People, Places, Things

In reading Bill Jay's and David Hurn's On Being a Photographer, I was struck by Hurn's comments about shooting many photos of a static subject, but fewer of a moving one, which was much harder to get balanced and well-formed for the camera.

Static subjects with lots of subtle variation — perfect for consumer digicams with their low cost-per-frame and inability to react quickly.

For moving, living subjects, regardless of the camera type, very often you get one shot and after that forget it. Frustratingly, consumer digicams are crappy at exactly this situation. In stead of one shot, you get zero shots. The solution? Pretend the problem doesn't exist.

There's even a tacit admission of this notion in a recent Olympus digicam advert, showing a shot from A Day in the Life of Africa and the photgrapher being quoted "please just stay right were you are for another second...."

The shot is completely empty, of motion, just a single figure standing at the corner. What was he waiting for? There can only be one possible answer: he was waiting for the camera to turn on.

Consumer digicams are perfectly capable of taking terrific pictures. Here are many, taken by Bee (mostly digicam shots, anyway). Heck, I've even made a few okay ones here and there myself. But it's surprising to me how the photos that are difficult to make with such cameras, nearly impossible sometimes, are passing out of vogue with nary a whisper.

As a small example, let's look at RussCam, one of my favorite photoblog sites. Dig around on RussCam — there's lots to like.

Compare older images like this one, shot on 35mm, with series like these. The later photos have quietly adopted the conventions of the consumer digicam — not just the 4::3 aspect ratio, but the longer lenses, static subjects, electronically-balanced color, and lots of macro.

What the new photos lose a grip on is spontaneity, the sort of you-can't-make-this-stuff-up chaos found in much of the best film-and-mechanics photography. I don't mean to be picking on Russ alone here, because it's a pattern I've been seeing propogated across the web.

Photographers are being incresingly disconnected from the unpredictable nature of people, & shooting more and more Things. A photo culture based on Things is crucially advantageous to the Photo Marketing Industry, of course — more megapixels, longer zoom lenses, closer macros, these are quantifiable attributes that have come to define "quality" for many photographers of Things, and these are qualities that you can buy. Qualities that can't be handily quantified, that can't be made into a feature for the general consumer — are ignored. Thus we still haven't seen a consumer digicam that is instant-on, or one with a genuine wide-angle lens, or one that can be set manually for quick, close-in shooting where the interaction betyween the photographer and the choatic unpredictable world of unposed and unprepped People is in full force.

Things are the easiest kind of photo, and Places — likewise static, likewise amenable to the quantitative attributes of camera manufacturing — are not far behind (though usually the genre mannerisms are stricter). Is it any surprise that in the past decade most stock photo houses have simply stopped accepting new landscape photos? Or that royalty-free catalogs are stuffed with generic colorful hills of Provence and Tuscany, black-contrasty graphic outlines of the Eiffel Tower and proud green night shots of Lady Liberty, with or without fireworks?

So many photoblogs and other photo sites have "About" pages, which begin with some variation of "I'm no professional photographer, but..."

...which I so often feel compelled to complete: "...but my thoughts have been completely pre-coded and locked-up by advertising and mass media, just like a pro."

"Professional" photography has its own suite of concerns. The needs and desires of the purchasers of "professional" photography — the clients, the happy wedded couples, the aspiring models and actors — have over-riding concerns that inherently co-opt the purposes of the photograher. The photographer is paid — is made "professional," according to the standard definitions — because she is renting-out her eye, her expertise, and her ability to make pictures that whose purposes and subjects are defined by someone else. Pros do it for money, and maybe squeak-through some art and entertainment value for themselves on the side (one recalls Leo Burnett's famous dictum at his advertising agency: "Anyone wins a Clio, they're fired!" because Burnett knew his business was not the creation of art awards, but the selling of soap and cigarettes).

If you are not a professional, and don't harbor fantasies of using your web site to become a professional, I challenge you: don't shoot like one. Chances are, it will only make you look impoverished or foolish.

Why is far more important than How in photography, despite the admonitions of journals like Popular Photography (which is in the business of selling magazine advertising space to Sigma and Nikon, not in the business of developing photographers or portfolios).

If it's your website, take a chance and make it yours. Let the question of why be one that you can answer from the heart, not from emulation of something you saw in a magazine or at a camera club.

If you can honestly answer why to yourself, your photography will have improved tenfold over what it was before, because suddenly you will be free to make pictures for your own satisfaction. Even if, once you have a grasp on your own desires, they lead you directly to the purest sort of chocolate-box photography. At least it's your box. Bon appetit!

Comments on "People, Places, Things"

June 29, 2003 11:50 AM

Nice article. I make pictures from the heart and you're right that this is a pain in the ass with that slow digicam. Not with my Russian Lomo and 15-year old Minolta X-700. But to get some daily pictures for my blog I need my digicam ...

July 2, 2003 03:17 PM

Interesting thoughts about picture content moving to still things especially as the streetphoto list seems to have a lot on non-people pictures nowadays. Digital is for the lazy and the scared? Hmm... here's a recent digital pic to chew on

Jon Fernquest
July 5, 2003 08:34 PM

I have approvimately the same thoughts all the time. Many photographers *assume* that the goal of every photographer is to be a professional "commercial" photographer or take photos like one. which puts "art for money's sake" before "art for art's sake".

There's another kind of photographer that perhaps survives with commercial work but has higher goals that s/he's always chasing and may never reach, maybe that's what keeps them going, the fact that their goals are always a few steps ahead of them. I have a friend likw that who's pursued photography for decades. "Black and White" magazine as opposed to "Popular Photography" seems to be more like that.

What you say about taking photos of people as opposed to objects or staticscenes I find true also. In Asia go to any market or downtown in the capital city and try to capture the reality of the day to day activities of complete strangers
in a completely uncontrollable environment (cars, motorcycles, crowds, too much light, not enough light) *and create perfectly balanced compositions also. This task is several orders of magnitude more difficult than static objects in
controlled environments, but in the end I think it is more rewarding.

(Also I haven't seen anyone write much about the technical problems typically faced in this kind of "street" photography. Do you know of any?)

July 20, 2003 07:59 PM

The only obvious site for handling technical hurdles that I know is this one from John Brownlow.

A slightly related one might be Eddie Ng's or (indirectly) some of the rangefinder info pages.

August 4, 2003 06:55 AM

Thanks for the mention...and critque! A couple of comments that might clarify things for others and a question to satisfy my curiosity:

- I don't use a "consumer digicam" in the strict sense of the word (although I can't deny that some of the images may appear to some to have come from one). I'm using a Canon D60.

- I don't deny the "longer lens" look of many of the images, since the CMOS of the camera is smaller than 35mm all my lenses behave as if they had a longer focal length. This is my major gripe with the D60 as my preference is to shoot with a 20-35 but on the D60 it's equivalent to about a 30-50. I can't wait until "affordable" SLR digicams ship with capture chips the same area as 35mm, thus "restoring" my lenses to their true focal lengths.

- Regarding aspect ratio of my images, the D60 shoots at about 3:2 which is the same as 35mm (24mm x 36mm), I can only attribute the boxier crop that I use so often to years of making 8x10's and 11x14's in the darkroom.

- Like many other photographers, I am somewhat shy about photographing people I don't know, especially on the fly without their prior permission. That said, I can't apologize for having a preference for a well, "street still-life".

Q: Isn't the fact that if any image (digicam or scanned from film) is on the web mean that it had "electronically-balanced color"? I can't help but sense a negative spin is tied to this description, can you clarify?

Again, thanks for the comments and great site!

M Sinclair Stevens
November 6, 2003 03:24 PM

Interesting ideas. I noticed when viewing an album of photos taken by BWG (a Big White Guy in Hong Kong), that there were no people pictured. And I was amazed that it was even possible to take shot after shot of a park in Hong Kong devoid of people.

Maybe your theory explains it.

Here's the link to BWG's album.

M Sinclair Stevens
November 6, 2003 03:30 PM

Aarg! Wrong URL.
This is the link

(He does take a lot of photos of people for the blog, though.)


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