At the risk of painting a portrait of myself as an ancient hermit that lives in a dark cave, I once took photography pretty seriously, back when it was all about chemicals, lenses and celluloid. I knew how to develop my own black and white film, how to compose a shot, how to take time lapse star trails, how to create a collage in the darkroom, using paper and mysterious chemicals. I was all over the techniques of photography, back when there were no digits to manipulate in Photoshop.
I loved the era of what is now called analogue photography. I immersed myself in Lomography and had all the weird film stock, the strange Russian cameras, the plastic multi-exposure cameras that “accidentally” let light in, those weird nine lens things and the ones with the timed pull string. I had the coloured flashes. I had a ball, though it became increasingly expensive and difficult to find a processor that could cope with these experimental 35mm and 120mm films. My local processor used to burn all my images to CD, scanned from the freshly processed negative. Happy days. One day, I learned that the processor I used had closed down their chemical line. There just wasn’t the demand. That was a sad day.
Maybe I never became a great photographer, but my appreciation of photography and what practise I got in the art, while pursuing it, certainly informed my painting. I developed a way of looking for and capturing unusual, ephemeral things. Back then, I got pretty good at setting my camera up in a good enough setting to be able to grab candid moments as and when they happened. I didn’t have to think too much and there was a lot that could be fixed in the darkroom, by simple cropping, dodging, burning in and so on.
That’s probably still true. You probably can just point and shoot using your iPhone and fix it all up later in Photoshop. Except that you can’t anymore. The quality bar has risen so high, that doing things this way reveals terrible technical flaws that you could once get away with, but which now show you to be a rank amateur photographer. Everything has to be taken more carefully, with attention to preserving the technical quality of the shot. Yes, we have more resolution than ever before, in terms of pixels per square unit of area, but that simply means that there is now an expectation that you preserve that precious resolution at almost all costs. The higher the quality; the more glaring are your mistakes.
So this is what I am struggling with. As a late adopter of iPhone apps like Instagram, Hipstamatic, SwankoLab, IncrediBooth, Camera+, SlowShutter, Pixlromatic, KitCam, PhotoForge2, ColorSplash, Vyclone, Keek and Vintique, I have, of course, become a zealot. Unfortunately, though, the spontaneity has gone, for me. I spend so much time opening the apps and futzing with decisions about which virtual film, lens and filters to choose, or even which app is best for the situation, that I wind up missing the event I want to capture. The results I get, all adjusted for light conditions, camera shake, zoom and focus, automatically, somehow aren’t as fresh and unusual. The camera and I take so long setting up the shot, that the moment is gone before the shutter closes. I know I can shoot in a bracketed way and that might help, at the expense of chewing through memory and creating significant editing and selection work for later, but I just can’t seem to get my head around taking good pictures with my iPhone.
I’m not technically backward, but life is definitely busier than it used to be. I spend more time driving and it’s incredibly difficult (and dangerous) to try to shoot while on the move, in a fast car, in the commuter traffic. Stopping by the side of the road seems just as difficult, under those circumstances. I also find there are so many other apps to have my head inside, that often photography doesn’t get a look in, unless I am going out with the express purpose of taking some shots.
So while I have better gear available to me than ever before, which can achieve things I once only dreamed about, I find I cannot capture a decent shot anymore. It all takes too long. It’s all too clumsy. I don’t know what to do about this and would welcome comments from better photographers than me.
I like capturing images with a camera as inspiration for paintings. That’s a great technique. It serves me, as a painter, very well, but lately I have noticed that I have such a strong desire to be in the moment, that I find it difficult to be detached enough to actually mess around with the technology and spend the moments outside of the moment to accurately observe and record the whole thing with my camera. In other words, to take a good snap, I have to be almost an objective observer, I find and in so doing, I divorce myself from the friends and family around me, the beauty I am trying to capture and the events that are unfolding, while I try to capture them in digital form. It feels bad to tear myself away from the unfolding events long enough to actually compose a shot and take it with enough quality to make it a worthy photograph.
Video is almost an order of magnitude worse. The time you spend behind the camera takes you outside of the action for such a long period of time, you might as well have not been there at all and watched the whole thing via a remote telepresence web cam. You get the Skype effect, where you can see the people you love and your favourite places, but you can’t embrace them.
These days, it’s a commonplace to see people at live music venues capturing the whole thing on video using an iPhone or iPad. Sometimes, these people get in the way of people that are there to see the live show, uninterrupted, which is most annoying. The artists don’t like everybody bootlegging their performances either. But you can see them at every live event, now, it seems. They are so busy videoing or photographing the band that they forget to dance, to hear the music or even enjoy the show. All they get, for their attendance, is some grainy video, complete with boxy, distorted sound, of some half-remembered moments that really lost their emotional impact on them, at the time. They were too distracted taking the movie or the snaps to actually experience the event they were present at.
Having been distracted enough to actually shoot the scene, whether in still or moving form, you then see something that never used to occur before. They are all hell bent on tweeting the picture immediately, before anybody else, posting it to one of the many still image sharing web sites or processing the images, there and then, in their portable digital dark rooms. They’re tarting up the pictures, selecting filters, adding frames and vignetting, flying in titles, finding their social media sites, posting and thinking of witty comments. They’re not present in the event at all. They’re half in cyberspace, being scoop reporters.
Moments evolve and evaporate. If you spend all your time shooting them and posting them, you are, in a very real sense, completely missing them. And so this is the struggle I am having with photography, right now. I’ve lost any semblance of fluidity, or ability to capture precious moments without ruining the mood, the atmosphere or appearing to be so detached from proceedings that I am in danger of being accused of being just plain rude and intrusive.
How does everybody else resolve this dilemma? Am I simply not practised enough with the gear? Am I approaching it all wrongly? How do you stay in the moment, while capturing fleeting images in high technical quality, with an iPhone? Posting after the event just takes a little discipline, but how do you actually not appear detached, distracted, vague and disinterested in what’s going on around you? Has photography changed for the worse?
Your answers on a full colour postcard perhaps sent using an app like “bypost”, please. ;)
Meanwhile, I better just keep remembering to snap stuff whenever I can, not being too worried about the editing decisions and hoping the fluidity and spontaneity return.