Time to Press Reset!

MIDDLEBROOK heads off to Nepal with a bag full of technology and wonders what happened to the good old 3:2 aspect ratio

I am never quite sure what the publication dates of PP are, but I am guessing that by the time you read this I will be on a plane to Nepal. Right let’s see, have I got everything packed? I need two bodies, six lenses, two flashes, spare batteries, cards and chargers, a tripod and shutter release, two hard drives, a laptop… and a clean pair of pants.

Yesterday I headed to Republique in Paris to meet with a friend who is a photographer here, to ask if I could borrow a lens of his for the assignment, and we got talking about how ‘trips’ have changed over the years. I was trying to plan what I needed to cover everything off, but also consider the logistics involved. Digital is amazing — no doubts, yes siree — but boy do we have to take some kit with us these days. That Little lot will be 35kg on my back and when I leave the hotel for a day’s shoot, do I really want to be taking it all with me? I like to work quickly and with freedom, but three weeks in Nepal begs you to take most of what you have — so how do you safely operate without having everything nicked — and it will be monsoon season when I am there, so keeping it all dry will be a joy, but losing all your kit would be the real dampener.

It’s just one of the signs of how this industry moves inexorably forward, for better or worse, in sickness… I have had so many conversations with so many ‘photographers’ over the past couple of years, the old school and the new, and I realise more than ever that we are not the same — not in many values — and that we, the old school, are standing on the burning bridge whilst the ‘new’ long ago took flight and from their elevated position look down upon us and our old ways with pity and mock confusion. As I look up to them, the flames are barbequing my ankles, and I view them with mock confusion and… jealousy for their frivolous ways.

These things I am talking of were the bedrock; they were the laws. I frequently receive emails from people asking me to critique their images, and the first thing I do is Look at the Exif data — it is the DNA of an image today, and you can read much into the decisions, or Lack of, made by the photographer. Most images I receive are cropped, randomly, haphazardly, incongruously, but rarely honestly. A 3:2 ratio sensor is for me an almost sacrosanct canvass which forces us to distil the scene in front of us, distil the light, the form and the dynamics. It is the essential core skill of photography, or so I thought; how do I cope with the light across a range, at what ‘decisive’ moment do I press the shutter, what do I Leave in and what do I Leave out, where does my composition fall within the frame? I receive very few photographs that are 3:2, even though on reading the Exif data all the shots were originally taken in this format.

I was looking at the BBC In Pictures site the other day and suddenly realised that the images on display were not 3:2 but some other format. All the pictures I viewed were from Reuters or AP, AFP and Getty and the likes, so I can presume that the shots were all taken with 35mm or equivalent ratio DSLRs. I grabbed a screenshot, opened it in Photoshop and with the marquee tool randomly tried different ratios until I struck upon the winning formula — all the shots that appear on the BBC In Pictures website and their associate slideshows are cropped to 16:9, the standard format for HD video; it seems that the BBC at least have decided that this is the new format for all 35mm images. I like to imagine this as an arbitrary response, but I am sure it is not.

Why make such a fuss about these things, does it really matter; after all it is the final image that counts, it’s how we connect to those few million pixels in the end that defines the success of the photograph, surely? It poses for me a question about the complex but intrinsic relationship between the photograph, the photographer and the viewer. When we look at a painting or read a novel, we relate to the skill of the artist who created it, it is the identifiable personality that stamps its mark and makes a piece and its style unique. I have just read John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Mearty and on the front cover a review line reads: “A work of genius.» I have rarely read a flow of words, a narrative so richly rewarding and so identifiably the work of one person — a genius. Images have become commodities and the photographer has fallen along the wayside — they were the second person in the photograph but now they, and their style, are increasingly anonymous.

These rules, these values came about because of many things; some of which were forced upon us by the unique facets and limitations of the prevailing technology, while others were the hard-earned results of photographers finding an identifiable path whilst communicating in a hopefully honest way. I am always startled by how little is done in camera these days, how much of the decision making is done at the editing and post-production stage. An example is this: I change my saturation, colour tone and contrast settings in camera depending upon my subject matter; most don’t but if you have never used film you would have no particular reason to know that a different emulsion would elicit a different look and feel, and photographers choose their film stock based upon personal taste, subject matter and how the final image would be reproduced. So when I shoot landscapes I might imagine that I am using Fuji Velvia and up my saturation in camera, along with a little more contrast. In all of my conversations with people of late, no one does this, as indeed if you have never used film you would not understand that cropping was something we did through the lens at the time of capture, because it was complex to do it Later.

So we, ‘the old’, apply a different set of decisions when we work and I think we are being left behind. To me the word ‘professional’ was never about earnings, it was about a set of standards, professional standards. The association between professional and money only came about when the distinction was required in sports between those of an amateur status and those of an earning (professional) one — it was at that moment that the term became corrupted. When I think of Professional Photographer magazine, I should think of ‘values’ and not how one makes a living, even if in many ways the two should hopefully run in parallel As I see it, just because one makes a Living by such endeavours it does not infer that their values are professional. I always feel that a pro will be able to exact the absolute maximum from any situation regardless of how bad it is, whereas an amateur will succeed when everything is in their favour. It’s just my distinction but it’s born out of a belief that professionals should know their subject fully and can deal accordingly, whereas amateurs are comfortable working within a very narrow area of interest, and not beyond. The problem as I have begun to see it, is that practitioners and commissioners alike don’t often see that distinction, because an image is merely a commodity in production and value.

There has been a great deal of discussion recently over the extent to which photographers are or are not prepared to manipulate images (World Press Awards winner for example) and there is no room here to add to that debate. I will say this though; to me it appears that those who are coming into the market have far less regard for the values that gave the industry credibility than those who worked under the old system. In setting up my workshop/training website recently I researched the sites of other UK photographers across different genres who do training, to give me some pointers. What was most dear to me was this; photographers who have been doing this for just a few short years seem to quite openly talk about masking this or removing that, and when you look at their images they certainly seem superior — where photographers who have done this professionally for a Long old time appear to me, to display their images as taken in camera give or take a bit of contrast and colour control. One reasonably well-known photographer from the ‘new school’ even talked about spending hours removing the airplane contrails from one of his landscapes, and thus immeasurably improving the image. I for one like contrails but regardless, has this now become acceptable? And if professional photographers talk of painting in new skies to improve an image, what message are we sending to every new inductee into this profession?

I am not going to sit here as some sanctimonious ‘old school’ hypocrite; everyone does a certain amount of post-production, everyone. I know very few photojournalists who don’t add a certain amount of vignette to somehow further emphasise lens fall off for example (photojournalism seems to HAVE to have vignetting before it is considered part of its genre) and even the most credible systems in the world are manipulation — consider Ansell Adam’s Zone System — to some degree; as is the choice of our emulsion, and in fact the precise moment we press the shutter is hardly pure and objective to the subject or us. All I know is this, when images are randomly cropped by institutions that are the embodiment of trust, and photographers openly teach cloning and masking, then it’s probably time for all of us to sit down and press reset!

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