Today we continue our Morocco tour as we venture into the Sahara Desert for some beautiful photography in this exotic land.
As I sat down to prepare for this episode, with the memory of Morocco slowly fading into the past, I thought that I could probably wrap this up with today’s ten images, and move on to something else next week. Fortunately for us, photographs are a wonderful thing. I went through my remaining three stars and higher photos, hitting the Q key on my keyboard, as that’s the key I have assigned the shortcut to, to drop the currently selected image into a folder that I’ve specified as my Selects Collection.
Well, even though I was being somewhat selective, a few minutes later I had 49 images in my collection that I still want to talk about, so I guess wrapping this up today is out of the question. I will try to whittle it down to just twenty more images though, so that we can finish this series next week, in the final episode of 2018.
A Five-Stringed Sintir?
The first image that I wanted to talk about, was of the hand of a musician as he plucked away at what I believe is called a Sintir or a Guembri, but these are supposed to have only three strings, and in this photo there are two darker colored strings that seem to be beneath the three main strings. The instrument was obviously hand-made though, so maybe he just added a couple of string to build on the capabilities of a traditional Sintir.
I left my shutter speed down at 1/125 of a second for this shot, because I wanted to record some of the movement in the hand to show how energetic the playing was. You can hear the instrument being played in the music that I’ll play in the audio as I record this (Listen with the player above).
My other settings for this image were f/5 for a shallow depth of field at ISO 100, with a focal length of 85mm, with my Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens. You know, I was never too concerned about adding the EF mount designation when describing my Canon lenses, but as I now also own and will be talking about the new RF 24-105mm lens, I guess I’d better start making a point of which type of lens I’m referring to.
The steel castanet type instruments that you can hear and also see in this next image are called karkabou. The Sintir is also a traditional three-stringed Sintir in this shot too, so you can see what the entire instrument looks like. I thought it was nice that the kids are starting to get into what is probably a family business, and you’ll be glad to know, if you think about these things like I do, that it was a Sunday when we visited these musicians, so the kids weren’t being kept out of school to play in this band.
It’s a lovely experience to be able to listen to this music and to photograph the musicians at close quarters as well. My settings for this image were 1/320 of a second at f/5.6, ISO 100 with my focal length still at 85 mm.
Later on the same day, we drove to the camp of some nomad people, where I photographed this young man in his black turban. I’ve actually darkened down everything except his eyes, because the eyes are what I really want to draw attention too, but I realize that in doing this I’m creating a somewhat sinister looking character, especially from a western perspective where we tend to associate this kind of headwear and covered face with terrorists.
I don’t want to allow that to stop myself from using this image though, because in the desert, this is really just their way of keeping the heat of the sun of their heads and the sand out of their ears, mouths, and noses.
I also can’t deny that there is a part of me that also just wants to work with the image like this, to fly in the face of common thinking, where this kind of image might cause fear or concern, when the reality is that this is just a kind young nomad sitting for us to photograph him in exchange for a small financial reward.
My settings were a 1/640 of a second shutter speed at ISO 100 with an aperture of f/3.2, again, with my 85mm lens.
Camping in the Dunes
The first night that we spent in the Sahara was in a large lodge, with big rooms, but to get ourselves situated for a camel ride out into the dunes, before we continued to photograph on this day we’d moved to our luxury tents, just far enough from the lodge for us to feel as though we had the Sahara to ourselves.
We spent an hour or so to settle into our tents, before regrouping to mount our camels and then ride deeper into the Sahara looking for a nice spot to photograph the camels with their handlers, as we’ll see in the next few images.
This first shot shows our camel handler taking his first walk up into the dunes, making the first footprints, so we wanted to make sure that everyone was ready before we started shooting here. We walked through the strategy and what we were going to do before we asked the camel handler to walk into the dunes. My settings here were a 1/320 of a second at ISO 320 at f/10, and a focal length of 100mm with my Canon EF 24-105mm Mark II lens.
The Brow of the Dune
This next photograph is just moments later, as the camel handler reached the top of the sand dune that I’d asked him to walk up. We had to call out to get him to walk a bit faster because the camels were starting to bunch up, and it looks much better if you can get a little bit of separation between the camels, like this.
Although I’m overall quite happy with most aspects of this photo, there is often something, a tiny detail or two in a photo that really appeals to me. In this photo, it’s the sand whipping up along the back edge of the dune that the camels are walking on, and also how the sand is whipping off the brow of the dune in the middle on the far left of the frame.
We were lucky to get a good bit of wind for this shoot, and we used it to good effect in some other photos that we’ll look at shortly, but I do recall pulling sand out of my ears for at least a day after finishing this shoot. My settings for this image were a shutter speed of 1/250 of a second at ISO 320 with an aperture of f/10 at 182mm. I had my 100-400mm Mark II lens on a second body and was switching between them as necessary.
Although we had three camel handlers with us, I found that from this first shoot, when we had two of them walk their camels up a dune and then back again, my favorite three images were of the same man with his camels, because he had the least footprints in his shots. The second guy was no longer walking through virgin sand, and the images just don’t look quite as good. They’re usable, but when you’re trying to whittle down a selection, it’s a good reason to move on to the next shot.
Here we see the first camel handler coming back, and I really like how he and his camels are mostly against the dark band of shadow on the dune behind them. I’ve actually darkened down the shadows a little more with the levels and tone curve in Capture One Pro, just to increase the overall contrast and to stop the dunes looking a little washed out. My settings for this were ISO 800 for a 1/250 of a second at f/14, with a focal length of 227mm.
One thing to note here is that the use of the 100-400mm lens at 200 millimeters or so really helps to compact the elements in the frame, stacking the distant sand dunes up, making them look like they are much closer than they did in the first shot that I shared from this location. We had hardly moved between these shots, but the distant dunes appear much closer and more importantly larger in this image because I’d changed my focal length from 100 mm to 227 mm.
Waiting for Sunset
From this point for a while, we had some time on our hands as we needed to wait for the sunset, before finishing our shoot. We had the peak of a dune running to the right of the spot you see in these last three images, that we were hoping to have the camels walk along with the sun on the horizon behind them, and we were slightly mortified when three tourists strolled past on their own camels, but they made for a good photo, and from the angle that we were going to shoot, we could live with their footprints.
The other great thing about having a little time on our hands, was that we were able to photograph our three camel handler models relaxing initially, as you can see in this image.
Again, I like how the sand is being whipped up along the brow of the sand dune in front of the camel handlers. It’s also a nice illustration of how their headwear is used to also keep the sand out of their ears and mouths, as I’d mentioned earlier. My settings for this image were ISO 320 for a 1/320 of a second at f/10, with a focal length of 400mm.
Turban in the Wind
As I mentioned earlier, we were able to have some fun with the wind, as you can see in this next image. We asked our camel handler models to first take off, then put their turbans back on allowing them to blow in the wind.
It was great that the wind was strong enough to get their turbans out almost horizontally, and with these men looking into the sun they have great catchlights in their eyes as well. I have lots of these images, but we’ll just look at a couple of different variations after this. My settings here were ISO 500 for 1/320 of a second at f/10, and a focal length of 263 mm.
The Turban and the Cloud
Perhaps a little bit cliche, but we couldn’t help but ask the camel handler to go to the top of the dune as well, so that we could shoot him against this wonderful big cloud that had formed up there. I can’t help thinking of romantic classics like Lawrence of Arabia when looking at photographs like this.
The contrast was actually a little bit harsh, but the Shadows slider at 100 in Capture One Pro helped to pull back a lot of light in the face of the man, so I’m pretty happy with this photo. My settings were ISO 250 for 1/320 of a second at f/10, and a focal length of 300 mm.
While we had the opportunity, we asked another of the camel handlers to also go to the top of the dune, and this time photographed him sitting down with his turban blowing in the wind.
This time I decided to crop the image to a 16:9 ratio to give it a more cinematic feel, and that also enabled me to reposition the man towards the top of the frame, which makes him look higher up, with less space above his head. My settings for this image were ISO 400 for a 1/250 of a second at f/10, and a focal length of 400 mm.
Although we used the time that we had waiting for the sunset pretty well, I need to keep you waiting for the sunset now, because that’s our ten images for this episode, so we’ll start part four with some camels in the sunset, as we walk through our final ten images from this year’s Morocco tour and workshop.
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Creativity is something that most people struggle with, and for good or bad, technology has changed everything in recent decades, and this is adding to the problem for some but is incredibly enabling at the same time. The digital age has created its own unique dilemmas, and as we’ll continue to explore today, you’ll see that photographers are not alone in this.
I got a bit carried away with this topic, so I’ve split it into two parts. If you didn’t already check out part one, you can find it here.
We Get Excited by the Equipment (13:34)
OK, so I’m still only 13 minutes into this conversation between musicians on Ableton.com, and finding so many parallels that I am not making much progress, so I’m going to pick up the pace a little, otherwise this would end up being a four part series. At this point though, Young Guru mentioned how easy it is to get excited by the equipment, and that’s exactly the same for many photographers.
I don’t care how much people talk about photography not being about the gear, on some level it is always going to be about the gear. We can’t make a photograph without some gear. Of course, I agree that you don’t need the best gear to make beautiful photographs, but we all use gear in our work, and at some level, we enjoy that gear, so let’s get over the “it’s not about the gear” statements.
KORG Triton Taktile Keyboard/Synthesizer
Guru also mentions how the limitations of early equipment made us creative. This is also true of photography. I think it’s great when we are given new tools that help us to overcome previous limitations, but when limitations are there, I think we enjoy finding ways to overcome them, and the art we create in the process can be liberating. I’m not a fan of HDR photography, but look how popular that became, despite it really just being a way of overcoming the relatively compact dynamic range of early DSLR cameras.
You could argue of course, that it would have been possible to capture the majority of HDR photographs that have been created now with one frame, but at some point, it became more about the resulting look than about overcome the limitation. When I talk to students these days that I see habitually making HDR images, I ask them if the process is feeding their creativity. If the act of shooting multiple frames and merging them together and tone-mapping, or the final look is a part of what get’s the photographer out there, then it’s a good thing.
Digital Doesn’t Sound (Look) As Good! (14:09)
Guru talks about the analog guys and how they say that digital sounds so crappy. You’ve heard this too, right? The film shooter that will try to tell you that the quality of a 35mm negative or positive slide is better than digital. Yes it was, until we hit about 10 megapixels, and then the tables turned. The resolution that we can get from a digital photograph captured with quality lenses is absolutely cleaner than a scanned negative or slide. The latest bodies at 36 and 50 megapixels provide us with images that surpass the resolution of medium format film cameras.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the images are the same. You could argue that there is a certain quality about a film photograph, and in some cases there is, and medium format has totally different optics creating a different look, but you can record that look cleaner with a high resolution medium format digital back than a film back. There is a quality in film that keeps it relevant, and again, if the process feeds your creativity, then go with it, but be happy with your process, rather than trying to tell digital photographers that the quality is not there in digital.
The Process of Playing Became Important to Generate Ideas (18:44)
Phoebe Kiddo mentions that although she likes the cleanness of digital music, she still finds that the process of playing is really important to generate ideas. This is exactly what we were talking about in part one. You have to create to be creative.
Become Good at Problem Finding as Well as Solving!
Phoebe also said that you need to be good at problem finding as well as problem solving. This is golden. Most photographers become pretty good problem solvers, especially when the solution is a nice new shiny piece of equipment, but also as we work in the field. You might have a great subject with a killer composition, but something is missing, so we slap on a neutral density filter and make a long exposure and we remove distractions, as an example. But a lot of the time, understand that there is even a problem that needs solving in the first place, is the largest part of the battle to create better photographs.
Learning the Tools (20:25)
Then, Phoebe goes on to mention how important it is to learn your tools, and also restrict the number of tools that you try to learn, because there is now such a huge range to work with.
This applies to photography when it comes to the importance of learning our tools. I have worked with people in the field that lose opportunities because they don’t understand their tools. In a workshop environment, that’s fine, especially when they let me know and I’m able to help them understand a technique, but when you are out there trying to capture something, the last thing you want to be doing is fumbling with your camera trying to figure out what settings you need or how to change those settings.
The great thing about photography though, is that the main settings are common to whatever camera we’re using. The relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO is based on physics and light, and is pretty much unchanged regardless of the camera, so once you know how to change these settings, you can start to use a camera. There are various other features that we need to understand, but when I get a new camera, the first thing I do is sit down for an evening and read the manual, so that I understand how to use any new features that have been introduced.
With music, especially digital music, the instruments can be incredibly complicated. I can waste hours trying to figure out how to send the breath control of my AKAI Professional EWI5000, an electronic wind instrument, to software on my computer. One of the problems is that we can’t see audio, so how it is channeled through the instrument and on the computer gets really confusing really quickly. Keyboards and synthesizers get really complicated as well. This is partly because it’s not what I do, but as a hobbyist, it’s really easy to get lost. So, limiting your tools and really understanding them I think is perhaps more important with digital music than photography.
AKAI Professional EWI5000 (Electronic Wind Instrument)
The result is though, as Phoebe says, the better you understand your tools, the more easily you are able to iterate your ideas. Also the tools themselves start to change the process. I think this is also true for photography. Sometimes a certain camera will feed your creativity in more ways than others. A Leica or some less conspicuous mirror-less cameras for example, are great street photography cameras, and probably become much more a part of the creative process than a regular DSLR might.
We’re Not Here to Just Tinker With Things (22:55)
Guru talks about the importance of actually making music. Unless you are an engineer, let’s not get stuck too much in learning every single detail of the tools from the beginning. First we should sit down and make music with whatever we have, then as we become better at making music, we’ll further learn the tools and how they can help us to improve our music. He goes on to say, “Let’s not forget what we’re here for. We’re not here to just tinker with things.”
Exactly! As the Internet makes so much information available to us, I have come across lots of people with very serious cases of analysis paralysis. It becomes an obsession to learn about every technique and technology available. Now, I don’t want you to think I’m contradicting myself here. Yes, it’s important to learn, and yes, if you enjoy the learning process, then invest as much time as you can into that pursuit, but do not let the learning become the goal.
The goal is to learn enough to get started, and then start. Once you are making photographs, you’ll quickly start to hit problems that need solving, and need to learn something else. As your creativity kicks in more you’ll understand what other parts of the puzzle you need to fill in, but you really have to be doing it to fully understand your path of progression.
The Importance of Listening (25:19)
Matthew Herbert talks about the importance of listening as a way to understand music and hone your craft. In photography, we cannot learn in a vacuum. Looking at other peoples’ work is really important. We don’t necessarily have to emulate that work, although that too can be a good learning exercise, but looking at other photographs helps us to appreciate photography and helps us to build our mental database of possibilities. I think it keeps us sharp, and can also make us hungry. If we see a killer photograph, for me at least, it makes me want to grab my camera and go and shoot something cool too. Or start to plan a project that may not be the same, but hopefully equally creative.
Music is Now Just a Form of Waste (26:27)
James Holden made the statement that there is so much music already, is it really worth polluting the pool with more. He continues on the important point of collaboration, following on from an earlier point from Herbert, and how meeting and working with others gives his work more purpose. Herbert says that we have to accept that music is now a form of waste! We’re just spewing it out and nobody is listening any more. He quoted a statistic from someone from Apple that 75% of the content in iTunes has never been downloaded once.
This is probably for me one of the saddest parts of this conversation. In some ways, I’d say that this is pretty much the same for photography, but the main difference is that photography in it’s easiest form is literally as simple as pointing your phone or camera at something and snapping away. Every one of those snaps doesn’t end up in iTunes though. For someone to go to the trouble to make a piece of music takes much more work than thoughtlessly snapping a photograph.
It’s a Lot Easier Now to Get into Making Music (28:35)
DeSantis poses the question, “If the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) segment of Beat Port is so completely saturated, why is so much music being fed into this machine?” Guru comes back with “Because the access is there and it’s a lot easier now to get into making music. There’s no step, and there are positives and negative to that.” He also says that at same time as we complain about how easy it is to make music now, we asked for this.
Guru goes on to say, “If we want the freedom to be able to upload our songs to the Internet, everyone else is going to have that same access, so now the trick is to figure out how to get above the noise.” He reflects on the importance now of working to get people to your web site or over to iTunes, and he enjoys that process. But if you don’t understand that, as a musician these days, you’re going to be lost.
Sound familiar? I hear this from photographers all the time today. Figuring out how to get noticed and become or even remain important in the photography world is just as big a dilemma to us as it is to musicians, if not more so, because as I say, it’s even easier to make a pretty photo these days that it is to record a whole song. I’m not going to go into my ideas as to how to achieve this, partly because you are reading or listening to part of my answer, but also because I think there are as many answers as there are photographers, but I love thinking about the similarities between music and photography in this respect.
The main answer to this from Guru was to figure a way to do something different. If everyone is doing one thing, do something else. If everyone starts to use the same effect, use something else. Honestly, this is one reason why I have avoided HDR. Too many people use the technique. Plus, it’s too much trouble for me, and I’d prefer for my images to be appreciated for what they are, rather than an effect. I’ve nothing against HDR in other peoples’ work, but it’s not for me.
Live Life (33:23)
Phoebe talks about the important of living life, because it’s these aspects of yourself from other arts or experiences that make your work different. She goes on to talk about how important it is to understand convention and the rules in order to know how to break them. This is also very important in photography. Also, Phones talks about deciding on an aesthetic preference for each project. You don’t have to stick with this for life, but for each record for example. Naivety is also great as it can lead to happy accidents. A lot of young producers create definitive work through not really knowing what they “should” be doing.
Taping Fingers Together to Avoid Playing Too Many Notes (39:18)
Matthew Herbert relays a story about a friend who tapes some of his fingers together to avoid playing too many notes, and hence be different. You’ve heard about people taping a lens at a certain focal length, or only using one prime lens, right? These practices are common between both disciplines, although I feel it would be a little bit more limiting for a pianist.
Herbert also talks about the biggest opportunity of his career, which was to write a piece to be performed on British television, as a celebration of British Jazz, and as he was on tour at the time, he found himself with just three and a half hours to write the piece, from start to finish, including creating a manuscript for delivery. This of course again relates to the value of healthy pressure and its affect on the creative process. Sometimes a deadline or other restriction can be just what you need to pull your creative chords for you.
How Original One Can Be and Authenticity (41:17)
Towards the end, a listener asks a question about originality and authenticity. Guru replies with one of my favorite statements from this conversation. “I can be original all day—everything is different. Every day is completely different. People say that everything under the sun has already been done, but that’s BS. This day hasn’t happened, so you can figure out a way to make those three chords sound completely different from what somebody else is doing and make it your own. Make it original. I don’t like that people say you can’t be original. You absolutely can be original in everything that you do, every single day. The vibration is never the same. If one more person walks into this room it changes the vibration. There is always room to be different.”
This is a very eloquent way of saying something that I’ve said many times over the years. Yes, it’s important to try to be different, but I also think that we bring ourselves to our work, and even if we photograph a scene that has been photographed a million times, we bring ourselves to the scene. Our photographs always contain both what’s in front of the camera, and what’s behind it.
From Presets to Originality (43:30)
There’s another listener question about going from using presets to becoming original. In digital music, it can at first be really difficult to make a synthesizer sound the way you want, so generally people start with presets, but then after a while, they start to tweak the presets or create their own presets from scratch, because if you don’t, you end up using instruments that sound just like everyone else.
The same trap is right here in photography, if you get caught up using presets, if you don’t modify them to your needs and your own taste. Likewise, they are a great way to learn new settings, but I believe that presets should be used more as an means to educate yourself on the possibilities of your software, so that you can understand what the various settings do, and then move on to your own settings from scratch, and finding your own voice. Even if you then save a preset of your new settings, you’ll rarely want to simply blindly apply that to all of your images. They are starting points, not generic fix-all tonics for your photos.
How do You Know When it’s Time to Release Work? (47:30)
The second to last question was about knowing when it’s time to ship, to release work for public consumption. Should we put the work out to keep the flow going, or do we give in to the fear of never feeling as though something is really finished, and therefore keeping it to yourself. Guru’s answer is that a piece is finished when it represents you or you got the emotion out. Some people don’t want to commit for fear of criticism.
It’s not always necessary for your work to be loved by everyone. In fact, I’d say that this is impossible. It’s definitely important to listen to critique, especially from people who’s opinions we trust, but I don’t think it’s necessary to adjust your work to try to please others. To me our work should first and foremost please ourselves. If you can get any photograph to the point where you are truly happy with it, it’s ready to show to people. Also though, there are times when we know it’s not 100% but we have to show it to people to get the feedback required to make it or future work better. Both of these things are going to help us to move forward, but keeping our work on our hard drive and never releasing it doesn’t take us anywhere.
Guru goes on to say that if you don’t put your work out there, you become like Vivian Maier, the prolific and incredibly talented street photographer who’s work was only discovered after she’d died. “The music is for people. Put it out!”, says Guru.
Happy Accidents and Flow (50:42)
The last question was about making mistakes that lead to something great. Sometimes the things that we create are somehow beyond us. Matthew Herbert says that he would be hard pressed to tell us how he created most of his music, because it happened so fast. He finishes a whole piece in an hour and a half. It’s about surrender and abandoning one’s conscious self. Guru adds that it’s not necessary to interpret it as a mistake. It might be something that was not intended, but if you get an emotional response from someone else, that’s a great thing.
You know, when I have to create something, sometimes I can feel pressured. The thought that I have to be creative to order can be paralyzing. But when I pick up the camera, or sit at the computer to write an article, generally, it starts to flow, and before I know it I have something that either matches or hopefully surpasses my expectations. It’s times like this when I believe we’re in that state of flow in which we are at our most creative. It doesn’t always come easily, but you know what, it doesn’t come at all if you don’t start doing what you have to be creative at.
Camera and Keyboard
OK, so that takes us to the end of the video, so I’d like to relay some final thoughts. It was refreshing to note just how many similarities both of these creative pursuits share. My main observation was how both music and photography have been hurt to a degree by the digital revolution. But if we think about it, I truly believe that the changes we’ve seen in recent decades have opened more doors than they’ve closed.
For some, I know that doors were slammed shut in your face, and there are absolutely less traditional photography related jobs around now than there were 10 to 15 years ago, but the truly creative artist, and more importantly sometimes, the creative business person, has made the most of these new opportunities. I saw opportunities in photography that only opened up to me as the industry changed.
I would not be in business today if it was not for the new technology that enabled me to blog and podcast and reach thousands of people each week with this content. It was simply not possible twenty years ago, and it was barely possible eleven years ago when I started this podcast.
We decide how we deal with change. We can bury our heads in the sand and pretend nothing is happening until someone takes the sand away as well. We can sit around complaining and lamenting the good old days. Or we can accept the new and if possible welcome it with open arms. I can’t say that it’s always easy to make a living from creative pursuits, but it’s more satisfying than anything else I’ve done to make a living so far in my life.
I also think it’s fun to see how the lower cost of entry and abundance of information about both photography and music are flooding the market with content, and making it more difficult to stand out from the crowd. But really, considering what we have right now, would you really like to turn the clocks back 20 years and stop digital photography from happening? I know I wouldn’t. We live in amazing times, and that brings incredible opportunities for both the professional and hobbyist alike. Let’s continue to enjoy the ride, living life to the full, and feeding all of our experiences back into our photography.
Creativity is something that most people struggle with, and for good or bad, technology has changed everything in recent decades, and this is adding to the problem for some. Photography was transformed at the start of this millennium as digital cameras became available. Many have embraced the digital era, but it does create its own unique dilemmas, and as we’ll explore today, photographers are not alone in this.
The Digital Revolution
Digital photography gave us instant access to our images. Being able to review the photograph you’ve just exposed right there on the back of the camera, and recording the settings used when you released the shutter into each file, made it possible to take our photography to the next level much more easily than in the film days. This in many ways freed our creativity, because we don’t have to wait until we’ve developed our film and printed the photographs to reiterate on our ideas. If something doesn’t work, we can reshoot straight away.
Although the digital single lens reflex cameras, or the DSLR as they became known, were initially very expensive, the price has dropped to the point where people can get started in digital photography for really not much more than it used to cost back in the film days. Of course, we also need a computer to manage our images, but if you already have one, the price of entry is really not that high anymore.
Of course, there are also mobile phones now that can record images at better quality than the original digital SLR cameras, and if you rule out the inability to change lenses, they even give modern digital cameras a good run for their money, and the result is that now anyone can be a photographer.
I think that the explosion in the photography industry over the past 15 years or so, has been totally enabling. In many ways, I think we are in a new golden age of photography, and the quality of some of the imagery being created now is incredible, but not everyone thinks this way. You’ll hear professional photographers lamenting over the good old days. Now everyone has a camera, anyone can shoot a wedding, and it’s quite possible that they’ll mess it up, because they don’t have the background or the skills to hit it out of the park, as a professional would, or should.
I also hear from many people that are in a creative rut, or are finding it hard to find inspiration to proceed with a particular project, or even just battling with the dilemma of how they can improve on previous work, but as I discussed in episode 438 on the Evolution of the Photographer, this is something that happens to musicians, and pretty much anyone engaged in a creative pursuit. I believe that as digital photography has helped us all to become much more creative, it’s also making people more anxious when that creativity doesn’t just flow like water from a tap.
A Comparison of Photography and Music
Music has been a part of the human race, probably since our origins in Africa around 55,000 years ago. As we spread around the globe, we took music with us, and it has been found in one form or another in every culture. By comparison, early photography started to appear in the early 1800s, around 200 years ago, so it’s hardly surprising that the electronic and digital revolutions took a hold on music before photography.
Electronic musical instruments started to emerge as far back as the 1870s, but synthesizers, the machines that really changed modern music, emerged 100 years later, in the 1970s. This means that the music industry has been dealing with the digital dilemma for almost 30 years longer, approximately three times longer than the photography industry.
You would hope that this extra time has enabled music professionals to overcome the difficulties that digital technology has brought about, but I recently watched a video of a conversation about overcoming creative block, with four music producers, and I had to smile as I listened and was reminded that they are struggling with the exact same things that I hear a lot of photographers complaining about.
I’m sure you’ve heard these conversations yourself. “Everything has now been done!” “It’s impossible to be original any more!” “Everyone is a photographer now!” During this conversation with the four musicians, if you swapped out the word music for photograph, musician for photographer, or instrument for camera, it may just as well have been a conversation between four photographers.
The conversation was on Ableton.com so check it out if you are interested, but today, I’m just going to pick up on a number of the statements made, and add my take on how each relates to photography as I see it. There are also a lot of great comments on creativity and inspiration that we’ll dig into as well. The conversation was between Matthew Herbert, James Holden, Young Guru and Phoebe Kiddo, moderated by Dennis DeSantis.
Has There Been a Time When You Were Stuck? (0:54)
The first question put to the panel was has there been a time when you were stuck. In reply to this, Matthew Herbert said that he gets stuck 6 to 8 times a day, for his entire life. He went on to paraphrase a quote from pianist James Rhodes, who said that this is why he practices the piano five or six hours a day, because inspiration is so fickle.
This is something that I’ve mentioned before too, but often, when you aren’t inspired, just sitting around waiting for your muse to turn up and force a camera into your hand, and lead you to something amazing, is just not going to happen. I fully believe that creation breeds creativity. Quite often, if I’m feeling a little bit deflated or non-inspired, I’ll just pick up the camera and go somewhere anyway. Luckily for me, and I hope for you as well, the act of photography is also therapeutic, so even if I come away with nothing, just looking through the viewfinder, thinking about my composition and exposure, then releasing the shutter, makes me happy.
What I often find though, is that as I start out, even when I’m not inspired, as I frame the world with my viewfinder, inspiration and creativity start to flow. This sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how many people expect creativity to find them while they are not engaged the pursuit in which they want to be creative. It doesn’t always follow that you’ll be creative with the same subject. I’ve dreamt up totally unrelated projects while photographing something else, but I’m sure it’s the act of creation that is feeding that creativity.
Phoebe Kiddo went on to say, “Discipline is one of the most important aspects of work, because it’s not always enjoyable. There are often many long boring hours that you need to put in to complete a good piece of work.” She also said that patience and perseverance are two of the most important characteristics.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve talked about perseverance, but in everything we do I think this is so important. I’ve seen people leave a location having waited for something to happen, only to capture that something myself just minutes later. Of course, I’ve left locations a little too early myself, and regretted it, but in general, if you can be patient and stick with something, it pays off.
On an ongoing basis though, I think having the discipline to keep doing your photography is highly important. As I’m working on projects in the office, I can sometimes go for weeks without really getting out with the camera, and when I finally do get back out, it all feels rusty for a little while. Fortunately it comes back quickly, but there is no doubt that the more we do something, the better we become at doing that something, be it photography, music, sculpture, writing and anything else you can think of.
If It’s Your Job, It Isn’t All Fun!(4:12)
As an extension of this, Young Guru goes on to talk about how working in a studio is not as glamorous as people tend to think. If it’s your job, it can be hard to put the time in to complete each day’s work and complete each project. Of course, Guru is talking about the music studio, not the photography studio, but it’s the same thing! Luckily, as I mentioned earlier, if I’m doing photography, regardless of what I’m shooting, it’s a meditative and therapeutic process for me, whether it’s for work or pleasure, and I feel so fortunate to be making a living doing what I love.
There are times when I’m sitting at the desk, preparing my accounts or doing other back-office tasks, when I really wish I was standing out in the landscape in Iceland, or Namibia, or anywhere, rather than in front of my desk, but it’s that desk work, the work that I don’t enjoy quite so much, that enables me to get out and do the work that I love. It’s a means to an end, and that makes it much easier to put my hands to the wheel each day.
Feed One Form of Creativity with Another (5:07)
Guru goes on though, to talk about another thing that I think is so important. He says that when he gets stuck, he can find inspiration in other things like listening to other peoples’ music and practicing other forms of art. It’s important to understand all forms of art to enable us to understand our expression. He even says if he gets bored and can’t come up with an idea, he’ll go out and shoot photography, and that inspires him to come back and make music. How cool is that!?
It’s actually surprising, although it maybe shouldn’t be, but I know a lot of photographer’s who are also talented musicians, or even just passionate hobbyists. I’d put myself in the latter category. I played sax and sang in a band as a kid, and have always had instruments around. Living in an apartment block in Japan made me more conscious of making noise with an instrument, but I still practice the sax now, only on a midi instrument that I can play through earphones now, rather than a deafening instrument that would get us kicked out of our apartment.
KORG Triton Taktile Keyboard/Synthesizer
I have electric pianos and keyboards, and an electric guitar, all of which are pretty much silent if use headphones. And you know what, if I’m feeling a little pressured or stressed, sometimes I’ll just grab one of these instruments and play for a while, and I find that as therapeutic as making photographs. I also think that it just helps to keep our creative juices flowing, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be restricted to musical creativity. It feeds other forms, and I think this is why so many photographers play music, and so many musicians are also talented photographers.
Got to Think of Something to Learn Between Projects (5:53)
James Holden was then brought into the conversation to talk about a comment he’d made, that he had “Got to think of something to learn between records.” This is so easy for me to relate to. I love learning new stuff, whether it’s new techniques in photography, or a new musical instrument. I think that the human mind is perhaps at it’s happiest when we’re actively engaged in learning something.
Although we never really stop learning photography, the early years when we initially don’t know our aperture from our f-stop, and those early days when everything is still so new, are wonderful times. I’m sure at some point you’ve found yourself not being able to get to sleep because you have a head full of new stuff that you’ve been reading about, and you can’t wait until you can open your book again and pick up where you left off. Learning is something that we generally enjoy, especially if it’s about something that we have developed a passion for.
James Holden posed the question, “If you haven’t learned something, you are basically the same person, so how are you going to create something new?” He said that when someone makes their first successful record, it’s kind of like their whole life up to that point, and this is why it’s so difficult for bands to get past their first big success. He says that he never really feels blocked, even though he has no inspiration to sit down at an instrument. He wants to go into the studio but just so that he can learn something technical, or learn a new instrument or listen to records.
Unfocussed Procrastination is the Creatives Worst Enemy
Now, I can relate to this to a degree. As I just said, learning is fun, and therefore sitting down and learning something new can be addictive, but as a creative professional, that can be a really unhealthy form of procrastination. When creating something new is required to pay the rent, it’s a dangerous loop to get caught up in. Play is important, and I think that we should always give ourselves time to play and experiment, as these can lead to great things, but it’s also important to stay focussed.
Even if photography is a hobby for you as opposed to a profession, we still set ourselves goals and develop certain expectations for ourselves and I think you’d agree that most people want to gradually get better at what we do, even if it’s just a hobby. So, I’d propose that we might try to focus our procrastination on areas that we know we have an outcome to work towards.
For me, for example, I actually really enjoy working on my web site. I’ve been making web sites at various levels for more than twenty years now, and I find it interesting. My technical background also makes it exciting to me to jump into my Linux server on the back end, typing in commands and tweaking performance. Over the last few weeks I allowed myself the project of moving our Web site to a new, more powerful server, and I’ve become a bit obsessed with improving my performance score by speeding up the web site in a number of ways.
Now, this is fun for me, so in many ways it’s a release. I’m supposed to be a photographer but because I wear most of the hats around here, I allow myself to assign time to the maintenance of our site, so I basically get to procrastinate, but in a way that gives us results that will hopefully benefit the business and visitors to our web site. Now though, it’s time to buckle down and get something else done now. The point is, I think it’s cool when we can focus our procrastination so that it still helps us to achieve goals.
Engineers Built Things with No Idea of How They Would Be Used (11:11)
Matthew Herbert made a funny statement, about engineers in the 70s building the earlier synthesizer and adding features that they had no idea how they would be used. This reminds me of a story I heard about the Canon team when they were building the 5D Mark II. I don’t know how true this is, but I heard that they’d developed the LiveView feature, and it resulted in a video stream being available in the camera, as the signal for the LCD was processed, so kind of as an afterthought, they said, hmm… what if we record this video signal to the CF card?
The rest is history of course. That one seemingly simply “what if” gave us video in cameras and changed not only the still photography world but the video world as well.
As an extension of this though, this is one of the areas where you will hear photographers lamenting about how this has resulted in jobs being lost. I’m not close enough to this part of the photography industry to comment on this, but now, it seems that photojournalists are expected to gather video clips as well as stills, and in some ways, the video crew have become less necessary. So, we have photographers now providing video for little to no extra money, and some videographers without jobs. We’ll come back to this line of thought a little later.
Easy Doesn’t Have to Mean “Bad”
Matthew also talks about how it is so easy now to create various styles of music, because the options are right there in the software. It’s like going shopping, and we can just pick a bit of this and a bit of that, and it’s made making music too easy. This sounds like a disgruntled photographer’s woes, right? Then Young Guru comes back with “Yeah, but you can turn all of that stuff off.”
How many times have you heard the traditionalist panning digital because it’s so easy to manipulate images now? Sure, it’s easy to manipulate images now, but people have been manipulating images since the earliest days of the medium. But just because we can, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we will. And it certainly doesn’t meant that it’s wrong if we decide to manipulate our images either. Of course, photojournalists aren’t supposed to play with their images. The news is supposed to be factual, but if it’s art, I think it’s up to the artist.
I think that this whole conversation, around it being easy to do something, in both music and photography, is founded in a lack of confidence and fear in the artist. If it becomes easy to do something, they are concerned that someone will come along and do what they do better than them. You know what? They will, and they always have. Things change, and we adapt and learn how to make the new status quo work for us, or we allow it to kill us.
Of course, I feel for the photographers that have lost their jobs because a newspaper decided it was going to work out just fine to use iPhone photos from the general public. But you know what? The world is changing. As the digital age and computers make it possible to do so much of the work that humans have relied on to make a living, everything is going to change. In thirty years time the amount of work available is going to be reduced by a huge amount, and society is going to have to be restructured or we really are all going to be eating soylent green. We’re going to have to learn to deal with it.
Bright Future for Creatives?
If we remain stuck in our ways, and cling to the past, the future is not going to be very bright for many professionals, as machines replace the workforce, but you could argue, that there will remain a place for the creatives of the world, because art and creativity is probably going to be one of the hardest things for machines to replace. I’m sure it will happen, but as machine art becomes main stream, I can almost guarantee you that we will yearn for original art, as much, if not more than now. We relish uniqueness and individualism, and there will probably continue to be value in art created by a real human being as long as we don’t physically change into a different animal altogether.
In fact, if we think back a few centuries, as photography was invented, painters we afraid that they’d be sent out of business as it became easy to create a likeness of someone, and even print it and put it over the fireplace. Sure, there were painters who found themselves with less work, and I’m sure there were many that allowed that to devastate them. But in the midst of that, some stuck to their guns, and the better of them continued to make a good living, and some embraced photography instead, moving with the times rather than fighting against them.
The point I’m trying to make here is that we choose our own fate when it comes to new technology. We can either embrace it, or fight it, and for me at least, I’d always prefer to shake someone’s hand or give someone a big hug than to argue and fight with them.
Part Two Next Week
Because I got a bit carried away with this episode, I’ve split it into two parts. Part two will be released on June 27, 2016, so please check back then. If you’d like to be notified when it’s released, please sign up for our newsletters here.
This week I thought I’d share a video I created last week with footage from the May 21 annular eclipse. A small iPhone version will go into the Podcast feed, but the below video will go full screen for as high as 1080p Full HD, so select as much resolution as your bandwidth can handle and go full screen!
Also, make sure you turn up your speakers. I’m particular proud of this video because my friend Milo Volt agreed for me to use his wonderful track “I’m Still Here” to accompany my video and still photographs.
When I came up with the idea of embedding ten of my still shots of the eclipse, as well as the powerful visual of the dark clouds skating across the sky, I knew I wanted a some music that was both powerful and yet tender for this, and Milo’s music jumped into my head. I was really pleased that I was able to edit the 10 minute traverse of the sun and moon across the frame down to 4:21 to accompany the music. I think they complement each other quite well. Thanks again Milo, and all the best to you my friend!
Anyway, take a look/listen and see what you think.
And here are the 10 photos that I embed into the video. Make your browser screen as wide as it will go, then click on the images and navigate with your mouse or arrow keys, to view the images as large as possible and see most detail.