I’d like to propose a counter-term that points us in another direction: image quality. Not, as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, ‘the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind’, or even ‘the degree of excellence of something’. No, I mean it in another sense of the same word: ‘a distinctive attribute or characteristic possessed by someone or something.’Read More
I suppose some might see this as the Achilles' heel of film photography: mistakes can't be erased. Here, I went to open my Leica and realised I hadn't rewound the film. I stopped myself in what seemed like the nick of time. Well, it was for some frames, but not this one here.
How do I feel about this aspect of film photography? I'm philosophical. Sure, I wish this frame had not been fogged, but I see such events as part of the medium. In a sense, the element of danger only adds to the thrill when it all comes together. C'est la vie.
Turn. Turn. Turn. Turn. Put down with a little jolt. Wait.
My hands leave the developing tank and my mind is wandering. I have the time in focus, no question, but I’m starting to think about what I’m doing. I’m starting to see a parallel between developing a film and something else.
Place the record down. Start the platter. Gently run the carbon fibre brush over the record. Lean it forward, lean it back, draw it outwards. Set the needle down. Adjust the volume. Adjust headphones. Adjust the volume again.
Listening to a vinyl record is undoubtedly an act full of ritual. As the old joke goes, vinyl is desirable both for its high cost and inconvenience. That ‘inconvenience’ brings a set of actions that become inseparable from the listening experience. The ritual is inseparable from the listening experience.
I wonder if film is similarly ‘inconvenient’. In the sense that, it demands a series of preparatory actions (in my example, development) that become an integral part of how we experience it. It is frequently said that film photographs feel ‘made’ (and I haven’t mentioned darkroom yet). Preparatory actions become ritualistic. Little rituals we enact that prolong and intensify our experience of a medium. Little rituals we do with our own little touches and personal ways.
Does digital photography involve rituals? Probably, and to some extent. Yet I notice the rituals of my use of film much more readily. Is it an accident that in my parallel vinyl is an analogue medium? It’s hard to see the same pertaining to playing an MP3.
Do analogue lovers have an affinity for ritual? My guess is they do.
If you are a photographer of even modest experience you will recognise this day. You have the opportunity (your family are otherwise engaged, work presents you with a window, you find yourself travelling and have time in your schedule). You have made all the decisions you need to in terms of equipment and media. Your bag is packed. It's your most familiar MO you will be using. You are on home ground. You are hungry. You are in the aesthetic mode, ready to capture the most glorious gifts that the gods of photography have in store.
You set out, you shoot. You shoot some more. At first: nothing. You have seen this before! You persevere. Still nothing. You have some experience, you know this sometimes happens. You remind yourself that it is important to go through the motions sometimes, to suspend your pressing desire to realise a convincing image. You keep going. You get tired. You get a little annoyed and frustrated.
And then it dawns on you: today is not your day. No amount of shooting, no amount of wanting, will make it happen. It's just not meant to be.
When this happens, what do you do? Do you just park the disappointment and move on? Do you have an interesting strategy, a little self-psychology? Is it time to break out the camera catalogue for bit? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
A great deal of ink has been spent in the photographic press on the question of the superiority of digital photography over film and the former’s inexorable rise to prominence in the industry. Fear not, for this is not yet another film vs digital tract; I think my own position of a ‘either or both, as you desire’ is a subtext of my blog, if not something I have broached on occasion.
I think a better question, in this golden age of availability of photographic equipment and consumer choice, is ‘what aspects of your photography do you enjoy?’ Then there is a related question: how might an answer help you shape your engagement and buying choices?
I am enamoured with small format cameras that have the potential to make big prints. My Sony A7II fits this bill very well, and there are other Sonys that fit the bill even better (I have in mind the A7 ‘R’s and their iterations, and naturally we could add other makes and models). I like to walk around with a piece of technology with this capability in my hand. The digital viewfinder has the ability to aid rigorous focussing and this is an integral part of large-print making.
Yet I am aware that the experience of using the Sony A7 viewfinder leaves me a little cold. For this part of my photography I look to my Leica M6TTL and mostly black and white film. An uncluttered viewfinder in combination with the most simple operation brings me closer to my subject and lets me focus on the moment. The thought of the exposure being laid on film, together with my understanding of how to process and print my images - in short, my visualisation - is integral to my existential photographic pleasure. (Lest my struggle for the right words imply an otherworldly dimension to this, I think this is a largely technical and mechanical effect - belonging to the medium.) Do my Leica negatives compete with my Sony A7 for large prints? Of course not, nor do I expect them too. The point is that the Leica brings a quite different dimension to my practice.
When I analyse my choices in the acquisition of equipment, I realise that I have made some very conscious decisions regarding what I enjoy, and moreover that I live with the compromises of my chosen media because I see them as integral parts of it. Living with limitations makes you work with them, and before too long you begin to enjoy them too. Critical photographers will ask not just what they need, but whether what they have is still right for them. For me, simply possessing it means that it must continue to be chosen - or be replaced by something else that gets me closer to this photographic enjoyment.
So look not on your equipment as a marker in an evolutionary scale of advancement (the old digital bettering film), its increasing age signalling a need for replacement, but as an indication of your photographic enjoyment. ‘Upgrade’ if you must, not to abstractly improve your equipment, but to better serve your personal and idiosyncratic needs.
The other day I came across a reproduction of a Leica advert from the late 1990s. They were advertising the then latest incarnation of the famous Leica rangefinder, the M6 TTL. As you might expect, the advert is aspirational and contains a carefully crafted studio shot of the camera.
The advert got me thinking about photography advertising, and more specifically its influence on me. We live in a world of sublimated desires driven by consumer advertising. We might not always reflect consciously on the effects of advertising, but they are measurable and real, as the gargantuan advertising budgets of the multi-national corporations attest.
What if my regard for my Leica M6 TTL was a product, albeit an indirect one, of this advert from the late 1990s? I don’t think I remember it specifically, and yet it has something of an uncanny familiarity. I had a little chuckle to myself, rolling this possibility around in my head. It may not be the whole story - I should hope not, a big chunk of my practice nought but the fulfilment of a market instruction - but there is a strong possibility that my desires were at some level shaped by the adverts of the time. It is sometimes said that we acquire in later life the cameras we once lusted after in our youth and when money was too short to make the dream a reality.
I wonder what other photography advertising has helped to shape my choices and paths through equipment and practice? I wonder which ones have shaped yours?
A favourite topic of discussion amongst photographers is the question of their choice of format, and whether or not the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. You can see why: there is a considerable investment that a photographer makes in a format, both in terms of cost and time. Nobody wants to labour fruitlessly, not just for financial reasons, but more pointedly at the risk of failing to achieve one’s aesthetic best. Why labour as a 35mm photographer, when my vision would be much more suited to medium format?
The saying ‘the grass isn’t always greener’ teaches that change doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. There is a particular reason why this is the case in the question of photographers and formats. The reason is that all formats have their strengths and weaknesses and necessarily entail compromise. It isn’t just that we may or may not be suited to one format or another, it is that we must learn to harness the compromises of a format before we can judge if it’s the one for us.
35mm is undoubtedly the most mobile of the film formats and allows considerable freedom and experimentation at the shooting stage. The negative being small in relative terms, it poses more significant challenges in the darkroom, 35mm negatives frequently proving difficult to print, especially for the novice. Medium format brings an immediate improvement in flexibility in the darkroom, and will more easily bestow a wide tonal range and controlled grain in the print, but at the cost of weight and size in the field. Large format goes further in this direction, slowing the shooting process and making new demands of planning and location finding, whilst bestowing the luxury of seemingly limitless detail and enlarge-ability. Most enlargements made from large format negatives will be entail much lower ratios (negative to print) than 35mm. The old saying holds true: if it’s easier to shoot in the field, it’s harder to print - and vice versa.
The key question is not, ‘which is the best format’, or, even, ‘which is the best format for us’, but ‘which is the best compromise for us?’ Which weaknesses in our chosen equipment and format can we live with in order best to enjoy its undoubted gifts. When I began to shoot large format, I immediately missed the flexibility of 35mm. C’est la vie. I knew that I would ultimately make a decision as to whether my 35mm work could be usefully and productively supplemented by some 5x4 work, on the premise that 5x4 had a quality I wanted and needed. Shooting 5x4, I would be shooting less 35mm (I don’t think I ever envisaged shooting no 35mm, nor do I), as well as putting up with the ‘negative’ aspects - for me - of large format.
I have concentrated on film photography, but my point could easily be extended to digital and beyond. Have you found the right compromise for you?
Every year when working with my students in the darkroom, I try to encourage a thought process that is as receptive to unintended results as intended ones. This is not always an easy endeavour, and it occurred to me this year that I lack a clear label for the kind of approach I want them to take. Quite often, what I mean becomes evident only when it is found.
We speak a lot about planning in education (we live in a ‘target’ driven world it seems), but not so much about the pleasure of the unplanned, of what one discovers through doing, even when one wasn’t looking for it.
On one happy day when one of my students had the unplanned event revelation, I at last came up with a satisfactory term: ‘serendipity’. Now, before I unpack the term a little (and I will not insult your intelligence; insert ‘happy accident’ and you have my gist), I will add some photographic seasoning with a specific darkroom reference.
In his book Black and White Photography Workshop, master printer John Blakemore tells the story of how he came to work on a new series of especially pale prints. On the day in question, he had intended to do something quite different, but, on realising he lacked the supplies he needed to print in his ordinary manner, set himself the challenge of printing his negative as pale as possible. You can (and should) check the results out yourself, for they are quite exquisite. A fortuitous set of circumstances that led to an unexpected path, a new way of working.
So, finally to serendipity. The term was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole. He recounted the tale of the ‘Three Princes of Serendip’ who ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’. This could almost be a darkroom mantra! Be open to those discoveries, gained by accident or sagacity (or, we might say, ignorance), of results you weren’t after, but might rather like.
An awareness of serendipity shouldn’t be limited to just darkroom, of course. I wonder how many other aspects of our photography work would benefit from a little of these ‘things we were not in quest of’?
Here's a little tip if you're shooting anything with sky in it on black and white film. Fit a yellow filter on your lens. This filter darkens blue, leading to better separation between sky and clouds (thus helping to avoid void-like white skies too).
Other benefits of a yellow filter include giving better separation to foliage (it lightens green, yellow, orange and red), and, for many, more natural skin tones. Sure, you'll lose a stop of light (the filter shields the light entering the lens by a factor of two, i.e. the same scene needs twice as much exposure). If you are metering through the lens, there is no practical penalty to this, other than that speed loss.
A good addition to the kit of the black and white film photographer.
Autumn can be a great time to be a photographer. There's the colourful foliage, the sun is lower in the sky creating long shadows and rich textures, and the light is that bit warmer.
This year I've become conscious that it's also frustrating time for me. I'm an academic and it's precisely the time I get busier indoors. Maybe I've been making more of those furtive glances towards the windows this year, half hoping not to glimpse any scenes of photographic possibility. As you might imagine, I've had to turn away with a sigh on more than one occasion.
So when I'm out shooting I have to hope that the sometimes temperamental light and weather in England is in cooperative mood. I have been shooting a lot of black and white of late, and decided it was time for a little break and some perhaps inevitable autumn colour. To make things interesting, I took a lens I had practically retired, a Nikon 70-300mm with built-in vibration reduction, and began to think about some long shots and flattened perspective.
I had some expired Kodak Ektar film in my fridge, and it was getting high time to put it to use. Ektar is a film that simply loves colour and sunshine. Expose it generously (I tend to go for a half stop more) and it is wonderfully saturated with a very distinctive character; underexpose and things get a lot more pastel and washed out. This was a risky film to choose, because with the British weather in the wrong mood, well, I may as well be back indoors trying not to look out of windows.
The image above is one of my favourites from a couple of outings with this autumn MO. On the whole I was lucky with some interesting light, and the weather held off for just long enough. I spent a fair bit of time chasing patchy sunshine through trees and using what I feared were all-too-slow shutter speeds (bearing in ming Ektar is a 100 ISO film). Nikon vibration reduction, it would seem, is a sound technology, and certainly helped in my endeavours. Now my window-bound glances shouldn't be too longing, and, besides, autumn hasn't really got too long to go.
Buy a trip, not more gear
Should I buy more gear (probably a camera or lens) or a trip to a far-flung location? I remember pondering this once myself, and have recently been asked the question by another photographer.
There is a malady amongst photographers affectionately known as GAS, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Photographers, especially amateurs it seems, are inveterate shoppers. You can see the logic in this: if I don’t have a 24mm lens, pictures with a 24mm field of view I will not make. The tendrils of consumerism do their dark work, and gear research and online shopping are a fact of our photographic lives.
I will simply answer that when I plumped for far-flung location (India, actually) over the camera I was pondering, my decision proved to be a sound one. Looking back, the best possible one. Suffice it to say, I made some of my best work on that trip and cannot now conceive of trading the experience - and the shaking up of my photographic vision it provided - for a camera I may, or may not have needed, that I certainly wouldn’t have ever used in India.
The drawer of contemplation
There are two reactions that I frequently have in response to my own ‘just made’ prints. One is an excited feeling that I have ‘done good’, the other a sense of deflated dissatisfaction. In both cases, I often look back with a feeling that my initial thoughts were wrong and that the intervening time has given me a more realistic or accurate perspective. Initial excitement turns out to be premature, and, conversely, deflation is replaced with more affection and admiration. To put it more simply, things are either better or worse than I originally thought. Not in all cases of course, but in enough to be noteworthy.
It is the time and the distance on the work that is of critical importance here. Enter the metaphorical (or real, if it suits you) ‘drawer of contemplation’. This is the place you are going to put your work ‘on hold’ to avoid making a snap judgement. It is more than a metaphor, because you do need some time physically away from the print so as to refresh your vision and obtain a visual and mental distance. Coming back to the print (no less than a week I would say), you are in a much more objective position and far less ‘close’ than you were when you made it.
Not only does this make you a better judge of your own work, but it can help to avoid that very contemporary pitfall and temptation of immediate - and sometimes, unfortunately, regrettable - media sharing. Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, et al, are at all times hungry for novelty. We experience a huge pressure as creatives to play up to that hunger and share work with unsustainable regularity. This suits the medium, but maybe not so much us as photographers, who need proper distance and time to evaluate what we do. If we are lucky, we will have a critical friend who will appraise our work with honesty before we take it to a wider public.
The drawer of contemplation gives you the option to put stuff away (maybe for future thought) or, equally, to pull stuff out that might otherwise have not been granted the reprieve.
You are a better photographer than you think
This tip is a little morale booster designed to banish to the devil who sits on the shoulder of every creative person. You know, the devil that says, ‘in reality, you are no good’.
‘Why do I take so many rubbish photos?’ might be another refrain. The question is, who doesn’t take rubbish photos? How many frames does a ‘professional’ (I use the term loosely) shoot to get ‘the shot’? I can assure you it is not on a frame for a usable frame basis.
There is a kind of common sense to this (thus says your devil-on-the-shoulder), and you might still be full of self doubt. Here is a fact that might help. Robert Frank’s truly iconic book The Americans contains some 83 photographs. How many did Frank shoot to achieve that number? A reliable estimation is 28,000 frames.
Yes, that’s right - sorry devil - 28,000 frames. Needless to say, Frank was selective. Not because he wasn’t a brilliant photographer, but because he knew what all successful photographers know, and that is that a subject and a photo opportunity must be worked. We can’t simply roll up and steal one or two images, however great we may be.
Consider this the next time that devil appears and concentrate on keeping on it. You are better than you think.
Have you ever worried about sharpness in your images? A cursory look at internet photography talk confirms that a lot of folks most certainly do. How about chromatic aberration? Or the edge distortion in your lens? Is your lens sharp at the edges of the frame? Such questions multiply and are often conflated with ‘quality’ in photography.
I write ‘conflated’ because we can quite rightly ask ‘is quality exclusively the product of a series of technical concerns?’ A great antidote to such contemporary obsessions is the pantheon of photographic images itself. How many of them would stand up to the scrutiny of modern standards? I strongly suspect that a good many of them would fall down on one aspect or another. This leads to the true antidote and the point of my post: a ‘good’ image may possess flaws, technical or otherwise, but we forgive it because it is good.
What might it possess that makes an image good? Incredible timing, elegant composition, cutting observation, emotional resonance, beautiful light … The list, which goes on, inevitably has its subjective element, but I think we can and should try to say what specific strengths a given image has. My instinct is that often it is a special combination of parts that makes an image stand the test of time. To paraphrase a teacher of mine, the best photos stand up to and reward repeated viewings. Their gifts do not easily run out, and we often discover something new when we return. In a sense, their ability to offer something to us outstrips our capacity to exhaust them at a given time.
However we agree to define them, there is considerable agreement that ‘good’ images are there. Their existence and our enjoyment in looking at them should provide the perfect antidote to our technical obsessions and insecurities. For great photographs were made, frankly, with inadequate, broken, or sometimes simply the wrong gear. Technique was less than flawless. Yet in some indefinable combination of elements, hinted at above, superb work was done.
So what’s stopping you forgiving some aspects of your work and allowing the good to trump the technical?
*See more of Kate Kirkwood's great work at katekirkwood.com (click the image above for a direct link)