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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Beware the Fad

An early example of my HDR attempts (and a hideous one at that I now realise...the true horror was that I was paid for this cruelty to aethetics and at the time the client loved it...oh the ignominy, the embarresment ;) )

The dictionary on my tablet gives the definition of a ‘fad’ as something that has “an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived, and without basis in the object’s qualities: a craze”. In the photographic world every once in a while there is a sudden glut in the production of a particular type of image to the extent that one could call the excitement over the style, a fad. The result of this glut is a lowering in the overall aesthetic quality of these images and viewers going from thinking the image style is fantastic, original and creative to thinking it is trite. A quick list of such styles in photography could easily be: High Dynamic Range Imagery, Star-trails, Lomography, Zoom bursts, Snapshots, Instagram filters etc. These styles cum fads usually begin with an individual trying out a new technique. The eye-catching result is then copied ad nauseam. What starts out as original, turns into a movement and rapidly makes it’s way into the banal and the downright naff.


The styles and techniques that usually become fads are approached by many as a silver bullet for creativity. In other words, throw enough processing (or technology, or equipment) at the photograph in the hopes that it will come out looking original and creative. The problem is that if everyone is doing it, it isn’t original and creative. Nothing can replace a solid grounding in the understanding of the light and the way it is captured by the camera.
   
The techniques that start fads off are usually good techniques, ones which are worthwhile knowing, in some cases almost essential to know. Take HDR. High Dynamic Range imagery has been around for some time, but really took off with the explosion of amateur photography that was strongly influenced by the increase of more affordable digital SLRs. By ‘some time’ I mean that Gustave Le Gray was using multiple exposures (capture for the sky and a capture for the foreground which were then printed selectively onto the same print) in the 1850s to capture a greater tonal range in the final print. The modern view of HDR is digital tonal remapping using multiple frames at different exposures. These different exposures are then automatically blended together using software to create an image with a dynamic range (range of visible and reproducible tones) that is greater than can be achieved with a single capture. HDR Images of varying aesthetic quality abound today. A lot of it is over-processed and striking only for its other-worldliness. When used effectively (I should add, subtly) , it can be the cornerstone of beautifully crafted images with rich tones and detail.
   
Fads are not relegated only to the more recent era of Photoshop. For those who remember the days of silver halide, there were things like star-burst filters, keyhole vignette cards, double-exposures and cross-processing. At one point the visually distinctive fish-eye lens was considered a must-have accessory and photo-mags published a sickening amount of images shot with them.
   
The point at which a specialized and sometimes difficult technique becomes a fad is when some type of technology makes that technique or ‘look’ easy. As an example; Adobe introduced their ‘merge to HDR’ function with the release of Photoshop CS2 in 2005. Not surprisingly it was around this time that there was a sudden increase in the amount of HDR images that were produced. Of course, where Adobe leads, expensively, others must follow at a lower-price point. As the number of independent HDR programmes rose, so too did the number of HDR images proliferate. In short order what started as a unique and interesting way of capturing an image became a over-used (and often poorly at that), hackneyed fad.

HDR done right, or at least 'better', should not obviously look like HDR! 

 As long as the technique requires more than a modicum of skill and a large amount of patience, it is unlikely to become a fad. Star-trail photography is a good case in point here. It has become increasingly easy to capture and process decent star-trail images thanks again to Photoshop and a number of ‘plugin’ providers like Steven Christenson of Star Trail Academy. However, it still requires some patience and perseverance to create even reasonable looking star-trails. That said, there are a lot more poor and uninteresting star trail shots around these days. I still don’t think it will ever become as faddish as the modern incarnation of HDR since HDR doesn’t require standing out in the cold at night for hours on end. Remember a fad is a result of a seemingly difficult thing made easy. The actual capture of star trails is still - at the moment at any rate - relatively complex.
   
Herein lies the difference between fads and styles that last. In the 1990s it became very popular to shoot on high ASA black and white film like Kodak TriMax and Ilford Delta (both 3200 ASA films that could be ‘pushed’ to 6400). A lot of photographs were produced with these high speed, high grain films (although most photographers stayed below 3200 ASA). Enough in fact that virtually every photography or art magazine would have some images shot using these films. Despite the very recognizable look of these films and their popularity, I wouldn’t say that it was a fad, since the level of quality of the images was usually relatively high. You needed an understanding of the basic tenets of photography to be able to shoot in this style, meaning that it wasn’t easy. You still see images produced by high speed films today and you don’t hear groans from the onlookers when they pop up on the screen (unlike the response to many Instagram images and HDR iterations). The lack of groans is probably the strongest indication that despite the popularity of the ‘look’, high speed film never became a fad.
   
The other aspect of fads that separate them from styles is the relative similarity between the images. Instagram is a serious culprit in this area. The filters available to Instagram users basically mean that images all start to look the same. The sea of mundanity that this creates means that the few truly excellent images get lost in the flood of the ho-hum. As it is, a new stock agency based on using images derived from Instagram has estimated that less than 2% of images posted to the social image sharing site can be considered worthwhile images. The disappointing thing for me is that Instagram has created an aesthetic ‘look’ that has become faddish and will ultimately be looked down upon.
   
Which brings me to why one should beware the fad. An image created today in a faddish style may look good and get plenty of likes on Facebook (oh dear, is that what artistic acceptance has come to), but tomorrow it could potentially be looked down upon and the photographer correspondingly considered as lacking in creativity. I suspect I am guilty of this myself and there are images that I created and thought were wonderful which have aged incredibly quickly because of the use of a faddish technology.
   
Ageless images are created by genuine ingenuity and creativity. HDR, Instagram filters and the like are tools which can be finely wielded to craft masterful images, but their strength is in using them in moderation. If you look at some of the current masters of photography, Jim Brandenburg, Charlie Waite, Howard Schatz, Nick Brandt; there is little use of technologies that are branded as faddish. Rather, strong composition, masterful use of their equipment, incredible patience, knowledge of and empathy towards their subjects and a crafted artistic vision are hallmarks of their work. Images shot 30 years ago are as valid today as when the shutter was tripped.
   
The essence of this post is for the photographer to be true to her own artistic vision and ideas. Being sidetracked by a new technology can often lead to simply creating more of the same. More of the same is not going to get you noticed. Looking at other people’s work is a good way of being inspired. But be careful then that the images created as a result of this don’t look like other people’s work. Fads, especially those with a signature ‘look’, tend to result in images that could be just that, someone else’s. Beware the fad!

The above article was included in the September Photo Writing that I put out. To receive this free monthly essay on photography subscribe the Limephoto Front page.
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