Diversifying

If you become good at something, or well-known for something, what should you do next?

In writing or music the answer might be ‘do more of it’. This is the curse of the three-book or four-album deal. You become indentured to the publisher to make more copies of the same thing. But you can also become your own victim by repeating a successful formula, even despite the likelihood of diminishing returns.

As a photographer you might develop a particular look or style. If it gains approval, the temptation is to prolong that style to maintain the approval. If you were a professional the drive might be stronger, as that style might be what you are hired for. But tastes change – what about informal family group portraits shot against plain white backgrounds, for example? And what about your own creative growth? Do you want to be limited to wide-angle landscapes with a rock in the foreground?

There are artists who are recognised as having changed their work over time. Think of David Bowie as an obvious example, but you could also look at Sparks, Neil Young, Tom Waits or Alan Moore. Indeed, Alan Moore is explicit in his descriptions of the writing process, that as soon as you recognise yourself repeating a style you should stop using it and develop something else. His advice is to pick something you find difficult and try that. This is the way to grow, not from comfort and safety but from restraint and risk. If you don’t make yourself do something different, when are you likely to do anything different? Or as Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstei said, “We do not go through life imagining alternative ways of seeing what we see”. You could rephrase this as “nobody ever set out to prove themselves wrong”.

This is different to being in a creative hole. In a hole you are stuck and don’t know what to do next. Instead, here you are riding high, master of your craft and technique, but taking the conscious decision to break away and do something else. This is getting out at the top of your game, before your style becomes your handcuffs. It also hopefully avoids the diminishing returns of repeating what was a successful formula.

Bored already

I did write previously on developing a style, where I wondered if I had one. There must be something, as I’ve had one of my pictures identified as mine even though it was anonymous. So perhaps I now need to break away from what was recognisable and try something else?

I’ve mentioned Alan Moore above, and he has something to say about having a recognisable style. If I may steal quote from his book Writing for comics: “if your ambition is to be a creator, then know that creativity is an ongoing and progressive phenomenon and that stasis and stagnation is sure death to it”.

Taking that as the aim, what could I do with my own cliches?

  • Simplicity – try more complex pictures or containing more elements
  • Block or simple shapes – work through the full list of compositional elements
  • Black and white – shoot colour instead
  • Shoot some landscapes (which I currently avoid)
  • Shoot some street photography
  • Try shooting video rather than stills

I’ve had some words to say on most of these: I like simplicity; shoot a lot of mono; avoid landscapes and street photography. So now is my opportunity to stop doing what is comfortable and see what I can do in a less familiar genre.

Not that I’m presuming to have anything like a consistent style or to suffer with artistic angst. But it doesn’t harm to challenge yourself out of your comfort zone. I might even (one day) find what it is I’m good at or enjoy more than taking pictures of things that go fast or swim.

PS – I had a go at what I proposed. I went out and wandered around some landscape and did a bit of architectural photography. Not as bad as I’d thought. I may never take either of them up as my default, but having seen my first results I now want to improve. Give me a hand and we’ll shift this paradigm.

Selby riviera

“I want to learn how to take pictures”

This is often followed by “what camera should I buy?”.

Perhaps the best way to start would be to go to the end and work backwards. “What sort of pictures do you want to take and how will you use them?”.

The answer friends and family, shared online means sticking with your phone camera and perhaps learning the basics of composition. This desired outcome is not about learning how a camera works but all about how pictures work.

To capture the amazing places I go and make prints could mean a decent quality digital camera with a zoom lens and adding some time to learn post-production and printing (or post-production and finding a reliable print shop). This is also all about how pictures work, with enough about the camera settings to be able to capture scenes as intended.

I’ve been given a camera and want to learn to use it can be much more focused. This is a technical how-to that is tightly constrained to a specific camera’s functions and capabilities. But once the camera has been mastered, what then? I could learn how to operate a lathe but unless I have an outcome in mind it would be an empty technical skill. I think that learning to use a specific camera should be directed by what it will be used for. Shooting fast sports needs different settings to macro work or portraiture, so you would be learning less but it would be more relevant and useful.

A manual rangefinder, because Leica.

Because all the social influencers are using one of these is a scary response. Perhaps the best that can be offered is a description of the workflow and some advice on the costs. Camera possession as social confirmation is a strange edge-case. My preference would be to suggest a cheap and simple digital point and shoot to try. If they like the results and persist, then we can talk about how or if to upgrade, based on what they want to be able to do.

a TLR, because life isn’t hard enough already

The ‘given a camera’ and ‘want to be like them’ responses could also be part of an enquiry that was “I want to learn to use film”. I think this needs the same response of ” what do want to be able to do?”. Why go to all the bother and expense of using film if you are already getting the results you want? And if what you want is to learn to control the camera more, digital is by far an easier learning tool than analogue, as it’s so much quicker to see the results (plus the results are not dependent on a further step, so there is one less variable in the process).

It was my dad’s

With all of these, I think the best approach is to start with old, cheap and simple. This is because you don’t know what you really want until you learn what you want to be able to do. Once you find yourself pushing against a constraint in your kit, then you know what kit you really need. And you might get bored and give up too, so why invest heavily at the beginning? As an example, I go scuba diving. For this I wear an inflatable jacket that also carries the air tank. The jacket can be inflated to control my buoyancy underwater and to float me on the surface. There are many different types of jacket and they can cost a lot of money. The one I use for normal diving is functionally OK, even though a bit awkward to use. But it has loads of buoyancy if needed, so is great for the diving I do with novice divers in open water. I also have a second jacket that I use in the pool when training. This is a different design that has the buoyancy arranged on the back, either side of the tank. The jacket is very comfortable to wear and holds me easily in a good posture underwater. But if I ever needed this jacket to support me on the surface it would fail: the buoyancy bags would roll me face-down in the water. Fine for snorkelling, not fine for general safety.

It’s similar with cameras and photography. Starting with secondhand kit means a soft entry and a chance to learn what you like or not and what you need versus what you have. Do I need depth of field preview? Never used it. Do I need to be able to change focusing screens? Not really. Do I need light metering? Yes please. Rangefinders? Why make things harder? Autofocus and focus confirmation? Yes very please. Good high ISO performance? Very useful. Wide range of lenses? Absolutely. Small, light, rugged and available? Definitely.

So those requirements cover several different types of photography (or use cases, as we nerds say) and result in several types of camera. Each camera has a job, as opposed to buying something very clever and having too much power most of the time. I confess though, that I am as guilty as many others of having more kit than I need. My only defence is that it was all the cheapest I could find, in the usual quest to find out if X is better than Y. Everyone raves about the Lomo LC-A for example. Tried one, didn’t like it, swapped it for something else more functional and suitable for my needs.

I’m an IT guy, so I was often asked the equivalent question of ‘what computer should I buy?’. This got the same answers of ‘what do you want to be able to do’ and ‘will this change over time’. Wanting to do a bit of t’interweb and email leads to a different solution from editing video.

So, circling back to where we came in… I think there are two avenues to explore. Learning to take pictures is a lot about learning what makes a picture work, and this means studying pictures. It means working out what you like in a picture and the types of picture you like. Then you can study how to get the effects you like in the type of pictures you want to take. Things like exposure, aperture and shutter speed make sense when they are linked to results. Learning to use a camera is a technical skill that can be learned but has very little to do with the final pictures (as long as the camera settings are about right – but that is why we have automatic modes).

The bonus from this is that, if someone is learning how to get the type of pictures they want rather than how to operate a camera, they might be less inclined to give up when it gets difficult. Every step forward would be towards what they want, rather than just one possible method of getting what they want or a further descent into a technical rabbit hole.

Speaking of rabbit holes – anyone who keeps asking for a camera recommendation should go here.

Aphantasia

Now, here’s a thing. And I didn’t even know it was a thing. It’s the inability to see pictures in your head. A blind mind’s eye.

It started when I was reading Imaginable by Jane McGonigal. Highly recommended, by the way. But there was an initial exercise that asked “imagine yourself waking up in ten years’ time. What’s it like”. So in all good faith, I started describing it to myself. Then the book continued to ask me to imagine every detail and colour of the scene as vividly as possible “unless you are one of the 2% of the population who have aphantasia”. Say what? I could describe my future world eloquently in words, but the best picture was a fuzzy version of my existing bedroom. Hang on – do other people see pictures?

Now close your eyes and imagine a horse. But not this one. This is Bob.

Then, as life does, synchronicity slapped me on the head. There was a press headline on a news feed about a study into aphantasia. So I read it. Then took an online test that seemed to have a lot of its results feeding into further research. And you know what, I don’t seem to have much of a mind’s eye. I can’t see a picture in my head of things that I’m not directly remembering. Even then, it’s lacking in detail. Like most things, it’s a spectrum. A fuzzy imagining, rather than a total absence, is called hypophantasia. Nothing to do with the Disney film, by the way.

How about imagining a sheep?

The first question of course is wether this is true, or at least true for me. The online test seemed to confirm it, but I’m sure every hypochondriac says the same. On the other hand it would explain a lot. It may explain what my wife calls my total lack of an aesthetic sense. But if I can’t imagine what something could look like, I’m unlikely to go out and buy paint. It could also explain why, the one time I went off piste and did buy paint, it was so far from the right colour it wasn’t even wrong. My wife is still puzzled why someone who takes photographs could not see it was the wrong colour. Perhaps I now know why. It may also explain my fascination with colour in production design: I can’t really see what a scene could look like, so I think people who can are very clever. It could even explain why I feel I see things as an alien, but that’s probably stretching it. I do think it could explain why I was rubbish at art when I was at school, but much better at writing (and explains this blog).

If this is true, and it’s still an if, it’s not the end of the world. The condition seems to be no hindrance to creativity. In the case of Derek Parfit it was mooted as the reason for his interest in photography. It may even be compensated by better spacial cognition.

So if it is true, it explains a few things. If not, it’s harmless and gets me out of choosing paint. I may be using this as the drunk uses a lamppost – more for support than illumination – but at least I got a drink out of it.

Out of curiosity, how do you get on with this test?

How to expose

There was a bit of an argument on Faceplop/ Melter (colour me surprised), about the right way to meter light for photography. So I thought I’d weigh in with my own version.

The reason for even thinking about exposure is because what it means is getting the right amount of light on your sensor/ film. To do that you need to measure the amount of light there is. To do that you need some form of meter (which is better than guessing).

Actually, it’s a two stage process. The first step is to measure the amount of light correctly. The second stage is to decide how you want to use that information. Let’s start with step one.

The amount of light emitted by the sun is effectively constant. The amount that reaches the ground (or the subject) varies with time of year, time of day and the weather conditions. This is why a meter is better than guessing.

Sounds easy though: point the camera at the subject and either press the shutter or change the camera settings to what the meter says. Most of the time this works, and the better or more modern the camera the more likely it is to work pretty well. If you have one of these cameras and you get good results, that’s the end of this article.

But… some cameras don’t have meters, or don’t meter light well, or the subject lighting is not ‘average’. This is where we need a better way to meter the light. The obvious tool for the job is a separate hand-held light meter. But there are two basic types and they work in different ways, which was the cause of the online argument.

The first and most common type of meter is a copy of the one you find in a camera. You point it at the subject and it measures how much light is being reflected back towards the camera. Providing the bright and dark areas in the subject average out, the reading is good to use. A reflected light meter can struggle if the view contains lots of bright sky, or is backlit, or is a bright object on a dark background. There is a specialised version of the reflected light meter that has a very narrow angle of view, so lets you meter on a single small part of the subject. These are useful if you can’t get close, or for measuring the brightest and darkest spots to calculate the full range of brightness (the reason for this is in step two, below). These spot meters are expensive though, and don’t give you the general average reading you also need.

The second type of meter measures how much light is falling on the subject. This type is an incident light meter. The idea is that light falling on the subject is the correct middle point that you need to expose for. The brighter bits of the subject will reflect more light and be brighter, the dark bits darker. Providing the total range of brightness fits within the sensitivity of your film or sensor, then this works very well and is immune to scenes that are not an average mix of light and dark. It does need you to measure the light falling on the subject though, which can be difficult if the subject is distant to you or under different lighting.

A reflected meter, as top left, takes the average of everything it can see. An incident meter measures how much light there is and gives you a reading that works if everything is average.

Which type of meter is best? The one you have with you, obviously. Both types work, providing you understand what they are measuring and if they might need some interpretation. The reason for the interpretation is step two.

A typical digital sensor response is on the left. Analogue film is more S shaped, as on the right.

Your sensor or film can record a certain range of brightness. Too little light and it won’t record. Too much and it will record as pure white with no detail. Ideally the brightness range of the scene will match the sensitivity range of the sensor, and it usually does (because sensors and film were developed to match the average range of brightness we encounter). So the average reading that a light meter gives you is intended to provide the mid-point of the camera’s range. How that average reading fits onto the range of a digital sensor or a film is shown below.

The meter reading is meant to put the measured average on the mid point of the sensor or film range (the sun symbol). The total range of brightness in the subject should then fit onto the working range of the sensor of film (the arrow).

So despite all the noise about 18% grey and metering for the shadows or highlights, what you are trying to do is to find the average brightness and set it at the midpoint of the camera’s range. If possible you also set the camera so that the range of brightness in the scene or subject matches the range that the sensor or film can record. If the range of brightness in the subject is less than the range of the camera you can choose to move it up or down the camera range by giving it more or less exposure. Sensible people give as much exposure as possible, without the highlights going off the top of the scale. To be more accurate, the highlights in which you still need to see detail should be on or just below the top of the scale. If the sun is in shot, just accept that it will be overexposed. But if your subject has a white shirt or dress you may want any highlights to show a bit of detail and tonality and not be featureless white. This pegs the maximum exposure you can give. Alternatively, if the scene is low contrast (has a small range of brightness) you may want to give it more than the average exposure. This shifts the whole scene up the scale and will reveal more detail in the shadows. This is exposing for the shadows.

But what if the range of brightness in the scene is too great to get both the highlights and shadows within the camera’s range? You have options. One is to accept that part of the scene will not record. So you could let the highlights or the shadows fall off the scale. Most people keep the highlights and let the shadows go totally black, but it’s up to you.

The range is too wide for the sensor. You can give it less expsoure (which shifts the arrow left) and keep the highlights at the expense of the shadows, or go the other way.

Another option is to decrease the range of the subject. You can add light to the shadows with flash or a reflector. You can reduce the highlights by changing the lighting or adding some haze or filtering. Moving out of direct sunlight into open shade works well (but beware of the blue cast you will get from the sky).

A third option is to expand the range of the sensor or film. This is what HDR does for digital. With film you can play with different types of film, developer and processing. The aim with both is to be able to squeeze a wide range of subject brightness onto the narrower range of the sensor.

So, to get back to measuring exposure, a reflected light meter is saying ‘this is the average brightness of everything I can see’ while an incident light meter is saying ‘this is how much light there is. If everything in this light averages out, this is the correct exposure’. Which is better? If the full range of brightness in the subject fits into the range of your camera, the incident light meter is better as it can’t be fooled by non-average subjects. But if the brightness range is too great for the camera or you have something special in mind, you will need to set the camera differently to the average, change the lighting or take special measures to widen the camera’s range.

How do you know if the subject fits the camera range? Digital cameras win here if they can display a histogram or the under/overexposed flashies. If you can adjust the camera settings, you want the histogram shifted as far to the right as you can (as bright as possible) without losing any important highlights. With film I’m afraid it comes down to experience, and knowing that negative films, particularly colour negative, can take a bit of overexposure and still produce good results (due in part to that S shaped response, as above). If you have a separate light meter and you are close enough to the subject to be able to measure the highlights and shadows separately, try measuring the range. It works best with a reflected light meter. Take your overall average reading. Then measure the brightest highlight that should still show a bit of texture and tonality. This should be no more than 3 stops brighter than the average. The darkest shadow that you want a hint of tonality in should be no more than 4 stops darker. It is possible to capture a wider range, but this is about what works without taking special measures.

The special measures? There are ways of developing film that can capture a wider range of brightness. With slide film you are really stuck with what it offers. With digital you can try HDR. This combines a set of over-exposed shots (that capture the shadows) with under-exposed ones that capture the highlights. With some techno-magic the best bits of each are combined to compress a wide range of brightness in the subject to fit onto the range that the sensor is capable of recording. It can look strange if it’s done badly, and it often is.

The alternative is to base your exposure on what is important in the subject and let the rest fall where it may. If there are people in the scene, you would normally set the exposure so that you can see their faces. Just be aware that there is range of skin tones around the ‘average’ – don’t be like Kodak.

So if this is all getting too confusing, this is what you do in practice. Most subjects are average. Point your reflected light meter at the scene and angle it down a bit if there is a lot of sky in the shot. Or point your incident meter back towards the camera, with the meter in the same light as the subject. Job done. If the range of brightness in the scene is likely to be too wide, you will need to decide which end of the scale to keep, and it’s usually the highlights. On a digital camera take a test shot and look at the histogram or flashies. Reduce the exposure until the highlights are inside the histogram or stop flashing. With a reflected meter measure a highlight and give it three stops more exposure. It’s harder to gauge the difference with an incident meter but you could try taking one reading with the meter pointing at the camera and one pointing at the main source of light (often the sun). Try setting the camera at the midpoint of the two readings. And bracket – take extra shots with one stop more and one less of exposure. Bracketing is good for learning, as you can tell just by looking at the results that a scene like the one you shot really needs more or less exposure than what the light meter says.

So there you are. The purpose of metering the light is to work out how best to fit the scene onto the sensor. No one type of light meter is best – you need to use your brain with both of them. Incident light meters are less likely to be fooled, so may give more reliable results. Reflected light meters work from further away. The histogram or flashies on a digital camera do the same job. Light meters work best with average scenes, but luckily most scenes really are average (by definition). But look hard at your subject and the light and you will learn what different to average looks like and what to do about it. And then you can join the perpetual squabble on t’interweb about how exposure works. (As an aside, the only comparable geek argument is how countersteering works for motorcycles. So if you really want to start a flame war, ask people how best to expose for a countersteering bike.)

And by the way, you may have heard people either praising or damning the Zone System. All it does is help you try and fit the range of brightness in your subject onto your sensor, just as described above. None of this is magic, or even particularly difficult. It’s all about squeezing what there is into what you’ve got.

Becoming arsed

To explain, there is an English expression meaning “I can’t be bothered”, which is to say “I can’t be arsed”. Just to avoid the confusions arising from a common language. This is about getting arsed again.

After two years of lockdown, isolation and working from home it can be difficult to even get interested in life again. Apparently this condition now has a name: languishing. I find myself flipping between sparky and dull, so I guess I’ve caught a bit of languish.

Part of it is that many of the activities I used to enjoy and take pictures of have closed down. I could still go for walks all through the lockdowns, as long as I stayed away from other people, but where’s the (photographic) fun in that? I did join a photo club, which meant that even if my active photography was restricted, I was still thinking about pictures and how to do things differently or better. This kept me cheerful and mostly sane. I also did a long exercise of scanning all my old colour slides. It’s something to do while vegetating through online meetings. I would really like to get out more though, to get over the slump of lockdown and to rekindle some enthusiasm.

Anyway, enough of me, let’s talk about you. Are you too wondering how to get some interest back or find that mojo? Well, the components of fun, according to Prof Laurie Santos, are playfulness, connection and flow. Playfulness means not taking the thing seriously: it’s not a competition. Connection means other people, so lonely treks in the woods are out. And flow means being absorbed in the moment. And it doesn’t even have to be about photography either. Why not do something daft but fun, for no other reason than you can have fun with some other people? Try learning something new and flow will come, as you concentrate on how to do it. If the activity is not photography, then it might create opportunities for pictures. At the very least it will stop you worrying about the price of film or whether you should upgrade your camera again.

My distraction was beer making. I’ve always pottered around in the shed making brews, but I took up with a local brewing group when I moved house recently. They are all far more experienced and skilled than me, but it has made me raise my game and study the science and methods behind the process. It’s also ridiculous fun to stand in a barn, freezing and wearing wooly hats and gloves, discussing the subtleties of the beers we are tasting. Imagine an Inuit party where everyone stood far enough apart you would think they must be family.

The other remedy is to take delight in the small and everyday. Ross Gay wrote a book about a year’s worth of noticing the delightful. We were out walking and noticed that the low-angled winter sun revealed that the field was covered in a complete layer of fine spiders’ webs that sparkled in the light. We also had a chat with some twitchers who had come to see a rare bird, of which there were around six sightings a year in the UK. They let us have a squint through their telescope. I can’t tell one bird from another, but it was a lovely gesture of friendliness.

So I guess the summary is to try something new if you can, especially if it involves other people, and to take delight in your surroundings and experiences. I may not be taking any more pictures, but I’m not anxious about it and the ones I do take mean more to me.

Developing a style

There are some photographers whose pictures are distinctive. There are others whose work is so well known that it is distinctive because you know who took it.

Do you have a style? Could someone see a picture and guess it was taken by you (and not just because it’s on your wall)? Has your style changed with time? Do you need a style at all? Is a fixed style another word for rut?

There are also styles of photography – street, urban landscape, documentary and so on. Do you stick to a style or have a range? By range I mean shooting a series of pictures with a specific look, and then another series with a different look?

I must say that I never thought about my personal style and never thought I had one. (You’ve only to see how I dress to agree.) I would try to render a picture in the way I thought I had seen it but that was always more about the picture than adding myself to the picture. And yet, the reason for thinking about this was somebody recently looking at an anonymous picture in a set and guessing it was taken by me. I can understand why, which made me realise that the things I like to photograph and they way I present them is exactly what is meant by a style. Perhaps I do have one?

It’s probably all sophistry though, because you always add yourself to the picture just by choosing where to point the camera and when to press the button. So before I damn my soul and write an artist’s statement, what is this thing called style?

Let’s ask Michael Freeman, who wrote a book called Achieving photographic style. The book is an analysis of the ‘central aesthetic values of the photographic image’. He takes some basic types (or styles) of photography and analyses what makes good pictures in each genre work. So perhaps this doesn’t tell me how to obtain or find my personal style, but he could tell me what each genre contains.

The genres he examines are:

  • Journalism and reporting
  • Advertising
  • Glamour
  • Landscape
  • Portraits
  • Special effects

Not a huge list. Adobe list 28 types. Urby list 32.

But none of these are what I am after. I can fairly easily pick the genres I like – yes for things like portrait and action, no for many others. That doesn’t give me a style though, it gives me a subject. To have a style I need to do more than point a camera at something. The additional part is the selection you make when you take the picture. I like visual simplicity and simple shapes, so I will take pictures where I can achieve this. (By the way, this is how my picture was named in the anonymous set).

I like action, but where there are only a few elements in the picture. Street photography often seems too busy, unless you get close and then it turns into portraiture. I have ranted previously and often about landscapes. The only landscapes I am interested in now are where I can make pleasing and simple shapes. I also like amusing (to me, anyway) juxtapositions or irony. I’m also happy not have the ultimate levels of sharpness or resolution – it is a bourgeois concept, after all. I am very lucky – I don’t have to make pictures for anyone else so I can please myself.

So I think these have become my style. I often stray, and I usually dislike or find boring the pictures that result. So I think that, if I do have a style, it has evolved from what pleases me and what I want to see in my pictures. And that came out of me thinking about what it was I could see when I started to lift the camera, and wanting to make sure I captured as much as I could of that thing.

I know the pictures in this blog are not in a single or recognisable style. They were taken over many years and mostly long before I brought my brain along when I went out with a camera. But all of them make me happy in some way, if only as warnings to children of the perils of strong women and loose drink.

But in answer to the question I think it is possible to have a visible style, but only if you apply your preferences. Most people choose to decorate their home or to dress in a certain way. They select from options and a new item might be added if it conforms to the overall style. We should do the same with our photography: take pictures of things we like in ways that we like to see them. And like home decoration, your style may change over time.

Your options also change with technology. Colour mixing has made the range of paint colours far greater than it used to be – I don’t have to use magnolia for a neutral/ warm wall colour any more. In photography I can now shoot at extreme ISO or wide dynamic range. These give me options that I might like to use, and will be come part of my style.

Ultimately though, I don’t care whether I have a recognisable style or not. The value for me is in working out what I like and how to do more of that. And what I like is to try different things, as settling into a style isn’t a signature but an epitaph.

But I’m still going to keep wearing that hat.

Colour in your camera

I’ve got an old photography book called Colour in your Camera by Gösta Skoglund.  The subtitle is ‘a book of colour photographs to show how to make colour photographs’. No punning or obscure titles here – this book is clear in its intentions.

What brought it to mind is that I’ve been thinking about colour recently. This, despite the majority of my pictures being black and white. Film-makers have made increasing use of the facility with digital capture of changing the overall colour balance of a film, or of using specific coloured lighting to set the mood of scenes. People joke about the Mexico filter, where the scene is rendered with strong yellow/ orange cast to make it look dusty and desert-like.

The reason why I even have to think about colour is that I’m late to the party (as usual). I started out using mostly black and white film and still shoot a lot of mono. I’ve even set one of my digital cameras to save and show a mono jpeg but keep the full colour version as a raw file. I like thinking about tone and shape. And then colour came along. Originally I shot colour slide film, as it was “pure”. Even then, the quick-result colour processsors could give you strange colour casts in your prints. I had some idea in my head that slide film retained the artist’s true vision (cue laughter and me slapping myself on the head). I think I had just read too many photography magazines.

What I missed with my gradual movement to using digital was that I was no longer at the mercy of the developer and printer – I could change the colours myself. I also got a total slap upside the head (I get lots of these) from my wife when we were looking at paint for the house. The big display of colour cards at the local DIY store was not a finely-graded copy of a rainbow but had some method behind it. Going side to side at a fixed horizontal level showed you colours with the same tonal value. This meant that, under the same lighting, different rooms would not be brighter or darker unless you meant them to be. Going verticaly up the colour swatches kept the same colour but varied the tonal value, so I could keep the particular shocking pink or acid green I had set my heart on and vary the brightness to suit the room or lighting.

Who knew? Well not me, obviously. I’m not sure I am colour-blind but I do appear to be colour-stupid. Or is it tone-deaf? What I have found to play and learn with is a colour wheel that will show me complimentary or contrasting colours.

There have been a couple of articles on t’interweb recently that got me thinking more about what colour means. One was a run-through of how colours are used to express mood. I also dived down the rabbit hole following a detailed analysis of the colours used in the film Ad Astra. The analysis was right – there is a very strong use of colour and colour cues in the film (it’s a shame it wasn’t also a good film, but it does mean you can focus on the colours).

I wonder if still photography can be as subtle as cinema though? In a film the viewer is hopefully concentrating on the story and action, and the colours are perhaps subtle clues that inform the viewer but may not even be noticed? A still image rests before the viewer with no distraction, so perhaps it gets more scrutiny? It has got me thinking, anyway. I wonder if I could experiment with strong ‘unnatural’ colours. I’ve also done some split toning of mono images before, so I will be using the colour wheel to look at the effect of making the highlight and shadow colours truly complimentary or analogous.

Complimentary colours
Analogous colours

I am also playing with spot colour or overall tone for mood.

So while I might be the last person to discover this, I’m going to spend more time both noticing the colours that exist and choosing the colours I use. Amusingly, I will be doing this as we head into our British winter, where the predominant colour is grey. So are there any other good resources I could study while I wait for the sun to return?

PS – I have since discovered this and this.

Book covers

Look at the books around you. Most of them have a picture on the cover. I’d never really thought about, but there is a whole industry that provides cover pictures.

Basically it’s the photo stock pictures business, but focused on a specific use case.

I’d also had some fanciful idea that it was the photographer’s job to interpret the book. My, how the publishers would laugh. Usually, the photographer provides pictures to an agency, which holds a large library of images. The people designing the book pick an image to fit the subject of the book or, more likely, its genre. This is probably why ‘dead or threatened woman’ thrillers have so often got a woman in a red coat walking with her back to you. And why ‘tough loner’ thrillers have a man walking away down the road. The picture tells you what the book is likely to contain even if you don’t know the author.

What got me thinking was my wife, a great fan of detective crime thrillers. She mentioned that there can be a mismatch between the quality of the cover and that of the text. Most often it seems to fail so that good books get bad covers. By that, I mean a cover that looks cheap, or lacking good design. Quite often the cover picture is trite: a formulaic copy of what other people are doing (red coat, back turned) or a literal version of the story (a pen leaking blood was a recent one). Sometimes, despite the cover, a book is good. It doesn’t seem to work as much the other way round – I guess a book published with no budget and less hope doesn’t get much other than a stock image on the front.

This is not the photographer’s fault. The snapper posts probably hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pictures to the agency. The pen leaking blood could have been used anywhere. It was a designer who thought ‘this book is about someone who writes murder stories and may have committed the crimes too, so what we need is a killing pen’. Or perhaps the designer is working on yet another Scandinavian endangered woman thriller by an unknown author and wants to signal the genre to potential readers. Cue the red coat. I make it sound easy, but it’s marketing and it usually works.

There will be a bespoke market too, where a particular photographer is commissioned to produce a specific picture. As in all such things, this will work to a power law: a few people get all the work and all the money and there is a long tail of the remainder. So I expect there are only a few known book-cover photographers.

I suppose the pictures that get on the covers are strong support for the Filmosaur proposal (point 3 of the manifesto) that a picture has no meaning but what the viewer thinks it means. A picture of a man running across a city bridge could mean anything from a thriller to a guide to time management. Or, using the picture of the slide above, anything from lost child to lost childhood.

Anyway, there is a whole industry out there creating pictures for book covers. What might be fun would be to shoot a picture for a book you like, just to play with capturing the story in a single image or even to pun on the contents. I admit to doing the opposite in my past, which was to hide all of the cover art and text beneath dust jackets made from old wallpaper or brown paper. It meant I could read anything I liked at school or commuting.

Anyway, I’m just waffling about something that caught my interest. If you want to know more about it or if the idea of shooting covers for a stock agency interests you, you could start somewhere like here.

Curating

Ever put a ‘zine or book together or assembled a set of pictures to exhibit?How do you decide what is in, what is out and what order the pictures should be in?

What got me thinking was an article by Grant Scott were he says that photographers need help with both curating and layout. Layout I definitely agree with – I’m the IT guy so I think green text on a black screen background is an undervalued part of our legacy. And a screen should be 80 characters wide and 25 deep. Curating though – deciding what is in or out and what order to put it in – I find it fascinating. The other trigger for this was my trawling of old photos and realising that I was keeping a lot of stuff that I really didn’t need and would never use.

But, back to the start. Imagine you had to present your life’s (photographic) work. Do you put it in chronological order, the major themes that have influenced you, the different styles you have used or by subject matter? Do all the portraits go on one wall, landscapes on another and selfies in the bin? Chronology seems good if you want to show the span of a career or life and how the photographer developed. Organising by assignment or theme seems good if the photographer has investigated several distinct subjects. There is also the power of repetition. Think of something like Anil Mistry’s book of abandoned mattresses.

I can give you a worked example from a small print exhibition I put on with a pal. The venue was a local wine bar. Upstairs room, maybe 10m square, old exposed brickwork. So the first decision was a common print size and a standard frame. We wanted a viewing distance of one to two meters so the prints worked best at A4. Random use of vertical and horizontal pictures because a fixed pattern would draw attention to itself and away from the pictures. Then we spread the pictures by subject type – there wasn’t going to be a set of landscapes together, then portraits for example. That may work if we were famous and prolific but in this case it might influence people to only look at part of the display – cute pictures of dogs, for example. Then colour range: do we ignore the main tone of the pictures or group the predominant colours and have a progression? Perhaps we should go from warm to cool to mono as you look around the room from the entrance? Or do we put the vibrant colour pictures in the darkest part of the room and the mono ones in the bright area? And are all the pictures to be hung at the same level, or do we follow what the old brickwork lets us do?

To relieve your tension, this is what we did: random vertical and horizontal, hung roughly aligned but as allowed by the brickwork, random placement of colour and subject. It was meant to look uncontrived. As Piet Hein said

“There is one art,
no more, no less:
to do all things with art-
lessness”.

But if I was ever famous, I would want someone much cleverer than me to both select the images and the way to display them. A few snaps in a wine bar is one thing, but an actual exhibition is a much bigger undertaking. Not that I’m ever likely to be famous. It’s a bit like asking if you would buy a Porsche or a Ferrari if you won the lottery.

There is also the sort of curating you would do to put pictures in a book or magazine. I think I have only made one picture book, and it was a set of old family photos put together for my mum. I did think about the placement though: should people look into the centre of the book or out? What should appear on facing pages? Is there a progression between relatives or places? Who gets the two centre pages? I probably thought more about it than my mum or anyone else who looked at the finished article, but that’s probably correct. See Mr Hein, above. The background to this, and the reason for thinking about the layout, is that I have self-published a how-to book. That meant paying a lot of attention to the way a book is structured and the features that make it easier to use.

Anyway, the other reason to curate is not to put together a show, but to organise your own library of pictures. It’s probably best to start with this version of curating so that you know what you’ve got and where it is. There is a lot of advice on t’interweb about how to curate your photos, but I’ve seen one fairly condensed set of rules here at Heartwork (other websites also apply). Their advice boils down to eliminating:

  • Duplicates
  • Mistakes, errors and bad shots
  • Landscapes (oh yes!)
  • Multiples within a series

Multiples within a series I might use for something else. I’ve used a bit of software in the past to combine a series of time-lapse pictures into a video. If I’d shot enough pictures in a series I might try that just to see what the result looked like. Or perhaps animate the shots that lead up to the best one and freeze on that as the final frame. But that’s nothing to do with curation, just me thinking out loud.

Mistakes and bad shots can be thrown away, but only after you have sucked all the learning out of them.

Empty landscapes (any landscapes, in my opinion) are boring. If it’s just a record of what was in front of you, then so what? Put people in a landscape and things get more interesting. Or take pictures of people.

Actually, there is one thing you can use the ‘technically OK but not worth keeping’ pictures for: make a mosaic. There are some apps available that you can give a target picture and a bunch of other pictures as a feed; they remake the target using tiled copies of the feed, selected by colour or tone as if they were large pixels. It’s quite good fun and I could see myself using it to create a mosaic using all the ‘spare’ pictures from an event. It’s not curating, but it is a way to make use of the pictures you would otherwise sacrifice to housekeeping. (I use AndreaMosaic for this, which is one of the Portable Apps suite)

So perhaps I’ve argued myself round in a circle. Selecting a set of pictures is interesting and another way of story-telling. Separating the good from the druff in your own pictures is instructive, saves space and can lead to other things.

Go curate!

The Casual challenge

I do like a bit of a challenge and those nice people over at Casual Photofile have created one. A list of 34 things to photograph. The extra challenge for film users is to get them all, in order, on a single roll. Game on!

So this is going to take a bit of thought. I can’t take several shots of something and pick the best. I’m going to have to Deer Hunter it. I’m also using a camera for which I only have one lens, so there’s no playing about with that either.

I also cocked up at the start. I was using a new light meter I’d just bought without giving enough attention to how it worked. So the first couple of frames may be underexposed. I may have to stand-develop the film to recover those without blowing the rest.

Another aspect to the challenge is that thing about doing it all on a single roll of film. If I was going to shoot pictures on the theme of something wet, for example, I would go to a place and take several pictures. But this is one shot. I suppose I could go to the place anyway and take the challenge camera with me, then decide at the time which scene to commit to film. But I would prefer to think about the theme and take just the one shot. It feels more in keeping with the idea of the challenge, especially as I will be taking the pictures around where I live as I emerge blinking into the light after lockdown.

Taking only one shot of each subject is a challenge too. Like most people I would normally develop an idea. I’d take a picture, then reframe it or change the exposure, or maybe alter the depth of field. But this is one shot: what I shot is what I got.

So what did I do? I carried a copy of the list around with me and thought about what the next subject could be. If I hadn’t got the challenge camera with me I went back to shoot my single frame.

For anyone that didn’t follow the link above, this is the challenge list:

How did I do? Well, the original plan was to shoot the whole role, develop and scan it and then put the pictures up here. But I am conscious that it is taking me time and that if you wanted to have a go, all I am adding is delay. I will therefore post this as it stands and then come back to it later when I have my photos to show.

It also gives me time to think about what I want each item to mean. “Wooden” for example – something made of wood is easy; a bad actor would be harder.

Have a go.

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