Is This Your Photo ?

November 14, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

OK, so you go on a wee road trip, which could be just down the street.  In these days of isolation and covid, that little trip can feel like an evening in Paris.

You grabbed your iphone or a camera and now you stumble into the train station thinking you're going to capture "street" or architecture You picked the wrong day because the room is crowded with folks selling wares. It is not why you stepped out, but you spend some time looking for potential holiday gifts and you take a peek at the local photographer and her cool pictures of wild life and local scenery. You're not a seasoned photographer, but hell, you are "a photographer." This prompts you to say, "well.. hell, I could do that."

I am going to walk you through three photos to make a point, so bear with my verbose observations and scroll down, but don't cheat and go to the end first because the words might have meaning! Let's go.

Check it out in the first photo because this is what your photo looks like. You with an automatic camera don't have a trained eye which can tell the difference between hers and yours even though there is. This is what you got and you are okay with it because it's a damn cool picture of a train on your road trip and it beats all of anything you could shoot in the back yard had you stayed home. The next thing I dread is that you will hang out a shingle as a wedding photographer! 

Okay, enough of that. It's all subjective, so let's assume that we think our first photo is good, but keep going because I will show you more. 

If you are a photographer purist, hold tight and remember that your digital camera can capture only a part of what a film camera can achieve in dynamic range and none of it looks anything like the vision your eyes saw, so "purist" you are not.  

I spent years fussing with manual mode, manual focus, adding lighting and trying to outsmart the camera. It's like thinking that a kid in the eleventh grade who's sharp in math can do my taxes next year, particularly my small business taxes.  That's the level your digital camera is, two or three issues away from becoming a dinousaur.

Okay. 

Let's move on to the next photo below this discussion: Remember that training and skill do not equate to the number of photos you take unless you move out of a snap shooter space and study what you're doing, cause and effect and all of that. You, "Good-As," say to the better photographer, gee, you must have a nice camera, and this assumes that you see the difference.  Hint. Hint, look at the sky and then take your eyes down to the underbelly of the train.

Gee, that must be a great camera. Gee, It's the same camera. 

It is not my 36mp pro camera and I say that carefully because I may be a generation away from extinction with that model, but it's good enough. The camera I used is good enough. I used the ever convenient (not a bad camera) Canon Rebel t6i which in generations of camera releases can now be considered a dinosaur.  Are you seeing some mood shaping up? Let's discuss and move on...

Before we go on to the third and final photograph, a word:

Remember, I am the gal who spent years trying to get it right in camera. I didn't need to post process or bracket shots and over-abuse plug ins that can make things worse when they're not used right. HDR is hideous. Oh wait, the picture above (this second picture) is an HDR.

If you are an in-camera purist, you might be stuck on your Canon, Nikon or Sony "magic lantern"-- give me more, you wish, you plead to the many menus. The genie, however, is never going to come completely out of that lantern.  Current technology won't let it.  Just ask your highlight blinkies.

If your life is long enough, you may have worked in film. The only thing that came out of the camera was that roll of plastic that you unrolled in a pitch black closet. You stood there with a tin can of chemicals, shaking to the incremental ticks of a timer. Then you went into a room of more chemicals and red lights. You stood in front of the enlarger and possibly used a dodge and burn kit to lighten or darken things. These tools were cardboard shapes on the ends of sticks. Then, you timed your baths. We all had our secret formula, a favorite grain, push and pull.  After all of that, you hung your pictures up to dry. When you came into the light, you grabbed your loupe again and then your pen knife and your paint kit?  What? We were done in the dark room weren't we. This is where your talent really comes into play. You'll want to scratch out the highlights in some areas with the pen knife. The paint kit consisted of chemicals on a piece of paper. You spit on it, swirled a little brush into it, choosing the right shade of gray, of course, and you painted in those little mistakes, like the dog hair that stuck to the neg while it was drying and now you have to get this mark out of the print. There were few, if any, global adjustments. You dealt with each, individual print. That was post processing, one print at a time.

Additionally, there were no massive menu options in a film camera. It did, at best, have an exposure meter and a focus screen which, once lined up, gave you the focus you needed.

There is no such thing as straight out of the camera. 

Let's move on to the dreaded "over-the-top" photo.  All photographers cringe when the subject comes up. Should it?  Actually, my mind is starting to open up to it, having lost thousands of dollars in crafts shows where people loved my work, but of course, they could do that, too. When I moved out of Los Angeles, my head-shot business tanked.  In this small town, the post-partum mom gets a new, entry level camera and now she's in the family photography business a la natural light which is another story because natural light is another genie that's never going to completely come out of the bottle.  I digress. Let's talk about ramping this up to what grabs and sells and this is going to stir you up a bit, but I heard it out of the mouth of a well-known photographer on Creative Live. I thought about it and he was right - the gaudier that you make your photo, the more people will want to buy it.

Full steam ahead, Mr. Parker! Yes, let's put an exclamation point on this. I recently viewed another photographer on youtube talking about fine art painting and how he admired the old Dutch masters. He studied how they used light to draw you to certain parts of a composition. This is what attracted him to HDR photography. Frankly some of what he did was a bit much for me, but he was making a good point. Lighting affects the composition and where you put that lighting is important.

When someone pulls out their wallet to buy, is it for documentary reasons or is it for an emotional connection?  When a collector has his friends in for dinner, he talks to them about what he felt when he found this piece. In fact, the premise of the dinner (in his mind) is to bring in the posse to show off the new purchase and to show his smarts about it.  Social gathering equates to conversation which bolsters his opine.

Where to start? You would buy the first train picture because your father worked on that locomotive and he'd wave to the kids as he sped by.

When would a collector be attracted to a documentary photo if he is neither a rail fan nor did his dad wave and toot to the kids along the line? The collector would more likely want a copy of a famous photo which probably had become known for its impact. It's conversational. It's social gathering. It is his social standing.  

Google the Montparnasse derailment and let's go from there. The turn of the century accident which has been recreated in the movies, but not actually a movie about the actual accident. Look it up on youtube, too. The locomotive crashed through the second story of a building on to the street below. Let's say that the Montparnasse train hangs in the collector's bathroom in this example. It is not Montparnasse. It is something else -- the difference betwen Montparnasse and another train picture is "grab." The dinner guests finished off a third or fourth bottle of wine. One guest uses the loo only to emerge and exclaim, "where did you get that crazy thing?" A collector wants his friends, guests and peers to recognize him as a person with vision or perception. That's when the wallet comes out for more than $20. Let's take a look, collector value is still subjective, but as noted, I want to put an exclamation point on things:

I  used to specialize in train photography:  I went to one of the biggest train collectors shows in the region and the head of the show saw my set up and he said, "This is art. You're not going to do well here, but I can appreciate what you're doing, but you are not going to do well." This two day show was the worst.  Around the corner from me was an artist - a guy who painted trains and then sold reprints for $35 each. He had hundreds of them. They weren't framed in archival mats nor was the paper noteworthy.  They were crappy poster prints in a plastic bag with brown cardboard firming up the package.  He sold reprints of his work that looked like my HDR picture number three.  Now, you could argue that he's a painter.  The worth is in the original painting, folks. He is selling unlimited quantities of prints on inexpensive paper and when he did limited editions, they were in the hundreds whereas a limited edition should at best be no more than 25 prints before you retire the photo. They come with a certificate of authenticity and they're printed in pigment on rag. I have lost a ton of money on "art" that I cannot sell. Perhaps I need to change my approach to photography.  I am done with shows, but had I taken a cue earlier on, I might have priced my work lower and sold dozens of "exclamation points."

So, taking this train and turning it into something that might grab someone, think in terms of the full on HDR treatment.  I prefer picture number two, but the more that I think about what a painter would do with his subject, this is what I came up with. Oh, the dinner guest says -- you know, the guy who sucked down two bottles of wine on his own -- uses the john and he sees this hanging just opposite the throne and he doesn't come out for a while, so the next guest bangs on the bathroom door. "Are you okay in there? Did you drown?"

"Oh, ugh," he says, "I was getting lost in this cool train picture."

The evening goes on from there. Someone raids the wine cellar for an even longer gathering, consisting of story telling and conversation. The collector confidently leans back in his chair at the head of the table, proud of his choices in art. He validates himself as someone who steps out of the ordinary. Every penny he spent on "the piece" is validated in the conversation that it creates. His social standing prevails.  Full steam ahead, Mr. Parker!


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