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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