© Niall Benvie 2009
This appears as a feature in the UK’s Outdoor Photography in late 2009 / early 2010.
More than noise.
I don’t think there has ever been a more exciting time to be a photographer. It feels like we are coming out of an era of austerity when the cost and difficulty of distributing film inhibited creativity. For a few years now, many of us have been picking out a few rock n’ roll chords using the new digital media but the creative equivalent of the ‘60’s has still to hit nature photography. Bring it on!
It’s not that photographers weren’t creative when we shot film: it’s just that we had relatively few options when it came finishing and sharing our work. What is so exciting about today is that many of the barriers to creation and distribution have been kicked over. Moreover, we don’t even know where the excited mob of new creatives and their co-conspirators – the digital media and hardware developers – are leading us. When it comes to making imaginative use of the newly emerging technology – everything from affordable digital projectors to paper-thin organic electroluminescent displays – we have hardly even scratched the surface. So why then are many photographers still shooting like they were shooting film, blocking their ears to the new sound?
Here are some examples of what I mean.
• Cropping. Cropping seems to be regarded as an admission of failure in some quarters, evidence that you weren’t adept at getting close enough to a subject or are deficient in your compositional skills. Were this not the case, rules concerning cropping wouldn’t appear in competitions and people wouldn’t feel pressed to confess a fondness for the crop tool when posting pictures on forums. We have excellent software now to interpolate a cropped image back to its original file size. If you can’t afford very big glass, why should you be penalised for taking this approach? Moreover, surely the space needed by the subject rather than that afforded by the format should dictate composition. As anyone who has shot a 2:3 aspect ratio all their photographic years will acknowledge, there are an awful lot of things that don’t fit it. We’re not shooting slides anymore, so let the subject dictate your format.
• Full-on colour. If you were a devotee of ketchup-with-everything Velvia as I was, you’ll know that it takes a long time to retrain your palate to appreciate more subtle colours again. Bright, saturated colours make for emotionally one-dimesional imagery which is suitable for some subjects but sits oddly with others. Now, during RAW processing (and with plug-ins) we have access to a vastly wider range of moods, often more in line with our photographic intention. In almost every nature photograph I see what the photographer saw but in very few does he or she tell me something of how they felt as expressed through the picture’s colour palette.
• Edges. I’ve never seen anything in nature defined by four hard black edges, yet almost every photograph we see is contained by a straight-edge frame. It is so easy now to finish a picture with a frame that continues its theme into the page beyond; water colour brush strokes around a scene with a inconclusive colours or an ill-defined subjects; delicate foxing to suggest antiquity; and, now and again, a straight hard edge when it harmonises with the theme.
•>1. Yes, we have mounted pairs of pictures together for years, sometimes been a little pretentious and called them diptychs if they folded in the middle but so long as we were shooting on film, pairings were more in the realm of graphic design than photography. Well, shrug off those labels! You can do it too, on a single page in Photoshop and create your own design with your own raw materials and own insights. Then print it as the one piece of work. This is still photography!
• As a hang-over from film days, we are still inclined to assemble panoramas with straight edges. It’s understandable, but limiting: how can you represent a steep slope properly as a panorama? Or make one that unifies disparate elements that don’t happen to fit in the letterbox format? As soon as you become comfortable with having stepped edges to your pictures, many possibilities open up. And the software to make the perfect join is there, if that is what you need. Sometimes, however, the narrative of a picture can be clarified by not making a seamless join: in some of Jim Balog’s composites portraying the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Banda Aceh province, the elements do not quite join up properly, hinting that things can never properly be restored after a cataclysm.
• Probably the majority of landscape workers remain in love with the full-bodied light of dawn and dusk, even if they shoot digital. It usually looked great on film, and the familiar combination of pinks and blues has a near universal appeal, at least in our culture. But what is interesting about digital capture is what is revealed long after we would have packed our film cameras away, deep in the blue zone. Granted, these pictures tend to work much better when there are extensive pale areas in the composition – such as a beach or surf – but that still leaves a lot of scope. Many already heavily photographed locations will remain largely unworked during this special time so long as we are stuck in a film mindset.
The greatest difficulty for any photographer wanting to turn their back on the old ways of doing things is having their new work seen. Or that was the case: now the web allows everyone to be a publisher (even if not a profitable one), to connect with an the audience somewhere out there that “gets” what they are doing. In the tsunami of competent imagery washing into every corner of our lives the only survivors of the flood – the one’s whose work will be noticed – are those who show and share genuine creative daring.