If good means perfect then we have seen the rise of the good, followed by the return of the imperfect. Digital killed analogue, then analogue rose from the grave, but digital is winding-up a super double-punch to be launched by AI.
What got me thinking was an (old) essay by Glenn Gould on the rise of recorded classical music and the possible demise of live concerts. He wrote about the heinous crime of splicing tape recordings together to make a perfect performance from multiple takes. He also wrote about how recordings had changed the sound of classical music. With a recording the sound is not at the mercy of the concert hall’s acoustics and even solo instruments could be made audible.
Compare that with digital photography and tools like Photoshop. The analogy would be a change from something like slide film, where everything had to be right first time, to digital where ‘fix it in post’ became a thing. I’ve written before about how older analogue pictures weren’t technically very good. But now we praise pictures for their sharpness and employ software to make them sharper or reduce the appearance of noise.
And then, just as we were putting on our shades because the future was so bright, analogue awoke. I never thought I’d see cassette tapes again. I thought the same of vinyl records, but even Ikea is selling a record player. Film is making a gradual revival, even though we’ve lost a lot of the ability to make it (or the cameras to use it in). But where there is a demand there will be someone to take money for it, such as the Leica M6. I doubt we’ll ever see an Ikea camera, but there may yet be something that fills the gap between Lomo and Loco.
But then there is the Rise of the Machines. AI-based utilities can generate pictures from a description. This can remove the need for any craft skill and allow anyone to be creative. I still expect the best pictures will be created by the most creative people though, as it’s their imagination that counts, not their tools. So where companies once hired people who were good with Photoshop, they will be hiring people who can imagine the best descriptions or can train the AIs on the best sources.
Give it a few years though and we could be seeing the resurgence of darkroom printing or the use of live models in reaction to (what will be thought of as) effortless automation. Grant Morrison dealt with the waves of changing approach as style superseded style. He invoked the Sekhmet Hypothesis, which says that there is an 11 year cycle of solar magnetism that moves us between hippy and punk, or introspective to explorative. Not that I can even pretend to understand the theory, but I can see how styles or movements break out, dominate and then fade as they are seen to be establishment, ready to be crushed by the New Wave. Indeed, if you want to know how this works with art, read What are you looking at? by Will Gompertz.
What shall we do then? If you are an artist, then I expect you will be either exploiting the potential of the new or creating it. As new tools arise we can use them, but we will be guided by what we want to be able to do. I suppose this is a plea to use the tools rather than let the tools use us. Just because I can shoot sharp pictures doesn’t mean that all my pictures must be sharp. Just because I can ask an AI to make me a picture of hamsters doing the dance of the seven veils, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have more fun and reward from making a picture of which I’m capable. I might take a look at the clever noise reduction tools to see if I can rescue some old pictures, but I’m not going to make a career out of it.
But apart from all the wittering, it looks like we’re living in interesting times. But I think we always have. What about you though? Surfing the AI wave, making mix tapes or looking for a new stacked stereo system? Or waiting for the next sunspot cycle to bring back flares?
Seth Godin has a view on this that may resonate: “If your work isn’t more useful or insightful or urgent than GPT can create in 12 seconds, don’t interrupt people with it. Technology begins by making old work easier, but then it requires that new work be better.”
As the story goes, a tourist in New York asked a passer-by how to get to Carnegie Hall. The answer was “practice”. I think Gladwell’s idea of 10,000 hours of practice has been debunked though, as hours alone won’t do it. As proof, I’m sure I smile at someone at least once a day, but in all these years it’s not made me a nicer person.
So what I’m talking about is mindful or reflective practice. And while it’s possible to get all Zen about the meaning of mindfulness, what it really means is trying things, looking at your results and picking out the good stuff. The thing about the good stuff though, is that it doesn’t happen without the other stuff. You may have to kiss a lot of frogs to find that prince, but you’ll never find the prince without some froggy-snoggy action.
This is where digital beats film. Your snaps are essentially free, and the camera usually records in the picture file what its settings were. So there is no excuse against trying variations to see what works best. The mindfulness bit comes in when you pick which shot you like most, then look at what settings made it happen.
If you do this at every opportunity, you should begin to learn what you like and how to get that sort of picture. It’s a lot less stressful to know what sort of shutter speeds you need or how high you can push the ISO before you are doing it for real. Always dig your well before you are thirsty, Grasshopper.
This ties-in with the idea of journaling or keeping a notebook. Jot down ideas for or about pictures as they occur to you. Then try those ideas out and see what works. Or do it the other way round: take lots of pictures at any time, then make notes about the ones that worked so that you can do more of it.
There is also the benefit that the more you use your camera, and the more often you use some of the obscure features it has, the better you will be able to use the camera. As an example, I went out to do a bit of night photography. It took me a while to find out how to dim the rear screen. I did remember that it could do in-camera HDR though, so I tried that on a few things. What did I learn? That I need to set a wider range of exposures to get the full range. I also had a go, while out for a walk, at some ICM. My Canon G9 has a built-in ND filter function. Couple that to its lowest ISO setting and shutter-priority mode so that I can dial the speed right down and I might get some nice blurries. Save the configuration to one of the user profiles and I can have this ready to use when needed.
Except it seems the G9 can’t have both the ND filter and aperture priority at the same time. No worries, and better I found that out when I’m playing than when I try to use it. This is where the notebook comes in useful again.
So what did I learn? Well, I dragged the dog out on a couple of walks around previously boring landscapes so that I could play with some ICM. I learned that there is a knack to using old manual lenses on my dSLR that is not obvious but works perfectly, and I will now remember. I made a couple of impressionistic autumn landscapes that I actually like. I didn’t take any of it too seriously, so there was no pressure to be a Real Photographer. I had some fun, and having reviewed the results I’ll be out to try this again. But better.
You could spend all your time exploring new things, or stick entirely with what you know and look no further. But perhaps there is a good working balance between exploring and exploiting?
There is a mathematical calculation of the ideal balance that uses the Gittins Index, but it’s complicated. Or you can focus on minimising regret, meaning “if I look back at myself from the future, will I regret not doing this?”. This is why it is always worth learning something: the future you will have the benefit of what the current you learns. But you can’t learn everything, just as you can’t try everything. Plus you get a lot of benefit from using what you already know. So this brings me back to working out the best balance between finding new stuff and using what I’ve already got.
All very theoretical, but what has it got to do with photography? My balance has always been more to explore than exploit. I have tried different cameras, lenses, film and methods because I could, and because I was curious. I could instead have settled on a single useful combination and worked it hard. There is a lot of value in sticking with something you know and working the arse off it. You will know exactly how your lens, film or sensor will record the subject; you will know how every feature and option works. But you’ll never have a new trick in the bag. The alternative would be to chase every new thing, but this means you will never have a body of competence.
The research says that the more time you have, the more you should explore the new. The depressing down side to this says that the less time you have (the older you are), the more you should stick with the known and ignore the new. The antidotes to this stagnation are things I have written about before: how to introduce chance and trigger new directions; how to recognise you are repeating yourself and break out. But aside from that, I do appreciate that I have accumulated a lot of files and negatives and a lot of notes and records on how to do things. Many years ago I had a copy of Photoshop Elements – probably version 4 or 5. I upgraded it gradually, I think I’m now on 7, and made notes of how to achieve effects. This cookbook has turned into a useful resource. I am still exploring, in the sense of adding to it when I find or learn something new, but the collected notes are very useful to exploit.
I could put some effort into learning Lightroom (or more likely, Darktable and GIMP), but I’m not sure the eventual benefits are worth the investment. GIMP would be worth it for when I hit the limits of Elements, but I don’t have to process large batches of images, so I don’t really need a workflow. It’s the same with video: I have a copy of Kdenlive that I use to edit together video clips into a short film. I’ve learned it well enough to do what I need, but I’m not a video maker. And yes, I did explore shooting video. Of course I did.
There is another point of view that’s relevant, and it came from some writings of Glenn Gould. He drew some interesting parallels between known knowledge and the unknown. His view was that the known was a basis for exploration and we should avoid freezing it into The Method. He also wrote about the liberty of performing (music, in his case) in the recording studio rather than in public. He felt that public performances led to safety and the avoidance of risk, while in the studio he could take risks and do difficult work, knowing that he could combine the best parts and drop the mistakes. So he was combining the exploitation of his abilities and learning with the exploration of the new. Did he get the balance right? Probably, but he was quite exceptional.
I think the best I can do is to turn down my curiosity dial a little and turn up the wick on exploiting more of the work I have already done. Or perhaps I let it match the seasons, and do my exploring when the days are longer? What do you do?
Which might be puzzling, but there is a link (trust me). There seem to be a lot of people who take pictures but have little or no idea how the camera works. They just want the outcome. There are also a lot (but probably fewer) of people who want to know exactly how their camera or the method works. They enjoy the process. Robert Pirsig argued for a happy medium (that you can strike with a spanner). The question is how much you need to know about how something works to be able to use it well?
Pirsig’s view is that some people are aesthetes (in his words, romantics). They don’t want to know the details or workings. They see and value the outcome, not the process. He said that other people were technicians (classical). They study and learn how things work. They may actually be less interested in the outcome than the process. Part of his argument, apart from the real meaning of quality, was that the ideal is to combine the two. It meant having an outcome in mind but also knowing how to achieve it technically. Automation is a great assistant, but I wonder if there is value in knowing how the manual process or machine works, and where the point of best value lies?
The other aspect to this is your level of competence. When you set out to learn something, say photography or driving a car, everything is strange and nothing makes sense. Some of the basic controls have to be mastered before you can operate the machine well enough to get the result you want. To drive, for example, you may have no idea why you change gear, but you need to learn to do it to get the car to move. In photography you may have no idea why there are aperture numbers, but you need to learn that big numbers mean a small hole and what effect that small hole has. Or in both cases you can use an automatic. You’ll get results, but you will never learn the relationship between the settings and those results. The basics will get you started, but perhaps you should progress beyond them?
This ties into how we learn, or rather how we are taught. It was quite explicit in the subject I followed, which was chemistry. We first learned how things worked. Then we moved up to the next level of study and were told that everything previous was a simplification and this was how it really worked. Then we moved up a level… etc. But that is a path I chose to follow: I chose to become a technician or classical. The other extreme is the view that chemistry is akin to magic in that nobody understands it and it has no real place in our everyday lives. And then you mix chlorine and ammonia based cleaners and wonder why your eyes sting.
While the extreme of romantic might be to use a thing with no idea how it works, the extreme of technician might be to concentrate entirely on making it work without having a real use for it. If I may be so bold as to give some examples (knowing what would happen if I did this on a more social medium)… look at the number of pictures you see taken by people who have a new camera or lens. They say they are testing it. But basically, if it works, just use it. Taking straight uninterpreted record shots may be part of your testing, but I don’t need to see them. Perhaps if the picture showed something unique to that lens or camera it would be interesting, but “hurrah, it works” brings me no joy. The counterpart is the pictures people show that contain an effect or result that is interesting or expressive but can’t be repeated as the maker doesn’t know how they got it. These are just puzzles. I also think that while it’s great to get an effect by accident, you should then put some study into understanding how you got it. Otherwise it’s not art, it’s chance. (Or Dadaist poetry)
I’m also reminded, when I see plain record shots taken with a new camera or lens, of the people I see at tractor shows. I’ve seen whole fields full of people sat next to their restored and working pumping engine or circular saw. While it’s interesting to see what sort of stuff farmers had to cope with, it’s not being used for anything useful. Their whole point and joy seems to be that it works and they own it. The photographic equivalent is probably GAS.
I’m being unfair. Straight record shots taken with a particular lens will give the viewer an idea of the effects it provides, particularly if it’s compared with an alternative. I’ve done it myself. Better still is if you can compare lenses or results under similar realistic conditions. The Canny Cameras site, for example, shows what you can expect from various old compacts using the same subjects each time. Here it makes sense to use straight record pictures to show blurring, fringing or distortion and get a sense of what a charity-shop find is capable of. What I don’t want though are pictures of resolution charts. If you want to go down that rabbit hole I’ll get my technicianmode on and ask what the variation is between items and what the sample size should be for meaningful testing. Testing a sample of one is not as useful as understanding variation. </nerd>.
I really don’t need the camera settings provided with a photograph, either. Show me something interesting and I will work out how it was done (or have fun trying). By all means tell me that you got the effect by tilting the lens or something else, but I don’t need to know your shutter speed or worse, what camera you used. The photograph – the outcome – should stand alone. The settings you used to get it are useful to you, so that you can recreate or improve your method, but not to me.
So where am I going with this? I err on the side of technician, as I am deeply curious about how things work. But for me the purpose of photography is not to use a camera, it’s to take pictures. I just want to know how my camera works so that I can make it do what I want (or find the menu option I want). Although, in the case of some of the Russian cameras, it’s useful to know how to avoid breaking them too. I like to be able to use a camera well, just as I like to be able to drive competently. But the aim is not how well I can change a film or a gear, but to try and get the best out of the machine in support of its purpose.
To be fair though, digital cameras are complicated and laden with features while mechanical cameras rely on you knowing how to use them. Automation is a wonderful thing, but I can see how multiple options or complexity leads to anxiety. And if you are learning something new, it’s much more encouraging to get an early result even if you are not sure how it happened. In chemistry I was able to distill our home-brewed wine long before I was able to make my own incendiaries, oops – firelighters. Speaking of which, I accidentally triggered the speed limiter on my car and was stuck at 20mph for a couple of hundred yards until I could pull-in and find the off switch. Like all good design fails, it was controlled by a lever that is normally hidden to the driver but can be hit and triggered if you run your hand around the steering wheel. Perhaps the photo equivalent is the pin on some Ricoh lenses that fouls the autofocus drive on Pentax cameras and locks the lens onto the camera body. I bought a nice 20mm lens that had the bad pin, but knew enough to spot it and sort it out. This is where a little technical savvy is useful.
So I think what I’m arguing for is a balance. It’s useful to have some level of understanding of the process or the machine so that you know how to get the result you want, or why you got the results you did. I don’t need to understand how a carburetor works to be able to drive an old car, but knowing that the car has one and some idea of what it does can be useful (when the car wouldn’t start, or when the cable froze). I’m also not arguing that I stand at the point of perfect balance. I love to find out how things work, well past the stage where I know enough to use it. When I had my old motorbike it was quite rare in the UK. So I started an internet owner’s club and uploaded the manual and parts list. For a while I was the Oracle for technical information. The underlying reason though was to build a network of people and resources who could help keep me on the road. And on the road it was – I commuted to work on it, did the National Rally and wore out tyres, brakes and chains just like a regular bike. I even fitted indicators, as I’d rather be alive than historically accurate. Along the way I learned a lot about how some components of the bike worked, but I didn’t set out to be an expert mechanic, just mechanically mobile.
So yes, I’m arguing to strike a balance between the romantic and classical approach, recognising that we will move from one to the other as we learn. But being at the extreme position of ‘I don’t care to know how it works’ or ‘I don’t care what I could do with it’ might be missing-out on getting the best results.
I’ve seen some explorations on podcasts of the links between photography and music. Is there also a connection between photography and writing? Is there any relationship between drawing with light and with letters?
Lots (if you ignore that the group is self-selecting) of photographers seem to be also musical. Why not? If you are artistic then you may have more than one outlet for your expression. I feel though, based on the smallest of samples, that there are fewer photographers who also write. I know there are blogs, but I am thinking more of writing as a separate activity in itself. It would be writing about things other than photography, just as the people who can make music probably don’t make tunes about photography. (And even as I write it, a series of photo songs pop up from the subconsious.)
I know I can’t play an instrument or ‘do’ music though. I have tried, but can’t seem to pick it up at all. At school I got thrown out of the recorder class. Just about the easiest instrument to learn and all I could do was make random noises. But as soon as I bought a camera I thrived on it. I took pictures of everything, learned every feature (both) of the camera and every photographic method I could. And while I couldn’t play a note at school, I did write a bawdy tale in the style and meter of a Canterbury Tale that made the teacher laugh (and then confiscate it).
Perhaps a better comparison though would be with poetry, as poetry is to prose what I suppose music is to humming a song. Just as music has a strange power over our emotions from a set of sounds, so poetry pulls our strings with words.
That changes the question to ‘is there a link between poetry and photography, and are there any rhyming snappers?’. Not me, for sure. I can string words together but I am more at the explaining end of the scale than the triggering of emotions. Unless it’s annoyance – I can do that one. Perhaps I can’t do music or art but I can do words because I can’t really see pictures in my mind’s eye. I have more of a mind’s steno pad.
I’m just curious. Once the overlap of people with skills in both photography and music was pointed out my little grey cell got to wondering if there was a written analogue? (Thank you, I’ll be here all week.) There may not be, or it might be more rare. We evolved to see and speak, so pictures, sounds and music are pretty much innate. But we have to teach our brains to read, which involves re-programming or re-purposing parts of the brain. So perhaps the venn diagram crossover of photography and writing is smaller than the one for music?
It’s just me being curious. If anyone has good examples of a wordy-piccie crossover, do let me know.
And just to prove that comment about being annoying:
When I consider how my life is spent Counting seconds in this shed, so dark inside, Or juggling lenses, both long and wide, Lugging them all, though my back be bent To serve therewith my muses, and present My true account, writ in silvery halide; “Did that take a whole day?” they ask, so snide. I bite my lip, more bitter banter to prevent, But mutter “I need neither chip nor chimp for aid To assist my eye, I have it best From rule of thumb and circumstance of fate Of stochastic influence my art is made. You can keep your digital pleasures with the rest; They too expose who only stand and wait.”
Sorry about that.
PS – I should have looked harder. Not long after posting this an actual good photographer turns up, talking about poetry and photography.
Unlike King Louis though, I do care about what happens next. The story starts with me arriving at the end of the queue to get into a diving site. The camera and housing were in a tool tray on the passenger seat. I poured myself a hot drink from the flask and began to assemble the camera into its underwater housing. Then the queue started moving. So I dumped the camera into the tray, threw the tea out of the window and made my way in.
The usual business then ensued with getting scuba gear assembled, getting my drysuit on and sorting out what we were doing and who we were doing it with. I threw the camera into the housing and pressed the rear door closed. It was a little more resistant than normal, but the O ring seal is always a bit tight. And off we went diving.
I was trying-out something new with the camera and its external flashgun, to try and eliminate backscatter from silt in the water. This mean that, as soon as I was back from the dive I had a look at the screen on the back of the camera to review the pictures I’d taken. And then noticed there were beads of water on the inside of the housing. And then noticed there was a puddle of water in the bottom of the housing. It didn’t dry up, even with the names I was calling it. (This level of invective will usually scorch paper)
So out of the housing came the camera and out of the camera came its battery. The camera was wrapped in my towel with the battery door open. Luckily we were diving in fresh water, so there was a chance the camera might survive once it dried-out.
At the end of the day I got home and put the camera on a radiator to dry. I then had a good look at the housing. Trapped in the groove that the O ring seals into was a tiny black machine screw – the kind that holds cameras together. It was small enough to allow the housing to close, but large enough to cause a leak. It was a small leak: the housing took on perhaps an eggcup full of water after 45 minutes under three times normal atmospheric pressure. It did the fateful job of killing my camera, though.
A quick check showed that the camera wasn’t completely dead, but it was badly injured. It would power-up enough to extend the lens, but the rear screen wouldn’t work and neither would the zoom controls. So, big decision – do I wait and see if the camera will revive, or buy a replacement if I can find one cheap enough? The check also found the source of the screw. There were actually two missing; one from either side of the tripod socket. Perhaps what I should do in future is give the camera a good shake before I put it in the housing, or at least check the O ring seal all the way round.
I’ve also got yet another dead copy of this camera that could be an organ donor. This was my first copy of this camera, and died with a common fault when an internal screw came loose. If the drowned camera doesn’t revive I might try swapping-in some components from the donor. Not that I have any way of telling which parts might have broken, but I can have a go and see what happens. Curiously, the loose internal screws that killed the first camera are different to the one jammed in the housing, so it’s not a repeat of the first problem.
But… repair or replace? I have one working copy of this camera and it would be useful to have two. The whole reason I had two was for just this situation. So off to eBay I shall go. The Canon G9 fetches a wide range of prices, but scruffy ones that lack a charger or case can be quite reasonable. The drowned camera shows no signs of getting better so I’ll leave it on the radiator, but replace it is. Lo and behold, eBay spits out a very reasonably priced and tidy G9 with the original camera case. So we’re back up and running. The next thing, of course, will be to dive the housing to see if I’ve fixed the leak. What I’ll do is put the dead camera in it to stop it being too buoyant. I’ll pack the housing with tissues, which will be a good indicator of leakiness or success. Sounds like a plan.
This is also why I dive with a camera that is good, but not expensive. I may have had a bad day, but my broken camera was replaced for less than my buddy spent on one of his new fins. (He bought two obviously, or he’d swim in circles). The joy of cheap – the G9 is not the very best camera, but I can buy replacements at a reasonable cost, so I don’t mind putting them into situations where they might break.
This idea came from Grant Scott and Neale James, and it’s to treat your camera as a sketch pad rather than every shot being a finished and polished masterpiece. This means that photos become captured ideas for future development or (the shame!) simply a record of who you were with and where you were.
This is easy with digital but was harder and more expensive when I used film exclusively. With the marginal cost of a digital picture being effectively zero, why not grab pictures of things that are interesting or have possibility? It can also be an informal record of where you were or what you were doing. If your camera can also capture the location of a picture, you have the easiest method for grabbing something interesting and then finding your way back to the place at a better time or in better light.
I think this also fits with the idea of journaling. This is keeping a written (and doodled) record of your thoughts and ideas. Ade of the Sunny 16 podcast is doing this. Even I do it. I carry a little notebook that fits in my pocket and one of those little space pens. I’ve also got my favourite little snapshot camera that isn’t much bigger than the notebook. This goes in the pocket or the bag and is part of the leaving the house checklist (keys, wallet, phone, poo bags for dog, camera). The notebook captures stuff for later – ideas, plans, books to read, films to see, even ideas for pictures. The little camera grabs things as they happen – sunrise, newts on the path, details of cameras to use in this blog. The notebook jottings get reviewed and either moved to a collection (books to read), turned into something useful (ideas to try) or deleted (jobs done). Same with the camera – the pictures get moved to the filing system so that I can find them again or deleted if they were a temporary record.
The benefits are in peace of mind. I forget less, like ideas or references. I remember more, like things that caught my attention. There is another benefit in having the recording tools with you. It’s less stressful than seeing something and having nothing to save it on or with. Turning these things into a habit means that I’ve always got them with me, so I use them.
An aside – I’ve also got a notebook for the house. It has a plan with measurements of every room, how much paint or wallpaper it took and the names of the paint. It gets updated when we move and is most excellent for decorating, redecorating or choosing furniture that fits </smug>.
I know a mobile phone can do these tricks, challenging the need to carry a separate notebook or camera. I do find though that the pictures on my phone rarely make the jump to my main picture files so I lose track of what I’ve got. I also find it easier to make notes on paper than in a phone, because I doodle shapes with the words. Or maybe I’m a dinosaur and still can’t work my own TV. Taking written notes does mean though that I can use Easy Script shorthand for speed, compactness and a basic level of privacy.
Anyhow, it’s the idea I recommend, not the method. Capturing notes, thoughts and pictures as they arise so that you can reflect on them later is useful. It also breaks the psychological bond that everything you do must be at least good, if not perfect. Unfinished means still flexible and capable of development.
What one thing made the biggest difference to your photography?
For me it was a bit of critical feedback. Someone was looking at my images and said “pictures without people in are boring”. After the initial sting (the feeling of pride leaving the body), I realised it summarised what I liked most to take pictures of: people doing things. It was liberating. I didn’t have to take pictures of places to record that I’d been there. I didn’t have to take pictures of objects to show that I’d seen them. My loose definition of ‘people doing stuff’ could cover sport, family and friends. I still do the equivalent of landscape and wildlife photography when I’m diving, but I seem to be the only diver in my group who regularly photographs other divers.
I can’t think of any piece of equipment that has made a large difference. Any improvements have been incremental. There was never any feeling that this thing, whatever it was, had lifted the veil and changed my life. Saying that, there was a touch of that feeling when I bought my first camera. This was the first camera that was mine, as opposed to borrowing the family snapper. I could do with it what I wanted and because I paid for my own film and development, there was no guilt in shooting things that were “without merit”. That was a liberating step.
I could say that getting an underwater camera made a big difference, but that too was incremental. I started with barely-capable splashproof kit and progressed to using an SLR in a flexible housing (a plastic bag). None of it was revelatory, as I gradually worked my way towards what I wanted to be able to do. If I could send my present setup back in time to beginner me, that would be a huge improvement. But what I use now didn’t exist then, and the path that led me from there to here taught me a lot along the way. And actually, I had to develop my diving skills as well. There would be no point giving my scuba-diving camera to my snorkelling protege, as it is meant to be used differently.
So it feels like my path from there to here in photography has been one of small steps and minor improvements. Except that here is a long way from there. I can look back and be amazed at the differences, but none of the steps felt large, or even planned. I am aware that I hosed the world with my camera when I first started. Everything felt new and I took pictures of things to see what they would look like in a picture, or to see if I could even get a picture. So along the way I have accumulated a vast record of boring pictures that capture an event as a bystander would see it, with no interpretation or art. The liberation for me was the comment I got as feedback, that freed me to ignore the things I didn’t feel engaged with.
It’s like books: I used to feel a duty to finish what I started. Then I found that there were lots of books in the world and I could neither read them all or be interested in them all. And some books were not well-written. This meant I could stop reading a book that didn’t engage me or at least teach me. (An aside – I keep a list of books I’d like to read so that I can raid bookshops and libraries with purpose and method. But serendipity needs to be in the mix too.)
So gaining a sense of what was valuable to me (or rather, having it pointed-out by helpful criticism) was the thing that made the biggest difference. What about you?
What got me thinking was hearing a photographer described as ‘self taught’. That has surely got to be the majority of us, don’t you think? Even when I started taking pictures, I knew there were college courses that included photography. But I was on the science track. Schools then streamed pupils in subject groups, and I was better at science than art.
I could probably have done an arts or photography course after secondary school, but I was always going to be a better technologist than artist. Besides, teaching myself photography was part of the fun. I read every book on photography in the library. With my pal, who had a camera and knew how to use it, we read every magazine we could find (or afford) and critiqued every Photography Year Book. We also took pictures of anything and everything.
This was back in the days of Real Cameras which used film. It meant that the feedback cycle of comparing the results with the subject and one’s intentions was quite long. Digital photography has made the cycle much shorter – you can shoot, chimp and adjust immediately. This has got to be a better way of learning. Using film also introduces more variables. I might have got perfect focus, but then I messed up the development or printing. It was the reason why I would habitually take two shots of a subject in case I broke one of them. But film and chemicals seemed to be cheap and were certainly easy to obtain: Boots sold an own-brand mono film and every half-decent camera shop had bottles of Aculux. So we followed the percussive learning route – running into every wall until we found the way.
I was lucky in many ways that I was technical. I could develop my own film, I knew how things like dilution and temperature worked, and I (eventually) understood the camera’s settings. So gradually, over several years, my outcomes came closer to my intentions.
I will confess though, that my pal and I were rather taken with the legends of our revered photojournalists. We watched a documentary about Don McCullin in which he made a throw-away remark about changing film while lying in cover. So we practiced loading our cameras without looking or in the dark. One of the magazines told us we should be able to change the camera settings without looking, so we practiced. It was a harmless bit of fan-boy homage, but we did actually learn to handle our cameras with more confidence and less fear.
Do I still think this kind of apprenticeship is necessary? No. The purpose of photography is the results, not the methods. I chose to learn the methods because I wanted to get more control over my results. My digital cameras now allow me to get the results directly within the camera and allow me to check immediately that I’m getting what I wanted. Do you still need to understand the exposure triangle? Totally. But getting immediate feedback makes it easier. It’s also changed in that ISO is now something you can vary with every shot, rather than being fixed for the length of the film you are using.
Would my photography have benefited from an input of art history or informed criticism? Absolutely, but I found my way into these later. So what’s my point? I am entirely self taught. I claim no merit from it: it’s just the way it worked out. For me the journey has been part of the pleasure. I guess that is the technologist in me: I want to understand how things work so that I can use them better. When I started taking pictures I did have to know how my camera and film worked in order to get the results I wanted. If I was starting now I would have a lot more automation and a much quicker learning cycle, so I would probably let the camera handle the settings while I concentrated on the results.
I also have a bad feeling about what a photography course could contain. I know what a proper college syllabus covers, as I’ve looked at them to see if I should do some proper study in photography. These courses are good. My reservations are for the shorter informal sessions given by amateurs. My fear is that these are more about how to control and use a camera than how to see things in a way that makes good pictures. If this is the way you might learn photography you would be better off looking at good photographs and paintings and thinking about why they are good.
So I followed the self-taught route, driven by a desire to make pictures and learning what I could in a haphazard fashion. The alternative route of formal learning teaches you more, better and quicker and leaves no gaps in your understanding. Self taught needn’t be less skilled, just as formally trained needn’t be more artistic. I think the route to avoid though is learning how to use a camera in the hope it will improve your pictures. Nobody cares what shutter speed you used, but using the right one can get the result you wanted. And the right shutter speed comes from your intention, not from the manual.
But to get back to the original point, I wonder how many photographers didn’t take an arts course or learn photography through formal education? Or perhaps it’s more strongly streamed than I realise. Perhaps people who want to take photographs usually follow the artistic education route and do learn by formal methods, while people like me fall into photography because they like it and learn by any method they can? But I’m a sample of one. How did you learn photography?
I’ve discovered a great way to enjoy my photography, and it wasn’t even my idea. To be fair, most of the ideas in the world aren’t mine either. But back to the point, I joined a photography club a while ago. One of the things they run is a monthly session on a Saturday lasting three hours. Each session is on a type of photography: architecture, portraits, monochrome and so on. After a bit of chat on what the particular thing is, how to get the effect, what to look for, the challenge is on. We have a treasure hunt.
The point of the hunt is not the theory but the practice. We have 45 minutes to produce examples of the brief and bring them back. And therein lies the joy. No faff, no explanations, just results. Better still, results that you share and explain. Each person puts two or three of their pictures onto a laptop and we project them for everyone to see and discuss.
Now, 45 minutes is not long when you are looking for good architectural pictures or monochrome shots. Obviously we know what the subject will be, so it’s possible to prepare. The last two times I had worked out where I was going, that had likely subjects. My little trot round some photogenic sites took me to some places that I’d driven past but never walked. What I had missed was old warehouses and industrial property in shabby decay, trees breaking free of paving, odd alleys and pubs left standing as the single building in a demolished row. Sounds delightful, but it’s the history of this town and of a country where we stopped making things.
I also took a few minutes to experiment. I put a flashgun on the camera and covered it with a blue filter. Then I photographed one of the members in monchrome. The plan was that the blue light would give an ortho effect on his face while leaving the background normal. It kind of worked, in that it did make his skin look darker and more rugged with more prominent veins. It needs more practice though.
The projection of the results is not just a slide show. The person working the laptop loads the pictures into an editing program, so we can all propose changes and see the results immediately. It’s not the sort of fine-tuning you could spend hours doing to one of your own pictures. This is quick and dirty guerrilla pimping. A bit of cropping, play with the exposure, darken or lighten a few areas. Then put the original and the edit side by side. It’s usually the author who suggests the first edits, as they had something in mind when they took the picture. But then someone else will chip-in with a “what if you…” and we get to play.
What I like about this is that we all take different pictures. It’s enlightening to see what other people can see. When we did an architecture theme, the pictures ranged from old to modern, from whole to detail. There were also some pictures that pushed the accepted definition. If architecture is the built environment, then is a railway line architecture?
I’m also eager to get home afterwards. I drop my picture files onto the computer and do some quick edits to capture both what I saw and also what other people saw in them. Now, I don’t know what your hit rate is when you go out with a camera – how many keepers you get. I can go out for the day, take two pictures and be bored with one and hate the other. But the hit rate from a treasure hunt is higher. I think the focus of a deadline and a theme makes me try harder. Subjects I would have previously have looked at and bookmarked for a later day become things I look at with concentration to decide if it fits the brief and could give me a good picture. So, like I said above, I spend 45 minutes doing an intense burst of photography with no interruptions. There is no “that’s interesting but I’m busy right now”; the reason I am here is to take pictures.
So I highly recommend a treasure hunt. It definitely works best with other people, as the sharing and discussion of pictures is really what it’s about. The theme and the deadline are just the method for obtaining a set of pictures to discuss. Having to shoot quickly to a theme is also an excellent way of pushing yourself to try something new.