The Outdoor Anarchist's Guide to Photographic Practice

There was some online chat the other day about photographic practice, which inspired me to write the following.  Initially sparked by a tweet about an image of mine that appeared in a magazine recently, it ran and ran whilst I ate my tea.  Here's the untreated capture, with the picture as it appeared in the magazine underneath for comparison.  (techie guff: full frame sensor, RAW capture, 24mm lens, 2 stop hard grad filter, processed in Adobe Lightroom 4)

RAW capture

Image as sent to magazine

In summary (and hopefully I'm not doing anyone a disservice here, that's not the intention) the views expressed online covered - what priority should be given to in-camera skills versus editing, virtues of different types of format in digital capture (RAW vs JPEG), owning the creative process, professionalism, importance of equipment used especially lenses, understanding light and a grounding in film technique.  Some value laden terms like 'mastery' and 'aesthetic limits' were also used.

What underlies all of the positions taken is some basic assumptions about what photography is, and what is it for, which have stalked the form since the earliest days of pinhole, silver nitrate, cyanotype or whatever - assumptions about the representation of the 'real'.  In Outdoors Photography (a shorthand for landscape, wildlife, nature, adventure and overlapping with street/documentary) these ideas are further knotted together with other assumptions about what is 'natural'.  It all gets pretty messy pretty quickly.

All that being said, I thought I'd lay out where I stand on taking photographs, and making images.  I've shied away from doing this before now because it seemed like the height of arrogance, and there are many other camera users out there who have been developing their practice for much longer than I have.  Be warned: this may take some time, and it's a purely personal view.

Vanity quote 1: ''I don't consider myself a photographer, I am using a camera, but there are millions of photographers… I'm just a human'' - Cartier Bresson

The first thing to say is I try to give labels like 'photographer' and 'professional' as wide a berth as practically possible.  I'm not sure if 'professional' means a gold standard (and if so what that is, and what kind of medal they give out when you get there?!) or if it means getting paid for your work full time.  I'm running with the latter.  Before we go any further, let's not pretend for a second that whether we get paid for doing something has any bearing AT ALL on whether we're any good at it.  I can think of a few professionals whose work as image makers/writers/musicians leaves me cold, but they make a living from it.  And others whose unique view of the world blows my mind but doesn't provide them a living wage.  What I 'like' counts for nought where hard cash is involved.  Some pedestrian practitioners get paid for their work (although well paid outdoors creatives are rarer than Capercaillie), whilst others continue in itinerant poverty, get over it.  There are so many reasons why this might be the case it's impossible to go into now.  All this doesn't mean I'm devaluing creative work, just that there are hardships and compensations in everything, and money is not the only way of valuing creative output - so let's get the cart and the horse in the right order.  I say this out of necessity, because the one thing that is guaranteed to kill creative application stone dead is status anxiety.

Good, now that we've taken some ego out of the equation, let's get to those representation issues.  Secondly, there's an idea persisting in outdoors photography that what you capture at the moment of pressing the camera shutter button is somehow the truth - an absolute reflection of natural reality as it was at that moment.  Let's be crystal clear -  this is not creatively accurate, and is it isn't technically accurate.  Before pushing the shutter button, the camera user has made decisions about what to point at and when to point at it.  Yes, even when using the Auto settings.  S/he chooses to point at the tree and not the stream, the sun and not the storm, whatever.  Later on, if we add in the other variables at our disposal as we get further into photography - aperture, shutter speed, light sensitivity (ISO) and focus, we can see that there's alot to make decisions about, all of which affect the outcome of the photograph at the point of capture.  Then there's focal length and filters used, and alchemical oddities like depth of field - let's not even go there.  So, if I think we're all looking at and seeing the same thing, and responding in the same way, I need a reality check of my own.  This maybe 'reality', but only as one camera-user sees it.  What I point at, when and how are my decisions, and yours will be yours, and different... and thank heavens for that.

It may help to think of everything up to this point as in-camera editing, and everything that happens next as post-camera editing.

Vanity quote 2: 'Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights' - Ansel Adams

Third, despite these obvious technical and creative facts, another related belief  lingers like a musty fart that the photographer's job is to show reality - that there is a moral obligation to show not what you see how you see it, but 'what's actually there'.  From here it's a short hop to 'post processing in photoshop is bad', because the photographer is perceived to be changing what actually happened at the point of capture.  Again, let me disappoint you.  Photographers have been tweaking reality after the fact forever.   Even today, many photographers prefer to shoot film, and may spend hours or days in the darkroom doing the jobs digital photographers do using lightroom or photoshop.  Either that, or they will scan their analogue images and post process in digital software for convenience.  Some of this is merely technical work, because even the best cameras in the world are rubbish compared to the human eye, especially when it comes to accurately recording the difference between light and dark (a.k.a dynamic range). Errors created by the machinery itself might need to be corrected.  And some of this changing in post is creative, because any photographer is making a creative statement about what they noticed and when they noticed it (whether they think they are or not).  Why would we want to do this?  Because we want the photo to represent at least as much as it did to be there - we want the image to convey feeling and meaning.  Would it be more 'real' to take an accurate capture and then make a bland image? Would that be honest to the feeling of being there?  I'd argue that personal subjectivity is only a 'bad' thing in a medical photograph: everywhere else, it's the core activity.

RAW capture
how I chose to process at the time

For both technical and artistic reasons, post processing is not the sin against 'truth' many perceive it to be.  There are many famous historical examples of post camera processing made in the analogue world.  From Bresson to Adams to Man Ray, our 'authentic' camera heroes from days gone by loved to dodge and burn every bit as much as contemporary digital power users do: lighten some bits of the shot, darken others, crop and even montage from other photos entirely.  Frankly, they had a ball toying with their own and our expectations, and carved their own truths in the process.  So, try not to confuse the digital world with artifice, and the analogue with truth - they are not simply the same things by necessity.

One further point before I move on.  ''Real or 'shopped?'' is a question I often see.  Aside from the false dichotomy here, I wonder if people are overestimating what outdoors photographers are prepared to tweak.  I don't know any who prefer to manipulate in photoshop instead of resolving as much as possible in-camera.  I don't use photoshop at all unless I am doing design work.  That doesn't make my images any more real or fake than someone who does though.  We are asking the wrong questions of our practitioners.

As with nearly all activity, what matters is why we are doing what we're doing, and whether the end result is effective in achieving our aim.

Lastly, there is an idea that gear matters.  As with most technical things, including painting, music, plumbing, architecture, backpacking, baking and roadbuilding, this is true... to a point.  A good lens is good to have.  The skills to use that lens are also good.  However, one does not beget another.  It's better to have a bad camera than no camera at all, and it's better to have some technique than none.  However, a bad camera with no technique doesn't mean I can't record some of the good stuff with my eyes and that machine, any more than a Zeiss lens worth £1k+ makes me a (ahem) 'professional photographer'.  But wait, what's technique?  I'll share my definition:  Good technique is the efficient and creative use of tools.  When we get technically good at bakery or backpacking or photography, we can forget about the nuts and bolts of what happens next and engage in the creative.  This is called 'flow'.   I think anything is art when it's done with flow, but good plumbing matters because drinking bad water will stop me concentrating on the pictures I need to take next.  Conversely, there is less boring plumbing than boring photography.  This is because the aim of photography is (generally) to inspire and inform, whereas the aim of plumbing is (generally) to stop my bathroom stinking.

I'm not talking about sewerage - I'm talking about the function of our activity, and our aim.  Our first job as someone who takes pictures is to understand why we are taking them, and who for.  But because photography is so ubiquitous, this is often the last question we ask.

Vanity quote 3:  'Reality is what you can get away with' - Robert Anton Wilson

Let's recap.  A practitioners ability to make a living from their work is not the only useful way of judging quality.  There is no absolute truth being captured, and there is no way to capture it, since both the camera user and the camera used affect the outcome.  Image manipulation is as old as camera technology is.  'Reality' has been edited in every photo ever taken, both in-camera and post-camera.  Therefore, in photography, there is no technical authenticity, only technical artifice.   And when I say this, I am thinking every bit as much of Ansel Adams as I am of Instagram.

Sorry.  No sacred cows allowed beyond this point.

Does this mean it's all been a lie, that there is no photographic truth?  No, of course not.  It means freedom.  It means letting go of traditional (Modernist, Victorian) notions of objectivity and shooting what you feel, and how you feel it.  It means how you use the tools is more important than the tools themselves.  It means it's personal, and you can relax and enjoy the process.  This is the kind of truth and honesty I think we respond to in creative camera use.

I shall now subject you to my 6 rules when taking photographs and making images - actually they aren't rules but guidelines, and are only there to bend or break.  But since you've stuck with it this far, on we go:
  • By far the most important one is honour thy subject.  Ignore the camera, this is a conversation between you and the subject.  Your role is to interact honestly with the subject, be it animal, vegetable or mineral.  I generally go on gut/heart/instinct to tell me what I am 'allowed' to change about those pictures afterwards in post, if anything.  It might be nothing, or something, or everything, only the subject and I knows what constitutes an effective interaction, because only we were there, having the conversation.  This doesn't mean you have to be sycophantic or even sympathetic, but the subject must be honoured, completely and utterly.  No exceptions.
  • The second is I use the biggest sensor camera I can afford without it being so stupidly heavy I can't be bothered to take it with me. Why?  Because dynamic range is king and the technical limitations of the machine are as much an 'edit of reality' as the deliberate (if unconscious) ones made by the camera user we've looked at above.  (Note: horses for courses permitted, but availability of 'mirrorless' systems with full frame sensors may likely change my position on this in the next 3 years.)
  • The third is that if I think I can fully 'master' or 'understand' any creative form I'm an idiot - it's at least 40% magic and accident, so I'll need some humility.  No - more humility than that, smart ass.
  • The fourth is that I take lots of photographs.  Given that alot is down to chance (see rule 3), I can up my odds of getting something good if I shoot loads of photos.  I might take 200-400 shots, but use 5-30.  My ratio gets better when the only thing I'm doing is taking photographs, but it's still pretty low.  I know better photographers who have a higher ROI, but they aren't doing this outdoors unless they're doing nothing else but taking photos - they aren't participating, they're watching.  I have no problem with that approach whatsoever, in fact it's definitely more efficient and probably more creative...  But regardless of the details, what is most important is being there, and being there with my camera ready to go is a good chunk of that other 60%.  All this adds up to alot of time outdoors with a camera.  Go figure.
  • Number five is that the edit matters.  Since I am taking alot of pictures, I need to cut the crap and get to the point.  No one wants to see the same piece of rock from 20 ever-so-slightly different angles, or at least, I don't.  I want to see 1 shot that sums up the experience of looking at that rock for that person at that moment in time.  There's such a surfeit of images in the world that reduction is a key skill - that's what contact sheets are for, comparing and contrasting.  Those other shots aren't wasted, they are my sketchbook, what it took to get the one killer shot.  Be warned though, choosing 1 shot from 20 is hard, often much harder than taking the shot.  Sometimes it's easier if I leave a gap between taking and making, so I can be calmer and more objective about my choices.  This whittling down process is one of the simplest factors distinguishing a 'happy snapper' from a 'good photographer'.  What's great is that getting good at doing this post-camera actually starts to inform what you shoot in-camera, so your ratio of 'good' to 'meh' improves.  The big boys and girls call this 'visualisation'.  Back in post-camera land, many professionals in both film and photography employ a third party for the edit.  Friends, family or fellow camera-users can also help with a fresh pair of eyes.  But however I do it, the general public doesn't need to see just how average I am with a camera most of the time. 
  • The sixth and final reminder is to get out of my comfort zone.  Look at lots of other people's photos, especially offline, in books and galleries, and even more importantly, photographs from different styles and context to my own.  Most of the time I'm bored rigid by landscape pornography, um I mean photography, and wildlife safari shots... don't get me started.  The way to stretch what I do is to look at stuff that confuses the hell out of me, and then try to work out why.  I don't have to like everything, but engaging in lots of different work broadens my outlook. 
Learning by doing
Once you've taken the shots (capture), you select (edit), and then start making the images (develop) in the darkroom (be that analogue or digital).  But you aren't gonna have any to choose from unless you shoot some photos.  Forget about all the rules, yours and other peoples and especially mine.  Keep shooting, make mistakes and learn from them.  Even regret that you missed the shot is a great teacher.  Shoot in RAW or shoot in JPEG, read about analogue film techniques and then burn the book and the art college that housed it, own the creative process and then sell it off to buy more booze and camera parts, understand light and how the camera won't deal with it and then try and take the shot anyway - but keep shooting, to keep learning.  Shoot in and out of focus, shoot with the histogram all out of whack, shoot without knowing what a histogram is, shoot film and shoot digital, shoot photos of other people shooting photos of you shooting photos, but keep shooting.  Don't dumb down deliberately, but do experiment without knowing what will happen next.  Above all be brave, both with capture and in post.  Try everything.  Eventually you'll get something you like, and then you'll have to figure out why you like it and if you want to do it again, how you can replicate the same feeling...

...which is where it gets interesting.  Talk is cheap.  The real friction in photography is wordless and ambiguous.  Composition (= light + form + time) is the maths, but at it's best it's an emotional resonance, a whispered question, a nagging reminder of our humanity.  This questioning resonance is the 'real' elephant in the (dark)room, especially for outdoor camera users.  We've seen so much corporate eye candy, we've got visual diabetes.  Training our eyes to see past our cataracts takes work, alot of time and practice.  In the meantime, all the talk of lenses and limits is for the critics.  Don't be a photographer, and for g*d's sake don't be a critic - be a human first, go outside and shoot some pictures.