Summertime snippets

I am just settling into place in India, where I will be for much of the next six weeks. I am here partly because my daughter is volunteering at a school working with under-served children in Bangalore, India. I am also here because it is a great place to photograph (and spend part of the summer.) With summer and the idea of vacation in mind, my blog entries over next couple months may be shorter, the result of my own efforts to enjoy my holiday.

This blog entry explores a couple questions that I have been dealing with over the last few weeks. I decided to write about them because people often wonder what a photographer does all day. The short answer is “surprisingly little photography and far too much of all the other stuff,” be that office work, marketing, planning, digital image processing, etc., etc., etc.

Much of what I do is figure out “other” things out so I can get on to the next thing I want to do. These two questions do not merit long posts on their own but are definitely worth a few paragraphs of writing on my part (and reading on your part.)

In no particular order:

Based on my own experiences and e-mail exchanges with other photographers, beware of the double-edged sword that exists with IS/VR technology that is found in many of the latest cameras and lenses. In those Internal Stabilization/Vibration Reduction systems, tiny machines, mostly gyroscopes inside lenses or camera bodies create extra stability enabling photographers to work at slower shutter speeds.

With that technology we can now handhold our cameras and photograph at settings a few shutter speeds lower than we used to be able to do. In theory it is a great idea and like most other photographers, I have become used to it already…. But…..

I spend a fair amount of time encountering photographers who go so far into the lower shutter speeds that they still end up with blurry images. The IS/VR can help to a point, but it is NOT a panacea (nor is it a replacement for a tripod.) It is a tool that is best used when it is only fully understood (and after a great deal of practice.)

In my own work, have been reminded, sometimes the hard way, how good the IS/VR technology can be, even when I might not want it to be. When I was photographing moving objects using panning techniques, I was stunned at how good the IS/VR is at overcoming the effects of panning. The machine literally canceled out the panning, much to my amazement (and annoyance until I figured out why my “pans” were not working.) So, like with any tool, understanding how to use it and when to turn it off is very important!

Some of the newer lenses/cameras actually allow you to control which axis the technology stabilizes. Thus, you can have the machinery reduce any vertical movement while allowing horizontal panning (or vice versa.) Again, like with any tool, understanding when to use it at which setting is very important!

On another note, I recently received and responded to a fascinating email that went:

Dear Mr. Wells,

My name is …. and I work for …. and…. , photography collectors who have a piece of yours in their collection. I am working to appraise their holdings and I was wondering if you could help me with the current value for your piece….

For me the challenge was how to respond. I wanted to answer her question as a courtesy, but I was also a bit bemused by the note. After thinking it through, I replied:

You sound like a nice person so I will save you the longer speech about what any photo is worth and simply say the current value of my image is:

–what ever the market will bear…

–a lot less than it will be after I am dead…

–I am a photojournalist/commercial photographer. If you wanted to buy that image today I would ask $400. Who knows what I would get. Your employers did not pay that much.

–My work is not “collected” so I have no market reports/auction data to offer. Sorry not to be of any real help.

I do not doubt that the writer was well intentioned and she was doing her job. Similarly, I owed her some kind of response. And yes, I would certainly like to have my work collected as much as the next fine-art photographer.

On the other hand, my college study in the history of photography has made me very suspicious of the valuations placed on any kind of fine-art photography. Calculating the purported worth of anything as personal and subjective as art is rather a gamble. That is because purchasing decisions are so heavily based on personal preferences, inclinations and fads, whether in the world of NYC art galleries or in the minds of private photography collectors.

Both of these questions reminded me that a little healthy skepticism goes a long way, anywhere in the photography world. In both cases, my job was to raise a hand and say, “yes, but what about…. “

In the case of the IS/VR that might go something like “Yes, but what about the fact that the technology is not a crutch to depend on and the fact that it can actually cancel out what I am trying to do…?” In the latter case, “Yes, but what about the fact that valuing photographs is so dependent on tastes, trends and whims, that it’s a lot like hitting a moving target?” Asking questions and challenging assumptions is a job that everybody should do and this week, it seems to have fallen especially to me.

One response to “Summertime snippets”

  1. I note that professional (think big, big glass) fast (fast focusing and low F stop) caliber telephoto lenses, have long had controls for stabilization by axis. My now 7 year old Canon EF 70-200 2.8L IS has such control options.

    I had to learn the hard way that IS can actually cause shaky images when shooting nighttime, tripod mounted long exposures and that its a best practice for that kind of shooting to disable IS.

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