There was a business book written called 'What Got You Here Won't Get You There' which I have never read. But the title is something I think of often. In photography we have this moment after we have learned about our gear, after we have learned the basics of composition and after we have learned a few tricks on how to approach a scene. It is a moment when you look objectively at your photography, see how far it has improved but then see how far you have yet to go...but how do you get there?
I subscribed to various on-line training like Kelby Training and learned a great deal. Some of those videos really helped my photography a great deal. After three years however, I began to see the learning curve flatten out. Kelby moved to video and some obscure niche photography like Arial photography. So I let my subscription run out.
I moved to film and the learning curve restarted. I pushed, I pulled, I bulk loaded, I set up a darkroom and I developed my own film. All are tasks that must be learned and are fun to try out. None of them intrinsically help improve my photography.
Being a member of the last 'library generation', I took my dilemma to books. I went through my photography books to see what the masters shot, how they shot it and what made their images so magnificent. Being a member of the first 'internet generation', I also went to the internet.
On the internet, I found all sorts of excellent resources, each with their own opinion as to what makes a great photograph. The books, on the other hand, did not try to tackle the concept head on. They showed shots of the masters, discussed what made the pictures interesting but did not try to derive a formula for success.
After a great deal of looking, I have come to the conclusion that there really is no set of rules that define a good photograph. If the subject is strong and composition is weak the picture may still be a memorable one. Color, B&W, good composition, strong subject, emotive, timeless, abstract, obvious, straight and photoshopped. I have seen people make great photographs following and violating all the traditional rules of photography.
So should be give up the search? For that answer I turn to the book called Magnum Contact Sheets, which shows the contact sheets of the masters. Here you can see that even people with an eye, who understand the rules of photography and when to break them, still take a bunch of crap images. They may have a higher hit rate but they still fail much more than they hit.
The one element of great photography that I see as the only absolute necessity of a great image is that the photographer got out there. You will not take any good pictures sitting at your desk. You need to get your camera out and make a ton of mistakes. Then, somewhere down the line, you will start to see your hit rate improve.
The difference between good travel photography and poor is the people that are photographed. For most of us taking pictures of people on the street is not easy. We feel that we are invading their privacy and fear an angry or hurt response. We do not want our hobby to cause any fear in others. So we take pictures of objects, architecture and vehicles that hint at the culture we are visiting.
While all of this is fine, it limits our photographic results. The most fascinating part of visiting new lands is getting to know new people. Here are a few of the images I have captured during my travels that tell the story of the people of the region.
The first one up top, is of a little girl on a class trip to the Forbidden City. She was shy, looking through a fence with this amazing hat on. The picture had to be taken!
All these images are from Asia, however I can look at all my travel images and point to the people I have photographed. Every place has a story and it is written by its people. To travel to a place and not photograph the people is to only tell part of the story.
This is how my life works. One evening I am sitting with the wife to start watching Netflix and the phone rings. After a 10 minute phone conversation I find out that we are moving to Jakarta, Indonesia. We had planned on being in London for another year or two but all of that changed.
These phone calls, we have received eight just like them in the last thirteen years, kicks off a series of events which culminate in moving the entire family to another foreign country. One aspect that I contemplate is how the move will impact my hobby of photography. What equipment should I carry with me, what kind of shots can I take and how safe is it?
This is where film photography shows its limitations. While in some countries film and related supplies can be easily purchased in others it can be impossible. Digital is equipment plus a computer, easy and transportable. So what supplies do I need to purchase before leaving England?
Finally I have to consider how to pack the equipment I will send with the furniture to protect it. Indonesia is very humid so I am thinking ziplock and moisture absorbing material.
Oh...and I guess the kids need to be registered in a school....and we will need a house....car and some other details....
Color composition has been something I have struggled with. I wrote a short piece on it awhile back but frankly it is a difficult thing to grasp. There are times color works and other times where it just looks ordinary.
The photo above was taken in Prague a couple of years ago. I had walked up some narrow stairs which opened up onto a cobble stone street. The wall grabbed my attention, with the shadow of the lamp post and the amazing texture. I picked my spot and waited for someone interesting to come by.
I saw this father carrying his daughter on his shoulders and I waited until the girls face was visible in the son. I wanted them a couple of steps ahead to avoid interference with the shadow of the light but another step and her face would be in shadows again. I took the risk and got the shot.
The pale orange with the bright blue sky help pull the picture together. The color of the wall, the texture of paint and the brightly lit girls face makes the image for me. In B&W this image does not work as well. Here, at least once, I nailed the color composition.
I had sent my Hasselblad 500cm to be repaired and serviced. The shutter had frozen up during a day shooting in London. I did not force it but just set it aside and began doing a bit of research as to where I could take it. I ended up finding a place called Aperture UK (see link HERE) which offered a free estimate.
I took it over on a Friday and spoke to the repairman who promised it for Saturday. I told him that I would pick it up on Monday giving him a bit of breathing room. The repair was not cheap as he had to disassemble the lens completely and lubricate everything. There were a few minor issues he fixed for free but still it set me back a large sum of money.
The work was perfect but I still wanted to take the camera out for a quick test. Aperture offers a six month warranty on the work but I wanted to get a roll through the camera quickly. I took it on Saturday to a park near home and snapped away. This test roll is something I enjoy because I feel no pressure to capture anything memorable. I am just testing a roll and if something comes out of it great!
While not to Strand's brilliant level, I am happy with the result. What was supposed to be a test roll for my Hasselblad produced an imitation photograph I have struggled to capture in the past.
We are contemplating a move soon however that is not the point of this post. The point is what I discovered when I began planning how to move my photography gear. I have too much gear. I love each of my cameras and use them at least once a year. There is something special about dusting off a camera, loading it with film and taking it out.
I was recently lent a Contax G2, a camera I have lusted over for some time. I loaded it with Ilford Delta 100 and took it out. Over the 24 exposures, the camera failed to speak to me. It was too automatic and I seem to have reached my saturation point of learning how yet another camera works.
This got me thinking about where I spend my money and where should it be spent. I have begun printing my images again after a long hiatus instigated by a faulty printer. I have begun putting some darkroom prints into albums and I have been enjoying it greatly.
I believe one person, with a single camera and a single lens can do more with photography than I have over the last few months with all my lenses and gear. When I go shoot I always end up taking three, four or even five cameras. My negatives are scanned and are seeing less darkroom time. My photos are sitting on the web and I am not doing enough to analyze and improve.
The solution, I will stop buying camera gear and spend my budget on consumables such as film, paper, albums and frames. I will make it a point to gift a darkroom prints to friends and to share my images in different ways. I will objectively look at my images and work at improving. To do this I will start some personal photography assignment.
With my move, my darkroom equipment will be unavailable as will my development equipment. I will turn to digital in the gap to continue shooting and will use the opportunity to really work at improving my photography.
Sounds like a midlife crisis...or maybe a midyear resolution update....
Darkroom classes are becoming more popular as people re-discover the dark arts of photography. This is great for anyone who lives near a place where these classes are held. But for those who do not live near a course there is hope!
About a year ago I discovered the best educational YouTube channel for darkroom techniques. The instructor, Will Agar, is a university instructor although he seems to treat us all as little kids. The good news, he is a brilliant teacher, clearly loves his subject and is an amazing photographer to boot.
For those of you who have not seen his videos please pay him a visit. He explains every step clearly and shows you how to do it. The filming is good and the sound is clear and crisp. As an added bonus you get to see the amazing facilities they have at this university and drool over it. I wonder if the students realize how lucky they really are?
Here is the channel link. Enjoy!
Every year I make some New Year's Resolutions for the following year regarding my photography. I must admit that I average about 50% successfully accomplished however the one resolution I never achieve is to not buy new gear! So 2017 was different, I decided to forego that pesky resolution and adopt another one....to be a responsible camera owner!
My film cameras were all bought used. Someone, or some people owned them before me and took care of them. They all came to me working in ok condition. So, I decided that 2017 would be the year I focused on getting these cameras some tender loving care.
I began with my Nikon F2, which was sent for a rebuild and CLA. The light meter, which was working, was replaced with a new one to reset its lifespan. It came back in wonderful shape and has been working like a champ! This cost me about twice what I paid for the camera but it is such a joy to use now!
Next came my Olympus OM-1 which I sent off to have the meter voltage changed to accept new batteries, a CLA and new seals. This was estimated at roughly the same amount it would cost me to buy another OM-1. Unfortunately when it was being CLA they found that the chassis was cracked. Several economical options were given to me including another OM-1. This was my father's old camera so none were acceptable to me. They then warned me they could replace the chassis but it would not be cost effective....I went ahead and asked them to do it. The camera should be back tomorrow.
Finally the Hasselblad was next. It had seized up during my "One Day in London" project and I was missing it. I took it in, had it fixed, CLA and new seals put in. I picked it up today completely fixed and it is VERY smooth. Cost? Well about ⅓ of what it is worth. Still VERY expensive.
So far I have invested a great deal of money in getting these cameras back up to standards. I would like to take my Leica M6 next for a CLA. This price is reasonable at about 1/15th the value. The camera is working great but it was built in 2000 so after 17 years having a CLA is reasonable.
This will likely end my investment in getting these babies back to working standards. It nearly broke my bank but I wanted to be able to enjoy them knowing that I have done my job in taking care of them.
A recent YouTube video by Eric Kim drew my attention in the concept it was proposing. Essentially in a conversation with Bellamy Hunt (Japan Camera Hunter) introduced the concept of Camera Gear Zen. I decided this concept demanded a bit more consideration.
Bellamy defines this as being at peace with your equipment, in other words, knowing your gear well enough to get it out of your way. Leica has long promoted its camera's as "getting out of the way of photography", emphasizing the viewfinder that rangefinders offer in that they allow the shooter to view beyond the frame. So you feel less as if you are looking through a lens and more focused on the scene in front of you.
The idea here is simply about putting photography ahead of the gear. We can all appreciate that however the question become how can we achieve it? If you pick up any camera and shoot a thousand images through it, you will stop thinking of the camera as you begin to operate it by instinct. But should you run out and pick up a random camera and start shooting?
I don't think this is the most productive way of going about it. I believe you should begin with a gear strategy, keeping it as minimalist as possible, and then stick with the gear for three or four months, take an objective look at your images and adjust. By 'adjust' I mean change gear, alter your style or just make a list of your weaker points and work on it.
I am a gear fanatic, and have far too many cameras. I keep wanting to take them all with me when I travel and always take too much. I like digital, 35mm film and 120mm film. I play with 4x5 as well. I have, however worked on gear zen by reducing my use to one camera and a lens or two for a few months. I typically pick the lens first and the camera follows.
I naturally love the 35mm focal length. I believe it gives the PERFECT balance between detail and environment. I can still shoot great portraits and can take a step back and shoot an environmental shot as well. They are cheap and easy to find lenses.
So my recipe for gear zen...pick a lens & camera set up and stick to it. Only use that setup until you know what the frame will include without looking through the camera. Keep using it until the camera mechanics becomes second nature. Keep using it until you are completely comfortable and are advancing your photography instead of learning new gear.
Now here is the controversial comment...then pick another lens or camera and start all over again. Unless your ambition is to be a professional photographer, expanding your familiarity of photography is a great deal of fun. Why not expand to the next focal length or the other camera? Variety is the spice of life and this is one area I can practice it without getting into too much trouble!
I have a ton of cameras. I love each one, for different reasons. I get questioned a great deal about why I need so many cameras and the answer is that I do not need them all. But I do shoot them all.
There is something special about picking up an old film camera, regardless if it is a professional camera or an amateur point and shoot. I get a unique feeling when I pull it out, dust it off and load some fresh film into it. The feeling is a unique one and something that I have not experienced in anything else I do. It is the feeling of possibilities.
There I sit with a camera as old, or older than I am loaded with some fresh film and all I see in front of me are potential shots. Will I capture a good portrait, landscape or perhaps a good street shot. The fact is that most of the time I capture absolute crap, but that initial feeling remains the same.
So go ahead and dust off that old camera, slap in some good batteries and a fresh roll of your favorite film. See what kind of images you are able to capture today. It probably will not be a Cartier-Bresson but it just might make you a little bit happier.