Thursday, August 27, 2009

How Long Should A Photograph Keep Your Interest?

It occurs to me that if we think about how long we want people to remain "focused" on one of our images, it might tell us something about how to design that image, how to compose and frame it, perhaps even how to approach the subject. As I often do, I'll relate the photography situation to other creative endevours to see if we can learn anything.

If we relate attention to a photograph to attention to a piece of music, some of the catchiest songs on the radio are a minute long, while a symphony might be an hour. Jingles that advertizers use can be 30 seconds in length yet leaving us humming the damn thing for the rest of the day. Does this mean that a symphony is automatically better, just because it's longer? It probably takes more work to write one, but more inspiration? More genius? More talent? Not necessarily. Some of the most moving music ever written is short.

In literature, the length of the story relates similarly, from the shortness of a joke to "War and Peace". An editorial cartoon can create a powerful political message in a simple sketch and a few words, something you can get the entire meaning of within a matter of a few seconds.

I suggest that the worth of a photograph is not in how long people continue to look at it, rather it is in how much it makes them feel, or think or react.

A reaction to an image can be an accumulation of little things or it can be a big wallop in the first 10 seconds.

If you want to keep people looking, then you need to offer multiple layers of discovery. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with a simple image with a lot of immediate impact, but which doesn't require extended viewing to fully "get".

An image which provides a puzzle will keep people looking at the image as they search for clues as to scale, subject, circumstances. Another image may make someone think , but the thinking can be done away from the image since the message of the image was quickly and clearly transmitted.

I would discourage you from trying to figure out which type of image your audience wants - leave that to the commercial photographers - instead make the kind of images which you need to make, which satisfy you. Should you pick through your images to arrange a show however, you might well decide to use some attention grabbers at both ends of the exhibit with your more thoughtful images scattered throughout.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Short Questions And Answers

1. Can you stand a tripod in a river.
Answer: not if it's flowing at a reasonable rate - the turbulance of the water around even round tripod legs induces considerable vibration.

2. Should you leave image stabilzation on when using a tripod?
Answer: yes if you are using a relatively short exposure - say 1/30 second, no if it's anything longer than 1/4 second. Weird things happen to IS during long exposures, even if it is supposed to be tripod aware.

3. What do I do if specular highlights remain "blown" even when I shorten the exposure to the point the image is clearly way too dark?
Answer: specular highlights can be many stops brighter than the surrounding scene and are going to register pure white (as they should) no matter what you do. The only thing a shorter exposure will do is cut down a bit of the flare around the specular reflections so pick a reasonable compromize that won't threaten the rest of the image or do a two exposure blend, at most.

4. What is the best paper for black and white images?
Answer: for hand holdable 8.5X11 images I have absolutely no doubt that Harman FBAl is by far the best on a compatible printer (I have tested the Canon 5000 and Epson 3800). For larger images and especially images that are going to be framed behind glass, an art type matte paper can produce lovely results and there are lots to choose from - I happen to use Moab Entrada Bright White for sale prints and Epson Enhanced Matte (Ultra premium matte this week) for work prints. (it's cheap, can be loaded in trays or feeders, and I can pin a dozen images behind each other to the wall (my patients like flipping through the prints).

5. What's the best camera for serious landscape photography?
Answer: the best camera you can afford, the largest you can carry, with the sharpest lenses you can find. But remember, a good printer, decent monitor, monitor profiling divice, a good camera bag and a great tripod could easily be just as important so don't go overboard on the camera. Stitching is very easy for panoramic landscapes (or even for square images) so you don't necessarily need a huge number of pixels. Landscape photographers need sharp lenses, sharp all the way to the corner, but only at F8-16 - it is rare for a landscape photographer to need to shoot at a wide aperture so sharpness wide open is of no use to me and even a couple of stops down isn't that important. I'm really starting to appreciate live view. The number of pixels merely determines how big a print you can make but remember that the difference in print size between a 12 megapixel camera and 15 is very little.

5. What brand camera is best?
Answer: the one that doesn't annoy you with the way its controls work - quality differences amongst the top brands isn't enough to overide an irritating workflow, menu system, awkward grip or misplaced control for your hands.

6. Where should I display my prints?
Answer: any damn place that is willing to let you put them up - but start with home and workplace, then expand to restaurants, coffee shops, the local library, community hall, sports facility, etc. Don't forget washrooms as a possible place to hang a print - people actually have the time and peace and quiet to look at an image there. Movie theatres are a possibility as well as any offices visited by a fair number of people.

7. What should I photograph?
Anwser: absolutely anything that isn't something you think you should photograph because it will sell, look impressive on a resume, be arty, get you a reputation, be new for newness sake, etc. You can photograph things because you think they might produce interesting photographs even though you aren't inherently attracted to the subject, as long as the process of searching, composing, and editing images of this subject keeps or earns your interest.

8. Should I try to make money from my photography?
Answer: only if you are more interested in marketing than photographing. Mind you, the occ. sale sure is good for the ego but that's not the same as actually trying to make a profit, or using occ. sales to justify very expensive cameras.

9. What lens should I get next?
Answer: the lens that would be the most productive for the kind of photography you do, or want to do. A 400 mm. lens is nice, but if it ends up making only 1% of your good images and perhaps an even smaller percentage of your great images, do you really want to carry it around with you? Most people advise extreme wide angle lenses for landscape but I do my best landscape work with my 70-200 so go figure.

10. Which is better, a $2000 camera or a $1000 tripod?
Answer: if you assume that what you have now is a $1000 camera and a $200 tripod, then the tripod wins every single time - for the kind of work that you'd use more pixels, sharp pixels beats many pixels every single time.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


From below Elbow Falls, near Calgary.