Photographic Expertise

I was reading a blog post yesterday by education leadership theorist Matthew Evans in which he took apart the idea of The Expert. He goes into a fair bit of depth, and I really urge you to read his post, but essentially he says there are two kinds of expert. Those he calls K Experts, who are experts in complicated systems. These are the folks who fix your boiler and make sure the trains don’t crash. They deal with situations and systems which, while complicated, have ‘right and wrong’ answers and definable solutions; you’ve got hot water, your train isn’t on the news. These are the people we think of as experts. Then there are X Experts who deal in complex situations and systems, like Economists and I’d suggest meteorologists and military strategists. They are experts in situations in which possibly there are not ‘right and wrong’ answers, where things are fluid and they’re making choices against that background. They’re the ones we get angry at when they make wrong predictions or choices because we’re confusing them with K Experts. I think I’ve summarised that correctly, but by now you’ve read his blog and will know: if not go and read it.

So this got me thinking about what an expert photographer is.

I’d say that to be a photographer requires some, in the case of good photographers, a lot, of K Expertise. You’re not going to get far without a grasp of the exposure triangle, lens choice, possibly film stock, processing technique (wet or dry, dark or light room), and the rest of it. The more you understand all this the better technically your images get because, ultimately, there are ‘right and wrong’ choices to making a photograph. Right choices give you a nicely exposed and in focus image, wrong choices give you ones like your dad took of you when you were on the beach as a kid. You can get a hell of a long way in photography and never stray for K expertise, you learn more, you practice more, you get more expert.

But what is it that lifts some photographers, Michael Kenna, Walker Evans, Lee Miller, Robert Capa, The Westons (all of them), Bailey et al above this and into the realm of not only making photos which stay with you but make them over and over again? I’m going to tentatively suggest it’s because they’re X Experts. Sure they can understand all the complicated stuff and do it in their sleep but they can also operate consistently when it’s complex. Because the environment around making an image is complex, the light is changing if it’s natural light, if there is a model they’re moving, the environment is subtly altering. Maybe they’re working out of the studio doing reportage, or more dramatically conflict, photography where everything is an unknown. There isn’t a ‘right’ way to make a great photograph, because that transcends being nicely exposed and in focus, it’s about the composition, the light, possibly the colour, the tones, the mood. It’s about making a choice which works in the situation you have in that moment, frequently actually in that split second. They can be as patient as a cat in front of a mouse hole waiting, and then utterly decisive when the moment appears (see what I did there?).

All of us, however little experience we have as photographers, can nail an amazing photo now and again because sometimes we all just get it right by luck as much as judgement. The great photographers get it right over and over again because in the highly complex environment just before the shutter clicks, they’re experts.

Totally rethinking

I’ve been to California.

I’m not just bragging here about my latest foreign jaunt, amazing though it was, there’s a really important photography learning moment to this. We had a couple of days in San Francisco, saw the Monterey Bay Aquarium, drove highway one, saw Yosemite, visited Alcatraz. We did the tourist stuff (though as one local chap pointed out “the reason it’s tourist stuff is that it’s cool stuff man”). I took photos I was happy with, had a great time.

But, for a photo nerd moment, two things stood out. The second was visiting the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite and seeing his photos, actually printed by him, not mediated by a reproduction for publication or anything, actually printed in a darkroom by Ansel Adams so you can see the image exactly the way he meant it to be (some are also printed by his long term assistant who Adams said knew the negatives as well as he did), and actually seeing them in Yosemite in a building he knew and worked in was pretty awesome. But, the stand out, OMG moment of my trip, was a visit to meet Kim Weston in the house on Wildcat Hill where Edward lived and worked, I have to admit I was almost embarrassingly star struck by this. Kim and his wife Gina are lovely people who made us feel super welcome and gave us a great tour. We saw that pepper photo, and that portrait of Tina Modetti, actually as photographic prints on the wall, saw Edward’s darkroom, saw Kim’s darkroom (the latter has an enlarger, Edward’s didn’t) and Kim’s studio. It was all great fun and absolutely one of the highlights of trip for me (even Sue enjoyed it and she’s not a photographer).

What I came away with though, and this is something which has grown on me in the weeks since we got back, was that Kim shoots on film, with a Mamiya 6×7 which he inherited from his father, and a couple of lights. He’s up there in the Carmel Highlands producing amazing work with equipment which is probably older than a lot of photographic Youtubers. So I sit there and watch my favourite Youtube photo channels, which I really enjoy, but they’re using this combination of graduated filters, and they’re selling their presets, and discussing if they should make the move to mirrorless, or comparing one really expensive lens to another….and somehow I keep seeing Kim’s studio in my head and wondering why bother?

Now fortunately, I’ve never been a gear nerd. I have very little ‘stuff’ compared to probably most keen photographers, a fair bit is second hand, or that I’ve owned for years, and I’m happy with that and frankly never want to buy new shiny things. I’m also not going to fall into the trap of ‘gear not mattering’ as Mamiya medium format is really nice and Mamiya glass is stunning (I know, because I own some, well I will if the chap I want to buy it off ever gives me a price so I can buy it). But it does bring home the fact that actually you really don’t need new stuff, or a lot of stuff. Investing in something simple but good is frankly all you need.

The key thing is to do what Kim, and his father, his uncle and his grandfather (and his son, and various other relatives) all did. To take photos a lot, to think about the photos you’re taking, and to really, really care about the whole thing.

Am I doing this? You know, I wonder if I am….

Trying out my Domke Wraps

In the interests of full disclosure I’ve not been sponsored to write this in any way; if the makers of Domke Wraps need to sponsor a blogger as minor as me then in fact I’d worry about them!

For Christmas, I got a couple of the 19” Domke Wraps. I never use a proper camera bag, generally I prefer a no frills messenger bag because it’s unobtrusive, compact and I can fit in stuff like a book, my glasses, cake, etc. Just out of interest have you ever noticed how the makers of camera bags never consider that maybe you need to carry stuff other than camera equipment? Back in the late 70s I had a brilliant waist belt camera bag made, if I remember, by [Cullman](https://www.cullmann.de/en/home.html) which not only took my camera and a couple of lenses but also a few chocolate bars, a can of cola and a paperback; that being the age when I could drop a million calories a day safely and didn’t need glasses. I never saw another one; my local camera shop had this on special offer because they’d been sent it as a distributor sample but it hadn’t actually ever been launched as a dealer item. Generally though I find camera bags wonderfully lacking in usefulness for the average snapper who needs to put a camera in a bag and go out for the day. Every time I hunted for some solution I kept coming up against these things called Domke Wraps, which are a somewhat padded sheet you can wrap around stuff and secure with velcro. Well, I thought, what the hell, I’ll put a couple on my Christmas list.

Well today was the first time I got to try them out in anger. I wanted to go out with my Mamiya 645 shooting this morning and take a couple of extra lenses with me. Now the Mamiya is way too chunky for my messenger bag, and it’s not something I take out for casual snapping, so I’ve got a small rucksack for it. It goes into a sort of padded squidgy box thing from eBay, but I’ve never really had a solution for the lenses…until now! Made the wraps into pouches, stuffed the lenses into them and put them in the bottom compartment of the rucksack. Job done! I was so impressed with just how easy a solution this was and felt confident the lenses were going to be protected enough in there. The big win I think is that next time I want to take one of my digital cameras out for the day I can reconfigure a wrap and use it to protect that in my messenger bag. Got to admit, I’m a convert!

So if you’re looking for an easy solution to carrying your camera stuff in a bag which can also hold a paperback, your glasses, possibly a re-usable coffee cup should you find yourself heading towards a coffee outlet (these days we’ve moved on from cans of cola), and which doesn’t scream ‘camera bag, steal me’ then I’d say they’re worth a punt, especially as in the grand scheme of things they’re not that pricy. Mine, I suspect, came from [WEX](https://www.wexphotovideo.com/domke-f-34l-19-inch-protective-wrap-blue-1647996/), but they’re readily available from other places.

UK Thrift Stores – less good for snappers than their US counterparts

I’m a big fan of the ‘thrift store challenge’ YouTube channel, where they go into ValueVillage (or somewhere of that ilk), buy a camera for less than $5 and see what they get from it. Always watchable and good fun – and if the photographer in question is good enough, the results are somehow comforting inspiring in among the latest gear videos. Mind you they can also be deeply depressing when they do better than I can with a camera which cost me a metric shit tonne more than $5. This example is working at a higher budget, but it gives you an idea and Joey from Awesome Cameras is always worth watching.

The thing I have noticed however, is that in the US and Canada thrift stores seem to generally have a reasonable selection of cameras. Go into a UK charity shop and at most they might have one strange and unbranded digital camera, generally they don’t have any. Said camera might also be significantly overpriced by the way; I saw a digital camera in one yesterday for which they wanted fifty quid, when something at least as good is available from leading online retailers for not a whole lot more. I shop in a town which is both a well heeled area and has a plethora of charity shops, so I’m working off a decent sample here.

I’d love to say I’ve got an insight into this, but I really don’t. I’m not sure if they won’t accept them, and UK charity shops are very picky about what they’ll accept and try to sell. I once asked in a charity shop if they had a pair of jeans they couldn’t sell as I needed a bit of denim for a repair, and the pair they gave me were in better nick than the ones I was wearing every day; there is a bit of a pulled thread in one of the legs which is why they felt it wasn’t saleable. So maybe it’s because they don’t want to take the risk of being saddled with something which they’ll need to dispose of as ‘faulty small applience’ rather than just chuck in the skip? Maybe they’ve got a deal with somebody who pays a flat fee for any they have and resells them through a well known online auction house? Maybe the good people of the UK just don’t ever think that anybody might want them? If anybody works in a charity shop and can shed any light on this then I’d love to know the reason.

Venturing in the world of the preset

Presets. You can’t spend a lot of time on either Instagram or Youtube, cruising the photography channels, without coming across them. Or more frequently being sold them. They’re the Coca-Cola bottle of digital photography, they’re everywhere, everybody seems to sell them and in their channel point out that the images were all processed using my ‘rusty zimmer frame’ preset (why do they all have such weird names?) which is available from the link below. I’ve never been tempted by this, mainly I think because I’ve never been convinced that I’ve got a market for a one-size-fits-all post processing solution. I take an image, decide what tweaking it needs and that’s that. So why might I want a preset? Why might I want to use somebody else’s processing choices on my images? It all sounded to me like a posh version of my favourite bugaboo: the Instagram or Snapchat filter.

The other week I was somewhere or other in the Internet, and the images were processed using ‘Earthy Moods’ from the Brixton Collection on Luxe Lens which looked sort of nice, and they were on special offer, so I thought I’d take a punt and see what I thought. So I installed them into Lightroom, opened a photo of Wayland’s Smithy I took years ago pretty much at random and saw what happened. I didn’t do any fine tuning, just clicked on the preset. Here is both my original and the preset version.

Original Version

waylandsSmithyPresetExample-2.jpg

With Brixton Earthy Moods preset

waylandsSmithyPresetExample-1.jpg

I’ve got mixed feelings about the result. The first thing is that it was both my image, and isn’t. I liked the results with a lot of the presets in the pack, in some cases more than my own version, but it wasn’t ‘me’. However much it looked great, it didn’t look like anything I’d ever have done; even if I’d known how to achieve those results; it’s not how I want my work to look. That, for me, is the main reason against buying presets, that you’re essentially taking your vision of the shot and then adding somebody else’s vision to it, which may not match your shot vision. Picking an example at random, I love the work of Evan Ranft and watch all his videos. I get really excited about his urban photography style, but if he did presets they’d not work for me because we’re different photographers, his processing techniques are an extension of his photography, not mine. It might be fun to hand him some of my photos to see what he did with them, and vice versa (though probably not for Evan to be honest…), but the results wouldn’t be ‘his’ or ‘mine’. Evan did a video on what to do if presets don’t do what you want….

If you’re going to go down the route of presets I’d say you can take one of two approaches, either do what I did, pick one you like the look of and see what happens or find a photographer with a similar style to you who sells presets and try those out for size. I don’t think, having tried them, that presets are really equivalent to Instagram or Snapchat filters, because they’re more subtle than those. I’d put them on a par with Hipstamatic, which I really enjoy using now and again, because it makes me see my work in a different way, not always a good way, but different. Sometimes with Hipstamatic I find the genuine lucky accident, when a combination of lens and film produces an image which I really like and which does reflect what I wanted when I took the shot. Do I regret spending my pennies on the pack? Not a bit of it, I’m sure I’m going to have loads of images in future where it’s going to be fun to try them out, and I’ll probably like the result and print or share them. I might even buy some more preset packs if I see something I think is fun, but they’re not going to be a core part of my workflow.

Backups, yes they’re important

I’ve always had a tendency to be anal about backing up, right back to the olden days I always had copies on at least two floppies, ideally in different buildings. I’ve carried this tendency on and have never really had to put my money where my backups were, until now.

Last week I noticed that my mac was behaving strangely, the photos app wouldn’t open, I couldn’t authenticate to iCloud, other accounts did the same. I went through the various solutions suggested on line and none of them worked. Booted into safe mode which said there was a problem but it couldn’t be fixed, wondered what to do next when it just stopped booting properly. I realised that my only option was to do a full restore, so I gritted my teeth, plugged in the backup drive and told it to restore…a couple of hours later Time Machine had finished and all was working. Apart from the fact that the problem still happened and I realised that whatever had done toys out of the pram had happened after my last backup. So I went back to the week before, which is on the same drive, restored and all was well. I had to do a bit of tweaking by restoring the files for the Thunderbird mail client from the later backup so I didn’t lose any emails, but all in all, a success. I always like to see if things like Time Machine work…just not on my main computer.

So, for anybody who thinks backing up is something they can live without, it isn’t. Time (and a few pennies) spent now will save you grief later. Just remember all the photos you’ve downloaded and the time you’ve spent post-processing them. Realising you need a backup solution after the crash is too late. By the way, I heard a data recovery professional once say you don’t need a backup solution, you need a recovery solution – good way to think about it.

For anybody deciding they need to come up with something, here’s my solution. It’s not the ‘right’ one, it’s the one which works for me, just consider the principles I’m working on when you come up with your own. Also, I’m using Apple Time Machine, but you could probably adapt these for any piece of software on the market.

Every Sunday morning, I do a time machine backup onto a desktop external hard drive which lives in a different room in the house. Don’t keep it in the same room, otherwise it’s going to be vulnerable to a whole number of things which might right off your computer. Then I do a second, encrypted, one onto one of a pair of portable external drives; one of which lives in a different room in the house and one of which goes off site (I keep it at work). Then on monday morning I take that in and bring the other encrypted drive home. The rationale is that at no time are the computer and all the backups in the same building at the same time, and if the house did burn down on a Sunday evening then the off site backup would only be a week out of date so I could only lose a weeks worth of stuff.

There are good subscription backup services out there at the moment of course which automatically take your backup off site and cloud store it for you. I’ve tried the free subscription to BackBlaze and thought it was very good, just not right for me. Two things to consider with these, if you did a physical backup as well and critically needed to get at your backup while your internet was down you could (yes, I know it’s a very remote possibility, but this is belt and braces you know). The other thing is that if you have any kind of business, or store information about other people on your computer, make absolutely sure that by putting your backup on the cloud you’re the right side of whatever data protection laws apply to you.

But, any backup is better than no backup – though a well thought out recovery strategy is best of all.

Why are ‘photographers you should know’ always on Instagram

Quite often on Youtube, and I do watch a lot of Youtube photography videos, you get a video called something like ‘5 Photographers You Should Know’, or something along those lines, and they’re always interesting to watch. However one thing I do find myself thinking is that these videos, generally by younger photographers with social media accounts tend to feature other younger photographers with social media accounts. Okay, let’s be clear on this one, there is nothing wrong with being a younger photographer or with having a social media account, both of them are admirable things; I’m not a younger photographer but I do have a social media account so I’m ticking a 50% of the boxes myself. But over the decades there have been many, many great photographers who date from before the time when social media accounts even were an idea, let along an actual thing. Why aren’t they featuring in these videos, why aren’t the 20 somethings suggesting that it’s really good to look at Adams, or Bailey, or Duffy, or Avedon; even Rankin seems to have slipped off the lists. I think it’s down to a simple thing: they’re in print.

I’m not buying into the idea that young people don’t read, that’s reactionary rubbish which too many old fogeys like to peddle, usually I suspect because they don’t actually understand the 21st century and like to be sniffy about things like social media. But what I am saying is that there is a tendency, and I can’t prove this, for younger people to not go looking for things outside their preferred media. Conversely, I think there is a tendency sometimes for older people to do the same, that dividing river has steep banks on both sides (wow, that’s an impressively pretentious metaphor). I’m lucky, and it is luck, to work in a school so I’m surrounded by teenagers, which really keeps your brain young I can tell you. We offer digital photography as an exam subject and lots of kids take it. The subject head has made a reasonable investment in nice books over the past few years, and I do like a browse on the office shelf and borrow a couple over the holidays. Well we got to the end of the Christmas break and I said on our return that I was sorry but I hadn’t got her Ansel Adams book back, to which she replied “hang onto it for as long as you like, I can’t get the kids to even open them”.

The course requires them to produce work ‘in the style of’ a photographer of their choice, and I found myself the other day looking at the exam work and thinking that if that were me I’d be getting out the plain white background and trying to do portraits in the style of Bailey (who I admit is my photographic hero), and then realised they’d never have heard of Bailey, or probably seen his work. Or Avedon’s “American West”, or Edward Weston and his peppers; if I could photograph vegetables like that I’d be totally a happy bunny. They’re not crossing the divide, they’re not seeing these photographers. Don’t blame the teachers, they can show them the work but they’re not engaging with it. There’s no colour, no filters, no effects and no sense that in 30 seconds you can flick off it and forget it existed.

None of them are going to get one of their classmates to kneel on the floor with a stuffed squirrel, ever.