A self-appraisal of sorts

[I know why I’ve written the following. Not too sure why I’ve decided to publish it though. However, I suppose its fairly consistent with the motivation behind this blog, which was to share my “adventures”, cock-ups and general incompetencies in the world of photography (oftentimes engaging the tongue-in-cheek and self-disparaging slant that I find so appealing) with others who have been recently bitten by the bug.
So it made some sort of sense to post this here as well.
However, its intended as a
genuine self-appraisal; not as a means of eliciting support or encouragement from those kind enough to visit here, amongst whom I count a number of new(ish)-found friends (“new” as in “since I’ve been into this photography caper”).
Nor as a roundabout way of inviting unwanted “critique”. In that context, sod off with your opinions… I’ve far more than enough of my own thankyou very much!
Consequently, and with no offence intended nor any especial desire to be “unsocial”, I’ve disabled comments for this particular post.
Its solely a vehicle for sharing some of my innermost thoughts/feelings rather than a topic for discussion. If readers gain anything from it at all… even if just a few giggles and a feeling of superiority, well, that’s a bonus.
And if it should perchance encourage one or two others, who may have been tempted to fall by the photographic wayside, to persevere well, so much the better.]

Sections

Background
Flickr
Failings
Lessons
Perceptions
Wrap-up

Here we are then; practically the arse-end of 2009 and its been some three plus years that I’ve been into this digital photography lark.

A number of different, and possibly unconnected, factors have led to the convergence represented by this post that, to all intents and purposes, is a sort of self-appraisal.

Background

It was some time in ’06 that I acquired my first digital camera, a Konica-Minolta DiMAGE Z6. A “compact digital”, somewhat larger than your average point’n’shoot. And, being furnished with one of the largest optical zooms then available (12x!) I s’pose it would (then) have fallen into the class of what are now called “ultrazooms”.

Dunno. Didn’t know much about cameras then… and I still don’t!

Not that such lack of knowledge has ever particularly concerned me. In the realm of photographic equipment at least. And indeed other things.
I’ve always been a dedicated believer not just in the saying that “Ignorance is Bliss” but also that ignorance renders possible those things that to a more “informed” person are completely unattainable.
In fact, most of my life has been spent doing things that far more knowledgeable people than I have said I shouldn’t be able to do.
I suspect its similar to the story about the bumble bee being able to fly simply because no-one’s explained to it that, according to certain fundamental scientific principles, it actually can’t!
Call it an unbridled faith in the inherent benevolence, positivity and “wanting to-ness” of the Cosmos if you like.

Anyway, digressions aside…

Y’see, I didn’t get into photography because it interested me, or because it was something I particularly wanted to do.
Though I guess I’ve always harboured a secret hankering for photographic gear (cameras and lenses especially), even way back in the days of film cameras.
Not because I ever believed I could really use the stuff. It was much more the attraction of simply handling something that was precision-made and is, well, nice to handle. Any well-made instrument or even highly machined tool excites the same fascination in me… an appreciation possibly of fine workmanship and engineering. Examples of true craftsmanship that I admire intensely, regardless of whether I can use them or even know what they’re for.

Finely machined mechanisms; “bits” that glide smoothly yet positively in relation to one another; knurled knobs and beautifully engineered components; switches, levers and buttons with a firm, positive action; any of them, when forming parts of a complete whole, crafted with obvious attention to detail, have always entranced me.
And many cameras and lenses, especially from the more reputable manufacturers, seem to fall within this “profile”. Sadly, in so many instances, plastic or similar has replaced more sturdy materials, but the “manufacturing ethic” where quality of product is pre-eminent still appears to prevail in some companies despite such changes in materials.

My very first skirmish with photography was when I was a mere kid, and mum bought me a Kodak Brownie… a plastic-bodied (I think it was plastic at least… maybe bakelite?) equivalent of today’s point’n’shoots I suppose.
Dead easy to use and I had some fun times with it. No idea how long I had it, or what happened to it. Must have been left behind somewhere in one of the many moves that adorned my childhood.

But even then photography wasn’t really a deeply-rooted interest, nor a hobby. The Brownie just happened to be a useful little thing to take with me on days out, holidays and suchlike. And it was quite fun getting the films developed (usually at Woolworths as I seem to recollect) to discover which ones had “turned out” well. More by luck than judgement of course.
The rest of the time the camera was probably tucked away in some cupboard somewhere.

Move on a few years then (quite a few years actually) and some time in my early 30s saw me running my own studio as a freelance graphic artist/designer. Which represented a marriage between my chosen career (the printing industry) and one of my preferred hobbies, drawing and painting pictures and stuff and playing with arrangements of spaces.

Left all that behind a long time ago now, but at its peak I invested fairly significantly in a whole bunch of photographic kit. Prompted by the realisation that, in the course of my work, I was beginning to spend a small fortune on commissioning photographers to “do stuff” for me.
And, as a businessman, outsourcing work (and missing out on another opportunity to acquire more dosh, damned capitalist that I was) rankled somewhat.

Hence the huge investment in camera, lenses, photofloods, and what-have-you.
Only to discover I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, couldn’t even get to grips with the basics, and had neither time nor real interest in mastering the learning curve (it seemed much harder with film photography!).

“Why arse around with all this nonsense”, thought I, “when I’m already very successfully doing what I’m doing?”
And as I was concurrently beginning to get into computers (with which, bizarrely, I seemed to “click” almost instantly) that marked the end of my skirmishes with photography.
“Never to be repeated” I promised myself.

Sticking rigidly to that promise for, oh, quite a few years. Not terribly difficult for me because, as I said, it had never really interested me… only as a means to an end, sort of thing.

And there’s the key I suppose.

For move forward a few years (to 2006 in fact) and it was suggested to me by a (then recently acquired) friend that a camera would be a useful adjunct for certain of my other activities. Activities that involved a particular type of newsworthy events and my documenting thereof.

Nuff said about that. Sufficient to say that as a result of a number of conversations with said friend I acquired the aforementioned digital camera.
Not that I used it very much. I appreciated the fact that it appeared to be well made, but it just didn’t do the trick for me. Means to an end again y’see. Rather than an end in itself.

But then I made the foolish mistake of upgrading to something slightly better… a dSLR no less (albeit an entry-level one, the Canon EOS 400D).

Oh dear. Bad move!

For I found that I was gradually starting to carry this with me virtually everywhere. And was beginning to snap stuff just for… er… fun. Oops!

Ok. That’s the background. So here I am, three years plus down the road, with digital cameras of one sort or another (seven at last count, plus masses of ancillary kit, plus two film cameras would you believe) littering up the homestead, and beginning to ask myself “Where the hell am I going with this?”

At the most superficial level its one of my “professional occupations” (being a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, and totally consistent with the ambiguity and ambivalence that seems to characterise me, I have more than one).
On a more personal level though, and rather scarily, it also seems to have become rather more than “an interest”. Having lasted for over three years its certainly more than a passing fad.

Photography, for me at least, seems to have transformed into an end in itself. Oh dear oh bloody dear.

But have I actually managed to achieve anything with it in the past three years or so?
Well, for starters, I still find it very difficult (almost impossible in fact) to think of myself as a “photographer”. In my mind I’m still just a “happy snapper”, and feel very little inclination to aspire to anything else.

Yet of course that’s not strictly true. If I have any aspiration at all with regard to all this photography nonsense, I suppose its simply that the camera should become nothing other than an extension of myself, to be employed without conscious thought or effort.

And the genuine happy snapper would be totally content with things “as is”, rarely striving to change or to improve. Indeed, possibly not even perceiving the potential for improvement inherent in the pastime.

Whereas I do. Unfortunately.

Flickr

This blog is, by intent and design, the companion blog to my Flickr photostream. (Bear with me… the relevance will become apparent!)

I first opened a Flickr account way back in June of ’06 upon the recommendation of a friend (who, in the intervening years, curiously seems to have become almost totally anti-Flickr) and despite a few gripes I had, and still have, it remains my favourite photo-sharing site.
Yes, I’ve tried a few others, but Flickr still seems to me to be the leader of the pack.

For starters its bloody good value for money. Where else could you get virtually unlimited storage and virtually unlimited bandwidth, plus all the content management and accessibility options, for an annual fee that’s really just inconsequential pocket-money? (Yeah, I know, SmugMug, Zooomr, Ipernity et al… looked at them. All of them. And still prefer Flickr!)
Plus its dead easy to use. Plus it has an almost addictive social networking aspect if that’s your thing. And it can boast an incredibly huge user-base. Possibly the largest photo-orientated one on the Web.

And that of course is, for me at least, the deal-maker.

For it gives me easy access to the photographic output of literally millions of people, with all manner of interests, and at almost every skill-level imaginable. The range of talent thereon (and lack of it!) is truly phenomenal.

Which “benefit” is a bit bizarre, considering I’ve never really been all that interested in photography. Yet I’ve discovered I really do enjoy looking at other peoples’ pics. What they’re photographing. What interests them. How they approach their subject-matter. How they process their pics. And so on.

Browsing through the many various Flickr photostreams is at one and the same time an inspiring and a truly depressing experience.
Inspiring for so often I find images that move me, or styles and techniques that I want to attempt for myself.

And depressing because all too often I cannot avoid comparing what I see there with what I produce… and come away with the thought “Shit, I’ll never be that good”. A thought so devastating sometimes that I’m tempted to simply chuck the whole photography caper.
“What’s the use? I simply haven’t got what it takes.” And at that point I reflect upon all my shortcomings.

Failings

I don’t have the vision to see the potential in a scene.
Don’t have the imagination to create truly stunning and memorable images.
Don’t have the patience to make my pictures technically faultless.
Don’t have the dedication to master the finer points of photography.
Don’t have the motivation to take the whole business in the least seriously.

Unfortunately, I do have the vision to appreciate how monotonous and second-rate most of my pics are.
Do have the imagination to conceive how my images could be so much better.
Do have the patience to scrutinise my pics in detail and notice all their technical imperfections.
Do have the dedication to keep on trying, albeit unsuccessfully… over and over again.

But I still don’t have the motivation to take it at all seriously!

Talk about being in a bit of a cleft stick!

And all of which is to say nothing of the frustration at seeming to be completely unable to capture or reproduce most scenes precisely as I see them.
Nor am I content to accept that as simply a limitation of the equipment. In part, yes. But a far larger part is my own failure to master the skills and techniques involved.
And the problem here is, I positively refuse to be told anything by anyone else. Much prefer to find things out for myself, even though it generally takes far longer. Perverse, I know… but that’s the way I am.

Ok. So much for what I’ve achieved, or failed to achieve, in tangible terms. What about something rather less tangible? Have I, for example, learned anything useful?

Lessons

Well, in terms of life lessons, probably not.

In terms of photography? Hmm.

I’m certainly not aware of having increased my knowledge-base at all. Sure, I’ve learned how to use a digital camera. Well, the basics at least… though the finer points still elude me. And I can’t really be bothered to master them. Not until I perceive an immediate need to do so at least.

Like when I’m actually out photographing stuff and encounter something less than straightforward that causes me to squawk “How the hell am I gonna do this then?” and start frantically rummaging around amongst all the various settings, whilst at the same time trying to dredge up from memory all the things I’ve dismally failed to learn. Never have the manual with me of course. Why would I?

Oddly, sometimes the “non-technique” seems to work!

So I guess I’ve gained an elementary understanding of how cameras function in terms of apertures, and ISO, and exposure and stuff. (And I’ve learned when I should be using a tripod… though I rarely pay attention to that!)

Learning about photography itself? Well, I’m vaguely aware that there are “rules”… though I prefer to think of them as guidelines. Not that I worry about them too much.
The so-called “rule of thirds” for example. Yes, I’m aware of it. But I hardly ever bother with it. Not consciously at least.
The cameras I use don’t have that “thirds grid” functionality for the LCD (or if they do, I’ve never found it… nor, truth to tell, tried to look for it). Yet, bizarrely, quite a few of the pics I take seem to adhere to that “rule” (or approximately so). Believe me, its not planned that way. Its just the way I “see” things… the “composition” (to use a fancy photographic term) that seems to me to work really well for a lot of things. And I tend to find myself doing it automatically.

The number of times I’ve imported pics to Lightroom and discovered through the grid in the Develop module how precisely though unconsciously I’ve placed the “key element” in accordance with the “rule of thirds” (or nearly so, with just a minor crop) is genuinely spooky.

So, automatically, and without thinking.

Like having stuff off-centre. So off-centre in fact that very often I’ll have something on one side of a pic with empty space (practically) on t’other. Its not conscious. It just happens.

But I can’t honestly say I’ve learned any of this. Its just instinctive… or so it seems to me.

Pity then that I can’t “see” more inspiring things to shoot, or ways to capture them, or render the final images in a more inspiring or dramatic manner.

It seems, ultimately, that the one thing goading me into questing different types of subject-matter, or different ways of dealing with them, is nothing other than boredom. Boredom with the same old stuff, time after time. And that’s hardly a laudable prompt, or a tribute to any sort of worthwhile creative vision.
Not that I buy into all that crap about “communicating” something (be it a “creative vision” or whatever else) or there being a “message” in photography or whatever. That’s all just a load of old cobblers in my book. Contrived attempts to impose “meanings”.

I idly speculate sometimes that perhaps this desire and quest for “meanings” is indicative of some sort of spiritual void; a failure to find or perceive meaning in Life itself. Hence “meanings” have to be attributed to lesser things as compensation. Whereas I, inhabiting a Cosmos that is rich in meaning and significance (in my perception) have no need for such trivial devices. Maybe. Who knows? Indeed, who cares?

Y’see, on the one hand I have a nasty uncomfortable feeling that I’m actually beginning to love photography… whilst on the other I have an equally nasty suspicion that I still really don’t “get it”. Hmm. Bummer.

And I haven’t quite drifted away from the topic of Flickr yet.

Given the way that Flickr arranges/displays user uploads (the basic default photostream view), what the user has is a superb chronology of their photo ventures (assuming pics are uploaded in the order in which they’re taken of course).

And I’ve recently used this feature to review the “progress” I’ve made. Huh. That was a complete waste of time as well. Seems to me that I’m not really taking much better pics now than when I first started. Which, putting it mildly, pleases me not at all. So, best not to do that sort of review again lest I’m reminded of the progress I’ve not made.

What’s even worse, I doubt if I’m going to try any harder in the future. So why do I bother?
Well, basically because at the moment its still fun. There’s something about being out there, with a camera, doing all sorts of stupid things and getting away with it cos passers-by look and dismiss with the obvious thought “Oh, a photographer” (presumably equating “photographer” with “eccentric antics”), that really appeals to me. It sits comfortably.
There’s also something about fiddling around with tripods and lighting and nonsense for indoor shots that sits comfortably with me too.
And then there’s the added “fun” of transferring the pics to the laptop, and seeing precisely how much crap I’ve produced (my potential for crap output is a constant source of amazement to me).

Then selecting pics that to my mind aren’t too bad and uploading them to Flickr. And occasionally finding that some people actually like some of them! Vindication!
You cannot imagine how much pleasure I get when someone expresses a liking for one of my pics! I try to kid myself they’re being genuine and not just polite or friendly. Sometimes I succeed.

Well, let’s quantify all this. At time of writing I’ve uploaded nearly 8.5k of pics to Flickr. (Bloody hell. Its scary. Just as well I’m digital and not film! Well, only the odd film shot here and there.) Of which 8.5k there are less than a hundred I really, genuinely, personally rate. Doesn’t say much for 3+ years’ of effort does it?

And here’s a thought that I discussed with one of my new photo-chums the other day… given that everything digital is so much quicker than the equivalent… er… “analogue”, what would 3+ years’ of digital photography experience equate to in film photography terms? Or, putting it another way, given average (or maybe slightly less than average!) income, how many years would it have taken to accumulate a body of 8.5k film photographs?
In context of the general gist of this post, such a consideration is really quite depressing.

Perceptions

One thing that this past three years or so has achieved for me though is to change, or perhaps help to formulate in my mind, the way I “see” photography.

Hitherto I can’t really say I’d thought much about it at all. At worst, I didn’t think about it. At best, to me it was either purely a hobby, or a commodity that was bought and sold in relation to demand. In other words, a “commercial product”.

Wedding photography? A service purchased by the participants as a souvenir (and to remind them) of the “happy occasion”.
Product photography? Commissioned and paid for by companies wanting to flog their stuff.
“News” photography (what I’d now think of as documentary or photojournalism)? Images used to illustrate a “story”. Very secondary to the words. (Words provide context. For me, without the words photographs are just pictures… almost totally devoid of any meaning or significance… said with due deference to my earlier remarks about “meaning”.)

All that stuff about a picture being worth a 1000 words is a load of bullshit far as I’m concerned. Or at the very least it certainly doesn’t mean a picture replaces words. A picture’s diddly-squat without at least some words to provide a context.

And everything else, in my mind, would fall into the category of either “hobby” (very much in the vaguely derogatory “trainspotting” sense) or “something tourists do when on holiday”. Or maybe mementos of special occasions… something personal to share with a private circle of friends and family (if one has any!).

Incidentally, I find that’s one of the really odd things about photography. “Personal photography” at least (as opposed to commercial photography). Whilst seeming to me to be a quite solitary, conceivably even self-indugent and selfish, pursuit (notwithstanding the ability to join in “photo outings” with others), the end product seems to be rather pointless unless it is shared. I sense some sort of a contradiction there somewhere.

But I’ve now begun to understand that photography (to its practitioners anyway) can be a helluva lot more serious and profound than anything implied by the foregoing. (And probably a helluva lot more serious and profound to photographers themselves than to anyone else… likely “non-photographers” couldn’t really give a toss!)

And I’ve had cause to think about this… deeply!

One particular dimension of this (that will be familiar to some of the more regular visitors here) is the whole notion of “Photography as Art”.

I’ve probably been vaguely aware of this concept for many years. But never really thought much about it, dismissing it as not worthy of attention.
That situation is now vastly different. Since myself becoming engaged by this “Art” (though I shudder in using that term) I’ve given it considerable thought… and not been hesitant in expressing my opinion! (For a typical example, see the comments appended to this post.)

I’ve also learned that there are certain styles or types of photography that I like… and some that I absolutely don’t! And there are definitely some processing techniques that I earnestly hope I never find myself using.

And I’ve learned that the crappiest photography imaginable (in every sense you can conceive) will undoubtedly be liked by someone, somewhere. And not just liked, but lauded as “great” and “awesome” and “truly inspiring”.
Guess that just lends weight to the adage “There’s no accounting for taste”!

So yes, my perception of photography has changed, perhaps quite significantly. But I’m not entirely certain I would regard that as progess, or as sufficient return for the time so far spent.

Wrap-up

I’m guessing that newcomers to the pursuit of photography will, if they are in the least concerned about the “quality” of their output (in terms of whatever criteria they choose to apply) at some stage experience periods of self-doubt and negativity such as I’m describing here.

I’m further guessing that these periods mark watersheds of sorts. Crisis points at which a person will either abandon the pursuit altogether or… er… not.

In my particular case I suspect I shall just carry on regardless and sod it all!

Simply because I actually enjoy photographing things and scenes that I see, and enjoy all the subsequent processing etc that goes with it. And the more I photograph them, so it seems the more I look for things to photograph. A sort of self-perpetuating cycle.

And because at the end of the day the only person I really need to please is myself.
Whether or not I’ll achieve any improvement is of course another matter entirely. And the truth is, its of no consequence to anyone other than myself anyway.

As a final thought, nor should I forget of course the so many aspects of photography (well, photographic kit to be more precise) that simply appeal to the gadget freak in me. And the fact that, being digital, it requires the use of computers. Oh joy! Oh glee! I just knew these damn infernal machines would eventually come in useful for something.

[Edited numerous times as additional thoughts have occurred to me. So, for 24 hours or so following the original post date this has been a “work in progress”. Likely to be continued until the next post appears, whereupon I’ll almost certainly lose interest in this one!
Final Edit: 08 December 2009. 22:02hrs – New paragraph in the Perceptions section.]

About fotdmike

Occasional photographer; occasional writer/blogger; occasional activist; occasional computer-geek. Bit of a fool really.
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