#521. “Moment” pictures Vs. “Performance” pictures

By philberphoto | Opinion

Oct 28



[Rant: on]



Submission n°1: there are more photographers than ever before, and more pictures being taken than ever before, and viewed by more people than ever before. Yet camera sales are falling off a cliff, because people use cellphones, and the “standard of photography” is falling off the same proverbial cliff. This doesn’t mean that you can’t take decent pictures with a smartphone, as Pascal demonstrates, just that the vast majority of pictures taken with them don’t reflect that. Ironically, one of the reasons behind that is that taking a picture has become so fast, easy and cheap. Just click, or, to use that lovely expression, “spray and pray”. In film days, it wasn’t instant, and it wasn’t free, so people thought about what they were doing. now, it is free, it is instant, so no need to think, just click, click, click…


Submission n°2: the world’s most beautiful spots, photography-wise, are now overrun with so many ‘togs that it is becoming increasingly difficult to take meaningful pics. Venice in season is already long gone as a photography spot, as is for example the Kinkaku-ji (golden temple) in Kyoto. But now that is spreading to far less obvious spots, remote landscapes that are -or used to be at least- far off the beaten track. Think Iceland. If you want to go snorkeling in Silfra or visit an ice cave, you need to book at least 6 months in advance. You are liable to see Jökulsarlon overrun with more photographers than let you take a picture, unless you are shooting straight out to sea, and don’t mind foot-steps in your beach shots. And you can imagine what this demand does to prices, of course. Think the Lofoten, not exactly a famous part of the world, and not one where there are so many shooting opportunities, now on the agenda of dozens of willing ‘togs on one photo forum alone (out of hundreds!) for 2017.


Now you could ask, and it would be entirely appropriate, why are we deploring this state of affairs, when DearSusan is in fact promoting travel photography and spreading glorious advertisment pictures for thse hallowed spots? You are right, it is called a paradox, or maybe even a contradiction… But think about it, how many pictures have you seen of Torres del Paine in Patagonia, and of Antelope canyon, or Jökulsarlon ice-on-the-beach, or Sosussvlei sand dunes in Namibia? It is alsmost like being there without going there.dsc01005


[Rant: over]



It need not be that bad. Fact is, if those world-class spots are that well known due to classy pictures, then it means that taking such fine pictures is still largely possible, if not as easy as I’d like, else we wouldn’t see them.


Yes, I still intend to go to such wonderful places, which means I have high hopes of being in a position to “score”. Yes, it might be off-season, as it was when I went to Iceland with Boris, and in that case, it worked out beautifully. Then, there is this delicious (to me) fact, that most people who take pictures either can’t (when they travel as part of a group), or won’t come out really early, and take pictures before the sun rises, when the light is at its most beautiful. Case in point, my visit to the Mont Saint-Michel with Pascal. We were out early, and shot for may be 2 hours, in wonderful light. With precious few exceptions, people started arriving as we were leaving, the light having -totally predictably- lost its golden sheen and turned flat. So, yes, if you turn out early and with a tripod, or care to stay out late you can still avoid the peak numbers of photographers in touristy places.


But I think this cloud has a silver lining, which could be a lesson to all of us. When pictures were -compared to today- rare, each one was precious. Hence the ubiquitous family album. What mattered was not how good a picture was, but just that it was there to remind us of a special moment. Hence the value of “special moment” photography, including by such masters as Henri Cartier-Bresson, or -even, though it wasn’t his stock-in-trade- Ansel Adams.


The advent of the ubiquitous smartphone has taken over the “precious moment”. Nothing any more can remain secret or private. There is always someone around with a phone, and the will to use it. So no moment can be lost, either.


But, with the loss of the “moment picture”, comes the emergence of the “performance picture”. The one that is so obviously “more”. More beautiful, more creative, more faithful, more whatever. National Geographic can be seen as a herald of the “performance picture”, as can, hopefully, DearSusan. Of course, smartphone manufacturers will tell you that their gear -soon to be yours!- is perfectly capable of taking performance pictures. While they are unquestionably getting better at it, there is still a long, long way to go…


So what is in it for us ‘togs? As I see it, pictures will go the same way as the camera market, where the middle segment is caving in. Smartphones on the bottom end, large sensors and lenses on the high end, and the middle, primarily compact cameras -the same hassle as a camera, the same IQ as a smartphone- becoming extinct or nearly. ‘Cause why bother, if it ain’t better? The same with pictures: why bother, if it ain’t “better”, whatever that means to each of us?


Because I tend to take what I write seriously, I will try to keep this in mind. No more pics “that I’ve done already”. None “that are good enough”. None “because it might work”. Or “that I’ve seen so many times”. Nope, says the addict, I am going to beat my addiction. I, and those who know me know that it is going to be very new, and maybe hard, for I am not a man of few words, I will try to be a man of few pictures…


Oh, and for those of you who wonder about my choice of pictures. The top ones come from the great Daimler-Benz museum in Stuttgart, the bottom are of a different nature…:-). In both cases, not pictures due to chance, nor that could have been achieved with a smartphone.  Sorry, Pascal. Nor did I have to take special precautions to avoid a crowd…


So, tell me, am I talking out of my… E-mount?


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    🙂 Well it took nano seconds to work out where you took the first few shots, Philippe – if it hadn’t been for the idiocy of one person, I would have ended up owning a superb 1930 Mercedes that used to belong to a friend of my brother. Supercharger (sounded like an explosion 🙂 if you switched it on), huge exhaust pipes coming out the side of the engine and running down the side of the car. The ultimate in vintage sports cars!
    I wonder whether the issue of a “dying market” isn’t at least in part the consequence of too many cooks trying to spoil the broth?
    “Once upon a time . . . ” we had Kodak for the masses (read “cellphone”), Leica & Voigtlander & Zeiss & Agfa & Rollei catering to the “more serious” photographer, Graflex & Linhof et al serving the needs of pros etc. A world away, Fuji served the Asian market. Camera models stayed much the same for years on end – occasionally being improved, rather than replaced, most of the time. Life went on, shutters clicked, everyone was happy.
    Then one day EVERYONE decided to make cameras. And to compete, they all started launching new models. Now they have flooded the plains, and they are complaining their feet are wet.
    I don’t have a solution to their problem, but I can’t say I’m all that sympathetic. One thought that has occurred to me – if this year’s attempt to get a bit of publicity by launching yet another new model of the same camera at Photokina is such a revolution in the manufacturer’s product range, why has the same manufacturer been peddling sheer rubbish that’s nowhere near as good as this year’s model, to its target market, for the past 5 or 10 years? Why were we all supposed to buy all those other models, then? And what is it telling us about what was wrong with all of them then?
    Why is it necessary to have the “world’s best ever camera”, anyway? The history of photography over the past 170 odd years is spray painted with the names of brilliant photographers who never had any such thing – but they still took some of the best photographs, ever.
    I know perfectly well that my PowerShot isn’t as “good” as my FF – and that my half frame isn’t either – but I still use all three, and I do it by choice, because I can, and they’re all fun to use. I drool over Ming’s medium format shots and go back to taking my shots.
    I do agree that compact cameras are dying though – as you suggest, why would anyone bother? In my own case, my only excuse was habit – I needed something I could have with me 24/7, to eliminate the risk of losing any more “once in a lifetime” opportunities – since I only use my cellphone as a phone (or for SMS messages), it never occurred to me that I could have spent over a thousand dollars buying a better cellphone, when a $300 compact being specialled by Nikon would do the job just as well. Frankly, it was a dud. The sensor was too small to satisfy me and it’s now sitting in a drawer, unloved and abandoned.
    Otherwise, I am now totally in my comfort zone . . . except when I walk into a space which has been invaded by a hostile army of demented cellphone & “tablet” owners waving their pride & joy in the air, & the view is completely obliterated by waving limbs & selfie sticks & all those slabs of Apple or Samsung or whatever.
    Is much of the “problem” due to the onslaught of computers & cyber space, and the substitution of JPEGs for “photographs”? I still take photos to print them – I’m taking delivery of my new printer the day after tomorrow (Epson dudded their customers with the one I’ve been using – they failed to keep their software up to date and it has simply become obsolete, unless I switch the operating system on my computer backwards 5 years) – friends that I give prints to tell me over & over how much they like the photos I’ve taken for them – and if I distribute them electronically, I scarcely get a response. I am impenitent – photos are images on paper. 🙂
    Oh – as for cellphones, what does a print from a cellphone look like, alongside a shot taken on a half decent SLR?

  • xiaoyang says:

    Great article. Really enjoy your writing.

  • artuk says:

    As someone who travels and photographs, I too feel that the wealth of photographers and camera-phone snappers are a scourge on any pleasure that may come from travel. I admit I photograph some stock photography when I travel – city skylines and beaches and sunsets, all very predictable – but the current internet-fuelled trend for researching and thronging to all the same places to capture almost the same images often without a great deal of art or skill is at best tedious, and at worst simply annoying for anyone who wants to visit somewhere and enjoy it for the experience. When I read articles from “experts” in a field telling everyone to research a place well on the internet before visiting, I feel annoyed that an entire generation of travellers and photographers are denying themselves any spontaneous pleasure or serendipity by simply ending up going to the same places to photograph the same things in the same ways. I am probably part of the “problem”, but I do try to spend enough time at a place to give me the chance to get a sense of the location and it’s people, as well as the inevitable box-ticking photographic tourism, as often the stolen moments you share with others unexpectedly are the highlights, rather than standing in the specific spot to get the same view of the same place as everyone else who’s read the same internet. I once attended a talk by a travel photographer who described having to get up early to be first in the queue to get into the Taj Mahal to get to the exact location to get the prefect view that everyone else had already photographed – and I knew this wasn’t a type of photography I wanted to pursue, and removed all originality and art from the whole process. I appreciate there are original and talented photographers out there, but they probably aren’t taking their photographic advice from the internet or the same guidebooks.

    • philberphoto says:

      Art, you are great! Plese keep on agreeing with me and I will keep on saying that you are great! 🙂 Your comment regarding the Taj resonates, because I once stayed at the nearby Oberoi Amarvilas, and started early next morning with a guide, so that I could be first, or next best, and enjoy some shots of the monument before it was thronged. And, yes, i was shown where to take the “perfect” shot, and, yes, I shot it. But, no it is not my favorite shot from that morning. I used a 15mm fish-eye, and there was a woman in a gorgeous yellow saree, and it just worked a charm…

      • artuk says:

        Well, I’m probably more jaded, argumentative, or obtuse than “great” – and you haven’t seen my photographs!

        I’ve never been one to have strict itineraries, I think they sap the life and soul from a travel experience, unless time is so tight there is no other option – although in that case I think the wider itinerary is wrong. A friend of mine is very superior about the number of places he has travelled, but it is little more than a “tick box” exercise in tourism, and seems to offer no real chance to explore, be spontaneous, or meet people. For me, that’s much of what is wrong with the modern rise of tourism, where lower fares and great disposable income just encourages people to swarm to the same places and do the same things as everyone else, trying to recreate the tour they read in their book or saw on a TV show. I know what the Taj Mahal looks like, I’ve seen it in hundreds of photos and TV shows, what purpose is there in me adding another photo? Perhaps it’s fulfilment that I have mastered that technique – “look at what I did!” – but perhaps better to try and make something personal, different or original. By that, I don’t mean snap the same street sellers or beggars on the streets of Calcutta either – because that’s all been done before too! It’s hard to be original in an internet full of over-processed photos where the processing replaces the composition or mood or originality, or the gazillions or useless selfies and camera phone snaps that only serve to bolster the owners ego and fake-perfect online lifestyle. I hate the idea of these strict travel photo itineraries – maybe I’m just too lazy to get up at 4:30am or I’m not competitive enough to believe that mine can be better than all the others before – but frankly I don’t see the point, and would rather do something more satisfying for my soul.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Am I allowed to say ROTFLMHAO? Don’t ask, I won’t tell 🙂
      Love your comment, Artuk – it reminds me of my first trip to Europe, over half a lifetime ago – I had what (to me) was the “best camera in the world” (best 35mm anyway), I took it along for the trip, and I had such a wonderful time based in a small village in the north east of Italy, among friends I’d made here who had returned to the land of their ancestors, that when I came back home, I found the only photos I’d take in the entire 3 months I was away were the “pictures in my head”. I still treasure them – although I can’t show them to anyone, or post them on the net. But what I have instead, was the most amazing travel experience – actually living as an Italian in Italy, although I have no Italian blood – and I wouldn’t swap that, for all the photos in the world.
      Contrast that dreadful film (well the film was good, but the story it told was dreadful) “If It’s Tuesday, it Must be Belgium”! AKA “life through the viewfinder of a Kodak Instamatic” (or these days, an iPhone). That kind of “tourism” is so plastic that they might as well stay home and read travel mags.
      So when I travel now, I take photos that my wife & I like – probably not suitable for “Dear Susan” (Pascal’s seen a couple of them, he could tell you), but among the “snaps” one takes on these trips, I have some “photographs” that have real appeal to me. And that, for me, is what it’s all about. I’m not trying to outdo Ansel Adams, I’m simply having fun with my gear, learning heaps about digital, and doing “my own thing”.
      And if you ever find me standing in front of the Taj Mahal, it won’t be because I’m trying for the front cover of National Geographic – I’ll be chasing some other species of butterfly.

  • Per Kylberg says:

    So – when everybody has been everywhere and all beautiful/interesting photo spots are worn down – what to do?
    What about your inner journey? Or to visualize the normal in a way no one else sees it? I have two projects ongoing: My inner journey, working name is “Walk in the park!?”. Then, approaching the season with almost nothing between dawn and dusk, the second being: “Sun and shadow in my neighborhood”.
    Everything is made within 15 min walk from home. “Walk in the park!?” is almost ready and I like it, “Sun and shadow” is in its early stages.

    • philberphoto says:

      Per, your comment is really inspiring. I agree that setting ourselves goals leads to making us all better photographers. I also agree that we dont “need” to go to famous places to make interesting pictures. But it doesn’t contradict what I am saying when I state that our photgraphic space is being invaded by countless, mindless pics from smartphones and by a mass influx of tourist photographers visiting once remote landscapes.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      LOL – that’s what I do between traveling – and I usually have a whole string of “projects” like that, on the go, at any one time. Studies of lighting effects, light and shade, and cloud effects in the sky is one (several?) of them – and it lays a solid foundation for travel photos too, because skies figure prominently in a large percentage of travel photos – working on getting a better feel for taking good sky shots is fundamental, from that point of view.

  • NMc says:

    Very thoughtful article, not sure I agree with all of the sentiments being expressed though.

    If you go somewhere that is famous for being a tourist photographic hot spot then it is logical to capture this activity in you photos. It is a bit like complaining about snow on the tops of tall mountains, that is just the nature of the place. This is where your moments photography comes in, when you look at a lot of the selfie photos taken they do capture the moment, and often better than photogs trying to re-do the travel brochure making it look like an undiscovered gem. Not a fair comparison I know, however from my limited travels it is usually the not so recommended or scenic places and spaces that give the best memories. Maybe our photos should reflect this, what would Susan say?


    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment, Noel.
      I don’t disagree that, when going to a hotspot, you shouldn’t complain that it is hot, so to speak. That said, my intent was to point out that even previously less-than-hot spots are warming up to the point that the very reason that they were hot is being drowned out. Drowned out by countless, mindless, soulless picture-taking. Not by inspired “show-it-for-what-it-is” photography. And drowned out by the ubiquitousness of pics in our world (think: Apple adverts with gorgeous pics purportedly taken with iPhones) that to some extent rob the places we are going to see of any mystery.

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