Saturday, 20 February 2016

Wisdom of the crowd part deux

Less than popular

Previously I had written about judging the merits of your own photo and the dangers of asking the opinion of others.

Last night we had another selection evening for the MPS, this time for our upcoming competition against Derby. As always I dutifully put in my 3 DPI's and 3 Prints to be part of the selection process ,where the top 15 in both category go forward to represent the club society.

Now recently there has been some controversy in the club about how we choose images for external competition. It used to be via a show of hands, but that was thought (rightly) that it benefited those with the biggest personalities in the club. So the club now uses a system of blind voting, where each member can tick the images they like with the top 15 going through.

So how many of my images got voted through...

Well in round numbers .....0, nada, zilch

What was more disturbing to me was that when I looked at the overall number of votes, was how few marks I actually got. While the top images got 18, some of mine only garnered 2 (and one of those votes was mine).

So what does that say about my images.

Well obviously they were not popular with the club membership (remember there were no limits on the number of votes a member could cast). However the real question is, just because they were not popular, does that make them bad?

One of the issues of such a blind voting system is that people tend to get get drawn to certain categories of photographs in which they are comfortable. In these situations a great picture of a puffin or a nice landscape is almost always likely to triumph. In fact when the results were collated it stood out that we had a surfeit of landscapes over say portraits.

Of course lack of popularity should not be the final arbiter of an images quality. I am currently doing the MOMA Cousera course on photography  and wonder how images from some of those now held as greats of photography, such as Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand would do, if entered in a club competition today? Again would  such a failure somehow invalidate the esteem their work is held in?

So should I just throw my hands in the air in a huff and blame the audience for not having the wit to understand my artistic merits?

Of course not.

To do so would be presumptive in the extreme. Firstly I would be making the assumption that my work has actual artistic merit, rather than the audience seeing the flaws that I cannot. Without any backlog of successful work as a foundation I have no basis to claim any superiority over those judging it. Secondly by assuming that I know best, I refuse the opportunity to learn from my failings.

But should I eschew any attempt at popularity?

This is a difficult one. I feel we should not compromise our photography to just pander to the collective. On the other hand creating a photograph that resonates with a wider audience is a skill that also needs to be mastered like any other artistic technique. The challenge is to balance the need  for self expression and how much you restrain yourself to take in account the needs and desires of the audience.

Without this, there is always the danger of slipping pseudo intellectualism, and the blind artistic alleys that this will lead.

So again we need to learn from failure and look again at aspects of our work. Specifically what are elements of a photograph that make it stand out to a crowd.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Why did they take that?

Last night we had our Annual inter club competition between MPS and Ashby photographic club. where we pit the 30 of the best prints and DPI's as chosen by the members in an open category.

The club membership had only deemed one of my photos worthy, which was disappointing but fair enough. However it at least it allowed me to have some cards in the game, so to speak.

The image that was selected was the one of hammer smashing a light bulb

As it was my image was one of the 1st to come up and I was eager to hear the advice that the judge had to impart...

Judge :- "This image is technically very good"

Me : - "good start" I thought

Judge :- "But I can't see why they took it"

Me :- "WTF!!!" I thought

In the end the image was awarded 14 marks which was the lowest mark the judge made all competition. What was worse was that this was the only time the judge made that comment, so either he was not being consistent in his marking, or there was something specific about my image he could not relate too.

Now normally I tell myself to let judges comments slide off me like water of a ducks back, but I must admit this one really got under my skin and I let it affect the rest of the competition and the inevitable pub post-mortem.

So much so, that I did something I rarely do in competitions and actually questioned him later about his comments.

His explanation was that he had been reading a book by Susan Sontag, the long time partner of the legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz. In this the author had said that if something does not connect to you directly then it is worthless.

To me this is a difficult concept to understand. If we consider anything we do not understand or relate to as worthless, we are setting ourselves up as the ultimate arbitrator  of worth. If we do this, we are denying the chance that someone has seen something that we have not and therefore closed our mind to the chance of learning.

For example, there were a number of images last night that I could not understand why the photographer had taken them, or what the photographer was trying to relay. But rather than closing my mind to them, it made me curious to investigate and work out  why some saw things I could not. That is the way we learn; not by pretending that all that is closed to us is worthless, but by accepting that we must always re-evaluate our opinions and prejudices

Now maybe it is a requirement for a judge to remove ambiguities from their opinion, so that they can have clarity in their judging. However to me it is disappointing that a judge cannot move beyond their personal opinion and try and put themselves  in the photographers shoes.

Again I think the most disappointing thing is that the same comment could be said of many images last night and many images generally. Personally I cannot understand why anyone would take the same image of the millennium bridge in London, which has been photographed many times or a "bird on a stick" (however competently done).  However I am willing to accept that to they have a reason for taking it.

Saying that the one thing I probably would of changed last night was the name of the photo because it perhaps would of more clearly identified my reason for taking the image. However since the judge freely admitted he took little notice of the title, it would of made little difference in the result.

The judges other comment was that he felt the image did not add anything to the genre. Well here I am guilty as charged (a little judge joke there). However in my defense, if that is the criteria we judge images, 95%  of competition images should be thrown away now.

You rarely see anything in a competition which even pushes boundaries, never mind breaks them. Be it a photo of a waterfall, a picture of a mountain, a bird on a stick, or a portrait; in almost all occasions I have seen it done before and better. However that does not in anyway devalue the image.

Also this is the nature of competitions. Photo presented have been filtered in most part via the opinions of the member. Unfortunately it is also true that most images are chosen on the basis of how well they will do in the competitions. This has a tendency to remove the outliers because they are considered to risky in such a context.

If there were genre breaking photos, they are almost certainly been removed from the pile a long time ago like a dangerous mutation is removed from the gene pool.

However I did take some things away from last night.

Firstly is a realisation that while it is important that you learn from the great masters of art, you should not follow their advice blindly. After all we have no context to understand how they came to their opinions. Instead we should only use it to test our givens in the hope that it might reveal new insights, perhaps ones which are unique to you as an individual.

Secondly, judges opinions, while valued, are just that one persons opinions. They have a more value doe to their experience, but if you let yourself  be led purely by those opinions you just become the equivalent of a fake Rolex. Good but a poor copy of the original.

So you have two choices. Follow the accepted opinion, or have the courage to follow your own path. One way is harder, but ultimately more rewarding.

I know which way I'm going...

P.S the club one the competition last night

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Weather for ducks

Even ducks get sick of rain

Had my 1st opportunity yesterday to go out with my new toy, my 150-600 Tamron zoom.

Now I know this blog is about photography on a budget and such lenses are expensive, but I had my reasons for getting this lens.

Firstly I had a windfall that had to be used before it was frittered away with life essentials. Secondly this lens is fantastic value (so I told the wife anyway). To get this sort of reach, normally you are looking at 2 or 3 times the cost. Thirdly, you sort of know when you need a certain lens because you are constantly frustrated by the inability to do what you want.

In the last case, my longest lens was 300mm, which was just too short for decent wildlife shots.

On the downside, apart from the cost, is that for this price you are not going to get a really fast lens. Also this is quite a specialist piece. It is not a lens you would carry every day so limiting its use. Finally annoyingly it appears that Sony lens always cost 10/20% more than the equivalent Canon/Nikon lens from the same manufacturer. This is despite unlike the Canikon models it does not have the optical stabilisation(Sony A-Series have it built in ).

I've had the lens for about 3 weeks now, but my chances of trying it out have been limited by circumstance and weather. Taking pictures at birds in the garden through double glazing were never going to show the lens in its best light(sic). So the only thing I managed to take a photo off was my perennial target, the moon, Saying that, the results were quite impressive.

However yesterday I had a chance to go on a photography session at a local nature reserve at Attenborough so I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to try it out.

Of course I was hoping for good light. What we actually got was par for the course this winter which was torrential rain. So it wasn't exactly perfect conditions. However despite this the results  were really quite good.

The extra reach really helped to get photos I would never of managed before. The downside were that because this was not that fast and the light was awful, I was forced to push the ISO higher than I wanted so had more noise.

The other impressive thing is the speed of the zoom and focusing, plus how quiet it is which is essential for birding.

In terms of handling, I had taken a monopod, but in the end I found I could handhold it or rest it on the  hide wall quite well. The downside is that it is a big lump to carry around and because of the weather I was forced to have the camera under the coat most of the time which definitely was not comfortable and probably made me look a bit weird. Also this is not a camera to take photos of birds in flight easily.

I did buy a sling strap for it, but I have not built up enough courage to risk it with such an expensive bit of kit, but in the long term I will have to use it if I go out a lot with this lens

Anyway here are some of the results

A young Grebe from the hide.

A red crested pochard. This was a bit of a cheat, since this is obviously a escapee and relatively tame, but the long lens allowed me to get far greater detail

A tufted duck. Not rare but nice to get close in

Probably the best 'bird on a stick' image that I have ever taken. A still subject, plus the extra reach really helped. This was handheld, even so it is sharp. The bokeh is nice too, being blurred but not indistinct.

An Egyptian goose giving me the evil eye

A female mandarin duck

A long range shot of a Goldeeye. While no a keeper, no way would I have got anything close to this before

Similarly a pair of widgeon


For the money this lens is fantastic value. While it is not going to get you the same image quality as a fast prime, in good light it will deliver and at the same time give you the flexibility a zoom provides.

However this is not a lens you carry around all the time. It is bulky and large. A sling type strap is essential to carry comfortable and a rain cover is useful too.

So all in all i am very happy with the lens. All I need know is the opportunities to use it in good weather

Thanks to Iain McMillan for spending the morning with us and providing advice, feedback and humour on a pretty awful day weather wise

P.S if anyone finds a Lens case at Attenborough its mine!