Monday, November 24, 2008

Gimmie Some Gimmicks

The following post contains some technical references to photography equipment and techniques. Wherever possible links, definitions, or explanations have been provided.

If you browse through what's in vogue right now among mid-to-high-end wedding photographers, you'll see the following gear and techniques extremely well represented:

*Off-Camera Flash (either "strobist" or true studio-style lighting, often used to create extreme or surreal effects)

*Extremely large aperture lenses (used to generate extremely thin depth-of-field)

*Tilt-Shift Lenses (primarily used in weddings to create unusual focus shifts)

*Elaborate Photoshop Effects (IE: textures, simulated cross-processing, HDR or effects giving that appearance)

What do all of these popular stylistic tools have in common? They are all out of reach of most photo enthusiasts! Either by virtue of technical difficulty, expense, or both, the average person with a digital Rebel or D40 is unable to produce images with the looks achieved by tools like those listed above.

Back in the good ol' days of manual cameras the size and weight of cinder-blocks, it practically took a graduate degree in photography (not to mention some rockin' biceps) simply to manage a properly exposed and focused image. A wedding photographer could justify his existance simply by owning and competantly operating a Hasselblad, without being expected to produce anything terribly compelling.

In the modern digital era of autofocus, mostly-reliable auto-exposure, and instant feedback, anyone with a few hundred dollars can travel to their local Bestbuy and purchase the ability to achieve a technically adequate record of an event. This scares the heck out of wedding photographers, and has put many of them out of business. Those that have survived, or started their businesses in the modern climate, realize that one of their first requisites for a successful business is to produce images that the average consumer can easily differentiate from those shot by Aunt Margaret or Uncle Bob. Hence the ascendancy of techniques that create a very pronounced stylization of images in ways not open to the average hobbiest.

Now, many of the photographers reading this post have probably bristled by now: "are you calling my 85mm f1.2:L, 45mm TS-E, White Lightning 3200, or Totally Rad Actions pack a gimmick???"

Yes and no.

I use or have used any of the above tools when the situation and/or image calls for it. There's nothing wrong (and a lot right) with any of this gear or these techniques. However, if you study the work of brilliant photographers like Weston, Cartier-Bresson, Capa, or Penn, you can see that none of these tools is requisite to make a compelling image.

My problem is not with the use of these tools to make an image: my problem occurs when the desire to differentiate one's photographs from the amateurs' leads to an ascendancy of style over substance. When a wedding becomes a fashion shoot, when its difficult to find two eyes simultaneously in focus in an entire album, when proud papa's tearful expression is obscured by the torn wallpaper texture... then the time has come to question why we take these photos to begin with and who we are taking them for.

Despite all of the advancements of photographic technology, the most important functions of photography are still left to our organic computers. Timing, the ability to make a connection with a subject, an eye for composition, and the ability to find the good light are still beyond the reach of even those fancy new Nikon D3's. These qualities are crucial to truly great photography, even if they are slightly more subtle and difficult to market.

I'm not saying that I'll never overpower the sun again. I'm certainly not selling my 85L and wouldn't advise you to do so either. I'm simply suggesting that a photographer should ask the following question before using any technique:

"Am I doing this to make ME look cool, or my subject?"


Anonymous said...

Excellent post! I'm guilty as charged but believe myself to be a student. And always will be a student. It's just that some of those "gimmicks" are a quick way to set yourself apart... and that's important for business.

Deb said...

David Williams said, "make photographs of Wonderful People" -- don't focus too much on making wonderful photos of people. The focus is on the subject.

I am still finding my identity and style. I'm ok with this process taking a while. This blog is very inspiring!

Anonymous said...

Interesting observations (and great blog)! I'm not a wedding photographer, but I appreciate your dedication to your craft- still, the comparisons to Cartier-Bresson and Capa seem unfair as your work is much more constrained by time. I imagine that the gimmicks you mention also must result from the desire of the wedding photog to have reproducible results. Your more recent posts discuss experimentation, so I'm interested in seeing how far you're able to expand your creativity while also meeting the expectations of your clients...