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.

Sketch images – a case study

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about making sketch images and making a photograph is a creative process. This sketching process was central to arriving at the two images of Ermoupolis that I posted my notes on few days later, so I thought I’d demonstrate by showing the full set of sketch images. Here they are, in the order they were taken working down the columns and if you click to open the gallery slideshow. Some are processed, some are not, thereby taking in the whole sketching process.

As I mentioned in my notes on the two photos, my aims were to convey the crowdedness of the buildings in the village and to show how these villages on the cycladic islands are clustered close to the port but have an ‘edge’ beyond which there’s often nothing. I had to take the photographs from the ferry while docking, during the time we docked and then as we were leaving the port. As the boat moved and I got different viewpoints, I tried different things – here are a few images with some thoughts that give some more insight into why they didn’t make the cut and how they helped direct me in reaching the two images I chose.

Not dissimilar to one of the final images, and it does show distinct edges of the village nicely. However, I don’t like the empty space on the right hand side, which I think draws the eye away from the buildings.

 

This image is actually quite close to what I was looking for, and close enough to process. However, there isn’t really an anchor point in this image, so nothing to really direct the eye.

 

When we were in the port and therefore close to the village, I used a wide-angle lens to see how that worked. The idea here was to emphasize the diagonals created by the buildings nestled between the hills, but this created depth that I didn’t really want. The exaggerated perspective also puts the focus on the foreground and what’s happening at the bottom in the port when I wanted the focus to be on the village as a whole. The same goes for all the similar images taken with a wider angle of view.

 

I think this is a very nice image, and the diagonals work well. As a picture postcard view of Syros, I like it a lot, but it doesn’t get across the crowdedness I was looking for.

 

I really like this image and I thought hard about whether to include this in my final set. After consideration, though, I think it’s more easily read as being about how the church sits above the village, and that’s not what I intended it to be about. The eye is pulled up to the church and takes attention away from the crowding of the buildings below.

 

Here, I started to feel I was close to the kind of image I wanted. Again, the church in the top left becomes the main anchor point, and its separation from the rest of the buildings seems to make it more about that separation than anything else. This image first suggested to me the possibility of zooming right in to isolate a section of buildings.

 

This image was the same idea as the close-in final image I chose. In this frame, the anchor point is the columned building in the bottom right, but this isn’t as strong as the blue dome of the church in the other image.

 

Very close, but again it’s that separation of the church at the top left that bothers me. Also, when it came to it, I didn’t feel that the portrait format of this frame suited the subject.

 

In this images, I felt I’d found a good distance and focal length, and it was a matter of finding the right area to include to create a composition I was happy with.

 

This is my ‘finished piece’ – the image that I was aiming for. You can see the similarities with the previous image, it’s just the area that I’ve included that makes the difference. This wasn’t the last image I took, but the rest were very similar and from different distances as we moved away from the port, because I knew this was roughly the image I wanted.

 

 

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’.