The photographer may be a creep, there is not enough context to tell, but it shows a desire for legislation.

On the matter of context, I think that depends on the subject of the picture. If I’m taking a picture of a landscape (yawn) or a building and there are people in the frame, they are usually there as part of the scene (or because I couldn’t get a picture without people in it). The point of the picture is not the individual people: any people would do. This isn’t assault and I shouldn’t need their permission.

If I take pictures of people engaged in a sport or activity then, providing I am allowed to be there, I don’t need their permission. Their activity and skill is the point of the picture.

Dancing the Dark Morris

Even with individual people I think there is a difference depending on whether the person is identifiable or not. But this is also where it starts to get difficult, and it’s down to intent.

Different countries’ laws vary on public privacy. Some, like the UK and USA, have a basic assumption that whatever is visible in public is not private. Hence the argument over the breastfeeding women. It may be creepy but it’s legal.

Why is any of this important? Because it could become more difficult. If any new laws are passed that set limits on what we can photograph they are almost certain to be badly phrased and to restrict previous freedoms. I’m also worried that new laws get made from extreme cases, so end up as bad laws by that route. A ban on photographing people without permission is unworkable. A law that says anyone objecting to being photographed must have their picture deleted is equally unworkable and leads to threats and violence. I’ve seen it lead to threats even without legislation.

What do we do then? Perhaps if we are close enough to the subject for there to be interaction, we just ask if it’s ok? Perhaps it is just a case of being polite?

I’m not saying we should be scared, but I do think we should be mindful. I really don’t want to be confined to landscapes.

Updates – Apple now police your pictures, and legislation of some form is coming. Not that I take creepy pictures or even think people should, but I do worry what the result of these new rules will be.

Who do you follow?

Think of your favourite photographers. Got them? OK, now imagine telling your list to a group of photographers. Stressed?

Wouldn’t it be awful to name someone who wasn’t cool? Or someone that everyone has heard of. Maybe worse – to admit to not liking one of the grand masters. Virtue signalling is really hard, isn’t it? Perhaps I’ve got it wrong, but is it the same as describing your musical taste? We’d all like to be groovy but we all dance round the kitchen to something we wouldn’t have on our playlist. Just as we’d all like to be Cartier-Bresson but we still take selfies and landscapes.

Maybe it’s better to differentiate your influences from the people you follow. I definitely have influences: there is work I’ve seen that inspires me to try harder or try differently. I don’t want to copy it – I couldn’t – but it does lead me towards what I like, rather than random snapping. In terms of following, there are people I read and some I view; rarely both. The ones I read have interesting views or things to say but, to be honest, I’m rarely reading them for the pictures. There are a few people whose pictures I will look at. Most often they have very little to say.

The difference between influences and following is, I think, one of timing. My influences are most often historical to me: they are pictures that have existed and I later found. They fed into my preferences and helped me learn what to put into a picture and the types of subject and treatment I like.

Ralph Gibson?

Those I follow have something interesting to say right now. They won’t make me change direction but I can learn from them, or at least be entertained. What I am absolutely not going to do is try to drink from the firehose of Instagram or Facebook, or join their Red Queen race.

I’ll be open about my list though – I have no intention of sharing it. The pictures I like are my preferences. I can explain to myself why I like them but nobody wants to expose their taste to judgement, particularly when that judgement is likely to be superficial. Say for example that you studied the style of something shot by Leni Riefenstahl (NB – this is an example, not a confession) but hated the content and what it represented. Your understanding might be to recognise and avoid anything reminiscent of that in your own work. You might discuss your feelings for the work in a conversation, but you would avoid putting Riefenstahl down as an influence. You’d be happy to claim Margaret Bourke-White though. Saying that, I’m happy to share someone I follow, because it’s a useful resource. This is sharing a benefit and I hope other people would do the same.

Rob Lowe?

Do you know who your influences are? It’s an interesting exercise to compile a list and put a reason against each one. I wonder if it’s also useful to have a hate list as well as the hit list. If there is work that you really don’t like, understand why. Perhaps it’s also useful to be clear why you follow some work. The link I gave above is to a resource. It’s useful and, if I ever took that kind of picture, good to know. It certainly hasn’t made me want to light everything with flash though.

So there you have it – another grumble from someone who needs to get out more. And what does it mean to follow someone anyway?

Expired means was, not is

What is it with expired film? Why shoot expired film when you can get new?

I confess to shooting expired film in the past, but it was mostly because my unused film got old. I was also given a couple of rolls of very old Kodak film, that gave me all the problems you’d ever expect.

Why shoot a film that will have high levels of fog, low contrast and even strange spots? If it’s colour film the colours will have faded or shifted. If it’s roll film there is a fair chance that the frame numbers will show on the pictures.

One of the old Kodak films I was given was so old that the tape holding the leading edge of the film to the backing paper dried up and let go. The film coiled into body of the box camera leaving me to wind-on the backing paper.

So why wouldn’t you shoot fresh film? If you want pictures that look expired, why not add the effect later? At least that way you have some control over it. There was useful article on DIY Photography about making your own grunge filter. Use one of these and you can switch the expired effect on or off as you need.

If it’s the uncertainty you want, fine. But why stop there? Try something like Oblique Strategies or take every shot from the hip. Otherwise, why are you taking pictures? Is the purpose of your photo the subject or the method? What is it you want people to see? If your vision needs the look of expired film that’s great, but how are you going to get it reliably? I suppose what I’m asking is how to get consistent inconsistency, and I think the answer is to find a filter or processing effect that delivers what you want. In a way it’s the Zone Adams thing – have an idea of what the final picture will be and capture all possible detail and tone. Then you can turn that into multiple versions of what you saw. But if you start with a partial or compromised capture, there are fewer options later.

If it’s the subject that’s important though, I think you need reliable methods. I wouldn’t want to work hard for an image and find it was foggy or blotched.

There is also the question of not biting the hand that feeds us. There are few enough people making film and even those are dropping some products. Buy new and the money goes to the makers right now. If the market looks buoyant, others may enter it and with luck it will be sustainable. If we’re really lucky a resurgent film market will persuade someone to re-tool and start making film cameras again (I know Lomo do, but I mean things like a 35mm SLR).

You won’t get that from shooting granny’s mouldy HP3.

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Photo manipulation – yes or no?

We’ve all seen the results of HDR processing. Done well, it’s invisible. Done badly, it’s all you see. It went through a phase of everyone using it and eventually became overused and ugly. Extended dynamic range became weird luminance and a world without contrast.

Anyway, enough of the sarcasm. How much should you manipulate a picture?

I would have said just enough to get the result you wanted, but that’s pretty open ended. Take a look at the collages of Heartfield or Höch, who were Dadaists. Their work involved photography, but in the same sense that a painting might involve canvas. Their work was obvious manipulation to achieve a result. I’m not sure I often see the same intention in HDR photos, unless the aim is to show what the world looks like without contrast.

Or perhaps that doesn’t matter. The Filmosaur Manifesto says that the meaning of a photo is what the observer sees, not what the photographer intended.

How liberating is that? You don’t have to make a picture look like a photograph. You are free to have fun. The best medium for this is probably digital and the best camera is a phone. There are great tools like Paper Camera and (thanks to the Phlogger) Comica. Stop worrying about whether something is a worthy subject and just have some fun with it. The results are so far from a normal picture that nobody can judge the sharpness of your lens or how many megapickles you have.

So I’ve been having great fun, even during the dark months of lockdown, by playing with old pictures. Even ones I didn’t like as straight pictures can be pleasing when tweaked.

Who cares whether it’s artistic or even good? It’s something creative to do while we wait for the end of the apocalypse.

With luck, we’ll all be vaccinated and out to play this month.

I’m going to dull 8 it

Have you ever heard anyone say they are going to sunny-16 it? Do you think they only take pictures when it’s sunny? I’m curious because, while I know what the exposure should be in bright summer sunlight, I struggle to estimate it in the dull overcast of a British Standard Day. Even clear sunshine in winter can be two stops less bright than summer.

How hard is it to really carry a light meter? How about instead of a spare lens or a second camera?

How much would you spend on a roll of film? I can get Kentmere 400 for £4.30. How much is a light meter? I reckon you can get one for a fiver on fleabay (sanity check – I just bought two for £5). How much would you spend to get every frame on your film reasonably well exposed?

If you guess the exposure you will probably have forgotten your guesses by the time you develop the film, so you won’t have anything to learn from. If you use a meter then you will know for sure if you (or it) are over or under exposing. Then you can compensate.

I know there are some lovely new meters on sale and on kickstarter, but they cost more than a roll of film. Besides, they tend to be fixed to the camera so it can be difficult to know what you are pointing them at. I know that grass or a clear north sky will meter as that desired middle grey. I know that pale skin like mine (I can pass for Scottish) is one stop brighter. So if I’m shooting something in the same light as me I can meter off my hand and give it one more stop of exposure. It’s not very scientific, if you mean precise, but it’s better than guesswork.

MEtering 1
I wonder if the sunny bits are f16?

I’ve been using a meter more often recently than I usually do, as I’m taking one camera a month out to play. I’m finding that I can’t really guess a good exposure when it’s dull or I’m under trees. And while the latitude of the film might save me, I’d prefer to do a better job. Even Don McCullin took the time to use a lightmeter, and people were shooting at him.

So how do you know the crusty old meter you find actually works? Got a digital camera or one with a working meter? Point it at something fairly featureless like a wall or field and see what it says. Then what the old meter says. Adjust the film speed on the meter to make them agree and make a note on the meter what you did. It could be something like -1 stop on ISO if it under-reads.

Pool
Not even sunny

No digital? Try a mobile phone app. Speaking of which, even a phone app is better than no meter. I use one called LightMeter. I paid the extra to unlock it which let me check and calibrate it against a known good meter. I’d still usually rather use a small ‘proper’ meter though, just to save faffing with a phone.

My true confession though is in using the zone system. Not in the sense that large-format photographers do with special development and cleverness, but in knowing that the palm of my hand meters as zone 6. So meter my hand and overexpose by one stop. Or that sunlit snow will be at zone 9. Or the darkest shadow that I still want some detail in should be metered and then underexposed by two stops.

I hear that people who shoot portraits on colour negative film, which copes well with overexposure, meter the shadows and set that as the exposure. The reason is that they want to show some detail in the shadows and not grain or colour shifts.

Corridor
Spooky 16?

A vague memory intrudes… I recall watching a documentary years ago about a famous photographer. He was photographing models walking around a pool. He sat in a wheelchair and had an assistant pull him backwards, in front of the models. What a great idea to avoid falling in the water. But the reason for the memory is that he didn’t use a meter (or claimed not to, he had assistants). He used the exposure advice on the inside of the film packaging. Given that Kodak etc want your pictures to turn out well and that he was shooting in sunlight (and that I think he was shooting colour negative), it probably worked very well. Nobody talks about film boxing it though, do they?

But you can’t do any of this by starting with sunny 16 and guessing. At the very least, print yourself an exposure guide. It’s not a light meter, but it’s still better than guessing.

Should photography be easy?

Do we make a thing less valuable by making it easier?

Photography used to be hard; and then Kodak happened. What once took study became ‘you press the button, we do the rest’. The first Kodak cameras had 100 shots on the roll too – we’re talking digital levels of bangin’ ’em off. Kodak democratised photography and made the casual snap possible.

We stumbled along with folding and plastic cameras for a while. Then the rangefinder and the SLR came along. Things got technically complicated and photographs were taken by photographers. The cameras had all sorts of settings and you had to know what to do to make them work properly. There was good money in it though – Bailey made enough to run a Ferrari.

The reaction was point and shoots and the Instamatic. Either no settings or automatic. You didn’t have to know how to work a camera to be able to take a picture.

And so the waves of development rolled in, with simple following clever. Features were added, then automated. What started as complex became easier. Light metering, then automatic exposure, then autofocus. Film turned into cartridges or the camera loaded and wound-on itself.

Talent still counted: all the automation in the world couldn’t help people take good photos. But it became easier to take a picture that was well exposed and in focus, and for the results to be mostly pleasing. But the circulation of a picture was still limited to the people you could physically meet, unless you were one of the few.

The a couple of things happened. The first was the mobile phone. Suddenly, nobody needed a camera let alone film developing or printing. Photography was democratised again – anyone could do it, there were no constraints on capacity and you could see the results immediately. The quality may have been low to begin with but it was good enough and got better.

Then social media happened and suddenly we were all syndicated worldwide. You didn’t have to work for a magazine or newspaper to be seen, you just had to be seen. Upload a picture, get likes, get the endorphin rush. Rinse and repeat. What used to take dedication, craft or understanding could be replaced by novelty and desire. Being somewhere, doing something, looking special – the pictures sparked envy and emulation. Because, like a lot of things, fame followed a power law, with a few famous or popular influencers and a long tail of the rest of us.

But the price of entry was lower. Cameras, including mobile phones, were so good that skill was replaced with presence: you only had to be there. So there became important. You can see this in the rush of people to visit the spots recorded by influencers. Someone recently posted about an old wartime bomber wreck. The police then had to ask people to not park on the road, not get lost, and if they did call them or the Mountain Rescue to at least call them again if they found their own way down. And please don’t take souvenirs – it’s a war grave.

There was a similar discussion around Ben Nevis a while back. It starts near sea level but it’s high and cold on the top and it’s easy to walk off the edge. So in 2009 the cairns were moved to mark the descent route and avoid a gully. The advice has always been to be properly equipped and to know how to navigate, but now we have the equivalent of automation.

So the camera (or phone) needs no investment of skill to operate. Being seen by other people is just a matter of posting things that enough people will like, but the liking is ephemeral and has to be repeated. Not that the majority of people are like this. Most of us are happy to have a simple method to take a snap and share it with friends. Ultimately, nobody really wants to invest in or learn to use a drill when they can just get the hole.

Does automation and the removal of craft skill bother me? Not at all. I love the idea that everyone can take a snap at the very instant. These moments are precious.

Do I mind that people are shooting weddings or cinematic films on iPhones? No, go ahead. What has always and ever mattered is what the resulting film looks like, and nobody cares what you shot it on.

Do I fret that someone with a modern digital camera can take fantastic pictures without knowing anything about photography? Again, no. The technical things I have learned allow me to shoot with dodgy old manual cameras, which is my hobby. I use the digital kit and all the automation I can get when the results are important. I like to think that my understanding of how it all works helps me get better results more often. But I still know that someone with better kit will often get better results than me, most often when things like lots of megapixels or high ISO make a difference.

I could have looked-up that it would be 2EV, or I could have got out and metered it, but I put my phone on night mode. Bite me.

So what’s the point of this rambling grumble? It’s the bit I don’t like: the social media frenzy to chase likes and gain followers. And yet I write a blog. To be honest (with both my readers), I write because I enjoy writing. It’s a challenge to come up with new ideas each week. It’s interesting to string thoughts together and ask myself if what I am saying is what I mean. I’m delighted if someone reads them, but that is not the thing that drives me. So I attempt to sidestep hypocrisy by making a virtue of my obscurity. But I don’t splurge pictures on social media – I like using them to illustrate a story or using words to describe a picture. Holier than thou? Not really. If I was to blitz Instagram with images it would feel to me a bit like something that was automatic and outside my control. By writing this blog it feels more like having to understand what I’m doing.

Your mileage may vary, as they say, and I am far from being an influencer. Or even understanding what I’m doing.

I don’t believe you make something less valuable by making it easier, if the value is in the thing and not in the learning. I do believe we destroy value when we try to copy or compete, though.

What do you care what other people think?

I have wittered previously about editing your work and only showing your best stuff, but that doesn’t mean playing for likes.

If you try to take the same pictures as someone else, at best you will have an imitation. It’s valid to try and recreate a technique to learn something new, but copying a picture could be plagiarism at worst, or a marked lack of originality at best. It might feel safer to be like everyone else, but where’s the fun in that?

OK, that may be true for small values of fun. As we know, things which are different are criticised. The ability of social media to give an anonymous voice to the critical and sarcastic is a problem. Or it would be if you let it. If you don’t want the gratuitous attacks of a baying herd, don’t stand in front of one. That’s one option. The other is that if you ignore the crowd, you’ll be happier.

But how can you possibly ignore what people say about you or your work? Well, who are you taking pictures for?

If you are taking pictures for money, then the people who matter are your clients. So your work should be visible to current and future clients and there is no need for a method of leaving comments or feedback: if anyone wants to discuss a picture, bring money. Being paid is the only form of feedback you need.

But if you are taking pictures for pleasure, who’s pleasure is it? Do you need the approval of others? Do you need to show your pictures to the world, or to the people who matter to you?

Are we comparing likes or soap powders?

So I think you have two choices: keep your work to yourself and people who matter to you or show your work to the world but disable or ignore the feedback. Yes, I know, I’m both showing pictures and allowing feedback in this blog. But it’s small circulation – if I do start getting negative feedback I’ll see if I can disable the likes and comments. I can live without approval – I work in IT.

There is also a view, expressed best in the Filmosaur Manifesto, that you have no control over what people see in your pictures. So stop worrying that they misunderstand, because they are bound to.

Perhaps the best response to criticism is Elizabeth Gilbert’s – “if people don’t like what you’re creating, just smile at them sweetly and tell them to go make their own fucking art.”

And the best cure for worrying about opinion is the story about Arlene and Richard in the book that has the same title as the story – “what do you care what other people think?”.

Seven easy tips

You’ve all seen the articles – six steps to; five secrets of; the ten step program…

My opinion of these can be summarised in seven easy-to-follow steps:

  1. There are no separate steps
  2. Easy isn’t worth the effort – only effort will make things easy
  3. Numbered lists always in the wrong order are
  4. Experts who write lists are usually better at being experts than writing lists
  5. Following is not learning
  6. Why this exact number of steps? Do these cover everything?
  7. The filler that makes the number up to a magic quantity

So just follow these simple, easy to remember steps and you will raise your game/ achieve enlightenment/ sell more/ become famous/ have more sex (click here to pick one).

Take these five easy steps and you can count to nine on one hand

Thank you (send money, which may be the aim).