The adverts on the side of my email and Facebook account are constantly filled with quick and easy solutions to complex problems. For some reason I'm stalked by the ' a simple trick to a flat belly' advert ( I have no idea why...?) and although eat less, do more is simple enough, I've yet to find a way round that simple rule.
Photography is no different. Composition, light and technique are all straight forward subjects, but they can only be improved with consistent learning and practice. There's no app, life hack or short cut tips that will change that.
But if I were to offer just one piece of advice above all, it would be to simply ask yourself:
" what do you want to say?"
I've used this question in academic terms over the years to untangle my thoughts when writing essays ( without it I would write fact upon fact without actually qualifying the point of them),and I think it is just as relevant for image making as it is for the written word.
On a trip to Alderburgh this year, I immediately felt there was an atmosphere - formal, familiar and sensible - but I was struggling to express it. Then reviewing some of my initial images, I knew what it was: the whole place felt like John Lewis. It was neat, orderly and a place where the population seem to occupy their own space rather than mixing and mucking in. If Alderburgh was John Lewis then by definition Blackpool is Primark.
But it's not only for artistic and academic situations this question is suited for; it can just as easily be applied to showing a good time had at a party. Wedding photographers for example are a good example of wanting to tell the viewer about the emotions and key events at one of the most important times in a couples life.
When I saw the proposal on top of the Rockefeller Centre in New York this summer, the answer to the question was clear; can I capture a true reflection of the proposal, it's location and impact? Without some questioning motive I could have easily just waited for a posed snapshot.
Capturing children and families can present a number of potential scenarios to question; from how to capture and naturally posed group shot to capturing the enjoyment of play. My favourites to look for are the quiet, 'in between' moments, when the camera has taken a seemingly unknown peek in to their inner thoughts.
What then, if your images don't match what you have attempted to say? It can be for a number of reasons depending on your image and what you want to say, but by having that idea in the first place, means you have taken the first step in exploring how it could be better next time.
* practice and time still required
Till next time...
I think it is fair to say that I am not going to achieve a level of fame where the weekend paper life style sections want a pithy one page interview with me and thoughts on photography. But if they did, it would be something like this...
Treat photographers like musicians
In other words, get to know their genre, current and back catalogue. It's not only enjoyable, it actually starts to feed in to and improve your own images. To get started, go through the Magnum photographers' galleries and feast your soul there. Alternatively, you could enjoy the images of musicians taken by John Morgan
The web is great, but the printed page is better
The majority of the images you look at will be on some sort of screen, which is understandable. A book however, gives you a tactile, closer relationship with the images the screen just can't match. A real beauty is the recent Martin Parr compendium if you want to put it to the test.
Better still, buy the book after visiting the exhibition
It's like going to see them live and listening to the CD later.
Ditch the zoom and get a fixed prime lens
I've spent so much time and money expanding my optical options only to come full circle and realise for street and portraiture work, I only need one lens - a 35mm prime. If I need to get closer or further away I now move my feet.
Try and do something everyday
To improve in any activity, practice, practice and more practice is required. It's heartening to read books like Matthew Syed's Bounce and Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers argue 10,000hours of practice leads to greatness rather than just innate talent. To practice more I needed to stop thinking photography as an appointment hobby , i.e. weekend after next I'm going out to use my camera, to one where a camera is with me most of the time. For some that might be a smart phone, for me it meant buying another camera small enough to carry but still high in image quality.
Don't get hung up on effects
I've noticed for some people when they get in to photography they aim for techniques such as light trails and slow shutter wire wool burning shots for their wow factor ( I hold my hands up - I was no different). Yes, they can look spectacular, but after a while they just become , well, a bit boring really.
Can't tell which one of the 17 near identical images you like the most? Well, don't display them all for us to decide. Hard as it might be choose just the one, as for every near identical image you add the original impact decreases dramatically.
A forced smile is like a faked male orgasm...
...its easy to spot and nobody leaves feeling great. An honest expression will always make for a better portrait compared to a forced grin.
Till next time...
We all know the adage about not judging a book by its cover, but most of us regularly do, if we are honest. When I approach what I consider to be 'interesting people' for a street portrait, I can't help prejudging the reaction I'll get just before I approach them. Last week I approached two people in the city centre, the first was an old sea dog at a bus stop that had just started to smoke his pipe. World weariness and tales form the sea were deeply etched on to his face and ideal for a portrait. We chatted politely for a while,but at my request of a photograph his face contorted with rage - along with the demand of £100 and the threat of calling the police. Although I thought he was a shoe-in, all the Werther's originals and friendly banter in the world wasn't going to get me that portrait.
Four days later, when I saw this young Mum and her brood, I assumed it would be a flat 'no thank you'. I thought her alternative look, including facial piercings and tattoos, may leave her guarded about how she is perceived by the older generation. She was in fact by far the politest and most considerate person I met all week.
Till next time...
This is André and Suzanne and they are engaged to be married. I only know this as I was standing by them on the top of the Rockefeller Centre in New York as he popped the question. Unbeknownst to them I started to photograph the special moment ( it seemed clear that she was overwhelmed with joy rather than an awkward, "I’ll think about it") and allowed the story to unfold. Carefully picking my moment I handed them my card, and since then we’ve been in touch and they are delighted with their candid proposal images. Here’s wishing you a long and happy life together.
Probably more often than some photographers would admit, the image you want to take doesn’t happen. Technical failure or good old fashioned human error, it doesn’t matter; it’s way off what you intended. Once you’ve noticed an error, it is very tempting to quickly delete it and move on. Indeed, you may be short of memory... but before you do, hold off and try and see what it looks like on a proper screen.
The small proportions and lower resolution of an in-camera screen is not as honest a reflection of the image as you may think, so you could well be throwing some pictural babies out with your digital bath water. Out of focus blurring, for example, can add rather than detract from the impact of the image. Would Robert Capa’s D Day landing image have the same impact if it was pin sharp?
Of course many mistakes aren't worth recovering, but once you rescue a beauty, what then? Have a look at the image meta data - i.e. what was the aperture, exposure time, lens focal length? By understanding that and what went wrong you could now have a technique to add to your repertoire that you can explore again and again. However, If you can't for the life of you fathom how it was done ...well, just put it down to kismet and enjoy the results.
Till next time...
....Gilden. A few weeks ago I was lucky to see a talk by the Magnum celebrated street photographer Bruce Gilden. Not only was the event inspirational, it was held in the lovely new Library of Birmingham, through their photographic enterprise GRAIN and cost the unbelievable amount of £3! His work focuses on the people he finds ‘interesting’; many are on the margins of ’normal’ society, and his work is often considered shocking for the in your face confrontational style. Ironically, for a man who has traded blows on the tough streets of New York, taken candid images of real Russian and Japanese gangsters and witnessed voodoo rituals in Haiti, the people that scared him most were the ones he met on the West Bromwich high street!
What struck me most about his talk was not his desire of the dangerous or the exploitation of the certain members of society, but to talk to people and listen to their stories. In doing so, his images are challenging, thought provoking and at times, down right hilarious.
There are a growing number of online photographic and sociologic projects such a people of new york and the people of soho , capturing real people and their stories. Now, I can only dream that my efforts one day get close to Mr. Gilden’s work, but I’ll continue to talk to people and hopefully take a good image or two...
Till next time...
Although colour photography is generally considered a default choice, black and white photography has arguably never been equally more in demand and misunderstood. Even though digital practically killed off the Kodak empire, their iconic TRI-X film has just reached its 60th birthday and is still in strong demand. Software and mobile apps can offer a number of different black and white effects, but in too many cases they don’t tell you why the image looks different. Some name the different effects by names such as 'Ansel', 'Tonal' and 'Classic’ but offer no further explanation as to how and why they differ. Many people, to be fair, don't care - black and white is just considered what’s left when the colour has been taken away. And yet, colour plays a massive part in the look and feel of a black and white image. So, using variations of the same image, I'll attempt to make a little sense of those settings and show how differnt colours change the tones and effects within a black and white image.
Fig 1. Colour
When looking to see how a colour image will render in black and white note the complexion and background colour tones. In this portrait we have predominantly subtle red and earthy tones.
Fig 2. Standard Monochrome
It's a nice immediate black and white conversion, although there's a lack of contrast between her features and the background.
Fig 3. Red Filter
By adding a red filter it will lighten red or pink areas and darken blue or brown areas. Skin appears lighter and eyes darker. This can be a nice approach for pale complexions as it allows the eyes to really shine.
Fig 4. Green filter
A green filter/ mix of film is my preferred starting point for black and white as it has a rich warming effect to skin tones.
Fig 5. Blue filter
If you remember your paint mixing as a child you'll remember blue darkening anything you added it to. In black and white it's no different - it will create deep, dark tones for areas red, green and blue. Eyes will darken as will lips, so be careful how much you add.
Fig 6. Yellow filter
Similar to the red filter the yellow will lighten red tones and darken blue and green areas. This is another popular filter to present smoother skin and contrast to allow the eyes to draw the viewer's attention.
Fig 7. My Edit
For this I've tweaked the colour channels based within the Kodak TRI-X film recipe. I've attempted to balance between tone and contrast and the spark of her eyes. If my recent poll on social media is anything to go by, opinion will be divided as to which is preferred.
This of course has only scratched the surface of the differences in black and white photography, but hopefully has answered (and raised) a few questions.
Till next time...
In my experience of family shoots you will often meet one or more of the group who does not like having their photograph taken. Even if someone doesn’t say outright you can tell the signs almost instantly. Or maybe I can because I'm one of them too. If you looked on my phone you wouldn't see any selfies or an extensive choice of profile pictures for social media. As a kid, I couldn't wait for the packet of photos to be returned from the developers to see myself in a photo. If it didn’t have me in it, I wasn’t interested. Those youthful care free times however, were soon replaced by teenage insecurity and self consciousness. My early twenties concern about whether I looked 'fit' enough was then dwarfed by the realisation that my once thick mane of hair was now rapidly thinning. Consequently, countless images of significant times of my life have been either ripped up, deleted and never to be seen again. Each of these events was met with the recurring thoughts of ' next time I'll look better and then I'll have lots of photos taken'. Occasionally I was happier to have my photo taken, but more often than not the imagined ideal ' next time’ never arrived. Of the images that somehow made the cull, I now look back and think, OK, I'm not model material, but, hey, I wasn’t that bad.
I'm a parent now, and parental stuff and extensive sitting on my backside working and studying for a degree have taken their toll. Of course, now more than ever I’m the one to be taking the shots rather than appearing in them. I realise, however, things have got to change. It's not just a matter of next time it’ll be different anymore; I will simply never get another chance to be in the photos with my boys whilst they are this age. And, truth be told, I don't have enough of me with them as babies and toddlers to carry on waiting for tomorrow.
So, if you recognise yourself in my tale, let’s not wait for next time. Take your selfies, be in the picture, and have something to look back on.
Till next time...