Five Photography Truisms That May Not Be… True

On Bredon Hill

On Bredon Hill

Rules, rules, rules. We all look for them to help guide us, especially when setting out in a new profession, project or personal endeavour. What are the things I can and cannot do according to accepted social norms? What have others done before that are good and bad? What are the legal as well as ethical aspects that I need to be aware of and what are the ‘truisms’ (i.e. a statement that is obviously true but says nothing new or interesting) that sometimes provide the unspoken rules of how one should operate?

It’s the last of these that interest me most, especially those so called truisms that may not actually be, well, true. Here are five that, as a photographer, I’m sure you will have heard at some point in your career that I’d like to pick up on and see if they are indeed true.

  1. Everyone’s a photographer now.
  2. A camera is like a toothbrush, it does the job.
  3. The best camera is the one you have with you.
  4. It as to be in focus (or sharp, or properly exposed or, or, or).
  5. Passion trumps everything.

Let’s take a look at these and decide just how true they are.

1. Everyone’s a photographer now.

95 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram per day by over 1 billion active users over half of which are active every day. Over 40 billion photos and videos have been shared on the Instagram platform since its conception and that’s just one platform. With the other popular sharing platforms like Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Pinterest, 500px and Tumblr etc the number of photo uploads is almost impossible to estimate. The esteemed Internet researcher Mary Meeker in her annual Internet state of the union report for 2019 has a graphic showing that the world was taking 1 trillion photos annually – and that was in 2017!

How do you as a photographer in such an image saturated world make a difference then? Simple. Whilst it may seem that everyone is making (and uploading) images and there would seem to be millions of amazing photographers out there “the only difference between you and the photographer next to you–is YOU.” People will only want to work with you because of who you are. Your images are unique because your interpretation of a scene is based on what you bring to it. You can make a difference by being better at using the technology, bringing your own creative eye and interacting with the people and places you photograph better than (or differently to) everyone else. Of course this takes hard work with lots of practice, trial and error and countless bad photographs to get that one good image. More than this though it takes lots of imagination. As David Bailey says,

“It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the extraordinary.”

2. A camera is like a toothbrush, it does the job.

This is a quote from one of the all time great photographers Don McCullin. To McCullin a camera is simply a tool for getting a job done. It’s what you do with the tool and how you use it to craft whatever it is you are making that is important. Of course this is true, but…

…here’s my counter argument.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that a great craftsmen can make something from the material at her disposal no matter how bad the tools she uses. It is the idea that counts, as well as how that idea gets turned into something tangible by applying passion and dedication to the task. What about, however, if you were so at one with the tools you use that they almost fell away and became unnoticeable allowing you to create as if they were not there? This, I believe, is what a well designed camera can do for you. Make no mistake, this is not an argument in support of so called ‘gear acquisition syndrome (G.A.S). The camera does not have to be the latest, or even the best. It simply has to be one that you find most comfortable, easiest and intuitive to use. In fact it’s an argument against G.A.S because changing your camera every year or so means you are probably unlikely to really get to know it fully and will be ever trying to remember what buttons do what and which options from a menu of hundreds you should have set. Sometimes less is definitely more and just setting your camera to use the minimal set of options is not a bad idea.

Fujifilm X100F

Fujifilm X100F

3. The best camera is the one you have with you.

This is often code for, I have a smartphone which I carry with me so why do I need to bother with a proper camera? Whilst it is true that smartphone cameras have ever increasing power and versatility in the lenses they have on board as well as in the range of apps to process images they offer I’m of the opinion that the ‘humble’ DSLR or CSC/mirrorless camera still trounces its ‘smart’ rival. Here’s a story to illustrate the point.

Last year I was out walking in Devon when my wife spotted, in a tree we were walking past, what turned out to be a baby Tawny Owl. It was a hot day and, as bad luck would have it, I had decided not to bring my camera along that day. I did however have my smartphone. Here’s the best image I managed to get out of several taken with that.

Tawny Owl Taken with iPhone SE

Tawny Owl Taken with iPhone SE

Whilst this is okay it’s hardly going to win BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year! Luckily I was only half-a-mile or so away from home (albeit requiring walking up a pretty steep hill to get back). However that’s still a mile round trip which, with the best will in the world, was going to take me at least half-an-hour. Was it worth it and would the owl still be there when I got back? He/she seemed pretty comfortable and settled in for a while so I decided to go for it.

Thankfully when I got back the owl was still there in exactly the same place and this time, armed with my Fujifilm X-T3 and XF 50-140mm f/2.8 lens, I was able to capture this shot.

Tawny Owl Shot with Fujifilm X-T3 and XF 50-140mm f/2.8 Lens

Tawny Owl Take with Fujifilm X-T3 and XF 50-140mm f/2.8 Lens

Whilst the first image certainly enables you to see what was in the tree the second, not surprisingly, is orders of magnitude better in resolution, white balance, clarity etc, etc. I also realise that my iPhone SE is an extremely old model now (Apple only just support it still) and the camera is far inferior to what you will find on current models. However the point here is not really which is better but which, if you are a serious photographer, would you carry for ‘just in case’ opportunities like this. I believe that it has to be the dedicated camera. For me the decision is not so much about convenience as comfort in terms of how you carry your kit. As I have discussed countless times in this blog I have a range of bags and really have no excuse for not having the right one for any occasion ensuring I always have a decent camera/lens combo with me. My current go-to bags are either my Billingham Hadley Small Pro if I want to carry minimal kit or my Lowepro m-Trekker BP 150 Backpack for more serious kit.

4. It has to be in focus (or sharp, or properly exposed or, or, or)

One of the most famous images of all time is Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare made by
Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1932. Indeed this image image made Time magazine’s The Most Influential Images of All Time list which included images made over the last two centuries. Cartier-Bresson had ‘simply’ pointed his camera through a fence to capture a man leaping across a puddle of water. The resulting image however is a masterpiece of form and light. The man is in silhouette and appears to mimic the poses of the dancers in a poster on the wall behind him. The ripples in the puddle around the ladder mimic the curved metal pieces nearby. I suspect this image was chosen by Time from the countless images Cartier-Bresson made during his life because it is the quintessential example of Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment” the term he coined which sums up his photographic style of immortalising fleeting moments on film.

Look again at the image however. The man is blurred, the image is quite grainy and the sky blown out, but this matters not a jot. Indeed all these characteristics add to the image and make it what it is. The Leica camera of 1932, although one of the most cutting edge  cameras of its day, was of course no match for the technical wizardry that we now all have, even in our mobile phones. The point here is that we can all spend too much time fretting that we don’t have the latest camera bodies with the best lenses. Unless we get out there with what we have got and are creating images as much and often as possible, no matter if some are grainy, or blurred or not composed well, it’s the creating of the image that is important.

Two Girls in Soho

Two Girls in Soho

5. Passion trumps everything.

Okay, this is a trick one, of course passion trumps everything. A passion for work is what gets us up in the morning, stops us turning to drugs, alcohol, depression and early death and what makes life worth living.

The psychologist and ‘happiness researcher’ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow state’ to describe an optimal state of performance when someones work simply flows out of them with little effort. You’ve probably heard of people talking about being “in the zone” when working seems easy and uncomplicated and they seem to create things with very little effort.

Csikszentmihalyi describes eight characteristics of flow which we could all learn from for our life as well as our photography.

  1. Complete concentration on the task;
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
  5. Effortlessness and ease;
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills;
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task.

Some of my best shooting experiences are when my mental, physical and emotional states all seem to come together, distractions melt away and all I do is focus on the subject. I’m in the ‘flow’.

Interestingly, I also find that when shooting portraits, this flow almost seems to be mutual. It’s as if you are at one with the person you are photographing who instinctively seems to know how to ‘play’ to the camera. Here’s a shoot I did with Kirstin a while ago which I think illustrates this.

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