Monthly Archives: May 2013

Glad to be a Photographer

I praise the day when I decided to pursue photography in earnest – or even professionally. How much excitement that interest has brought me in the last four years. The places I have been allowed in to see, the people I have been able to meet, the experiences I have gained. And yesterday was another example of that. But it has simultaneously also shown me that I am glad I am not a cinematographer.

Yesterday’s occasion was a shoot in a shoot. The star of the film was – my house. But the fact that I work in a studio in this house suited the filmmakers plans, and thus I was asked to “act” in her film. I will be a mere footnote in the finished work, but that suits me well, because what I wanted to get out of this, I certainly got. I got a first-hand experience of a professional video production. Five people were involved in the shoot – the director, her AD , the director of photography, a steady-cam operator and a focus puller. Now, I have often read these titles in the credits of movies, and of course I had a general idea what their roles were. I had a glimpse of it when I acted as an extra on a soap opera years ago, but when you are a mere extra in a big production, you do not get to ask questions or to poke behind the scenes.

Photography – Drawing with Light, Literally

The attention to detail in video productions is staggering. Furniture was moved, paintings re-hung, decorations arranged to the millimetre. Light was artificially enhanced and recreated. My role in all this was to act the photographer, i.e. I was in the frame as a photographer who is in the middle of a photo shoot. An easy role to play, you might think, but not if you are aware of a camera moving around behind you, which you have to allow space to pass by while still acting your own part.

Most interesting for me was that stills photography and cinematography are two entirely different kettle of fish. Yes, both work with the recording of light, time and space, and yet it seemed to me as if photography, although much less complicated, needed a much stricter framework than cinematography. For starters, the mixture of lightsources – flash and daylight, did not seem to impede the camera very much. For me, however, it was slightly tricky to be shooting flash with light streaming in from an open window. (For those not in the know: A mixture of light will result in funny hues in the image.) On a usual shoot, I would not place my sitters as close to the backdrop as I had to yesterday. And I certainly would know that my flash has to be much closer to my subjects in order to illuminate them properly than it sits in this shoot. For the steady-cam it was more important to have the whole composition right, the flash did not really matter much to it, and similarly the intensity of light seemed to be less of or little consequence. My demands, of course, were secondary to the production, and so I had to go along with the “script”. I will have to issue a massive caveat before any of my photography friends see the final products – the gaps in my “studio safety” alone will have those in the know scream in agony…

The shoot has left me with a new appreciation of all things video. It was interesting to see the split responsibilities of the director on the one hand, and the DP on the other – one in charge of the aesthetics, the other looking after the technical side of things. Likewise, roles of the camera people were clearly split as well, with the steady-cam operator moving the camera with the poise and deliberation of a ballet dancer through the room, while the focus puller crept along to concentrate only on the focus of the image that he saw transmitted onto his screen.

All of these jobs were incredibly multi-task – operating complicated pieces of equipment while keeping the instructions of the artistic and technical directors in mind, all of that restricted by the dimensions and characteristics of the room. One wrong angle or a bump against the rigging and you can start again. And all this before you even get to the participation of the “extras” who unwittingly look at the camera, or move the wrong way, or move to quickly, or what have you. It’s pain-stakingly slow, and what will appear as a minute-and-a-half in the finished video has taken us three hours to shoot.

I am glad that as a photographer I am operating in a slightly less technology-filled realm. Give me a lightsource and a subject and off I go. But those have to be set in direct relation, otherwise it won’t work. There is still plenty of multi-tasking going on in my job, too, and lots of technology to arrive at the desired outcome. No doubt you can easily do with a pair of extra-eyes and a few hands to move the details around. But nowhere near the complexity that filming needs. Phew – glad I am not doing that. I most certainly lack the patience for cinematography.

So yeah, I am glad to be a photographer. I am able to understand what is going on in the world of cinematography, but I am happy that what I do requires less pre-planning, less manpower, less post-production and is altogether that little bit more accessible and tangible. Simpler, maybe, but certainly not less enduring or impressing.

Eternity is B/W

Recently I was looking at a colour and a b/w version of the same portrait, wondering which one had a stronger impact on the viewer. Comparing them turned out to be an interesting exercise because by all means they should have elicited the same response. After all they were identical. But they didn’t. It is probably completely subjective whether you prefer the b/w over the colour version or vice versa. But there seem to be a few mechanisms at work here, that distinguish colour photography from b/w photography.

Colour photography might speak to you because it is more life-like. It depicts the sitter *as we see her*, in all her colourful glory, with her healthy skin tone, her blue eyes, her blonde hair and the bright pink boa. We relate to her because colour is how we see things around us. The hear-and-now is colour. Colour is life. Life is colour. The slice-of-life quality of photography is far more effective when we see it in colour. This is a two-hundredth of a second that was *real*. To all intents and purposes it could’ve been just a second ago. Colour photography anchors a photograph in the present.

B/w portraits, on the other hand, have a timeless quality. They transmit a feeling of classy-ness, of deliberate concentration and aesthetic documentation that colour photography does not quite possess. B/w feels more aesthetic. Because it relies on the contrast of dark and light, it emphasises other aesthetic qualities of the subject than colour, it hones the contrasts/contradictions contained in an image. In this case, for instance, the b/w version focusses our gaze on the contrast between (light) skin and (dark) eyes. It zooms in on the dark lips against the light skin. Personally, I also find that b/w often has a much stronger three-dimensionality to it than the colour version. The latter appears flatter than the monochrome version, which places greater emphasis on tiny details: the catch lights in the sitter’s eyes, the shapes of the eyebrows and lips, the shadow in the shot. The downside of this classy-ness is, however, that b/w can occasionally turn the sitters into marble statues rather than represent them as living, breathing humans. It can overaestheticise the subject and distract from the characteristics of human-ness.

I personally am much more emotionally invested with the b/w versions of images. Not only because b/w evokes in me a feeling of nostalgia (an old photographic process) and of appreciation of the tangible craftsmanship of b/w processing (pottering in the darkroom for hours in order to process and print an image – a labour of love that seems to have been forgotten in the age of fleeting digital imagery), but also because of a connotation that I have touched upon earlier on: The sculptural quality of b/w photography hints to the existence of something “sublime” in the depicted. Just like a marble bust can survive centuries – or forever – the “sublime”, as it is hinted at in classic b/w portraiture, offers us a glimpse of eternity. A b/w image is made “to last”. It is made to document the expression of beauty at a given point in time. The subject thus is transformed into an “ideal” of beauty.

There almost is a philosophical dimension to the deliberate reduction of “life” to monochrome. An intentional concentration on the essence of human life – which is actually less about outward appearance but about inner beauty, about “soul”. Soul is the beyond, is the sublime, is the divine, is the universal in us all, no matter what we believe in. It is what beauty and human-ness come down to. B/w photography can capture “soul” like no other medium can. But how does this “soul” manifest itself in images, apart from the fact that b/w emphasises the sublime? I have no proper answer, I can only pinpoint where I see the sublime in these images. And that could be something completely different from what you see. Essentially my interpretation of the sublime is informed by my knowledge of the sitter as a person, and her own interpretation of self *in this particular shot*. And for me it expresses itself in the eyes. The old adage of the “eyes as the window to the soul”? Yes, it may come down to this cliché. But b/w makes me see it much clearer than colour. B/w is forever.

Copyright Rant

Those of you who follow this blog from my personal FB my recognise the quote that I am about to post in 2picsaweek today.

“I personally think giving credit is the right thing to do. However, I have an issue with people who put their watermarks in obtrusive places.”

The issue of “giving credit” set off a bit of a rant for me. I have to explain that the statement in the quote was made in context of non-photography related blogging, and my now following rant was a direct reaction to the fact that countless bloggers were re-posting images from which they had painstakingly removed the prominently placed watermarks. I am aware that I am preaching to the converted here on this platform – most of my readers are probably involved in or at least sensitised towards issues of photography, anyway. You are about to read a plea for respecting copyright and for the reasons why it is not just a matter of fairness to credit and pay for the use of images. If only one new reader finds something new in this, I am vindicated in having climbed onto my soapbox.

Watermarks of a different kind

Those of you who are familiar with this blog may have noticed that I only ever use my own images as illustration for my posts. The reason for that is not me being overly confident of my work or using 2picsaweek as an exclusive platform for showing my own stuff. It is merely a reaction to copyright rules that force me to do so. Occasionally, that becomes awkward in the context of 2picsaweek, for instance, when I am reviewing an exhibition and I illustrate the post with a picture of my own, and not from the show in question. For me, that is the easiest way of avoiding copyright issues – although, I could probably get permission from the exhibition organisers in question to re-post an image – after all, it appears in promo material on other sites and publications, too. Strictly speaking, however, I may not use someone else’s image in any public forum without prior permission of the copyright holder. Legal particularities vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in general a photograph belongs to the creator for ever and may not be republished without permission. That does not mean that you always have to pay for the use of an image, but considering that photographers make their money with images, using a photograph without permission is equal to theft.

This is the case in particular when looking at the work of press photographers. They tend to be freelancers who only make money if they not only *get* the shot but also *get it out* fast. However glamourous this profession may seem to you – seeing celebrities up close, attending media events, getting free entry into openings etc. – it is a very hard job, both physically and mentally, in a very competitive market. You have to be a fast worker with enough instinct to know where to catch the celebs. You need to be well-connected to be at the important events. You have to be technically more than proficient to produce relevant images under pressure, in confined space, within a short time-span. You have to have use of the appropriate equipment for making the picture and for sending it on asap. You also have to have the ability to engage with your subjects so that *they* engage with your camera. This is a highly-skilled, fast-paced, multi-tasking job. And it does not pay particularly well. You’ve got to love what you do in order to endure the waiting, the late nights, the scrum in the press pit, the rejection, the uncertainty of your monthly income.

All too often I hear people saying things along the lines of “ah sure, they are just pressing a button, *anyone* could do that”. Wrong. There is much more to press photography than simply releasing the shutter. And the fact that occasionally an amateur gets lucky with a coincidentally snapped image that makes the front pages is merely an exception that proves the rule. In order to *consistently* produce useable press images you need much more than fluke (see above). The industry is notoriously secretive about its prices. They generally depend on which size of image you need and what the circulation of your publication is. But consider the expenses that the photographer has for making that image:

  • Photography is an equipment-based profession. To produce images that reach industry-standard requirements, photographers have to invest in cameras that cost from € 3500/$ 4000 *upwards*! And this is not a once-off but a regularly recurring expense as the camera hardware needs to be updated on a regular basis!
  • Camera accessories are effing expensive but indispensable: A camera flash will set you back from € 500/$ 550 upwards. Studio equipment is even more expensive. You need strobes, reflectors, softboxes, shades, tripods, stands, backdrops…
  • You have to invest in insurance to keep your working tools safe and to protect yourself from damages you may incur while on your job. This will cost you several hundred Dollars/Euro per year.
  • Stationary hardware: Part of the photographic package is the production of a carefully edited and post-produced final image of a shoot. You have to have the appropriate computer hardware (exclusive Apple Mac being the machine of choice in the graphic professions;  starting from € 1000/$1300) and software (Adobe Photoshop – full version costs in the region of €700/$800). Security software and storage facilities (whether in-cloud or hardware-based) also add to the cost.
  • Transport cost: Particularly as a press photographer you are travelling to “where it’s at”. This could be just a walk down the block – but it might be a plane-ride away.
  • And all that before we talk about the educational investment in photography. A degree in photography will set you back from €15.000/$18.000 for tuition. The experience gleaned in the field is not quantifiable but certainly should also be remunerable. As is the actual time that a photographer spends on the assignment – after all, you would also pay a plumber by the hour…

Do you see how it all adds up? You have to sell many, many pictures at €50 each in order to make ends meet at the end of the month… And it applies just as much to portrait photographers, stock photographers, or fine art photographers. All of them have made the above investments in their work. To not acknowledge that is to cheat them. Thus, I am advocating the fair use of photography in digital media. A photograph is the product of an individual’s hard labour. You may use it for your own enjoyment for free, after all it is visible online or in a magazine, but if you are using it to make money with it, you need permission to use it, and you should pay for it.

Having said all that – by and large the photographs that I see posted on blogs every day are not used to make money. They are used for the entertainment of the readers, or for illustration purposes. It can be argued that they will spread the photographer’s name. But that is only the case if the photographer is credited. So wherever possible, as an act of fairness, credit should be given to the creator of any image. I am not advocating that that is *all* you need to do. Asking for permission should be the starting point. And considering to pay for the use of an image should be considered standard practice. But crediting is the least we can do to acknowledge the hard work and the monetary investment that has been put into images.

Rant over.