Considering all the technical improvements in photography, of course purely gear related, I would almost presume that the photographic art is getting lost. My dear reader Chris commented in my previous post about a fictional scene where a camera would talk against the camera operator (used to be photographer) to frame slightly different to get a better/more perfect composition. You might laugh now, but it could well happen. Remember the great Henri Cartier-Bresson? In his book ‘The Decisive Moment’ he wrote that he hoped that no compositional grid would ever be supplied to attach to the viewfinder, because you had to feel the moment and not think about it. There was time enough to study the photograph after it was taken. Unfortunately for him though, almost every digital camera now comes with these compositional grids.
He continues to write in his essay about the essence of composition, but mostly in relation to be able to feel it. There is this split second where you make the decision to press the shutter. A moment when everything comes together as a unity of form and action, the moment that feels right, which he magically described as ‘the decisive moment’. I really do agree with him that he suggests not to think when you frame your final composition. There is enough time to understand what you are doing when you are reviewing your photographs at home.
I guess it is easier to change gear in a hope to improve your photography, because it makes you less vulnerable for critics. We often do not see the things. Don’t we all have that situation where you see someone elses photograph and you think: “I should have seen that one too” or “When you look at it, it is actually quite simple”. Is it true that your photography will improve when you buy a new camera? Of course not. It is absolutely not the camera. It might affect the image quality, but I am not talking about that. I am talking about better compositions, the bare and simple essence of photography in my opinion. I believe the only reason why people think a new camera improves their photography is because they photograph more often with a new camera.
And there I said it: “photograph more often”. These three words are probably the most important thing related to getting better. When you replace photograph for practising, than you realize that it works for just about everything. Whether it is photography, soccer, playing guitar or your job. Not everyone is gifted with a lot of talent. Remember athletes preparing for the Olympic Games? They train as much as possible to become really good.
And to become better you do not need more in my opinion. Less is often better. A basic camera without bells and whizzles is easier to learn. All the options don’t become an obstruction for your photography. You don’t learn photography from a technical point of view when you select a scene mode. Learn exposing appropriately, how to achieve shallow or huge depth of field, and learn how you can use these skills to improve your intended compositions.
There is no decisive moment digicam or ‘DMD’ on the market as some ask for, there will never be one. I believe the decisive moment is in your head, it really is. In my opinion a camera with many features is a camera with too many features. I personally disagree that every technical ongoing development is there to improve the photographic experience. Using a simple and small camera can be very liberating. Daido Moriyama for instance started using compact cameras more then 10 years ago, because it made him less obtrusive. HCB didn’t start using a Leica, because it was a …. Leica. No, he started using it, because it was one of the smallest cameras around at that time. It helped him realize the photographs he envisioned, because he didn’t become noticed.
More than 10 years ago when Nikon introduced the F5, it was a camera, I believed, that consisted of a small database of some 50,000 photographic light situations to help meter the framed scene as good and accurate as possible. Maybe within 10 years they will introduce a camera with a large database of trully well composed photographs to assist you. But by than all the produced work will be all the same. No new insights, no new visions. Photographic art will than be killed. Than photography will absolutely be temporary and won’t last for ever.
Maybe I am old-fashioned. Yes, I often use the LCD for framing, but I still prefer optical viewfinders. I use the camera in manual mode and don’t need a P, A, or S mode. I like to keep it simple, because I want to concentrate on my photography. I want to come home with pleasing photographs, I want to feel the joy and excitement of capturing light. I see the camera as just a part of my photography that consists of a larger process.
Instead of learning how to handle your camera, spent more time learning about art. I think it helps to study paintings or drawings. See how they used light to emphasize subjects or pencil strikes to show only the necessary objects freed of unimportant details. You don’t need to be arty to see that. You don’t have to speek art intellectually to prove your importance and knowledge (I personally almost never understand what they say anyway), unless of course when you want to cover your own mediocre photography. It doesn’t matter what craftsmen used to produce their art, it matters how they used it.
Today’s photographs were made in Amsterdam while having a trully wonderful day with Rui and Dora from Portugal. Thank you both for this glorious day and opportunity to meet each other.
All photographs by Wouter Brandsma
26 thoughts on “Temporary art”
Composition is a hard thing to teach. You can teach rules, and refer people to examples, but the gut feeling of the right composition is innate, IMO, and a person either has it or not. Still, if they have it, it has to be trained. You still have to train the eye/mind to understand what it is seeing, then compose. I have a book called Placing Things, which is simply about placing physical things in pleasing relationships; sort of a gestalt perspective. Photography is a lot like this. You place things within the frame for a good composition. Some people have this “placement” vision, but others do not. I strongly believe that there are a lot of people out there with cameras today who, no matter how much they upgrade and hope it will help, will never gain a strong understanding of good composition simply because their minds aren’t wire for it. Sort of like no matter how hard I try and practice I’ll never be able to balance my checkbook ; )
Like you, ultimately I prefer using a viewfinder, which is why I am enjoying my film cameras so much. No doo-dads to worry about; just compose, calculate the exposure, and shoot. It’s a little window into the world. I like the big, bright viewfinders of rangefinders. Sometimes, I wish I could just have a viewfinder in my pocket as I walk around every day. I’d be happy composing even without a camera : )
Thank you for your very thoughtful comment Andrew. I still believe too that a viewfinder helps you to keep things into perspective, or like you said: “a little window into the world”. I use my camera with an optical viewfinder and it is wonderful. Set the camera manually, view through the viewfinder and be able to get some view outside the framelines to anticipate things.
Yesterday we past a little shop with second hand cameras and there were a lot of rangefinder cameras there. Popular seventies modells like the Canonet, Olympus Trip, and of course older Leicas. I still love the idea of having a camera like a Leica and a 35mm lens. Less is more, and to be able to fully concentrate on the photography.
You are absolutely right Wouter. What’s most important in improving your photography is how often you photograph. A newer or better camera might be more convenient and fun to use, but it doesn’t really change your photography.
I have been going through some old slides recently and I don’t see a difference between different cameras I tried over the years. My pictures are pretty much the same regardless of camera. In fact, the biggest difference between a camera I used in 1971 and my latest digital camera is the time it takes to get the picture up on my computer screen. With the digital camera there is no waiting for the film to be developed and no time spent scanning. Other than that my photography is about the same.
Having said that, I’m still looking forward to the Panasonic GF-1, but it won’t change my photography.
I think with digital photography people use the technology like: After they take a photograph, they review the photograph on the LCD screen. They delete the photograph when they don’t like it, and take another photograph. They try to avoid disappointments, but probably hardly learn it the hard way. The hard way is like film. You take 36 exposures (maybe shoot multiple roles of film), process the film and you can either be pleased with the results or you feel really depressed because you did everything wrong (bad exposuring for instance). And that all after waiting for a couple of days.
I think you need to fall, get up, and try it again, fall, get up, and try it again. I think that a sense of progress after disappointments is more rewarding than instant success.
I think it is good to search for cameras that serve your style of photography. And yes, a GF-1 could be nice for me too, even when it won’t change my photography either.
Thanks for that Wouter an inspirational read. I really enjoy using my old OM-1 film camera with large, bright optical viewfinder – and no grid lines! There seems to be relentless pressure from nearly all quarters to have the latest gear, in the illusion that it will enable us to take better pictures. Thom Hogan put it well recently when he said that wanting new gear and wanted to be a better photographer are not the same thing; for most of us it’s better to spend money on training the photographer, such as attending a workshop than in buying new equipment…
You’re welcome. I think you can better go dutch and instead of spending money on courses spend more time outside photographing. See how light changes the scenery around us, how shadows changes direction and length in the course of the day. And the best of all, you don’t need a good camera and lens to do so.
Thanks for these insightful posts, Wouter. As much as Ken Rockwell may be a gearhead, in the end he´s looking for a camera that “doesn´t get in the way”. I think this is THE main and most important criteria for camera I want to use. My actual gear is pretty good at this, so for now, it´s just take more and more photographs, as you say correctly.
As for your pictures in this post: I´m not too sure about the two with people walking inside the frame. Especially the man on the bank reading the paper would have been a really nice motif for himself. The shot of the girls on the bank is great, it´s 100% Amsterdam feeling. 🙂
Thanks Fabian, although I don’t know about that Ken guy. He seems like a nutcase to me. With regard to the two photographs. You are probably right, but I am still learning too (and I hope I will continue to do so for quite some time). The shot of the girls was good though. It was taken at the north site of the Herengracht.
Wouter, Ken Rockwell for sure is one strange guy. Maybe he isn´t really “looking” for a camera that doesn´t get in the way, but at least he wrote that somewhere in his reviews, and I think it would be a good strategy! 🙂
As for learning: I don´t think you misunderstood me, but just to clarifiy, I didn´t want to offend you, of course! It´s just that I sometimes miss a bit more of critique on my own shots, so I try to give some (hopefully constructive), when I can. I am always happy to see new “street” work from you, and I think generally it´s an excellent direction where you are heading with it.
I didn’t misunderstand you, and critics are needed even more to learn. You are right about that. And you certainly didn’t offend me.
Take the first photograph for instance. I liked the scene when I saw it, but now I think I messed it up a bit. I don’t like the tree and the bike behind the man. I probably should have gone more to the left, but I already came from that direction. You make decisions and sometimes things don’t work that way intended.
Thanks for your reply, Wouter. Not mattering the critique, one thing is for sure: It´s better to have taken a picture, altough it may not be perfect, than none at all. For it is a nice illustration of your walk, anyway, and it permits to learn more…
Without taking pictures we can’t be learning much 😀
I agree, it’s not always about gear. Yesterday UPS delivered an awesome photo book with 1.3 megapixel phonepics shot by American photo journalist Shawn Rocco. Talking about back to basics. Inspiring stuff.
But after struggeling with the E-P1 in recent weeks I do realize that there is actually one thing I am looking for in a camera: trust. That’s what I like about my LX3. Knowing that when I see the right, “decisive” moment the camera won’t let me down. Not that every shot is great. But when it’s not, 99 out of 100 times it’s because I did something wrong.
Oh man, I need to finish my book too 😀 Shawn Rocco is certainly very inspiring and proves that it is all about the images.
But what about your E-P1? Is it a keeper?
No, my E-P1 is for sale [no potential buyers yet though].
In all fairness: I’m sure some people will get great results with this camera. But as above mentioned: I want to trust my camera. I need fast and reliable AF [because of my eyesight]. I like logical menus, so I don’t lose time adjusting settings. And I actually don’t want to miss a built-in flash [today during Rotterdam’s Dance Parade, I used subtle LX3 fill-in for almost all shots].
I also found that most of my E-P1 shots during testing came out bad, because it is very easy to accidentally switch the back dials, changing things like ISO and WB without noticing.
So great looks, but hard to live with [like some of my ex-girlfriends 🙂 ].
Than we missed each other today Robert. I was at Madurodam with the kids today and later had a drink at Zeezicht on the beach of Scheveningen 😀
I hope you had a good time in Rotterdam. It is important to have a camera you feel confident with.
Next time you’re in Den Haag and/or Scheveningen just let me know. Maybe we can have a drink together.
I will let you know Robert.
Well said Wouter and I could not agree more. I remember when I was young and I was going to try out for track and field when I was in high school. My dad took me to the store to get some shoes. He was going for the mid to low range shoes and of course I had my eye on the expensive ones. He said to me quite simply – “boy having those fancy shoes aren’t going to make you any faster and they sure wont improve your skill, that comes from here and here” he pointed to my head and my heart. I am not sure if I believed him then, actually I am almost sure at the time I thought he was wrong. But now when I am tempted to get the latest and most fantastic equipment, I always hear those words in my head. I know now that he was right.
Also on another thought about deleting photos. I try to keep the same concept on photos as if I was still shooting film. I think very carefully before I delete a photo off my hard drive. You know looking back at all my old photos when I was using my K1000 some of the best ones are a goofy out of focus face or some not so perfectly framed shot that is interesting to look at. Sometimes even more so than the “good” ones. In that respect, I only delete horrible mistakes and I have very strict guidelines before I kill one of my digital shots.
I enjoyed these shots you took Amsterdam. People in motion has always fascinated me.
Hope you are having a great weekend.
That is a very sound advice your dad gave you. Everyone should about that when they want to buy something new to replace something that actually still works fine.
And the weekend was great too, hope yours was great too.
You are the artist, Wouter. You paint in pixels. You “see” the world differently than many of us (including myself most certainly). It is a gift for which I am both glad you have and am thankful you can share it with the world.
I don’t know what to say. Especially because I am so doubtful about my work.
“The Moment” is the difference between thinking about taking a photograph and actually taking a photograph.
That’s where practice pays dividends. Especially in street photography, beginners recognise a potential photograph but don’t act on the thought or act too slowly and “The Moment” is lost.Through practice taking the photograph becomes an automatic reaction – but this can only be achieved if you are carrying a camera.:)
The camera is just a tool, we do the math.
Best post ever! Thanks Wouter 🙂
Thank you so much Enche!