Saturday, March 24, 2018

The perfect photo?

A few things have gone into this blog post. In no particular order: The pushback against photoshopping the bodies and faces of models into an image that doesn't even begin to reflect reality. A question in The Online Photographer about still life photography, found or constructed. The process of learning to use a real camera on manual to take photos, then going out to the field and actually doing so. Learning to edit images in Lightroom. The blurring of the lines between professional and amateur. Expectations around content submitted for publication.

Not sure where there is going to go, get the tipple of your choice for the time of day it is. It got long, complete with example photos for your delight.

How good is good? One clearly would not seriously compare the scribbles of a kindergarten child to the work of a graduate of ACAD. How about a high school student to the ACAD grad? Hmmm, maybe a talented high schooler might produce better work than an untalented ACAD grad. We expect professionals to produce better work than amateurs, but it's not necessarily so. The pro is much more likely to produce the desired results faster, and more reliably. There's a story about a young photographer applying for a job and showing his work to the grizzled old pro. "This is nice, how long did it take you," he asks. "Days! I tweaked every little thing till it's perfect." "Hmmmm," says the pro, "I can't afford for you to take days on an image, but I'm dying to see what you can do in 10 minutes."

Who is to judge? By what criteria? At one extreme is the 'likes' on Facebook, Instagram, and other such sites. As near as I can tell, the most popular photos are colourful sunrises/sunsets, then cats, then  baby animals, then an amorphous category of really excellent photos. At the other extreme are the professional critics who say Voice of Fire is an artwork worth paying $1.8 million for, and is now worth $40 million, and I say Bah.

One interesting thing I've learned along the way is that my record for predicting what people will like isn't that good. I'd taken a bunch of photos of some friends at a triathlon. They were over, drinking some wine and we looked at them. I had one photo that I thought was really unflattering. I wondered if I should show it to her, and considered deleting it. In the end I decided to show them all the photos, and delete any that they asked me to. That 'unflattering' shot was the one she liked the most. She wanted a print of it. A lesson for me.

I've been looking at a lot of photography books over the last year and a bit, trying to learn more about what makes a good photo. This has diverged into a bit of the history of art. To be honest, I'm as baffled as ever. Note that I'm clearly distinguishing between my personal taste in art, and what makes a good or even great piece of art. I might like a photo even though it is technically poor, because I know the people in it, or something about it catches my soul, but I wouldn't say it's good photo. There's lots of art hanging in various galleries that I don't care for but that's just me. Someone says they're good photos or paintings, and put their money where their eyes are. Good for them, and I hope they sell.

Much of my reading, and looking, and thinking, was about works I didn't care for on first glance, and try to determine what made them good. There are many 'rules' about making good photographs, but I was trying to go deeper than that. Many really good photos break at least some of those rules, and some photos follow all the rules and yet are boring. One of the best books for this showed a fairly large image of the work, followed by commentary by the author and the artist. You can find further comments on the book here.

When I click the shutter button, I'm generally looking one of the following situations:
- I've got a good to great scene, and I'm working on capturing it. I might tweak the camera settings, try different lenses, move around to different points of view. Sometimes waiting a few minutes creates an entirely new scene as the light changes. I usually get at least one photo out of this that will make me happy. Sometimes I'll know it on the spot, other times I'm not sure. For this one I was standing beside the road, and did not want to wade into the deep snow on private property. It would have been nice if there were some dramatic clouds. I might have to come back, dawn could be interesting.

- I'm trying a specific thing, trying to create a specific image, regardless of the artistic merit of the resulting photography. There was one yesterday, walking along the top of the bluff in Cranston, looking at the mountain skyline. There was a plant with little seed pods beside the path. Nothing special to look at, but I wanted to capture that plant in sharp focus, with the distant mountains out of focus. You might call it practice, maintaining the visual and technical camera skills.

- I've got an indifferent scene, but there might be something about the light, or the setting, or the composition that attracts my eye. At the very worst they will become documentary shots; an image of what you'd see standing in this spot, a record I was there on a particular day. At best I get a nice surprise, that I found some settings or Lightroom/image manipulation software tweaks that produce a better image than I expected. I think of these as learnings, in that I can see something in the scene, and I try to build the skills to capture that. There's a subtle optical illusion in this one that amuses me. Can you see it?

-Blog fodder. I like to have photos in my blog that are relevant to what I written about. It can go either way. Sometimes a photo will spark the words, other times what I've written will drive me to capture a particular photo. It's a form of practice to keep what skills I have sharp. Sometimes I get really good photos, but mostly they are just a photo of something.

- I've been asked to take photos. This has happened at several races now. It's mostly fun, but it's much more fun to play paparazzi for buddies involved in activities.

-Much rarer is serendipity. I'm out, I'm holding the camera, and I get THAT shot. The one that makes everyone go "oh!" The one that sends chills down your spine as you edit it. You make several copies and put them in different places so you can't lose it. The one you make a big print of. The one you want to show the world. The one that everyone thinks you are so lucky to have captured, when you and other photographers know it's work, and planning, and being out there, being ready. This hasn't happened to me much, but you can see when it has here.

There's a saying in writing, "there's no place for bad writing anymore." Also, "the first million words are shit and the sooner you write them out of your system the sooner you'll be a good writer." This lament was by a writer who came of age when there were comics and pulp magazines. The editors paid a nickel a word and wanted it by deadline. Now the competition to be published is so fierce that there is no space for bad writing, or even slightly imperfect writing. Writers obsess about getting everything perfect, and there is a cottage industry revolving around the rules defining such perfection. I think it often makes for cookie cutter writing, but then, I'm not a published writer.

Much the same is true about images. We are surrounded by images. Social media. The news. Advertising in every media. There are images to look at everywhere, demanding our attention. There are people who have spent their lives figuring out how to attract our attention for the purposes of inserting an advertising message. Scantily dressed women is one way, but there are many others. In all of these there are no imperfections at all, nothing to impede that image from being mainlined into your brain. Yes, I'm a published photographer, with credit and everything.

On social media some people like to share their photos. I'm in several such groups, and some of the photos are stunning! Looking at what people have done is a learning experience. It's probably intimidating to newer photographers, looking at your best shot so far, and realizing it's not in the same league as some of the others.

There's one I'm thinking of on Instagram (which is a pretty crappy place to view nice photos, IMHO), a superb posed photo of a woman wearing jeans, a white T shirt, and a red jacket. My comment was that the photographer nailed it. The photographer, makeup, hair, and agency are all given credit and justly so. I've no idea how many other photos that didn't make the cut exist of this session, and I wouldn't be surprised if there are hundreds.

That is not a posed shot. I'm not entirely pleased by it for various reasons, but I wasn't about to tell her to hold still while I got the tripod and tried to fix the lighting.

Then there are photo competitions. I spent some time at the Exposure festival in February. The idea was similar to reading the books; I wanted to look at prints up on the wall, selected by a jury, and try to get a grip on what made them good. Some were obviously good in my eyes. Subjects, setting, lighting, props, everything was perfect but in a natural way. I stood looking at a couple (a ranching family in one, and a film projectionist in the other) in particular for a long while. I'd like to think I have the technical skill to capture a photograph of those people in their setting, but I couldn't even have begun to compose and light those shots.

Then there are others I mostly got. Not my taste or I'd have done it differently, but I could see what made it a compelling photo. I looked at some of them for a while too. Then there were some that baffled me. I didn't get it, not at all, and listening to a small group in raptures about them didn't help.

I haven't entered any photo competitions yet. I'm not sure I ever will. Why? I don't have the ego drive to have my work declared the winner, or to 'be good' out in front of god and everybody. While I'd like to become a better photographer, to see and capture a scene in a compelling way, I don't want to go to school to learn 'the 6 rules to become a professional landscape photographer.' I've no financial need, or ego desire to sell my work. If someone loves an image and wants to buy a print (which has happened several times now) I'm flattered and pleased and can make that happen. But I'm not going to go producing images I don't care for because someone will pay me for them. That's no fun.

Which leads me to another point, having fun. I've been out on some photo rambles with buddies, and that's fun. I've been out alone, and that's fun too. Yesterday I was sitting on a bench (the one on the right, if you were wondering) in Cranston, looking at the mountains and the clouds, wondering if there was an image there, thinking my thoughts, enjoying the warm day. A bald eagle flapped by, too quick for me to point the camera, so I just enjoyed watching it for a few seconds.

Getting back to the still life photography question I mentioned above, I've thought about that a lot. One of the sets of images at the Exposure was of plant material, flowers, blooms, vines, seeds, and it was composed. The photographer probably spent a lot of time laying out the various materials and getting them lit just right. The gallery staff told me the prints had not been digitally assembled. I spent some time wondering why this way, and not differently.

I've done lots of shots where I get back to the computer and only then realize there's a tree branch or something else in the way, or some cat fur on the macro object, or there's a fence post in the shot and I can't remove it because I'd then take something else out and I really should have recomposed the shot, or that something cluttered the shot that my eye overlooked but the camera saw. In some of these cases it's a matter of moving the view point, or using a different lens, or a different zoom, and fair enough. In others it's a matter of actually removing vegetation, or digitally manipulating the image, or putting something in the shot that wasn't there when you found it (I'll put this rock over here to create a triangle of leading lines blah blah blah).

Power lines are the bane of landscape photographers existence. Many go way out to the boonies to escape them, or will digitally manipulate them out of the scene. I've done that a couple times, but mostly my take is that the power lines are there, they are part of the scene. Take the photo in such a way that the power lines are part of it, in an artistic way. Yeah, still working on that.

Mostly I shoot what I see as best as possible. Physically manipulating the scene before taking the shot to make it better, implies you know exactly what you're doing and trying to get. In some cases the end result is contrived, and thus seems less real to me.

When photography became a thing, painters and other artists were outraged. Photography wasn't an art. There was no skill involved. Even now, some people don't think of photos as art. Lots distinguish between paintings and photographic art, but I think that line is blurrier than most realize. For example, when I was at Resolve the other day, there was a big print of an embroidery project. Big print. More than a project, it was several lifetimes of work. They had carefully set it up to be photographed with the best equipment available, worked on it digitally for realism, and the resulting print is stunning. People looking at that print when framed and on the wall are going to be hard pressed to tell if it's a print or it's the real thing. I could see the texture of the threads and wanted to touch.

Of course I look at the work other photographers produce. I like to look at shots of Calgary, and try to figure out where it was taken and what they did to get the shot. I like to see the play of light on the scene. In some cases I want to replicate that shot, mainly to prove to myself I have the skill to do it. I see how they've used ordinary elements to produce an extraordinary shot, and I try to remember in order to apply it other places. Other times I'll like the shot, but recognize it's not my style.

In a few cases I think my work is comparable, but in most I realize they've gone that extra step, to take a good photo and make it great. There's a little something to take it from 'nice' to 'WOW!' I see them, but I'm not discouraged. I'm inspired. It shows me what a photo could be. I want to recognize when the subject has the potential, and learn to take full advantage to create that wow shot.

Part of this is finding my own photographic 'voice.' So far I haven't found that I'm an X photographer, to the near exclusion of all else. I'm fascinated by light and colour and interesting shapes, and look for them in ordinary scenes. I like it when people say they've never seen something quite that way before.

So that's enough about me, let's talk about you… what do YOU think about me and my photos? I love to get comments on the blog, even if you disagree.

1 comment:

  1. Challenge Accepted

    In no particular order here are a series of fragments that come to mind. With a bit of luck they may make a semi-consistent perspective from a friend who cares.

    ~ Some of your photos are practice. By that I mean the photos are taken as discovery, and as a tool to learning the craft. In that same vein those photos are read as notes to self. If those practice photos as you say are not about ego (look what I captured) then you are wittingly or unwittingly participating in the viewer, photographer, photograph triangle. That triangle depends on a photographer who is trying to tell us something, a photograph that is true to the photographer, and a viewer who is willing to take the time to look. It is not always clear what you want to tell us the viewer. You have chosen to share your practice with us and we your readers (or at least I do), thank you.

    ~ Most of your macro Monday’s are of the “look what I found” perspective. Though most of them are not to my taste, I appreciate your enthusiasm of the pursuit.

    ~ I have been thinking about zoom lenses this past week. They can contribute to unintended image neutrality as they can inadvertently free the photographer from moving closer to the subject. The result though is disengagement. Many of your photos seem to be taken from intermediate distance. By that I mean you are not close enough to be engaged but not far enough to be objective. That works on landscape when you lead our eye through the picture. This can be seen in the best of your Tombstone photos. On urban landscape that intermediate distance does not work as well.

    ~ Sometimes you tell us in words what interests you, and then the photo you describe has more context than the content you stated. The area of focus gets lost in the surrounds and those surrounds don’t aid to your objective. Usually this works against, but then you have the absolutely brilliant portrait of L. The pile of books on her left with glass of wine, the pile of blankets and pillows behind, and the soft light to the right all contribute.

    ~ Your best photos are not only about the subject matter but occur when we the viewer believe you were engaged.

    In Summary

    Technically your focus and exposure are consistently excellent. Areas for growth cover composition, and content. I enjoy participating in your journey and I thank you for sharing it.

    Cheers, Sean


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