#988. It all started with confinement, and a BBC video

By philberphoto | Art & Creativity

Apr 06

Here is the video that started it all. It talks about exceptional performance without exceptional talent. You can imagine how readily this resonated within me as a photographer. Producing masterpieces without being a master…

 
 

It speaks about 2 basic elements, both of which I immediately decided to try to incorporate into my photography, in its PMPM [Putting Myself in Photo Mode] component. One is: when training, set yourself a goal which is way outside your “usual” performance envelope, which, by the way, means the training will be long, hard, uncomfortable, unpleasant. But very effective, according to the video. The other is: one has to be deliberate, really very deliberate about what one is doing. Outsize performance is not for the casual or the superficial..

 
 

Now is in France a time of confinement, which I take seriously. Hence my playpen is, for the time being, a smaller urban garden, unkempt and uncared for at that. Hardly the perfect spot from which to extract masterpieces, or even the training ground for new endeavors to learn about producing such, one would think.

 
 

Wrong. And it didn’t take long for me to find out how to “learn to learn”. The first lesson was: set myself goals well outside my comfort zone. That was easy enough: how about finding new subjects in a small garden that I’d already roamed and skimmed at least 10 times? To be honest, I was at the point when the exercise felt stale. I’d been there, done that, etc. Wrong! Once I’d decided to look, and look again, to keep the number of times I’d done it already out of my mind, to actually look with a fresh eye, and try to use what I was seeing, rather than try to find what I knew I could use, new subjects began to materialize. And now that I have done it at least 10 more times in this mode, I can tell you that I have uncovered at least as many new subjects as I had seen in total before that, and that I know there are many, many more to be further excavated from the darkness.

 
 

The second change: “be deliberate” was entirely different. Shooting a long-ish manual-focus macro lens at short range is challenging for my shaky hands. Depth of field is ridiculously thin, even at f:8.0, and the slightest body oscillation will kill the shot. So I miss many shots from either missed focus, or image shake. This is made even more acute by the great sharpness and detail of the Laowa lens and the high resolution of the Sony sensor. The remedy is simple: do it again. I do it again, even though I know that, at Internet resolution, no-one would see any difference. And, before this new approach, I did it again, and again, until there was no shake, and some part, however small, of the “heart” of my subject was in focus. For that, I sometimes had to shoot 10 times over, sometimes even 20 times, which I considered a great effort.

 
 

But now, I decided each shot had to be, from that double standpoint of focus and sharpness, if not perfect, at least as good as I could figure out how. And, let me tell you, when you chimp at 100% with a 100mm macro lens, there is a clear difference between “good enough”, “good”, really, really good, and “as good as can be”. So now, no more “good enough”, no more “good”, only “as good as can be”. Needless to say, the number of iterations went up. Above 20. Above 30. Above 40. Above 50 (sometimes only, thank God!). The temptation to just give up was so palpable I could taste it. But I didn’t. I got every shot, unless I decided the image would be worthless, not the shot. Though, to be honest, the bar of “artistic interest” an image has to pass in these confined days is rather different than when I am free to roam about.

 
 

This exercise of getting focus and stability absolutely right has permeated other areas of my image-making. Choice of aperture. Composition. Time of day I go out to shoot to get the light I want. I am now shooting as though each shoot were my last one. My last chance to get a desert island image. Take the time, put in the effort, get the image until you see, beyond any doubt, that it is “just as it should be”. Incidentally, from the first such shoot, when I was still feeling my way, Pascal immediately knew there was something different to my images. So it wasn’t all in my mind.

 
 

Now I would fully understand if some of you feel I have fallen of the deep end, like Captain Ahab going after Moby Dick rather than other whales available for slaughter. I would also understand if others say “hey, why weren’t you doing that in the first place, that is the only way photography should be done, you rank amateur, you?” Fair game. But, at the same time, I feel I am now a better photographer. If only because I am more ambitious, and it is hard to get a better shot than the one you strive for.

 
 

For me, this training echoes what confinement is. Suddenly previous factors seen as minor become important. Time is dilated. Opportunity rhymes with luxury, and haste with waste. It is like reducing one’s standard of living, and rediscovering smaller pleasures. Not to be umpteenth in Rome -Julius Caesar said “second”-, but first in my garden. Which means that, in this narrow sense, my photography may well benefit from this time of forced asceticism. We will see if my newfound virtue survives when next I have really rich photo material at my disposal.

 
 

A couple of comments before I conclude. When I read my first photography book, it said: what defines 80% of your success is the light. Light is like gold for a photographer. By now I disagree. Yes, light matters hugely, but so does time. Light without time to make as good use of it as one knows how reduces one to “spraying and praying”. Some success, but not only…

 
 

Then, there is the matter of commitment, of “putting in the effort”. I make it sound like it is too much like hard work, repetitive, boring, very much like a chore and quite un-hobby-like, You can say that about any training. Think long distance running, for example. But with photography training, there is a difference. Running leaves you with memories of the thousands of steps, and, as the case may be, lovely sceneries. Photography leaves you with the lovely sceneries to revel in again and again. And, relative to the many hours of enjoyment a fine image gives you and me, spending many minutes to get it just right is a really sound investment.

 
 

For those who wonder about these shots that I needed to try dozens of times in order to get the right once, I will not bore you by showing 100% crops, because this is not what this is about, unless there is demand in the feedback, but, let me tell you, when you watch keenly, there is a difference between “yeah it is fine!” and “wow”! Why settle for less? And, by the way, my technique has gotten better in just that short period of time. My yield has gone up sharply from the pits where it started…:-)

 
 

Lastly, this focus on (among other factors) technical performance can come at the expense of artistic and emotional expression. Especially with a macro lens, it is easy to fall prey to the vanity of shots that have nothing to show but technical performance. That is where it is important to remember what this is all about. And, for me, there is a simple definition of a great image. How impossible it is for me to take my eyes off it… That, in itself, is worth all the effort….

 
 

PS: only pictures of this garden, of course. Only with the Laowa 100 a.k.a. Jonathan. And mostly images of spring, expressed with the first stage of this explosion of colour and life that nature gives us every year, for free. A symbol of life renewed, and celebrated. Deliberately.

 

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  • Sean says:

    Hi Pascal,
    I’ll be succinct: A most excellent article and series of images. I think you’ve been active in your journey sufficiently enough to be able to turn around and see the point from where you commenced – and satisfyingly smiled, if ever so momentarily. Now turn around and take the next step forward. Onward and upward, Pascal. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Regards
    Sean

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Sean, most appreciated. Unfortunately, and much as I’d love to, I can’t take credit for those (text & images) ๐Ÿ˜‰ It’s Philippe whodunnit ๐Ÿ˜€ Cheers

      • Sean says:

        Dear Lord! Apologies to the both of you – I’m embarrassed. We’ll all just have to take it that Pascal is code for Philippe. ๐Ÿ™‚

        • pascaljappy says:

          Nooo way, I’m keeping at least 10% of the praise. Just because ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜€

          • Sean says:

            Ha ha! OK. I’ll pay that. You know, I did balk a little when I saw “… Laowa 100 a.k.a. Jonathan …” mentioned in the text. I had thought since when did a lens like that work so well on the Hasselblad. Sadly, the penny didn’t drop. Ah well, a lesson learnt.

    • philberphoto says:

      Sean, on behalf of Pascal, I thank you. Actually, those are his images, whatever he says, and you were correct. Just, as he wasn’t sure what reception he’d get for images that weren’t his usual style, he chose to make use of his priviledges as site administrastor to hide behind me as a fig leaf (can you imagine that, if ==t would have to be a awafully big tree) until he saw whether he’d receive enough positive comments. But you saw right through his cowardly/dastardly plot and called him out. Great call!

      • Sean says:

        Whilst channeling Batman and Robin, It’ll be along the lines of: Ah, Ha! Holy batman, Philippe – the plot thickens. What will Batman do in the next instalment? They’re be the need for a good ‘optic’ to see clearly through this conundrum; this quandary; this perplexing riddler of a devious Pascal scheme – deviously plotted whilst (con)fined in his family Manor ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Philippe, This is a wonderful post, with lovely macro images, from which I learned the importance of two things: (1) โ€œtry to use what I was seeing, rather than try to find what I knew I could useโ€ (a good line; but of course, I consider this fodder for โ€œgood enoughโ€ as well as for โ€œperfectionโ€ ๐Ÿ™‚ ), and (2) practice, practice, practice (the old joke about how do you get to Carnegie Hall, but importantly applied to photography). But I really appreciated this story of how to make better use of the time on our hands. Now comes the hard part: actually applying it to my own life! Thanks again.

    • philberphoto says:

      Many thanks for the kind words, Lad! But, if I may, the “practice, practice..” rule recommended by the Beeb and tried out by yours truly is “practice after having set yourself a goal which is clearly above and beyond your usual level”. I am thinking about a follow-on article on the changes I have made -and no doubt with more to come- to my shooting workflow. If it is just “practice”, then you look for the “groove”, and do the same over and over again. Basically, even outside this method, I always felt that I acheived more if I set myself a goal for a given shoot.

  • jean pierre guaron says:

    Hi Philippe

    If it’s any consolation, in some parts of the world the numbers are peaking, or even reducing. Here iN Western Australia, all of the deaths are apparently people off cruise ships. And in the past 24 hours, no new infections have been reported or detected. Not a time to be smug – this is one seriously nasty little virus. But at least this eases the tension and increases the hope.

    I haven’t taken many shots so far, during this lockdown. But I have improved the quality of my post processing, which is most important to me, because I print all my “keepers”. You clearly devote hours to your post processing, too.

    I wouldn’t fuss over burning 50 or 100 shots, to get one “keeper”, Philippe. With a half decent digi cam these days, that probably leaves you 190,900 clicks to play with, before you need to replace your present camera body. And I don’t know anyone who’s ever actually taken that many photos with a single camera body!

    I presume that after such a searching exploration of your garden, it is now totally weed free? ๐Ÿ™‚

    My experience with Jonathan so far is rather limited. Just as I started a project to capture bees in flight, mother nature wrested my target from me, leaving the flowers fading and devoid of the nectar that attracted the bees, who promptly left my garden & went around to drown themselves in my friend Kathy’s swimming pool, in a nearby street. So – interesting, but no real keepers yet – and I have to put that one on the back burner until the flowers return next December or January. Lat autumn into early winter doesn’t fire the plants up!

    Way back at the beginning, when we were all being bashed over the head with the “rule of thirds”, one of the things they also told us was not to cram too much into the frame. Macro itself doesn’t like “too much”, and does have a strong tendency to limit the points of interest. Even so, it’s only when you master the particular lens, that you find yourself hitting the target and ridding your images of unnecessary material. Take a bow, Master Philippe – on this level, you have gone from excellent” to “top class”. Yoiu have shared heaps of images with a similar theme, before, on DS – but these images reflect you newfangled dedication, and are dramatically better! ๐Ÿ™‚ (And no tourists!)

    • philberphoto says:

      I am humbled, Master Pete! Now I need to stay up there, less you downgrade me! It might have been better/easier not to undertake this, or, at the very least, not to flaunt it wantonly. Like a *** Michelin chef, who is under such pressure…. not that I am anywhere close to that level, but the pressure of Pete…. brrrr…

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Philippe,
    My admiration!
    And congratulations to your progress
    and to this series of very lovely photos!

    ( I can, sadly, only too rarely find enough patience with myself for that kind of practice…
    I would probably have resorted to my tripod and hoped for a day with light and no wind – well, that needs patience too, but with the tripod, not with myself.)

    Many thanks for posting !

    • jean pierre guaron says:

      LOL – see how hard it was for an expert, like Philippe! The rest of us pretty well HAVE to use a tripod, Kristian. I cheated – I switched to an electronic shutter and a shutter speed of 1/2000th – that fixed camera shake. But as Philippe points out, the depth of field on Jonathan is VERY thin, and if you’re standing, it’s impossible not to move a little, so focusing becomes hard – my attempt to solve that was shooting bursts, and hoping to find a survivor among the dead, during post processing. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        > “The rest of us pretty well HAVE to use a tripod,..”

        Exactly, Jean Pierre, i.e. until we can mount the patience to try Philippe’s recipy… ๐Ÿ™‚ !

        It’s much about training to unconsciously (!) trigger at exactly the right moment, automatically compensating for ongoing camera movement and shutter delay.

        ( Like with shooting, where you let the front sight slowly pass over the target center “waiting” for your finger to squeeze the trigger – I never became good at shooting standing, only prone.)

        It’s also about having a camera+lens that balances well in your hands and finding your best way of holding them, an articulating screen can help.

        ( I once held an old rifle in my hands that I could hold still standing *much* better than the weapons we used in (Swedish) military service.)
        – * –

        Against camera shake a small dram some time before helps – prohibited in shooting sports for that reason.

        So, Cheers! (?) ๐Ÿ™‚

    • philberphoto says:

      Many thanks Kristian, your kind words are much appreciated. Regarding patience, it comes with having limitless time on hand, and then slowly, it becomes natural. I am not sure a tripod would be very practical, though, because you have to position the camera just so, and tripods don’t exactly let one do that. So, for some shots, yes, but only a minority, I am afraid.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        > “… , because you have to position the camera just so, and tripods donโ€™t exactly let one do that.”

        Very true, Philippe !
        Though some do, but they are rare and usually don’t look like tripods … and even they require some extra patience.
        ( And I’m without one at the moment.)

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Thank you for sharing your lovely images and the story of the endurance it took to make them โ€œjust rightโ€, Philippe! Time and time again you chose the right botanical beauty and the right light to create a dramatic and mysterious image for the viewer to explore – I applaud your persistence and patience!

    • philberphoto says:

      Ah, Nancy! You are so fulsome in your praise, sometimes I just wonder if it is I you are writing about… Until I realise that you applaud persistence and patience, which anyone has at his/her disposal. NTR (No Talent Required)! Touchรฉ!

      • Nancee Rostad says:

        Your abundant talent for photography is obvious, Philippe! Persistence and patience only provide more of your wonderful images for all of us to enjoy!

  • David says:

    Hi Philippe
    Thank you for the interesting article and pictures. As soon as the rain stops in the San Francisco Bay Area Iโ€™ll go out in the back yard and give it a try.
    Thanks David

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Wonderful pictures, Philippe!
    You new focus (pun intended) and dedication clearly infuse the results. It’s like you are “finding your voice”, not a small pleasure ๐Ÿ™‚
    Your choice of celebrating life, and your persistence, that some might find “over the top”, simply reminded me those days when I had 3 beautiful bonsai some 20+ years ago.
    Each morning, watching them for 20-30 minutes, “feeling” them; then only, trimming them if needed, with respect (it seems so brutal, in a way) but determination, while staying connected to their “gei” (the Japanese sense of harmonious beauty); then spraying a bit of mist on them if needed…. never did I feel it was a chore, but quite opposite a very peaceful, calming activity; and a strong connection to Life!
    I started to spend too much time abroad to keep them (bonsai “shelters” were rare and expensive then in Montreal), but I still miss them much…

  • Patrick says:

    Really suburb macro shots. Wish I could do half as good, and I would arrange an exhibition.
    Thank you for sharing.

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks, Patrick! But, as Nancee very aptly ponted out, and as detailed by the BBC video, this has nothign to do with talent. So this is within reach of very one of us. And, if you have talent to boot, then who knows how high you can reach?

  • Soooo, I’m not the only one going berkster looking for a project and something to shoot. There is a park with wetlands and a 5-acre pond six minutes from our house. I’ve shot around that park for years so I pretty well have everything in it memorized. But now I’m really getting to know it.
    My wife and I go there to walk for exercise and I always carry my camera with type of image sort of in the back of my mind. My goal is to find another image to post on FB timeline every day. And every day I seem to find something new. If not something new, then a new way to look at it; or a new type of light falling on it. I can’t really believe how many “new” images I’ve found since our restriction. Especially since I had already photographed everything that could possibly be photographed in that park.
    I don’t have to worry about “social distancing” because it has been so long since I’ve shaved or had a haircut that people make an effort to avoid me now. Count that as an advantage. Another advantage is that I have something to use for post processing. So, I finally downloaded two years worth of PS upgrades.
    If you want see some of my efforts you can look at my FB Clifton Whittaker page to see what I’ve been doing to maintain a semblance of sanity.
    Philippe, you did a beautiful job with your macro work. I’ve been there and done that and I know the difficulties and frustrations of handholding a camera for macro work. I probably won’t go there again because my hands aren’t steady enough (if they ever were) and most of my subjects would be close to the ground. If I ever got down there with my camera and mini tripod I would never be able to get back up. :))

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