The Covid Zoom Inspiration

Sometime during March, my camera club closed down because of Covid19 – there was no big announcement, just a quiet closure, and a sudden end to the programme of events that were scheduled.

One member acquired a Zoom account for the benefit of maybe half a dozen people, so we could keep in touch.  It soon expanded though to include the whole of the club, and since then has gone from strength to strength.

What this blog post is about, is the results of that closure, and what happened afterwards.

We had a couple of meetings to see how it would go, and, when it became apparent that most of the membership were keen, it fell to a group of three to work out the programme that would ensue.  All the competitions had stopped, and there had been no club committee meetings, so we plodded on.

What happened was one of the best programmes of speakers I have ever had the privilege to watch – ranging from people with little experience, to solid professionals with years of speaking experience, based around the world.

The common denominator was the software called Zoom, which seemed to float to the top at the start of the Covid lockdown.  

I certainly had never heard of it before, and I gather a lot more people were in exactly the same situation.  At the start, there seemed to be glitches, and some security issues, but the company seemed to get on top of that pretty quickly, and ironed out the problems.  Pretty soon I saw that many businesses were using it as a conferencing tool, including our own government.

There is always (for some) a fear of new technology, but under these trying circumstances, I have been pleased to see people I would have considered to be wary of this sort of meeting – happily joining in after a training session.  Even some who said they were sure they wouldn’t like it, have been converted.  

Of course – it’s not for everyone, and if it’s not a place you would feel comfortable, then that is fine. (But you’re missing such a lot!)

However – the results of the talks, coming as quickly as they have (and still do) has been inspirational.  

Not just the club, but the Royal Photographic Society too, has put on a series of events and talks that simply could not be missed…. So what is the result so far….

Well, a cornucopia of ideas from an eclectic mix of photographers and artists.  

We started with Art Nude, and nudes in the landscape, reflecting professionalism, and images you would be happy to show your aged mother.  Not a genre I was planning on trying any time soon, but the photographs and the expertise was unmistakable.

From here we moved to stories, told by different images, and a whole talk and photographs based  entirely on a work of fiction.  Some stunning work by a master of wildlife photography, who showed us how he was able to attract birds into his garden, and gave us a tour round with excellent photography.

Based on this talk, the club ran a competition based on ‘birds’ – a fun competition with a very loose theme – images ranged from model kingfishers, to easter chicks in a nest of creme eggs.

So what have I learned?

Well, images can be produced that are interpretations, and not records of events, the subject comes first, and the images second.  Planning is key, and if you are creating your own photographs from a work of fiction, then the image must be moved by the story itself.

The differences in attitude and experience of the speakers shows me that creativity is not necessarily something we can just learn.  It can require a complete change of mindset, and is something that needs constant practice.

There will be many failures, but these are essential, as are the risks.  

For example – Edward Weston produced a startling black and white image of a green pepper – called ‘Pepper Number 30’.  What I hadn’t really thought about, was that there must have been at least 29 earlier versions, and who knows how many afterwards.  The point is that Weston thought that number 30 was THE image, and the one he was probably most satisfied with.

Photographers must learn (I feel it should be compulsory) to cultivate a willingness to experiment, and think about the question ‘what if I did this?’..

I also learned that watching these excellent people present their work – that what we saw was a carefully cultivated, curated collection of images – and not just a thrown together selection of work.  They all saw that there was no ‘one way’ of doing things – there was no wrong way, there was just a multitude of different ways.  Some would just work better than others.

The images were not ‘scripted’ – they were born out of imagination, inspiration, and creativity.  Even the loveliest landscapes that I saw of Mongolia, were thought through pieces, with the photographer even showing us one or two of his rejects, and explaining the thought process.

Each specialist image maker held true to their passions and convictions, and to a large extent didn’t worry too much about how others reacted to them.  There is therefore a true correlation between creation and passion.

The other thing they do is make time for their art.  It’s not created in between sandwiches on a Wednesday afternoon.  They have spent time and effort looking at other people’s work, and at art.  They have attended exhibitions, judged competitions, made work for sale, and importantly, made work for themselves.

So looking back at what I have seen so far – travel, people, factual, experimental, wildlife, landscape, nudes and totally different uses of camera and drones – my mind is racing with ideas.

I look at the programme to come, and see more projects, the Vikings, more wildlife, sports, astrophotography, underwater, street, work with textures, and composite photography.

Lots of things I’ve never tried, not thought about particularly either, but we all need to open our eyes and minds to different mindsets.

Lockdown has been an absolute pain in a lot of ways – there’s been a lot of agony and grief, but there has also been an abundance of creative imagery – some fantastically beautiful and poignant work, reflecting how photographers have responded to being left to their own devices.

Is there still going to be a place for the ‘traditional’ camera club after this?  I’d say yes, because you can’t beat the personal interactions that you get when you meet up.  Will they be different? I hope so – I hope that more photographers will be willing to experiment, and break the rules.

Is there going to be a place for Zoom, or equivalent? – again, I think yes.  How else can you have a presenter from the other side of the world, or even Europe?  Speakers from the deep south of the UK, or the north of Scotland.  

One thing I do hope, is that clubs continue to have these brilliant speakers – so that we can see the amazing work that might be totally different to our own……

I look forward to hearing your comments, and seeing you let yourselves go….

Photo Workshops and Photo Talks….

A photography workshop is something that everyone should attend at least once – and more than once is better if you can afford it.  It is, after all, a place where every attendee is interested in photography, and this is great for discussion, practice and experience.

The knowledge you can gather from a good workshop can be invaluable.

I’ve been fortunate to hear some wonderful speakers, who frankly deserved more exposure than they were getting, and conversely, I’ve sat through some awful presentations by accomplished photographers.

Based on my own experiences though, I’d suggest that people attend talks, and lectures – no matter how obscure the subject matter may be.  You never know what you’ll learn.

So, reasons to attend lectures and workshops:-

1. The Speaker – Don’t always base your attendance on who it is – look at their work, and use that as a start point.  Don’t forget that good photographers don’t always make good speakers (and vice versa).

2. To see the work of other attendees, if it is a workshop where you bring images yourself.  It’s always good to see other peoples work – and this is why I enjoy travelling to different places and clubs so much – I get to look at what everyone else is doing.

3. Pick up new techniques – ideas about how to use software – discover new software.  Talk about how cameras have developed….

4. See different styles and approaches that are different to yours.

We are creatures of habit, and sometimes we get so tied up in our own visions, that we fail to see what else is going on around us.  It’s good to see someone elses work that makes us feel inadequate, because, who knows, it may open the door to something new and creative for you.

5. Getting past the cliche shots.  How many images of the jetty at Derwent have you seen?  How many Taj Mahals at sunrise? How many red buses in a black and white shot of London.

I’m not saying these shots are bad, or even poor – they are just done to death.  Once you stop imitating it’s easier to find your own vision.  The critical feedback that can come your way in a workshop or seminar, the resulting introspection, and the worry that follows, are all important.

6. Learning about the past.  All photographers should at least be aware of who has preceeded them.  Comments such as “I’ve never heard of Cartier Bresson”, or worse…. “Ansel who”? are a travesty.

7. Stopping imitating – Once you have copied other people’s work, (that you have been inspired by) you should start creating your own.

8. That photo workshop has been really useful to you, so now you can go off and create something new and fresh.

After all, and don’t forget this, everyone else at that workshop took the same images you did.

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The Golden Bullet

This week, over the Christmas break, I’ve been able to sit down and read ..  and something I noticed, in fact have been noticing for a long time, is the number of articles that offer photographers the Golden Bullet which will make them more successful – make their business take off – improve their photography – and all at the touch of a button.  The right camera body, the right lens, or the right software….  and not many of these articles ever talk about the right attitude, or the right skill sets.

Here’s a few headlines from this week:-

“Hack your Smartphone and become a better photographer” – really ???

” Five weather sealed lens that will improve your photography” – please explain this one to me..  It might let you get out in bad weather, but just how does it improve your photography?

“Why natural light is best for portraits” – absolutely……

“Why flash is best for portraits” – absolutely (but if you are a new starter, this could be a bit confusing..)

“Lightroom / Photoshop presets to take your photography to the next level” – yes, bolt on that preset or that filter – you don’t need to learn how it all works….

“5 of our favourite lens for environmental portraiture” – 5?  Can’t we use just the one?

“Secrets of sports photography” (insert any genre at this point) – because after all it’s good to know a secret isn’t it?

I read one or two articles about building a business, and working on accounts, and keeping clients, but mostly they’re about getting new cameras, lens, computers, and software.

It’s such a shame that photographers can get sucked into GAS (gear aquisition syndrome), so much that everything sensible seems to leave their heads.

With a constant bombardment from your favourite camera brand telling us what’s new – or what’s coming soon, it’s so easy to get sucked into this strange new disease..  This obsession we have with getting the ‘next best thing’ in camera tech leads to a vicious cycle and will continue to distract us from our art if we don’t find out what it is we really need to focus on.

Education is a photographers most powerful tool when it comes to progressing, and being successful.  Sure, improved gear can be a great help – but there’s nothing to beat a good course on accountancy and business management – not as exciting to be sure, but an absolute essential if you want your business to succeed.

We all love our toys though, and it’s great to have the ‘latest’ thing, and if you can afford it feel free to indulge.  For those of us though who max out the credit card just to be able to say “I bought this”,  you should probably reconsider things.

BUY BOOKS – NOT GEAR

Having gear can make it easier to capture the type of image you want, but won’t make you a better photographer.  Buy books, look at pictures, attend gallery exhibitions, listen to podcasts.

Books are expensive yes, especially good quality photo books – but compare that to the price of a new lens.  Every time I go to a talk by a photographer that I admire – I buy the book they are selling at the end.  It’s not often I’ve been disappointed, and I’ve had some brilliantly creative images put in front of me that I can stare at for as long as I want without the computer being switched on.  Sometimes, there’s little or no text, just pictures.  It’s brilliant, and inspiring.

If you are serious about taking your photography to the next level – buy books.  Buy lots of books, buy tutorial books.

Again I reiterate that having good equipment will help you create the images you seek, but it won’t make you a better photographer.

I hope that you’ve all had a happy and relaxing Christmas, and that the New Year will bring all you wish for – be it gear, or books, or both…….  enjoy……

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Photographic Skills

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about what we, as photographers, need to be doing to enhance our skill-sets.

We all need to be able to work the controls on our cameras, even in the dark, it should be second nature to change an ISO, or an F stop, or a shutter speed without even having to think how to do it – and the only way to achieve this is to practice.

We also need to know how to ‘see’ a photograph before we even press the shutter button, and it’s these skills that can separate the terrific, from the merely competent.

With the advent of new digital cameras, it’s actually quite hard to make a really bad exposure.  Even harder these days to achieve an out of focus image.  Cameras are very clever these days, and have built in exposure settings, and shake reduction in either the camera body, or lens.

However, on top of all these things, I think that photographers need another set of skills outside that of just ‘taking’ an image.

1. Computer Literacy – software is the mainstay of the post image taking process.  We need to be able to email images, to resize them, to compress them, and send them to storage sites such as Dropbox.  To do that, we need to be able to type, and express ourselves in a clear and concise manner.

2. We need to be able to competently edit, and select images.  These days, we don’t go out and shoot a roll or two of film.  We go out and come back sometimes with hundreds, maybe thousands, of images.  We need to be able to select which are the best ones, and the ones that our ‘client’ will like, and not just ones that are our own personal favourites.  We need to be clear that the sharpest images, are not always the best ones compositionally, and conversely the best composed ones, won’t always be the sharpest – we need to be able to make that distinction and choose wisely.

3. We need to be aware of art history, and photographic history.  If you are asked who your favourite photographer is – it’s not just going to be the chap down the  road who takes amazing bird photographs – he might be the one impressing you at the moment, but who in history influences the images you take?    Art and photography are inching closer and closer together, and soon, you will have a hard job telling the difference.

Melbourne Photographer Bill Gekas photographs his daughter in the style of all the old Masters.  Take a look here

https://www.boredpanda.com/5-year-old-daughter-classic-paintings-bill-gekas/

Google for photographic images of ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ by Vermeer, and see what others are up to.

you need to understand art now, to understand photography.

4. The art of conversation – There are times when you need permission to shoot.  Either a person, or a place.  The need for access can sometimes be smoothed over by a polite conversation with owners, or guardians.  After photographers have trespassed on land, you can’t blame the owners for being angry at finding ‘yet another’ on their property.  Go in first, ask the questions – I think you’ll be surprised how forthcoming people will be, just for asking.

5. And lastly – filing and organisation – there is no point in having the worlds greatest image if you can’t find it on  your hard drive.  So, keep your drives tidy, split your images into sections or groups, back them up externally, and don’t rely on your website either – if your provider goes out of business – you could be left high and dry with no images.

If you use Lightroom, avail yourself of the catalogue and make sure your images are correctly sorted, tagged, and keyworded.  Sure, it might take you a week (or more) of hard work, if you’ve not started yet, but in the long run I think you’ll be pleased you did.

For example – I sold an image at a craft fair 5 years ago – it was mounted but not framed.  The client decided to have it reframed, and the picture framer damaged the print.  He contacted me, and asked if I could supply a new one, so that he didn’t have to tell his client; and because I’d got a good catalogue, I was able, within an hour, to send him a file, so he could get it printed again.  Job done.

GWPE

Unsharp Mask – CS5

We all want our photographs to be sharp as can be, and that begins when you take the shot in the first place.  A camera on a tripod, sharp lens, accurate focus, all go to assist you.  Afterwards though, you process in photoshop or lightroom, and you can get something extra.

Sharpening is best done at the very end of any other processing that you do – as other things can actually soften the image slightly.  So what’s the best way….

I use unsharp mask in CS5 – it uses the same engine as Lightroom 3 – and you should get the same results.  Oversharpen an image, and it can result in a halo where dark parts of the shot, meet lighter ones.  This is caused because when sharpening happens in the software pixels are either lightened or darkened to make edges seem clearer.  Oversharpening can emphasise this difference, and you see the halo.

So, you look at the unsharp mask settings, and there are three sliders, Amount, Threshold, and Radius.

Amount is about how much you want to sharpen the image.  The higher the number, the sharper it looks, but overdo this, and you will get the ‘halo’ effect.

Radius – this affects how many pixels away from the edge the sharpening will be applied to.  Low numbers mean the effect is more exaggerated. The higher numbers will start to soften the effect slightly.

Threshold defines what the software thinks is an ‘edge’ – the higher the number, the more difference there has to be between pixels before it is counted as an ‘edge’.

So what’s a good setting to use ?  Well that all depends on the image – some (like landscapes) can stand more sharpening than others.  Portraits can stand being sharpened around the eyes and hair, but you would want the skin to be less defined.

Remember that when the image is finally printed, it can lose some definition, so oversharpen slightly for this reason.

In the shot at the top of the post I used the following settings…. amount 65%, radius 1, and threshold 3.