Camera Obscura

“Don’t undertake a project, unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” Thus spake Edwin Land, the man who gave the world instant photography with the Polaroid SX-70 camera. (More on the subject: Polaroid’s SX-70: The Art and Science of the Nearly Impossible @ Technologizer.)

According to Land, the SX-70 “incorporated 20,000 technological breakthroughs”. Alas, Land died in 1991, well before the advent of digital photography. Had he lived to see the world of instant photography completely transformed, he undoubtedly would have tried to tackle the following technological (and, to be fair, social) problems:

Flash photography at a stadium concert.

Typically, a built-in flash only has power to illuminate a subject that is less than 5 m away. If you’re taking a photo of someone that you think is Bono, but can’t be sure because you could only afford the cheap seats, your flash is not going to carry that far. Of course, Bono is going to be even tinier in the resulting shot, but hey, you might get a nice overall shot of the concert experience, right? Unless it’s dark, in which case you’ll get very artistic light traces and not much else, but at least you’re not annoying everyone else with your flash going off every ten seconds.

Tip: turn off the flash.

Flash photography with an integrated flash in general.

Any integrated flash, even on a very expensive DSLR, will be located so close to the lens that the resulting photo will be very much reminiscent of a deer in headlights. A red-eyed deer, at that.

Tip: turn off the flash and either turn up the ambient light, or take the shot with a suitably powerful lens.

Mirror self-portraits.

Unless you’re Annie Leibovitz, you’re extremely unlikely to pull off a very flattering shot of yourself in this manner, so Just Don’t.

Tip: get someone else to take the shot.

Self-portraits taken holding the photo apparatus at an arm’s length.

See above.

Too many photos of the same subject.

I was recently chatting with a professional photographer about a sporting event he covered. The event in question involved building a record-size formation that only remained complete for a few seconds. I asked the pro how many shots he took. His answer: “Two.” He knew where to be for the shot he wanted, and also knew when he needed to be there, so he made sure that was the case, and took the shot. I don’t know what the spare was for—but the point is, he didn’t take the shots he knew he wouldn’t need.

Not everyone has the patience and determination to develop such a keen eye that they can only go for the money shot, and that’s fair enough. It’s probably fair to argue that to get to the point where you only need one shot, you first have to take lots of shots that don’t make the grade.

But for Moloch’s sake, there’s absolutely no need to inflict all of them on the world on Facebook, Flicker, etc. just because it’s possible. By doing so, the photographer passes the job of culling the inferior shots onto each and every viewer, and diminishes the value of the good shots in the process.

Tip: Only publish the good shots.

“Wishful thinking” photos.

Aka “If I take 200 shots, one of them must be good”. Common in low-light performance situations, such as a concert, street parade at night, etc. While it’s true that one of the 200 shots might, as if by miracle, turn out half decent, the rest of the crowd is there to enjoy the performance, which is something that the hapless photographer will totally miss out on by viewing it through a LCD screen.

Tip: only publish the good shots, not the ones that would be good if not for the fact that they aren’t.

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