In the noble game of golf, there are two spectacular phases. The long game, with its powerful drives and spectacular flights, and putting, with its nail–biting trajectories where bliss is separated from misery by mere fractions of an inch. But after the long game, and before one is in a position to put, there is the short game. When driving, the starting point is a given. When putting, the end point is also a given. In the short game, you are a master of your own destiny, and the trajectory is yours to design and execute.
I see photography as somewhat the same. There is the wide game, with expanses of spectacular landscapes, and there are macro shots where one goes “Wow!” at discovering the intricacy of the minute. But not so much notice is paid to shots that are fairly close range but definitely not macro. Where the goal is intimacy rather than endoscopy. In landscapes, the subject is very often what we in French call a “passage obligé“, or “obligated passage”. You can shoot one of the world’s iconic landscapes, the Cuernos at Torres del Paine in Chili, or El Capitan, in Yosemite, but there is only so much variation you can bring to the well-known shots, and which may not always be such a good idea. Plus, you will have already seen many versions of such shots by the time you get there and do what is no longer really “your own”. But if you choose to shoot, say a door handle, or a door knocker, who’s to tell you if and how to do it? Nor does anyone have any expectation of you doing it, except you and maybe the door knocker, hoping for its 30 seconds of fame.
There is a second degree of freedom to this short game. It is less gear -dependent than other forms of photography. Try doing sports or birds in flight with manual focus, or portraits with wide-angle lenses, or macro with lenses can can’t come close. Yes, I know, there are workarounds for each of theses cases, but, generally, let’s try to remain within the realm of the practical. The only real requirement for the short game is the ability for a lens to come close to its subject, with a sufficient magnification factor. This matters more than focal length in itself. Which I have tried to show with subjects done both with lenses as far apart as 15mm and 100 mm lenses.
So what exactly is the short game? It is more easily defined by what it is not. It is not genre photography. If it is street, or people, or nature morte, or flowers, then it is not the short game. The short game is made up of a -haphazard-looking collection of odds and sods. But it is a highly revealing one. Because there is total freedom of choice and treatment of subjects, your short game says much more about you than any photographic genre.
It is my constant experience that different people go through common moments in life out of which they get different experiences. Think of reading a book or seeing a movie, and how you may be surprised because someone you know well “got something quite different” from it. The amusing example of this is the Rorschach test of ink blots. So the short game is like the Rorschach of photography, but with even more freedom, because you design your own ink-blots (what to shoot) before interpreting them with your own brand of storytelling.
So how to practice the short game? Obviously, as is always the case with photography, by opening your eyes. But, whereas with many types of picture taking, it all begins with the subject, the short game begins with a question? What is a subject? What am I seeing that might make a subject? This leaf, this branch, this bit of dirt, this crack on the wall, this discarded whatever? There is an element of creation here, of mining images, or minting them, as opposed to harvesting them, and one of the reasons I am attracted to it is unquestionably the vanity component.
Two other factors drive the short game. Because by nature you are dealing with smaller subjects at short range, you are not as dependent on good light as you would be with street, outdoor portrait or landscape. Which, coupled with the ubiquity of short game material, means that going out for short game rarely leaves one empty-handed. Not even counting the immersive nature -and pleasure- of really looking at everything, however small or unimpressive, with an eye that goes beyond the instant categorization of all visual objects by form and function.
The other factor, and I have touched on it briefly, is relative independence from gear. I have now taken pictures of the same door knob with focal lengths from 100mm down to 15mm -yes, more on that later-. Obviously, the images aren’t identical, nor the storytelling. But the opportunity presented itself. It is thus not absolutely necessary to load oneself like a pack mule just to have the best lens at the right moment. Maybe not even helpful….
Which means the short game eschews compostions where the lens is paramount, meaning essentially where depth effects uderpin the storytelling. Some of my pictures here were taken with a 15mm without any of the perspective that hallmarks UWAs. Which happens when you get up close and personal. And with my 15mm, close means, very, very close.
Which brings us to the one limitation of short game photography. Closeness is part and parcel of the deal. If the subject won’t let you, or the lens, it could be perfectly fine, but it is not my definition of the short game. Typically, rangefinder lenses are not designed for that. And among tele lenses, only macro-oriented ones have the required short MFD
In closing, I want to share with you the special brand of satisfaction I get from the short game. It is available anywhere, any time, with any gear, if only I bother to “get into it”. And the result is less conventional, more personal than any other type of photography I know of. ‘Nuff said?
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