Winning

I’m a bit conflicted. I watched a presentation by a photographer whose intention was to win photography competitions. I’ve nothing against that – I’ve said before that I joined a club to have some social contact, and that they also run competitions. What felt strange though was this person’s extreme focus on taking the winning shot.

I should add – I have nothing against this person or their work. This is about how it made me feel and think.

It was almost as if the actual subject didn’t matter. The aim was to get pictures of say, people engaged in sports, with dynamic postures, frozen motion and clear facial expressions. This usually meant shooting in burst mode – 10 to 11 frames a second and racking up thousands of images from each event. I would struggle to select the best from that quantity and I would certainly struggle to store and catalogue them all.

Now, I can see why a professional photographer would do this. Their job depends on getting the perfect shot, so why not use the facilities available to shorten the odds? But I’m an amateur. I enjoy the process of photography as well as the result. I’ve taken pictures of sports and enjoy it greatly, but I can’t see myself shooting thousands of pictures of a single event. It may be rooted in my use of film when I first started. I might have had the capacity for a hundred shots if I brought extra film. Each shot I took was a single, with a pause to wind-on after each one and a longer pause to reload fresh film.

I remember the first sporting event I went to. My best mate’s sister was riding a horse in a point-to-point, which is basically cross-country and jumping fences. I had one camera, a 50mm lens and a 2x teleconverter. If you are prepared to be sensible with your own safety and that of the horse and rider it’s possible to stand at the end of a fence and get pictures of them jumping.

Of course, we got bored between races…

Later on I used to go to motorcycle trials, with the classic or pre-1965 bikes being a favourite. Here again you can get close to the action where the riders traverse the judged sections. And here again you need your good sense and the agreement of the people involved to not get in the way or fire a flash in the rider’s eyes.

So what am I saying? I found it odd that a photographer would take professional measures to shoot sports, when they didn’t want the professional outcome.

The photographer chose which sporting events to cover based on how likely the pictures were to win in competitions. So the ideal is a sport that not many other people cover, to which you can get good access and where the athletes make good shapes and expressions. But the result is literally thousands of images, with the chosen few then given a heavy workover in PhotoShop. I’m not sure that sounds like fun.

On the other hand I probably don’t take sport photography seriously enough. I went to a more recent motorcycle trial (by the way, this is trials riding – off road balancing over obstacles – and nothing to do with testing motorcycles) before the covid lockdown. I was shooting digital and took around 120 pictures, of which the editing got down to 70 I like. That fits better with my general avoidance of hard work.

Nice bit of Dutch Angle too

But, despite my grumbling, we are still at least this much of a free country. I couldn’t work that hard at taking pictures just to win competitions, but some can. I’m not that competitive, but some are. It’s a good job we’re not all the same.

What do you think? Are competitions important? How hard are you willing to work for your pleasure?

Herd impunity

What’s the camera all the cool kids are chasing right now? Is it a T-for-two something or an Olympus meow? Even the quotidian Pentax K1000 can go for the price of a Leica lens cap.

If you listen the photography podcasts there is a regular concern that when someone gives a good review of an old camera, the bidding on eBay gets frantic as everyone rushes to get theirs.

One of these had recent online interest and the prices rose. The other is a camera.

Second hand (as if new was an option) film cameras are becoming expensive. One reason, like film, is that we are comparing the recent trough to the current wave. Film camera sales peaked around 1998 and then slumped rapidly as digital improved. There was a time when you could barely give old film kit away. Now of course, it’s groovy again. Since its also no longer made, the money chases the goods and prices rise.

So if you want something that will still take film, what are you going to do? Not chase fashion is my advice.

James Tocchio wrote a useful article on Casual Photofile about reducing the costs of photography. In it was one piece of unusual advice: buy a late model camera. The automatic cameras of the late 90s were plastic, oddly shaped and felt nasty. But they are unpopular and cheap. And providing the electronics work, so will the meter and the shutter. That’s about all you need. Yes, it may well have programmed exposure and offend your artistic sensibilities and freedom to guess the settings, but it will mount good lenses and you can always fake bad exposure later in post-processing.

If I look on the bottom shelf here I find I’ve got several of these plastic fantastics that I acquired because they came with a lens I wanted (and were usually cheaper than the lens on its own or in some cases than a lens base cap). Pentax MG anyone? Or a Pentax F3? There are loads of cameras that used the Pentax K mount or M42 screw (with the added joy that a K mount camera can do both). Prakticas are better in all respects than Zenits but can use the same lenses. The later electric-coupled Prakticas or the ones that used their own bayonet mount are not at all popular, so will be cheap (with the added benefit of being good).

Combined cost was less than a popular point-and-shoot

Both Canon and Nikon got into the consumer camera trend, but I believe you need to be a bit more careful over which lenses fit. Even Pentax went through a range of lens types. All of them will fit mechanically, but some have options that will only work with later cameras. There is an explanation here.

So if I can convince you, have a wander down the path less trodden and spend the difference on going to nice places and doing interesting things. Or go to interesting places and don’t worry about breakage.

Except … I can guess what happens next: everyone starts chasing the cheap cameras and the prices rise. Second thoughts – you still REALLY want a Leica.

Cost of analogue

This started from a general feeling that was then further triggered by an opinion piece by Grant Scott. His argument is that the costs of analogue are too high, if the important thing is the outcome (the picture).

His premise is that digital photography, with its marginal cost of effectively zero, is the better method for getting results. This is certainly true for speed and convenience. It’s also true in teaching. Digital photography allows for experimentation and provides immediate feedback. Want to know what effect the aperture has? Take five or six shots and compare. Notice how moving things get blurred as the aperture closes down? That’s the relationship between shutter speed and aperture to maintain a consistent exposure. Now you try…

I’m not so sure how the costs of setting up compare. Even now (and I’ll come onto this) a basic film camera looks cheaper than a basic digital one, if you also want some manual control of the camera. The running costs are different though, which was the basis of Grant’s argument. But it’s a complicated argument and Grant has said that he got a lot of critical comment about his opinion piece. The cost per shot of digital is effectively zero. But the digital camera probably cost more than a second-hand film camera. But then the costs of developing, scanning, a computer and so on add to the real cost of using a film camera. All I can say for certain is that the cost per finished picture is higher for analogue, once the set-up costs are discounted (and those may work out around the same for digital and analogue). So Grant’s argument is that using film is a choice based on wanting to use it because you like it, or because it gives you the results that you want and can’t get by other means.

Film feels like it is becoming more expensive though, and it feels this is true even with inflation. Just about the cheapest options right now are Kentmere or Fomapan for black and white. Seeing some colour films selling at £15-18 a roll just means I will be reading about them rather than using them. But there is more to this than how it feels. Ludwig Hagelstein did an analysis of film prices in real terms in Silvergrain Classics. The headline of his analysis is that film isn’t that much more expensive than it used to be, allowing for inflation. However, there was a period when it was perhaps artificially cheap, so it looks expensive when you compare trough to peak. If I look back to when I was doing photographic printing, the price of 100 sheets of Mutltigrade adjusted for inflation would now be £69. The same paper now retails for £63. I’d call that the same relative price, so well done Ilford.

For anyone wanting to track the modern value of historic prices there is also a US equivalent here. You may also be interested to see how Mr Darcy on £10,000 a year could afford to light his cigars with Portra.

The hazards of cheap film

You’ve also to think that film is difficult to make. Back when Kodak were king they had enormous throughput and hence economies of scale. If you listen to Robert Shanebrook he talks of a machine applying perhaps ten or twenty separate layers to the film base, with thicknesses of a few microns. In the dark, too. This is very difficult to get right – I used to work in a paper mill and it’s hard enough getting a single layer of paper right. He says that in its heyday, film accounted for 110% of Kodak’s profit, meaning that it supported the other areas such as paper and chemicals. Lose that volume of throughput and you lose the economies of scale. So the price has to go up. There is also the consequences of stopping doing something and losing the ability to restart. Kodak did it when they closed the lines and their people retired. Fuji is doing it now. Polaroid are learning how hard it is to come back when the knowledge and machinery have gone. Nikon had a go at remaking a mechanical camera, to sell a limited number of them for a fortune and probably at a loss. There are also fewer people who can fix cameras and fewer parts to fix them with. And as a resource becomes scarce, the price probably goes up. (Unless you are a government, and believe you can increase the number of skilled people by shouting). It’s also very difficult to make something new when the components are no longer made. Reflex struggled to make or buy a working shutter for their camera, for example.

Or buy a pukey-bear-cam – digital AND it prints pictures

So the summary is that film, while interesting, is a niche product. The cameras that can shoot it are no longer made and will decline in number (unless someone like Copal steps in and makes shutters again). Film is hard to make and will probably remain as a low-volume product for as long as the cameras keep working. The true cost of film is roughly where it used to be historically: it’s just that the prices look higher due to inflation. Prices for some thngs will rise due to scarcity and competition for them, but that’s how markets work. So I believe the message is that we should enjoy it for what it is or the special results we want, grit our teeth about what feels like a lot of money, and have fun while it lasts.

Showing your pictures

Do you show people what was there or what you saw?

It all came about because I joined (re-joined) a photography club. They have exhibitions and shows during the year, so I looked at the programme to see what I had that might work. The easiest picture to show is one you have already taken, so I trawled my files to see what I had and liked.

It’s an interesting exercise, but it can be a depressing one. It’s great to look again at pictures I like, to remember the circumstances of when they were taken and to get a small confirmation that I can sometimes take good snaps. The counterpoint to this is the depressing realisation that so many of them are dull or trite: I took pictures of what was there in front of me with little interpretation.

It feels the same as taking pictures of graffiti: it’s not your art. It exists in a scene and a picture of it is just a record of its existence. It’s not your creativity, it’s theirs. Using the graffiti as an element in the picture can be creative; using it as the picture is not. The same with paintings and sculpture – a record of them just shows you were there. Using them as an element of the picture shows your brain was there too.

This is not a picture of a statue
Ceci est une pipe

After I got over the slump of feeling useless I realised that even though I had only captured what was in front of me, it was the basis for further interpretation. For the purists, even Ansel Adams treated the basic negative as a musical score to be interpreted in a performance. And no, I am not about to express depth of field through interpretive dance. Not with my knees. But I can take a picture and make it more like what it was I saw. I’ve done this before – I have a picture of a friend’s motor bike. It’s a basic picture of a bike. But what I saw in its location is what I turned the picture into – something more moody.

The original shot has detail in the engine and so on, but that wasn’t the point of the picture.

This is probably not news to anyone, but it has got a bit of my enthusiasm back. I hereby declare to never more show pictures I think are boring (unless there is a reason to do so). Of course, your opinion of my pictures may differ. But I’m promising myself – if I’m going to show pictures to other people I should show them what I feel or what I saw, not just what was in front of me when I pressed the button.

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.

.

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.

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