Wednesday, September 8, 2010
What is photography?
Basically photography is a combination of visual imagination and design, craft skills, and practical organizing ability. Try not to become absorbed in the craft detail too soon. Begin by putting it into perspective with a broad look at what making photographs is all about. On the one hand there is the machinery and the techniques themselves. On the other you have the variety of approaches to picture making – aiming for results ranging from something objective, factual and precise, to work which is self-expressive and open to interpretation.
Why do you want to take photographs? What is actually involved? What roles do photographs play, relative to other ways of making pictures or expressing information and ideas? And what makes a result good or bad anyway?
Facets of photography
One of the first attractions of photography for many people is the lure of the equipment itself. All that ingenious modern technology designed to fit hand and eye – there is great appeal in pressing buttons, clicking precision components into place, and collecting and wearing cameras. Tools are vital, of course, and detailed knowledge about them absorbing and important, but don’t end up shooting photographs just to test out the machinery.
Another attractive facet is the actual process of photography – the challenge of care and control, and the way this is rewarded by technical excellence and a final object you produced yourself. Results can be judged and enjoyed for their own intrinsic photographic ‘qualities’, such as superb detail, rich tones and colours. The process gives you the means of ‘capturing your seeing’, making pictures from things around you without having to laboriously draw. The camera is a kind of time machine, which freezes any person, place or situation you choose. It seems to give the user power and purpose.
Yet another facet is enjoyment of the visual structuring of photographs. There is real pleasure to be had from designing pictures as such – the ‘geometry’ of lines and shapes, balance of tone, the cropping and framing of scenes – whatever the subject content actually happens to be. So much can be done by a quick change of viewpoint, or choice of a different moment in time.
Perhaps you are drawn into photography mainly because it is a quick, convenient and seemingly truthful way of recording something. All the importance lies in the subject itself, and you want to show objectively what it is, or what is going on. Photography is evidence, identification, a kind of diagram of a happening. The camera is your visual notebook.
The opposite facet of photography is where it is used to manipulate or interpret reality, so that pictures push some ‘angle’ or attitude of your own. You set up situations (as in advertising) or choose to photograph some aspect of an event but not others (as in politically biased news reporting). Photography is a powerful medium of persuasion and propaganda. It has that ring of truth when all the time, in artful hands, it can make any statement the manipulator chooses.
Another reason for taking up photography is that you want a means of personal self-expression. It seems odd that something so apparently objective as photography can be used to express, say, issues of identity, or metaphor and mysticism – describing daydreams that may not be immediately apparent from the subject matter in front of the camera. But we have probably all seen images ‘in’ other things, like reading meanings into flickering flames, shadows or peeling paint. A photo- graph can intrigue through its posing of questions, keeping the viewer returning to read new things from the image. The way it is presented too may be just as important as the subject matter. Other photographers simply seek out beauty, which they express in their own ‘picturesque’ style, as a conscious work of art.
These are only some of the diverse activities and interests covered by the umbrella term ‘photography’. None are ‘better’ or more important than others. Several will be blended together in the work of a photographer, or any one market for professional photography. Your present enjoyment in producing pictures may be mainly based on technology, art or communication. And what begins as one area of interest can easily develop into another. As a beginner it is helpful to keep an open mind. Provide yourself with a well-rounded ‘foundation course’ by trying to learn something of all these facets, preferably through practice rather than theory alone.
How photography works
Photography is to do with light forming an image, normally by means of a lens. The image is then permanently recorded either by:
(a) chemical means, using film, liquid chemicals and darkroom processes or
(b) digital means, using an electronic sensor, data storage and processing, and print-out via a computer.
Chemical forms of image recording are long established, steadily improved since the mid nineteenth century. Digital methods have only become practical within the past five years but are rapidly evolving. Photographers increasingly combine the two – shooting on film and then transferring results into digital form for manipulating and print-out.
You don’t need to understand either chemistry or electronics to take good photographs of course, but it is important to have sufficient practical skills to control results and so work with confidence. The following is an outline of the key technical stages you will meet in chemical and in digital forms of photography. Each stage is discussed in detail in later chapters.
Forming and exposing an image
Most aspects of forming an optical image of your subject (in other words concerning the ‘front end’ of the camera) apply to both film and digital photography. Light from the subject of your picture passes through a glass lens, which bends it into a focused (normally miniaturized) image. The lens is at the front of a light-tight box or camera with a light-sensitive surface such as film facing it at the other end. Light is prevented from reaching the film by a shutter until your chosen moment of exposure. The amount of exposure to light is most often controlled by a combination of the time the shutter is open and the diameter of the light beam passing through the lens. The latter is altered by an aperture, like the iris of the eye. Both these controls have a further influence on visual results. Shutter time alters the way movement records blurred or frozen; lens aperture alters the depth of subject that is shown in focus at one time (depth of field).
You need a viewfinder, focusing screen or electronic viewing screen for aiming the camera and composing, and a light measuring device, usually built in, to meter the brightness of each subject. The meter takes into account the light sensitivity of the material on which you are recording the image and reads out or automatically sets an appropriate combination of lens aperture and shutter speed. With knowledge and skill you can override these settings to achieve chosen effects or compensate for conditions which will fool the meter.
The chemical route
Processing. If you have used a film camera the next stage will be to process your film. A correctly exposed film differs from an unexposed film only at the atomic level – minute chemical changes forming an invisible or ‘latent’ image. Developing chemicals must then act on your film in darkness to amplify the latent image into something much more substantial and permanent in normal light. You apply these chemicals in the form of liquids; each solution has a particular function when used on the appropriate film. With most black and white films, for example, the first chemical solution develops light-struck areas into black silver grains. You follow it with a solution which dissolves (‘fixes’) away the unexposed parts, leaving these areas as clear film. So the result, after washing out by-products and drying, is a black and white negative representing brightest parts of your subject as dark and darkest parts pale grey or transparent.
A similar routine, but with chemically more complex solutions, is used to process colour film into colour negatives. Colour slide film needs more processing stages. First a black and white negative developer is used, then the rest of the film instead of being normally fixed is colour developed to create a positive image in black silver and dyes. You are finally left with a positive, dye-image colour slide.
Printing negatives. The next stage of production is printing, or, more often, enlarging. Your picture on film is set up in a vertical projector called an enlarger. The enlarger lens forms an image, of almost any size you choose, on to light-sensitive photographic paper. During exposure the paper receives more light through clear areas of your film than through the denser parts. The latent image your paper now carries is next processed in chemical solutions broadly similar to the stages needed for film. For example, a sheet of black and white paper is exposed to the black and white film negative, then developed, fixed and washed so it shows a ‘negative of the negative’, which is a positive image – a black and white print. Colour paper after exposure goes through a sequence of colour developing, bleaching and fixing to form a colour negative of a colour negative. Other materials and processes give colour prints from slides.
An important feature of printing (apart from allowing change of image size and running off many copies) is that you can adjust and correct your shot. Unwanted parts near the edges can be cropped off, changing the proportions of the picture. Chosen areas can be made lighter or darker. Working in colour you can use a wide range of enlarger colour filters to ‘fine-tune’ the colour balance of your print, or to create effects. With experience you can even combine parts from several film images into one print, form pictures which are part-positive part-negative, and so on.
Colour and black and white. You have to choose between different types of film for photography in colour or black and white (monochrome). Visually it is much easier to shoot colour than black and white, because the result more closely resembles the way the subject looked in the viewfinder. You must allow for differences between how something looks and how it comes out in a colour photograph, of course (see Chapter 6). But this is generally less difficult than forecasting how subject colours will translate into tones of mono- chrome. At its best, black and white photography is considered more interpretative and subtle, less crudely lifelike than colour. For this reason it has become a minority enthusiasts’ medium, still important for ‘fine prints’ and gallery shows. Here it readily rubs shoulders with black and white photography of the past.
Colour films, papers and chemical processes are more complex than black and white. This is why it was almost a hundred years after the invention of photography before reliable colour print processes appeared. Even then they were expensive and laborious to use, so that until the 1970s photographers mostly learnt their craft in black and white and worked up to colour. Today practically everyone takes their first pictures in colour. Most of the chemical complexity of colour photography is locked up in the manufacturers’ films, papers, ready- mixed solutions and standardized processing routines. It is mainly in printing that colour remains more demanding than black and white, because of the extra requirements of judging and controlling colour balance (see Advanced Photography). So in the darkroom at least you will find that photography by the chemical route is still best begun in black and white.
The digital route
Storing, downloading and processing. If you are using a digital camera the exposed image is recorded on a grid of millions of microscopic size light-sensitive elements. This is known as a CCD (charge-coupled device) located in a fixed but similar position to film within a film camera. Immediately following exposure the CCD reads out its captured picture as a chain of electronic signals called an image file, usually into a small digital storage card slotted into the camera body. Wanted image files are later downloaded from the card or direct from the camera into a computer, where they appear as full-colour pictures on a monitor screen. Unwanted shots are erased. After downloading or erasures you can re-use the card indefinitely for storing new camera pictures.
A software program which has also been loaded into the computer now offers you ‘tools’ and controls alongside the picture to crop, adjust brightness, contrast or colour and many other manipulations. Each one is selected and activated by moving and clicking the computer mouse – changes to the image appear almost immediately on the monitor display.
Printing out. When the on-screen picture looks satisfactory the revised digital file can be fed to a desktop printer – typically an ink-jet type – for full colour print-out on paper. Image files can be ‘saved’ (stored) within the computer’s internal hard disk memory or on a removable disc.
Practical comparisons between making photographs by the chemical (film) route and the digital route appear in detail on pages 96 and 105. You will see that each offers different advantages and trade-offs, and for the time being there are good reasons for combining the best features of each.
Technical routines and creative choices
Whether you work by chemical or digital means, photography involves you in two complementary skills.
First, there are set routines where consistency is all important, for example film processing or paper processing, especially in colour, and the disciplines of inputting and saving digital image files.
Second, there are those stages at which creative decisions must be made, and where a great deal of choice and variation is possible. These include organization of your subject, lighting and camera handling, as well as editing and printing the work. As a photographer you will need to handle and make these decisions yourself, or at least closely direct them.
With technical knowledge plus practical experience (which comes out of shooting lots of photographs under different conditions) you gradually build up skills that become second nature. It’s like learning to drive. First you have to consciously learn the mechanical handling of a car. Then this side of things becomes so familiar you concentrate more and more on what you want to achieve with the machinery.
Having more confidence about getting results, you find you can spend most time on picture-making problems such as composition, and capturing expressions and actions which differ with every shot and have no routine solutions. However, still keep yourself up-to-date on new processes and equipment as they come along. You need to discover what new visual opportunities they offer.
Technical routines and creative choices give a good foundation for what is perhaps the biggest challenge in photography – how to produce pictures which have interesting content and meaning.
The way you visually compose your pictures is as important as their technical quality. But this skill is acquired with experience as much as learnt. Composition is to do with showing things in the strongest, most effective way, whatever your subject. Often this means avoiding clutter and confusion between the various elements present (unless this very confusion contributes to the mood you want to create). It involves you in the use of lines, shapes and areas of tone within your picture, irrespective of what the items actually are, so that they relate together effectively, with a satisfying kind of geometry.
Composition is therefore something photography has in common with drawing, painting and the fine arts generally. The main difference is that you have to get most of it right while the subject is still in front of you, making the best use of what is present at the time. The camera works fast. Even digital methods do not offer as many opportunities to gradually build up your final image afterwards as does a pencil or brush.
‘Rules’ of composition have gone out of fashion, with good reason. They encourage results which slavishly follow the rules but offer nothing else besides. As Edward Weston once wrote: ‘Consulting rules of composition before shooting is like consulting laws of gravity before going for a walk.’ Of course it is easy to say this when you already have an experienced eye for picture making, but guides are helpful if you are just beginning (see Chapter 8). Practise making critical comparisons between pictures that structurally ‘work’ and those that do not. Discuss these aspects with other people, both photographers and non-photographers.
Where a subject permits, it is always good advice to shoot several photographs – perhaps the obvious versions first, then others with small changes in the way items are juxtapositioned, etc., increasingly simplifying and strengthening what your image expresses or shows. It’s your eye that counts here more than the camera (although some cameras get far less in the way between you and the subject than others).
Composition can contribute greatly to the style and originality of your pictures. Some photographers ( go for offbeat constructions which add to the weirdness of picture contents. Others, like Arnold Newman and Henri Cartier- Bresson, are known for their more formal approach to picture composition.
Composition in photography is almost as varied as composition in music or words – melodic or atonal, safe or daring – and can enhance subject, theme, and style. Every photograph you take involves you in some compositional decision, even if this is simply where to set up the camera or when to press the button.
To be continued..
Posted by Moonshine at 6:39 PM