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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, February 22, 2016

Finding Balance (In Our Image Making Approach)

One of my more artistic impressions. Power-lines in Namibia marching over the sands

Psych tests. If you haven’t already completed one, you are likely going to find it in your social media feed in the next few days. I’m referring to the current fad to take the left/right brain tests that seems to have cropped up on social media of late (in between the even more vocal accusations, assertions, and excuses for racism and bigotry…but that’s a different post). So I took the one presented to me by my wife at 5:30 in the morning. Bleary eyed, I completed it and moved on. Then more people started to talk about and it got me thinking a little more about the results and whether they have a meaningful insight into my life as a photographer. My eventual conclusion: they explain what kind of a photographer I am, not whether I am a photographer, or a even a good photographer at that.

So it turns out I am pretty much 50/50 left/right brain. To be exact, 54% right brain. To confirm this I actually went on to do a different test also online at a psychology institute where you even have to digitally sign permission and such. The result was numerically identical. Apart from the fact that the numerical similarity was probably complete fluke, it did give me a fairly good indication that I have a pretty balanced left/right brain response to problems that I confront. This then had me thinking about the way that I approach photography, as well as teach it. It probably helped that I am currently reading the second edition to Angela Faris-Belt’s excellent ‘The Elements of Photography’ (I read the first edition several years ago and decided to see what had changed…that and the fact that I have lost my original copy…doh).

In the Introductory chapter Faris-Belt sets out a methodological problem with the way that photography is taught in tertiary institutions. Being American she writes about the North American experience of photography, but I think it applies equally well to anywhere where photography is taught. Faris-Belt recognises what is essentially a separation between commercial photography (where the goal of image creation is income generation) and fine art photography (where the goal is self-expression). She argues - and I agree with her - that there shouldn’t be this self-imposed dichotomy, but the problem is that it is entrenched in the way that photography is taught. At universities the emphasis is on the aesthetic and expression, while at technical colleges the emphasis is on technique, technology and technical skills. The universities are technique poor and the colleges theory poor. As taught the dichotomy therefore is entrenched. Is it any wonder then that the failure rate of photographers leaving tertiary institutions is so high? Finding accurate statistics is difficult but Dane Sanders book, ‘Fast Track Photographer’ hints at a failure rate of 85% within the first three years of starting out as a freelance photographer.

To me this is a good example of creativity meeting technical problem solving. Usually this style of aerial photography is done when the sun is at it's apex to avoid shadows. I managed to swing the client around to my idea of allowing shadows and almost contre-jour light for the shot. My creative vision of the image was then translated through technical practice. It was a risk for the client and myself as an aerial shoot is not a cheap affair, particularly when it is conducted over an international airport and there are tight budgets to be adhered to.
I have been shooting since the mid 1990’s, full-time commercially for the last 8 years. Despite the fact that I still wonder whether I will be ‘successful’, I seem to have gotten past the initial drop out of photography startups and am sitting in that very small 15% of photographers who continue with the profession past the third year. Why is that? Bill Gross’s excellent TED talk about the real secret  to startup businesses is rather surprising. Essentially what it comes down to according to Gross is timing, which is controlled by…luck. I don’t think I can argue with that. Talking to other photographers, they might explain their work ethic, vision, but essentially it comes down lucky breaks. The real difference is how they used those lucky breaks.

Which brings me back to the left/right brain and technical/theory points that I brought up at the beginning of this article. As a photographer, or any professional creative for that matter, you need to have some kind of balance between the creative and the technical. For images to stand out there needs to be both technical mastery and aesthetic creativity. We look at some of the brightest photographic stars out there and the interesting thing, to me at any rate, is that they are able to create visually compelling images of an extraordinarily high technical quality. Part of the compelling nature of the images is the very fact that they are so technically masterful. But technical mastery isn’t everything. Last year I pointed out Ugo Cei’s commentary on the imagery within the photographic site 500px. The smorgasbord of colour and amazing locations practically assaults the senses. The images on the site are extraordinarily well done in the technical sense, but often lack in the creative or aesthetic sense.

Photographs that seem to stand the test of time and are not pidgeon-holed into a current fad (think HDR, psychedelic colour, strong use of particular lighting styles like the ring-light etc) tend to have a balance between the technical and the creative. Good photographers know that they need the analytical skills to figure out technical problems to image creation, from the settings on the camera to the placement of lights through to the necessary computer skills for post-production. But, good photographers also know that they have to have an open mind and creative bent in order to make their technically good images stand out from the ocean of other technically competent images. I have looked at up and coming artists out of universities and quite frankly the work is sometimes technically shoddy, meaning that the message is muddied by the poor articulation of what is often a very good idea. The student gains impressive marks because they are being judged by peers within the intellectual genre that they learned in the first place. Then the student is surprised when they don’t become an overnight success in the real-world. On the flip side the work from some of the technical colleges is sometimes technically outstanding, but creatively poor. It’s like a paint-by-numbers exercise. 

It isn't exactly a creative image, but what the client wanted required a very detailed and technical knowledge of the camera, light and Photoshop.

I have a suspicion that the left/right brain thing makes it easier for me to operate in the commercial realm of photography. I tend to approach things from a creative and analytical point of view (or at least I think I do). This doesn’t mean that you have to have this genetic programming to be successful (remember I don’t necessarily consider myself successful…yet), but it might lend a clue as to the type of photographer and photography we are most capable of succeeding in. Commercial photography is a problem solving game. The client wants an image to illustrate something. Solving that image problem requires a balance of analytical and creative thought. I suspect I wouldn’t be a very good Fine Art photographer although I try hard to; simply because I tend to be too analytical and it can get in the way of self-expression. Current trends in wedding photography require an extremely creative mindset in order to set oneself apart from the ‘followers’ of a fad. Again though, truly successful wedding photographers seem to approach their work creatively but with a very strong sense of business and numbers (which requires analytical skills).

What this really boils down to ultimately is that photography is not just about the art. We need to recognize this to be successful in photography. If a photographer is extremely creative but lacking in technical skills, she should probably consider looking into the technical aspects of photography (as well as business). As Claire, my long-suffering assistant points out, any photographer who proudly proclaims that they only work with natural light, is actually tacitly admitting that they don’t have the technical knowledge to work with artificial light. On the other side of the coin are the photographers who throw every conceivable piece of gear and software at an image and drown the creativity in plugins and exotic lens effects (Joe Cornish pointed out to me when I briefly worked with him that too many photographers use wide angle lenses because they are wide, not because the scene warrants that effect). There needs to be balance: creativity for your voice and analytical skills for the loudspeaker so that the voice can be heard. 

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