Month: November 2015

The Craft of Photography.

I was practicing photographing water splashing into a bowl already filled to the brim. (For the reason for this, please see below. )

The camera was set to fire at 8 frames per second. The flash was set at 1/8 power to keep up with the camera. An f-stop of f11 was used to get sufficient depth of field, which meant that the flash needed to be placed close, and at an angle to both catch the side of the falling water droplets and also reflect light back from the background. The camera was set on manual focus and pre-focussed at point where the drops of water would impact.

The resulting image may, or may not be art, but the process of its creation is the craft of the photographer.

I suppose, for me, that’s the mission; to turn my students into crafts-people.

Crafts-people who look at an image, work out how it was created, break it down into bits, use the materials available, and create their own work based upon their own interpretation of the original work.

There are those, however, who seem to feel that craft is irrelevant, as long as the image produced gets the student a good grade. There are those teaching the subjects who literally have no idea how to make images which are technically competent. They have no craft.

Craft involves the skilful process of using ones hands to produce an object. In photography, the obvious skill is using the controls of the camera to achieve the desired aim, but craft is not ‘merely’ a set of psychomotor skills. One cannot use the controls and settings of the technology (or indeed throw a pot on a wheel) without the cognitive processes that precede and inform the process – nor indeed the emotional awareness (the affectiveness) of the desired outcome.

So, to be a photographer (in my opinion), you have to have the technical skills developed to a point where the camera becomes an extension of the hand and the eye. That can only happen if you have a level of understanding of theory and technique to achieve the desired aim, but crucially neither is sufficient if you do not have an awareness of what you are trying to achieve when picking the camera up in the first place.

Whether or not you can create ‘art’ with a camera ‘phone is deeply irrelevant to me. There is no craft is applying apps to an image that you have no control over.

The result of craft, apart from producing better photographs, is to be able to reproduce what you have done at a future date. There are those who argue that chance plays a great part in photography, but chance should only play a part in some first images. Art is not a random act, so the photographer should be able to capitalise on the chance act to incorporate what has been learnt from chance into daily practice. This implies that you have got a level of skill and knowledge to deconstruct the chance event so that it can be recreated to order. Great (or even employable) photographers can produce great images over and over again.

When we get it ‘wrong’ (and we all do), that isn’t any reason to rip up the rule book – assuming we’d looked at it in the first place, but rather an opportunity to build upon our craft, perhaps to develop a distinct style which sets our work apart from others.

Equally, not all photographs need to be in focus or sharp. Vitally important, however, is the knowledge and skill to make the choice. The craft is to know when and how to apply this knowledge to a specific situation.

Most of all, craft needs time. When Mathew  Syed talked of ten thousand hours  and the power of practice, he wasn’t just talking about table tennis. If you want to be good at anything, you need to put in the hours. Any crafts-person knows this. I know in my head how to photograph water splashes, but that doesn’t help if I don’t know in my hands. So, I work at it. With forty years of experience in photography, ‘I was practicing  photographing water splashing into a bowl’.

Try it, it’s fun.

blue splash

Trust No-One!

Trust no-one. A harsh and cynical attitude.

This post is in some ways about my relationship with Olympus cameras, but much more so about my day job.

I work in a school.

In the county where I live and work we still have old fashioned grammar schools. That means that the kids take a test when they are in year 6, and if they get selected they get to go to some of the best state schools in the county.  The grammar schools are all considered great schools, and their results reflect this. Parents move into the county to try to get their kids into grammar school, and are often more than happy to make voluntary contributions to their  dear children’s education. Grammar schools attract support from their alumni, charities and local businesses as well. People just love being associated with these schools.

The other kids go to the secondary moderns. Yes, they still exist.

Statistically the secondary modern kids are less likely to be academic; the average pupil is, by the nature of the system probably below average academic ability. So the schools tend not to get the exam results that the grammar schools get. As such the parents, the charities and local businesses are less likely to give them financial support.

As so often, those in most need, get the least.

And that’s where I work.

And, I can honestly say, some of the pupils are the most creative kids I have ever met. Ask them to factorise a quadratic equation and you’ll get blank looks, but ask them how they would respond to the idea of ‘freedom’ in art and you’ll be overrun with (great) suggestions.

I always tell my  little camera club that they are some of the best young photographers I’ve met. In a recent camera club open competition, they won six out of seven prizes. In another competition, they won five out of six. Last year in the Amnesty International Youth Awards, two pupils were short-listed to the final ten. The year before, another pupil came second overall in the same competition. In a BIPP national competition the school picked up four out of seven awards.

They are really good, but not one of them comes from a family where they could fund the sort of camera that the average entry level hobbyist would buy themselves. Add to this a budget from the school of zero pounds per year, and we’re down to begging kit from freecycle. One of my kids  was over joyed to get an early Christmas present of a second-hand canon 350d, which was much, much better than the aged bridge camera she was using up to then; one where she could only fit 17 images on the only memory card she has. Actually, most of them don’t have very much kit, but they make up for this by having real passion for photography.

So, at a camera show, I was telling someone from Olympus about these kids.  Apparently Olympus could do something to help. Could we arrange a session at school to get the kids some hands-on experience with Olympus kit?

Could I arrange a session at school? Well, actually I could do better than that. As it happens, another of the kids I taught last year has a mother who owns a studio. Not just any studio, but a totally brilliant outdoor, converted farm; an amazing venue used by one of the top names in British fashion to show off last year’s autumn collection. Did she know the Olympus photographer in question? Of course. Could we perhaps use her studio? Well, yes, we could.

Brilliant! After some behinds the scene self-publicity we had the use of a classic jaguar car and a much newer Aston Martin. A couple of manufacturers would give us some lighting and tripods. A magazine expressed an interest in doing an article on the project.

We were set to go as soon as the Olympus guy got back to us.

Time passed.

Eight months later our Olympus guy says, ‘Are we still on for this project?’

Eight months!

Actually, no. No, we’re not. We’d lost it all.

Oh, sorry about that.

We can do something else though – what about …..

Another month passed and …………. Nothing.

Cheers for that.

So, ….. my kids are still brilliant. They’ve won more prizes. They’ve photographed a major classic car event. They’ve been out to do some night photography. They’re experts on splash photography and legography. They’ve done a great project on the theme of ‘movement’ which they can use for their GCSE.

They’re not great fans of Olympus.

I think that’s a shame, but they feel very let down, as do I.

So, if you are ever in a position to help people, it really is better to say and do nothing, than to make empty promises. We never asked for any help. It was offered, and I foolishly believed the word of someone who is, after all, paid well to be an ambassador for a major camera company.

I will not make that mistake again, and my kids who have already been let down by an education system that regards them as second class citizens, have learnt that people cannot be trusted.