Stairway to art (or, why I photograph staircases)

My name’s Ian, and I photograph staircases.

It’s not really an addiction. But if I see a ‘really good’ staircase and I don’t have my camera with me, I am annoyed. Quite annoyed.

It’s a longstanding project that’s been going for almost as long as I’ve had a camera (almost 9 years). It started out subconsciously as I just photographed what I like, but it turned out that I like staircases a lot and has become very much a conscious project.

Why staircases? Good question.

Lines. It’s the lines.

Stairs at Hyde Park Corner Underground station, London, UK
There are so many lines in this photograph that create geometrical shapes, depth, form and an incredible sense of perspective. It’s all about the lines!

The longer I’ve been taking photographs, the more I’ve realised that what I really love about it is the composition of lines and geometry. And where better to find lines and geometry than staircases? If they’re straight, they’re beautifully uniform. If they’re a spiral, they have wonderful geometric curves and contrasting straight lines. If they’re wonky, they’re unusual, but the lines are still there. With staircases, you just cannot get away from lines.

Arranging these lines in the frame to create balanced compositions and striking images is what this staircase project is about. Stairs also necessarily involve surfaces in different planes, and this usually means that the light plays on them nicely to create form. Of course, if you’re at one end of the stairs or the other, the staircase also goes into the distance, creating yet more diagonal lines and a strong sense of perspective. The lines are so simple, yet so complex in the way they can be arranged in the frame.

Stairs are everywhere

Yes, this means that no matter where you are, there’s always a staircase available to photograph. That makes it pretty easy to accumulate material for this project, but that’s not what I mean.

Staircases have been made by humans for centuries, in every culture in every corner of the world. They are a symbol of the intelligence that is universal among our species, and they demonstrate how we use this intelligence to manipulate our surroundings. Whether it’s a few rocks on top of one another, steps carved into a mountainside, or a wooden staircase constructed in a modern house, the simple idea of creating stairs to reach otherwise unreachable elevations is a triumph of human history.

Stairs at the castle in Lisbon, Portugal, have been there for hundreds of years.

One step at a time

Finally, stairs are symbolic of a concept that is crucial in the human condition. When faced with a challenge that seems insurmountable, you need to break it down. Into steps. And take one step at a time. And that’s precisely what stairs do. They break down an insurmountable leap into small steps and put the unreachable within our grasp.

Staircase in Naxos, Greece, that appears to lead nowhere

Not only that, but they take us to a different level, and this physical ascent is symbolic of the progress that can be made when we take steps towards an ultimate goal.

In short, staircases are symbols of human achievement, advancement and of hope, and they create wonderful compositions of lines and geometry. What better photographic subject could you hope for?

Here are a few more images from my staircases project – take a look at the whole collection on my portfolio site.

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The three powers of projects

In photography, as in any art, it’s easy to lose your way. To photograph anything and everything so that you lose a sense of what you are trying to create with your photos. The result can be boredom, indifference, and a lack of motivation that eventually results in the camera staying in the cupboard. That’s where projects come in, and they can help in three ways.

1. Constraints breed creativity

If you can choose to do or have absolutely anything, it’s impossible to choose. You’re paralysed by the possibilities or you try to choose everything. It’s the same with photographic subjects. Although it doesn’t seem intuitive, the constraint of a project breeds creativity. It gives the brain something concrete to work with, a topic to explore and look at from all angles. It might start off with mediocre images, but the creative juices soon get going and you’ll find you come up with images that are much more original.

These images are part of a macro project I started just after my daughter was born, when my opportunities to get out to take pictures were limited. I ended up focusing more specifically on spiders in the garden, and over a few weeks, I went from obvious, fairly standard images like the one on the left to much more original ones like the other two.

What’s more, you can have projects that are open-ended, and when you’re stuck for knowing what to photograph, you can fall back on these to at least get you started. I have several of these ongoing projects – the longest running is a project of staircases, but there’s also shadows, lost clothing, harbours, panoramas and more.

2. You build a body of work

To feel like you’re getting somewhere, it’s nice to see your portfolio building. Projects give you direction and a reason for organising your images. As you shoot a few images here and there, you find these building up into satisfying collections. You also get a better idea of what is working for you in the project and what isn’t, helping you to make images with more purpose and direction for the project in future. One fantastic way of watching your projects build is to organise your collated images on a portfolio website. This not only allows other people to see your work, meaning you can easily ask for feedback if you want it, but also allows you to easily see how the images are working together and to chop and change the collection as you see fit.

If you use Adobe Creative Cloud applications, such as Lightroom and Photoshop, then you’ll have the option of creating a site with Adobe Portfolio for no extra cost. I’ve just done that, and I’d highly recommend it for a simple-to-use solution that gives a sleek and streamlined finish.

My portfolio homepage, made with Adobe Portfolio

3. Images are better together

It’s tough – no, impossible – to take those top-drawer photographs with every release of the shutter. The fact is, only a fraction of the images we make will deserve to make our portfolios as standalone works of art. Projects provide a different way to create art in which images contribute to a bigger body of work that ends up being bigger than the sum of its parts.

As an example, my ongoing staircases project has produced some unbelievably average photographs. I mean, they’re stairs, what can you expect. I like photographing staircases because of their strong lines and geometry, the way light plays on the different surfaces, and their symbolism of progression, advancement, improvement. Although many of the images include unusual or visually interesting staircases, each photograph is still essentially an image of some stairs. But together, these images create something much bigger.

Take the image below. It’s a staircase in Lisbon, Portugal. It’s slightly unusual in that it leads down onto the beach and the bottom steps seem to merge with the sand. But on its own, this image is nothing particularly spectacular.

Put it in a group of images of several other staircases in Lisbon though, and suddenly you have something. A collection of unusual staircases that say something about the place and create something of an atmosphere.

Now put this set into a collection of images of unusual staircases from other places, and this becomes something else again. At the least, it is an interesting collection that shows how the idea of steps has been adapted for various contexts. At the most, it is a commentary on the universality of staircases, on the singularity of our species and on the diversity, yet convergence, of our intelligence. It could also speak of the universal striving for progression and improvement.

Below is a selection from the current version of my staircases project. You can see the full collection here.

Try it

So next time you’re stuck for something to photograph, start a little project for yourself. It could be something that takes 20 minutes and produces one final image, or it could last a lifetime and evolve with you. It could be as general as portraits or trees, or it could be specific – all the piers in the UK, all the species of insect you can find in your garden, or each petal of a single flower. No matter what it is, a project has the power to free your creativity.

If you have any projects you’re working on or you have any great ideas for projects, we’d love to hear about them – just leave a comment below!

Photography and fear

I am afraid. Creative work makes me afraid.

I am afraid that people will judge my work unfavourably and judge me for thinking I am any good as an artist. Because I am afraid I am not.

I am afraid that people won’t judge my work at all. That they just won’t care. That my creative efforts will echo in a void of indifference.

I am afraid of liking my work. What does it matter if I like it? That means nothing.

I am afraid of not liking my work. If I don’t like it, how can I expect other people to like it?

I am afraid of not knowing if I like my work. How can I tell if I like it? I’m biased.

I am afraid that I will reveal too much of myself, and judgement of my work becomes judgement of me.

I am afraid of revealing too little of myself, so that my work is meaningless.

I am afraid that I have got it wrong, and it’s obvious from my work.

I am afraid to fail. Whatever that means.

I am afraid of not creating. But my fear stops me.

Image analysis – breaking the rules for balance and tension

A lone cyclist, making his way into the city on a misty morning. One of my favourite photographs, made in 2013. I love this photograph because it has atmosphere. The cyclist seems isolated and you feel remote from him as the viewer, yet you know how he feels. There’s an overall feeling of peace, but there’s also a balance and tension that creates a sense of movement and urgency – where’s he going? It seems like a simple photograph, but when you look into it closely, there are some interesting things happening.

Two distinct layers

The mist has a fair amount to do with the atmosphere. This image wasn’t made early in the morning, it was just a foggy day, but it conjures up that feeling of an early winter morning. I used the mist in a very deliberate way to maximise its impact. I positioned myself so that the people walking and cycling along the path were just in front of the haze so that they were dark but everything behind them was hazy. This creates two distinct layers – the background is effectively flattened to a single layer dominated by the misty outline of the city scape, and the cyclist is in front. This separation, along with the fact that no other people appear in the frame (I was there some time for the perfect subject and no-one else to be in my viewfinder), this creates the feeling of isolation and peace.

The most interesting part of this photograph to me though is that, although there’s essentially one point of focus – the cyclist – it’s dynamic. There’s a trade-off between balance and tension, and this is all down to the composition.

Balance

The cyclist is placed precisely on the right hand third of the frame (below), adhering neatly to the classic rule of thirds, at least in one dimension. However, the placement of the cyclist breaks more ‘rules’ than it adheres to, and this is where it starts to get interesting.

The cyclist is not on the vertical third of the frame, but is low. Had he been placed on the intersection of thirds a little higher, there would have been too much foreground. What allows this placement to work is the compositional element that, for me, trumps everything else – balance.

The misty church spire provides the balance for the cyclist here. This works in two ways. First, their relative positions create an implied diagonal in the image (below), and the spire balances out the visual mass of the cyclist. I’ll come back to that diagonal in a moment.

Second, they serve the same function in the top and bottom halves of the image. If you divide the frame into two, it’s almost exactly divided along the top of the buildings in the background, creating a light top half and darker bottom half (below). The church spire and the cyclist are both darker blocks in their respective halves of the image, so they draw the eye, emphasizing the diagonal between them.

Tension

The placement of the cyclist not only creates the balance with the church spire, but also creates tension. Rather, the direction he’s facing creates tension. The rule book says to give moving subjects space to move into the frame, and the cyclist facing the edge of the frame implies movement that pulls the eye out of the image. So why does this rule-breaking work here?

To think about this, let’s turn the cyclist to face the other way. I’ve done that (very crudely) below, and cropped the frame a little at the right – that crop is needed to maintain the balance between the church and the cyclist, and that’s an important clue to what’s going on here.

When the cyclist’s facing the opposite direction, it’s a very different image. The diagonal between the spire and cyclist is now joined by a horizontal underneath that’s implied by the cyclist’s movement. Effectively, these implied lines create a triangle (below), leading to a closed image that’s well balanced but without much tension.

Going back to the original, that could be cropped in the same way to create a squarer frame.

The balance between the cyclist and church spire is still there, but the image doesn’t work, because the cyclist is too close to the edge. That triangle is still there, but the movement of the cyclist away from it means it’s just an empty space in the image.

Put that space on the right back, though, and the cyclist suddenly has space to move into (below). What’s happening here is that the diagonal between the church spire and cyclist implies a ‘frame within a frame’, and the space to the right of that is now sufficient for the cyclist to move into.

Rather than creating the triangle, the diagonal and the horizontal movement creates an open line that adds dynamism, creates tension, and leads the eye right across the image in the direction that the bike is going. This line creates movement and that sense of urgency.

Image analysis – making a splash

We all made hundreds of photographs of ducks when we were new to photography, didn’t we? Well, I did. They’re one of the most accessible forms of wildlife to practice photographing, and they’re pretty nice to look at too. My early archive folders are full of duck photographs, 99.9999% of which are boring at best. But this one isn’t. Eight years after I made this photograph, I still love it. When an image stands the test of time like that, it’s worth taking a closer look and thinking about why.

I’ve made several iterations of this image to adjust the contrast and the colours. Looking at it again now, I think the colours could still probably do with some tweaking, but it’s the composition and the lines that make this image for me.

The placement of the duck in the frame (I say placement, but given that it was the sixth day after I’d got my first DLSR, it’s really just where it ended up) leaves a nice amount of empty space to the left (above). This is the direction the duck is facing, and the space gives it room to ‘move’ into – it implies the movement and adds dynamism to the image. This is especially important because the duck is clearly moving, so needs this space. A square crop (below), for example, cuts off this space and restrains the duck so that the image feels unbalanced.

The placement of the duck also roughly adheres to one of the staple ‘rules’ of composition – the rule of thirds (below). I had never heard of this at the time I took the image, so I can’t pretend it was intentional, but the main vertical of the duck’s body sits roughly one third of the way into the frame from the right hand edge.

What’s more, the duck’s face is close to the intersection of the top and right thirds of the frame – prime position for the main point of interest according to composition textbooks. I don’t have a lot of time for such rules, but this image is an illustration that the rule of thirds is a good guide.

Looking at the blue lines in the grid overlay above (which is based on the golden ratio), what’s very obvious is that the wing in the top right sits exactly on the main diagonal of the frame, and the beak is aligned parallel to this diagonal. The diagonal that these two elements imply is strengthened by another diagonal created by the other wing and the bird’s back. This second diagonal sits perpendicular to the first and creates multiple triangles in the frame (below).

In combination, the diagonal implied by the wing and beak and the negative space on the left, create tension in the image. Given that the viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the duck’s face and eye, this diagonal then directs the eye down and to the left, into the empty space. Except the empty space isn’t so empty, and I think this is the key to this image.

When the eye moves down, directed by the beak, it meets the curves of the ripples in the water. These curves pull the eye round, back into the image, around the duck and over the dramatic splashes of the water (above). The momentum of the eye along with the second diagonal takes the eye back up to the main diagonal of the wing in the top right, which directs it back to the duck’s face. This creates a loop that keeps the eye moving, and on the second time round, the viewer might notice the small water drops throughout the image, which increase the dynamism.

The final visual element that I think adds strength to this image is the movement of the wings and in the splashes of water. This movement makes the image more more dynamic than it would have been if the movement had been frozen. This was obviously the result of a relatively slow shutter speed, although again, I can’t say this this was deliberate at the time.

Something I’ve always had a problem with in this image is the green of the water on the left. I find the green too dominant when the focus should be on the duck. I’ve had various attempts to alter the balance of the colours, but never quite got it as I’d like. It’s not helped by the fact that the image was recorded only as a JPEG file, so post-processing options are a little limited. Desaturating the greens too much creates an odd look though, and there is potential to make good use of the complementary green and red–orange of the duck’s breast. Perhaps I’ll have a another go.

Does the image work for you? Why? If not, what is it that isn’t right for you?

As a photographer, it’s crucial to look back at your images and think about them, asking yourself not whether you like them or not, but why you like them or, equally importantly, why you don’t like them. Inspired by the #ThrowbackThursday hashtag, I’ve decided to look back through my collections and do just that in an image analysis project.

Photographers, reframe your creative process

There’s a concept in photography that you might be familiar with. The ‘keeper ratio’ – the proportion of the photographs you take that you think are worth keeping and processing. It’s often thought of as a measure of your success rate, or probably more often of your failure rate. Either way, the concept is based on completely flawed logic. To let the idea of the keeper ratio direct your approach to photography is a massive hindrance to the artistic process.

Ludicrous logic

Following the logic of the keeper ratio to its conclusion, the best photographers must be able to turn up to a location, release the shutter once and go home with a great image. Of course, that’s ludicrous.

A painter doesn’t sit down and create a masterpiece straight off. He makes preliminary sketches, detail studies, and then makes repeated adjustments in the final painting, maybe even starts over multiple times. Neither does an author write a novel from start to finish without making changes, both to the plot and to the way they’ve written it. Why should a photographer be any different?

Iteration and improvement

Making a photograph that works the way you want it to is a process of iteration and improvement. Just as an artist might need several attempts to get the proportions and perspective of a scene right, a photographer might need to change lens and viewpoint, try different compositions, or go back to a subject when the light or the situation is different. In the process – particularly in the digital age – this photographer might make dozens, scores or even hundreds of photographs. The last one of 50 might be the only ‘keeper’, but she wouldn’t have got to that photograph without making the other 49 first.

A page from Magnum Contact Sheets showing ‘sketch images’ taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson and his two front-runners for a final image.

To prove this point, take a look at a book called Magnum Contact Sheets. This book contains dozens of iconic photographs by Magnum photographers (that is, some of the most highly regarded photographers in the world) alongside the other images they captured either side of those photographs, on the same film. It’s a striking demonstration of the iteration that the photographers worked through to make that one image, and that real photography isn’t about creating a great image with only one shot.

Sketch images

David DuChemin, an inspirational photographer and photography educator, refers to the process of iteration and improvement as making ‘sketch images’. The parallel with fine art couldn’t be any clearer. This terminology crystallizes the idea of photography as a creative process for me, and helps me feel that I’m engaged in art. It also melts away the underlying anxiety about whether my photographs that I rate are just down to the law of averages.

Similarly, in The Photographer’s Eye  and The Photographer’s Mind, photographer Michael Freeman shows sequences of images that he captured while working scenes. He also walks through his thinking during the process to refine his composition and the concept of the photograph. It’s a fascinating insight – reading these books led to my first realisation that my thinking was all wrong.

A gallery of sketch images I took while trying to make the most of these arches in Lisbon, Portugal. The black & white ones are images I thought were worth processing, but my choice of image was the one on the right. Click to see larger versions.

Post-sketching

Instinctively, the idea of making sketch images seems to be mostly about the camera work. Of course, this is the fundamental stage, but the idea of sketching can go beyond that and apply to post-processing too.

First, you need to take a step back and look at the sketches you’ve got. A crucial skill in photography is recognising a sketch image that stands out from the others, and why it stands out. Whether or not the reasons were apparent to you at the time of capturing the photograph is irrelevant – choosing images after the event is part of the process.

Then, when you process your selected images, you can try different colour treatments, exposures and contrast levels, different crops and different localised adjustments. You might well produce several different ‘sketches’ at this stage before settling on your ‘finished piece’. You might even play around with different versions of an image and then discard that frame completely. But still, that sketching process was necessary to explore the potential (or lack of it) in the image.

Deliberate sketching

In hindsight, I see that I’ve always done this sketching to some degree. But – as the existence of the keeper ratio concept suggests is the case for many – I saw it as a lack of skill, as fumbling around without knowing what I was doing. Maybe it’s been a bit of both, but the realisation that the sketching process is a necessary stage completely changed my psychological approach.

The process has become more deliberate, and rather than just trying different things as I feel like it, I’m more likely to think about why I’m trying those things. It becomes more deliberate and directed, with an ultimate aim that becomes refined along the way. Working like this, I’m also happier to fill up memory cards without getting downhearted at the prospect that only a handful – or perhaps even none – will be ‘keepers’.

Mirrorless and the art of photography

Nikon Z7The photography world is in a bit of a whirl following the much anticipated announcement of Nikon’s first full-frame mirrorless cameras, their first serious step into this area of the market. If the rumours are true, Canon isn’t far behind. The entrance of the camera heavyweights into this space adds a new level of credibility to mirrorless, and adds a new dimension to the DSLRs vs mirrorless debate. But, leaving brand loyalty and specification lists aside, what actual difference does it make to the making of photographs? What effect does going mirrorless have on the art of photography?

Not up to the job?

You could argue that mirrorless cameras are not up to the job in the way that DSLRs are. You could argue that the autofocus systems are slower and less reliable, particularly if you want to shoot fast-moving subjects or in low light, thereby restricting your choice of subject. You could argue that the electronic viewfinders are not as clear and bright as optical ones and that they have a lag, so that they hinder your ability to compose and time the shutter release. And you could argue that the range of native lenses for mirrorless cameras is generally limited, so that your creative choices of focal length and aperture are restricted.

You could.

But you’d largely be relying on arguments that have been around since mirrorless cameras first appeared, when these differences were large and genuinely limiting. The way technology has moved on in the past three or four years, though, means these limitations – if they exist at all – are so slight as to be negligible.

In fact, mirrorless cameras can now pretty much match most DSLRs, and they actually have several benefits when it comes to the art of photography.

Cameras with benefits?

Going back to those electronic viewfinders, the experience of using the latest ones is almost indistinguishable from using an optical one, except they’re better. No, you’re not looking through the lens, but (unless you’re using a slow shutter speed to capture movement) you are looking at exactly what the sensor will record. An actual preview of the final image. So you can be sure of your exposure and your depth of field. You can see the histogram if you like, and check for blown highlights and clipped shadows. You can adjust the white balance and add processing effects, all before you’ve even taken a photograph.

What’s more, the electronic viewfinder allows you to use focus peaking when manually focusing – sharp edges are highlighted, so you can see what is sharp and what isn’t. This allows you to make sure the focus is at the correct spot and to adjust the depth of field so that everything you want in focus is in focus, and everything you don’t want in focus isn’t. Yes, DSLRs have the depth-of-field preview button for this, but this manually closes the aperture to the selected diameter, shutting out the light and making it difficult to see anything at all – there’s no such problem with the electronic viewfinder.

These viewfinder advantages avoid the need for taking test shots and then squinting at the back of the camera to determine whether you’ve got the focus and depth of field right, and the need to scroll through options in playback mode so you can check the histogram. None of this ultimately changes the final image, but it does increase the chances you’ll get it right in less time and that you can use the JPEG straight out of the camera rather than having to fix things in the Raw file.

Let’s also go back to those slow, laggy focusing systems. Because these days, they’re not slow and not laggy. Most, if not all, mirrorless cameras now use on-sensor phase detection autofocus, an evolution of DSLR focusing technology, and allow for focusing that is at least as fast as in DSLRs. What’s more, because the points are on the sensor, they can be distributed across the entire frame. Rather than 60-odd AF points clustered towards the centre, you have several hundred AF points that spread almost to the edges. This makes it easier to focus off centre and compose your shot precisely before focusing rather than focusing and then hurriedly recomposing.

And if shooting speed is important, then mirrorless definitely has the edge. The lack of mirror and the option of an electronic shutter means that frame rates can be very high. Currently, the leader in this respect is the Sony A9, which can shoot a massive 20 frames per second. That beats the fastest DSLR – the Canon EOS 1Dx Mark II – which can manage 14 per second. The kind of speeds that mirrorless cameras can reach mean that if you use burst shooting to photograph moving subjects, you’re even more likely to capture the perfect moment. Since photography is supposedly all about “the decisive moment”, this could be important.

The electronic shutter also means mirrorless cameras can shoot completely silently, which is great if you need to be discreet – I’m thinking wildlife or street photography, for example. Similarly, the smaller bodies of mirrorless cameras means you’re less likely to be noticed, which might increase your chances of capturing that moment before your subject runs off or you’re told to move on. That said, if you stick a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens on the front of it, the size of the body makes little difference.

Does it matter?

So now that mirrorless cameras deliver what they have always promised, the argument that they can benefit the photographer as an artist is pretty strong – at least on paper. In reality, the benefits mentioned are relatively small. Depending on what you photograph, they might not really be advantages at all. And, let’s face it, the real point is that it’s not the camera that’s most important in the art of photography.

The ‘old masters’ of photography – Robert Doisneau, William Klein, Ansel Adams, Henri-Cartier-Bresson and the like – were all using 35mm film in SLRs with no autofocus, no burst shooting, no bells or whistles at all. Yet their photographs are still admired and studied endlessly, held as examples of the standards to strive for. Why? Definitely not because of their choice of camera. Because of their choices of subjects, their compositions, the light, the moments they capture. It’s all to do with the photographer.

By all means, go mirrorless if you want to. Or continue to use your DSLR for decades to come. The differences really don’t matter that much. They’ve all got the same basic creative options – lens, aperture, shutter speed, ISO sensitivity – and what counts most is which of those options you choose, what you point the camera at and how exactly you point it at it. If you get those things right, then when you press the shutter release – whatever camera that may be on – then you have made art.