Socrates, Quavers and photography
I heard then on the great Mount of PetaPixels that a woman of great learning has declared that photographic images, or the begetting thereof, diminishes the powers of memory in the begetter. This declaration recalls, if of memory we are now speaking, in my own mind, words similarly spoken about other forms of representation.
Do you perhaps speak of the memory-diminishing power of words?
I do Socrates. Words, I believe, spoken by yourself.
You speak the truth, Gray. I’d almost forgotten about that.
And perhaps you may also have forgotten the benefits of the written word, most particularly, words written on a list when we went shopping in Wilkinsons when your good wife had requested you buy bird seed but your mind was distracted by the 2-for-1 offers in the batteries section?
Once again, Gray, you speak the truth. From my mind these events had completely slipped until your words recalled them, as if an errant dog wandering in a forest by a whistle. But the memories of these events are now as if yapping at my ankles.
And your written words that day in Wilkinsons recalled to you that seed that nourishes the birds, and thereby pleases your good wife, without which your purchases may only have comprised 20 AAA batteries and a giant pack of Quavers. And, tell me, did you not that day beget a photo of said pack of Quavers, so impressed were you by the essence of its giantness?
Correct, Gray. I have the same said photo here on my tablet. It does indeed capture the true essence of giantness. Looking at it recalls to me that evening with my wife watching Strictly, as we consumed pack after pack of Quavers, the giant pack seemingly never-ending so giant was it. Twas the episode when Craig Revel Horwood gave the rarest of 10 scores and Darcy Bustle was wearing that awful tweed jacket with that gold necklace. I can see every detail in my mind’s eye.
Once again, like a dog yapping around your ankles?
This is true, Gray, like that dog yapping.
And now, Socrates, since we have agreed these matters, we can decide the others.
Don’t forget the bird seed
Gray’s Anatoly: Call me a bad loser…
I recently received the catalogue from the Taylor-Wessing Portrait Prize exhibition through the post. It includes all the winning photos currently being shown in the National Portrait Gallery. It doesn’t include any of mine, which weren’t selected. The voice in my head as I write this is that of Charlie Brooker, who is one of the subjects in the exhibition. Which brings me to my first gripe. It seems to me that you have a very good chance of being chosen if your portrait is of someone famous (or even just fairly famous, as in Brooker’s case). If it’s The Queen of England or the Head of the United Nations, you can pretty much guarantee you’ll get in, even if your photo is underexposed, out of focus and has a coffee cup stain on it. Celeb faces will get the punters in the door and they also mean the photographer must already be relatively well-established, which means the judges are on safe territory if they pick them.
So to my second gripe. At the risk of revealing myself to be embarrassingly out of touch with high-end photographic intelligentsia, this collection of photos exhibits a very narrow range of human emotion. Seriously, people just aren’t that serious. Even if you ascribe to the questionable blank-expression theory (I don’t: in my view, a blank expression is still an expression), the fact that 90% of the photographers exhibited do makes for a monotonous visual and human experience. Especially in the pictures where you just know the subjects have been told “Stop smiling!” by the photographer, the resulting images become so cliched as to be laughable (well, we would if it were allowed).
And finally, and speaking of cliches, here’s a bit of a cheap (though irresistible) shot. The red-head thing was already a massive cliche (according to the Portrait Salon, a group of photographers that celebrates the 99% of submissions rejected by the official Taylor Wessing jury), yet the judges seem to have gone the other way, as if to spite the mockers. This year’s exhibition is not only peppered with red heads, there are no fewer than three sets of red-headed twins. Are they doing it on purpose just to make people laugh? Say cheese!
Quick demo of Decim8, a real creative goldmine, using photo of David Byrne
Demo of spot-healing tool in Handy Photo.
Gray’s Anatoly: Fishy Images
I wonder if anyone said “Nice capture!” or “Awesome catch!” to Cartier-Bresson. These days they’re comments you see a lot on the photo-sharing platforms. A while back, I didn’t really like the terms “capture” and “catch”. For me, it sounded too much like fishing. I much preferred “nice shot”, like golf, or clay-pigeon shooting. (I’ve never been fishing or clay-pigeon shooting). But I’ve seen the comment so much that it’s grown on me and it got me thinking about the similarities between taking photos and fishing.
I was thinking about it more when I started using the new iPhone 5S. Its new burst function takes around 10 frames per second. If normal photo-taking is like fishing, this feels like trawler fishing, I thought. The first time I used it was in a crowded Portobello Road market. I held up my phone, walked forward into a sea of people, and kept my finger on the button. With the 4S, I’d have got 4 or 5 frames, by tapping repeatedly. Now I can get 40 or 50. My net comes up full of fishy images. I don’t think Cartier-Bresson would have approved.
So is it too easy to get good catches now? Well, you still have to decide where a good spot will be to lower your photographic net. And you still have decide to what depth to lower it and when. And you still have to decide what your best fishy image is, when you sift through the many sometimes infinitesimally different pictures that you capture, looking for that killer one, that decisive image, or “moment”, as Apple are calling them now. Come to think of it, that’s one modern term Cartier-Bresson might have liked.
Fishing for images in Portobello market
Gray’s Anatoly: Is mobile losing its identity?
I started a new mobile photography class last week and as I prepared for the first class I realised that one of my “little-known but quite obvious” tips had been superseded by the new iPhone 5S. I used to tell people in my first class that if you hold your finger down on the shutter button, the shutter releases when you release your finger (not when you place it on the button). Now if you hold your finger on the shutter button for one second, you end up with about 10 high-resolution photos. This new burst feature has the added advantage that it keeps your burst of frames separate from your camera roll and allows you to choose the ones that you like and delete the rest. I feel a bit sorry for the developers of Quick Camera which I used to go to for this feature but it’s a brilliant addition to the iphone camera.
A few other things have changed in my mobile photography classes over the last couple of years. There’s one to start with. Though I have a lot of affection for the term “iphoneography” and I still use it mostly, I’m alternating it with mobile photography. I had a flirtation with Android and lots of people now ask me: can you do it for non-iPhone too? There are some things I don’t teach anymore. I used to do a bit on tilt-shift but that seems to have died a death. After using it all the time in the early days, I rarely use it now. Likewise BlurFX. People seem to have gone off blurriness generally. My first class was mainly about how to post to Instagram. Now, very few people need to be shown how to do this, but I spend some new time on the pros and cons of the other available platforms. My early classes used to be very app-biased. And though I still love the photo-shopping power that is now in the palm of your hand, I do a lot more about the classic photographic questions of composition, colour and subject. My first students were very evangelical about only posting photos taken with mobile cameras. Now there’s a much greater variety of devices being used on previously mobile-only platforms like Instagram - and no-one really gets very upset about it.
Updating my classes is quite a good barometer of how things have changed in the mobile photography/iphoneography world. And as it blends increasingly with the rest of the photography genre, it loses some of its identity. But isn’t that what we always wanted: to be considered photographers not mobile photographers?
Tilt shift: you don’t see it much these days
Gray’s Anatoly: Make a calendar and force people to look at your photos for a whole year
The other day I was reminded of that line in the Smith’s song, Frankly, Mr Shankly: “Sometimes I feel more fulfilled, making Christmas cards with the mentally ill.”. Snapfish have this really excellent online tool for making calendars out of your photos and I’m getting a worryingly large amount of pleasure from it. So far I’ve done a calendar for my golf club (now in its second edition), one based on my music photos and I’ve just finished one of my mobile photos. I say “worryingly” because it feels like it’s not a very professional or creative thing to do. It involves a lot of sorting and classifying. Yes, going through old photos, putting the best ones into folders, choosing a certain number of portrait ones and a certain number of landscape ones, trying to choose some that match a particular month on the calendar (ie a sunny picture for August and a snowy one for January), putting two or three that go well together on the same page. So, worrying, because it’s a slightly mechanical thing to do. If I wanted to present it as something of greater value, I might say I was curating my photos. Are there other examples of photographers or artists who have applied their work in very practical ways? Come on, help me out here.
Calendars are a great way of forcing people to look at your photos for a whole year. The aim is that the recipients will feel so touched that I have thought of them at Christmas, gone to all that effort of wrapping up a real object, writing a little note and then going down the post office to post it, that they don’t immediately throw it in the bin. I’ll be very pleased if about 10% of them end up hanging on walls. I will put a copy of each on walls around my house - I find it’s good to live with them a bit. You learn what works and what doesn’t. And I think it’s nice to give those otherwise purely digital images some corporeal existence, a new purpose in life.
The cover of the 2014 rugfoot mobile photography calendar (signed copies available).
No such thing as a free lunch in photo-sharing platforms
Yay! I set up my own website! That’s the third one I’ve created in my lifetime and the experience is always exhausing. My head craned towards my screen, my eyes strain to check the brackets and the commas in that tiny little font that they use. One little piece of punctuation out of place and the whole thing can come crashing down. And you have to scour blocks of code to find where the problem is. There’s no undo button so you can’t just automatically reverse the brainless error you’ve just made.
My new website is a simple shop window for my mobile photos. I’ve curated the photos into subjects, so it’s a place where people can browse the best of my work without having to see my family snaps or be distracted by a third-party photo-sharing platform’s ads or branding. Each time I’ve gone through this process, I realise how much human resource, expertise and money must go into those slick photo-sharing platforms, which are a thousand times more than a shop window. They are incredibly complex and powerful machines. We take them for granted and we never expect to pay for them. And we are outraged and dismissive if there is even the slightest glitch. Yet we can’t ask for our money back because we didn’t pay any to start with. But as we all know now, we still “pay”, just not with money. We pay through our personal data, we licence our photos to be used in ads and on some platforms now we will be exposing our eyes to ads. But this is the new economy. There’s still no such thing as a free lunch: we just don’t pay for it in luncheon vouchers any more.
Setting up a website can be exhausting
Gray’s Anatoly: Taking photos doesn’t have to be offensive
I went on a photo walk around Southall with the excellent Click London meetup group on Saturday. This area of London has a large Asian community and our walk took us inside the local Sikh temple and to a music shop, where we were given a workshop in tabla (Indian drumming). I learnt (or was reminded of) a couple of things about photography, and specifically about mobile photography.
1) People are generally OK with being photographed. On entering the temple, we asked if it would be alright to take photos. Sure, said one of the magnificently bearded and turbaned temple officials. He designated a guide and we were shown around. Having a guide was good because it gave us an outward sign to others that we had been approved. Some people worry that the act of taking a photo is offensive to people. But if you go about it in an honest and respectful way, there isn’t usually a problem. In fact, the opposite is often the case. As I wandered around the dining area unabashedly looking for photo opps, a bride who had got married that morning invited me to take a photo of her. Already clearly in the marital driving seat, she called over her groom from the other side of the room for the shot.
2) Although we had permission to take photos in the temple, I’m sure we were bolder and more successful with our photography because we were using mobile devices. We simply wouldn’t have had the courage to take the photos we did with larger cameras and people would have been more aware of us. We weren’t hiding our photo-taking, we were just less obtrusive (and so more successful) because we used mobiles. And sometimes it’s the way you take your photos, or how indiscrete you are (and that involves the size of your camera), not the fact of taking photos, that people object to. If they can’t see you doing it, they don’t mind about it.
Check out some of the brilliant images our group created here.
Already in the marital driving seat
Gray’s Anatoly: VSCO, picking up where Instagram left off
Not wanting to sound too narcissistic, the new photo app VSCO seems to be aimed at people just like me. Instagram revived my interest in photography a couple of years ago and although the photo-sharing app that is now owned by Facebook has been much maligned in recent times (and for some good reasons), it should nevertheless take the credit for inspiring a lot of new photographers or, as in my case, reviving the passion of lapsed photographers. Like a lot of mobile photographers, my big camera has been out of the cupboard quite a lot more over the last year or so. And I’ve started syndicating to two leading agencies, one for big-camera photos and one for mobile. I’ve been using Lightroom to do basic editing and archiving and much of that editing has been inspired, and in some cases learnt, from my experiences editing mobile photos.
And the way VSCO tries to make a living is by trying to sell you the filters you use for free in the mobile app and then use them in Lightroom with your big camera pictures. Like Instagram and Hipstamatic, many of those filters are attempts to replicate old film. But VSCO’s filters seem like a natural progression from Instagram. Gone is the gaudiness of filters like X-Pro II or the vignetted sentimentality of Earlybird. The range of filters offered by VSCO are refined and understated. As well as favouring decontrasted and desaturated looks, its Grid also favours art-house subject matter (still lifes, landscape and concept-driven images - no place for gritty street or playful portraits). It also drags you back to your desktop (perhaps so you buy their filters?) by not allowing you to view other people’s photos via the app. To do that you have to be sat at your desk, or go through Safari on your mobile (shades of the old Flickr “mobile” app). But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Perhaps Instagram encouraged us to share too much and we forgot about concentrating on our own work. Likewise, VSCO also eschews Instagram’s focus on followers and likes. So VSCO seems to be an attempt to have mobile taken seriously and also to bridge the gap between mobile and big-camera photography. And to make a living from it without selling its soul.