Photos and words
If I could put the meaning of my photo into words, I wouldn’t have bothered taking the photo. If we are a judge on a photo competition, we can write a long analysis of a photo, saying what its meaning is and how it achieved it. We could (and we do) write a lot of words about the photo. And the person who took the photo might also be able to write about their photo. And when we have articulated our thoughts about a photo, we can turn it around, and then go out and look for photos that fit the words that we’ve written. So we could say, I’m going to try to find photos that express a sense of urban desolation. I want them to be very minimalist, to have nice geometry and to have quite subdued colours. But then aren’t you looking through the camera with a filter of words clamped onto the end of the lens?
Some photos need captions to reveal their real meaning. This is often the case with photojournalism. Pictures can be ambiguous and words can clarify their meaning. But sometimes you want your pictures to be ambiguous, sometimes you want them to be unclear. Sometimes you can explain in words why you’re taking a photo, sometimes you can’t.
A picture can be worth a 1,000 words, so they say (there’s a blog about photography called 1,000 Words, precisely because of this saying). Some photos can be worth a lot more. Pictures in newspapers can take up a whole page (that’s potentially more than 1,000 words’ worth). A photographer got annoyed about a blog I’d written the other day and, in a bit of a huff, he said: I’m too busy taking awesome photos to be talking to you! I laughed out loud but he perhaps has a point.
A photo of words
Desktop imitating mobile?
The other day I was complaining that I didn’t think there were any new mobile photo apps coming out any more. Like a middle-aged Dad complaining that pop music isn’t what it used to be, I realise this could be because I’m just not paying close enough attention any more. But I tweeted it and no-one really came back with many suggestions of what I had been missing. “Mobile has caught up with desktop!” I boldly pronounced. Well, some news about Adobe’s Lightroom a couple of months ago suggested to me that mobile may actually have overtaken desktop rather than just caught it up.
First, Adobe announced the release of a “mobile” version of Lightroom. They say mobile, but really it’s just for iPad at the moment. So mobile in the sense that you can carry it around, not in the sense that it’s for mobile phones (I think they call them cell phones in the US). For me, the main advantage with having Lightroom on an iPad will be that I can sync multiple edits to various photos at once - something I do a lot with desktop Lightroom. Second, I found out that the new Lightroom 5 has two new features that have long been very popular with mobile photographers. They are 1) spot healing for custom shapes and 2) the parallelisation (is that a word?) of lines. In the case of 1), you have always been able to spot heal with Lightroom, but only circular patches. For me, this was always a problem: often I’ve wanted to remove a cable or a mic stand from a picture of a singer on stage. On the mobile, with an app like Handy Photo, this was already very easy. Just mask, tap and boom - the unwanted thing is gone. For 2), this was something I’d always loved doing with Genius Scan+ and then later with Perspective Correct. The classic example given is to straighten the sides of a building, but I’d used these apps more creatively sometimes, but also just to tidy up a picture when I couldn’t quite get the right angle to take the picture from.
I know most of these tools are available in other desktop apps such as Photoshop (is parallelisation?), but it’s interesting to see that apps that are popular with mobile photographers are exerting some influence on the developers of desktop software.
Video killed the photograph?
I’m not one to hide from my failures - in fact, I take great pride in my self-deprecation. To the extent, sometimes, that I might be accused of boasting about it. I recently quoted for, but failed to win, a commission from a leading financial firm. “They loved my photos!” the guy from the PR said. And since I don’t have a gezillion followers on any social network to force-feed my photos to, for once with a PR, I could only take what he was telling me to be true. I gave them my quote and it inevitably went quiet, though, after prompting, he got back to me and told me that they had decided to go for people who could do videos. To be honest, the prospect of promoting a financial firm had left me feeling slightly squeamish -though every man has his price - so I wasn’t too disappointed.
But it reminded me that lately I’ve been bumping into increasing numbers of people in the photo pits of London’s music venues carrying unwieldy video cameras. And many of the magazines that I shoot music photos for have been featuring embedded video. And it reminded me that I’d tried Instagram’s video feature once, but then got bored of it. It was all beginning to make me feel a bit old-fashioned. But then this morning I read a quote by William Boyd, the author. He’s talking about an album of photos that he has from his childhood and one photo in particular. He says of one of the pictures:”It’s full of images like this – snapshots, photography’s unrivalled, essential power. Time stopped, for ever.” And it makes me feel a bit better about not doing videos.
Unwieldy video cameras
To watermark or not to watermark?
The picture editor at my agency told me the other day: “Put a watermark on your photos and it won’t happen again”. We were discussing the theft of one of my photos by The Heritage Orchestra. They’d found a picture of mine online showing them at the Barbican and they’d copied and pasted it onto their website without asking me. I contacted them about it. They replied and asked me what photo I was talking about, but when I sent them an invoice they ignored it and my further emails. Ironic really, when so many musicians complain of illegal music downloads. Would a watermark have stopped them stealing this photo? Quite possibly yes. But it might also have made them less attracted to it in the first place. For some time now I’ve been following an excellent street photographer on Instagram. The only issue I have with his photos is that he places a huge watermark on all them. In my view, the watermarks completely ruin his photos as a visual experience. And what is a photo if not a visual experience? Especially when the life of a photo on Instagram is unlikely to be more than a few seconds, why strangle it at birth?
I read a blog the other day that talked about Flickr as if it were an open-source archive of free photos: “When you go to Flickr to use a photo for a blog post … leave a comment under the photo and add a link to the post.” Again, the impression is that because it’s on the internet, you can have it for free.
Putting your photos in the shop window, either on a photo-sharing platform or your own website, is a risk. Some people may see the photos, like them, walk into your shop and - when you’re not looking - steal them. The internet has made it all too easy. But without the internet, they wouldn’t have seen them to want to steal them. And for every thief like The Heritage Orchestra, there will be buyers who recognise intellectual property and copyright. And as it happens, I also sold the same photo from the same gig that night at the Barbican to a different buyer. The buyer wouldn’t have seen the photo if I hadn’t published it online and they might not have liked it enough to want to buy it with a watermark.
Just because it’s online, it doesn’t mean you can steal it
Why are we scandalised by apping today?
A small piece in The National Geographic’s excellent 125th Anniversary Photo Edition caught my eye today. In it, Johnna Rizzo mentioned that in the early days of photography it was quite normal to fiddle with photos to make something look more interesting. The cameras were so bad then that the photos they took were always very poor representations of reality. Rizzo quotes the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Mia Fineman: “People in the 19th century wouldn’t have been scandalized the way they are today”. Yes, they do get scandalized these days, don’t they? In the last few years, we’ve had a backlash against mobile photography because of all the apping we do with our photos and all the filters we add. Rizzo goes on to say: “Photographers were mostly trying to make up for the cameras’ shortcomings…” Sound familiar? Yes, the whole reason for Instagram coming into existence was that “mobile photos suck”. So why are some people so hung up on us fiddling with photos? Rizzo makes an interesting point when he speculates that as photography technology got to the point where photos were pretty good imitations of real life and as photojournalism became a serious profession, we started to think we ought to capture a scene “as it was”. So without really thinking about it, we all started thinking we had to adhere to the Reuters’ code of photojournalism conduct? The recent proliferation of mobile photo stock agencies may also encourage people to produce more “realistic” images.
Fads for particular filters and special effects will come and go but let’s not think we have to listen to people who say we “should” make our images in any particular way.
I added in some of those clouds. What are you going to do about it?
Point and don’t shoot with iPhone 5S camera
I know the iPhone camera isn’t technically a point-and-shoot. But you’re supposed to be able to just pick it up and shoot, right? So it’s a press-slide-and-shoot. Except with the 5s, there’s a stage missing in that description. Unless you tap on the screen before you shoot, your photo will most likely be out of focus. Check out the details from two photos below, taken seconds apart. They have the same lighting conditions (very bright so no danger of camera shake interference) and were taken from exactly the same distance using the native iPhone camera, but the one on the left was taken without tapping and the right one was taken after a tap. You can see there’s a major difference in resolution, which is clear to the naked eye in the photos at full size.
The 4s didn’t seem to take out-of-focus shots if you didn’t tap. I know about tapping to focus and expose on particular points, of course, but the iPhone camera was supposed to auto-focus if you didn’t tap, right? Let’s hope Apple sorts this out for the 6. Or maybe I should use one of those camera replacement apps that I’ve been so dismissive of lately!
Spending less time, effort and money on the street
I went to a brilliant exhibition of street photography recently in London called Only in England, featuring the photos of Tony Ray Jones and Martin Parr. All the photos were taken in the 60s and 70s and so were all taken on film. I was with a group of photographers, Click London, who mostly use mobile cameras. The most fascinating part of the exhibition for us mobile photographers was a wall covered with printed negatives, showing the ones that had made the cut and the ones that had been rejected. It reminded us of our own mobile shooting: they shot on film but they still got lots of duds too! On our digital mobile cameras (especially with our new burst functions) we thought we took lots of frames before we got a good one. Looking at Tony Ray’s contact sheets, he probably took as many photos as we do now. He just had to spend a lot more time, effort and money doing it.
Many of our group are avid street photographers and Tony Ray-Jones and then later Martin Parr are two of the England’s greatest street photographers. Each day as we look through our Instagram and Flickr feeds it is easy to see their influence. People are striving to capture that moment on a street where everything comes together in perfect balance, where the look on a face coincides with a gesture elsewhere in the frame. They very rarely equal the standards set by these two photographers as shown in this exhibition. To get a good street shot requires a combination of various factors: 1) a sense for when something is about to happen; 2) an eye for the right composition; 3) finding interesting subjects; 4) lots of time: the longer you hang around, the more likely it is something will happen; 5) lots of frames: we can see in this exhibition that Tony Ray-Jones used up a lot of film.
We think we get a lot better at photography thanks to our new technologies. But in fact, comparing our photos to those of Tony Ray-Jones at this exhibition, we see that it’s only in one out of five factors that we are helped.
On the street
This is a follow-up to last week’s bloggy about a big-camera photographer who said he used his mobile phone camera as a “notebook”. I wonder if he ever went back to that train platform with his big camera to properly re-take that lovely Magritte-esque image that he captured with his humble mobile phone camera? It looks at another example of big camera photographers’ attitudes towards mobile.
I follow the Instagram feed of a professional photographer who works for one of the world’s leading agencies. I really love his photography but I recently saw one of his mobile photos and I thought: I wonder if he’d have submitted that image to his agency if he’d taken it on his big camera. The image was of an ice rink, taken from probably 20 or so rows back in a stadium. The ice-rink was completely blown out in the image. Not surprising: the white ice was brightly illuminated and the stadium stands were almost in darkness. I’ve been using an HDR app for many years on my iphone (Pro HDR) and I recently found that the new Canon 5D mk iii had added an in-camera HDR option (I wrote about all this for FLTR recently). I’ve always found that Pro HDR is great for just this sort of high-contrast situation. I wondered if my Instagram friend had heard of Pro HDR. So, as politely as I could, I asked him. “That’s a striking image,” I said, “but I was wondering if you knew about Pro HDR? You might have reduced the contrast between the ice rink and the stadium with it?”. A few days later I got a curt reply saying that was exactly how he’d wanted the image to look thanks. Really?
This is something I’ve come across before. Big-camera photographers sometimes almost deliberately create crap photos with their mobile cameras, as if to say, I’m off duty now, this doesn’t really count, I’m not even going to try with this rubbish mobile device.
HDR can help