Clubbing together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the kind of thing the judges like

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

Technically, a bit rubbish

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

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

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

Amateurish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Casual challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a go.

What are you looking at?

When you go out, what do you look at? Probably your phone. If you’re out with a camera, what do you look at? Is it the thing you came to take pictures of, or other things (or your phone)?

It can be boring walking around with a camera hoping something will turn up. When it does, it’s often the same old stuff, shot in the same old ways.

So how do you get to (or back to) a state of wonder where everything is unusual? Because if you look with curiosity the world is fascinating.

That might be the answer. I’m a curious person, in both senses. I want to know how everything works. Except people of course, as my wife points out. Which is fine by the way – we compliment each other’s weak spots. But I do seem to spend my time when we’re out going ‘ooh, what’s that?’. What it leads to is me looking everywhere but where I’m going. Which is also fine, by the way – I still manage to dodge the things I shouldn’t step in.

Anyway, the point of this is to ask if it’s possible to develop that curiosity to see things that could be pictures. Or if you want to – I’m not saying this is a good thing and I’m certainly no paragon. But it can be fun. If you have ever had to wander around streets of shops (we will get to do this again, I’m sure) there is more to see than what’s in the windows.

Try looking up. Lots of buildings are older than the shop they contain and the clues are above the shopfront.

Sometimes you have to pretend to be an alien. If you didn’t know what a thing was, what could it be? A book that is very good for this is POET – the psychology of everyday things. It studies the assumptions that are built into objects. Like a door with a big loop handle that you have to push, not pull. (And then go and read my rant about poor design assumptions). But in this case it’s a way of looking at the world around you.

Someone installed a pylon upside-down

So it makes you think about why the things you see look the way they do. Who decided to do it that way, and why?

How would you have spaced the words?

Sometimes the alien says ‘how did that get to be there?’ Rather than just assuming that it is. This is the same thing that so annoyed my mum – she bought a film and lent me the family camera for a school trip to France and I came home with pictures of bins.

I do remember how much I enjoyed one aspect of geography at school, and that was being given a map and asked to work out why a town or village came to be where it is. It was usually down to paths and rivers, transport and raw materials. One way of recreating that interest, and another book recommendation, is to have a look at some Gooleys.

Sometimes weird stuff happens

But sometimes the weird stuff is just there for the looking.

So next time you’re out, be more alien.

Pictures of other people

I can see this getting more difficult.

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

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

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

Dancing the Dark Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who do you follow?

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

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

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

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

Ralph Gibson?

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

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

Rob Lowe?

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

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

What’s it light out there?

Now here’s a thing. I did a bit on how the clever kids use a light meter. Then I found that a manual exposure estimator from probably the 1950s also had a use.

I was planning to go out for a walk, and obviously planning to take some pictures. It looked reasonably bright outside, but would it make more sense to take faster lenses and film or the slower and sharper stuff?

I remembered I had this little calculator, dating from a time when a light meter would have been an expensive accessory and there certainly wasn’t one in your camera. Dial in the sort of scene you will be shooting in, the weather, time of day, month of year and the film speed. The front of the gadget shows the exposure setting. The values are based on the geographical latitude of the UK, but I expect there must have been versions for most places. So basically, a peep out of the window, a few spins of the calculator and it says I’ll be using 1/125 at f8 on ISO100.

Handy. And it saves taking kit I won’t use. And it’s a lot better than guessing.

Photo manipulation – yes or no?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m going to dull 8 it

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

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

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

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

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

MEtering 1
I wonder if the sunny bits are f16?

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

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

Pool
Not even sunny

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

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

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

Corridor
Spooky 16?

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

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

Literal is not art

This came from a comment made to David Yarrow, that I heard when he was interviewed on a podcast.

You may like David’s pictures or not – he doesn’t care because he sells them very successfully. But the difference between his picture of an elephant and any other picture of an elephant, as explained to him by the head of the Tate Modern, is that his pictures are not just literal pictures of elephants.

Let me explain.

You go on a safari holiday and take a picture of an elephant. Most likely it’s an accurate representation of what an elephant looks like. It reminds you of being there, but it’s probably a straight record of an elephant. The comment made to David was that a record is just that: it doesn’t add anything. It’s not art.

This is not an elephant

I think this explains my feelings for landscape photography. So often it’s just a record of what a place looks like.

I often return to a photography club I was in for examples. In this case they had monthly competitions on a theme. One month was record photography. On asking, I found that it was nothing to do with music. It was about taking pictures that show a thing as it is. (I could be a Kant and bring in the idea of ding an sich, but that would imply not taking a picture at all). In other words, they wanted a straight record of what something looks like with no interpretation. It would have been snide to say that most of the members’ pictures would qualify, but they would.

I think this also goes back to a comment I made in jest: are you a photographer or do you take photographs? Do you record what is in front of you or do you interpret what you saw in the scene?

I have a large horde of old pictures that only recorded the scene. For a short period after a holiday or trip they served to show other people what it was like and to remind me where I was. Then they become yet another unplaced picture of a hill or valley. These I can happily throw away. Others are interpretive and have some merit (but little skill). For example, years ago I was around Snowden and went to a famous rock-climbing area that translates as something like the dark black cliff. So I tried to photograph it as such. Nobody else would ever get it, but I still like the picture. It’s far from being art, but it’s even farther from being a straight record of a cliff.

So I think a straight record cannot be art. A photo of graffiti is a record of someone else’s art. Even a photo of the Mona Lisa is not the painting. If you are going to take a picture of something, what are you adding of yourself?

The Treachery of Imaging
The Treachery of Imaging

It may sound pretentious to talk about art in photography, but why else are you doing it? If you don’t interpret, you might as well be the Google Streetview camera car.