Beaten by the pros. Or, you can’t win.

Years ago, about 1995, I guess, (I just googled the shit out of it, and can’t find anything about it online) there was a massive fire just up the street from where I now live. I just happened to be right nearby, because there’s a road with a train crossing about 100m away, and I was standing there that morning (hopefully) taking pictures of passing trains.

I heard the sirens first, and looked around and saw the smoke. I walked over, and saw the blaze. I was there before any other press showed up, and at the time, there was only one fire truck, and the Fire Marshall’s vehicle.

Naturally, I started taking pictures.

Within minutes, a fleet of other fire trucks showed up, spilling out frantic firemen doing their jobs, and a hoard of police, ambulance, and rescue service vehicles had arrived on the scene.

Then the press showed up. 

Because they were press, they seemed to be able to ignore the security tape strung from pole to pole with impunity, so I thought to myself, “I’ll just go where they go, and try to blend in.” Short of having press credentials, it wasn’t too hard, because back then, I had my (slightly obsolete, but still quite useful) Nikon F3, with a motor drive, and a couple of good lenses.  Adding to my credibility, I saw a pro photographer in the pack, who had an identical set-up as mine!

I was super excited to be standing among the pros, even though they just nonchalantly banged off shots as if they were doing rote photography of students for a high school yearbook. 

I had the gear, I was in the right place, at the right time, and I still recall that I was shooting with Kodak Ektachrome 100 slide film, so I knew I had the ‘pro’ level quality for everything.

Now, the rest was up to whether I was capable.

I fired off two rolls of 36 frames -that was all I had on me at the time, and figuring I’d gotten all I could, with what I had, I jumped on my bike, and headed down to the lab to get my stuff processed. Normally, it would take a couple of days to get slides back from the lab, but because it was still morning, and because I was a good customer (I’d spent thousands in that place getting stuff developed over the years) they told me they might be able to get it back to me by the end of the day!

I grabbed a few more rolls of Ektachrome, then went back to the fire, and shot off another couple of rolls of the last of the blaze being extinguished, and the mess being cleaned up. 

I was dying to see what I had gotten that morning, and so later that day, just before the shop closed, I went back to the lab to get my slides.

Well… I was a little impressed with myself. I had captured different scenes that showed the drama of the fire from various angles, as well as the brave (and I’m not saying that lightly here. In places, where I was standing, the heat was ferocious. They were much closer. And the massive walls that eventually came crashing down could have fallen on them at any time!) firemen working hard to douse the inferno.

I was pleased with myself!

I watched the news coverage of the fire that night on TV, and found out that it was one of the biggest blazes Toronto had seen in decades. Firemen from all over southern Ontario were called in to help. Fortunately, apart from a few cases of smoke inhalation, no one was seriously hurt.

I was curious to see what the papers would print the next day. Surely, what I had gotten would stand with what they were going to print?

The next morning, I went out to the news box to grab the dailies, to see the shots that they used.

Taking up almost a whole half page on the front of The Toronto Star, was an overhead shot taken from a helicopter! A mutherfucking HELICOPTER!!  How the fuck do you compete with that?!? I never stood a chance…

The above two shots are survivors of that long ago shoot. As mentioned, both started out their lives as slides, but were digitally duped. From the first, I can definitely tell it was Ektachrome. It’s got that saturated red and blue look to it. The second was robbed of it’s colour by yours truly.

Breaking some rules

Sometimes, you’ve just gotta chuck the rules. Sometimes, things like motion blur, out of focus subjects, grossly over, or under-exposed light are part of the story.

The photojournalism approach. Get the shot, even at the expense of technique.

However, the best photojournalists know know all the rules, and know how to break them in ways that actually add to the story they’re trying to tell. Unless you’re trying to do something like Richard Billingham, that, to me, seems the way to go.

Make the effort trying to learn -or at least understand all the rules, then, spend the rest of your life mostly trying to ignore them.

The above, from a purely technical standpoint, are rather shitty photos, but putting them into context allows me to ignore all the flaws.

The first, taken with a phone cam, is someone doing what we’ve all done plenty of times before. Getting out of the rain.

The next two, were taken the night the Raptors won the NBA championship. People were running amok, celebrating, and high-fiving strangers. (If you’ve ever thought of getting into street photography, start by going to a big celebratory event, or something like it. People are more likely to want to have their photos taken, or are at least more accepting.)

It was nearing midnight, on a Tuesday, so obviously, the lack of light was going to be a big concern. High ISOs, and the lowest possible shutter speeds I could get away with, meant there was going to be some grain, and motion blur. 

I’m no photojournalist, that’s for sure, but I thought of some of the things that I had learned -wide angle lens; get in close; shoot lots, and did my best.

I’m happy with what I got.

Liar liar pants on fire!

All photography lies. 

And I’m not just talking about the obvious photo manipulation with Photoshop

Our eyes just don’t ‘see’ like a camera does.

For starters, we have stereoscopic vision. 

Then, there’s the fact that our eyes have way more dynamic range what used to be known as ‘exposure latitude -the range between the lightest, and darkest things in a given scene that we can distinguish) than any camera ever invented. Our eyes ‘auto-focus’ blows away even the top professional DSLRS; and if you’re in good health, your eyes can distinguish between 100,000, and ten million (depending on the source) different colours.

Pretty bloody incredible, huh?

But the most amazing part of how we see, is our processor. Our brains.

We don’t see in static images like a photograph -although we can, if we choose- we see in composites. Our eyes are constantly scanning what we are looking at, and compiling all of the input to give us an ‘image.’

That’s what Picasso was doing -or trying to say, when he broke all the rules with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

He was trying to show more than one perspective at the same time. Trying to say, ‘this is how we really see the world.’

And we do. Our world is not static. Whether our subject is moving, or we are moving, or whether it’s our eyes scanning an image, things are in motion.

Anyone who’s ever tried to doodle a human face has come across this problem before. Eyes? Not too hard. Couple of pointy ovals, with circles, and dots in them. Looks, more or less, like an eye. Mouth? Same thing. Rough crescent shape, with a curving horizontal slash through the middle to imply lips.

Now the nose. Oh shit. Now I’ve got to consider perspective. Do I shade? Do I just draw a slightly off axis  slash to suggest depth?

Unless you’re blind, everyone knows what a nose looks like. Committing that idea to paper with a pencil, however, is what separates the women from the girls.

Cameras, though, are big fat lying liars. They turn 3D images into 2D. They can force a perspective to fool us. They can create false depth of field…  Good artists, and architectural designers know this, and can use it to their creative benefit.

Then, there’s the other type of bullshitting. The type I’m most guilty of.

For starters, unless we have something seriously wrong with our eyes, and or brain, we don’t see in black and white. Then, there’s the ‘taking liberties’ aspect of creating an image -what most photographers call post processing. You know, all that Photoshop, or Lightroom shit, which is why I included the above images.

Image #1 is the set-up. The tools I use to create the lie. The only thing missing is the dollar store flashlight that I used for my ‘spotlight.’

#2 is the shot. What the camera saw. By using cunning, and deceit, (and a couple of bucks spent at the dollar store) I have you believe that my kitchen table, with it’s boring overhead lighting, is actually a sterile, controlled studio environment.

#3 is the finishing touches, and resulting payoff. If you look closely, you can see that I’ve cloned out a couple of spots that I thought were distracting. There’s a speck of flaked wood just below the right of the subject that I removed. There’s also some kind of flaw in the cheap paper that I was using, just to the left of the pointy end.

Click click. Gone!

Then, I adjusted the contrast, and lighting a bit to bring out a bit more depth, and voila! The lie is complete.

I’m a bullshitter supreme! 

So, if you’ve ever wondered why your photographs aren’t looking the way you’d like, or you just cant figure out why your images aren’t as good as that guy up the street with the fancy camera, maybe it’s just because you’re not as full of shit as some of us are.

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