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.

Echoes of Hockney in the water

As part of an art project during my studies, I looked at the work of David Hockney and particularly his representations of water. If you don’t know him, he’s famous for painting swimming pools – perhaps his most famous painting is A Bigger Splash – and he has depicted water in a surprisingly large number of fairly abstract but convincing ways. The representation that interested me most in the context of the project was that in Portrait of Nick Wilder (open the link if you don’t know it – I couldn’t get permission to reproduce it here!). I was intrigued at how such solid blocks of colour in such strange shapes could create a convincing impression of the surface of water.

Fast forward a little over 15 years, and I’m leaning on the railings of a ferry, dozing a little as we sail between Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. I look down at the water and see the exact same shapes of colour on the surface that Hockney had used to represent water in Portrait of Nick Wilder. Of course, I have to photograph it.

Obviously the surface of the water was in constant flux and the boat was moving fast enough that a shutter speed I thought would be no problem was too slow, so I got many blurred attempts. Even with a faster shutter speed, I was relying entirely on luck with the composition. I got two I liked.

In both of them, the frame is divided into a generally dark area and a generally light area. I prefer the overall look that this creates in the top one, but I prefer the patterns in the bottom one. Which do you prefer?

In both of them, I love that there are so many shades of blue and the colours are so strong, and I love the fact that it’s such an abstract composition in essence, but it’s also obvious what it is. The filled frame gives the feeling that the water goes on forever, which out in the middle of the ocean, it felt like it did.

Processing this photo also coincided with my happening across images from Edward Burtynsky’s Anthropocene project, which sowed the seed of an idea for a project on patterns of different scales. These images fit the brief, so one could well end up being the first.

Adobe Color CC – a free, interactive colour wheel

Colour theory is an important part of visual art, photography included. Beyond white balance, which all photographers are aware of but is more of a technical issue than an artistic one, combinations of colours within an image can have a huge impact on the visual experience. What’s more, careful application of colour theory can be used to reinforce the intention of an image.

This week, I happened across an app from Adobe that I had never heard of but offers a neat resource to get a better grip on the theory of colour and explore colour combinations that you like and could work in your images. It’s called Adobe Color CC, and it can be accessed by anyone for free, although if you want to save colour schemes, you’ll need an Adobe account.

Adobe Color CC screenshot
The colour wheel on Adobe Color CC.

The idea is simple – there’s a colour wheel with five controls that you can position as you wish to create schemes of five colours. This can be entirely customized, or you can select from various colour harmonies that are based on colour theory – complementary, analagous or monochromatic, for example. The selected scheme appears in a row of blocks below, and for each block, you’re given the RGB values and the Hex codes (which are used in coding to specify the colours of web page elements). You can also import an image and create a colour scheme based on that image, with several colour mood options that will automatically select different combinations.

Adobe Color CC imported image screenshot
Import an image to Adobe Color CC and you can create colour schemes from it.

I guess this app is mostly intended for graphic artists, but I think it’s a great tool for photographers looking to explore colour through experimentation. Not only can you get an idea of what colours and combinations you have a taste for and consequently direct your subject choices and compositions accordingly, but you can use Adobe Color when developing your Raw files to get ideas for processing approaches or even for precise colour matching with pre-existing schemes or between images. I recommend taking a look and seeing how it could help you!

What is art?

If you’re going to create photography as art – and that’s my aim here – then I guess you need to know what ‘art’ is. Of course, there’s no definitive answer to this, so to know what art is means to know what art is for you. Coming up with an answer to this isn’t easy.

defining art
Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

“To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced and … then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling – that is the activity of art.”

Leo Tolstoy, What is Art, 1890

This is one of the best definitions of art I’ve come across because I think there are two main facets to art, and this definition neatly encompasses both.

The first facet is the visual. Tolstoy refers to all forms of art by including “movements, lines, colours, sounds or forms expressed in words”, but I think these can be simplified to the medium and execution. In photography, the medium is obviously images and the execution is the visual design of these images. Lines, shapes, colours, perspective, scale, detail, focus, motion and, perhaps most importantly, the balance of these elements. Intentional design is what makes order out of a messy world and creates the satisfying visual experience of art.

The second facet is what Tolstoy refers to as the ‘feeling’. This is more complex than the visual aspect of art and more difficult to define – let’s think of it as the idea that art should evoke a response in the viewer. This response is normally thought to arise from a narrative, a ‘Thing-The-Artist-Is-Saying’. A striking landscape with a strong atmosphere might produce feelings of awe and wonder. A journalistic war photograph might strike horror into the viewer. A tender portrait that reveals a person’s inner vulnerability may well stir empathy. These are elements that make the experience of viewing art more than just visual.

The qualifier

The second facet – the ‘Thing-The-Artist-Is-Saying’ – is probably what most people think of as being the qualifier for art. Without this, it’s just a picture, you could argue. For me, it’s not so clear cut. I agree that art should evoke a feeling, but that ‘feeling’ does not just sit alongside the visual experience, it depends on the visual experience.

A purely visual experience – an abstract painting for example – can elicit a response alone. Think of Mondrian’s abstract grids, Rothko’s panels of colour, Picasso’s most abstract cubist compositions. These are all deeply captivating pieces of art, yet there is no conceptual engagement beyond the creation of a two-dimensional visual experience. Conversely, a hugely powerful and significant moment can be photographed without any attention to visual design, and the impact will almost certainly be lost. For me, there can be no ‘feeling’ without visual design, and so it is the visual aspect that is the most fundamental in art. The visual design is the qualifier.

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow. Piet Mondrian, 1930.
Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow. Piet Mondrian, 1930. These famous compositions by Mondrian are captivating just for their visual experience.
Art for me

My artistic journey started many years ago with a great interest in graphic design – I very nearly made my career in that field. For me, graphic design is the application of the most fundamental aspects of art, and that idea has followed me into fine art and now photography. My studies of artists focused on the visual aspects – the colours of the Impressionists, the compositions of the Cubists, the representations of movement by the Futurists. My own drawings and paintings have always centred on the compositions rather than the concepts, and now in my photography, composition and balance are central. I don’t ignore deeper concepts, and I agree that they add layers when they can be included. But my primary aim is to take the random fluctuations of the world around us and create from it images with coherent, response-inducing visual design.

In my photography, the visual design is central.

Anthropocene, Edward Burtynsky

Oil Bunkering #1, Niger Delta, Nigeria, 2016
Oil Bunkering #1, Niger Delta, Nigeria, 2016 © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

The British Journal of Photography recently highlighted a new exhibition of photographs by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky as part of his collaborative Anthropocene Project. And what incredible photographs they are!

The Anthropocene Project, for which Burtynsky is working with filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, aims to highlight the ‘human signature’ being left on the planet in the so-called Anthropocene era – a proposed new epoch in which human activity is having a greater effect on the planet than the forces of nature. As part of this project, Burtynsky has photographed some of the largest extraction sites in the World, creating stunning images of the scars we are leaving on the Earth.

What strikes me first and foremost in these images is the scale. These are alien landscapes, often photographed from above to create images that appear to be abstract compositions until you spot the clues – a tiny vehicle or a building – as to what they really are. Indeed, at first glance, some of them could be mistaken for extreme macro images, and I find that fascinating – photography at this immense scale can produce images that look similar to those at the other end of the spectrum.

The images also have wonderful compositions, creating patterns with line and colour that give the eye so much to look at. Just look at Phosphor Tailings Pond #4 below – could the balance between the flat green area and the strange textures of the white area be any better? I can barely take my eyes off it, unless to look at Saw Mills #1, in which I love the contrasts and colours.

Phosphor Tailings Pond #4, Near Lakeland, Florida 2012 © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
Saw Mills #1, Lagos, Nigeria 2016 © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

And of course, it’s not just the visual impact – when you know what these things are, these images are very thought-provoking. Such large-scale destruction of natural environments to gather resources for our own benefit is morally questionable at best, and you can’t get away from the issues when these images present them so strikingly.

Coal Mine #1, North Rhine, Westphalia, Germany 2015 © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Already, these images are inspiration for me. Not just because of the awe that they inspire, and not because I want to try anything similar. What has captured my imagination is how beautiful patterns can be seen at every scale, from the tiniest patterns in nature to these huge man-made sites. I think it would be interesting to explore these patterns at different scales, and it seems like a good basis for a project.

All photographs reproduced with permission © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Related links

Photography for art’s sake

I’ve been taking photographs for eight years. In that time, I’ve learnt a lot about how cameras work and how to use them. I even spent a couple of years writing about cameras in photography magazines. So it’s fair to say I know how to take a picture. At least, I know how to use the camera settings to get a sharp, well-exposed image. And from (too many) hours loitering in photography groups on social media, that’s what many hobbyists are content with – a photograph that is focused on what it’s supposed to be, not blurry, and reasonably exposed. That’s enough to get a host of ‘great shot’ comments and a raft of empty likes. Well, I want more from photography.

I have always been an artist, and for me, photography is just a part of art. What ultimately matters to me is not that the subject is in focus and the exposure is ‘good’. Of course, these elements are important, but they’re things you shouldn’t really notice – what really matters is the impact of the final image. And in order to create photographs that have impact, there’s an enormous amount to learn about photography as an art and in the wider context of art as a whole.

I have thousands and thousands of sharp, well-exposed photographs in my archive – ‘great’ shots by the standards of those online groups. But to me, 99% are exceedingly average. I’ve done the technical bit, I know what I’m doing. Now it’s time to learn more about the art of photography. By reading about it, by studying others’ work, and, above all, by doing it. This blog is a record of this discovery – a journey from technically sound but average photographs to images with impact. I hope you’ll join me on this journey.

The blog has three elements:

My sketchbook – explorations of my own photographs and contemplation on their artistic merits.

My notebook – information and contemplation on the art of photography.

My scrapbook – links, clippings and inspiration from around the Internet and beyond.

To see (what I consider) my best work and buy prints, you can also visit my portfolio site.