Thursday, 22 August 2013


I came across this video via a comment at The Online Photographer. It started well enough, although the deconstruction of Cartier-Bresson's pictures reinforced my change of appreciation of them. Maybe it's like analysing humour, but the more I look at HCB's famous pictures the more contrived they seem. The same goes for Steve McCurry's work. Compositionally 'stunning', but the technique overwhelms the subject matter. You tend to appreciate the artistry rather than the picture's content and the message is lost.

It's all to simple to make pictures which follow compositional rules, even if you don't do it consciously. The best bit of advice in the video is to squint at a subject. Painters do it all the time and I find myself doing it more and more as I peer through my camera's viewfinder. It makes you look at the picture as a whole.

Deconstructing the picture above it's simple to see the compositional strengths. There's a frame, a dark foreground, rods and horizon on thirds (more or less), rods dark against lighter water, and so forth. None of this was thought through in those terms when I framed the shot, I just moved the camera around until it looked right. While it's pleasing on the eye, I'm not sure quite what the picture is about. To an angler it will mean something different to how a non-angler views it. A caption would also alter it's meaning. I took it because I liked the effect of the light on the trees. It would accompany an article about eel fishing well enough, but as a stand-alone picture it's something and nothing.

Remembering the compositional guidelines outlined in the video will make for good pictures. But they'll be pictures which look safe and familiar. It's no surprise that enquiring photographers choose to try and make pictures in different ways than following formal modes of construction derived from classical, representational, painting. Photography can be about another way of picturing than creating an ideal view of reality. Reality is messy. Photography is a great medium for conveying that.

The Winogrand on the right was criticised in the video for it's lack of formal composition. It seems to me that it is the chaotic nature that makes it interesting. The fact that you have to search for the subject which comes as a surprise. Photographs can have more than one possible subject, all equally stressed.

Photographs which try to be no more than abstract fields of colour usually fail by becoming banal. Photographs need a subject. Or at the very least recognisable objects to be seen. They don't need to be 'perfectly' composed to be successful pictures.

This is my excuse for some of the photographs I've been taking recently. I realised that I had been concentrating too much on the formalities of making 'good photographs' and not enough on the content and meaning.

The ongoing Over The Hedge series is an attempt to break out of the rut. The pictures are about arrangements of shape and colour. The subject, as in what the picture is about, is the whole of the frame rather than just that which stands out visually. I hope the eye roams over the picture rather than concentrating on one element. For all that they might look to have been casually taken they are carefully, or perhaps that should be thoughtfully, composed.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Gone fishing

I almost wish I was still writing for fishing magazines these days just so I would have somewhere to get some use out of the photos I take while fishing - which is what I've mostly been doing with my free time of late. It would also give me the opportunity to take creative photos with a purpose. It's all well and good posting pictures on a blog, but they seem more purposeful in a real life, hard copy, magazine. And they are larger.

Some have been nice ideas that haven't quite come off, like this picture where I didn't quite get the arc  of the rainbow over the rods the way I'd have liked. This was partly a consequence of not enough time as the rainbow was fading, and partly caused by aged joints and a bad back not letting me get the right position to shoot from!

There have been a few pretty scenic shots which are nothing more than nice colours and 'safe' compositions. Restful in their way.

And naturally plenty of pictures taken to pass the time between fish. Mostly messing about with depth of field, using a subject close to the lens with a soft background which is just distinct enough to be descriptive. The kind of shot (as in the final example here) which could be run in a magazine with text over the out of focus portion. This was something I found the X10 to be very good at as it focuses really close at its 28mm equivalent focal length. It's small sensor was a limiting factor in control of depth of field though. It's control of what is in and out of focus, and to what degree, rather than the shoot as wide an aperture as possible line of attack which interests me. It's a prevalent 'style' these days, and having the 'fastest' glass is seen as a badge of honour, rather than a mannered affectation.

Having sold some of my unused rods the other week I, inevitably, failed to resist temptation and added the 28mm Nikon I'd looked at to my lens drawer. It's never been off the camera since. Quite why I have gelled with this focal length I can't say. It seems to be right for a lot of things. It doesn't give that obviously-wide-angle look that even a 24mm lens can when shooting landscapes, yet it's wide enough for most indoor use while not distorting people in pictures so long as you don't get in too close. 35mm feels like using a telephoto now! The lens certainly gives good control over depth of field. Again digital review screens make it so much easier to precisely check the amount of blur each aperture is giving.

Being a wide angle lens the depth of field can be large when stopped down. To me this is just as important a feature as being able to have shallow depth of field - for landscape and grab shots.

Something all the pictures here share (possibly excepting the rainbow shot) is that I have used evening light and shade to add atmosphere, and to focus attention on certain parts of the image. A way of thinking about pictures which hasn't often concerned me in the past. Possibly because of my preference for photographing on dull days.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Musical interlude

This weekend I've been reading Keith Richards's autobiography, Life. In amongst the Spinal Tap excesses there are a few passages in which he relates how the Glimmer Twins did their song writing which give an insight into their creative process.

Having been embroiled in an argument about how to get out of a period of being 'stuck' in photography in which my adversary was insisting that you have to work out exactly what you want to achieve in advance of taking the photographs, while I was insisting that going out and shooting any old crap without having a plan was the way forward, I found Keef's songwriting method refreshing. Songs would start with a riff, a chord sequence, a line or two or just a title. Often the theme of the lyrics would change, as might the beat.

Elsewhere in Life are other clues about how to get good at guitar playing and songwriting. The main one being do it a lot. The other one is to listen to lots of music from different genres. In photographic terms this translates to take lots of pictures and look at lots of them. Soak it all in and it will filter out in unexpected ways.

For some time I've been wondering if there are two sorts of photographer: those who have to
be in complete control and those who take what comes and make something out of it. Some time ago on The Online Photographer someone was sort of denigrating 'stochastic' pictures as being a bit of a cheat. Pictures in which an element of control is taken away from the photographer. Unsurprisingly, I like having the element of chance in my photography.

There is a big difference between a lucky picture and one which has come about through chance. A lucky picture is when a 'plane falls from the sky in front of you and you have a camera in your hand. Chance, however, intervenes when you put yourself in a place where something you know can happen is likely to. Sports and wildlife photographers operate that way. They put themselves in the right place, and hope they are there at the right time when something interesting happens in a way that makes a great picture. You sue chance by eliminating as much luck as possible.

It's not knowing where you're going, or what you'll get, that intrigues me. Taking lots of photographs can, provided you are the sort of person who gets bored making the same picture over and over, lead to unexpected results. My first picture of a car and a plant was just a random shot, which I thought had something so I worked at it a bit. The wide angle lens and slow shutter speed to blur the car came from another picture I had taken some time earlier. Ideas come from ideas.

It looked a bit obvious, so I got in closer.

Twelve months later I was stuck for what to photograph and thought I'd revisit the theme, altering the viewpoint and using a slightly longer lens but still aiming for the environmental context.

Next time I tried the telephoto I made more abstract compositions, still retaining enough information to suggest context, but camera shake ruined them. I tried again with a stabilised lens and better hand holding technique which did the trick.

These pictures rely on a slow enough shutter speed to blur the cars but fast enough to freeze the plants which move from the draught of the vehicles passing by and any wind that's blowing. Using a tripod wouldn't prevent blur from air movement so I rely on a steady hand. The telephoto compresses space, but the further the camera is from the subject the slower the shutter speed has to be. It's a balancing act.

The only variations to be made from one angle are the plants and the cars. It would be simple enough to make a set of such pictures. However, knowing my boredom threshold, unsure how many combinations I can face making, I keep trying out other angles and thinking of other locations where different pictures on the same theme could be made.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Software temptations

Digital photography offers so much flexibility in processing, so easily, that there is a temptation to make every image 'perfect'. For all flaws to be ironed out. Some flaws, like colour fringing on edges, need to be corrected. Lens distortion is another matter.

There's no point using a fisheye lens and correcting the distortion. That's simply using the wrong lens in the first place. Fisheye distortion is the reason to use such a lens. With ultrawide lenses the matter is more moot.

These lenses introduce distortion by their very nature, but they still give a fairly natural look - certainly in the centre of the frame. If there's a horizon line which has become curved then by all means straighten it out. I can live with converging verticals as they are how we see, if not perceive, things. Trees and other natural forms at the edges can bear stretching. People, however, look deformed!

One problem is that by using software to 'correct' these distortions the image is cropped. Which begs the question whether the correct lens was used. If the image has to be cropped then a longer focal length could have been used.

Another problem I have with this approach is that the composition is altered. In a similar way to someone like Winogrand tilting the camera to put all the elements in the places within the frame he wants them, so I arrange the composition as I see it through the viewfinder. The cropped image then doesn't fit with how I saw the picture.

In the original picture here there is a sense of space and a dynamic to the picture, and the curves of the drums at the right are a feature.

By first correcting the distortion and then the converging verticals Ray looks normal, but the overall effect is altered. Space is compressed for one thing. The picture might as well have been shot with a shorter lens.If nobody ever sees the 'before' picture I guess none of this matters.

Looking at the Bingo book I got to thinking more about black and white conversions, and black and white in general. There's no doubt that colour can be distracting in portraits, in pictures which rely heavily on their graphic qualities and when there are lots of colours creating a jumble for the eye.

Then again colour can be an important aspect which makes a picture work. It can also help in the reading of a picture by describing what an object or surface is.

I'm also minded of the element of truth colour brings to a picture. Paradoxically it's omission can bring the same. And while black and white is almost intrinsically nostalgic it can also be timeless and universal. The biggest difficulty I have with black and white conversion is the way it can immediately make pictures look 'serious', making it more difficult to judge a picture's merits.

Another problem I have with well done black and white conversions is that the processing can be seductive. The quality of the tones can overwhelm appreciation of the picture which was the reaction I had when I looked through Salgado's Genesis book.

I'm mulling over this colour dilemma  after considering converting all my tackle shop pictures to black and white. They could make a strong set done that way. But there are a few which rely on colour to work. My biggest fear is that the notion is spurred simply by the apparent convention of dealing with such subjects in black and white. Just like the Bingo book. Good job I have a project under way which has to be shot in colour.