Cheap Shots

Aspiring photographer? Trying to make an impression on an online world with your nascent mastery of a century-old craft? Allow a fellow neophyte to offer a few words of advice.

Not all photographers have the time, opportunity or, heck, the money to take those seriously WTF, how-did-you-DO-that, I-will-see-the-world-differently-because-of-this kind of shot. Sadly, such moments are relatively rare. You may yet have your chance to blow the world away with your incandescent, visionary imagery. But in the mean time, here is a quick primer to help you put your own special genius into perspective.

Shots We Have Already Seen

This may come as a shock, but others have taken photographs before you. Some of them were very talented. Among the shots we have already seen:

  • The water droplet
  • The water droplet on a blade of grass
  • The water droplet on a blade of grass with a distorted reflection of something visible deep inside. (Tragically for you, the visual metaphor of Worlds Within has indeed been considered once or twice before.)
  • The blade of grass, without the water droplet
  • The forced-perspective skyscraper
  • Two forced-perspective skyscrapers
  • Forced-perspective anything, actually
  • The reflection in the window
  • The distorted reflection in the rainy window
  • The staircase (It turns out there are several spiral staircases in the world. They have, alas, all been photographed before. Yes, even that one.)
  • The beggar
  • The self-conscious hipster made edgy and cool by rotating the camera 30 degrees
  • Someone blowing smoke in a dimly lit room (Did you know this happens sometimes in bars? What brave new world is this, indeed.)
  • Footprints (in anything, leading anywhere)
  • Sunset

Shots We Didn’t Want To See In The First Place*

  • Your pet
  • Your girlfriend
  • Your child
  • Your street
  • That old farmhouse
  • Grass
  • That tree (not even at sunset)

* Don’t get we wrong. I’m sure your family and friends would love to see a well-taken shot of any of the above, but unless your date is truly unique, your pet looks like this or you have the skill to capture your child in a moment like this, we’d all rather you didn’t foist them on us for comment. After all, we hardly know you.

Shots Which Had Better Be Really Fucking Good Before You Even Consider Showing Them To Others

See, we don’t mind seeing these. They’re kinda cool. But you might want to think twice before crowing about them. The examples above are just a small sample of the stuff found on one website in about one month.

Things Which Are Never Tasteful, No Matter What

  • Watermarks (Seriously, if someone can’t immediately identify your photos from their own inimitable style, then a watermark isn’t going to help you. And no, cursive text does not make it all right.)
  • Women in bad makeup
  • Women on the railway tracks (I mean, seriously: Dude, what?)
  • Actually, nude women sitting anywhere they wouldn’t normally sit, if you hadn’t paid them*
  • More than two shots of any one thing (Remember: Shake it more than twice and you’re playing with it.)
  • Shots of your camera (especially if you’re holding it.)
  • Models who have been painted all one colour
  • Saturation. It is the photographer’s ketchup. Use it accordingly.
  • The one-colour wash (Guys, seriously, that sepia tone was an artifact of the chemical process required to develop the film. It does not make your model look hotter.)
  • The single colour element of an otherwise monochrome shot. (Shit, even the banks don’t use this in their ads any more; that’s how cliché it’s become.)
  • Captions that say what’s in the model’s thoughts (This goes double when the model is your pet.)
  • Tragically, wedding shots. Don’t know why. They just never are. Ever.

* Okay, on rare occasions, nude women in strange postures are genuinely beautiful. But are they more beautiful than normal postures, really?

Shots We* Actually Do Like To See, Really (Provided You Possess Any Skill At All)

* By ‘we’, of course I mean ‘I’. Shyeah…

Shots That Will Be Popular*, Whether You Do Them Well Or Not

  • Young women
  • Two women touching or nearly touching
  • Children
  • Pets, especially cats
  • Baby animals
  • Children
  • Shiny, especially red and gold

* These are all things we’re wired to stare at, and which can get you far in terms of popularity, until you discover that this hasn’t necessarily made you a better photographer. Then again, they’ve made you popular, so who cares?

Nothing is Ever 'Good Enough'

There’s a long, rather drawn out thread on Slashdot right now, wherein an apparently endless queue of geeks are lined up to take Wired to task for their discovery that Good Enough trumps Excellence every time. Quelle Surprise.

But not one of them has observed something that was recently made obvious to me: As technology advances, quality inevitably improves. The world, pace Microsoft, is not so awash in the mediocrity that Wired’s editors have decided to tout as the next big thing. Nothing is ever Good Enough.

What matters more than anything else is Convenience.

My eyes were opened to this a couple of months ago, when, in the course of pillaging my landord’s extensive library of books of and about photography, I came across a truly startling collection of photos from Papua New Guinea taken in the early 1920s. The almost liquid tones and gorgeous, lush light in his portraits capture the smoky, dusky interiors of village huts better than anything I’d ever seen before.

When I voiced my admiration to Ben, he observed, “Photography hasn’t significantly improved since the early years. It’s just become more convenient.

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Beautiful Trickery

Georgeline and DanielaIn case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been on a bit of a black and white kick lately on my photo site. Part of the reason is that the house I’m living in right now is owned by a talented photographer who has a treasure trove of photography-related books in his office downstairs.

For the last month or so, I’ve been plundering it, reading mostly (auto)biographical books by and about some of the great war photographers of the last century. The purity of expression that black and white gives, the way it focuses on the subject, is something I find really fascinating. I especially like dark compositions, where the play of light and shadow is smooth across a high dynamic range.

I’m particularly partial to monochrome composition; I always have been. Back when I was working as a lighting designer and director in the theatre, I was taken to task more than once for dropping the light levels below what people were used to, and for not taking advantage of a full palette.

I know my counselors meant well. But to hell with them.

I love shape, silhouette and the play of light and shadow. I love it especially on the screen. Print is touchier and vastly more difficult in technical terms. At least, that’s my experience. I suspect this derives from the fact that the transition between additive colour mixing (i.e. lighting pixels on a screen) and subtractive colour mixing (printing ink on paper) is not intuitive and runs counter to where physics wants to take you. In short, you need to play tricks on the eye to get what you want. You want to make the page appear luminous, whereas the screen already is.

With black and white digital photography, you send only a tiny fraction of available visual information to the screen. In practice, it’s a simple matter of turning on all the pixels (i.e. starting with a white palette) and then removing information until the shadows tell you what you want them to. I love that process, both as metaphor and craft.

Now, all photography is trickery. Beautiful trickery, when it works. But when I look at a lot of recent photography, what I see is a layering of cleverness and craft so thick that one can no longer see the canvas.

I’ve always preferred minimalist design, a few sharp strokes that go straight to the essential. Rather than trying to fit everything in, I want to get everything else out.

Football King

I don’t want to construct a case against lush, detailed photography. I quite enjoy some of it. But these days I can’t seem to bring myself to do it. Frankly, I don’t think I want to learn so much about photography that I’m ever capable of the visual backflips and pyrotechnics that characterise much of the move from film to digital.

Perversely, it’s precisely because I can do more that I choose to do less.