My Approach To Photography
Lately, as a result of a few of my photos getting an incredible amount of attention on 500px.com, I've been exploring the profiles of a large number of users there (I check out everyone who interacts with my photos). And, of the profiles in English (it's a delightfully diverse site), there's usually information about the person's feelings and philosophy on their craft. It varies greatly, but it occurred to me I've never really written anything of the sort, and when I tried to come up with a new 500px bio, I had way more to say than could easily fit there. So, here's a compilation of snippets describing my approach and philosophy to my photography, based largely on Twitter discussions I've had on the subject.
First off, I freely admit that, when I'm shooting, I don't have the best grasp on technical precision. And there are a number of purists and old-school film shooters who consider this sloppy form; in their minds, the shot must always be perfect the moment you capture it. It shouldn't need post-processing, and "fixing it in post" is a sign of failure as an artist. I respect this approach, but I don't agree that it's the One True Way of photography, nor is it one I'm in a hurry to adhere to. It's an approach that makes perfect sense if you're shooting film: It's too expensive to do a lot of bracketing with different settings, and unless you own a darkroom and are an expert chemist, there isn't much post-processing that can be done. So, a successful film shooter must, first and foremost, be an absolute master of technical precision. But a digital shooter? Not so much.
Thanks to the magic of Adobe Lightroom, I can import some of the worst, sloppiest shots I've ever taken, and often get something useful out of them. Pretty much the only thing I can't correct with software is focus, and even that's negligible if it's close enough. I've had photos that, looking at them on the camera, were so overexposed or underexposed that I assumed I'd just be throwing them away, but I ended up being able to recover them. Shots like this or this didn't turn out the way I anticipated, but considering that they started as completely solid black and white (respectively) squares, the fact that I was able to get anything worth looking at from them is kinda awesome.
I don't use Lightroom as an excuse to not learn my craft. I always shoot in full-manual mode, because I'd rather get it wrong under my own control and understand what I did wrong, than get it right because the computer picked the setting for me. And, I always attempt to take the time to get everything right; I've been shooting full-manual far longer than I've owned a DSLR, I've had a lot of practice. However, because I never shoot in studio conditions, I don't have the luxury of making the world wait for me to get everything dialed in just right. Plus, I'd rather know for certain what the settings are, because I put them there, than potentially have them change on the fly. For example, if I'm shooting at an indoor event, but with highly active subjects, I'd rather know for certain that my shutter speed will be fast enough and potentially deal with dark shots, than have to read the settings at every single shot to make sure the camera didn't randomly decide to drop the shutter speed to 1/30 because someone's wearing a black shirt. Because I've seen my camera do that on the rare occasions I've switched it to aperture-priority mode.
More importantly, though, the act of taking the photos is an intimately emotional experience for me, not a technical one. My worst shots are often the ones where I was fiddling with settings trying to get everything right, and they're often the most technically perfect ones. But my best shots? Those usually happen when I pretty much ignore the camera (even the meter, half the time!) and simply capture. I'm not interested in making the shot look perfect on my camera, because this is 2013, and I shoot with modern technology. It doesn't need to look perfect on the camera. And while I'm not opposed to trying for that anyway, it's the first thing to go out the window when I'm more interested in capturing the emotional feel of the scene.
In lieu of technical precision, my highest priority in my photography is emotional precision. Every shot mean something, and must make me feel something. I'm not a documentary photographer, or a journalist, and I have zero interest in taking photos for the sake of visually documenting something. It's why I no longer volunteer as a staff photographer for events without first talking to them in-depth to make sure they're not expecting a documentarian. It's also why I'm generally not very interested in doing studio portraits or becoming any semblance of professional photographer. Call it selfish, but I'm only interested in the photos that make me feel something (for non-living subjects) or that showcase someone else feeling something (people and animals). I'd much rather get an occasional candid portrait of someone in an intensely joyful, fleeting moment, than attempt to get them all the time in a controlled setting.
My galleries have a large number of photos taken at fandom conventions, which most fandom photographers put in a separate gallery, under a pseudonym, or otherwise hide from mainstream eyes. Screw that. My con photos are some of the best of the best in my entire portfolio, because they're some of the most emotionally intense I've ever gotten. If you're not familiar with this sort of thing, fan cons of any sort are a gathering of people who often lack like-minded peers in real life, coming together in the biggest concentration of people sharing the same passionate hobbies they've ever experienced. And when you get that many people with that much passion for a single thing together in one place, the resulting explosion of creativity, social interaction, entertainment, and joy is absolutely intoxicating.
I've been attending these sorts of events regularly for many, many years, but it wasn't until late 2011 that I started seriously photographing them. I bought my DSLR a month prior to a con, and brought it along, since I was still experimenting with the sudden, massive upgrade in my photo capabilities. I got some decent shots there, but I didn't really consider the potential for brilliance until I looked through everyone else's shots afterwards. The album was filled with hundreds of terrible cellphone photos, but there were about a dozen shots from a professional wedding photographer that captured the fun of it even better than I remembered it feeling. And, I remember seeing this guy around the con, in retrospect; he brought his assistant to hold his light rig, which made him stand out in a crowd. But, in analyzing his photos, it wasn't the perfect lighting that made them so great. It was the emotions he captured. And even if they had been technically terrible, they still would have been the best photos anyone took at the event.
That epiphany changed the way I look at my own photography, but it also inspired me to pursue convention photography as a serious, major subject for my art. Because in looking through those photos, and comparing to my own memories, I realized that a convention is the perfect place to find the world's greatest concentration of excited, happy, energetic people doing interesting and unique things. Music, performance art, costuming, fashion, celebrities. All of it in one place. For someone looking to improve their ability to photograph people, it's a utopia, one that I'm grateful to be a part of, and that I love showcasing for the world to see.
HDR: The Uncanny Valley, and Instagram: Visual Autotune
HDR and Instagram-style vintage filters are two things in photography I won't touch with a ten-foot pole. I don't disparage them outright, I know they can be a bit controversial, but some people love them, and I can respect that. I'm just not one of those people.
Vintage/imperfection filters are probably the easiest target, because the only people who seem to like them are the people who use them. My objection pretty much just comes from their overuse; used sparingly, and with proper artistic discretion, there's a place for these sorts of shots. I've done some myself, although I use an actual Holga lens for mine, instead of relying on software to do it. It can be a fun creative exercise, and yield unique, interesting results. However, they're the visual equivalent of turning autotune to maximum in digital audio software; used sparingly, it adds a nice accent and change of pace to a song. Used for the whole song, you sound like a robot, and the only person who can pretend to make that work is T-Pain. Similarly, a vintage shot here or there in an otherwise well-balanced portfolio can be a fantastic change of pace, but using such techniques for every shot looks cheesy and uncreative, unless you're using an actual vintage camera. Why? Because you're not fooling anyone. Vintage-look digital processing is so easy to spot that even a complete layman can look at an Instagrammed photo next to a Holga film photo, and easily tell which one was digital. Star Wars Ep 2 and 3 had the same problem; everyone could see through the digital effects, and since they weren't novel anymore, they didn't hold up. Fake-vintage photos have the exact same problem for me, and when I see someone's entire gallery filled with them, I say "meh" and move on without looking further.
HDR techniques are less controversial, and have become sort of a de-facto standard for landscapes and sunrise/sunset photos, making it tricky for someone like me who avoids them to find an audience for those sorts of photos. My gripe with them is that they're the uncanny valley of photography; falling into the awkward, ugly canyon between "good-looking photo" and "good-looking drawing". Some HDR shots are nice, but the ones I like tend to be the most subtle; using the technique to bring out a bit of shadow detail on a dark shot, for example. Movies use this to great effect in their cinematography. But while the intent of HDR is to mimic what the human eye sees, it falls short of this, because it's artificial. Therefore, the more an HDR shot tries to accomplish this goal, the worse it looks. Sure, you can layer shots in HDR software to bring out the detail of a field and trees while having a nicely underexposed sunset in the sky, but it never quite looks right, and the attempt to do so results in a worse shot than if it had just been left with a dark/sillouhette foreground. Similarly, you can go to the other extreme, and practically turn your photo into a cartoon image (tone-mapping), which was sorta interesting when it had some novelty. But, it falls into the uncanny valley too, because you still know it's a photo, one that looks terribly wrong.
So, I'll occasionally snap on my Holga lens, but aside from my 2013 April Fools joke, I'll never touch Instagram, or do any sort of digital vintage/imperfection filters. And, when I write descriptions about my landscape shots, they'll be about where I was and what I saw, not about how many shots I layered into one. If that's your thing, go nuts, but it's not mine.