Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Getting the Message Across

I started blogging at the end of last year because I had started a new business and I thought it would be a good way to promote it, talking about the things in photography that I feel are important. What I have found though is that the writing has become a fundamental part of what I now do, it has helped me to identify some of the things that excite me photographically in a way that I had not expected and it has given me a new direction (all be it only a slight diversion).

I do not claim to be a great photographer, I know what I like though and I do have the skill to capture it most of the time. The skill came from a variety of different sources, foremost being my dad who was both patient and encouraging when I took my first pictures back in the mid seventies. He told me where I was going wrong and praised the occasional decent picture I took and for the most part I ignored him and did what I wanted. Much of what he said though forms the basis of my photographic thinking now. I learned most of the technical stuff 'on the hoof' while I worked in a pro retailer in the eighties - but I always checked to make sure I had it right and I made a point of learning the underlying theories because if I understood them the application of the theories was a piece of cake. The third element in my photographic education is that I like to look at pictures and we live in a time when I can do that almost anywhere.

I have realized that the things that have gelled into my personal preferences are predominantly things that photography can do better than other forms of visual expression and that in fact we, as human beings, cannot do easily ourselves:
  • Manipulating focus - choosing what will be in focus, how deep the focus will be and how soft everything else should be.
  • Manipulating exposure - letting things be burned out if it works visually, making a choice about how light or dark a print should be, allowing a subject to float in otherwise very dark surroundings.
  • Manipulating perspective - either using movements on the camera or selecting lenses to deliberately distort perspective making it wider or flatter.
  • Showing (or not showing) movement - choosing to freeze the action or to allow it to blur, panning or even moving the camera to make a static object 'move'
  • Selecting contrast levels - to change the look of the picture.
  • Selecting colour intensity (including black and white) - muted or vibrant, warm or cool or monochrome.
None of these things is in itself going to make a good picture, nor is it a substitute for having a good subject. What these things are is the language of photography, the things that we can use to express ourselves and to interpret the subject in the way we want to.

If you want to write a story you use all the linguistic skills at your disposal to make the story interesting, entertaining or shocking - you do whatever you need to to communicate your meaning. Photography is just the same, to say what you want to in a photograph you need to use the language eloquently if you want to get your message across.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


Here is another of those things that you can do with photography that are particularly 'photographic' - playing with perspective.

When you look at a scene with your eyes you see it as 'normal', you interpret the perspective and the relationship between objects in a completely natural way and are very unlikely to notice it unless you are specifically looking for it. Photography adds another dimension but it isn't the one that immediately springs to mind, what it adds is a frame.

From any given point the perspective you see in a scene cannot change but when you frame some part of the scene you emphasise the relationship between objects in the picture. Photographically this gives us another thing that we can manipulate without resorting to retouching. We can alter the amount of the scene either by cropping the frame or by changing the lens for a wider or longer one - or we can change the perspective by moving ourselves closer or further away. Altering the relative distance and angle between the camera and the different subject elements.

The most obvious examples of this are in the use of very long lenses and very wide lenses. I have a preference for the standard and wide end of the range but when the need arises I am quite happy to play with longer lenses too. These first few pictures were all shot with a 300mm lens and the foreshortening of perspective is what makes them work as pictures.

It takes a different eye to see what is going on and a little practice especially to get the pictures sharp. You could just peer through the lens and see what it looks like but you have to know where to point and learning where to point is the bit that takes time.

The other extreme is to use a wide lens and make the perspective a major feature of the picture.

This is just another opportunity to exploit when taking pictures, a long lens is not just for photographing things that are too far away or too small and a wide lens is not just for photographing things that are too big to fit in otherwise. Sure these uses are perfectly valid but the creative use of focal length can give your photography a whole new perspective.

Sunday, 8 August 2010


In photography as with many other arts and crafts there is often a fine line between what works and what does not. It is my belief that the position of this line can be determined to some extent by 'Intentionality'. What I mean by this is that if it is clear to the viewer that a picture is meant to look the way it does then they will view it differently.

This concept crops up mostly when things that are traditionally seen as faults are included in the picture; things like softness, grain, over exposure, blurring or vignetting.

The fact is though that these things have a look about them and, personally, I feel that if the 'look' I am looking for will be better achieved by using them then that is what I will do.

Obviously this needs to be done carefully though, sometimes it needs to be done to make a visual point, sometimes to evoke an emotion and of course sometimes it just makes a good picture. It is vitally important if you want to pull this off that it is clearly intentional - that is what 'Intentionality' means.

If you are going to have deliberately out of focus elements in your composition like in my picture of Whitehall above, make sure that they are out of focus enough (but if they need to be recognizable then not too soft). If you want to make grain an important feature of your picture don't go half way, use a really grainy film and if necessary a grey filter to reduce the light, the Grass seed was shot with Portra 800 on 35mm because I knew it would go far enough.

Movement is one of the hardest things to do well, but it is also, to my mind, the most important since a moving subject photographed pin sharp and frozen in time looses all of its dynamism and photography is so good at catching that. The picture of Horseguards was taken with a Holga 35mm Pinhole camera using about a 4 second exposure - I think it captures the cold, wet January day fairly well and the swirling mass of tourists contrast nicely with the horse and rider - nothing is sharp but it does not look like it is meant to be... The concert was something arranged by a friend of my son Jim, this guy performs as 'The House of John Player" and he was pretty amazing, sampling and mixing live. I could not hope to capture the music photographically but with a little imagination I think I have caught the atmosphere, in this case using an iPhone and some lateral thought.

If what you like are photographs where everything is sharp and technically correct then that is absolutely fine by me. I have a different view though: Photography is brilliant because it allows us to capture things in a way that we are not able to do with our eyes. We see, if we are lucky, everything in focus - photography allows you to choose what is in focus. We see everything correctly exposed - photography allows you to choose. We see movement as a smooth series of sharp moments - photography allows you to choose how much motion blur you want AND wether the background or the subject is blurred. We see a single quality - and photography allows us to choose: fine or coarse grain, high or low saturation and contrast, black and white or colour.

For me this ability to exploit things that are fundamental to the photographic process is what makes photography so interesting - Intentionality is what makes the photographs so interesting.