GAS - Gear Acquisition Syndrome

A past and current photographic trend is the quoting of the Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO used to make an exposure.  This is a common inquiry within camera club members when reviewing fellow member photographs.  (There are others regarding various rules of composition, but that’s another topic.)  Fine-art photographers, that being those with a BFA or MFA from a distinguish higher institution of artistic learning, seem to list these three technical exposure factors for each photo plus the camera and lens used as this endows the work with greater significance and worth and possibly value.  I find this obsession interesting, but irrelevant.

Personally, I do not know why these three pieces of technical information about a photograph are needed.  They communicate nothing about the photograph’s emotional state of mind, his/her purpose or intention for the photograph, they do not speak to her/his sensibilities or motivations, or what she/he hopes to communicate with the photograph.  These three technical aspects of a specific exposure have no baring on what camera/lens setting you or I would have used were we all together at the same location, on the same day, or at the same time.  Painters do not go on and on about what specific type of brush they use, or what brand of paint, whether oil or water colour, or what paper/canvas they use.  So why this technical obsession with photography?  I suspect it has to do with the technical nature and aspects of the photographic craft a person must master before it becomes second nature to them that impacts the desire to continue quoting the exposure settings.  For me, they are irrelevant.  In fact I doubt, even if pressed for the specifics for a photograph, would I be able to recall, or even have a desire to ascertain these settings.

A photographer I know uses his camera to capture a record of his growing family and post the images to a variety of social media platforms.  He regularly acquires, to him, a new camera and lens, is excited and enthused at the prospect of capturing more meaningful images and posting them as quickly as possible, directly to social media.   After a short period of time, he announces he’s going to acquire yet another newer/better camera or a better lens.  And he sets out to do so.  The digital camera industry is more than happy to oblige and meet, or even exceed, his desire.  That’s what keeps the camera companies in business.  And so the newer camera/lens combination is obtained and old one sold off.  However, it’s not too long before the newest and greatest needs to be replaced by some newer and great photographic technology.  And, so it goes.  Once or twice a year, or perhaps more often, depending on his image capturing success or failure, a new piece of photographic technology shows up and the old one quietly disappears.  The images continue to proliferate on social media and his growing family’s life continues to be recorded in faithful accuracy and timelessness.  However, the images on social media do not appear to reflect the constant striving for technological perfection the photographer strives to achieve.  The images faithfully capture all the meaningful moments in a growing family’s life, but still there is the longing for better technology.

More than one renowned photographer, over time, has stated that great images occur not between the front element of the camera’s lens and the digital sensor, but at that distance from the back of the photographer’s head and the camera’s viewfinder.

To record the light reflecting off subjects, be they people, trees, rocks, water, buildings, etc., is technical matter.  Today’s digital camera’s can be placed on the A(utomatic) setting and a perfectly acceptable image is obtainable.  Finding that unique, fleeting expression on a child’s face that lasts but a moment and then quickly vanishes requires patience and increased observational skills by the image creator and an ability to anticipate and allow a spark of inspiration to inform the movement of the index finger.  Putting your camera in burst mode and making 10 - 15 quick exposures in hopes of capturing the right one is an approach, but upon reviewing the 15 images, realising the desired moment was missed and going at it again is, in my opinion, an exercise in frustration.

Now, if you’re perfectly happy with the quick fire approach and simply want to document your growing families life and special moments, then pretty much any digital camera today will suffice.  And if this is your ultimate goal, then go for, have fun, post the cutest images to social media, revel in reviewing them all a some future date and be happy and full of joy.  But also, keep your extra money in the bank for some other worthy purchase, because the latest and greatest new camera technology will never meet your goals if what you really want to do is create an image of a rock that is ”more than a rock”, or capture that furtive expression on a child’s face as she sits and contemplates her expanding world.

A Photographic Story

There’s a saying, ”every photograph tells a story”.  That may, or may not, be true for all photographs, but for me, there’s usually a story about each of the photographs, or series, I create.

The following is the story of how these images were created.

Years ago, I joined a local camera club.  I was looking for fellow photographers to discuss the art of photography with and by sharing, hoping to gain some additional insight into the creative process.  Perhaps, too lofty an objective.  What I found was a collection of individuals who met weekly more as a social occasion and happened to take pictures based on a series of camera club rules.  Their activities were based on group meetings, where the group’s title defined the groups purpose - B&W Photo Group, Darkroom (analog) Group, New Members Group, New Exposures, and Studio.

During my first Studio Group meeting, I discovered the club had some ancient studio lighting (tungsten) and electronic flash equipment, a lot of which didn’t work, and some of which did, but not in any consistent way, plus some important pieces were missing, misplaced, gone or never existed.  Suffice to say the session was interesting.

No one was actually in charge of the Studio Group at the time.  Apparently, the previous leader had left the club and no one had volunteered to step in, so I stepped up, as the saying goes, and volunteered.  I had only one condition, the executive had to raid their substantial bank balance and spring for some new, modern studio electronic flash equipment.  After some initial reluctance - it seemed the fact the club had a large cash reserve had become a matter of pride - the required money was made available and the desired lighting equipment was purchased and the old equipment conveniently disappeared.  One interesting fact - no one questioned my qualifications for the position.

My first Studio Group detailed how to set up, use and take down and carefully store the equipment.  The meeting was enthusiastically attended.  The large studio had enough space to create two individual setup locations separated by moveable large dividers.  Each location had its own roll of backdrop paper.  I took a poll to find out what lighting skills the members were most interested in learning about.  Portrait lighting came out as the top, then still life, food and stop motion.

As the new Studio Manager (their title, not mine), I had to do all the set up and take down of the electronic flash equipment, decide what each session was going to offer, arrange for any models, record the names of all members who wanted to attend a particular session, and on and on.  We had the usual portrait sessions with paid, or some times unpaid, models, usually female, which meant there would be a preponderance of male members attending those sessions.  Each model was also offered prints or digital files of any images they liked or wanted to use for whatever purpose.

At one general meeting evening, I offered to run a Studio session on movement, but not stop motion.  The suggestion was greeted by total silence.  So I elaborated.  I told the group I’d arrange for two rhythmic gymnasts to attend the session and have them preform a number of simple gymnastic moves, which members could make blurred motion photographs of using B&W film cameras, or digital cameras.  We’d the use the tungsten lights.  The objective was to experiment with various slow shutter speeds and learn from the resulting images, the artistic, interpretive and creative potential. Suddenly, the light dawned on some of them and hands shot up with questions.  I wanted to use the gymnasts because they knew how to move in a graceful and purposeful manner.  The session was attended by about an even split between male and female photographers, which, to me, made it an instant success.

In my school days, I practised this blurred motion exercise using 4x5 Polaroid film and a 4x5 camera.  So I personally was looking forward to participating. As the Studio Lead (I dropped the Manager title), I rarely took an active part in any session.  It was my job to ensure everyone had an equal opportunity to take their desired photos so no one felt left out.  But on this night, I brought my film camera equipped with a longer lens.  In my mind’s eye, I saw more close up images with a flattened perspective.

I arranged the Studio with two set ups and used the tungsten lighting.  One set had a white backdrop, while the other had a black one.  Each girl would work one set up for a specific period of time.  Members could move from one set up to the other as they wished.  After a time, I moved both girls to the set up with the white backdrop and had them work together.  This was my preferred set up to make my exposures.  I processed the film, and made some analog B&W prints from the negatives in my personal darkroom.  I then scanned the negatives and imported them into Adobe Lightroom and proceeded to forget about them.  (Seems to be a disconcerting habit I have.)  A weeks ago, I rediscovered the scanned image files.  As I studied the negative/positive scanned image of each negative side by side a “What if I…?” question formed in my mind.

In Ancient Chinese philosophy, yin and yang is a Chinese philosophical concept describing how opposite, or contrary, forces may actually be complementary, interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.  To represent this concept, I deiced to combined the negative/positive scans of an individual negative into one B&W photograph.  The blurred motion increased the images’ emotional impact for me.

These negative/positive photographs express the seen and unseen movement of the human body.  As we watch a gymnast, or a dancer move on a stage, we don’t actually see all the movement.  Some gestures happen too quickly for our eyes and brains to consciously register, while other much slower movements hold our attention completely.  I find these photographs allow me to more fully appreciate that which our eyes and brains often miss and now allows our brains to focus on and more fully appreciate what the camera sees.

Heart-Beating Emotion or Technical Accuracy

The Wif abandoned me for about three weeks a while ago to attend to our daughter in BC.  I use the word abandoned with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek.  There was no abandonment of any sorts, our daughter was recovering from an illness and required help looking after a new born and getting three and a half year old up, fed and dressed so Daddy could drop her off at daycare (she calls it school) and then head off to work.  Of course, I was totally on board with her decision.  Besides, I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself.  Plus, the alone time afforded me the opportunity to go out, camera in hand, after the dogs were fed, of course, any time of day the mood so moved me.  

Rising earlier than usual one morning, I noticed that a quick, severe drop in temperature had turned yesterday’s melt water into discrete pockets of ice.  Some pockets had air bubbles trapped as the surface moisture froze quickly and some of the underlying water slipped away leaving a lovely random pattern of ice crystals in some parts of the pockets, while the rest of the ice was a dark solid tone.  And to add a layer of visual interest, a very slight dusting of fresh snow had fallen during the night that, if handled correctly (whatever that means) could add some potential texture to my images.

The ice pockets were on the road against the curb, on the boundary of the sidewalk and the grass/earth of the neighbours’ front lawns and covering the drain grates leading to the sewers below, where, in the warmer weather all the water flowed into.  Slowly, I began to stroll along the sidewalks first staring down between my shuffling feet ensuring I didn’t step on any ice pockets.  I wanted virgin ice; not crushed ice.  Upon seeing something of potential interest, I’d stop, focus my camera, compose an image and press the shutter release.  Sometimes, I’d have to crouch down to isolate specific areas of ice, or to eliminate extraneous debris.

As I moved and photographed, I was oblivious to anyone or anything around me.  My eyes and my mind were open to any visual possibilities and when piqued, I’d stop and make an exposure.  When working on the road, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to stop and check my surroundings in case any early morning traffic was approaching, but given the early hour I figured I was safe.

The above image is an original exposure and, to be honest, doesn’t appear to hold much promise for a resulting impactful photograph.  But first appearances, as the saying goes, can be somewhat erroneous.  If you look carefully and study the exposure a bit you’ll see there is colour there.  One thing I’ve learned with digital imagery, it takes time, patience and practise to see the potential in an original exposure that may look less than stellar.  Now, having said that, it not true for all digital images.

The image below, is what I was able to produce using image processing software and my computer.  I’ve added no additional colours, details, tones or anything else you might want to ask about.  Everything you see in the image below is in the original exposure, it just needed to be teased out.

I titled the image Celestial Ice.  While the image is a photograph of an ice pocket on the side of a road, as I processed the image file it reminded me of a midnight sky I’d seen when camping on a canoe trip in my younger days.  For me, the image brought back the emotional experience I had while floating in a canoe in the middle of a lake in Algonquin Park as I gazed up at the Milky Way.  So I ask you, do you see frozen water, or is it full of stars????

The camera is excellent at capturing fine details.  In fact, the average photographer strives, and often struggles, to achieve the desired amount of sharp, crisp detail in his/her images.  Photographers are famous for paying ridiculous amounts of money for an over-priced lens if the reviews state the ”fine detail is so sharp it beggars the mind”!  Edward Weston, an early photographic artist, was concerned, at times, with the lack of detail he could achieve in his B&W negatives and would stop his 4x5, or 8x10, camera lenses down to 45.0 resulting in exposure times of 4 - 5 minutes.  The optical quality of the lenses he had access to were ancient compared to modern digital camera lenses.  And yet he managed to achieve some amazing results.

Here’s the key question - Is fine, sharp, crisp detail, from edge to edge across the whole frame in a photograph, mandatory to give the viewer an emotionally rewarding viewing experience?

I titled the photograph below Fire in Ice.  I’ve added no additional details, colours or textures to the photograph.  It is exactly as I processed it using the same software/computer as I did in the above Celestial Ice image.

Study the photograph closely, look at it for a while, ask yourself, “What do you see, what do you feel when you look at the photograph?”  (It’s actually slightly out of focus, if that even matters.). To me, I feel this is one of my more moving, emotionally responsive photographs from that day’s photography.  It’s not what it is that matters, but what it’s about.

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