ARTICLE

photoblogography - Just some stuff about photography

So, what’s it all about ?

enough of the photos, time for a rant

in General Rants , Sunday, January 11, 2015

The current events landscape makes talking and writing about photography seem rather shallow, disrespectful even. However, life should go, in all its aspects. Motorsport journalist Joe Saward expressed this far better on his blog. So I’ll carry on whining about my very distinctly first world problems here, regardless.

We’ve just about left behind the season of Lists, of “Best Of Whatever 2014”, and plenty of photographers have joined in with their best shots of the year. I haven’t, partly because being an insufferable grouch, I loathe New Year celebrations, and secondly, because I don’t honestly feel that I’ve got any best shots to show. They’re all pretty average.

There are certainly people who disagree with this. Mostly friends, or friends of friends, who’s praise of course I dismiss because “they’re just being polite”, or “they just like the subject”, or, snobbishly, “they’re not photographers”. Well actually this isn’t entirely true. At least one of these people is a respected and highly experienced creative in the photo publishing industry, and another, if I may permit myself to say so, is well-respected landscape photographer Steve Gosling, who was very positive when reviewing a small print portfolio of mine last year. I’ve also had considerable support from Olivier Duong at The Inspired Eye, who has kindly published my work both in the magazine, and on their blog. And deep down, when I look at most stuff that gets published, I know that I lot of what I do is better. So what the hell am I complaining about ?

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This photo from March last year got highly commended by Steve Gosling. It was an instinctive shot, although I was ready for the moment. If nothing else, I think I’ve got quite good at instinctive composition. So I guess this is my top photo for 2014.

There’s no getting around the fact that despite all the above, I am significantly dissatisfied with my photography. The question is, why? First of all, why is this such a big deal anyway ? After all, it’s only a hobby, it’s not a matter of life or death. And yet hobbies mean a lot to us, and for many people, myself included, it isn’t necessarily the case that the things you do that make money and pay the rent are more significant that those that don’t. Although I set myself on a science / technology life path many, many years ago, I’ve always had to balance this with a strong creative urge, which if left ignored, is very damaging. Initially I satisfied this through drawing and painting. Then, for a long period, music, in several forms. And finally it all coalesced into photography.

I’ve been seriously into photography since the late 1990s, boosted by a short period of (very) relatively high income in the early 2000s. Having said this I’d been taking photographs since mid-childhood, so I knew one end of a camera from another, more or less, and I’m also therefore very familiar with pre-digital photography. For the first few years I was learning a lot, and on an upward curve. I carried on using a Canon FD system, never getting into autofocus SLRs, eventually making the leap to autofocus and digital at the same time as an early adaptor of the Olympus E–1. At the same time, I made extensive use of the Hasselblad XPan I bought in 2000, and which I carry on using up to now. The learning curve was as much technical as photographic - scanners, raw converters, photoshop, filters, cameras, tripods - there was plenty of ground to cover. I suppose around about 2006 I was starting to explore the art of photography rather than the technology. And around about that point I started to want to reduce my options a little. Various people have written that the digital age is “a great time to be a photographer”. I’m not sure I agree - it’s certainly a great time to be a geek, and possibly also to be a wealthy photographer, but the relentless march of “upgrades”, which is only now showing some signs of slowing, meant that often the gear you were saving up for was obsolete before you could afford it. A decade ago you could buy, say, a Nikon F–3, and you’d be set up for years. This all started to become a serious distraction, and being a compulsive reader, I often came across writings which insidiously made me obsess about gear rather than photography. The same thing happened with music in the 1990s: the digital revolution unleashed a non-stop conveyor belt of new gear on the market with ever more options and features, and the corresponding collapse in creativity was striking.

Anyway, I carried on, trying to improve the quality of my portfolio, and trying to find a niche. Eventually this turned out to be a mix of travel, landscape and urban landscape, with a bit of wildlife thrown in: what I eventually came to describe as “opportunistic photography”.

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An opportunistic photograph. Taken with an old lens on a new camera (see below), to see if I could really get comfortable with all these newfangled manual focussing aids like peaking. I couldn’t.

However in the last few years things have tailed off. Photography is become more and more an addiction and a burden, and less enjoying and fulfilling. I don’t seem to be improving in any particular way, just randomly pursuing different directions to see if anything works, basically throwing mud at a wall. The endless editing and optimising of vast amounts of digital photography kills off any spark, for me. Actually I prefer the parallel process of scanning film: although it is time consuming, it feels more tangible, and the character of a particular film stock is already imprinted and difficult, indeed pointless, to try to change much. One could say the same for digital, that a given camera/sensor/processing pipeline has a particular character, but generally I find the initial look brash and tiring, and it takes a lot of work to get to a satisfying result.

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Film: plenty of time required for scanning, not so much afterwards. Sardinia, 2014, Kodak Portra 400.

The other issue is, as with music in the 90s, that there are two many options. Far too many options. The number of menu items in my Olympus E-P5 is literally mind-numbing. It seems that camera designers have completely abdicated any sort of design decision responsibility, and have passed it on to their customers. I’m sure I’m far from the only one who just wants a camera to take photos. I don’t need video. I don’t need “picture modes”. I don’t need “art filters”, or “photo stories”, or “image memories” or “sweet child perfect puppy desert mode”. If there is a automatic image stabilisation mode that works in all cases, then don’t give me 5 other variants to mis-use! All this just ruins the experience of making photographs. And if designers do want to load up hundreds of features, at least think them through! What on earth is the point of having user presets, in 2015, if you don’t give the users the option of naming them? (Ricoh, who are one of the lesser offenders, actually have worked that one out, although they couldn’t resist adding their own layers of complexity).

I can’t believe that all of this is not counter-productive. If cameras are getting so complex to use, then people will stop enjoying them and stop buying them, and they’ll use their phones instead. Actually, the digital cameras that I find the most satisfying to use are the ones with the least features: my two Sigma Merrills, which, within their very tight restrictions, produce beautiful output. They’re also easy to use, with a well designed, simple user interface, although the lack of any kind of useful viewfinder adds further serious limitations.

Some time ago, Brian Eno described the problem he was having with digital music technology: “The trouble begins with a design philosophy that equates “more options” with “greater freedom.” Designers struggle endlessly with a problem that is almost nonexistent for users: “How do we pack the maximum number of options into the minimum space and price?” In my experience, the instruments and tools that endure (because they are loved by their users) have limited options.” —sound familiar ? It does to me. The last sentence might just as well be referring to Leicas.

So what of the future? I really believe that if I could give it all up, I would, but addictions don’t work that way. I’m getting more and more close to the idea of reverting to film cameras, partly because I like the output, but more so because the cameras are far more enjoyable to use. I’m still principally interested in the end, not the means, but I can’t help but waste hours reading addictive websites like this one, dedicated to film cameras. There really does seem to be a revival going on, and the same thing has been seen in the music world. Not just vinyl records, but companies likes Moog Music being revived and flourishing. It would be interesting to see a camera following the design philosophy of the Moog Sub 37, and no, the Fuji X-T1 is not that object - it doesn’t take film. So yesterday, having seen a local shop advertising a Leica M5 for a very attractive (and affordable) price, I seriously considered giving it a try. Until I saw the price of Leica lenses, even secondhand. Oh well. But I do have a couple of Olympus Zuiko lenses, one of which I took for an outing yesterday afternoon, so now I’m looking around at OM bodies. I already have the Olympus XA and Minox 35ML, but neither are really good for precision work. I’m not fully convinced that 35mm is the way to go (I’m not even convinced that film itself is, either), but it could be a good start. I do really wish I’d held on to my Fuji GW670.

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An archive shot from my long-gone Fuji GW670III rangefinder. Probably shouldn’t have sold it.

That’s one part of the story, and something that might help to revive my enthusiasm. But the other part is the output side. Putting stuff here, and on Flickr, and wherever, is all very well, but only for so long. For a couple of years I’ve had several book ideas floating around my head, and that has to be the next step. Even a self-published book on Blurb that nobody buys is a big step up from a random photo stream on Flickr, I even if I wonder if within my huge digital vaults I have enough material to tell just a few stories. But this has to be the next objective, something where I’ll make a real commitment to doing something constructive. In fact, the couple of very limited edition self-published calendars I’ve produced so far are by far the most satisfying thing I’ve done.

This is the conclusion I’ve come to after quite a few weeks of introspection: without some tangible result, there’s no satisfaction or sense of closure to be found in many pursuits, including photography. Just playing about with cameras doesn’t do it for me.

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Playing about with an ancient Zuiko OM 50mm lens on digital Pen

 

Comments

Many thanks for this reflective yet provocative rant. You make many good points - especially about the potential for gear to get in the way (old H-CB didn’t have much of a menu to page through on his Leica). As for film, I have similar thoughts myself - acting on them is another matter, though. But the 35mmCC blog you introduce is a revelation of what can be done with film in the simplest and cheapest of cameras. I might even revive that old Pentax Zoom 90 at this rate… One last thought: isn’t it good to be a bit dissatisfied? Otherwise one would never make any progress..

By Project Hyakumeizan, on January 13, 2015

I find it astonishing that you cant find use for “sweet child perfect puppy desert mode” ...
An interesting, though slightly depressing, and sometimes familiar read!
I keep my interest through what I see as two hobbies ... Cameras and Photography. When one wanes, the other flows, sometimes I’m a geek and sometimes I’m a photographer. It works for me.

By Hamish (off of 35mmc), on January 15, 2015

Hi Hamish, thanks for dropping by. I’m really enjoying your site - it lets me be a camera geek by proxy :-)
Unfortunately feeding my own tastes in camera esoterica would be cripplingly expensive…. and the more cameras I have, the more I get stressed by not using them.

By David Mantripp, on January 16, 2015

I know that feeling ... I have to rotate stock - so to speak - with measured cycles of buying and selling to avoid becoming overwhelmed - not to mention the fact that it is the only way to afford what I do…
There is probably a 12 step plan for people like me out there somewhere, I just choose to deny any real “problem”.
Glad you like the site anyway ... Being a blogger yourself I’m sure you are aware of the joys of doing it ... even outside of any interaction or feedback.
Needless to say though, the positive feedback is appreciated! :)

By Hamish (off of 35mmc), on January 19, 2015

Why don’t you find your images fulfilling as soon as you made them?

By Olivier Duong, on January 23, 2015

Good question, and of course fulfilment isn’t a binary thing, but I guess that I reached a point quite a while ago where I stopped being astonished by the fact that I managed to make a half-decent photo, and now I’d like to be able to build on that skill to take it to another level.  But I’m not sure I even know where that level is. Or if I’d recognise it when I got to it…

By David Mantripp, on January 23, 2015

Listen to yourself. The whole article is about playing with cameras. Stop masturbating and start having a serious meaningful long-term relationship with one camera and one lens. And you should be dissatisfied: your “top photo for 2014” is another opportunistic one that conveys very little art, technique and meaning.

By Ashley M., on January 24, 2015

He is listening and I think in a roundabout way he is coming to similar conclusions as you, at least as far as the camera is concerned. Perhaps if you read the article again you would see that.

By Don, on January 25, 2015

Well, yes, it is all about cameras, in the sense that I’m fed up with bloody things. As for the photo, I didn’t put it on a pedestal, but a totally independent, well recognized and dedicated professional was very taken with, almost to the point that it was a bit awkward (this was in a group context). So who am I to say?  ...and what’s wrong if a photo is opportunistic? That doesn’t make it bad per se. I have plenty of photos which required a lot of time, money, discomfort and getting up too early to make which are, sadly, unremarkable.

By David Mantripp, on January 25, 2015

To be fair, I haven’t even read it myself :-)

By David Mantripp, on January 25, 2015

You don’t get it. You should not be fed up with the bloody cameras. You should be fed up with your obsessions, none of which has anything to do with photography. The cameras have absolutely no problems in and of themselves.
Internalize this quote: “When photography gets so technical as to intimidate people, the element of simple enjoyment is bound to suffer. Any man who can see what he wants to get on film will usually find some way to get it; and a man who thinks his equipment is going to see for him is not going to get much of anything.”
Posted in early 60’s. Still true today.

By Ashley M., on January 25, 2015

I can’t agree with you there. Some cameras have better handling, or usability, than others, that is hardly something I’ve made up. I prefer to have a camera that falls to hand in such a way that you don’t have to think about it to use it. By that I mean that I can instinctively set the shooting parameters I want without having to fumble for modal buttons or get into wild contortions.  I can certainly find workarounds, but I’d rather not have to waste creative time fighting with bad design work. You may think otherwise.
Who is the quote by? It’s interesting and there may be more where that came from, but I can assure you that however you interpret what I’ve written, my interest in the technical side of photography goes only to the point of necessity. You won’t find a lot of “tests” or pixel-peeping in these parts.
But anyway thanks for your comments - they’ve been fruitful.

By David Mantripp, on January 26, 2015

You still don’t get it. Cameras are not the same—no need to clarify that. One of your obsessions is spending your time and money chasing after the ‘perfect’ camera that fits your illusion. One can waste one’s lifetime looking for the perfect partner without knowing what love is. On the other hand, one can build up a successful business without needing a perfect office. Operating a camera—in whatever ‘convenient’ manner you can fancy—is not doing photography.
The quote? You can copy that a part or the whole of that quote and feed it to your favourite search engine. Do you notice how stagnant you are? And please don’t go to the extreme of test charts and all that nonsense—that’s not technical complexity means.
My friendly parting suggestion to you: Photography is not about publishing books with pictures. Photography is is about writing blog articles. Photography is not about getting approval by some ‘well-known’ ‘photographer’. Stop and focus.

By Ashley M., on January 26, 2015

Hi David, Just read this post as well as some of the comments. Some thoughts:
Chasing ‘likes’ is always a fools game. True artists go on creating their art regardless of who endorses (it or not). Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to pursue photography for its own sake and not have to make a living out of it are in a very privileged position. Check out this post by Ming Thein for more: http://blog.mingthein.com/2015…
Chasing cameras, whether they be the next best feature laden thing or even some old film era machine is equally counter-productive. Practically any £100+ camera on the market today is infinitely better than what many of the old masters like HCB et al used for 90% of what we shoot. If you think your camera has too many feature then don’t use them but don’t just swap it for the next best (or worst) thing.
Find a project and pursue that for as long as you can. Post online as you develop your ideas. Writing things down or developing pictures for a blog helps you to develop as an artist in more ways than you think even if no one ever visits your part of cyber-space!
Don’t be too overly analytical. This is the scientist in you (as someone with a scientific training I have the same problem) trying to look for evidenced based reasons for doing what you do. I think art is more an act of faith than of science but the problem with photography is the instruments we use to create it are some of the most advanced machines ever built and we tend to get seduced by them rather than seeing them as just tools to do the job.

By Peter Cripps, on January 28, 2015

Hi Peter,
Thanks for your constructive thoughts - much appreciated.  I guess I didn’t make a particular good job of expressing myself here. The stuff about cameras was essentially to illustrate that the “better” technology has become, the more detached I find myself from what I see through the viewfinder. That’s it, really. My opinion is that digital has given us one huge benefit, in the extra variable of sensitivity. The rest just gets in the way. So I’m sorry but I don’t quite agree with your HCB point. I would argue we’ve lost as much as we’ve gained, and a lot of the gains are fluff. But I’m not expecting everybody to feel the same way. Writing stuff down , projects, etc - you should see my backlog :-) I have one particular project which I worked on year-round for about 2 years, but it is very personal and I seriously doubt that the effort of publishing it would be worthwhile. I don’t need to: it was successful on my own terms.  And yeah, analytical. I get that a lot from people who see my bio…but the truth is, it is over 15 years since I’ve been any kind of scientist, and the only kind I ever was was “below average”. My brain isn’t wired for analysis. It seems to be more wired for random association…
Oh, and Ming… yeah.  Would you rather pay him $2500 for 3 days in Venice? Makes Steve & Neil look even more of a bargain. I do read Ming’s blog, but with a heavy dose of skepticism. He does take gorgeous photos of cameras though…

By David Mantripp, on January 28, 2015











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