Stretching my exposure triangle

Not the same as stretching Benner’s Box, but my boundaries are now wider. I just bought a more capable camera. And by capable I mean it has a bigger exposure triangle.

What I’m used to is what I grew up with: the common range of shutter speeds, apertures and ISO. Looking at even the best of my kit the shutter speeds might run from 8s to 1/2000 and the apertures from f1.4 to (usually) f22. My ISO options run from say 6 for a very slow film to 3200 for my fastest film or sensor. So let’s say the sides of my available exposure triangle are 13 stops on shutter speed, 11 for sensitivity and 9 stops for aperture.

Then along came digital. So now, with a modern camera, I have more to play with. My shutter speeds now span 19 stops and my sensitivity 14 stops. The aperture range is the same, as the limit at the large number/ small hole end of the scale is the diffraction of light. Perhaps we could stretch to a range of 10 stops if I bought some of these new lenses coming in at f1. Even so, I have a lot more capability to use with this new camera. And even better, it’s in the places I need it. My film cameras get their 11 stops of sensitivity at the low end: they can shoot 6 or 3 ISO film. The digital camera gets its range at the top end with an ISO that goes up to 819,200. That’s far more useful, especially as the shutter will go up to 1/8000 so I can still shoot wide open in bright light, even if the ISO doesn’t go lower than 100.

Of course, being of an inquisitive nature, I had to work out what my old and new exposure triangles looked like. So the older cameras could range within a triangular volume with sides of 13, 11 and 9. The new one has sides of 19, 14 and 9. Similar to a colour space: it’s volume of the shape that gives you the space you can explore. So, using Heron’s formula and a bit of Pythagoras I make the old camera’s volume 644 and the new one’s 1197; nearly double. So we should actually talk about the exposure prism rather than triangle <\pedant>. But here’s a fun game for the family on a rainy day – plot the exposure space of your cameras. The practical side of this is that a film camera only gets a horizontal slice of the prism in use, as you set the ISO by the choice of film and there is not much opportunity to change the ISO on the fly. Sorry – geek diversion ends here – back to the plot.

The three axes at the origin should be at right angles. I bent them to fit better on the paper.

The shake reduction that comes with digital also gives me nearly seven stops of extra exposure space at the slow shutter speed end. No more than that because the world is a rotating sphere, but we knew that.

Why do I need this cleverness? Because I find myself pushing the limits of what my current kit will do. For example, a local band was playing in a pub garden during the early evening. The best camera I have for higher ISO work can do 800 and be pushed to 1600, but the quality suffers.  I was using a convenient post to steady the shot and still getting only 1/30 on shutter speed.

Yes, there is a story behind the band’s name…

I had a go at star photography with my ‘best’ camera and the results were awful. Not that I regularly do the lit-up tent and Milky Way thing, but it would be good if it did work when I was out in the hills and darkness.

Looks like Kendal is on fire

There is also the crop factor. My old camera has an APS-C sensor, so it effectively multiplies the focal length of my old 35mm lenses by 1.5. Very useful for sports and action, less so for wide angle. The old camera also has pretty poor noise at higher ISO, so things used to get a bit tight in dimmer light, with a long lens and a moving subject. The new camera is full frame, or the same size as an old 35mm film frame. So now all my wider lenses will work as they were meant to. The camera also has an option of using just the central part of the sensor to act as though it was APS-C, so I get the equivalent of a 1.5x teleconverter without losing one stop in exposure. (Or I could just crop the picture). What it does mean though is that I can still use my APS-C lenses. I do like a bit of backwards compatibility (and this is not a euphemism). And on that subject, I was delighted to find my 15 year old dedicated flash also works on the new camera.

So, having justified this extravagant purchase to myself, what am I going to use all this expensive cleverness for? After all, I could have bought a Famous Rangefinder for the same money.  Extending my options is the plan. My tilt and shift lenses go back to being mildly wide angle rather than telephoto. My wide angles do what their name suggests. I can start scanning all my medium format negatives (since my flatbed scanner died) at a reasonable level of quality. And I’m off to shoot more pictures of things that go fast in fading light.

Ricercare

I’m puzzled. I worked in IT (that’s reason enough, right there). Not the brainy side where they do development, but the messy side where we fix stuff. So we do a lot of systematic problem-solving, very often under pressure. If you can’t run the payroll on time, people get excited.

Now, I know that nobody ever came to work to use a computer. Well, maybe the code developers did, but they’re special. The rest of us have a job to do. A computer is one of the tools and, like a tool, I don’t have to understand how it works. As a colleague used to say – people don’t want drills, they want holes. But you can’t buy a bag of holes, so you have to use a drill.

This is where the puzzlement comes in. Why do so few people learn how to use the tools? I used to think I knew the answer, but I swapped sides and now I’m not so sure. Let me explain. And I promise I will get around to photography.

First, a small aside. The people in IT who provide support may often know less about what a computer can do than the people asking for help. The reason is that the IT people don’t use their computer to do your job. They know the basics and can fix most problems, but asking the IT guys how to set up running headers that repeat the section title or how to best-fit a curve to data, and they will do exactly what you could: read the Help file.

So this is what I did. Every time I wanted to do something difficult, I copied and adapted examples from Help until it worked. The (previous) scientist in me would use test data so I could check that the results worked. The geek in me wondered why nobody else did this. I also wondered why our organisation would throw people at technology with no training. Or rather they did train, but sporadically and with precise focus on how to do specific tasks.

What broadened my view was changing places. In my (early) retirement I took a part time call-centre job. We have multiple systems in use – many more than when I was a techie. I can use them, but I have no spare time to learn anything more about them. I also have no reason or incentive to do anything more than my assigned task. When something doesn’t work I don’t have the time to dawdle through the (non-existent) help facility. I want it fixed, right now. I also don’t want it changed. The systems are a minor component of what I do, but a major obstacle if they don’t work the way I expect. So now I understand why people hated IT when we rolled-out a change.

So what has this got to do with photography? So how well do you understand your camera? What about your editing software? Or your scanner? Just as we used to get people telling the IT help desk that they wished they knew more about computers (by which they meant how to use computer applications), so I hear people saying they wished they knew how to use their camera/ Lightroom/ scanner etc.

A while back I wrote an article about some aspects of learning. This was about the stages of moving from novice to expert and the false reassurance of feeling competent. While it set out what I had learned from the experts on the shape of the path, it didn’t explain how to make progress along it.

Hence the title of this post.

I have found that reading a manual or delving through menu options are not good ways for me to learn. Like I said, I could learn everything about the drill but what I want is the hole.

What I have found works for me is to try to do one thing, often imitating something I have seen or heard of. So with PhotoShop, for example, I started by removing hairs and scratches from scanned film images. I tried using cloning, but the results were horrible. Then I read about using layers. Then a bit more investigation led me to the healing brush tool. Combining that with a layer gave me a reversible and controllable spotting technique. Hurrah!

Comic
Trying a comic-book effect

I did the same with other effects that took my interest: toning; split toning; dodging and burning and so on. In each case the focus was on learning how to obtain a specific effect rather than memorising the entire manual. Each time I was happy with a process I made notes of the settings and layers I had used in a cookbook of techniques. This way I didn’t need to remember everything – I could look at the contents list for things like smoothing skin or sharpening to find the starting position. And each time I had a go at achieving an effect I could add it to the cookbook. A recent example is the use of texture layers. I went to a talk by the talented EJ Lazenby and saw how she uses texture layers and blending modes to achieve effects. Not a technique I will use every day, but useful to know and handy when needed. Very useful for dropping bad backgrounds in portraits (better would be to see and change the background at the time, but hey…). So I had a go, and fiddled until I got a result I liked. Then added it to the cookbook as a useful tool. I’m basically building myself the mythical bag of holes.

Texture
Trying the use of a texture overlay

What I am also doing (I realised, eventually) is breaking down the learning of a large area of knowledge into small steps that I am motivated to investigate and that reward me with results at each stage. To mangle another metaphor, I’m not trying to eat the whole elephant in one go. Instead I am serving an elephant-based buffet comprising elephant three ways, joues d’éléphant and a surprise pudding (of elephant). I still have no idea what PhotoShop is fully capable of, but if I see an interesting result I will learn how to obtain it. It also reduces stress. I am not fretting that I don’t know the whole of PhotoShop as I have a set of things I can do and a method for adding to the set based on interest or need.

It’s the same information-bloat with cameras. They are now so capable and feature-rich that I don’t imagine anyone knows or uses their full functionality. There is an example here of the full set of menu options on a modern camera. You can’t memorise this stuff. What you have to do is try one thing, say HDR, and see what works and what you like. Most digital cameras have one or more user or custom settings that remember a set of options. My Canon has one user mode saved that lets me shoot in mono (like a real camera) and a second mode for underwater. And I can always flick it back to program or manual if needed.

So rather than try to map the entire territory, I have explored paths that looked interesting and then left breadcrumbs so that I can find them again. Perhaps you have seen the film Jumper? The cool kids can travel instantly, but only to places they have seen in real life. I too have found my way to some useful results so I can jump to them any time I need them. The gaps between the end points remain undiscovered, unless I need something new.

Scott Redding, Marc VDS Team, Silverstone, June 2011
This was a more subtle use of several methods to improve the shadow detail

So, my sincere apologies to anyone trying to just get a job done. I am now in the same position at work and I just want stuff to work without effort. But for things that are optional, done for fun or to get a specific outcome, may I recommend trying small steps, with each one focused on getting a specific result? Don’t try to learn PhotoShop, learn how to darken a sky or level a horizon and then go from there.

And, as they used to say on Blue Peter, here’s one I made earlier:

Learning like this works for me. I hope you find it useful.

PS – why Ricercare? Because GEB.

What are the rules?

With full credit to the song from “it’s always sunny in Philadelphia”.

So, what are the rules?

  1. Sharp is better
  2. Boring subjects are made better by good technique (but see rule 6)
  3. Better cameras make better pictures
  4. Wider lens apertures are better
  5. Expensive lenses are best
  6. Bad technique is better (Lomo)
  7. More pixels = more better
  8. You have to really understand 18% grey
  9. Bokeh makes the picture
  10. If you don’t understand, you’re stupid
  11. You need the same camera as them
  12. Old lenses are better
  13. This number is unlucky
  14. You can guess the exposure
  15. You will work for exposure (the other kind)
  16. The past is not relevant
  17. If you had a Leica and a Rolleiflex, you would be perfect
  18. All women naturally stand around in poses like they do in photographs
  19. Shooting film slows me down
  20. Real photographers shoot in manual
  21. Tripods are for HG Wells
  22. I could have taken a better picture than that
  23. I don’t need to ask anyone for permission
  24. You want me to explain that to you
  25. Mirrorless is the best
  26. Film has a special look
  27. Street photography needs a rangefinder
  28. You should start a podcast
  29. Instagram will bring you fame and money
  30. Thirds are the secret of composition
  31. You should learn more about cameras
  32. Taking pictures of graffiti is art
  33. Lenses should be tested
  34. A wedding, or any event, needs thousands of pictures
  35. It’s only serious if it’s in black and white
  36. Make sure the sun is behind you
  37. Everyone loves pictures of wildlife
  38. Almost as much as they love landscapes
  39. Always aim for the highest possible contrast in your picture
  40. “Well seen” is the highest praise possible for your pictures
  41. Everybody wants their picture taken
  42. There is an answer for everything
  43. For more diversity in photography, try a different lens
  44. It’s extra special if you shoot it on an iPhone
  45. Youtube needs you
  46. Expose for the shadows
  47. Petrol stations at night
  48. Taking pictures of poor or homeless people elevates them
  49. The Milky Way and a tent lit from inside
  50. There is only one way to leave your lover

Have I missed any?

37

And in deference to Poe’s Law, I need to make it clear that this post is ironic.

9

Oh, and so is Philadelphia. Just in case.

Stop motion

Just an aside into something I found useful and that you can make some cameras do: time-lapse.

The reason was a piece of work I was doing to fit-out a new office. There was some building work to be done to make some new partition walls, but a lot more work to rewire the place with mains and network cables. I wanted a record of the work in progress.

I have mentioned before the CHDK utility for Canon compact cameras. I had a dibble through the options and found there was a time-lapse feature that would work on my little compact. A search on the web got me a cheap mains adapter so that I could have the camera powered-up and working all day without worrying about batteries. So I set the camera up on a tripod and let it run.

The complete fit-out took two weeks, of which I captured the days when things were happening. The result was a few thousand .jpg files. Another search on the internet found a utility that would assemble the files into a video.

The results were great. I deliberately dropped the series of files when there was nobody in front of the camera, so the video was all action. As it played-back in faster time, it was amusing to see people whizzing up ladders and the partition wall sprouting. One of the jobs I’d done personally was to cable the network cabinet. In real time this meant consulting a plan, selecting a cable of the right colour and length, plugging the cable into the equipment in the bottom of the cabinet and again at the top. In the speeded-up version I am doing squat jumps.

The end result was a film that showed the story of the new office being built. There is a meme in the UK of speeded-up sketches from the Benny Hill show, so I added the same backing music (quietly) to the film.

When the new office opened we had the film playing on a loop on the screen in the canteen that would later show the news and weather. Things like building work, infrastructure and IT are usually taken for granted (when they work), so it was not a bad thing for the office staff to see their new office being created from an empty shell.

There are now much better technical options available, but this worked too.

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.

La jetée

You may have seen the film Twelve Monkeys. It was based on a French short film called La Jetée. The source film is worth watching, especially as it is not a film but a story. It uses a series of still pictures to show scenes from a life as the narrator tells his tale. (Then watch Twelve Monkeys to see how to take an idea and run with it).

Then I recommend viewing David Godlis tell his tale of taking photos at CBGBs. It’s done using his original images with a Terry Gilliam-like process of lifting and moving cut-out sections.

Why might you be interested in these? Because it’s an interesting visual story-telling technique. La Jetée in particular makes very effective use of lighting, plus in one scene an out of focus branch to imply threat and change. All for the cost of taking some pictures in a dark room and on the streets (and a huge amount of thinking and planning).

Ok, so we’ve seen still images used as as flicker book animation in music videos. These are brilliant and evocative, but a huge amount of work is involved. I do love the simplicity and economy of the two ideas I have mentioned. So I leave you with the idea – record a spoken story and then cut a limited series of still images to match it.

Eppur si muove.

Don’t take my picture!

I hear it a lot from family and friends. On a superficial level it seems odd – why refuse something that has no impact and could happen anyway? And don’t you understand that I want to take your picture because I like you? I was curious to develop an idea I’d written about before, but encountered personally quite recently. So I asked.

One theme that came out strongly, and often first, is ‘I don’t like the way I look’. So, ok, there is always a responsibility on the photographer to find and show the best of people. But I wondered how a photograph was different to what you saw in a mirror. From asking, I’m told that a mirror is a totally different thing. You look into a mirror for a reason, like brushing your hair. Your image has a purpose. If you don’t like a part of what you see, you can look at a different part or focus on the task. A mirror is under your control and nobody else can see what you see. You can adjust the image as you wish – the frog belly under your chin goes away if you raise your head. It also has no persistence – your bleary eyes and pallid morning skin are gone forever when you turn away. Photographs are persistent and take away any control you have over what you see. Once that paunch is captured, it exists forever.

This leads to another observation that almost nobody is content with how they look: everybody would change something. And the risk in a photograph is that it has no sympathy. I have skinny chicken legs so I think I look weird, seen full length. I’d like to say I have a good feature that you could focus on, but it’s all pretty average. So if you take a picture of me, I would be conscious that you really want a picture of someone who looks like a confused stork. How much harder must it be for women, who have an expectation of appearance imposed on them? See selfie filters for further proof.

In a conversation we are happy to make and hold eye contact with another person. We make expressions and pull faces. But when the other person raises a camera something comes between you. There is a new person in the conversation who only takes. This is nothing to do with snaps – the grabbed pictures that remind you of an event or a time or the people you were with. The difference is the intention – a snap is a reminder with no motive; a portrait has a reason behind it. And a conversation stops when one person drops out to take rather than share.

I think this leads to the next point, which is distrust of motive. If I ask for my picture to be taken, I know why I’m doing it and what it is for. If someone else wants my picture I don’t know how it will be used or what it is for. I was out on a photo-walk recently and this came up. I wanted a picture of a shop doorway but the shopkeeper came out to stand at their street display. They were going to be in shot, but would have enhanced the picture. So I asked if I could take their picture. They declined, so I didn’t. Another member of our group then mentioned they had taken a picture of me, and did I mind. In this case, not at all and it was good of them to ask. But the issue is one of trust: why are you taking pictures of me? The solution would be to ask, give the reason, and offer to share the results. And don’t take offence at a refusal. And really don’t be a creep. If you wouldn’t be comfortable as the subject, don’t take the picture. This must figure even stronger for women, who spend their lives under the male gaze and with the constant background tension of the common male expectation that women exist for men.

Saying that though, taking pictures at a public event is different. People engaged in an activity or sport in public must accept that other people will want pictures of what they are doing. The interest is in the activity, and this is legitimate. Although I have seen some questionable shots of women playing sports. So the same rules apply: don’t be a creep.

And then, we have the actual portrait. I have pictures of my ancestors that have huge value. Some are formal portraits and some are the ‘stand there and I’ll take your picture’ variety. The formal portraits were obviously intentional. In an age when private photography was rare they preserved a statement of the subject’s status and appearance. My mum has two large paintings that are separate portraits of each of her grandparents (one set) when they married. The pictures are actually over-painted photographic prints, which would have have been a quick and cheaper way to get a good likeness. I’ve also got some of the formal ‘sat in a chair and frowning’ pictures. All of them are precious because they are family. I can see the value in having pictures of yourself at different ages to hand on, but the sheer volume of transient images we’re drowning in will probably bury the one or two pictures that summarise you and would entertain your grandkids. So perhaps there is value in relenting to at least one good environmental portrait so that future people can see who you were.

There is also memory. My wife travelled the world when she was younger but didn’t take any pictures. She has all the memories but nothing she can actually show me or the boys. The picture below is my grandmother as a young woman. She is the same person holding her great-grandson if you follow the memory link above.

Another lesson that comes from this is to get pictures of yourself when you are young. Friends pass and things change, but a picture of the daft younger version of yourself will remind you that, no matter what the world does, you were gorgeous. It’s all still in there, just toned down with some saggy bits and hair migrating from your head to your ears and eyebrows.

And yet, despite all this, the most interesting photographs are the ones with people in. Other than snaps they might be the hardest to take, for all the reasons above. Perhaps this is why so many photographers take landscapes? Taking an informal snap of your chums on your phone is fun. Get a ‘real’ camera and people question your motives and the rest of it. One of the reasons I like the pukey-bear-cam is that it breaks down the barrier by being informal and silly, with immediate results that are genuine snaps and not some Gollum-like Precious that you will perve over later.

In summary – don’t be evil. Don’t even be a little bit evil, which is weevil. Get as many informal pictures as you can, as they will become more valuable to you with time. Definitely take pictures of people, as people are probably the most interesting thing there is. But have some respect for others. Noli esse asinus as we used to say when I was a boy.

Walkies

I went on my first ever photo-walk. This was in Coventry and was organised by the Sunny 16 crew to commemorate John Whitmore. I never met John, but I did like listening to him on the podcast.

I was also feeling a bit of a fan-crush – a lot of the podcast people I listen to would be there. It’s a bit like meeting the characters in your favourite soap.

Strangely, what could have been the hardest decision was easy: what kit do I take with me? We would be walking around, so I would be carrying whatever I took. I really don’t need to take a show-off camera. I’m more likely to take pictures of the people in the walk than of buildings, so that would direct my choice of lenses. Handily, I can take one camera and a lens that I am writing-up for this blog. Decision made.

Coventry though – that’s down south somewhere. The return rail fare was even more than a five-pack of Portra, so it would be car and park-and-ride. Call it two and a half hours to get there, but the walk was to start at 10:30 so that’s easy enough for an early riser. I’m not sure I’ve been to Coventry, so it should be interesting. It’s the most central city in England, after all. Besides that, I wanted to make the effort.

The trip down was easy enough and the car park was easy to find and just about a mile from where we were meeting. I could have taken the bus to get in, but it was a lovely crisp morning and I fancied the walk across the War Memorial Park. Let’s hope we never have to build more of these.

Incidentally, I use Waze as my sat-nav. It crowd-sources traffic flow from everyone using it and routes you around jams. It got me in and out of Leeds during the week by back roads that bypassed the traffic, so I like it a lot. Part of the A1 was closed northbound for my Coventry trip, but it routed me past it so I got home afterwards in time for the birthday party I was attending </advert>.

I had seen some of the pictures of the podcaster presenters, so I recognised Ade from Sunny 16 as soon as he arrived. He coped well with being accosted by what probably looked like a shambling old bloke with wild hair and a confused expression. Then the plan for the day developed – or rather, what would take the place of a plan. Half the people had spotted a coffee shop as they left the railway station and had stopped there to refresh. The group in the park at the meeting point gradually grew as others spotted the gaggle of odd-looking people with strange cameras and the obligatory shoulder bag. It sounds haphazard, but it wasn’t. There was actually a very good plan for the day and two guides with local knowledge. But the Law of Crowds says that the speed and intelligence of a group are inversely proportional to its number. You could say it’s like herding cats, but it’s harder. At least with cats you can use gaffer tape.

It was here that I discovered my goof de jour – the batteries had expired In my camera. I’d tested them before I left, but they vanished on the second shot. Luckily the camera was manual and luckier still I had brought a separate light meter. Even so, my exposures were going to be “variable”. I was shooting black and white, so I was going to have to develop it using semi-stand. If it had been colour print film I would just have made sure to err on the side of overexposure.

Anyway, enough of the geek-speak – let’s get to the important bit: the people. What a delightful bunch! The joy of chatting to whoever was closest as we wandered about (aimless and oblivious, to the despair of shoppers and drivers). The lack of pretentiousness and the general shared joy of a group of people with a common interest who are just glad to be together. I had been wary of organised photo-walks before because I was worried that I would be marched around the compulsory sights with a clique of technofiles. As it was I mostly chatted to a delightful chap called John who had just given up work, sold everything, and was about to cycle to Australia with his wife. Oh, and I may have taken a couple of pictures of stuff.

Coventry? Some nice bits, some rough bits. Some surprisingly old buildings amongst the modern brutalism. The remains of the cathedral. Quite poignant, given the invasion of Ukraine, was the plaque on the cathedral wall. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation” it said. Yeah, right.

As you might expect, the group turned into a loose association, then a gaggle and then several gaggles. What would the collective noun be – a fractal of gaggles? We proceeded by Brownian motion, with groups splitting off to have lunch or drink beer. A small core of us followed our guide back to the starting and end point. Core? I’d call us a rump. Poor Ade then tried to find out where everyone was and to organise the next stage of the day.

The next stage was to go back to John’s house to sell or auction his photographic and darkroom gear to help his wife and daughter. This bit I sadly had to miss, as I was due back home at 5pm.

What a lovely day though, even though we were brought together for the saddest reason. I have changed my opinion of photo-walks. They are nothing to do with taking pictures and everything to do with meeting other people.

And the plan to stand develop the film? My Rodinal is at least two years old, but dabbing a bit on the cut-off film leader showed it was still active. The fix was exhausted though, but I had some fresh stock in the shed. And it worked. What could have been a difficult set of over and underexposed frames came out all usable, at the expense of a bit of grain. Hurrah!

Would I do it again? Yes. Have I got over my hero-worship? No. Will I bring spare batteries? Yes. Did I actually use the kit I brought with me? Yes, all of it.

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 the 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.

Stories as memories

So what happened was a collision between Jonathan Haidt, Instagram and Blade Runner. It sounds like the sort of thing the kids used to ask – “Batman versus Spider Man: who wins?”.

I had read Righteous Minds and the ideas had been slowly percolating through what remains of my cognition. Then I was listening to some people talking about the burden of feeding the Instagram beast and how our trivial daily pictures had come to frame and define our lives. Which led to the importance placed on pictures in Blade Runner as hoped-for proof that a memory was real.

From Jonathan Haidt I had taken the ideas of how the stories we tell and share encode a culture or group or religion. We are the stories we tell about ourselves. And in his model of the elephant and rider (read it and see), the rider makes up stories to explain the elephant’s behavior. 

Then there is Instagram, which is standing-in for all social media in my argument, becoming the journal or diary of our lives. It feels almost as if experiences don’t exist unless they are shared. I was listening to someone talking about the ubiquity of mobile phones with cameras and how the blizzard of images has become the measure of people’s lives. It is the end point of the democratisation of photography – it is no longer a technical specialist confined to the priesthood but is available to all. So photography is then used for it’s primary purpose – to capture what will become memories.

You may remember the scene in Blade Runner where Rachael is talking to Deckard about her memories and whether she can play the piano or only remember that she can. Deckard’s piano has old photographs on it, hinting that he too is a Replicant. And the baddies are found from the photographs they took. Photographs are the physical manifestation of memories, especially when memory itself can’t be trusted.

Back in 2016 I had a motorcycle crash. It was serious, in the sense that it could have been life changing, but I was very lucky. My memories of the events were mixed. I had great clarity of some actions and the sequence, but some parts happened so fast that they were just a loud noise. (Incidentally, what saved me from greater harm was training – I took an action that had been drilled into me that was counter-intuitive but life saving. If you are going to ride a bike, get some training too.) There was a lot to process, not least what could have happened. I did this by writing about it. It laid the ghost. I’ve been honest about whose fault this was (entirely mine), why it happened and what I did right. The only pictures I have were taken after the event but they are now the placeholder for my memories.

A good reason for wearing a full-face helmet

So where am I going with this? Towards the idea that the great majority of photography serves people as memory. We can talk all we like about art but pictures are stories in shorthand. So perhaps we should should let everyone get on with saving and sharing their memories and not be critical. If we want to take photographs for art’s sake we can be free from the Instagram treadmill: why throw art at the family album? And then we are also free to save our memories without worrying about art or style or any form of pretention.

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