But Is It Art?

I had an angry comment on my YouTube channel  recently. I shouldn’t be too worried, because out of over 3m million hits, one testy one isn’t too bad. Nonetheless, for some reason, in my mind one criticism needs 1,000 pats on the back to balance it. Plus, as with many arguments, if expressed with more thought and less emotion it would actually merit some consideration.

I had published a tutorial on how to use new function on a Panasonic Micro four Thirds camera. Arthur C. Clarke once remarked that all new technology should sound like magic and this does.  It is called 4K Photo and it is a blend of video and stills. Essentially, you shoot a video at 30 frames per second but unlike movies, you can extract stills from those 30 frames per second with still picture quality. Its cleverest implementation is called 4k Pre-Burst.

When you press the shutter, it saves the 30 frames from the second before you press the shutter as well as the 30 frames after.  It sounds like Clarke’s magic but actually it is straightforward. When you first press the shutter release, the camera shoots 30 frames per second continuously until you press it again. On pressing the shutter the second time, it continues at 30 frames per second for one second and then stops, discards all the frames except the 30 shot immediately before and after you press the shutter button and saves them all.

What it means is that Cartier-Bresson’s iconic decisive moment, the moment in time that sums up the situation, the holy grail of decades of  photographers’ efforts becomes not The Decisive Moment (note the caps, denoting importance, gravity, artistry, perception) but the decisive couple of seconds (note the  lower case, meaning, yeah, ok, wa’ever, I’ll choose it later, a’wight?).

And that’s what had made my correspondent angry. By showing someone how to do it, I was somehow advocating it. That was why he was unsubscribing angrily from my channel. I was traducing his art. Every real photographer’s art. I was teaching ordinary photographers a way  to bypass the years of love, care, experience, learning, the honing of perception and reaction that he had undergone.Was I? I’m a simple soul. I just thought this was a clever bit of technology that might be useful in some areas of photography. Period.

Which begs an interesting question. If I show you an interesting or artistic picture, basically a good photograph, does it matter how I got it? Does it have a warmer glow because I had to slave for it? If I extracted it from a video but told you I captured the moment by instinct, would it look any different to you? Those are the anarchic and unanswerable questions that Andy Warhol was asking when he would have other people make his art in a factory. He’d even stamp it ‘This is not a genuine Warhol’.

As a professional freelance photographer living by selling his work for many years, I can genuinely say that I would co-opt any new technology as soon as it came out. The object is to get a picture and sell it. I have yet to meet a picture editor who gave a damn how a picture was made (so long as it was legal!) When Nikon came out with their motor drive back for the Nikon F  in the 60s, photographing sport changed. When a racing car left the track before, you had one chance of a picture. After the motor drive,  you pressed the button as soon as you saw the car going off and followed it to the impact, capturing it all.

It is de-skilling, really. In those days, though, only the professionals could afford such things so there wasn’t an outcry about de-skilling, that this was not real photography. Now, in the digital world, a camera that can be bought for half the cost of a good mobile phone can shoot as fast those motor driven Nikons, And a modern Panasonic can shoot 6 times faster, for tens of minutes. Just record it all and if there is a decisive moment, find it later. Warhol, of course would have had an assistant find it and then scribbled on the back of the print that ‘this was not the decisive moment’.

I sense that part of the anger of my correspondent was that 4k Photo meant anyone could do what he had spent years learning to do. His unsubscribing from me because I had explained how you did it was a bit like the church’s objection to the Latin bible being translated into English in the early 15th century.  His bible, his photography, was for initiates who knew how to appreciate it. Not for the great unwashed.

I don’t think he need have worried. I have always thought that the art of the photographer had more in common with the art of a novelist than a painter. It is about observation, understanding and interpretation. The fast sequence camera records the images but it doesn’t provide the understanding or interpretation.

In essence, watching a scene unfold and selecting a decisive moment from it to photograph is little different from watching a video of it and picking out the decisive moment from that. What is rare is the sensitivity to watch something and see its significance and the moment that encapsulates it. A 4k Photo Setting can’t do that. That is what the photographer, my angry friend does.

He’s not threatened and angered by the technology. He feels threatened because the technical skill is being taken (has been taken) out of photography and more people might be good at it then he would like. Now Mr and Ms Everyone has access to his altar of photography.

Maybe we are approaching a new era of still photography where it starts to meld with its movie counterpart. The movie editor is a crucial part of the video/ cine process. Hours and hours of footage are shot. The salient parts are taken out and made into the movie. The cameraman and the editor are on equal footing in this process.

Soon we will have a generation who have only ever owned a camera where a press of one button produces a still and another a movie. The two image making disciplines will start to coalesce under the umbrella name of – yes  photography.  Stills will become movies that don’t move and movies stills that do. I can’t say I feel entirely comfortable with the idea but I will embrace it. What’s the choice? Actually, I’ll enjoy it. New ideas, new techniques, bring ’em on!

At that point my angry friend will become very angry with me indeed. I will have sold out unconditionally to the uninitiated and the  unskilled. He does though, have one great advantage over me.

Because while he can unsubscribe from me, I can’t.

 

Working A Camera

 

Steely Dan (the Soundtrack to my life but don’t let me get started on that….), Walter Becker and Donald Fagin, had a faintly damning phrase for a certain kind of musician. They said “he can work the saxophone”. It was as opposed to “he can play the saxophone”. It came into my head as I finished a book on the menu system of the new Olympus Pen F.

The modern digital camera has a  labyrinthine menu system that can help you work the camera but can’t help you ‘play’ it. As with a musical instrument, though,  until you can work it, you can’t play it.  The difference with a saxophone or guitar or piano is that  you know what will happen when you work it. You will get a note.

With a camera menu, you need to know quite a lot before you can understand what a menu setting will do. Not only that, knowing what it does won’t necessarily tell you why you might want to do it. When I started writing my books, I thought that I would just rewrite the manual from a photographer’s point of view rather than a camera maker’s. As I did it, I realized that that didn’t cut it with a digital camera, essentially a dedicated imaging computer..

Take something straightforward like Exposure Bracketing. “Set this and the camera will take a picture one stop over and one stop under plus the regular meter reading”. An old timer film camera user will understand that right away. You set the exposure yourself via shutter speed and aperture. Sometimes the meter is wrong and bracketing allows for this, You can’t know which is the correct exposure until you see the results, maybe weeks later so bracketing is a safeguard.

But what if you’ve only ever before used a fully automatic digital camera? That’s the case with many people buying their first ‘proper’ camera. What does ‘a stop over’ and a stop under’ mean? All you know is that you point the camera and press the button and it’s 90% that the picture will be fine.  You are used to accepting a ‘good enough’ picture on a compact but having paid out maybe £750 for a your proper camera, good enough isn’t good enough. So, in my book a brief explanation of exposure itself is necessary so that you can understand why you might need exposure bracketing. Which beggars the question, why not use it all  then time then? Having answered that, the question becomes “then when do I need it”. So you need to learn and recognise the circumstances under which metering is fooled. And Post Focus. And Anti-Shock Silent. And so on.

At which point, my simple rewrite of the manual ‘for the rest of us’ as Apple used to put it, starts to look even more complicated than the manual I was trying to simplify. I find the best technique is to use the function until I it is utterly clear in my head. Then write it. Leave it and re-read it. Start again. Repeat several, sometimes many times. Eventually it seems about as clear as I can make it  . Why does it take so much longer to express something in 100 words than it does in 1000. I remember reading once about a writer who, having written a long letter to a friend finished it by apologising for how long it was and explaining that he didn’t have time to write a short one! I now know what he meant.

Even having simplified the menu, you find that it isn’t enough for total clarity because some menu settings are interdependent. On Olympus, if you want the level gauge to show in the viewfinder, you can set it, very handily, to show when you half press the shutter button. But only if the EVF is set to a certain mode which makes the image view smaller. With my day to day handling of Micro Four Thirds cameras, I know that and make my settings accordingly. I know from experience what store I set to a big EVF image and what i set to seeing the level gauge before every shot. Without that experience you just have to decide which it’ll be and go with that until it annoys you enough to want to change. If that is three months after setting it, what chance you’ll remember how to get back to it?

I finally decided that there is a point at which trying to simplify something starts to make it more complicated. It would be hard to sell a book on the basis that it was ‘differently complicated’ . I call my books, for example the Pen F one,  ‘The Olympus Pen F Menu System Simplified’. It would be a hard sell as ‘The Olympus Pen F Menu System Differently Complicated’. Some things are inherently complex and can only be simplified up to a point. You have to know when to stop.

There’s a paradox in modern cameras. They offer you stunning ease of use. So much is done automatically that only the keenest of keen enthusiast photographers need learn what were once the foundations of the craft. How would a person with a 1960 Rolleiflex fare if he didn’t know the nuts and bolts of film speed, aperture and shutter speed? There was no sports or landscape setting, all the technical elements had to be assessed and the camera set accordingly.

Now even assessment of the subject can be done by the chip in the camera and settings made accordingly with no input from the user. No insight necessary. However, that same pussy cat of a camera then offers Multiple Exposure with optional Gain and Overlay settings. Or 4k Post Focus Pre Burst. What? The pussy cat turned into a tiger.

It seems that that is what modern technology does. It sucks out the middle ground, serving the rookie and the wizard well but not the regular photographer with his hard-earned skills. At the bottom end they are rendered obsolete and at the top end they are the wrong kind of skills and of no value.

It’s those ordinary photographers, though, who are the backbone of photography. They want more control and quality than a smartphone can give and but probably won’t get much use out of the top end facilities. I think they tend to get tried and then left. The main part of even the highest tech cameras such as Micro Four Thirds still caters happily to us ordinary photographers. We can still make choices that the chip wouldn’t approve.

I hope that never changes.

 

 

 

 

 

The Easier It Gets The Harder It Becomes

The writer Arthur Koestler observed that  you could take a cable car to the top of a mountain or you could slog your way up, battling the steepness and the snow. Either way  you got to the summit  – but the view would not be the same.

I thought about that the other day, when I was cycling home. It was freezing cold and dusk. I saw a scene that just screamed ‘winter, cold’. I had my Panasonic GX8 in my bag and not wanting to freeze, put it on iA, (Intelligent Auto) made a quick shot and cycled on. After 5 minutes, I realized that I hadn’t made the best of the scene and cycled back and spent a bit more time on the pic. And froze.

picture-2

This was pic one, whip it out, point and shoot.

picture-1

This was on the second go. I don’t make any pictorial claims for these but this one has a much bleaker feel to it and reflects what was in my mind’s eye much better.

How does that relate to Koestler? Because I could and did, at first, just take my camera out of my bag, point it in the right direction and know that the pic would be technically good. That was the cable car pic.

With a film camera of yesterday, I’d have to have selected the best angle of view lens. metered the scene, made a  decision over where to base my exposure and having done all that move around looking for the best angle. Having no camera stabilization, I’d probably have needed to set up a tripod.

I would want to get the best shot I could because I was already frozen and only the best pic I could get would justify my effort and frosted fingers . I’d have taken plenty of variations too, because when you can’t view the pic right after taking it, you don’t know when you have taken the pic you were looking for. So you don’t stop until you are certain you have done everything you could.

And that’s why I went back. Same location, same scene, same camera but the view would be different. The result of all that effort would be the hard slog up the mountain pic.

When no-one is telling you what pictures to take, you only have to please yourself. If you do something for pleasure but don’t please yourself, what is the point? The best photographers I have known have always been their own harshest critics. And the hardest workers. They have also been people who were trained in photographic techniques, who knew what it was to climb the mountain on foot. Their approach to a picture, even using the digital wonders of today is informed by that.

It makes me feel sad for young photographers who want a career in the business.  They are working with photographic tools that have taken away the need for classic photo techniques. The once mocked fully automated point ‘n’ shoot camera is now available in the guise of professional quality cameras.

It started in the late 80’s with the ‘P’ for Program setting on (universally known in Fleet Street as ‘P’ for Pissed) setting on the Nikon F4.  Now, with auto ISO, auto focus, auto exposure and 30 fps stills from video, Mr Silicon Chip has taken over. Why would you learn the techniques of yesterday when Mr Chip does it just a well with no effort required?

Here’s why. The day of the camera operator is over. That job, being done by the camera itself. has devalued the currency. There has always been a distinction between a camera operator and a photographer, just as there is between a journalist and a writer. They are related but one is a learned technique and the other is that technique used expressively.

Where once people were delighted if a photo simply ‘came out’ or was ‘nice and clear’, they now expect lots of razor sharp well exposed colourful images. The digital camera delivers that with consistency. Now, everyone is a good photographer.

The trouble is, when everyone is a good photographer, no-one is a good photographer. How does a young photographer distinguish himself from the rest, the ordinary nowadays? How does he succeed and make a good living in a world where once knowing how to work a camera was enough for a reasonable career and now is not?

The young photographer today has to be outstanding, he has to be head and shoulders above the rest. He (or she)  must have an attractive personality, be a hard worker and have artistic flair. He must not only shoot the image, he must either originate or help an art editor develop the image. He must know enough old fashioned photographic technique to understand when he can get a better, more personal, more tailored result than Mr Chip.

He must care about what he does and be prepared to work day and night, in these days of ‘interns’ (actually unpaid labour, of course),  for little or no reward. It’s a big ask. Where once the ability to take an in focus correctly exposed picture could be turned into a successful and reasonably rewarding photographic career, you now need a super CV like the one above. The best prevail. The rest fall by the wayside. That’s what digital has done,

And that’s why I say, the easier it gets, the harder it becomes.

 

 

 

 

 

The Reality Gap

Chatting to a camera dealer recently, I remarked that it was very important to my business as a freelance to always have the best equipment money could buy. I worked with a lot of very successful and well known people and a surprising number of them were interested in cameras and photography. Everyone knew the names Hasselblad and Nikon, that they were the best and the most expensive. When you opened a silver case with a pair of Hasselblad bodies, 4 lenses, half a dozen backs in there, the cognoscenti among them would ask if they could hold them. It was almost reverential. Hasselblad…they were the best. And if you could afford the best cameras, you must be a pretty damn successful photographer.

Well, up to a point. I used to buy my Hasselblad equipment from a camera shop near Chelsea Town Hall. I happened to see Hasselblad gear in the window one day as I was passing and went in. It turned out that the shop had quite a turnover with the Swedish camera which seemed odd for what was essentially a non-pro dealership. The reason was that the manager had a number of very rich customers, some Saudis amongst them who had the money to buy such cameras on a whim and then, finding them rather awkward and demanding to use, just bring them back and chop them in on something else. One of the main buyers and sellers, though, was Peter Sellars. He was a keen photographer and loved photographic gear. As I, unashamedly, do. He’d buy anything new Hasselblad did, use it for a month or two, get bored and sell it back to the shop.

The manager would call me up when anything tasty came back. For him it was a quick turnaround so the prices were exceptional. So exceptional in fact that after using the Hasselblads for 15 years, I sold them for what I paid for them. What struck me at the time, though, was that anyone who thought I was able to afford such equipment and assumed I must be making lot of money was being misled. I didn’t mind, harmless enough. Impressions do count in business.

So, I wonder what I’d do now? My personal choice of camera would be Micro Four Thirds. There’s nothing that I would be doing that would require more than a G7 Panasonic or an E-M5ll Olympus would do. But I know that I wouldn’t be happy with the impression that such small cameras give. You are being commissioned for a big daily rate and you turn up with small cameras that looks to the client like the sort of thing they might buy for themselves. It wouldn’t work. Either camera in the right hands could produce the required results but that’s only half the point. What about the impact on the client?

Digressing a bit, I once had a very important job for a drinks company. The shoot was in Sussex. I, very greedily went on a freebie to New York for a newspaper 2 days before which would get me back to Gatwick Airport with 2 hours to spare to get to the shoot after going to my office to pick up my cameras. The inevitable happened. The flight was delayed by bad weather. It would arrive at a time that meant I would be an hour late for the shoot. What to do? I could phone the client and say I was ill but then no fee. My brainwave was to phone a friend who owed me a favour. Would he pick up my lights and Hasselblad and bring them down to the airport and meet me? He couldn’t do that but what he could do was put them in the boot of his car, a very handsome Mercedes convertible and leave it in the short term car park. Perfect! I picked it up and it being a warm day, put the hood down.

I arrived at my shoot and they were waiting for me at the door. I stopped the Mercedes, apologised profusely for being late, I had had a quick job in New York but my flight had been delayed. I picked up my case and went inside and unpacked my gear and put it out, ready to use, on the floor. Such an impression had all this made that they seemed almost grateful I had got there at all. New York! The Mercedes! The expensive equipment! (And yes, I did work for them again.)

But the reality was less impressive. The trip was a freebie, the car wasn’t mine and the equipment had all been bought at rock bottom prices. But they didn’t know that. It’s all perception.

So, coming back to my point about Micro Four Thirds cameras, if I was going to use them professionally it would have to be Olympus E-M1, Panasonic GH4 or GX8. They are the biggest, after all. For what I need, the results would be just as good technically with a Panasonic GM5 or an Olympus E-M10 but they are too small. The reality is that I wouldn’t use an MFT at all. I’d use a great big noisy professional Nikon or Canon DSLR with some absurdly big, fast and absurdly expensive lenses. Not for me and not for my client’s work. Jut for his peace of mind.

If the photographer is expensive, his car big and his camera impressive – well you just know he must be good, don’t you?

Are You A Black Man?

I am. I didn’t become a black man until 1969 when I joined the London Evening News as a staffer.  Having become one, I stayed that way until August this year. It wasn’t a choice to concede my black status, it was forced on me by an aesthetic imperative. They happen a lot to photographers, aesthetic imperatives. Part of the job almost.

It only lasted for six months before I felt uneasy and started longing to re-instate my old black self. No question about it, it was self-indulgent and to someone colour blind a totally unnecessary expense. But did it anyway. It’s my money and while it may seem effete to you, to me its a visceral thing.

Now look at this picture and tell me it wasn’t worth it. I’m black and I’m proud. Silver is for sissies.

gx8

 

 

 

 

 

Real photographers tote hard black pitiless cameras. They shelter in bullet pocked doorways in bombed out areas of war torn towns in Wheretheactionisistan, oozing charisma and audacity. They video themselves bungee jumping from the Eiffel Tower. They wash in cold streams in the foothills of the Himalayas, their black camera thrown carelessly around the neck of a nearby Yeti.

The silver camera people, they worry that their man bag’s mohair hair lining might scratch the nice shiny swivelling monitor.  The women that their lipstick might make the shiny, pretty silver finish look greasy and smear on the monitor. Worse, that they don’t have their microfibre ‘Clean’n’Shiny Camera’ cloth with them and other photographers will think they are, well, not concerned with hygiene.

Now, I wouldn’t want you to think that I am in any way prejudiced. There are red cameras, white cameras, even blue cameras. They all have their place. I’m not sure where it is but I am sure where it is not. Nowhere near a black camera. People tell me that some photographers who use coloured cameras can take quite nice pictures. And I believe them, just as I believe people who tell me that fairies really exist. I’ve never seen one myself but I’ve read many articles by Victorian fantasists, frauds and lunatics who assure me they do and who I am I to argue with that?

When I started out in photography, this colour discrimination didn’t exist since the cameras were mostly made of wood. Then I had a various Japanese 6x6s that came in silver with a leather finish. Then various Pentax SLRs and Canon rangefinders that came in silver. It was only in Fleet Street in 1969 that I came across black cameras, The Nikon F!

From the moment that I realized what a great scam – this was work? – sorry, career, press photography was, I had visualised myself walking up Fleet Street, a brace of Nikons slung nonchalantly lens facing in over my right shoulder. I would greet my heroes, the people whose work  I had seen in the papers, Arthur Steel, Terry Fincher. Hi, Arthur! All right, Terry? And they would smile back, raise a hand in acknowledgement. They were decent sorts and even if they didn’t have a clue who I was they’d raise a hand just so as not to be rude.

When the Evening news handed me my camera kit, Nikon bodies, lenses, flash, bag, all the bits and bobs fresh, brand spanking new from the buying department, it was the first time I’d really noticed black cameras. And I realized that all my heroes used black cameras. I imagined the humiliation if Nikon had supplied silver Nikons instead of black. Backs turned all over Fleet Street. Who would deign to be seen acknowledging me, let alone talking to me or treating me as an equal? I would have been that new guy with the funny cameras, you know, the wimp.

But I wasn’t. I was a black man like all the others. One of the crowd. The in crowd. Which brings me up to August this year and my excursion into silver cameras. I thought the the Panasonic GX8 I was buying had a lot of spare space on its body. I thought it would look prettier in silver. It did, actually.

But pretty? A hardened old ex news hound, cynical, the kind of guy who nonchalantly slings his cameras on the sawdust floors of dangerous dive bars in African hell holes, has a pretty camera? Not this one. It taught me a lesson. I’m a black man through and through. So I swapped the silver body for a black one.

And you know, it feels good. I feel manly. I feel virile. I notice beautiful women looking at me again and fear in the eyes of other photographers. I walk tall. As I put on my slippers, do up my cardigan and make my cocoa, I can hear the voice of Mae West , summing it up for me.

“I’ve had silver cameras and I’ve had black cameras. Black is better”

 

Luck and Opportunity

What are the attributes of a good photographer? What is it that makes one person with a camera different or better than another?  The cliché answer, the one that drives photographers crazy but is still believed , if not voiced by many people – it’s the camera. I don’t subscribe to that fully but it would be naive to say that the camera doesn’t matter. Anyone who has tried to photograph soccer action with their mobile phone’s camera will know that the camera does matter. But given a reasonable camera, an entry level DSLR or Micro Four Thirds cameras, most of us can photograph most things.

So what makes some better others? Is it simply artistry, innate  ability and so the preserve of the few? I don’t think so. Too many of the very best photographers took it up by accident or force of circumstance rather than hunger to be a lensman. They learned to be good photographers. 

In the days before digital it was easier to be regarded as a good photographer. Photography required much more technique and knowledge. Mastering manual focusing for still life or landscape is straightforward  enough. For portraiture it is more difficult. You can’t put a sitter’s head in a clamp to keep them still any more! For fast moving children and sport it is a true hard won skill. If you knew how to do that and how to arrive at the correct exposure  setting you were a good photographer already. Never mind the picture. Anyone my age will remember the remark ‘did your pictures come out’? And the very height of praise, ‘ooh, they’re lovely and clear, aren’t they”? Back then, knowing how to work a camera could earn you a living because it was technical and  difficult and not everyone could do it. 

Nowadays pictures ‘coming  out’ and being ‘clear’ are a given. The camera sees to that. Paradoxically, being a good photographer is much more difficult. If a good camera makes a good photographer then everyone  is a good photographer. Trouble is, if everyone is a good photographer, no-one is a good photographer. To be good, you need to have something that others don’t. To be different. That is much more difficult than working a camera.

So back to my original question, what makes a good photographer? How do you do it? There’s no one answer but there is one thing that looms above the others. Just keep doing it. Just keep taking pictures and looking at pictures. Take pictures of anything and everything. It’s free! Cull your pictures ruthlessly. Look at advertising pictures and sports pictures, press pictures and exhibition pictures. Look at other people’s work on your favourite online photo mag. I mean look at. Study them. Think about them. Because it will be your brain that makes you the photographer you want to be. What do you like about a picture? Why do you like that? How would you have done that picture? Would you have done it as well?

Paul McCartney said of songwriting that what made him want to write songs was listening to his hero Buddy Holly. When he first started writing, all his songs sounded like Buddy Holly. But by just keeping doing it, gradually they became less like Buddy Holly and more like the McCartney and Lennon/ McCartney songs so much admired today. That’s true of photography too. Although he modern camera has de-skilled the photographic process, it cannot automate the ability to see and understand a situation and the instinct to find the best way to express it.

But then there is always luck! The great leveler of photographers. Some of my own favourite pictures are a product of serendipity. I just came across something. It just happened in front of me. It just appeared. You have to take advantage of it though and that’s why I think the character trait of opportunism  is so useful for a photographer. In politicians it is deprecated but for a photographer it is an asset. You see something you want, you grab it with your camera and it exists forever. It is something that no other medium can do so directly. See it, take it. 

I have so many examples of opportunism in my own favourite pictures that someone could reasonably say that I am unusually lucky. But years of experience  have taught me that to always have a camera with me (thank you MFT for making that painless!), to always be looking and to not often be too lazy to pick up the camera.Tab157

The pic here is one of my favourite opportunistic ones. I was in Jordan just before the first Gulf War getting stories of the refugees from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. On a spare day, I travelled the 150 miles from Amman to Petra with a colleague, journalist Jeff Edwards. Because of the imminent war there were no visitors. Our guide was a Jordanian Professor of History and we had him to ourselves one to one. There were just the three of us  and the professor wanted to ask us our thoughts on America’s intentions in Iraq. We sat down talking in the utter silence of the stone city when I heard a horse’s hooves drumming on the ground. I had a little Olympus Muji with me, picked it up and just loosed off one frame as the rider came thundering past. I didn’t have any great hopes for it, the scene arrived and unfolded so fast, the rider vanishing  into to the distance in a plume of red dust. Only back in London and with a processed film did I realize I could never have planned it so well.This must be a rare sight because Petra is normally packed with tourists. 

I think anyone seeing this picture would say I was a good photographer. Actually it was all down to luck and opportunism!

Still Powerful

I saw a picture today that I’d prefer not to have seen. It was the shot of a three year old child on a beach in Turkey. Nothing remarkable in that – except that this child was in the arms of a Turkish policeman and was dead, drowned on his family’s flight across the Mediterranean from Syria.

It made me think because once again the still photograph demonstrated its power to move people more powerfully than other media. Think of Don McCullin’s pic of the mother trying to breast feed her starving baby during the Biafran war. Think of Nic Ut’s shot of the little Vietnamese girl running, terrified, from the inferno of a napalm bomb. The emaciated Bosnian prisoners who sparked memories of the second world war concentration camps.  These pictures are among the many that have sparked a sea-change in the public perception of the events from which they arose. All stills.

I can think of no movie  sequence which has had the same effect, nor news report. Interestingly, movie sequences were shot of some of the events I mention. Yet it is the stills which we remember and which have become emblematic. Even more telling, the Bosnian image I mentioned was in fact a frame extracted from an ITN video. Yet who now remembers the video image from which it came?

What is it about the still photograph that gives it its unique power to access our emotions directly ? It isn’t novelty value that is for sure. Probably the first photograph that could be considered a news photograph was taken getting on for two centuries ago, the great fire of Hamburg, By the end of the 19th century half-tone printing had developed such that a photograph could be printed in a newspaper at the full speed of the run. And so news photography, the mass reproduced still photograph was born. It has changed little since then, other than colour becoming the norm. You might have though that as the novelty wore off, so would the impact. But it hasn’t. Why?

I think that the old phrase “the camera cannot lie” is buried deep in our psyche. The camera is still seen as an objective, cold recording instrument. Point it at a scene and it captures it. It is ironic that the earliest found use of the phrase  (in the Evening News, Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1897) goes on to say that “it can [lie], as badly as the canvas on occasion”. Even in these days of image manipulation software, when ‘photoshopping’ has become a byword for falsification, people still see the still photo as truth. The photographer was there, he pressed the shutter release, the camera recorded it, now I can see it.

But doesn’t that apply to words, a report, too? The reporter was there, he saw it, he reports it, we read it. I don’t think it does. We all know how subjective we are. We know how colleagues embellish stories and we know we do too. We know how easy it is to do and we know that a reporter works for an organisation with a viewpoint. In our age of communication we are aware of being manipulated, that the same story can be angled and bent, that the same information can form a dozen different stories by the time it reaches us.

But not the photograph! The photograph of a triumphant jihadist standing over a dead enemy is the same photograph in all those dozen different media outlets. It may be bigger or smaller or cropped but it is demonstrably the same image. If it is published on an ISIS recruiting web site it will portray a hero. If it is published in a western newspaper, it will portray a wanton murderer. But the interpretation is in the viewer’s mind, not the editor’s or the business interests of the proprietor. The photograph just gives you the facts.

Surely that applies to video, too? Video is just as native to web and new media use as stills and words are. An event unfolds and the camera records 24 or more stills a second which are simply strung together to give the impression of movement. Isn’t that just the facts? It obviously is but I think the difference here is not in believability but presentation.  A video starts, things build up and the video reaches its headline event. That passes and the video winds down. The whole thing might take 30 seconds or more.  Video leads us in to the main event, shows it and then leads us out. It softens the impact.

In a commercial movie or even a documentary you can shoot and edit for impact. In straight news reportage you can’t. There often isn’t time and anyway, in a violent or upsetting event, just to show the ‘good bit’ over and over leads to accusations of sensationalism and possible censure. That’s the heart of my point. The still photograph is unmatched for the portrayal of dramatic real life events precisely because its very creation represents an editing of reality to an irreducible minimum. Here is an event. Here is the salient fraction of a second of that event. You don’t have to show it over and over because if the reader wants to see it over and over, he can look at it over and over.

Sometimes the picture captures not only the immediate drama but something longer lasting. The photograph of little Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc, naked because the clothes were burned from her body by the napalm will live on forever because it speaks of the plight not of just her or the Vietnam war but of the thousands of innocent, helpless children suffering in any war, any time, anywhere. In the picture are soldiers and two children holding hands as they run from the fire in the background. You can stare at the horror and fear of these children and see it all and understand it all.

Do you remember the video? It is shocking but it is but it is footage of an awful event. It doesn’t imprint itself on your mind or make you think much beyond the incident itself. It unfolds whereas the still just smacks you in the face. Every time you see it.

As does Joe Rosenthal’s  Iwo Jima image as the U.S. flag is raised on Mount Suribachi. The drama! The triumph! Was the winning of a battle ever better portrayed? Or Robert Capa’s loyalist soldier at the moment of death. The sheer sudden, random violence of it!

But it’s not all strife. In spite of all the movies that Marilyn Monroe made, the image everyone remembers is of her standing over a ventilation grill with her skirt blowing up. It doesn’t have to be war or violence. The early photographers tried to emulate painters but that was a blind alley. The real art of photography is the more art of the novelist. The ability to observe an event and recognise its meaning, draw it out and show it to other people.

Where the photographer is lucky is that people still haven’t lost their intrinsic trust in the mechanical nature of image making and therefore its plain truth. “I f I had been there with a camera”, they think, “I’d have taken that picture”.  It’s true that some of the greatest pictures were made by just by being at in the right place at the right time. That doesn’t alter the image or its worth but being in the right place at the right time once isn’t much of a qualification for a career.

Modern cameras have removed much of the need for raw photographic technique but what they cannot remove is the necessity for sensitivity to the world around you and the ability to recognize and portray the telling moment from it. If you can do that for current events , you can become a journalist, a movie maker, a script writer, a director, many things.

If you can do that and you want to express it directly to your fellow humans with maximum effect in minimum time, you need to be a photographer.

The Art of Noise

One of the things I like about making my YouTube MFT-centric videos is that they make me think hard about everything I say in them. Actually, that’s a what I don’t like about making them too. I recently made one on the Olympus 40-150mm f/2.8 ‘Pro’ zoom and included some shots of a band called Girls With Guitars taken at my local blues club. The shot here of Sadie Johnson is representative of the quality and a number of people contacted me, including one saying that the video had persuaded him to make the jump from a Canon DSLR to Micro Four Thirds.

My immediate reaction to something like that is always the same. I hadn’t intended to sell anything to anyone. Did I over-egg things? I took a look at the EXIF to make sure that when I said it was shot at ISO 6400, I had the right shot and the one I’d used wasn’t at ISO 400. Had I used massive noise reduction on it which was disguised by the video process? The answer was no, no and no. If the quality they had seen from an MFT camera/ lens in the (vestigial) light of the club surprised them….I can honestly say it surprised me too. This is 100th @f/2.8, with the zoom hosed right out to 150mm on the E-M5II. And sharpening off.

picture-1-2

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In fact when I first imported my RAWs into Lightroom and checked the results, I did a double take myself. These were at 6400? The RAWs have more noise than shows on this size repro, so I’ve included a 100% pull up but these are with no noise reduction applied. The only difference with the video frames is that they have been downsampled to 1920×1080 which is perhaps the most effective noise reduction of all. Nonetheless, even without the downsampling the 6400 is completely usable. I used to specialise in live shots for record companies, newspapers and magazines of bands like Abba, The Who, Wings and AC/DC  and the quality I could get in those days from the best fully professional Nikon gear didn’t approach this.

So why did I feel uneasy that someone was persuaded by my video to move to MFT equipment. That’s easy. If MFT is so capable, imagine how much more so is a 36x24mm sensor with 4 times the image area and consequently bigger light storage ‘buckets’. On the other hand, my correspondent already had DSLR equipment so what he had alighted on was that smaller, lighter cameras could now do the job that he wanted. It wasn’t that I had hoodwinked anyone into thinking that MFT quality was better. Just that it was good enough for his requirements. I’m comfortable with that because he’s buying MFT for the same reasons I did.

Which led me to wonder whether, if I were a working pro in the media still, would I now be using Micro Four Thirds equipment? I think after the introduction of the Panasonic GH4 and Olympus E-M1 and the f/2.8 zooms for both systems, I probably would. The Achilles heel of the system, the continuous autofocus has improved by leaps and bounds, more in my view from greater and thus faster computing power than Panasonic’s Depth from Defocus or Olympus’s on chip phase detection. I only ever covered sport under protest anyway and back then it was manual focus so I can say in all honesty that even MFT continuous focus is a lot better than a bored photographer willing himself to keep focus on some £250,000 a week Chelsea footballer kicking a ball around apparently at random. I did say I didn’t like sport!

Leaving aside the system’s weakest (but not weak) point, what else would stop me using it? One thing would be if the cameras looked amateur, looked like consumer products. With the GH4 and E-M1, especially with battery grips, that just  isn’t so. Client perception does matter, even if it shouldn’t. My Hasselblad equipment got me studio work in a way that no 35mm ever would. Once, when I was shooting a book cover portrait of a young, lively author for a new publishing client, I elected to use my Nikon and 105mm. The art director came in to the studio and remarked, ‘oh, we’ve hired a busker, then’ when he saw my handheld Nikon plugged into the Elinchroms. I went to the car and brought in my Hasselblad, bunged it on a tripod and shot away. The fact that the shot they used was taken on my Nikon gave me satisfaction but an art director is an art director, he’s in charge and he signs the cheques so there was no percentage in me labouring the point.

I think under modern conditions, I’d probably keep a Sony A7 with a standard lens plus short and medium telephone for studio in place of the Hasselblad. Maybe clients would still expect to see a medium format or a camera from Nikon or Canon, I don’t know. Whatever, I’d obtain one if it would bring in business.

In terms of my general work, though, stills on movie sets, features for magazines and women’s pages for newspapers, live music, occasional fashion, I can’t see any impediment now to the use of an MFT camera. The single shot auto-focus is impeccable and I cannot overestimate the usefulness of the electronic shutter on a movie set instead of the hideous sound blimps for DSLRs. And imagine being able to hear what people had to say at  press conferences on TV without the chatter-clatter of those infernal mirrors! And single AF is more than fast enough for cat-walk model gait.

The only long term worry I’d have about the system professionally is if it went the direction of the GX8 and started to compete for pixel count. For professional purposes 16Mp is quite enough and any development energy should be in the direction of less noise on the present count. It is obviously necessary to keep the enthusiast market on board – more important than the professional one in terms of sales – but I’m not convinced that any serious photographer feels the need for more pixels over even less noise. I’m even less convinced that MFT with its interchangeable lenses and sophisticated – and complex- electronics is suitable for a beginner. That seems to me to be a market that MFT shouldn’t and probably couldn’t address.

A camera like the GM5 may be tiny and look like a compact but it most certainly isn’t, in reality having more in common with the GH4 than a £100 Fuji.

I’ll finish by saying a quick word of thanks to Sadie Johnson. Not only did she (and her fellow band members Heather Crosse, Eliana Cargnelutti and drummer Jamie Little) provide a fine evening of foot stomping full blooded blues for me, she’s probably sold a good few MFT cameras for Olympus and Panasonic.
Which means that I needn’t fret over whether I’ve misled anyone. If you bought one and feel let down, blame Sadie, not me. It’s all her fault.

KISS

KISS. Keep it simple, stupid, as a wartime US Navy motto has it. I always try to but recently a comment appeared on  my ‘Why I Use Micro Four Thirds’ video saying that the whole  point of Micro Four Thirds was compactness and simplicity, to reduce gear. The writer was very certain of himself and his views in a way that I can only envy.

In fact, one part of me agreed with him but another part  strongly resisted his premise. The point of MFT to me is that it is simple and compact – if you want.  A Panasonic GX7 with a 17mm f/1.8 Olympus lens is about as simple as it gets. But if your interest is in photographing wild life then that camera lens combination won’t get you far. You’ll either spook the animals or make a meal for them. So a much more complicated set up with a long lens, tripod and maybe remote control might be more appropriate. MFT can do that, too. A Panasonic GH4 with Olympus 40-150 f/2.8 zoom and its converter is far from compact or simple – but it is still comparatively so and that seems to me to be the point.

I like looking at and doing all kinds of photography. Street stuff of people, landscapes, insects buildings and portraits, musicians and still life, it just goes on. My correspondent seemed feel only one type of photography had any value or meaning and that was what could be done with simple equipment. It reminded me of a person I travelled with once who regarded himself as a music lover but would only listen to Dixieland jazz. That myopic view is not so much a love of something as, at best,  having a very small comfort zone, at worst a symptom of OCD.

Look at the wonders of NASA’a library. Is that not photography? The World Press Picture awards? Oxford Scientific’s work. Are they not photography? They are not made with simple equipment. I think that an obsession with using ‘simple’ gear is just as much an obsession with gear as someone who collects the stuff. When you see a picture you like, how do you know how many cameras the person who took it has? Do you care?

To me, it’s all in the picture. You like it or you don’t. It’s often interesting to know what camera was used  for a picture. It doesn’t actually tell you much because most pictures could have been made on most cameras. But It would be wrong to say it tells you nothing. In my case, I’d been training as a photographer for about 3 years when I first started looking at Henri-Cartier Bresson’s work. I was interested that he used what was then known as a miniature format camera – 35mm to you and me. The smallest acceptable format for a press man at that time was 6×6, usually in the form of a Rolleiflex and that was what I was using.

While my newspaper would never accept the results of such a camera, knowing that camera Henry Carter’s  work was done on told me that the results from such a camera  ought to be acceptable. The Leica M3 and 50mm lens that he used matched my Rollei for angle of view – both being standard lenses – but the Leica’s relative compactness and speed of use with its thumb lever wind made it a much better camera for photographing things reportage style, as they happened, rather than watching what happened and setting it up to happen again press photographer style.

In that sense, my correspondent was right. It is about compactness and simplicity. The problem with the purist view is that there is more to it than that.  The camera and lens that is good for street work will not necessarily be the camera for a war situation. Here is a shot I took during the first Gulf War in Tel Aviv. It shows a Patriot missile zapping across the skyline (it actually hit the incoming Scud missile just where you see that blip. For this I had a motor drive equipped Nikon camera permanently set up on a tripod with a 24mm F2 (I think) lens on a tripod. As soon as the air raid siren went off, I could go out on the balcony and wait for a shot. Basically, just press the shutter button and fire at 5 frames per second hoping for the best. Here’s the shot.pro040

What, I wonder, would my purist friend have done in this situation? How would his one camera and lens fits all solution have worked? I had to have more than one camera ( I had 4, actually) or else I couldn’t have left one out on the balcony. It had to have a fancy wide-angle on it. And a motor drive. And a tripod. Purist it is not, yet in the context of its use, it is as simple as I could make it.

I am unashamed to say that I use whatever combination of equipment I feel is necessary to accomplish an end.  It is all Micro four Thirds, though. At its simplest, a GM5 with 17mm F/1.7 Olympus lens. At its most complex, my camera bag with f/2/8 zooms and 2 camera bodies, macro lens, filters, lens converter, spare SD cards…and there’s probably more.

I’m always put off my stroke by people with utter certainty in their lives but I feel better after writing this. There is far more to photography than any one individual can define. It is about making images but what is the harm in enjoying great technology at the same time? Of saving up and getting that new lens, the anticipation of it arriving, trying it out for the first time? Who is t say that it won’t improve your photography?

We’ve always had puritan photographers but I sometimes think they are more about stopping other people’s fun than promoting better photography. The Micro four Thirds philosophy is not about compactness and simplicity in itself.

The thinking behind it and the reason for its growing popularity is that it can do pretty much anything a DSLR can but will always be smaller and lighter. Not small, note, but smaller, not light but lighter. There are two ways of using smaller, lighter. One is to save your back. The other is to carry a bigger range of equipment.

I use MFT for both depending on my mood and needs at the time. My correspondent prefers to limit himself and his gear and that’s fair enough. But when he remarks that ‘you don’t need fancy equipment if you know what you are doing’ it rankles. Is my Nikon on the balcony fancy equipment? If you want to photograph missiles, no. If you want to photograph people in the street, possibly.

But surely it’s the picture that counts. In a lifetime in photography, I have never seen anything that convinces me that owning and using a lot of equipment makes you a bad photographer. Even less so that owning one camera and lens makes you a good one. It just sounds like petty snobbery to me.

 

 

Micro Menu Matters

I’ve just finished a book on the menu system of the Olympus E-M5II. It’s the first one I’ve done on an Olympus camera after 5 Panasonic ones, from the GH3 through to the GM5 and it has given me some small insights into the philosophies behind the svelte exteriors of the camera bodies.

The fact is there’s nothing about either maker’s technology or engineering that makes one inherently better than the others. Panasonic has its more flexible video options, Olympus its in body stabilization.  The E-M5II has upped the ante for Olympus video-wise but Panasonic still has the 4k with its stills from movie options and remains the camera of choice for movie people. The products are different, yes, but as an experienced user of both marques, I can’t find any inherent advantage in either.

But the menus! I will lay it on the line. If the photographer is the brain behind a camera, The menu of a modern (meaning, essentially, mirrorless) digital camera is its central nervous system. Mae West’s remark, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better” would work for menus if you substituted Panasonic for rich and Olympus for poor. “I’ve had Panasonic and I’ve had Olympus. Panasonic is better”.

It’s not that Panasonic is perfect and Olympus poor. Both will do the job. But with 50 or so main menu  headings, many of those 50 themselves having myriad sub-headings and those sub-headings often having a glut of sub-sub headings, terminology and layout does matter. For example, one of the best features of digital cameras is the ability store often used settings  for instant recall.  Both camera work this the same way. Go to the shooting mode you want to use, aperture priority, manual, whatever. Go through the menus setting everything as you want it. Brilliant! You now have a digital camera that works for you. Ok, lets save that so that it can be instantly recalled.

Panasonic, go to the Custom Menu and choose Cust. Set Mem. There, select C1 for example and OK to confirm it. Now, when you set C1 on the mode dial, you summon up – surprise, surprise! – the settings you just set.

Olympus. Set everything as you want it, same as the Panasonic. So far, so good. Now, go to Shooting Menu 1. Select Reset/Myset. Now MySet1, Set and Yes. Now go to Custom Menu section B, Button/Dial/Lever, then Mode Dial Function where you can set MySet1 to any mode dial function except a custom one, since there isn’t any such thing. So find a mode like Art that you won’t use and put it there. In future, to recall your custom setting 1, set the mode dial to Art. Now I don’t know who thought of that but I can tell you that I won’t be hiring him to design my new house. He can argue as long as he likes that labelling the back door  ‘front’ because you can walk through the house to the front door is perfectly logical, I’m not buying it.

And another thing! Setting the file quality. On the Panasonic, Rec Menu, Quality.
Olympus, Shooting Menu 1 and then this!

Now I can’t tell what that symbol means. It looks a bit like one of those little guys that the Space Invaders used to kill. Or was it one of the Space Invaders themselves? Or a radio telescope? Maybe an Anglo-Saxon warrior’s helmet that came off his head after he was slain? Maybe it sets the camera to Shotgun Mode where pressing the button peppers an uncooperative  subject with buckshot? I’d have liked that for sessions with one or two of the footballers I’ve had the misfortune to have to photograph. Whatever it is, how does it mean ‘record mode to take pictures or movies’ as the Info button informs you? Couldn’t you just print ‘Quality’ there in place of the icon? Why wouldn’t you? There’s more but I think I’ve made my point.

If this sounds like a rant against Olympus, it isn’t. To justify it, I’ll go back to my books on menu systems. I do these by sitting with the camera for days at a time just trying out very menu setting for myself until I understand it and what it does. My first one, on the Panasonic GH3, took a couple of weeks of solid effort and I really felt I’d mastered it. My first and only Olympus one, on the E-M5II has taken a month and I still feel less than 100% certain of myself with it.

But, even if I appear anti-Olympus, I’m not. To prove it, I have four MFT camera bodies. Two from Panasonic and two from Olympus. Menus? Like I said, I’ve got Panasonic and I’ve got Olympus. Panasonic is better.