Friday, October 12, 2007

Subject Matter Vs. Technique Vs. Style

I wrote this week about versatility in what we photograph. Mike Johnson wrote about having a consistent technical style while pointing out that this can be harder in the days of digital since the equipment you use (cameras, film, developers) don't dictate a certain style.

Lee added the commment below to my entry:

i think this entry is especially interesting in light of the recent Online Photographer post where Mike Johnston essentially supports the position that one of the best ways to succeed is to have a distinct visual style, as opposed to presenting yourself as "versitile". i'm guessing that you may have already read this post since you sometimes reference The Online Photographer in this blog. do you think Mike is wrong? are you more likely to succeed by being versitile? i suppose this depends on how you define success, but i am still interested in your thoughts regarding Mike's position.

He's right, I do read The Online Photographer, though I hadn't thought we were talking about the same thing in our two entries. I think it comes down to a discussion of style vs. subject matter, and technical enters the discussion only peripherally. It's possible to use the same style across a variety of subjects. Sometimes the subject will dictate the equipment and therefore the look. For example if someone who normally shoots wide angle landscapes switches to photographing football, they are almost forced into going to telephotos lenses and that will have a strong influence on the look of the photographs.

If I started photographing football, I don't know that the look would be all that different - sure the background would be out of focus, but the concept of moving in close and eliminating surround that I often use in both my industrial and landscape work is not very different from the technique I used in university photographing sports.

Technical style is almost a non issue these days in that unless it is artifically induced into the processing, there isn't a dSLR around that can't make an 8X10 print that looks as good as something shot on medium format film or even 4X5 in the old days. That falls apart when we talk larger prints of course.

An example of deliberately introducing a technical style is the (in my opinion) all to common use of diffusing the highlights to give an image that special glow). It's an easy technique to do, is quite distinctive and has even graced the pages of Lenswork on more than one occasion. Michael Reichmann wrote about it in Luminous Landscape several years ago. I have mixed feelings about it - it was nice when it was new, and it still suits the occasional subject, but as it gets more common, I can't help feel that it distracts from the quality of the prints - that is, when I see that technique, it's hard to evaluate the rest of the qualities of the image.

I suppose the same could be said of using a Holga, even though in this case the equipment definitely determines the look. Having recommended the work of a photographer who uses a Holga exclusively earlier this week, I could be accused of being inconsistent - yet I think that the one is a quicky effect that could be applied with a single keystroke macro, the other is a whole new way of seeing due to the lmmitations and qualities of the equipment.

I have seen a lot of bad Holga photography and considerably less really good work, and the same is true of the appropriate use of the highlight diffusion technique. Perhaps I just appreciate the results that much more knowing the limitations of the Holga so that when I see a selection of really good images it sticks out all that much more.

Style is so much more though than a camera or digital technique or even the focal length of the lenses chosen. It has to do with the darkness and contrast of the print, how shadows and highlights are handled, the tonality of midtones. It has to do with the way that subjects are framed and the viewpoints chosen to photograph those subjects. It involves the ways in which compositions are made, the use of curves and lines, shapes and relationships, how various parts of the image are placed next to or in front of each other. Style relates to the mood that images portray. It's possible to photograph golf as moody and opressing or bright and sunny and upbeat.


Ade said...

On a point of order, if by "a photographer who uses exclusively [Holga]" you're referring to Cerys Connor then, no, she works entirely in digital. Her images look very Holga-like (square crop, vignetting, blurred corners) but the effect is produced from a cheap wide angle adaptor held in front of a digital compact (and, I presume, some expert post-processing). Check her comments on some of the images. (Glad you like her work too though!)

George Barr said...

Interesting. I will have to check her work further. I didn't even know what sex the photographer was. She's got a good eye though.


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