I began a cleanup of some of my Aperture photo libraries this morning, and hindsight being what it is, started to clean up literally gigabytes worth of material that I wondered what I had been thinking when I pressed the shutter. I generally sorted the things I kept into:
1) Good, needs to be post-processed and just haven’t gotten around to it yet
2) Bad, but worth keeping because I want to try it again with better execution and/or light
3) Crap, but am keeping it because it has people I know in it
A large amount of the stuff I’ve been instantly moving to the rubbish bin has been poorly executed HDR. It got me thinking about things that I’ve tried to change in my shooting technique recently, the most important of which has been a return to using filters. I used to use filters all the time when I first began seriously trying to make photos, armed with a Canon A-1 and a pile of T-Max film. More and more often I see the potential of a shot, but it won’t work with HDR, particularly since I rarely like the overblown HDR look. Which in turn got me thinking about two websites that I visit regularly, Ming Thein and Trey Ratcliff. I think that two more polar opposite photographers you couldn’t find, making me think about a sloppy, soulful guitar player (Trey as BB King) versus a skilled, technical virtuoso (Ming as Joe Satriani). Both have their merits and get some really fantastic shots, but due to the sheer volume we can see that both err. Trey has produced some truly stomach-churning over-blown colour projectile vomit, whereas Ming has put on his latex gloves and engineered some of the most soulless imagery that a hyper-technical approach combined with the latest in equipment purchases can assemble. There are merits to both approaches, but I don’t think that either one is working for me. Ultimately I am not seeing a connection with the subject from most of their images, which is the death knell from my point of view. Of course, this could be solved by both of them editing themselves, it’s obvious from their photos that both are capable of producing outstanding work. OK, but how does this affect me? Going back to my Tokyo library of photos as an example, I cleared out everything that was a) taken just because I knew that HDR would render the photo explosive in colour, and b) where there was technical excellence but no emotion or attachment to the subject. HDR for me has now become what it should be, which is a tool. If the dynamic range of the shot is too great for just one picture and nothing is moving, HDR is a quick way of doing things: fire off five shots separated by EV’s of +1, and then seeing what you got later. However, having purchased a Lee filter system, and going back over my last two years of photos, I’ve realized how many of them could have been taken with a little bit of thought, and some filters to bring out what I was trying to get with my HDR madness. Getting it with one well-taken shot that’s been pre-visualized like Joe Cornish or Michael Kenna, and waiting for the right light. I get the feeling that neither Joe or Michael spend any time on their respective websites, and just get assistants to take care of that sort of thing. Rightfully so.
I have the feeling that I’m going to be taking a lot less pictures in the next few months (another trip to Japan is coming up), but the ones that I do take are going to be a lot better. I’m not throwing out HDR, on the contrary I think it can actually be subtle. Some of my favourite shots from my own collection are HDR, but you’d never guess it. A quick look at my flickr page (https://www.flickr.com/photos/36354447@N00/) will show some pretty colourful HDR heavy shots, but there are a lot of them that you would never guess were HDR. The latest black and white shot (https://www.flickr.com/photos/36354447@N00/14009220397/) gives a very good indication as to where I’m going. Muddy tones? Unclear subject? Yup. But it’s a new beginning with some old friends, filters. Now for the next problem, what to pack. First world problems, for sure.