On Making Images

by Jack Flesher 

I was thinking about what the topic of my first article for GetDPI’s new frontpage should be, and decided that since we are first and foremost a site devoted to making and sharing images, that’s what I’d talk about.

Most of you know me well enough by now to know I’ll try almost any new piece of gear out, and usually do. Admittedly I’m somewhat of a gear addict, always searching for something different or perhaps better than what I already own, and I like to talk about it.  But I hit a point a few years ago where I realized it was a habit that was starting to impair my desire to make images; or stated another way, my gear hunting was getting in the way of me enjoying the act of making images.  This was also about the same time I had multiple kits of some of the best gear money could buy, and certainly more of it than I could possibly carry at one time.  Getting ready for a trip often meant three or four days of agonizing over which systems – not system – and lenses to take. Then no matter which I brought, I would invariably spend a portion of the trip wishing I had brought something I had left at home in the camera cabinet.  An easy solution would be to carry it all with me, and I know a few of you who do just that! So like you, I’d carry multiple systems and what amounted to a bunch of excess gear. To be sure, most of it never got used, but I took comfort in knowing it was nearby in case I needed it. Maybe this sounds familiar to some of you?

An exception to the gear-mania was when I traveled. Here, taking a slew of gear was impractical, and I always wanted versatile kits I could carry easily. This usually meant a smaller camera body or maybe two, a zoom and a favored prime or two, and maybe a second zoom I didn’t mind leaving in the hotel room. At some point in this journey, I realized that even with the simpler gear and less than optimal zoom lenses, I was still fully capable of making some great photographs, even ones worthy of printing large and hanging on my walls. It took about a half dozen of that type of trip to fully realize the act of just getting out and making images was a lot more enjoyable than making sure I always had the best lenses or newest camera possible. Eventually my travel kits got pared down to the point they were basically at a bare minimalist level, where every lens and body saw a lot of use.  Along with that, I learned to make images with whatever gear I had with me. The result was photography became truly enjoyable once again.  I have recently transferred at least a portion of that minimalist philosophy to all of my photography, and though my current kit is far from minimalist, it is relatively so compared to the abundance of gear I used to own.

To be clear, I’ve made what I consider to be stunning images with my best equipment too. And most certainly they are technically more accomplished than most of my casual travel shots. But images made from gear at both ends of the quality spectrum currently share about equal space in adorning my walls. Moreover, I’ve made a plethora of technically perfect images with my best gear, but images that are at the same time perfectly boring. I’m sure you all have had a similar experience and made at least a few of that type image; studies in optical and technical perfection that are totally lacking in interesting content. In fact, many of my ‘best’ images are technically flawed in some way: focus is a little off in an unfortunate direction, but I captured the decisive moment; or I was under-exposed, but the lighting was magical. In most of those cases I have sister images taken shortly before or after that are almost identical compositions and better from a technical point of view, but the lighting is not quite as good or the decisive moment had passed. In the end, content and composition always win the day over technical perfection.

Here is a sample selection of images I’ve made over the years using simple, intermediate or exotic equipment. Not all are gallery worthy, but each has a special meaning and memory to me:

SteamyAlley_VeniceImage #1 Venice Steam: Canon 1D2 and Tamron 28-105mm zoom

In image #1 above, the zoom in use was less than spectacular and not nearly as wide as I preferred for the crop sensor, but it was small and light and so saw a lot of use that trip. More importantly, the contrast range of the early morning light was outside the DR capabilities of the older digital technology. Back then, we used the “expose to the right” methodology to deal with difficult situations, but for this image I consciously had to let the top clip in order capture enough shadow detail to make the image work. In the end, it is pretty heavily clipped at both ends, especially by today’s standards, but the image works and evokes the feelings I remember as I explored the steamy back streets of Venice on that exceptionally hot Summer morning.

Eiffel TowerImage #2 Eiffel Tower: Panasonic G2 and 7-14mm zoom at 7mm

Image #2 was a walk-by grab shot. It is also the in-camera jpeg because for whatever reason it just works better than anything I can do with the raw file! It’s nothing more than a postcard snap, but the entire family loves it because of the memories it evokes every time we look at it.

skater_shadow_BW_900px Image #3 Skater’s Shadow: Canon 5D and 45mm TSE

In image #3 above, I was shooting an old derelict and graffiti-laden hotel in North Salton Sea, CA when the skateboarder appeared at the pool. All my other gear – a ton of it better suited to what was happening around me right then – was a quarter mile away in the car, so I used what I had on hand to capture the above frame.

Ropund Tower Hallway Porfolio_900pxImage #4 Round Tower: Nikon D800 and Nikkor 24-120mm zoom at around 28mm

Image #4 was simply lucky timing. The Round Tower in central Copenhagen is so overloaded with tourists coming and going, there is rarely a time when you can capture a people-free shot. The lighting is very dim as well but forget using your tripod – it will be in the way or bumped and mostly just slow you down if you do get a people-free gap. I am using what is arguably my worst performing lens, but it’s convenient. The image was taken handheld at about 1/8th sec and ISO 2500 and f8 for adequate DoF. The onboard VR of this lens is pretty poor, so poor I can generally hold better than it can VR, so it is almost always left off. Fortunately my hand-holding skills worked well enough to get this usably crisp capture at the slow shutter speed. An interesting side note: cameras have improved enough since image #1 in their DR, that even in this very high contrast image, nothing was fully clipped and I even needed to add a little black.

Nyhavn_iPhone

Image #5 Nyhavn Dusk: iPhone 3

In the iPhone image above, my wife and I were heading out to dinner and having spent the entire day photographing Copenhagen. I decided to give my shoulder a break and left the camera bag in the hotel. Of course the sunset went all pastel and moody, so again I used what I had on-hand to captured an image. Full disclosure is I knew that Sunsets that far North in Summer can last a long time, so I did run back to the hotel room, grabbed my better camera and got a very similar – and technically more perfect – shot. But somehow this iPhone grab better portrays the painterly mood I felt at the time.

 PassingStorm_BW_5pxstrokeImage #6 Passing Storm: PhaseOne IQ180, PhaseOne DF with 55mm LS

The shot above was my first trip out with my then-new IQ 180. In this frame from Yosemite’s Tunnel Overlook, my focus was just in front of the first stand of trees. I corrected focus to a little further out into the scene and took several follow up shots. But the clouds were moving quickly and the follow-on images lacked the magical quality of light this capture caught. I was shooting at f10, but with the unforgiving pixels of the IQ 180 being viewed at 100% on my monitor, I could clearly see the zone of crisp focus fall away before getting to the end of the trees and mountains in the background.  Regardless, the lighting won the day and this image remains one of my favorites.

(Sidebar note: There were at least one hundred other photographers lined up at the overlook waiting “for the light to happen” when I got there, about two thirds of which had good enough gear and sense to have it mounted on a tripod. There was even one guy leading a workshop telling everybody about how Ansel would always make the drive up here when the storms cleared and then going to into detail about how he captured his famous image from this spot. They were all still talking and laughing and getting on when I saw what I captured here, and no other shutters were clicking except mine… I grabbed about a half-dozen frames even though the light was pretty much gone after the second one. I had been there maybe all of three minutes total before I was back in my car, leaving the hundred other hopeful photographers sharing stories while they waited for the ideal light. It remains a somewhat surreal experience for me.)

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As I’ve aged, I’ve learned a couple of basic truths about photography. One is that when it comes to gear, less can be more; less forces me to create images with what I have with me, and that spurs my personal creativity. Another is that most lenses are better than most images I take with them. In other words, what counts most is image content, not line-pairs per millimeter or test score points on somebody’s gear performance scale. My final point is this: it isn’t so important what you shoot with, as it is to how you shoot with what you have.

So whatever gear it is you have, get out and use it to make some images. And then share them.  And if you’re reading this, you probably already know our GetDPI forum is a great place to share images!

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Have a location, how-to or gear review article you’d like to share? If so, forward it along to us and we’ll review it for consideration!

9 comments on “On Making Images

  1. jonoslack

    “If it’s interesting, nobody cares if it’s technically good, if it’s not interesting nobody cares at all!”

    Great article Jack, after my heart (although not always my head!)
    Nice photos too, I have an almost identical shot if the round tower in Copenhagen.

    All the best
    Jono Slack

  2. Godfrey

    “As I’ve aged, I’ve learned a couple of basic truths about photography. One is that when it comes to gear, less can be more; less forces me to create images with what I have with me, and that spurs my personal creativity. Another is that most lenses are better than most images I take with them. In other words, what counts most is image content, not line-pairs per millimeter or test score points on somebody’s gear performance scale. My final point is this: it isn’t so important what you shoot with, as it is to how you shoot with what you have.”

    We live in the same universe, Jack. Or at least in the same frame of mind.

    One of my goals in photography is to create satisfying photograph regardless of what equipment I’m using. The equipment changes the kind of images I make, it’s true, which is why I like having a range of different kinds of equipment. But what makes a satisfying photograph is always the same, and it is rarely solely about detail, contrast, sharpness, etc.

    What a satisfying photograph is all about is far more mysterious and difficult to articulate than that, or than just the ambiguous term “content.” Although it will do in a pinch. 🙂

    G

  3. Bildifokus

    Thank you Jack for some inspirational reading. I think we are a lot of photographer that recognize our self in your article. I sometimes force my self to only bring one camera, one fixed lens and a restricted area to photograph within. It’s all about the image to communicate the feeling, but the gear can give you the feeling to communicate. 🙂

  4. asiafish

    So true Jack.

    Sadly, even with just two systems and a point-and-shoot, I still agonize before a trip. My wife and I are planning an epic trip for our 20th anniversary and she has already insisted it is NOT a photography trip but she wants pictures in color, so thoughts of minimal kit already are dancing around my head. Canon 6D with 24-105 and 35 f/2 IS or Leica Monochrom with 35 and 50mm lenses (which 50, I have three) and the Leica X2 point-and-shoot for color? Leave it all home and just iPhone 5S? The Canon and the zoom, without the prime? Or perhaps I really need that Leica M9 or ME and the 35 and 50 will be enough. Maybe just the X2?

    Decisions, decisions. Whatever I bring, I’m sure the images will be terrific, and the trip as well.

  5. Antonio Chagin

    Thank you Jack. Thank you for taking the time to write this generous article and for those beautiful images. My favourite is #6 in particular, wish I had that camera too.
    Very soon, I expect, you’d be completing this article with a mirror less MFD with provably CMOS sensor.
    ACH

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