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Where is your photography going next year?

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What are you doing for your photography next year?

The time for worrying about new kit is gone

How will your photography progress…

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It’s that time of the year for wondering what to do with your photography in the coming 12 months.

Over the course of 2016, Keith has been spending a lot of his spare time re-writing the whole of the Northlight Images web site. If you include the major printer reviews (Epson P7000, Canon PRO-1000 and Canon PRO-2000), then most of his photography has been part of Northlight’s professional photography services.

Now this ‘new’ web site is up and running Keith has been looking at what kinds of things could really help push forward his photo skills more generally. Hopefully a few of them may be of some interest to other photographers.

overnight parking sign

New photo equipment

One of the things I’ve increasingly noticed both from my own reviews and following general industry trends, is that the rate of perceptible improvement in equipment is levelling off.

Going back over the reviews and articles on this site, dating back to 2003, I see some big jumps in lenses, cameras and printing but the absolute increases in performance are getting less and less noticeable to the majority of photographers.

A simple example comparing prints made with my 11MP Canon 1Ds (2003). 21MP Canon 1Ds mk3 (2007) and 50MP Canon 5Ds showed that unless you were regularly making prints over A3+ size (13″ x 19″) then most people couldn’t spot the difference, if you were careful with image processing (comparison article).

In the summer I was lucky enough to try out the new Laowa 12mm Zero-D wide angle lens, before it was launched. OK, it’s a fully manual lens, which isn’t for everyone, but I found myself quibbling over image quality issues that no-one looking at a print of mine on the wall is ever going to notice (Laowa 12mm review).

This image, taken at dusk with the 12mm and 5Ds is immediately printable at 22″ x 33″ (gives a 1″ border with 24″ width paper)

highcross car park at dusk taken with Laowa 12/2.8

Highcross car park in Leicester at dusk, taken with Laowa 12/2.8

A smaller print of this image using Canon’s PRO-2000 printer (testing Mirage print software)

prints on roll paper

After a few experiments making big prints with not a lot of editing or image processing, I’m more than ever convinced that the deficiencies of modern lenses, cameras, software, printers and papers are (all too often) vastly less than the deficiencies in skills, of those using them.

I’ll include myself in this, since it’s not that often I see a picture where an extra 50% pixel resolution or much increased dynamic range would seriously make a difference to what people looking at it would think of the image.

Here lies the problem for many photographers, in that it is so much easier to think that buying ‘improved’ kit will make that next big leap forward in your work.

The ‘buzz’ at the moment would seem to be ‘affordable’ medium format, which will I suspect make precious little difference to the majority of people thinking about it.

If you currently work with a crop sensor camera (eg APS-C) then the leap to sMF (‘small’ Medium Format as opposed to sensors corresponding to traditional MF film) is a big enough jump for it potentially to have quite a difference, if you have the skills to make use of it. Whether the move will ‘do anything’ for your photographic output is a whole different matter.

Not that I wouldn’t fancy trying it out ;-)

hasselblad x1d

Hasselblad x1d – nice, but does it take better photos?

When it comes down to it, a dull badly composed photo looks just as uninspiring taken on a m4/3 sensor or a larger sMF one (or a phone for that matter).

OK, who am I to call someone’s photo dull and badly composed?
Tastes differ, but I’ll continue to adopt a simple definition from David Hurn in ‘On being a photographer’  (review notes)

A good photo is one people want to look at.

I come from a generally technical background and since becoming a professional photographer at the height of the ‘switch to digital’ have realised that the level of technical competence and genuine technical understanding of many professional photographers is pretty poor. This often comes as a surprise to some of the knowledgeable amateurs I speak to at events and talks.

As I’ve pointed out in many of my ‘business of photography‘ articles, it’s business acumen that really counts if you want to make it in photography. Sure, creative vision and technical ability will help, but they are not what consistently puts food on the table.

There are obviously still areas of photography where technical advances will help – shooting weddings at high ISO and video are two areas that just don’t impinge on my work, but I can see where advances are still making life easier.

That said – the limit in producing work that people value is still more likely to be a basic creative one, along with understanding how to get the best from what you’ve already got.

One area where new kit can make a difference is that you get the chance to explore and play with it – this is one reason I like doing my reviews. The laowa 12mm lens made me think about wide composition and focus in a way that testing the EF11-24mm f4L didn’t quite do (EF11-24 review).

The entrance to Leicester Railway Station at dusk

The entrance to Leicester Railway Station at dusk – EF11-24 on Canon 5Ds

I’m looking forward to trying new (and old) stuff next year, maybe not always just to test its capabilities, but also looking to see if it encourages me to think about my photos in new ways.

The thing is, you have to actively approach change and that comes from curiosity – that and an appreciation of the ‘new toy effect’.

When testing new kit, I’m acutely aware that to the person with a new hammer, every problem looks like a nail – this is stuff to try out in my own time, not for paying clients (yet).

The Print

I’ve learnt a lot about the finer aspects of making large prints this year, with three major printer reviews, and lots of different paper types and brands. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that having a plentiful supply of ink and paper along with top notch printers, makes a difference towards my willingness to experiment.

In many ways, the advances in printing have led me back to considerations of what makes a successful print, from a photographic point of view. It’s almost like playing the piano in that the better you get at the technical side of playing, the more you hear the music itself (think of all those test prints as scales).

I’ve been asked to give a number of talks at ‘The Photography Show” in March (at the NEC in Birmingham, UK) and I’m intending to show how the path from camera to print can be a straightforward one, once you’ve sorted out your approach to editing and colour management (oh and use decent quality kit, since this -is- a camera show…)

I’ll post some details once it’s all sorted out.

keith demonstrates printing

Keith and a P7000 test print – from a 1Ds (11MP) image

Some of the areas I want to address in the coming year are a few more of the subtleties in creating and using printer profiles, and what you need to consider about an image in order to make a large print that works.

I’d note too that many of my ideas for articles and testing come from questions I’m asked by readers, so please do ask (or comment below)…

One other question I get asked over and over again is how do you decide what paper to use for an image?
In a way this needs turning round and looking at how papers affect the look of a photo – what does a textured surface add or take away from what you see and feel about a photo?

I feel more test prints are needed.

Photos for work

Having just put together quite a few examples of ‘paying work’ for the new web site, it’s time I had a look at what we offer to clients, both in the way of technical capabilities (extremely high resolution and representation of spaces) and more creative aspects (use of lighting and image editing).

Why mention that here?

Well, all too many working photographers don’t get the chance to experiment and test new ideas.

When I set up Northlight Images, I deliberately planned not to work more than a few days a week on paying jobs, so as to give plenty of opportunity for what is often known as CPD or ‘continuing professional development’.

That’s one of my ‘reasons for experimenting’ and pushing the boundaries of my work. In many ways, having this commercial side to my work gives me a sound excuse for experimenting and exploring new ideas and techniques. That and it satisfies the techy side of my nature.

If your photography is ‘just’ a hobby, then it’s perhaps time to come up with a few reasons of your own?

Photos for fun

Of course, I can see some people saying – I just take photos because I like it, why should I need a reason?

My own observation would be that all my personal advances in photography have come about when I had a reason for doing stuff, whether exploring a new lens, or a new country…

Back in April 2004 I went to Colorado with my Canon 1Ds and a few lenses, and in the process ‘got the hang of’ landscape photos with the 1Ds and digital black and white.

Storm front

Storm front: A sharp storm on the plains. Not far from Great Sand Dunes NP in Colorado.

I still have some great prints of images from that trip, and another that September to the Pacific Northwest.

hood canal in black and white

Hood Canal, WA

The fact that I enjoyed these trips is of course purely coincidental…

Things to ponder

Will I start carrying a mobile phone with me and using it for photography? – very unlikely unless I win one in a competition again (I still have the iPhone 3Gs I won in 2009 and it works as an occasional portable telephone very well).

Will I start exploring video? – maybe. I’ve had people asking me to include videos on the site for a long time and will look at incorporating some into reviews.

I’ve no intention of offering video as part of our commercial offerings, since I know enough, to know the sorts of skills and kit I need to do it really well. That’s quite a lot and if I can’t offer a truly professional and exceptional service, I’ve more than enough other areas of our photography business to expand and develop.

Will I start a ‘project’ or two? Ah… projects, the working photographer’s term for lack of paying work.

Joking apart, deciding to try out some specific ideas can prove helpful if you’re stuck for ideas on what to look at. There are no shortages of lists, whether one a day, one a week, or whatever. They can help give a reason for picking up the camera and who knows what you’ll come up with. My own problem is that such things quickly feel like school homework, something I loathed in concept and practice, right from the first time it was foist upon me.

One thing I regularly suggest people do is to simply look at more photos and learn to trust what you like and what you don’t.

I frequently buy photography books from charity shops, both collections and ‘how-to’ books just to look at the photos (film/digital, it doesn’t matter). I’m more interested in the images and what I think of them, not the photographer. I know that’s a heresy in some quarters, but I still see great photos long before I note they might be the work of a particular photographer.

Will I enter photographic competitions – no. I know that some suggest this as a route for personal development, but it is critically dependent on accepting the concept of someone saying whether your photos pass over some arbitrary bar. From seeing some so called competition judges at work, it can be arbitrary in the extreme. If you like this, then good, but please do try and cultivate and appreciate (and believe) your own criteria of what you like in a photo.

So, there’s a few things I’ll be considering for the new year – actually just writing this article started me on a few of them already, so I’d add ‘writing things down’ to the list…

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