Category Archives: photography

Reflective journal

One thing I learned when doing a photography MA a few years back was just how useful a reflective journal can be. I tried to keep it going when the course ended but it was not easy. For some reason, I started a new journal on 1 April this year using a hard-back notebook which seemed a bit more substantial than the usual cheap pads I used previously.

I have made regular entries about processes I am trying or revisiting and it helps to get a better perspective on what works or fails. This morning just writing about something that was just not right helped to find a better option. And being critical about what I did a few weeks back has  raised questions about the process. I recommend giving it a try.

 

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No need to travel round the world to find subjects

One thing about photography I cannot understand is the need to fly half-way around the world to make pics. For many landscape photographers, there is an all-encompassing need to get the best shot to win the next prize and for that you need to travel to certain ‘approved’ destinations. Top of the list are Iceland, Greenland and the Arctic.

The photographs are often accompanied by lyrical titles and comments about the magnificence of the landscape. What is not mentioned are the dire effects of climate change on the very areas being photographed. Of no concern is the contribution to greenhouse gases made by long haul flights. There appears to be no connection made between travel and the effects on the very landscape being photographed.

I have long argued that good photographers find subjects close to them eliminating the need for long distance travel. Stephen Shore summed this up perfectly when he said:

“To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that is what interests me.”

As photographers, we should have some awareness of the effects of our actions. To jet across the world to take pics because we want to shows no respect for the landscape or subjects being photographed. All our actions have an impact on the world in which we live and long haul flights contribute to climate change and ultimately the destruction of the very subject we want capture.

If you need convincing that climate change is happening now and ice is melting at an ever-increasing rate which will have profound effects on sea levels, see “Glacier Exit” https://vimeo.com/198306286 and the work of the Extreme Ice Survey http://extremeicesurvey.org

James Balog Birthday Canyon – Extreme Ice Survey

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What kind of photographer are you?

For many years I have been interested in both landscape photography and portraiture. The portraits I take are often of people who work on the land and sometimes in it. I do not see this as a difficulty or contradiction because I have come to believe that we are of the land. It is where we come from, what sustains us and is where we return after death. It cannot be anything else because this is the planet on which we live, there is no other source of life.

The only problem with all this is being a photographer. Some photographers I have met cannot cope with the combination of landscapes and portraits; evidently you have to specialise in one OR the other. There seems to be a set of rules somewhere which says you are either/or but not both. If you do landscapes you need a certain type of equipment e.g.  an 18mm – 24mm f2.8 zoom is a must have. When I admitted to one landscape enthusiast that I did not have one he questioned my sanity, competence and commitment. And for portraits I am told I need an 85mm f1.4 portrait lens for ‘natural’ perspective and the best bokeh. Nobody has told me what catastrophe would occur if I used an 85mm for landscapes or a 24mm for portraits. I have done both. I admit that you have to take care when using anything over a 35mm lens for close up portraits but the sky did not come crashing down.

This was either a 35mm or 28mm lens quite close up. There is distortion to the head but I would rather have got the pic than have fiddled around changing lenses, moving position and reframing and lost it.

What I am saying is do not let yourself be labelled as a particular kind of photographer and do not be pushed onto the ‘right equipment’ treadmill. Photography is about making photographs with what you have and not about endless striving for the ‘right’ gear. Do not feel pressured to conform, do your own thing. Most of all I am saying that the rigid distinction between landscape and people is artificial much like the unwritten rules of the best lens for the job.

A landscape with a 200mm lens.

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Documentary photography, fact or fiction?

There is shock and horror on the net after World Press Photo announced a new contest with the provisional title of ‘creative documentary’. Evidently it would “not have rules limiting how images are produced.”

There has been a lot of controversy about manipulation of images. Steve McCurry was at the centre of much debate after it became clear that he had cleaned up some of his images. (See Petapixel) He responded to the criticism in an interview with Time.

“I’ve always let my pictures do the talking, but now I understand that people want me to describe the category into which I would put myself, and so I would say that today I am a visual storyteller,” (From: Time.com)

McCurry now says that he is a visual storyteller and not a photojournalist. I am not sure that gives him more freedom. There is the myth that persists into the 21st century, that photography is truthful and that no manipulation of images is allowed. In other words, we are stuck with a 19th century notion that photography is the objective representation of reality.

The manipulation of images is nothing new. In the Soviet Union it was common to remove people from photographs. There will be other examples of such pratices for propaganda or political ‘spin’. Even the selection of images considered to promote a more positive view of a person or product is, in effect, manipulation.

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Photo of Nikolai Yezhov (Naval Commissar) and Stalin walking alongside the Moscow Canal. After Nikolai Yezhov fell from power, he was arrested, shot, and his image removed by the censors. [Source: Wikipedia]

I am not saying that any level of manipulation is acceptable.  Personally I limit post production to changing density, colour balance and burning and dodging that could be done with silver prints. I also remove distracting details like branches in the edge of the frame or, recently, the wing mirror of a truck in the edge of a pic.

What nobody talks about how a photographer selects, frames and decides when to press the shutter. These are the biggest decisions in the process yet they are not questioned. In the days of film there was a debate was about cropping with a fad to print the edges of the film to show that you had not cropped. The idea being that it made the image somehow more truthful. It also implies that the photographer’s view of reality is fixed when the shutter is pressed and nothing should be allowed to interfere with ‘the truth’ in the image.

Any discussion about manipulation should recognise that all documentary photography is subjective and that there is no such thing as truth.  Then we might be able to move on to more interesting debates about what motivates a photographer to choose the subject, frame it and decide when to press the shutter. Or is that all too difficult?

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“Click” and the polar bear gets it!

It was good to watch “Artic Live” on the TV over the last three nights because it was very informative about climate change and the way it is destroying Artic habitats. Surprising really because the BBC seems to have been somewhat muted recently. I did wonder about the impact of transporting film crews around the Artic but it was worth it just for the strength of the message.

It is a pity that many photographers want to visit the far North with Iceland, Greenland, the Arctic and the Faroe Islands becoming popular locations for photo tours. I cannot understand the attraction. Is it about scoring points in competitions? Or is there something macho about going to these places?  If so, then I suggest Grayson Perry’s latest book “The Descent of Man” will give some insight into why men do such stuff.

Saksun - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saksun

Saksun – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saksun

The latest place that on the photographers travel agenda is Saksun in the Faroes which, according a new book from National Geographic, is one of the “17 of the World’s Most Wild and Beautiful Places.” That surely must sound the death knell for anywhere on the list as hordes of tourists bristling with cameras will now descend on them.

Landscape photography has become big business over the last few years fuelled by endless competitions like Landscape Photographer of the Year with its £10,000 first prize. There are books and magazines full of hints, tips, lists of places go and adverts from people running tours to every wild and beautiful place on the planet. It has become big money.

I have heard photographers say that they are not tourists but ‘travellers’. What is the difference I ask because the end result is the same?  As we experience more of the effects of climate change there can be no justification for such travel?

Then there is the question of the need to travel half-way round the world to take pics when we live on such a diverse and beautiful island. I think this says it all for me, it is a quote from Stephen Shore that I have on my wall:

“To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that is what I am interested in”.

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Getting the best from your pixels

When I started using a digital camera it was obvious that however many pixels you have, and however much you spend on super lenses, good results are not guaranteed. Having lots of pixels does not automatically mean better pics, there is still some photographic technique involved.

I work on long term project which usually result from having something to say. In terms of project planning I work backwards from having an idea of how I want to prints to look and where they will be shown. For the Quarried project I decided I wanted large prints mounted without glass so that there was as little as possible between the audience and the print. That eventually turned out to be matt colour prints mounted on Diabond.

Knowing what I wanted narrowed down the decision required to achieve the end result. Basically I could use 5×4 colour negative film or a high end digital system. Using 5×4 would have given the resolution but would have resulted in a different project.  I opted for a Nikon D800 which, at 36MP was the highest resolution DLSR at the time.

Learning to use the new camera took a while but it soon became obvious that it needed to be on a good tripod with the camera in mirror-up mode and triggered by a remote shutter release. The reason for that is that the mirror cause vibrations in the camera which can significantly degrade the image quality especially when using longer lenses. 5514_a4

This image was taken across a valley approximately 500m from the camera. It works well at A0 (1200mm x 800mm.)

Having taken care of the photographic technique the next stage was printing test images. I did this by using 4, A2 prints fixed together with masking tape. Other issues were now obvious. If I edited the image on my home computer I had to change colour balance, brightness, contrast and saturation on the PC connected to the printer. My PC monitor was not calibrated. This is absolutely crucial if you want to send image files to commercial printers. But it seemed like a lot of additional expense until one of the tutors on the MA course asked how much I had spent on the lens and how much I had spent on my monitor. The ratio was 20:1. She then asked what I expected from a cheap monitor. She was absolutely right – thank you Karen.

The choice of monitor was relatively easy – EIZO the industry standard. I got the cheapest model but even that is amazing. I check the calibration every 1-2 weeks and it does not move much at all. I can now edit my files and use them on other printers without any problems. Recently I prepared a file for printing on fabric, it was 1350mm x 2000mm. I was told to use 8 bit, RGB1998 and it worked perfectly. (It is a type of printer used in fashion and textiles to print directly onto rolls of fabric.)

And of course the usual disclaimer – these are my opinions based on my own experiences. I am not being paid to endorse products.

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Tips for aspiring photographers

There seems to be a never ending stream of tips for aspiring photographers. Most advise against formal education in photography and suggest doing workshops instead.  The argument goes like this: ‘forget the technicalities just shoot pics’.

If you are really serious about photography, then you need to learn about all aspects of the medium to get the photographs you want and to know what went wrong if you don’t.

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Here is what I suggest.

  1. Be selective about what you photograph
  2. Learn to look at the scene before you look through the camera
  3. Learn enough about the technicalities to get the photo you want
  4. Photograph what you’re afraid of
  5. Shoot from the gut
  6. Print your work
  7. Seek to know a few photographers very well, rather than many photographers superficially
  8. Shoot RAW+JPEG
  9. Shoot everyday as if it were your last
  10. Find a mentor
  11. If you are serious then do a course in the area of photography that interests you
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