Photographic trends I just don’t understand

It is no mystery that I have a passion for photography. Having published two books and posting regularly on my Flickr stream, and knowing the theory of optics in addition to just snapping around, I think I know what I’m doing. Mind you, this does not mean I consider myself an artist. It may sound cliché, but I am strongly convinced that artist is a definition that others should cast upon you, rather that something you call yourself. In fact, despite what I am often told, I do not feel like my photography is that good. It’s not false modesty: I really don’t think so.

However, ever since the introduction of cheap compact cameras (and, god forbid, cheap reflex cameras), photography became mainstream. There is nothing inherently wrong with it – the more the merrier, right? – yet there are some trends in photography that I simply do not understand, and some that are just plain bad. Needless to say, these annoyances are most often perpetrated by hipsters or (gasp!) wannabe hipsters. Now, it has to be clarified that my concept of hipster includes not just the traditional, American-ish hipster, but more generally all those “subcultures” – trust me, quotes were never more appropriate – that strive to be alternative and ultimately fail to be unique. This includes, admittedly due to my cultural vantage point, the decadent leit-motif that seems to permeate the life of Italian teenage girls and young women. I may write specifically about this matter, as it’s not specific to photography.

So, without further ado, let me present a roundup of the most annoying trends in photography today. It goes without saying that this is merely my personal opinion.

Straight out of camera (SOOC)

Try running a search for SOOC on Flickr. At the time of writing, it yields over 500,000 results. Are the all ugly pictures? No, not at all. That would be most unfair to say. However, I just do not understand why anyone would want to show off that the picture was entirely unedited, as if it were demanding credit for their ability.

While I can guess their reasoning – “I don’t need to photoshop my photos to make them look good” – it comes with a side effect that apparently they fail to see: it’s like saying “I have a good camera”; but my point is: you just purchased that camera and lens, you didn’t engineer it. You have nothing to brag about.

I am not deliberately bashing SOOC-ists here, for many years ago I used to think that post-production was evil too. I tried to get the best out of my then compact cameras, and it did pay off in the end, because it made me learn many things about imaging systems and optics that I probably would have never cared about if I had just run to tweak the levels to compensate for horrid exposure choices.

I love reflex

This is somewhat linked to the equipment show-off of SOOC-ists. With the ever dropping prices of digital single lens reflex cameras, or dSLR for short, more and more people are purchasing them. Again, this is not inherently bad: I have a dSLR too. My gripe is that these people get a cheap camera – before anybody complains: mine is a cheap camera too, and it’s over six years old – and think they are the artistic heir of Ansel AdamsAnnie Leibovitz or, for the most decadent of the group, Diane Arbus.

It’s simply ridiculous. A reflex camera doesn’t make you a true photographer any more than standing in a bike shed makes you a bicycle. Moreover, most of these new artists only ever use the infamous 18-55 mm kit lens, simply because they have absolutely no idea what focal length or aperture is. They also shoot in auto mode, only venturing towards traditional priority modes when they are bored and start wondering what they are, but fail to grasp the mathematical correlation between variables they are simply unaware of. Manual mode appears complicated to a few of them; to the others, the random results raise a silent doubt that their toy may be broken.

Of course, this is often not a concern as the camera is usually paid for by parents. If they were purchased by the photographers themselves, there would at least be more knowledge of how they work. We all tend to make the best out of what we worked hard to afford.

The Seventies are the new sepia

It is said that one can tell when a generation reaches its failure point when its members start being nostalgic about an epoch they never lived. If that’s true, we’re doomed.

Instagram may be seen as some as a refreshing novelty, but the truth is that it’s so overdone and artificial that it’s long gotten out of hand. It takes more than a “pretty” old-style filter to turn the picture of a teacup into a piece of art, yet more and more people are willing to pay for the thrill of sharing the same uniqueness as a few million other people. And just like sepia, all of these photos look dull.

Moreover, what makes more sense than spending hundreds of euros or dollars on a camera or smartphone and topping up a few more coins on an app like that, in order to simulate old and/or broken equipment? But wait, it gets better: here comes…

“Analog” is the way to go

We just don’t get it, they tell us: how can we not understand how much more beautiful analog photos are? And indeed, I cannot understand what that’s even supposed to mean. This irks me on more than one level, because it borders with linguistics.

First of all, I think that calling it “analog” is incorrect. While film certainly is a continuous system rather than a discrete one, I find it surprising that the same wannabe artists who claim to have found the holy grail that finally lets them express themselves will reduce it to a matter of analog vs. digital. What makes “analog” photography so much better, according to them? Film. So why not call it “film photography?” It also sounds more poetic.

Indeed, film has a much wider exposure latitude – and, consequently dynamic range – than even the best digital imaging sensor, or at least negative film does; slides are another story. But do they know any of this? Most of the “analog” photos touted by these people are improperly exposed (admittedly, quite a feat with negative film!), developed and printed by cheap automated minilabs, and digitized at low resolution using scanners that are little more than toys. What’s the point of all of this?

Again, the problem here is that these photographers are oftentimes just teenagers who are not paying for their hobby out of their own pocket. One of the reasons most photographers I know – myself included, obviously – shoot digital is that it’s much more cost-effective. You buy the camera, the lenses, the accessories, the memory cards and you’re good to go for a few years. And you get much more mileage, waste zero cents on tossed pictures, retain detailed information on each shot (EXIF was an invaluable tool to me when I was learning the theory of photography.) Conversely, “analog” photography requires you to buy film beforehand, spend time loading it up, only offers at most 36 pictures per roll – though you can stretch that to 37 or 38 if your camera has a good winding system – and you have to pay to have it developed and printed, then you have to scan it back to post it online. All of this takes time and leaves you at the mercy of the minilab.

Now, I want to point out something important here. I am not bashing film photography at all. Once a year or so I whimsically get a roll of film and take out my father’s Pentax ME Super for a ride; I even bought two more lenses for it a few years back. But I am simply not going to ever claim that digital is fake, because I simply cannot afford to work with film all the time and even if I could, I wouldn’t. The kind of photography I do is often impulsive, in a “seize the moment” style; for that, and especially for macrophotography, I need to be able to take a long stream of pictures in a short period of time, and see results immediately. And I need the highest quality I can get, which means 16-bit RAW files. Even for those with lower requirements, it makes absolutely no sense to use a medium that theoretically provides better results (negative film) and have it crippled by mediocre development and printing services and hideous scanners, especially as negatives are unique, whereas files can be duplicated, restored and worked on all over again as many times as needed.

Still, I know some fellow photographers who know how to deal with negative film, understand its strengths and shortcomings, and either develop and print them on their own, or go to (expensive) labs where the procedure is supervised by people who know what they’re doing. They also use film specifically for what they need – this wonderful dusk landscape by my friend Daniele Faieta was shot on the highly praised Velvia 50, craftfully using its ability to record warm light to obtain such cozy mood – and at times even doing unconventional things such as overexposing and underdeveloping.

But promoting “analog” at all costs gets even worse…

Lomography, or the art of randomness

I just don’t understand lomography. I just don’t. It makes no sense to me. For those who don’t know, Lomography is a “global community” (though it’s actually a trademark by Lomographische AG) whose motto is “Don’t think, just shoot” and promotes “ten golden rules” about how to do it. It’s the ultimate hipster manifesto. Be fast, try the shot from the hip, you don’t have to know what’s in the frame before you shoot, and the unmissable one: don’t worry about rules. Sounds fun, right? I guess it is. We all experiment with our cameras, especially digital ones: it’s free, fun, and delivers immediate satisfaction.

The problem is that this is done on film cameras – sorry, “analog” cameras – with two peculiar details: first of all, it doesn’t use 135 film (the typical little rolls we all know and love), but 120 or 220 film (the kind used in Medium Format cameras), which is somewhat more expensive and difficult to find, and possibly more expensive to develop because minilabs don’t normally work with them. But the most amazing thing about this whole thing is that the camera are deliberately defective: the build quality is poor, they have low-quality plastic lenses that create heavy vignetting and aberrations of all kinds, the bodies leak light. The shutter is often mechanic and its speed fixed, the aperture cannot be changed, and all of this is compensated by on-camera flashes, though it generally falls short of providing even illumination. This is because the “original” Russian-made LOMO camera, the LC-A, was pretty much like that (but without a built-in flash), but western clones are definitely more expensive. It’s an enormous, worldwide niche market.

The results are pretty much horrid, yet followers of this movement swear that it’s what photography should truly be like, because it’s instinctive. It is not just the looks they go after – admittedly, in some (rare) cases lomo-like effects can be a nice addition to a properly taken picture – but also and especially the experience. That’s exactly what Instagram is about, and we have come full circle.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder: what would Ansel Adams think of this? He who walked miles across mountains with thirty pounds worth of equipment together with a burro that carried another hundred, and needed half an hour just to set his glass plate 6-1/2 x 8-1/2 camera up? His shutter was a piece of wood he physically removed to let the light reach the plate. Oh, how the concept of “artist” changes…

  • Luca

    I almost agree with everything, apart of the SOOC thing.

    I used to write SOOC on some of my past shots, but just on those where the result could be deemed as “edited”. The intention wasn’t to outline that I have a “great gear” or that “I’m too good to use Photoshop”. I’m still in the learning phase, and it has been very useful for me to read SOOC on some shots, just to realize what is possible to do only with the camera without mastering Image Editing Softwares.

    Great article by the way.

    Luca

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