This article is about finding method in madness, and coherence in confusion!
There are many articles out there in the photography world that ultimately talk about how to gain control: control over your equipment, over your model, over the shoot, over everything – to make the final perfect outcome. This article is a bit different. This article almost takes the reverse, examining how we might take a slightly different approach.
Successful photography in my opinion, insofar as ‘artmaking’, is keeping a seesaw balance between reason and whimsy.
You need a plan and a structure to make things work and to pull yourself out of a pit artists know well: procrastination. But if you place too much reliance upon logic, and try to force technical perfection, your creativity will droop and fail. Creativity is a birth: needing time, absence of pressure and an unexplainable force of nature. This article I wrote especially for Phlearn suggests how you might move closer to capturing and accommodating that ‘unexplainable force’.
I still remind myself that when I shoot, especially with a new model, I need to keep observing what that model’s strengths are, and how best to make something from them. Also, to observe how they are styled, and how that styling truly goes with the location in which we’re shooting, before I start trying to force something onto the situation (perhaps an idea I conjured up in my mind beforehand, or an idea I’ve always wanted to do) that might result in lacklustre images.
Amongst the various things I do as a photographer, one of the main things is running a shoot- out event called the Fashion Shoot Experience. In a nutshell, we hire out a big location and have a group of photographers come with us to shoot a selection of styled models. It’s a great creative day for everyone, including me, and I’ve learnt a lot from the intensive shooting. Our events are a perfect example of having to take stock of a scene quickly, because every photographer is thrown into a situation with new models, styled in a way they have not controlled, in a part of the location designated by us.
Time is ticking before we rotate models – so you have to think fast in that hour to make the most of it. If the model is particularly expressive I try to allow them to do their own thing, and save other ideas for a model who needs more direction – or for example, whose intricate hairstyling or tight dress may not allow for wilder impulses.
A great example is when, on one shoot event, I shot one model stealthily climbing over the props, looking extremely comic-heroine-like (above); and another model sitting and standing prettily with more intricate styling that called for her to pose more sedately, her face and hair perfectly doll-like (below).
When you first look through your pictures from any shoot, it’s likely that you’ve got zillions of shots, whether that’s because you were trying different things, trying to make the most of a rare situation, or just maxing out a new 64gb card. Of course, this is not the case for everyone, some people work to a tighter range.
But nearly every photographer will have to brace the outcomes not being exactly to their plan.
You may find yourself looking through images you intended to be a certain way, and being dismayed that they are not quite ‘that’ which you intended. Or, images that you took candidly at the end of the shoot might end up being your favourites. I get this all the time with my own work (literally, most times!) When I got back from three days’ shooting in New York, sifting through over 40gb worth of images, I felt like I didn’t have anything I liked. That’s the story of my life.
Some of my best images were produced from shoots I initially thought I didn’t have anything to show for: Migration Season (below) was shot on one of our fashion experiences in London, and this was my set-up with the last, fifth model. I had been flagging all day, and perked up on this one final shoot. Essentially, this one final blast produced the only substantial piece from me that day! But it was very popular beyond my expectation, was published in Vogue Italia and will now be exhibited as part of the Photo Vogue group exhibition in Milan. So, just give yourself a little time to digest your images and play with possibilities you may not immediately see. This advice goes for simple images as well as heavily composited outcomes.
Seek ‘the one’ (or few)
When you are sifting through a shoot, you will be looking for ‘the’ image – for example in a fashion shoot, you’ll be looking for the shot that shows the best of the model’s posing, the best lighting, a nice even exposure (no irrecoverable highlights), no creases in the outfit, absence of blur or distractions, even exposure with no blow-outs, tidy composition, and so on.
Well, you may have 100+ images that do have a variety of flaws, especially if you’re starting out in a new genre like fashion and you’re still getting used to what to look out for. But there will likely be at least one shot that works – and maybe it has flaws that can be fixed. Even creases in outfits can be smoothed out to some extent. Once you get the special one(s) in the bag (you only need a few to make a fashion story), who gives a toss about the many other crap ones you took that will never see the light of day? Whether you’re a fashion photographer looking for a range of images, or a fine-art photographer looking to make one single piece, there can be any amount of ‘excess’ that you don’t need from a shoot. Give yourself chance to find ‘the one’ (or few).
In an ideal world we’d like to be efficient with getting quality without having to wade through quantity – but in the meantime, just do as best you can. Efficiency is something I’m still working on – but not always because I struggle getting ‘what I want’ – rather, I change my mind about ‘what I want’ through the process of trying to complete it. (NB – I always keep all of my images from every shoot, I personally prefer to keep everything and never permanently delete an image unless it’s completely black or blurred beyond recognition. Disk space is cheap!)
It might all seem a bit blurry at first…
Don’t forget that it’s not always initially obvious which images are the ones to reject or approve.
An image’s worth comes partly down to taste after all, and tastes are different from one person to another, and also the individual’s taste changes through time.
And some images have flaws that are not so much flaws once you play with it in post-production. I am not necessarily advocating that you don’t try to ‘get it right in camera’ – that is, if you know what you are trying to achieve. But sometimes you will have taken a shot, whether through accident or purpose, that has a flaw - for example, it is over-exposed. Once opened in RAW however, and adjusted for exposure, you realise all the detail is in fact there. This happened to me with a shoot of a model by a window and very much surprised me! It’s more likely to happen with natural than artificial light.
L-r: first image shows the image ‘as shot’, which I didn’t think was any good. Second shot shows what happened when I brought the exposure slider all the way down in Camera Raw. By opening up a light exposure and a dark exposure from the same Raw file, I layered on over the other to blend the two with a layer mask and eraser in PS, thus achieving a more balanced image seen in the third image across, with the detail on the back intact and not blown out.
Further to that, a lot of my Surreal Fashion images are made from shots that weren’t earth- moving to begin with. Don’t get me wrong, I do prefer to work with shots that have a good foundation, but sometimes what makes a good ‘foundation’ is not necessarily a shot that was very interesting as a standalone image ‘out of camera’.
For example, my Surreal Fashion images tend to need space within the frame for the appendage of the fictional elements. And sometimes there’s a slight technical flaw: the focus is a tiny bit soft, the dress is not showing as well as I’d like, or whatever. But I don’t care – because something draws me to that picture. In the image below, I wondered what I liked so much about a shot of a woman leaning over a piano, with her outfit barely visible, and the piano incomplete in the shot. But something kept me interested: the textures, the hair, the ‘painterly’ aesthetic before I’d even done anything in PS.
Follow what you love
This is the most important point, but one that defies logic and reason, so it extends beyond the typical photography rules at the risk of sounding a bit irresponsibly un-technical. But to extend on the last point I gave, there’s a reason why sometimes I do follow through with those images that have a bit of a flaw to begin with. Or rather – there isn’t a reason. It’s just that I am compelled by that image in question. In life we all know that once you try to force something, or really ‘milk’ something, it doesn’t work. As an artist I feel that very firmly in the creation of my work, and why I feel so connected to my personal work. It’s why I feel so attached to a new piece of work – because I produced it from the heart. I pursued a picture or vision that just ‘did’ it for me.
Forget trying to be like any other artist, or follow any trend by doing something that is ‘in’ or ‘cool’. Otherwise, you could be on the road to self-destruction…
Point in case for the image I mentioned above, Dockyard Dreaming. After I recognised that it was a shot I liked, I wanted to play with taking it to a surreal level. With surreal composites, the world is your oyster, which can be a bad thing. First I knew I wanted to keep any additional elements fixed to a theme – a nautical theme to match the feel of the location where it was shot, the Master Shipwright’s House. I added elements to the image (the sea, the ship, the water drops) and tried lots of other things during the process too, but I expelled anything I added that just didn’t feel ‘right’. Whenever something feels forced, I get rid of it. That’s unless you have a client telling you what they want for the job you’re doing them.
But in art there’s no point doing something unless you love it and feel it.
Focus on the best, eliminate the rest
As a photographer who is often working without set plans, when I think about my process critically there is a process I can describe. When I’m shooting, I am driven by the things that truly interest me in the scene. I will follow those things so that by the end of the shoot I have a set of pictures that show me moving in and around the model, closer to the things I like, using different framing, direction and posing till I have got a good range I can properly examine later.
In processing, I go through the motions to highlight those pictures that do something for me, and ignore the rest for that moment. And then when I’ve chosen ‘the one’, and I’m perhaps building it into a composite, there will very often be a certain detail that has kept me going. That detail keeps me plugging away to make the whole image follow that one detail that I have fallen in love with. Often the image will ‘click’ when I get that detail right. Its purpose becomes valid and clear, and I feel the lovely conviction that this is going to work!
It’s ok to be confused!
What I am finding, through my own path in photography, is that it is ok to be confused. Confused at the time of the shooting, confused on looking through images, and confused even when starting to edit. What makes an ‘artist’ is the desire to persist to make shoots happen, continuing to gather new material and keep trying to produce outcomes from it, learning from each and every shoot. Not necessarily ‘learning’ a generic set of photography rules or standards; but learning about your own process – what makes you tick, and how to make your next piece that makes you tick.
Of course, some photographers need to feel in control right from when they turn on their camera. Some photographers work better to a more rigid plan. But for me, I have learnt that I need to allow myself to work on a subconscious level as well as a conscious one.
Interestingly, it bears a lot of relevance to the different functions of the right and left sides of the human brain, and a lot of what I have written may hint at the way in which the right side of the brain interacts with photography – the side more associated with emotion and intuition, as opposed to the left side which deals with logic and critical thinking. Sometimes amazing images are beyond our conscious rational mind – or more governed by the right side of our brain. You may be a photographer like me, who works best in this way; once you have the structure and logistics of a shoot organised, to let go and see what emerges.