Book covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go curate!

Going to extremes

While I have wittered about cameras being Turing machines that can do anything photographically, there are edge cases that are difficult to adapt to. At these times we turn to the weird and wonderful. I admit to owning a few of these and being curious about the rest.

Very wide angles and panoramas are something I do have. I’ve posted before about the Horizon swing-lens camera, but I’ve also got a Lomo Spinner. Where the Horizon scans the lens across a length of film, the Spinner pulls the film past a slot behind the lens. Much the same effect, except the Spinner can do more than a full circle of view. It’s tricky to not include yourself in the picture and equally hard to keep it (nearly) level. But when you want a 360 view without stitching, the Spinner is your friend.

This is also a fine example of Swiss health and safety: a sign on the approach that says ‘be careful’.

For less extreme frame widths I’ve used wide angle lenses. I’ve got one of those negative diopter adapters that fits on the front and gives a wider view. On a 28mm lens you get the full circular fisheye effect with loads of internal reflections and fuzzy edges. Cheaper than a real fisheye for occasional use though.

The extreme of this might be something like the Nikon 8mm lens, that looked like a goldfish bowl. I’ve got a Pentax 15mm lens that I love dearly and had a 30mm fisheye for my Kiev which has roughly the same angle of view, although with much more curvature.

Not bad weather for Yorkshire – you can nearly see the horizon

At the cheap end of the scale I also have a Lomo Fisheye. Given its limitations it works pretty well. The circular image is a bit cropped, but it has a very strong fisheye effect.

At the opposite end are the long, long lenses. I suppose bird-watchers use these, and I use them for sports. Does anyone remember that creepy gadget that used to be on sale, that put a sideways-looking mirror in a fake lens hood for taking covert pictures of people? Jessops used to sell it as a candid angle lens attachment Eew. Although there must have been a market – my great aunt Maud insisted on borrowing my camera with a long zoom when (years ago) we went past the nudist beach at Brighton. Which is interesting, as I would not have done the same for a great uncle. (OK class, discuss).

I’m lucky that I have some longish medium format lenses with an adaptor that lets me strap them to an APS-C digital camera. The focal length multiplier, and the fact that the sensor is using the sharper centre of the image, means a very long lens at a fairly short price.  One of them is a Jupiter 36b 250mm though, which is so heavy it must be a solid cylinder of glass. On the plus side it has so much inertia there is no chance of it bouncing with your pulse.

But as the man said, ”call that a lens?”. At the long end there seems to be no limit. How about a 1700mm f4 made to cover medium format, allegedly made for a member of the Qatar royalty? It weighs 256kg, so your camera bag had better have wheels. Zeiss made that one, and then Canon stepped in with a 1200mm f5.6. Supposedly one of the most expensive lenses ever made (except for the Zeiss, which was never on general sale). There were only a few made and got used for special events where the Press needed to get really close. That lens is a few years old now, but Canon will still sell you an 800mm f5.6. Granted it’s nearly £14,000, but if you need one, you need one. Stick a 1.4x teleconverter on it and bump the ISO up on your modern camera and you have the same reach.

The problem of course is using something with such a narrow angle of view. You almost need a spotting lens to help you point the main lens in the right direction. Then it’s a huge tripod, high ISO and pray nobody bumps you.

So a long zoom might be easier, as you can find your subject at the wide end and then zoom in. It also gives you some adjustment if the subject is moving towards or away from you. I’ve shot at a cricket match with a 300mm, which was barely adequate from the boundary, but worked fairly well as the action was side to side. Somewhere like the public area by the hairpin at Silverstone is harder, as the vehicles come towards you, turn and go away. You need either a long zoom or to pick one spot. A narrow angle of view means that you need Jedi reflexes to trip the shutter, or you follow the vehicle and press the shutter at your pre-focussed spot. When I was there I saw a third solution. This guy had a very long fixed lens. He set the camera up on a tripod pointing up the track and obviously made a note of what was in his frame. He sat next to the tripod with a remote release. As the (bikes in this case) entered his area he tripped the shutter. Much less stressful than me trying to follow-focus with a manual lens on a monopod. I would love to have had something like the Sigma 200-500mm f2.8.  It comes with a teleconverter so at the top end you have a 1000mm f5.6. It weighs about 16kg though, so you’ll not be hand-holding it.

I suppose the other extreme is aperture. With computing power getting cheaper and manufacturing getting more clever, we can now make lenses as standard that used to be unique and hand-made. Zeiss made a very wide aperture 50mm lens for NASA. They made only ten copies. Yet now you can buy a mass-produced 50mm f0.95 lens. Instead of special order, you can even get it on Amazon. There seems to be a wide-aperture lens announced every week, and the prices are reasonable for something so clever. Like I said, I expect it’s a combination of computing power to design them and very clever automated manufacturing to make them. With that goes the ability to make aspherical lens elements more easily and cheaply, making the lens design easier and the lens performance better. I just hope it all goes to better use than the hunt for bokeh though.

I’ve got a close cousin to the wide standard lenses, in a 55mm f1.2. The wide aperture does make it easier to see the point of focus but the lens is quite heavy. Unless I really needed it, I am more inclined to take a short zoom when I go out, as it’s more practical for general shooting. But, and this was the whole point of the article, it’s a tool in the box. It sits with the very wide angle stuff and the very long lenses as solutions for specific problems. Anyway, that’s how I used to rationalise owning too many lenses. And I can’t even play guitar.

One to one or one to many?

One camera with several lenses? A particular lens used on several cameras? Or one lens per camera? If I think about the cameras I have that can swap lenses, I have more lenses than cameras. On the other hand, I still have a lot of cameras.

There is a definite argument for one lens per camera when you are shooting action or the conditions are bad. For some sports or action you don’t have the time to be swapping lenses, plus there is the risk of damage or dirt to the lens you are not using. And in wet or dusty conditions I don’t want to be swapping lenses anyway. I remember taking pictures on a very windswept beach where the air was basically opaque from ground to knee level. Not a place to put your camera bag down.

There is a risk that you end up looking like the Dennis Hopper/ Tim Page character from Apocalypse Now, dangling with cameras like a sale at Jessops. But if I was doing something where it was necessary, I’d probably do the same. Probably not as many drugs though.

But at the end of it all, a camera is just the thing that drives the lens. Except I suppose when the camera has a special quality of its own, like a certain type or size of film or sensor, and doing something clever like panoramic framing.

It’s an idea I started playing with previously, when I started wondering about the functional value of all my kit. So I really ought to think about the lenses too. Do I really need two 135mm lenses for example, or a boxfull of fifties? Maybe yes to the fifties, as they each have a distinctive character. Most of my lenses work on most of my cameras, so perhaps I need to make another grid to work out what I really need and what could be swapped for something more useful?

So, the meaning of the grid: N means the lens is native to that camera. A tick means it also fits this camera. The number in brackets is how many of that lens I own. (I know, I’m ashamed myself). I have given the lens’s actual focal length and ignored the angle of view.

You will see from the grid that I acquired lenses like they were cheap and about to go up in price. Guess what… I didn’t know about increasing in price but I do like a bargain. In general I bought the fixed focal length lenses because I wanted what they could do, the long lenses to cover sports and the zooms because they turned up at the right price. Maybe that’s not fair – there are three zooms that really matter. The 16-45 is brilliant on the APS-C digital camera. The 24-50 is equally great on the full frame camera. And one of the 70-210 is a Vivitar Series 1. This is the lens that a pal of mine at university used to fell a problematic person who was blocking his view. Any lens that can be set to stun and then keep rolling is a bit of a legend to me. I’ll admit – I also have lenses that turned up as a body cap on a camera I wanted, were too cheap to pass up or were part of a bizarre experiment.

I think I have definitely strayed into the many-to-one area in my lens to camera relationship. So what’s a poor boy to do?

I definitely have too many lenses. A few years ago I went to photograph some motorsports and, as I hadn’t done it for a while, took all my long lenses. That was one heavy bag. I can also feel a cull of zooms coming on. Some of them, like the 80-205, are worth peanuts but they are taking up space and someone else might get some use out of them. Same with one of the 70-210s and maybe a few more. So I suppose at the moment I am definitely in the region of (very) many-t0-one and I feel I need to get to the smallest set that fits the cameras I need them to.

Watch out eBay – here I come!

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