#1069. The short game

By philberphoto | Opinion

Dec 08

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.

Sunset over locked-down eatery

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.

and this is as short as it gets. As it is shot with a 25mm lens and hardly cropped at all, it is not macro

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.

chance encounters of the short kind

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.

I must say, it looked far nicer on screen than what I’d hoped for

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Image-1-2020-12-02T140640.236-1-685x1024.jpg
knock, knock, guess who’s coming to dinner?

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.

No, no tricks, no timely capture, but a helpful spider

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.

Not an electric… yet

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….

The shroud…

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.

Sweet little nothings…

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

Grim door handle

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?

In C&W (colour and white)
In anticipation of Christmas

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  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Oh, Philippe, it may be the short game, but it’s long on creativity! The intimate quality of these images encourages the viewer to pause and enjoy all the details that you have so thoughtfully included. Charming, evocative, creative are just a few of the possible adjectives to describe your images, my friend. I especially like the single maple leaf and “Shroud”.

  • Lani Edwards says:

    “There is an element of creation here, of mining images, or minting them, as opposed to harvesting them”

    One of the most captivating statements I have read in a long time and it perfectly describes your intimate images. You have managed to eliminate the white noise that surrounds us and focused on the quiet and charming offerings that is all around us…if we would just look close enough every so often.

    Fabulous post and delightful images, Philippe!

    • PaulB says:


      Exceptional images once again. I do like your vision of the world close up.

      When I have tried practicing my short game I find I work best with the lens at hand, rather than trying several from my bag. This is a subconscious process more than anything.


      OOPS! PS. I think I have passed the proof reading part of this article. El Capitan is in Yosemite, National Park, California. Yellowstone National Park contains other photographic treasures, and is located in Wyoming and Montana.

      • philberphoto says:

        Good catch, Paul! What was I thunkin’??? Thanks for letting me correct my post. As you say, it shows that you don’t take this lightly, you actually read what we write. And many thanks for the kind words. Positively liver-warming!

        • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

          Worry not, Philippe – at least you knew it was in the USA. Some years back, I read a report on a survey conducted in America, in which they found that 25% of the americans who had responded to the survey didn’t even know where the Pacific Ocean was!
          (Of course that’s probably the result of “sampling error” in the way the survey was conducted – LOL)

      • philberphoto says:

        Many thanks for the kind words, Paul! I am with you on the “single-lens thing”, providing it lets you get up close and personal. on the other hand, while going short may be subconscious, I believe that there are benefits to it being a deliberate approach. More depth, more daring, more thourough exploration, rather than just skimming what we see coming along. There are many genres of art where effort takes away from teh effortless grace we like to see embodied in a masterpiece. In the short game, effort, on the other hand can bring about a stronger personal imprint -all to the good, as far as I am concerned.

    • philberphoto says:

      If it were anyone but you, I’d think you were mocking and deriding me. Or that this was a dream, from which I’d wake up and face reality again. But no, it is the great Lani. How many times can I say: “thank you”?

  • “Your short game says much more about you than any photographic genre.”

    Your description of the “short game,” is articulated beautifully. The closest I have come to defining this for myself have been “Miksang Contemplative Photography” (a bit precocious for me – but great for others) and the not too interesting or inspiring photo diary approach. Your discussion of the short game gets to the heart of it. Rodger Ebert ““It’s not what a movie (or picture) is about, it’s how it is about it.”

    • John W says:

      Hey There Scarlet – Another Miksang alumnus. I found that the best way to approach Miksang is not to drink the Kool Aid, but simply regard it as another set of tools in your kit to be employed creatively as you see fit. I use a tripod when I need to and shoot B&W because I LIKE IT. Hopefully there’s good light in Miksang Hell while I do my penance …

    • philberphoto says:

      Many thanks for your kind words, Scarlet, and for introducing me to Miksang. I see all that I could learn from it, to carry over to my short game. Many thanks again.

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Philippe, You are a master of “the short game” (don’t know how your driving or putting goes :-)). I really enjoyed these images, and your telling is entrancing as well. This is a very personal kind of photography, and no one can do it the same way, and certainly not with the same skill; these images reflect your personality–and reflect well upon you. You will have to bring us further reflections, and more images, in the future. As for me, I liked the doorknobs, the leaves and the curling ivy in the penultimate image. Thank you!

    • philberphoto says:

      Ah, Lad, thank you so much! You should know that, in my gathering of these loosely collected images under a single conceptual umbrella, you are partly to blame, for which I am grateful. And you dare to ak for more. Beware, I may do just that, now that I have you to blame for it! 🙂

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I am hit by two things. The beauty & imagination in these photos. And curiosity about how on earth you catalogue or display them – looking for the story or the thread, and I can’t find it – perhaps that IS the story and I’m just too dumb to see it.

    • philberphoto says:

      Thank you for your comment, Pete. And you raise an interesting point, one which I may not have explained clearly. There are many photographic genres, and almost all are by subject type: portrait, sport, birds-in-flight, architecture, landscape, and so on. They are “what” photography. The short game, as I see it, is a “how”. So, rather than calling it a genre, I’d call it a “manière”. And yes, it is not easy to catalogue. But, remember, I am also the guy who created his category of best-loved shots and called them Wilsons. For no other reason, whether genre or manière, than that they resonate deep within me. So cataloguing is not that high on my list of priorities.

  • Philippe your short game is perfect and you have mastered “Gargantua” quickly which confirms you are a master of your chosen craft.

    • philberphoto says:

      You are too kind, Dallas! And you, of all people, know how mny of my shots fail to make the grade, hardly the footprint of a master. But being told that one has arrived does provide for sweet moments until reality sets in again.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Ah – but while we are learning, and always improving, there’s a special satisfaction. Once you have arrived – assuming that this is possible – there is nothing further to add. and I do know of one very well known photographer, who claims to have scaled the mountain and reached the peak.
        I think I’d rather not – I enjoy my hobby too much – not of course that there’s any serious risk of me ever being a so “great””!

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    To use a quote by one of golfing’s greatest – Gary Player – “You drive for show, but you putt for dough”. Keep on putting Phillipe, you’re on the money with these.

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks you for your kind comments, Ian! I, however feel differently. There are people on this site who strike me as being far superior to me at both driving and putting. I am sort of a person wwho is content with having a fully free short game, a form of “tweener”, made irrelevant by the fact that I have neither drive nor putting game. And I find this irrelevance liberating….

  • John W says:

    Interesting post Philippe. You bring into consciousness something I think we all do unconsciously at some time. I’m with PaulB in that I tend to react to something I see and work with the lens I have available … sometimes it’s the cell phone; sometimes it’s the “heavy metal”. Regardless, I’ve always been drawn to “details”.

    And that image of the two leaves is sublime.

  • Yung Persohn says:

    Very interesting analogy, lovely photos. Thanks.

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