Out of the rut

Can one learn creativity or do you inherit it along with your hair distribution and eye colour? Even if you are creative, do you find yourself churning out the same stuff? How can one get out of a rut and be routinely creative, if that’s possible?

When you lift your camera to your eye, do you do what you have always done? And how do you do what you don’t usually do? (Gotta get a do-do joke in here). If you had to do the same thing for the rest of your life, how could you keep it fresh and interesting? If you went to the same places as everyone else, would your pictures look the same as theirs? Wasn’t there a study recently of how many pictures that people post online were essentially the same?

Perhaps more to the point then is to stop worrying about being creative and to find ways of pulling yourself out of the usual round of standard responses. It’s very comforting to stick with what we know: confirmation bias provides a force of positive feedback that strokes our egos til they purr. On the other hand, we are becoming more aware of the echo chamber effect that beguilingly narrows your world to a set of mirrors. So how do you give yourself a kick up the arts and break out of the mundane?

Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt created the Oblique Strategies cards to help musicians do this. The idea is to provide a constraint that forces the reader to apply lateral thinking to get around it. This is an excellent idea – so often when we are faced with no limits we confine ourselves to a routine. It’s no joke that some famous landmarks have tripod marks that you can use to get the standard shot. I’ve seen special selfie marks on the pavement showing people where to stand to get various monuments in the background. But what if your camera only had a pinhole lens, or only one shutter speed and aperture, or could only shoot close-ups? What would you do then? What if you ignored the scenery and only took pictures of the people? What if you used such a long exposure that the people vanished? What if you photographed the people taking the selfies?

So perhaps what we could do if we feel we are in a rut is to apply a really difficult or awkward constraint to see what happens. And it has to be a real constraint, not just deciding to only take the one lens out with you. This is what the OuLiPo group does. How about focusing the lens at two meters and not changing it? How about covering the viewfinder or screen and shooting everything blind? What about taking the lens off and using a magnifying glass? If you think that’s difficult, try writing a novel in French without using the letter e. Then imagine being the person to translate it into English. So how about making a set of cards? Or maybe it’s worth trying the original Oblique Strategy cards? A good start might be the Android or iOS app versions of the cards.

What else could we do? Don Komarechka apparently didn’t like the cold winters in Ontario so started taking close-ups of snowflakes. That led to bubbles, UV and IR and some extraordinary pictures. So the answer to the question would be to pick a thing and follow it wherever it takes you. You could try something like The Photographer’s Playbook for ideas for projects to follow.

You could also try adding a bit of chaos. I went through a patch where I was very bored with things. I took my kids to the library every Saturday but I had read everything on the one shelf I usually went to. So I took the number off the car registration nearest to the library and went to that section of shelving. (Most libraries are organised around the Dewey Decimal filing system) Easy if the car plate has three digits; if not add a zero at the end of the pair, or at the beginning and reverse the number. The rule was that I had to borrow one book from whichever section I was sent to. That led to some strange directions and a gradual dissolving of the rut I was in. And some odd looks from the librarian.

Burnt slide
When a colour slide gets too hot. Now what if I tape this to the front of a lens and use it as the aperture?

How would you do that with photography? Roll a dice to choose the aperture or shutter speed? Pick a random word from a book or newspaper that has to be your theme for the day? For those of us with more than one camera, roll a dice to pick which one to use? List all your camera, plus all your lenses, ISO levels, all the shutter speeds and all the apertures. Draw blind one card from each set and that’s what you are using for the day. It’s much the same idea as the cards above, but with less chance of selecting the results. You could have a play with this website. (Nobody seems to use a website to show their work any more, but it’s too good a domain name to let fade away. And yes, I have only just changed the content so it is a work in progress.)

This is why I love using my little Olympus half-frame camera: fixed focus, no manual controls, and 72 shots per film so each individual shot is less precious. There is nothing I can do to change the camera settings, so I fool about taking pictures instead. Load it with some cheapo expired colour print film and you have no idea what is going to happen. Perhaps that is too much chaos? The alternative would be binding constraints: something like one of the Lomo cameras that has almost no variable controls? Or an old box or folding roll-film camera from a charity shop? With twelve or fewer shots on the film you will have to shake off the digital ways of spray and pray.

Anyway, I believe that creativity isn’t something you switch on only when you need it. I believe it is something you can learn but must practice, and the lessons come from having to overcome a constraint. Fighting restrictions will lead you onto new paths. Do this often enough and you begin to see even the routine as something you could play with. And with luck you will never again bring home photos that match the postcards in the local shop.

Abstract raindrops
That’s the house across the road

Tie yourself down to set yourself free (but not literally).

Escalator
I wonder what happens if I leave the shutter open on an escalator?

Hail Eris!

Double X

There was a very interesting discussion on the Negative Positives podcast about women and photography, or the apparent lack of. I took the impression from it that most social media photography sites tend towards the patronising or the boring. I think the view was that most fora are dominated by men and focus on geeky discussions of the minutiae of cameras and lenses or are haunted by soi-disant experts who excoriate the efforts of learners as some form of sport. There was an example of someone who posted a large format picture asking for feedback and instead was cross-examined at length to explain the composition and meaning of the picture. This is a good opportunity to go all Winograd or Filmosaur and demand that interpretation is the responsibility of the viewer. It’s a bugger if you really did want feedback though.

I do agree that there are photography-related blogs and fora that roll, naked and squealing, amongst their latest acquisitions of the best lens ever made or the best camera in the world (and so much better than the previous one they bought). I can’t share their joy, but anything that warns “avoid this item like herpes” is useful knowledge (the kit, not the people). They are generally harmless though. I was listening to one show though, where they were discussing lenses. When they talked of Nikon, one of the hosts had a whole set of Nikon lenses plus cameras to fit them to. Same with Minolta, then Canon, then Pentax… These things must fill his every shelf and cupboard. But there are people who collect teapots or spoons and like I say, they cause little harm.

So, what’s the problem here? Is it the testosterone-fuelled frenzy of owning every model and variant of a camera or lens? Is it the dark side of online commentary that leaves no turn unstoned? Is it that it’s difficult to learn anything by drinking from the internet firehose? Or is it Sturgeon’s law?

The rabid acquisition monkeys (©️ Sunny16) can be left to echo to themselves. They can be a useful resource, but remember that for these people money is no object. Go asking for a recommendation and you could be pointed at a Porsche when you would have been happy with a Ford.

Zeeiss
Call that a lens? This will make some people very excited and leave others confused.

I must add that I have been accused of reverse willy-waving. Despite the mental image, this is meant to say that I take a perverse pride in using old or cheap kit and hold myself as better than people who use better equipment. Yes, the foolscap fits, but being aware of it I will try to practice what I preach and concentrate on the output. I’ll just say that this fascination with declared status is why cars have all the magic symbols on the back and why Leica put red dots on their cameras. Both are placed to be visible to others. And there I go again with my RWW.

It’s harder to avoid the trolls. Back in the dark days of Usenet there was one forum that was the specific home of the peevish. Newcomers would get bounced about between members passing-on their request to be given a copy of the guidance notes. When they grew bored with the game, the newbie would be sent a copy of the rules. There was just one: it said “lurk”. It is still good advice. If you think you have found a forum, don’t rush in but watch how it works. If it turns out to be an arsehole-rich environment, find another forum with fewer fundamentists.

There’s a recent bit of research I was reading about that gives some guidance on weighing advice. Basically, people who respond early and with confidence are more likely to be right, unless they have an agenda. If they are selling something or hoping to convert you to a point of view, their advice should be treated as suspect. But I would imagine that the places where beginners go to ask advice are probably not the places the experts go to give it. I would also think that the hardest type of advice to get is criticism. Anyone with a bit more clue than you can tell you how shutter speeds or apertures work. It’s probably harder to get a thoughtful response to the question “what do you think of this picture?”.

Beach shelter, couple talking in silhouette.
So why did you choose this subject?

I was in a camera club for a while and then in a photography club. I greatly enjoyed the photography club: we looked at our pictures and discussed what we could see and what we thought about it. I saw some images that impressed me hugely with new ways of seeing. I could no more tell you what camera they used than I can fly. This isn’t some form of false bravado: I really can’t be bothered with models and marks and versions. I also remember some fantastic video that a couple of people had made using a digital camera. This was during the early days of doing this and the results were superb. But it was what they had shot that was superb, not what they shot it with. So what I would recommend is to look at pictures and think about what you have seen.

As for learning, it’s very easy to get started taking pictures, now more than ever. You don’t have to buy or be given a camera: your mobile phone will do the job. There was a time when cameras were difficult to use; they provided the same sort of geeky challenge and mastery that led to a preponderance of men learning to use computers. Perhaps this is the path of learning that we ought to be telling people about and supporting, instead of arguing over the best camera to buy? Could we encourage people to think about how things are arranged in their pictures, and lead them to reflecting on using and breaking the rules of composition? Then look at what is in and out of focus, or light and dark. In each case you would be learning just what you needed to scratch the immediate itch. I would argue that learning about composition is a better introduction to photography, and a better route to improvement, than learning how a camera works. You can look at someone else’s picture and see what they did with composition; you can’t tell what f stop they used.

So are the things that put women off some photographic forums the things that photography should actually be about? Are men and women seeking different things? In particular, are women more interested in the output than the methods? From my limited experience (of women and everything else) I believe that the gender distributions overlap. I know women who can f-stop like navvies and scheimpflug in heels and I know some men who can’t tell their Arsenal from their Elinchrom and don’t care. I think we males do have a slight tendancy towards comparing megapixels and shiny things though. But on the whole I think it does a disservice to us all to believe that there are women’s subjects that are different to men’s subjects.

The answer, my friend (is blowing in the Windisch) is probably to shun the places where people compare the length of their lenses or beast beginners for fun and go to where pictures roam free. Personally I would avoid social media unless there are places where you can look at an image and just think why you like or dislike it or what you might do differently. There are loads of websites and blogs where people post portfolios of work. The world is also swamped in imagery that we usually ignore. Next time you see a picture in a magazine or advert, look at how it was put together – where the light falls, how things are arranged, where it’s sharp. Join a photography club or take a course: you get a social life as well as some feedback.

I don’t think women are any different to men in this. I do think that people have different interests and photography can have as long a learning curve as any craft.

Mood jaune
Go on then – say what you think.
Beach huts, Hayling Island
Or this one?

The other thing you can do if you want to learn more about photography is get books out of the library. Here in the UK libraries are fading away from austerity. Get out there and give them some footfall and loans. And get on t’interweb as well – I can reserve any book from the whole county through my library and have it delivered to the local branch. So there’s no excuse for not reading every photographic book they hold. Yay! Let’s hear it for social welfare and education!

As for gender stereotypes – down with this sort of thing!

The joy of cheap

Some would say I am tighter than a duck’s chuff. I just see it as being careful. There is also the joy of problem-solving: it’s easy to do something by spending money on it but it’s much more satisfying to find a solution that works for less. Nothing to do with being tight, not at all.

One of my other hobbies is scuba diving. In scuba, the minimum price of anything seems to be £250. You want a torch? £250. A regulator? £250. You get the idea. One of the things we do in murky British waters is carry a flashing beacon or strobe. These are clever sealed devices that are activated when they get wet. I’m sure they start at £250 too. But there is also the squid-fishing lure that is safe to at least 40m and costs a couple of quid. Same with lead weights – you can buy pouched weights or you could buy the pouches and fill them with shotgun pellets. These things are safe to save money on – there is no way I’m saving money by building my own regulator.

It can be very easy, when you first take an interest in a thing, to spend money on it. You have probably seen people whose first action is to spend a fortune on kit before they perhaps know how to fully use it. I’ve no problem with that: sometimes the kit is the sort that keeps you alive and it’s worth spending the money. You wouldn’t (I hope) go rock climbing with an old bit of rope you bought cheap with the intention of buying a better one when you have learned to fall off less often. But safety aside, how do you know what sort of equipment you need until you learn what you want?

This is another reason I like cheap or second-hand. I think it’s a great idea if you start a new hobby or set out to learn something, to use whatever kit you can get free or cheap. This will get you to the point where you have some idea of what you are doing. At that point you will have run into the restrictions of your cheap kit and have a better idea of what you really need. In photography terms you will have got past the stage of surprise that anything comes out at all and be pushing the limits of your camera, lens or methods. You might find you are shooting sporty things and you are pushing the reach of your lens, or doing lots of close-ups or portraits. Hopefully by this point you will know more people doing the same thing, so you have an opportunity to borrow what you think you need to see if you really do. This also helps stave off the cravings for acquiring gear for its own sake. You might be thinking “if only I had a … I would be a better photographer, and look how reasonable they are on eBay”. This way lies madness.

Say you’re doing portraits and what you need more than anything is a portrait lens. But what focal length and aperture? You could buy every increment from 80mm to 135mm and then find yourself sticking with the 80 because you can stay in the same room as your subject. Or you could borrow one of the lenses or find the cheapest one you can, and then find out whether you have to take a few steps back or a few steps forward to get the framing you like. Or even (heresy) put a cheap 2x teleconverter on a 50mm lens and see what a 100mm lens looks like before you commit. You will also learn whether the depth of field is sufficient. If you are struggling to get both eyes sharp then you can forget buying that pricy f1.4 lens and spend the money on lights.

Same with cameras. You may think you need a Leica to do street photography because it’s unobtrusive and quiet. So is an Olympus Trip, and you can get one of them for £20 and find out whether street photography is really your thing. Less chance of being mugged, too.

Cheap can also mean disposable, but in a good way. There are loads of fairly competent point and shoot compacts out there. They are becoming scarcer at charity shops (except for one near my mum’s house that is my special secret) but there is usually a good harvest at car boot sales. So if you are going somewhere that could damage or destroy the camera, go cheap. The best ones for this are the cameras that wind all of the film out of the cassette when first loaded, and wind it back in as you shoot. Even if you break one of these open you won’t lose the shots you have already taken. Barring that, tape the back closed with gaffer tape. If you have a particular compact camera in mind or want to know more about the plastic fantastic you found, go see the Canny Cameras website. I’ve also got a previous post around here somewhere about breaking cameras for fun.

The Nikonot
The Nikonot. Even the film cassette rusted when it filled up with seawater. Good job it cost less than a fiver.
The Nikonot
Even the shutter is rusting

There are also some useful digital compacts as well. Nobody wants anything that comes in around the 3-5 megapixies range any more, but they can deliver reasonable images. The problem you may have with these is the battery, unless they take AA cells. The best one to get, if you can find one, is any of the Canon models that are listed on the CHDK site. Get the right model and you can make it do tricks like a proper camera. I used mine to make a time-lapse film of an office being fitted out. Nice work for a junk-shop bargain. I also used it when we went up Great Gable – you don’t want an expensive SLR in your hand when you descend a steep scree slope. One of the hacks listed on the CHDK site can trigger the camera fast enough to record a lightning bolt. I must try holding the camera up on a selfie stick at the top of a mountain in a thunderstorm. What could possibly go wrong? The chaos monkey on my shoulder is whispering to me to try setting the camera to shoot say 30 images in sequence and then throwing it up in the air and catching it. Again, what could possibly go wrong? Nothing that would break the bank.

Hell's Gate, Great Gable
Seriously, that’s the way down?
Hell's Gate
Yep.

I love cheapo compacts though. It’s liberating to know that your camera has no value and you are free to take risks. And with a lot of the 80s and 90s compacts, you can reassure yourself that if you don’t break it the electronics will likely die soon anyway. Want some ideas? Smear a bit of Vaseline around the edges of the lens. Put a yellow filter over the lens, a blue one on the flash and shoot colour (then swap the filters over and repeat). Tape it to a long stick, set the self timer, and get some cheap ‘drone’ shots or an aerial shot of a crowd. Throw it up in the air and catch it. Whirl it round on the strap with a long shutter speed. Put it in a plastic bag and go surfing. Tie it to a dog. Ok, not the dog.

Cheap lenses? Getting rare. Seems like every groovy dude is buying-up old Russian and East German lenses to photograph single flowers against a blurred background. But if you are shooting APS-C on digital, the no-name 50mm lens is your friend. Here’s where you find that portrait lens you were looking for. There were plenty of cameras made by people other than Canon and Nikon that typically came with a 50mm f1.7 or f2. Since you are using just the centre of the frame it will be sharper on digital than it probably was on film. Use it at f5.6-8 and it will probably be really sharp. Use it wide open and you will get nice soft edges and a blurred background. If you want to annoy the purists, a lick of black paint to cover-up the maker’s name and details around the front element can be just the right mischief. Tell them it’s a NASA prototype. Speaking of which, have a look at the inside of any old film compact camera you find. Look for any shiny plastic surfaces in the space between the back of the lens and the film gate. Try giving those a very careful lick of matt black paint (do model shops still sell the little tins of Humbrol for painting your Airfix kits?). Instant improvement in contrast.

This is where you wish you’d bought a Pentax digital camera. An awful lot of cameras and lenses were made with the Pentax K mount, so that cheapo 50mm lens you fancy can be found on an unloved film SLR for a fiver on eBay. A cheap adapter also means that every M42 screw-fit lens will also work. Plus you can use every camera lens that Pentax made. Even the 6×7 and 645 medium format lenses will work with an adapter. I’ve got an adapter that lets me use Kiev or Pentacon medium format lenses, which is an easy way to get a long lens for occasional use. Mike Gutterman is right: Pentax rules.

And think of all the beer you can buy with the money you saved.

Flash!

Aah ah ah.

I’d love to be a better flasher, but I don’t seem to have the time or the right subjects. I’ve read all the Strobist articles and assembled a small bag full of snoots and softboxes. All home-made of course: this is what cereal boxes would want for themselves, if only they knew.

And yet I find myself mostly using a diffuser with a flashgun mounted directly on the hotshoe. I think it’s because, in the situations where I use flash, I have neither the space nor the extra limbs needed to do the off-camera thing. Nor do I have an assistant to stand at the back with a flash on a slave cell to give a bit of background separation.

BMW K100 RT
Shortly before it was consumed by the flames

As for the diffuser, it’s the cheapest of eBay jobs. I did start with a nice frosted plastic ball that was supposed to be a detergent dispenser in a washing machine, but it was tricky to mount. I did the traditional bodge with a bit of white plastic cut out of a milk carton. This is great when you can get some bounce off a ceiling or you are close to the subject. I graduated from that to a softbox. Not your professional beach umbrella-sized bit of spotless white cloth, but an inflatable one that I fixed to the flashgun with gaffer tape (because the supplied elastic wasn’t up to someone who moves around). You can just imaging how impressed people were when they saw be blowing up my flashgun. About as impressed as if they caught me inflating my girlfriend. You want to make a literal remake of that David Hemmings film? I’m here for you. It worked just fine though, but the push-on diffuser does a similar job and is less fragile.

IMG_2412
Happy times

There was a time when flashguns were the ginger orphans of photography. I’ve got a load of different types (of flash, silly) picked up from photo-shop remainders bins, car boot sales and charity shops for next to nothing. I guess the separate flashgun was killed by the point-and-shoot with its autofocus and built-in flash. And then the dedicated flashgun came along and applied its boot to the flashgun neck. The nice thing is that a lot of them are automatic, so they can be placed in a position and plugged into a slave cell and left to get their exposure about right. So I ought to be a lot better at this kind of thing than I am. The most I have ever done is to rig a second flash on a slave cell as a backlight – see the picture of the Beemer above.

I even bought a couple of studio-type flashes. These are a couple of mains-powered jobs sold for the ‘serious amateur’. Basically as a means for some pervy to shoot ‘figure studies’ in the lounge while pretending to be a serious student of form. I bought them because I got the pair for a fiver, not because I had a desperate need for more photons (or perve). So I have the makings of a reasonably useful studio flash setup. I’m sure that, if I did much portrait work, they might come in useful. But it’s hard enough to get friends and family to allow candid shots, let alone ask someone to do the ‘chin down, look up at the lens, blue steel‘ schtick.

I’ve even got a flash meter. Had it for years. It fell into my bag about the same time that nobody wanted handheld meters any more. (The advantage of great age is that what was old becomes new again). Very useful with film, but you’re usually better off chimping the shots with digital as you can see the light balance immediately.

Mono
Sometimes a direct, diffused flash is all you need

I’m a great fan of trailing-curtain synch though. I like the way I can balance a daylight shot with a bit of flash to freeze the detail, and still get a bit of motion blur.

111 MARINHEIRO Ricardo Paulo Reis * ( POR19911105 ) TXB +15:21

You can see why my inflatable softbox and off-camera flash have not come in terribly useful. This again is a job for the on-camera diffused flash. We used to call this synchro-sun. We also used to believe that you needed a leaf shutter to do it properly.

FONTANA
Single-sided front suspension. Cool.

So where am I going with this? I would like to be much better at the off-camera, multiple flash thing. But the only way to learn is to practice, and I never seem to find myself in situations where it would either work or I need it. Think of some typical scenarios: shooting kids at Santa’s Grotto for a charity in a packed room and milling crowd; anything that goes fast and explodes; people moving about…. I think I’m stuck with the one thing I know works: an on-camera, diffused, dedicated flash with an occasional slaved flash in the background.

Perhaps I should buy a cheap ring-flash and take up portraiture? At least it’s not landscapes.