It must have been sometime around the year 1973 when my interest in photography really started. The reason I remember this is because my father brought home a few photography brochures from the office he was working in. On the cover of one of those brochures was the brand new Canon FTb SLR film camera. What a beauty. I can remember how much I would have liked to have been able to use a camera like that, but unfortunately, it was just not in our budget. Advance to the year 2016 and I am now the proud owner of a mint FTb with a 85mm f1.2 lens. It only took 42 years but I am finally shooting with that dream camera of my youth.
Film photography was how I started out as a photographer, and I still enjoy shooting with it today. I taught myself how to develop, scan, and print both black and white and colour negatives. I can honestly say that shooting with film has taught me more photography skills than any of my digital cameras will ever teach me.
I suppose though, that it’s the process of shooting with film that I enjoy the most. It’s getting away from that instant gratification thing that has made me have more of an appreciation for producing an image that is interesting and meaningful.
Today I’m a hybrid photographer. I own and shoot both digital and analog cameras. I cannot however, tell you how thankful I am that I started out with film and using film cameras. I guess I’m a dying breed as the new generation has grown up with digital. But it sure is nice to see so many younger people shooting with film SLR’s and really enjoying it.
So why then, do I think that I’ve learned a lot using film cameras? Here are some of my experiences:
1.) Shooting with film has taught me to think about what I’m doing with the camera. I’ve got 36 frames on a roll and I want to make them count.
2.) I have learned how to really evaluate exposure. Many of my film cameras either don’t have meters or have meters that don’t work. As a result I’ve taught myself how to carefully measure light using an external light meter or the sunny 16 rule.
3.) Film cameras have taught me the basics of understanding that photography is really the ability to see as well as having a good grasp of ASA (ISO), shutter speed, and aperture. Most film cameras have shutter speeds and apertures in full stops so they are easier to understand how different combinations work.
4.) I have learned that careful developing and film handling is critical to producing a good undamaged, clean negative.
5.) Shooting film has really taught me a great deal about how to see colour in the world. I’ve learned all about primary and complimentary colours, and how they manifest themselves with different film stocks. Thanks to film, I have a better understanding of what to look for when shooting colour.
6.) Film has taught me that sharpness and focus are often way overrated. A good photograph is not the sharpest photograph or the one that focused precisely.
7.) Film has given me an appreciation for the film aesthetic. I love the subtle differences in various film stocks, and I embrace grain like I couldn’t do with digital.
8.) Shooting film has made me patient. I’m no longer in a hurry to see my images. In fact, usually by the time I’ve developed the roll of film, I’ve completely forgotten that I even took those photos. That just makes it all the more sweeter.
9.) Film photography has led me to learn all about photography history. If you don’t know where you came from, you won’t know where you’re going.
10.) Large format photography has brought the joy back into shooting. I think the reason for this is because it requires a great deal of effort. And looking at an image on the ground glass that is upside down and flipped left to right, has forced me to pay attention to the edges of the frame and carefully consider my composition. The satisfaction I get from seeing a large format print beautifully composed, exposed, and handled is like no other.
So there you have it. There are many more reasons why shooting film has helped me as a photographer, but I think you get the point. If you are a new photographer and have never tried film, I encourage you to do so. Even if you buy a used SLR on Ebay and shoot a few rolls a year and have a lab develop them for you, you’re bound to enjoy the experience and learn a lot about photography.
Taking a photograph for the sake of taking a photograph rarely leads to producing something worthwhile. It can by luck, but more times than not, it’s just an image of nothing.
As you scroll through the barrage of photos that come to us by way of social media, you will notice a great many that seem like they were taken just for the sake of taking some kind of image to post. And although they may be visually appealing, I’ve come to realize something very important: really good images are rare even for seasoned photographers.
Photography history has taught us that compelling images are indeed something that may only come along a few times in a lifetime. And many of the great photographers have said you’re doing well if you get ten good images in a year.
So this brings us to then ask, “Just what constitutes a good image?”
There are many images that are well done. There are many images that may appeal to us one way or another. And after all, this is art. It’s subjective. What one person likes another dislikes. But a compelling image has to possess a quality that the others don’t: that is, it has to be significant.
Significance at least in my mind, means that the image must have something to say.
Ask yourself these questions:
Is the image poetic in some way? Does it represent a commonality of a shared experience?
Does the image contain irony or humour or something that makes us actually want to stop and consider what’s going on?
Does the image describe a place and a time? And if so, does it do so without error or false representation?
Does the image say something about human nature?
Is the image something more than technically proficient, or visually appealing?
Understanding that it is the very nature of still photography to leave you with questions when you look at a photograph, it would help then to try to take photographs that have something to say, and that can describe a time and place, but not quite explain everything that may be happening.
A photograph is only a very brief moment of time that is still, has been frozen, or has been extruded from our life lines. And this is why it is so hard to make a photograph that is not only visually appealing, but also has something to say that is worth saying.
Make your images significant.
Today I was listening to a radio show which chronicled some of the works of the great Russian writer and playwright Anton Chekhov. It was fascinating to say the least, to hear scholars, teachers, and interpreters speak of his life, how he fell in love, how he saw the world, and how he really experienced life.
And, I thought it’s always a good thing for photographers to explore other arts like literature, painting, cinema etc. You can only come away from these things a better person – perhaps more worldly, more creative, more passionate, and more grateful for the little things that complete our lives.
I’ve been photographing a different aesthetic lately as you might tell from my Instagram feed. Some would call it “new topographics”, others might prefer “contemporary landscape.” However I’ve been thinking about a certain lesson I learned in photography a long time ago, and how it applies to this style. That is, no one expects perfection in photographs. They simply want the photographer to describe to them the “significance” of the place in a way that is easily understandable. And, you do this in part by learning to embrace all the imperfections in life. Very often, the most beautiful images are the ones that pass along some kind of shared experience to the viewer. And even though in most circumstances you can never really believe anything you see in photographs these days, there is a genuineness in a good photograph that displays life’s flaws. There is I believe, always a way to find a composition based on a beauty and a truth. A good photograph should be poetic, metaphoric, and significant…but yet flawed.
Life is like that it seems, in that we can’t always predict what is going to happen to us. We can’t always control the events that shape our futures. And, in every thing I photograph I see that. The older I get, the more profound this fact becomes.
So my photography tip for this month is this: learn to embrace life’s ambiguities. Appreciate imperfection and loss of control. You will be a much better photographer and a seeker of truth.
A few weeks back I blogged about a some of the things you can do to make your photography better. If you haven’t seen it, please read https://dougkeech.wordpress.com/2016/12/27/ten-things-to-strive-for-in-your-photography/.
Further to that post, I’d like to add a few more observations to each consideration and some of the specific factors that can influence such.
1.) Does the photograph possess a beauty in and of itself?
Influential factors: composition/balance, subject matter, light, tonality/contrast, colour
2.) Does the image shock you in some way as to keep you wanting to look?
Influential factors: subject matter, compositional technique, timing
3.) Does the image have a universal appeal or value?
Influential factors: shared experience, subject matter, timelessness
4.) Is the photograph poetic or symbolic of something larger?
Influential factors: shared experience, subject matter, photographic technique, processing
5.) Is the image interesting to look at?
Influential factors: subject matter, compositional technique, frame, moment
6.) Is the photograph significant in some way?
Influential factors: subject matter, uniqueness, relevance to the time, descriptive ability
7.) Is it useful in that it documents a place and time or describes a human condition?
Influential factors: relevance to a certain event, descriptive ability, encompasses a story
8.) Does the image spark an emotion in you?
Influential factors: gesture, intimacy, shared experience/memory trigger
9.) Does the photograph have enough context for you to know what you’re looking at?
Influential factors: distance, frame
10.) Has the photographer confined the significant detail and rid the image of the unimportant clutter?
Influential factors: frame
Garry Winogrand was quoted once as saying that it’s the photographer’s problem to figure out a way to make the photograph more interesting to look at than the thing actually being photographed. And obviously there are many more criteria that go into making a photograph than the ones mentioned here. However, I have found it a good exercise to go through each of the above things to strive for in your photography and try to think of examples of images that illustrate the points as a good example and as a bad example.