Staged or Candid: Is there a “better” photography?

When I discuss photography with some of my friend-photographers it always amazes me how well others can create an image even before they shoot it. Yes, they also go out on the occasional street hunt, but their typical photo exists in their minds even before they stage, enact and finally photograph it. The act of taking the photo is a mere transposition of what they had already visualized mentally.

I’m the almost complete antagonist to that approach. I’m trying to capture what life itself has already staged in its indefinite entropy for me, which removes the process of “creating” an image almost entirely, and reduces it to this mere act of capturing that moment in time. So yes, you can call me lazy, since I’m relying on a greater power to create my photos for me.

Do I feel bad about it? No, not at all! For one because from time to time even I try and stage a photo (see the feature image on the top of this post), but more importantly as long as I’m not that trigger-happy photographer who takes 200 photos a day and then by pure luck has created one photo that might actually work, I consider the act of finding an interesting subject, an unconventional perspective and a bit of a story that my image is going to tell, an act of creativity. You could even go as far as saying that finding that decisive moment on the street is far more difficult than staging it. But I won’t since I believe that both approaches have their merits and everybody has to decide for him- or herself what appeals more to their way of being creative.

The only advice that I would have and that I’m trying to follow myself is to think out of the box and step outside your used paths of how you usually take photos from time to time and do something different so you won’t get stuck in a routine and thereby limiting your creativity. I do need to force myself to do that with the help of the earlier mentioned friend-photographers and actually think up a photo beforehand, get all the necessary props and scout the location and then do the shoot together, but you may have other avenues you can take.

Sunday Blurb: Why pictures you don’t see are more important than those you do.

Going through some of the Flickr streams this morning, I was on one side glad to see again so many good images that were well shot and inspiring to my photographic work, but on the other side so many that were not really compelling. That alone is probably ok, because not every picture can win an Oskar Barnack award. But what really struck me was the poor selection in some photographers’ photo streams. Uploading ALL images of a street shoot series is not only hiding the potentially good ones among a dozen mediocre ones but worse puts a very negative light on all your work.

I would think that it is a beginner’s mistake that we all have made (and probably still make) in that we are way too hesitant to dismiss images. And it’s understandable. We like to show off what we have done. But what we tend to forget is that others who view our work don’t feel emotionally attached to it, they are very rationally rating our images. And in a world of a myriad of excellent pictures being uploaded to Flickr, Facebook, 500px and others it is impossible to stand out with mediocre ones. If you then hide the one good shot among lots of bad ones no one is going to find your potentially good photo ever.

And worse: even if they had found your one good photograph, the average images in that same series are dragging the quality of your work as a whole down. And the viewer will simply move on to the next photo stream.

So my advice: be far more restrictive and only show the very best of your work. How restrictive you need to be really depends on the way you make photos. For me – I’m very selective in what I actually consider a worthwhile subject before I even raise the camera to my eye, and working with a fully manual Leica there is no trigger-happy photo shooting anyway. So I would normally come back with 15-20 shots from a street shoot of maybe one hour. Out of those images I usually only select one (if any) to be even considered worthwhile editing. That doesn’t mean I would publish it. That rate would go down by half again I’d say. So only one in 30-50 shots would get published, but that is at a very low rate of shooting which is probably not the average photographer. I would reckon that the average street photographer would take 100 or more photos during a one-hour street shoot. Applying the same metric as in my case it would mean only 1 out of 100 images should ever get published.

© 2015 Jan Gütter

Another good advice is probably that once you have selected your one shot and you still have doubt whether it is the one – ditch it. Sometimes you come back from a photo shoot and indeed there is not one single image you would feel comfortable enough to show off. And that’s ok – for you and more importantly for your reputation as a photographer. The image to the right is an example that I dismissed half way through editing it. It has nice lighting but it just really doesn’t cut it in my opinion. On top it’s slightly out of focus which then made the final decision.

Let me know how selective you are. Are you applying even more restriction or are you a bit more lax?

How much is too much? Or: How (not) to destroy a photograph

One of the hardest things in life is to find the right balance and not to over-do things. The Yin and Yang if you will. Work-life-balance would be one example, cooking a good meal that is not over-spiced and would thus loose its broad palette of rich flavors, another.

The same is true for art but with a special notion. Art needs to be unconventional, needs to set itself apart from other artists. To accomplish that you need to do the exact opposite of being balanced. Balance in art is plain boring. And here is the challenge: the temptation is to over-do the act of being unbalanced by sheer exaggeration instead of working to increase the content of the artwork.

In photography this is particularly relevant with the advent of digital photo editing tools being ubiquitously used by everyone. Now everybody can become an “artist” by making a picture look “artsy” by (over-)using every possible filter and photo effect. And even seasoned photographers (me included) fall into this trap from time to time.

One good example of how heated a discussion even among very experienced photographers can get about that topic I encountered last week on Facebook where Mitsutaka Tajiri had posted the fantastic street shot below which I believe has the exact right balance of post-processing. However, one commentator suggested that in his opinion the image was over-processed. In its wake a quite agitated exchange of viewpoints emerged.

© 2015 Mitsutaka Tajiri

Like everywhere in art there is no right or wrong amount of using effects and digital post processing to “enhance” the impact of a photograph. At the end it’s really down to personal taste or preference. However, what sets apart good photo editing from less suitable photo editing is moderation.

But how can I for myself judge if I’m using moderate “enhancements” or if I’m completely over-doing it? My personal advice to anyone using photo editing tools are three things:

First: If you are in doubt whether your selected photo is worth being shown off or edited it’s probably NOT worth it and you should ditch it right away and not waste any time editing it by most likely over-using digital effects to make it look “artsy”.

Second: Always second guess your image while you are editing and again after you think you are done, and then ask yourself “Would less be more?”. The following effects are particularly prone to being over-done: sharpness, clarity and contrast. Always use these with great caution. On that note – an out of focus picture is not going to get any sharper by using the sharpness slider :).

Third: Ask a trusted friend (doesn’t even need to be a photographer). He or she will tell you if what you have done sucks (only then it’s a good friend) or looks “OK” (which is all I usually get from my friends).

With that I hope you will not over-spice your images any more and serve a dish rich of colors, tonal range and content.

Please let me know in the comments how you feel about “over-doing” photo editing and how you handle it in your work.

Second Thoughts?

Street Interview

“Street Interview” © 2014 Jan Gütter (Leica MP | Fuji Velvia 50)

Do you also have these occasional second thoughts about your own photos?

It’s interesting how the way you judge your own photos can change over time. I was sifting through my Lightroom catalog this morning and stumbled over a number of photos that I hadn’t touched or even published since I probably thought they weren’t worth it back when I made the photos. Some of those images, however, really caught my eye now, and I thought, hang on a minute, why hadn’t I processed some of these, for they didn’t look that unworthy now.

The image in this post is one of those examples. I can remember that I had tried it a number of times before to find a crop or subtle post that would make the picture stand out a bit. But never really had the right clue. It was only this morning that I thought of combining the obvious TV interview theme with an adequate crop of 2.35:1 (Cinemascope) to give it a film-like look.

And there you go. Let me know if you agree with the idea in the comments below.

Quick Poll: How do you “Street”?

When I was strolling through the city today with my camera in the bag I was wondering how you fellow street photographers approach street photography.

Do you always take your camera with you in case you find an interesting subject to capture like I do? Or do you go out on “street hunts” specifically and then and only then have your camera with you. Perhaps because you are using a DSLR and don’t want to schlepp around your gear all the time?

Me being one of the first species I appreciate the ability to have my camera almost always ready. I used to go around with a DSLR only occasionally and then hated it when I saw something appealing to photograph and then just didn’t have my camera with me.

And I believe the opportunities as a result of having my camera with me all the time are enormous. As I had pointed out in another blog post it is more challenging to make the world directly around us more appealing. Things we are exposed to every day tend to get boring and uninteresting. So for me as a photographer who is on his daily routine going to a meeting, for lunch or to the gym it is a challenge to either find something interesting or put something that is per se uninteresting in a different perspective that makes it stand out and therefore a good photograph. And aren’t it challenges that make us better as a photographer? I recently found a blog that seems to prove my point as well by going out on a 365 day venture of daily photo hunts.

So please tell me in the comments and the poll: what type of street photographer are you? The daily shooter or the dedicated hunter :)?

Interestingness?

Have you ever wondered what spikes your interest in a picture that makes you click on it, look at it closer and for longer than just a split second instead of just sifting through more images?

I guess there are many things that would contribute to appeal in the classic sense. What got me thinking about it a bit more was when I was reflecting on how I personally decide – unconsciously I suppose – if a photo is grabbing my interest and is resonating with my senses or not. Continue reading →

Primark?

Primark?I make it no secret that I have not much sympathy for people who are buying at stores like Primark that offer a price level that is hardly justifiable if you consider the value chain of producing cloths. A jeans for 10 Euro will very unlikely pay for reasonable income for those who are sewing and stitching let alone those producing the material and resources like cotton.

Sometimes I wish people would be a tad more conscious about where they buy and not only look at the cheapest options.