Category Archives: Opinions

Opinions of the author, and the occasional soap-box rant

The 50mm Focal Length: Boring

For years I have held a strong distain for the 50mm focal length.

Inexplicably, I hitherto had never ranted about it here.

To me, 50mm is an utterly useless and boring focal length, and I do not quite understand why so many people bother with it.

On the 35mm camera system, 50mm is considered a ‘standard’ focal length, meaning that its focal distance is approximately equivalent to the diagonal length of the focal plane (film or sensor).  A 35mm sensor or film frame measures 43.3mm diagonally.

The problem with the 50mm focal length, for me, is that it is neither wide (which I love), or long (which I love).  It doesn’t provide an interesting view in the form of a wide vista of a picturesque scene, and it doesn’t provide a close view of the details of a distant subject (such as the face of a lion or leopard from a distance).

Perhaps what appeals about 50mm to many people is the fact that one can buy a fast prime cheaply.  A 50mm f/1.8 lens is very inexpensive, which gives people an easy and cheap entry point into the world of fast lenses and prime lenses.

Decades ago, 35mm SLR cameras came with 50mm lenses — 50mm was the ‘kit lens’ of the day.  Sure, there are 50mm lenses with wider apertures of f/1.4f/1.2, f/1 and even f/0.95; but the purchase price exponentially rises with each third-, half- or full-stop.

While I find 50mm useless on a 35mm camera system, I also find it useless on an APS-C camera, as the focal length provides a field of view equivalent to 75mm (Nikon) or 80mm (Canon), which for general photography, and indeed many specific types of photography, makes it a ‘no-man’s-land’ focal length, and quite an uninteresting one at that.

It’s good for portraiture in terms of framing, but it is to be remembered that it is still a 50mm lens, so it is not as effective at achieving flattering portraits as an actual 85mm lens.  All an APS-C camera does, when a full-frame (135-format; aka 35mm) lens is mounted on it, is crop the view (ie, the smaller sensor cannot ‘see’ the entire, larger imaging circle of the lens).  The focal length is not magnified.  The only way to get the magnification of a longer lens is to use a longer lens.

Perhaps people who engage in street photography or portraiture (with an APS-C camera) might find 50mm useful, but in my experience, it’s not at all useful for anything I shoot.  I love my 85mm lens, but it tends to get used only for portraits, and it gives me the actual benefits of the focal length, including, but not limited to, the framing.

So there you go: a few thoughts on what I consider to be the most boring focal length in the known universe.

Images are not free, people!

Over the years, I have received numerous requests to use my images in publications.

This morning I received another.

As usual, the person wanted the image for zero cost, offering only to provide credit if I waived my fee.

Naturally, I declined.

I really wish the general public would divorce itself of the notion that photographic images should be provided at no cost to anyone who asks.

I also wish the general public would understand that providing merely a credit in some obscure publication is not even slightly commensurate with what goes into my images.

A few years ago, an architectural firm, which had contracts with major, well-known sites, was interested in licensing up to six of my architectural images for use on its Web site and in printed media.

I provided a per-image price, with a bulk discount if the firm purchased a licence for all six images; and granted a non-exclusive, perpetual licence to use the image(s) in the company’s advertising/promotional material and other literature.

The only conditions were that copyright was to remain with me; that the images could not be modified beyond resizing, cropping and text/graphical overlays (eg, Web site); and that I was to be credited.

The rep responded as follows:

“That is ridiculous.  Earlier this year I had a photo shoot with an reputable architectural photographer and received 15 photos for the price of one of your photos.  Not to mention half of the restrictions.”

I responded as follows:

“I’m sorry you feel that way, but like quality architecture, quality imagery is not cheap, especially when the licence allows you to use it forever in your company’s materials.

If you can find a photographer who is willing to give you everything for next to nothing, then my advice is to do that.”

If I had contacted this architectural firm and asked it to redesign the interior of our home for a few hundred dollars, I would have been told to go and jump into a lake.

Another person who contacted me wanted to use one of my images on the cover of his book.  I was offered a two-digit sum.

Really?  Come on!

People and companies are so willing to under-value photography, offering only these dangling apples:

  1. “you will receive credit”;
  2. “it’s a great opportunity to establish yourself in this field of photography”; and
  3. “you’ll have the opportunity to make a name for yourself”.

And yes, the architectural firm did dangle these apples.

Unfortunately for people who want free images:

  1. credit is an unequivocally insufficient form of currency;
  2. I’m not trying to establish myself in this field of photography; and
  3. I don’t want to make a name for myself.

If content publishers or large commercial organisations want to use my images to generate revenue and publicity, then I want my slice.  The only form of acceptable currency is proper money.

Some of the people who have contacted me are from non-profit organisations, or otherwise by their admission do not have budgets for photography.  Sorry, but even NPOs have running costs, and using images as revenue-generation devices is an operational cost.

It incenses me that photography has become so de-valued these days.

While there are photographers out there who will bite the cheap dangling apples, I will not.

I place value on my work, and I will not give it away to anyone who asks.

People asking for free images should consider their own responses if the tables were turned.  How would they respond if someone asked them to provide their products and services for zero cost, or the promise to tell the world what nice people/companies they were?

Photographic Mojo MIA

I’ve come to the realisation that my photographic mojo is missing in action.

During the past six to eight months, I have not spent a lot of time in the field.

The notable exception was our huge African trip last October, where wildlife photography — quite a deviation from my usual subject matter — was a massive part of that, and I came away with some extremely pleasing images and life-changing, unforgettable experiences.

Upon our return, I went on on seascaping session with a friend, who has got more into seacaping.  I was not pleased with my images from that morning, and consequently never published them.  I have not shot a seascape since.

For quite a few years, seascape imagery was my bread and butter, as it were.  I’d be out almost weekly or fortnightly, chasing pre-dawn images by the ocean.

We’ve recently returned from Israel, where I shot architectural interiors and the odd landscape.  I landed some images I’ve wanted.

However, since returning, I have not been motivated to shoot at all.

Being on six weeks’ leave, I have had plenty of time and opportunity, but I have elected not to bother heading out.

Right now my headspace is not so much pre-occupied with other matters; it’s just not in gear for photography at all.  Maybe next week I’ll head out for a dusk/twilight cityscape shoot, but it’s telling that I have not bothered to shoot at all.  Usually on my annual leave, I like to get out there at times when the schedules of daily life are not obstacles; but no, not this time.

Let’s hope my mojo returns.  Right now, it’s missing in action.

I’ve had these periods of downtime quite a few times now, and I recognise that I simply have to weather the storm, and wait until I get the itch again.  The most difficult part is not knowing when that desire will return.  It’s not gone; it’s just on holiday for an unspecified period.

500px

Many photographers would have heard of 500px, a relatively new image hosting site, which focuses on high-quality work.  The site has existed since 2009, but has only become very popular in the last year or two.

The idea of 500px is that photographers upload their best work rather than use it as a generic dumping ground for images, which tends to be the case with other photography sites such as Flickr.

By all means, Flickr has some great images, and for me it is ‘home’, but it is used by many people who aren’t photographers as such, but like to upload 300 straight-from-camera images of the same house party (for instance).

For serious photographers, the key to any site is to surround oneself with the right people — people whose work is a source of inspiration or simple viewing pleasure.

The calibre of work on 500px is outstanding, but of course there is some mediocre snapshot-type material there too; although from what I have seen, there is far less of the latter.

I established my own presence on 500px in May.

The site works based on a popularity ranking system for images.  Viewers can vote and ‘fave’ images, and votes contribute to what 500px calls an image’s ‘pulse’.  This is a score from zero to 100, and naturally higher is better.

The more popular a photo becomes, the higher it moves up the ranks of the popular images section, which many photographers including myself use for inspiration and pure viewing pleasure.

The secret algorithm behind the pulse system also progressively decreases an image’s pulse over time so that new work has the opportunity to work its way up the ranks and gain visibility in the top ranks of the popular images section.

Very similarly to the way the Explore system works on Flickr, a catch-22 situation exists where in order for one’s images to gain popularity, one’s images must have achieved some level of popularity in the first place.

One naturally needs to upload powerful, evocative, technically excellent images which will attract attention in the first place, but to my mind it seems that there is more to an imaging achieving popularity and visibility than that pure approach alone.

The first issue is timing.  Images need to be uploaded early in the ‘day’ — and I use the term loosely, because it is not known (to me at least) when the ‘day’ (ie, a 24-hour period) begins.  The site is Canadian, but naturally as it attracts members from all over the world,  people’s days (and the times they have to upload images) varies.

The site unfortunately has a very controversial and unpopular ‘feature’ called disliking.  Quite opposite to liking an image, underneath the option to do so exists an explcit link titled “I don’t like this photo”.

A click of that terse link detracts from an image’s pulse, and from what I have read, a negative vote has a more significant pulse-altering impact that a positive vote.

A few minutes worth of reading the site’s support forums will quickly reveal that the dislike feature is extremely unpopular, and many people (myself included) feel that people use this to manipulate the site.  Specifically, I have heard of claims that some people whose images are increasing in popularity will go out of their way to cast a dislike vote upon competing images, so that their own images can increase in popularity to the detriment of other people’s images.

Unfortunately 500px’s staff provide the usual canned response that more or less denies that front page manipulation and vitriolic disliking exists, and that people who suspect abuse should privately email the site’s support email address.

If you ask me, I believe the practice of pulse manipulation is rampant.

Yesterday I uploaded an image which has proved to be the most popular and actively voted/faved/commented image in my gallery, and it very quickly rose through the ranks. What I noticed in addition to all the positive responses was that it received three dislike votes, which pushed it further down the ranks.

What I also noticed yesterday was that another image came almost out of nowhere, very rapidly gaining a higher ranking than mine, and later slipping back by a significant amount.  I strongly suspect that some people did not like the surge of popularity that image achieved, and went about casting dislike votes to cut the ‘tall poppy’ down.  I was as surprised to see its dramatic fall as its monumental rise.

Personally I believe that kind of behaviour is disgusting, and an extremely low, vile act.  One should achieve merit through one’s own achievements, not due to manipulation or sabotaging of other people’s achievements.

While there are many images on 500px that I don’t personally like (art is subjective, after all), I would never seek to actively cast a dislike vote against them.  I’d rather spend my time clicking on something I do like, rather than engaging in what I consider to be a childish, detrimental act.

By all means, one need not be concerned about popularity.  I don’t consider myself to be a popular photographer, and being featured on the front page of image hosting sites, while it’s very nice and strokes the ego considerably, is not something that drives me or serves as a reason for existing on such a site.

If you can avoid all of the pulse manipulation, 500px is a fantastic site on which to maintain a gallery, and see the work of some truly fantastic photographers.  Many of my esteemed Flickr contacts also have galleries on 500px, so I follow their work on both sites.

My own approach is to be quite selective about what I upload to 500px.  Of my collection of my personal favourite images on Flickr, not even one fifth of them appear on 500px.  I want 500px to represent the best of my best work, so I am selective about what I publish.

The site also offers members the ability to sell images, but a few years ago I made the decision to discontinue selling.  Photography for me isn’t a financial motivator; it’s something about which I am passionate, and I shoot on my own terms only.  Money does not factor into it.  That’s just my personal approach.

In summary, if one is not fazed by the popularity ranking system and consequent vitriolic manipulation which I’m sure (but cannot prove) exists, 500px has a voluminous collection of outstanding images, which for a fine-art photographer subject to peaks and troughs, can provide enough inspiration to get out and shoot when life’s happenings and one’s general mood would otherwise stifle that.

Check it out.

Time Changes Perspective

Often when reviewing images upon my return from a photography session, I have a clear idea of which images are the winners that will be processed and published, and which will be skipped.

However, I’ve found — especially after one recent photoshoot — that some time away from one’s images can change one’s perspective.

A fortnight ago I shot some dawn seascape images along the south Cronulla coastline, at a spot called Blackwoods Beach, which I had previously never shot.

One of the images I processed, a number of days after the shoot, was an image I had decided not to use.

This is the resulting image:

Blue Mist

Blue Mist

As it turned out, I was quite pleased with the image, and the style of post-processing I applied to bring out a darker, more dramatic feel to what was generally a gloomy morning.

The lesson here is that sometimes an image we see and initially discount, can later take on a different look and feel after some time away.

My advice is to review older images and see if there is a hidden gem, whose sparkle and shine some time away from the screen can bring.

 

Photographic Purgery

I’ve just been purging — that is, the culling of no-longer-desirable photographic images from my gallery, not the more serious meaning of the word.

This morning when looking through my gallery, I saw some older images of mine, and started to think about culling them.

It can be quite difficult to look back on old images, as first and foremost, some of them are really quite mediocre and feature subjects and lighting conditions that wouldn’t elicit even the slightest consideration nowadays; and secondly, many of them were taken during a time when I was trying to re-discover myself.

Many of those earlier images remind me of the times, people and places I experienced at those times, but their relevance at this stage of my photographic and life journey has diminished almost to the point of complete irrelevance.

Then there’s the issue of my perfectionism and the high standards I set for myself.  My choices of subject, lighting and image quality these days is worlds apart from the choices I made in my early days of DSLR photography; and that’s to be expected as one develops one’s skills and finds what one really likes, photographically.

Many of those images are simply not of a standard by which I’d want to be judged, or what I’d want others to stumble upon or seek out.  They’re not a part of who and where I am today as a person and as a photographer.

While I’ve culled a few images, I’ve no doubt there are many more that can be bit-bucketed.  I’ve only scratched the surface, and I’ll undoubtedly send quite a few more packing in the days or weeks to come.

It’s a somewhat therapeutic experience to look back on old, mediocre images and purge them.  Of course, I have the original images I captured; but I cannot see them ever appearing in my online gallery again.  They’ll remain in my archives as a reminder of my photographic and self journey, but the rest of the world doesn’t need to see them.

I’d encourage any photographer with an online gallery to look back at that early, ordinary (or even dreadful) stuff and decide whether it’s representative of one’s current photographic or life status, and give consideration to doing some spring cleaning, which is healthy for both the mind and the photographic gallery.

To Shoot or Not to Shoot…

I headed out for a dawn seascape shoot this morning, and to my disappointment, the conditions were appalling.

The sky was mostly plain, with the fairly typical annoying clump of dark cloud right on the horizon.  The very few patches of good cloud were mostly in the wrong places.

The conditions, apart from being utterly boring, were extremely difficult for exposure, even with GND filters.

I made the decision not long after being there, that I wasn’t going to shoot.

The light just was not right, and for some landscape/seascape and even wildlife photographers, the light and combination of sky and cloud, is crucial to the shot working or not.

So, this raises the question:  If the conditions are not right, should you shoot, or should you not shoot?

Some people would take the view of making the best of the present situation, or shooting anyway, since they are already there.

Others decide that good enough is not good enough, and that they want a certain type of image which requires a certain type or quality of light.

For me, while the notion of making the best of a bad situation has a certain positive outlook about it and is otherwise commendable, I am extremely fussy about light and want a certain look, quality of light and feel to my images, so I elect to back off the shutter release if the conditions are unfavourable.

I’ve noticed that the hard-core ‘scapers whose work I follow, rarely ever publish an image captured in in sub-optimal light.

I’m not a bird photographer, but I’ve also noticed that those guys are very fussy about light and tend to favour images of their favourite feathered friends basking in golden hour light.

At the end of the day, it comes down to good light or bust.

Fortunately I have the liberty to decide that pressing the shutter release isn’t worth it; the only demand I face is that I set for myself in capturing the image I want.