#526. Good photography (starts) without a camera

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Nov 08

American music journalist Bob Lefsetz recently wrote about Stranger Things. He makes the interesting point that Stranger Things is a show for people who want to go deep, as opposed to The Walking Dead, which is a show to be Instagrammed.

This resonates strongly with both the marketer and photographer in me.

So many super spectacular photographs end up on Pinterest walls or in Tumblr feeds, spiking shooting-star interest in the forms of likes and “awesome” comments, then disappearing from minds as soon as new candidates turn up. Eery landscapes with incredible colours and lighting to die for. I cringe with discomfort at the idea of the time of night, wind chill and number of visits to the (necessarily) remote location the authors have to concede for the few seconds of Internet limelight.


Other photographs follow a different path to success, growing on a smaller number of viewers but with a more lasting effect.

As a teen, and wildly passionate about Ansel Adams, I was given a calendar by said Ansel for Crimbo. The print quality was so amazing that 6 of the pages still line my main corridor alongside “real” prints, 30 years on. Some of the photographs on my walls have been with me so many years you’d think I wouldn’t notice them any more but make me stop for a quick peek almost at every passage. Julius Schulman’s Kaufmann House, for instance.


That second category of photograph would probably go totally unnoticed on today’s forums, yet some grow slowly on a number of admirers, eventually reaching lasting popularity with a whole section of the public that goes beyond photographic circles.

We amateur photographers rarely consciously ask ourselves what category we want to belong to ab initio, but naturally fall into one as time passes and skills grow. There’s no right and wrong (well, there is, but I’ve promised myself to be open minded in 2017).


Occasionally, someone seems to bridge the gap. Think Haas, Salgado. These lucky bleeders appear to weave the spectacular with the meaningful naturally. Life’s unfair. But we can all try to understand where we stand on that spectrum and blend in some of the opposite quality into our work.

Not that “spectacular” needs to imply fireworks or otherworldly light, or that “meaning” has to call upon deep psychological references. Spectacularly subtle is good and playfully meaningful also. But just as companies who are dominating a market are usually poor at detecting disruption until it has uprooted them out of the playing field, so do photographers tend to focus more and more on a specific genre or technique to the point of becoming interesting only to themselves or for a brief period of time.


That’s why good photography starts without a camera, in books, museums, blogs … every time we view something that wouldn’t be our usual cuppa, and try to understand what the author was on about. Sometimes the author is just nuts or not very good. But more often, he/she’s on to something worth internalizing and trying to recreate. It’s not learning from the masters as much as learning from differences. dsc08397

The more we focus on understanding the work of others, the more meaningless gear feuds become, the more creativity grows.

Who will you be studying today (why not start with Paul’s great recent series in Tokyo) ? Care to share the names (& URLs) of people you admire for others to scan through ?


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  • Jack says:

    Love the tow Range Rovers facing each other. Like two hockey players in a face off.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    You’re safe for the moment Pascal – 2017 doesn’t start for another 12 weeks or so.

    And yes, can we PLEASE stay away from “gear wars”. They’re utterly ridiculous – that’s like litigation, which is simply a game for the ΓΌber rich. Yes I have some great gear – I also have a snappy little thing I bought with no rational purpose in mind, because the sensor interested me – it echoed comments I’d seen earlier, from some of the pro’s, about their experiences with cameras that did NOT have 55 megapixels, and I wanted to see for myself what it could do for me – which has become rather addictive, since it actually takes some very nice photos. And it’s quirky enough to be amusing to play with.

    I have a great deal more admiration for some impoverished enthusiast who is mad on macro photography & goes through the junk in the second hand bin at his camera shop, to find some ancient lens he turns back to front and sticks onto his aging camera with an adapter, so that he can turn out an absolutely stunning photo of a bee’s face, as it scoops up pollen on a flower in the park somewhere near his home.

    Besides, if you have too much junk, you need an Indian porter to cart it around for you, and it’s no longer fashionable to carry on like that. All very well in the time of the British Raj, but we’ve moved on since that.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Nice story about the macro photo of the bee’s face and I couldn’t agree more.
      Tell you what, I don’t enjoy macro at all. So, in the spirit of this article, I’ll check a macro website out. Care to suggest one? πŸ˜‰

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        πŸ™‚ – I think the correct expression is “hoist with my own petard”, which apparently means blowing myself up with my own cannon. I’ve read scores of articles, seen hundreds (thousands, maybe) of brilliant macro shots on the web – but oh dear, where are they?

        You could try these, Pascal:
        1 – a free introductory manual (E-book) on macro photography –
        2 – a good run-down on what is macro photography (that’s an essential starting point, I think) and what equipment to start with –

        As to the gear you need, this is a bit like the debate over cellphones – it’s possible to take macro shots with a wide variety of gear, and often, with cameras & lenses we already own – the results may not make it to the cover of National Geographic, but it’s fun to take them anyway. In between trips, I find myself taking heaps of macro shots, for that reason. It’s absorbing, I need to concentrate on the technical stuff or it results in crap, and it’s creative. Sharing is harder – although fortunately the lady who bred two of my Dobes is also keen on macro shots, so we swap, and we provide each other with an appreciative audience.

  • john W says:

    I’m completely in agreement with Jean Pierre on the gear question. These days if asked what kind of camera I use I simply say “preferably something light-tight”. the older I get the simpler and more basic the gear becomes.

    I’m addicted to B&W … GOOD B&W … so I know what you mean about your Adams group of images. I have one Adams image which has great sentimental value and still stop to look at it when I pass it. I do do colour, but photographic sweet tooth is definitely B&W. I really like the house and the statues. Even on web the tonal depth is beautiful. The house is not something I would normally shoot so that’s a bon-bon for me and the Julian Schulman image is stunning. I’d forgotten about him; thanks for the reminder.

    A couple of websites to share – Bob Hansen is my photo buddy and Albert Normandin is a former assistant to Jay Maisel both of whom I met through and acquaintance.


    • pascaljappy says:

      John, thank you so much for the comment and the links. I’ve heard of Bob Hansen and, obviously of Jay Maisel, but not Albert Normandin. It will be great to check out their websites.

      I too love B&W and wish I could find the courage to do B&W only … If it’s OK to ask, what Adams photo are you so attached to?


    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Tarmo. Saul Leiter is an genius. One of the underrated masters, much like Pentti Sammallahti.

      • Tarmo says:

        Those two are on the slowly diminishing list of photographers whose work I admire but don’t fully understand why. I think in Saul’s case it comes down to the use of colours – I have some studying to do there, which is a perfect excuse to not go out and shoot in the dark and cold…

  • PaulB says:


    Since B&W is part of the discussion and Ansel Adams was mentioned too, let me submit the two photographers below. Alan Ross and Michael Kenna.

    Michael’s images are the kind that get you to stop and take the time to look deeply into them. Some may seem to be simple compositions, but the are deep.

    Alan was Ansel’s last assistant and an excellent photographer in his own right. Not to mention an excellent instructor. I had the good fortune to attend a Leica Akademy workshop in Santa Fe where he was the guest instructor. I very much enjoyed the experience and seek out his individual workshops.



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