Right, what follows is an unapologetic rant. I’ve just seen a comment on Social Media that effectively labels me, and others like me, as insecure and elitist. Let’s talk about some things that are perhaps wrong about the Landscape Photography scene, here in the UK, but this could apply elsewhere too.
Expressing a disdain for anything that isn’t following a trend is now apparently ‘elitist’ and somehow expresses ‘insecurity’. Three topics that are guaranteed to get my blood boiling are, Drones, Over-Saturation and Weekly Competitions on Social Media. Here I offer you my thoughts.
There was a recent discussion on this subject on Twitter, about how drone photography should not be lumped with more general landscape photography. My friend, Karl Mortimer furthered this with a blog which fleshed out his point of view that there is nothing wrong with drone photography and to counter it, another friend Russ Barnes, expressed his own reservations with another blog. All very good and I tend to agree with both of them to a certain extent.
My problem lies with two fundamental issues.
The first is obvious to me but is I suppose very subjective. It comes down to the technical quality of the image. Now, it doesn’t really matter what you shoot an image with; an iphone, a compact, a DSLR, Medium or Large Format, but clearly the technical quality of the image steps up as you progress up that chain, not least because of physics. Technically the cameras on (most) drones are no better than a compact camera (which we tend to shoot on automatic), though there is the scope for creative control. Another aspect to throw into the mix is flight time. Most drones are limited to about 15 minutes of flight time. That may sound like enough, but when I consider that when shooting from the ground and when I really want to get the absolute best out of a scene/composition, that is roughly how long I will take to set-up and shoot one image, maybe more if I am really refining. Therefore, already I know that a drone image must be rushed. Over time as drone and battery technology improves, then these hurdles will be overcome. I have no problem with that…in time. Right now though, I can’t look past the fact that a drone image can only be regarded as a ‘snap’ by the standards I follow. Yes, I have standards. That is not to be considered as also being ‘elitist’.
The second issue may require some imagination on your part. If I told you to wear a motorcycle helmet for a day (or 15 minutes), strap your phone to the visor so you could see nothing else, and wander off into woodland or upland to take a photo with nothing to guide your way other than the image on the screen of your phone…I wonder how many of you would return with a compelling image on that phone, and even if you do find a scene worth shooting, whether you’ll get the absolute best out of it like you might if you had your regular camera set-up and the freedom granted to you by your human eyes, your binocular and your peripheral vision. I think I can guarantee the answer would be none. Shooting with a drone is absolutely no different to this scenario. There is a disconnect between you and the real world…and this disconnect is evident in the images.
One question posed was how is drone photography any different to shooting handheld from a helicopter? I think the two issues I identify above answer that question.
Now, what I can appreciate is that technology is advancing and maybe in time the disconnect can be overcome, but right now that is not the case. Have I seen great images from drones? Yes, I have. Who can’t fail to be impressed with a Bird’s Eye View, it’s not something we are familiar with. I’d even go as far as to applaud some of those images. Would I therefore say that drone photography should be considered in the same context as ‘traditional’ landscape photography? No, the artistry is still missing.
This gets folks blood boiling more than anything I think. If you want to go ahead and create imagery that is a falsity then that is fine, off you trot to the digital art world. Personally I really enjoy digital art. What I don’t enjoy is digital art disguised as photography. This is part of the thinking of Charlie Waite who says “Don’t rely on post-production”. I’ve seen him say this time again, and it’s true, the eye and the brain do indeed form an “amazing double act” and that the “…moment someone feels unsettled by a colour you pumped up on the computer then the relationship between viewer and the image is broken and it can never be retrieved”. If the colour is true, albeit somewhat ‘un-worldly’ and as such you are apprehensive about releasing it to an unsuspecting public, then don’t get all upset in the next breath when someone questions it…publicly. This has nothing to do with elitism, it’s simply questioning the reality of the image.
When I take a photo and release it, my ‘standard’ is to ensure that the image appears real. Sure, I post-process, as do most people. The end product though, to my mind, has to be believable. If it doesn’t then what I am presenting, in my opinion, is digital art. I’ve made mistakes along the way as does everyone, but these days I do try to maintain a standard. If in the eyes of someone else, especially if that someone has proven themselves to have standards, I haven’t lived up to my own standard, then I think I’m big enough and ugly enough to be told, unsolicited or not. There is no insecurity here, I can assure you.
So, over-saturation by it’s very definition, is the presentation of a falsity. Does it make the image more aesthetically pleasing? To some people, no doubt, that comes down to subjectivity. Is it a cop-out to make up for other deficiencies in the image? Almost certainly, otherwise why over-saturate? Unless, of course, you are in the business of producing digital art, or deception was your intent. It’s a line I am not willing to cross, that is my standard. If your standards are different, then go ahead. The fact we probably don’t agree on this has nothing to do with elitism, we just have different standards.
These are fun, yes? Yes, they are fun. It’s at this point I remind you that I used to take part, at least in the main one, WexMondays. In it’s infancy it was indeed fun. In it’s second year I decided to take part to see what all the fuss was about. For about 8 weeks I was going out every week to take a photo to put into the competition. I had a good start and I was leading the competition. I then stopped. “You quit whilst you were ahead, you coward” I hear you cry. No. What actually happened was I realised my whole approach to photography was changing due to the competition. I felt pressured to get out, even when I didn’t want to. It caused stress and anxiety…two fundamental chemical reactions in the brain that do not aid creativity. Look it up, there are numerous articles on the web that evidence this. I’m very much a reactive rather than a proactive photographer. I don’t go out ‘come what may’ generally. I have to feel like I’m in the mood and I have to feel some degree of certainty that the effort will be worth it…mainly influenced by environment and conditions. This is generally why I don’t shoot close to home, I don’t feel the environment where I live is conducive to the type of landscape photography I enjoy. WexMondays was forcing me to do something I was uncomfortable with.
Now, I’m possibly an exception rather than the rule, but I detect other photographers also struggle in a similar vein, but they push themselves because they ‘need an image for Monday’. I don’t think that is healthy nor do I think those photographers are able to concentrate on getting the very best out of their creative selves. That is a personal view of course, but many times I look at entries by some people and I really think they should have done better. I know they are easily capable of better. They have the skills, they have the vision, they generally have the experience. But they didn’t do better. But, they get shortlisted, or they win. And, suddenly, their best isn’t needed anymore. They can get away with something sub-standard. How many times have I seen the lines “Got nothing else, just chucking this in…” or “It was my best from a bad week”? Really? REALLY??? Ok, then, carry on, you’ve clearly lowered your standards when you should be raising them.
That is the fundamental problem I have with these competitions, not the controversy when a photo of a mushroom beats an image of the most incredible sunset your eyes ever did see, or whatever. I really couldn’t care less for that…photography is subjective afterall. Rather, I am against them because I think, in general, they lower the standards rather than raise them.
A final word…
The issues highlighted above have nothing to do with elitism. Sure, I have a preference for a type of photography which some might think is narrow minded. To me, I’m just refining and concentrating on an aspect to get the absolute best out of it. That does not stop me appreciating other types of photography, other genres of landscape photography and other ‘takes’ on those genres. No, this is about standards in a world that is fast losing them. Love the drones, push out the retina burning mountainsides, adorn your images with Monday hashtags, do whatever you want, we are on different journeys you and I…but don’t call me elitist, I have standards.