Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Less is More

Over the last three decades my interest in photography has increased dramatically. I started in film. I developed my own and made my own prints.

At that time I probably made around 1,000 negatives per year. Today in the wonderful world of digital I make around 25,000 images per year.

I've come to the conclusion that this is too many. This conclusion has come to me over time. Originally I just though that photography doesn't have a cost barrier any more is commonly available and per image is very cheap.

This is true until you consider retaining and effectively backing up all of those images. I'm just about to hit four terabytes which for an amateur photographer is quite staggering. My current backup system is based on RAID arrays and portable drives. All of which are 4TB in size. You can't actually buy drives that are bigger than 4TB so I will have to change the way I work. It's begun to dawn on me that storage isn't actually as cheap as it looks when you've got a lot of it. As cataloguing, rating, processing and releasing images in such quantities is a lot of work. My time on this world is not infinite so I'd like to spend more of it creating better images.


I rate (most) of my images from 0 stars to 5 stars where the following axiom is true:

☼ bad, really bad - there is something technically or compositionally wrong
☼☼ tolerable - the image is ok and might be a rescue candidate with post processing
☼☼☼ ok (this is the first level I'll show other people)
☼☼☼☼ good - this is the first level where I feel proud of an image
☼☼☼☼☼ amazing - these are images I look at and think "did I do that? really?"

Five years ago when I first started to rate my images I found that 80% of my images fell into three stars with less than 1% falling into four stars or better and the rest down the bad end of the spectrum.

These days I get around 15% of my images falling into four stars or better and less than 5% fall into the bad end. While this is better this is still a very high percentage in the middle of the road "ok" mark. I want better than this. I want 50% of my images to be four stars or better.

Now sometimes you simply have to shoot a lot of images, I love to shoot plays for example and to get 50 images I'm proud to share back to the play company and actors I'll shoot 500 images to make sure. These are done in a very difficult environment with bad low light and a lot of movement. The enemies of the photographer. This isn't likely to change.

When I've been out shooting because I want to, or am out on a photo walk with like minded people and friends I would have shot around 400 images per day and had my usual level of keepers. Now I'm making two changes, the first is around the overall number of images and the second is around the quality. I want to reduce the number of images I make and improve the quality dramatically.


To this end I started to consume books and forums on composition, exposure, seeing and creating a vision for myself. I've consumed so much information that I've decided that any photographer that claims to have sight or vision is full of shit. I do realise that I've come to see the world differently, I see light, I see colour, I see faces in great detail, I stare into stranger's eyes (freaking them out) because I'm thinking about how to photograph their face. If you call this vision then fine, it's vision and I've got it. I subscribe to the old adage that developing a single thematic vision is actually worthwhile or even real.  I've also decided that only one person is important, me. While I love the feedback from my peers and viewers of my art, I don't need it to survive. I want yo be happier with my work myself.

Where to from here? How to make the leap?

I actually think that in words, this is quite easy. In practice it's going to be a struggle but it is a struggle I intend to win. I want to meet my self imposed goals.

Firstly, I intend to be more deliberate about making an image, I intend to inspect the object I'm interested in to find the best light in the moment, the best angle, the best composition. To this end I've set myself a target, I will only produce a maximum of 36 images per outing. I'll measure how well this is working for me over time, maybe it's a stupid idea, maybe it will work. There are all those smug bastards on the internet and in the traditional club forums who always mutter quality not quantity when you are peer reviewing images. Maybe they're right. I doubt 36 is the number I'll settle on forever, but I picked it because it resonates for me because of my background in film.

My next step is to complete the job of convincing myself every image is expensive and worth taking some time. I want to step away from the documentary photographer who is the casual artist and enter the world of the artist who is the occasional documentary photographer.

Tips for myself - Photo walks

  1. Every image is worth spending the time if it is worth capturing.
  2. I will set a theme or small set of themes when on photo walks to limit the sources of images.
  3. I will explore each object or person (where possible without offending) before photographing them to decide how best to light, measure and angle the shot for a boost in compositional quality and to try to eliminate the shit.

Tips for myself - People shoots

This one is going to be harder. I'm not good at directing people and I'm on the beginning path to recognising what looks good for the person I'm shooting. The basics are easy enough, no-one especially females want to look fat so avoiding the double chin and fat arm syndrome (poor angle) is imperative but there are much more subtle things to look out for. I don't mean things like a lamppost growing out of someone's head - I'm well past that stage.

I think I need to try and visualise the image in my mind possibly by using wanky hand framing if necessary or even a cardboard cut out frame. This way I'll make and dismiss the crap images before they happen. Maybe I'll look through the view finder and simply resist the button. Who knows, I'll find something that works.

People shoots will need more than the "36" because I recognise my failings. I'll set my limit initially to 100 and look to reduce this considerably over time as I improve my outlook.

Is this artificial scheme going to work?

I could be kidding myself, it's likely I am. I know for example that the best professional photographers can sometimes shoot upwards of 2,000 frames on a person shoot. They then turn these over to their assistants for culling and will themselves work with 100 or so images with the client to decide which to post process and use for the final brief. I want to start with that 100 - am I being incredibly arrogant to say I can do this when they can't? I don't think so for a couple of reasons: Firstly I do not have the pressure of making a living from photography, Secondly I can afford to take my time. I certainly owe it to my model to produce something which is pleasing for them, but I feel my pleasure is more important. This means if I get no images I'm ok with that. I'll always make sure I shoot with at least one other person to ensure that the model does get images on a time for images gig.

The "36" - where will you shoot yours?

To help launch the idea for myself and to coax others into having a go I made a photowalk called The "36". This received quite a bit of favourable comment but lots of people saying they were not in Melbourne, so I changed it to be The "36" - where will you shoot yours?

This has opened the concept up to anyone in the world to have a go and share their results. It's partly in homage to film, but partly to set a starting point for my own goal. It's a bit like a diet - there is always tomorrow to make the change. August 31st 2014 is my tomorrow and for those of you coming along on Sunday for the journey I hope we have a wonderful afternoon of photography with food and drinks afterwards.  Maybe this will become an annual event, we'll see. I hope you come along and have a fun time and I look forward to your "36".


I've found that aiming to shoot less really has worked for me and has improved my images. It has also given me less images to go through from each shoot and reduced my post processing work. I've become more deliberate. 

I did find that I encountered a danger of hesitation, to counter this I am using two cameras, the full frame DSLR when I'm being deliberate and a smaller mirrorless micro four thirds machine for when I'm more inclined to play.

No, I'm not limiting myself to 36 every time I go out, in fact I don't. Now I come away from a photowalk with a couple of hundred images instead of the thousand I once did. From a model shoot I'm down to around 400 images for the day's shooting.

I'm quite enjoying this new flavour. I'll be keeping it up at least until it's time to try something else to keep alive the simple joy of making images.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Why you need insurance for your camera... or "clunk clunk clunk smash"

Yesterday while shooting with friends on a private theme shoot for "Gluttony" I dropped my L 100mm macro. It's quite dead with the internals having come adrift from the inside. While this is a horrible experience and is going to cost me money, it did not ruin the day for me because the lens is insured. This meant I could brush off the loss and continue shooting with my friends instead of curling up in the corner like a monkey in a small cage.

Because I'm not a professional it's covered under my house contents insurance. I've got an IBNA gold level policy which covers me for theft, accidental damage, electrical and mechanical failure. It will still cost me money to make the claim because I've got a $400 excess on the policy. So replacing this lens will cost me $400 instead of $1500. This is fair because it stops me making frivolous claims.

This insurer also purchases through an Australian brick and mortar store so I know I will get a Australian marketed version of the lens which always makes warranty support from Canon more plausible should the need arise.

If you don't already have coverage for your gear built into your contents policy, you should consider it. By the way, if you're in Australia check on your policy as you may find you're already covered for some of the above. Electrical and mechanical normally have to be added to the policy and often you need to add "transit" which covers you when your gear is not inside your house (which I did my moving to a gold level).

Note that if you are considered professional by the insurer you'll need to buy separate insurance as your house content policy probably only covers amateurs. It's worth finding out what your insurer considers to be "professional" too as they'll each have their own standards.