#1009. Ceci n’est pas un post (this is not a post) …

By philberphoto | Art & Creativity

May 29

5 more findings from trying to will myself to photographic mastery!

In paintings, there is a significant difference, in price at least, between a painting by the great artist himself, or one that looks “just like it”, but “attributed to”, “his studio”, “his circle”, “follower of”, “in the manner of”, “after”. Each step takes the painting a bit further away from what it would have been by the master’s own hand.

What is this? Oh… whatever…

I find photography to work somewhat in the same way, depending on the care I bestow -or not- on each image, both in the shooting and in the processing. Admittedly, some talents may achieve this “by the artist himself” status effortlessly (think: Wrinkly Senior), but such is not my case. I need to earn it the old-fashioned way, and recent events have helped me formulate a personnal approach to training, as written here. Having described where it gets me, the question is: what lessons have I learned?

Mid-day glare… re-interpreted… because I didn’t care that it shouldn’t be done

Look for whatever If there is a key, if there is one single important thing I have learned, it is this: not to look at a subject -say, a window- and ask myself: is this window nice enough to warrant bothering neurons and electrons? But to look at a subject as a “whatever”, and ask myself: what is this “whatever” going to look like on my screen? And not ask myself: “what window will it look like?”, which is a question of identification or recognition, but: “how will it look?”, which is a question of appreciation. And what if I did it another way? And what if I combined it with…?

Shooting for identification, to put it simply, produces postcards. And you know of my love for un-postcards… As it happens, DS published two brilliant posts, by John Wilson and Nancee Rostad, neither of which contain images, gorgeous though they are, that are instantly recognizable. Think like Magritte’s “ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe). If you think of it as a pipe, then you will shoot it with your mental pipe-presets to make it look like the pipe you know it is. Not like the “whatever” that is actually there, and there may be a lot more to it than “just” a pipe [nothing against pipes as visual objects 🙂 ].

How many times have I thought to myself: “hmmm…. it looks so much more like a bird/whatever than like the leaf/flower/whatever that it actually is…” Hence the proverb: “a truly open mind is the right vessel for a bountiful image harvest”

This is also an insight into how and why GAS works. It does because it triggers a shift in mindset. With new gear, we have no choice but to explore, and observe, and search, and discover. The very opposite of merely harvesting from within a confort zone. This is what confinement did for me. It removed any kind of subject-led stimulation. The shooting opportunities were reduced to the barest minimum, so any stimulation had to come from within. Big shift! And beyond that, 2 factors help me “get there”. Focus, and gear proficiency.

Focus rules. Remember PMPM (Putting Myself in Photo Mode), from the same post I linked above? Am I really doing/thinking about something else even though I have my camera with me, or am I determined to shoot the hell out of whatever is there? Am I harvesting pictures, or making images? Not that the answer need be strictly in black-and-white… That single, deliberate, almost extremist, one-track-focus works in two ways. At the same time it concentrates the mind on what is out there that will make a good image, and also on what I need to do to get it really, really right.

Subject-search-and-locate and shoot-to-capture as two steps of the same focus-driven process. And lots of time to make it happen. ‘Cause a fast process it ain’t, not with my wobbly hands. Incidentally, my previous post begat a few comments that said: while that may work for you, it wouldn’t for me, because I haven’t the patience”. This actually proves my point. Being deliberate and determined has nothing to do with being patient. It is a different mindset. That is what you should try to find the right key for, if the BBC video doesn’t do it for you, the way it did for me (It doesn’t for Dallas either, so I know it is not universal, and I am sure there is more than one key…)

Gear proficiency matters It also takes time to know “how to get it really right”. Each camera body is different, each lens as well, and PP software. Knowing each one inside out is key. Or else we are back to pot luck. Nothing wrong with that, though… just…. And it came as a huge relief to me that, after weeks and thousands of shots with Jonathan (that’s my nickname for the Laowa 100 Macro) shooting only a garden, which gave me great intimacy with the system and the subject, I found that my newly-explored approach also worked a treat with my other lenses.

Which doesn’t mean I couldn’t be happy with a single-lens system, only that I am not life-sentenced to one and one only.

Except, these two factors lead nowhere if a third one isn’t there, and that is technique. Both shooting technique and PP ability. Modern gear does require good technique. High-resolution digital sensors are a lot more sensitive to technique than film was, and my lust for “getting it really right” has forced me to up my game. No focus-and-recompose any more, because the point of focus is then ever so slightly “off”. No more one-touch magnification to check focus, but the full two-press, to see even more detail. No race towards ever-slower shutter speeds, because sharpness suffers. No more exotic shooting stances, on the contrary, a quest to find any form of stability and firm support to buttress my wobbly hands. Chairs, table corners, tree trunks. Tripods, of course. All forms and shapes of support…

Now I know there is a proverbial 400-lbs gorilla that some of you expect me to talk about.

Gear. What camera? Lenses? Software? And so many other critical IQ factors without which an image cannot be wholly, truly satisfying -NOT! Basically, at this stage, I would be willing to say that gear itself is not the prime limiting factor. Sure, an FF sensor has more dynamic range than a 1″ one of the same technology and generation. And so on.

But it is my considered opinion that mindset, focus and gear proficiency matter a whole lot more than the choice of gear itself. So, yes, there are pieces of gear that are easier for you to get really, easily proficient with than others. Suit yourself. But a proficient shooter with moderate gear will IMHO produce better images than the opposite balance. Remember the fun I had with a 7-year old NEX 7 and 30-year old Leica R 28mm? This may be why many wonderful images are produced with -or should I say: despite- less-than-state-of-the-art gear.

And that does not begin to discuss talent, though it matters hugely. I leave that to others, better qualified than I…

To be honest, I did shoot a modicum of other subjects than just the few irises which I am showing this time around. But my intent is to illustrate how much can be done with so little, with the right -for me- approach -this being a highly individual “thing”-.

But, whereas conventional wisdom would have it that shooting the same 12 irises day after day, and some days more than once to avail myself of changing light conditions, would both require patience and generate boredom, two words not usually associated with unbridled fun, I had, from a photography point of view, a great time. From that perspective, and that one only, obviously, I’d gladly do it again.

Because now I know that the key to better pics is already in my hands. It is not measured in pixels or stops, or new gear, it does not [primarily] depend on how I use them. It rests on how I make use of my neurons, and my nervous system, all the way to my eyes and hands. Talent like a master may well be outside my reach, but working hard at making my images better, that is within my comfort zone.

And then, when I have indeed achieved my ambitious [relatively of course] goal, and it may have been on the umpteenth attempt, I can crow like the delightful characters of Tex Avery’s cartoons, and boast: “I dood it!” and add, like Droopy: “I am happy!”


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    The truth is out! You are now at a point where you could give lessons on photography at art colleges!

    GAS seems to manifest itself in the hands of some players as a phenomenon of chasing after the “latest”, or something “more expensive – because that means it must be better”. In the hands of a “real” photographer [such as yourself], it more likely manifests itself as acquiring the best tool for the job – example, Jonathan, which scarcely rates on the list of “expensive” toys. But it’s a bloody good lens! ESPECIALLY in the hands of someone like you. And it didn’t cost $15,000.

  • Jean-Claude Louis says:

    “But it is my considered opinion that mindset, focus and gear proficiency matter a whole lot more than the choice of gear itself” Yesss

    Ah! those blues! Blue is the most difficult color to render in photographs (and paintings). Yours are masterful – and that’s talent 🙂

    • philberphoto says:

      Jean-Claude, if at all possible, you have had me blush blue! Many thanks for the [too] kind words. I have a question, though. Blue is not the colour I have real trouble with, it is the range from orange to fuschia. It feels so intense as though my sensor staurates well before it begins to clip. And my usual method of compensating for that by turning exposure down vigorously doesn’t seem to help. How should I do it?

      • Jean-Claude Louis says:

        Schtroumpf style? No way 🙂

        Your blues are deep and intense, but their saturation is relatively low, at least on my monitor. The Sony sensors tend to have RAW files with rather high contrast and saturation; this is are particularly visible in the orange-magenta range. It’s hard to control that in camera; it has to be dealt with in the RAW conversion and post-processing steps. As you mentioned, adjusting saturation in LR or PS is of little help. Capture One is more sophisticated than ACR in the control over colors.

        In my experience, the job is best done in PS, after the RAW conversion. One thing to be aware of is the way the blend mode affects colors when making contrast/curve/level/clarity adjustments. In the Normal blend mode, the saturation will pop up, especially in the yellow-magenta range. The Luminosity mode will make the adjustments, but without affecting color.

        I struggle with this issue all the time; I like intense colors, but dislike hypersaturation. I am using a simple method that works well for my type of images. I can share that with you; I will send you an email shortly with the details of the various steps (I’m assuming you use PS).

  • Dallas Thomas says:

    Philippe cracker of an article and associated shots. It’s search to find what makes us tick when the camera is in the hand as you know I think I found what does it for me, time will tell. Keep up these super articles.

    • philberphoto says:

      Many thanks, Dallas! Very glad that you have found your own happy place, and look forward to seeing scrumptious shots from you to prove it. You know the rule at DS. Photos, or it ididn’t happen!

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Philippe, This is inspiring! The photos are brilliant, in one of my favorite regions of color, and masterfully composed and focused. But the text is also illuminating, and I have tried to take it to heart. Though I will continue to lust after a FF camera, I will seek to get the very most out of my first-generation 1″ sensor, because I will demand more of me. Thank you so much. Lad

    • philberphoto says:

      Lad, I am so glad that my words and images could resonate with you, as I am a big fan. I am slowly accumulating “neighborhood gems”, thanks to your brilliant inspiration.

  • John W says:

    Fascinating post Phillipe and the images are beautiful – a true Backyard Gem, with a moral tucked inside. I had a look at the BBC video and I’m not about to critique it, as I have nothing with which to do that. But I do hear echoes of the 3k/10k rule in both the video and your presentation. True expertise
    requires at least 3000hrs of consistent practice; mastery requires 10000 hours of the same. Having a good coach can shorten the process. I’m still working on the mastery part.

    But gear CAN make a difference … up to a point. A long time ago in a younger life I took up racquet ball. I started with cheap gear and just regular running shoes – I already had them, so why spend money on new shoes. Needless to say I struggled and got trounced regularly … until I bit the bullet and bought a good racquet and proper shoes. My game easily improved by an order of magnitude; not because I got better, but because I no longer had to fight the limitations of my cheap gear just to achieve the basics. About the same time, I finally bought one of my “dream cameras”; a Linhof Technica 23. I’d lusted after one of these since I’d bought my first camera. I instantly hated it! It was cumbersome, difficult to use properly and a beast to use in winter when the stainless steel is freezing cold. Never got an image out of it that I would show anyone.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Excellent. Towards the end of my uni years, a Linhof stood unloved in a local photo shop. The price was too good to believe and I bit the bullet. On the “pride of ownership” axis, nothing I’ve used or owned comes close. On the “successful photographs” axis, however … your story and mine are unfortunately very similar. My only pleasure with it was looking at the huge negatives withe a loupe and marveling at the detail, disregarding the atrocious truth at the macrostate level. History repeats itself on and on … I was lucky to sell it in Paris for far more than it had cost me in Montpellier (ah, pre-Internet days …) so it didn’t hurt my student budget, but it did hurt my pride. I had been lusting for that large format look for so long 😉 Oh, the lessons we learn the hard way …

      • John W says:

        A few years after I shelved the Linhof, my house was broken into. Among the many things they took was the Linhof. With replacement cost insurance the bill was in the high 5 figures. It may have been a “poor” choice as a camera, but an excellent investment.

    • philberphoto says:

      Many thanks for the kind words, John, especially coming from you! I did not -or at least I didn’t intend to- say gear couldn’t/didn’t make a difference, it does, deffo. But that other [human] factors matter more IMHO. Which is in line with your Linhof experience…

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Oh, Philippe, you had me at “iris”! You’ve masterfully crafted lovely portraits of the blue iris in all stages of its life. As I enjoy perusing the images I can actually detect their lemony fragrance – well, I do have a good imagination, after all!
    I think what you’re so aptly explaining in your post is “mindful” photography – maybe that’s an overused adjective, but I really think it describes your method perfectly. Moving slowly, really seeing your subject, considering available light and weather conditions, all these decisions and more are the essence of being mindful. Kudos and bravo to you and your considerable talent!

    • philberphoto says:

      Ah, Nancee! Words of support coming from you are so sweet! I now proudly consider myself anointed “mindful photographer”, and by no less than la Rostad! [if they say la Callas, then I can surely say la Rostad, right?]

  • Patrick says:

    Really BEAUTIFUL !! Life is good !
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    Great post, Philippe… and really, really gorgeous pictures.
    You are too humble, sincerely; I am a fan of flowers photos (and a poor photographer myself about them :D), so I’ve been looking at the best artwork about them for decades; you truly “found your voice”, as I commented once. And the word “boredom” has no place here! Most Westerners would fall in a terminal coma just by watching Japanese Yuzen dyeing technique, from the first creation steps to when the artisans gently “undulate” the silk in the river flow; I lost the link to the video, but I remember seing some doing it for… days. What you achieved here is the same… time is forgotten, the tool and the location remain the same… and you extract the best of them. Deep bow, Philippe-san 🙂

    • philberphoto says:

      You sure know how to make me feel humble, Pascal. I actually asked Pascal J if it was me you were writing about… I am into deep thanks rather than deep bow….:-)

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