Tuesday, 31 October 2006

Creativity and limitations (part 2)

This is the second part of a short piece looking at what gets in the way when taking photos. I don't mean physical obstacles, but mental ones. Previously I noted some factors that tend to stop us venturing out. Now I want to explore what might cause problems once we are out there with the intention of taking photos.

From time to time I take small groups of photographers out on location. I have often found it interesting to watch them as they work in a group. The first sign that the focus of attention has slipped is chatter. People in the group do the natural thing and start talking to one another. Now this doesn't mean that they are no longer looking. You can carry on a conversation and be visually aware at the same time. But this takes practice. A quick glance at where they are looking normally reveals that they are simply watching where they are going, and no longer looking around.

The same problem occurred during a trip to the Lake District in 2005. Because the walking required some attention due to the uneven and steep ground it was easy to stop looking for photos and for some people they slipped from photo mode to walking mode. The Canadian photographer and teacher, Freeman Patterson, used the term "relaxed attentiveness" when talking about this subject. He pointed out that we need to put our concerns about work, finances, relationships etc. to one side when we go out to take photos. I feel that this is very much like the practice of meditation (although meditation techniques vary considerably).

A few years ago I was out with a group and one of them started asking about the theatre photography work that I do from time to time and mentioning a production that she had seen. It was obvious that she was no longer fully present among the scenery that was all around us, but had travelled in her mind back to that theatre experience.

Other things can also make photographing difficult. Sometimes it seems a bit embarrassing to start photographing a small plant growing out of a wall, when there are people passing by. Or you might be in an area where you don't feel very secure. All that highly expensive photographic gear may be a temptation for a mugger. Of course one thing that can help here is to work in a group. If several people around you are photographing similarly strange objects then you don't feel that you stand out so much, and you probably also feel more secure within your own "gang" of like-minded people.

The infrared photo was taken in Denham in 2005

Monday, 30 October 2006

Tripod or hobby-horse (both, actually)

Something of an annoyance is the number of "tripod looking" devices on the market that don't do what a tripod should. OK. Why would you buy the thing in the first place? Normally with the intention of steadying the camera and getting sharper photos. Some materials are more suitable that others for making tripods. Metals are good. Most are fairly rigid, but some of them are also heavy. Commonly aluminium is used in tripods because it is quite light in relation to it's strength. Magnesium is also used in some more expensive tripods for the same reasons, only more so. In recent years carbon fibre has become popular. There is a cost penalty to bear, but where a tripod is going to be carried for several hours the benefits of it's very light weight and high strength may be worth it.

There is a material which should in most cases not be used for making tripods. PLASTIC. Yes, it is light. Yes, it is cheep. But no, it is not rigid and therefore no good for tripods. Now there are parts of a tripod that do not suffer if plastic is used. Adjustment knobs (assuming that the screw part is metal) are best made from the stuff. The little feet at the ends of the legs are also fine.

In general the higher up the tripod a component is, the more any lack of rigidity will be noticed. That means that in particular plastic used in the making of the head is undesirable, if not totally defeating of the reason for buying the thing in the first place. Yet this is where these pseudo-tripods often have the highest concentration of plastic. This is clearly because it is much cheaper to make a head out of plastic than aluminium, and after all it still looks like a tripod. Don't be fooled. The price you don't pay in the shop is the price you pay with your photography.

Now time to clear up one more point. How much this affects you depends on what type of camera and lens you intend to put on the tripod. If you will only mount a small compact camera without extra lens attachments then these tripods are for you (except in high winds). But the heavier the camera and the more out of balance the whole thing is the more important it is to exclude plastic wherever possible.

At this stage I would like to recount something that happened to me quite a few years ago. I had travelled to stay with a friend in Spain, and I had taken with me a quite heavy medium format camera (Bronica GS1) and lenses. On one day I decided to take some photos of my friend in the park. I set up the camera on my tripod and fitted the 250 mm lens (equivalent to about 125 mm on a 35 mm camera). This lens is a physically long lens and the combination looks more like light artillery than photo gear. It is also very unbalanced as there is no tripod collar on the lens, so it is attached at the base of the camera.

I took the shots and processed them when I was back in England. I was very upset to find that they were not at all sharp. After all, I had used a tripod (and a remote shutter release). I was very puzzled. I had used this lens quite extensively in the studio (with flash) and found it to be very sharp. All the same I made a series of tests. Eventually I realised that the problem was not the lens, but the tripod. It was a good quality tripod from a good company. It turned out that they had "upgraded" the design of the tripod and changed the centre column design, fitting a telescopic column fastened by a plastic collet. This meant that the column could be extended very quickly. The original column design had been an all metal affair that had needed to be bolted together to extend its length (a slower procedure). As the older design of column was still available as a spare part I was able to "downgrade" my tripod. The problem never returned. I still own and use that tripod today, and it has been used with everything up to a 5x4 Sinar P.

The image above is an infrared shot taken in Norway in 2005 (with a tripod).

Creativity and limitations (part 1 - before you even start)

What limits your creativity. Well, the same thing that limits mine probably. Whatever it is, the one thing it is unlikely to be is your equipment, and yet many (maybe most) of us spent much of our time and energy on that aspect of the process.

I made a little list of the things that I think get in my way when it comes to taking pictures. It goes something like this. Time, other commitments, weather conditions (too cold, too wet, too hot, not wet enough) and the worst of all which I think is summed up by the word "inertia". That's it. That "I'll do it tomorrow" feeling. Yet I am passionate about the subject and spend many hours thinking and planning how I will make new and interesting images.

The same problem affects other parts of my life. It is the reason that I have not updated the web site that I had intended to revamp over a year ago. Please feel free to visit the existing site: www.jhmaw.com

I'm not proposing any solutions here. Only the thought that being aware of this problem may in some way help to overcome it. Let's see.

Part two will look briefly at what gets in the way during the process of taking photos.

The image you see is a photo taken in the Sierra Nevada in September '06

Sunday, 29 October 2006

The first post

Well this is the first tentative step to creating something that I hope might be of interest to like minded people (that is those who are interested in photography). I am a professional photographer working in the south east of England. As well as working as a photographer I also teach photography (and image editing) and take photographs for my own enjoyment.

I am not sure yet how often I will be able to post here, but I thought the best thing would be to make a start and see where it goes. Also, thanks to Christine for the use of the photo.

All the best.