from discovery to technique to tic

How often is what you do, more a ‘tic’ than ‘discovery’? I think that there are really three stages in approach to picture making:

  1. Discovery

  2. Technique

  3. Tic

Discovery is when we learn something new. Learning something new can come about by accident. While attempting to use a tried and tested formula, something may go wrong and we find out that the result is quite pleasing. It can also come about by simply putting ourselves outside of our comfort zone deliberately. Discovery in our art is what makes us grow and change, but it is not responsible for us fine-tuning what we do.

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Technique is when we learn to do something well. We adopt new practices, or take on something we haven’t done before but we need to fine-tune it. Fine tuning comes from practice, from doing things many times so we learn to understand where the boundaries are in any new technique we have and where the sweet spot is.

The last stage is when any adopted technique becomes more a ‘tic’ than intentional technique. What I mean by ‘tic’ is that we stop thinking about it and we just tend to apply it without any thought. Sometimes this is good - such as muscle memory - we know instinctively where the right buttons are on our equipment for instance, or we simply know we need to balance a scene against a false horizon and not use a spirit level….

But there is also the negative-tic. The kind of tic you do all the time, the one that has no thought behind it except that ‘it’s what I always do’. This kind of tic in our working methods is dangerous because it can lead to our work becoming predictable, and to us falling into a rut with what we do. For example: always setting the tripod up at the same height (something I see with some participants - every single shot they make is always taken from the same height). This is a ‘tic’ - a practice that is done with no thought applied.

I think all three stages of Discovery, Technique and Tic are valid as they are natural parts of the life-cycle in us adopting working practices. But I think that Discovery is crucial to moving us forward, as too is Technique. Tic on the other hand needs to be watched carefully, because this stage of any of our approach can lead to a lack of thought or purpose in what we are doing.

It’s good to be aware of what we’re doing. And of understanding when something we are doing, is just being done, because it’s what we always do. Everything we adopt in our working practices has mileage: the Discovery period may last weeks or even years, and the technique period may be something we master in a day or so or perhaps we never master. But when all those stages are over, and we now find that any approach we have is becoming more a ‘tic’ to what we do, then I think it’s time to re-evaluate and see if you really need to use it any more.

Photographing in inclement weather

Cameras can take rain, so long as they're not left in a damp bag for days afterwards, that way they will die for sure. Cameras don't need to be weather sealed to be used in the rain, they just need a bit of sensible looking after, and taken in and dried once you're done. I've yet to have a camera die from rain water. They die because they're left in damp bags for too long.

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If you only photograph when it's dry, then you'll be extremely limited to the kinds of photographs you can make. Your photography will only show a narrow view of what the world has to offer and you'll be selling yourself short.

If you are worried about taking that $3,000 USD camera body out in the rain, then you've bought the wrong camera. Buy something you can take everywhere and not worry about. Better still, buy a used cheap body and abuse it.

Cameras are tools to be used. They should never stop you from making images and if they do, I'd suggest you get rid of them and buy something else that doesn't get in the way. That goes for cameras that are too complicated to use, or are too delicate for a bit of rain.

I'm lucky that I use old Hasselblad film cameras. They are 100% mechanical. They are inexpensive to replace if I break them. I've broken a few in my time because of the elements I work in. Sometimes they begin to rust inside due to all the salt air, or the fine sand of the Bolivian deserts cause wear and tear. The volcanic dust in Iceland can be particularly harsh also. But I'm never worried about them because at the end of the day - it's the photos that matter. I don't want to be held back by worrying about looking after the camera equipment.

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But before you think I don't care about my equipment, I'd like to tell you that I'm a gear head. I love photography equipment, and I do like to look after it. I just think photos matter more and so I do push them and use them in sandy, dusty, rainy places.

To clean them, I use a paint brush - 1 inch wide DIY store paint brush to get all the muck and dirt off the body. Blower brushes are pretty useless and when you have wet sand on a body, I'll leave it to try and then use the paint brush to wipe the sand off. It works beautifully.

So I do try to look after my equipment, but I also am not afraid to use it either.

Electronic cameras can take more rain water than you might imagine, but if you're not sure, then I suggest buying a cheap body to go out with. If you get those moody shots you want, then I think you won't look back, even if the resolution of the cheap digital body isn't anything close to your new camera.

The shots made in this post today were made in very foggy weather or in the middle of heavy downpour. The rain was so heavy that everyone else had retreated to the car. There was fine volcanic dust being blown around by the wind and it got into my camera bag, and into the body of my Hasselblad. I got soaked and the black sand of the desert began to stick to everything - my hands, my clothing and the outside of my camera equipment.  I was in my element though, as I knew I could not get these pictures of the desert any other way.

Use your equipment, and take it everywhere. Buy equipment that you're not afraid to damage, because it will also buy you  the freedom to experiment and work in all climatic conditions.

Keeping it simple - the KISS principle

KISS is an acronym for "Keep it simple, Stupid" as a design principle noted by the U.S. Navy in 1960. The KISS principle states that most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated; therefore simplicity should be a key goal in design and unnecessary complexity should be avoided. - Source Wikipedia

I think keeping things simple is one of the best bits of advice one can get whether it's in your photography, or any other area of your life.

Antarctic Beech, Rio Serrano Forest, Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia. Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Antarctic Beech, Rio Serrano Forest, Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia.
Image © Bruce Percy 2016

Indeed, keeping things simple is a principle that has over time, been adopted by many disciplines from engineering to the arts to recreational activities. Here is another example of the KISS system taken from Wikipedia:

In film animation, "Master animator Richard Williams explains the KISS principle in his book The Animator's Survival Kit, and Disney's Nine Old Men write about it in Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, a considerable work of the genre. The problem faced is that inexperienced animators may "over-animate" in their works, that is, a character may move too much and do too much. Williams urges animators to "KISS". - source Wikipedia

I also know that in scuba diving, the KISS principle is employed with rebreathers. The belief is that by making the rebreather fully manual, it's more likely that the operator will have a complete idea of what is happening  at all times. This I understand, was due to many deaths from divers using automatic rebreathers that fail. It's a simple idea: make the user fully in control and that way there's less chance for things to go unnoticed.

I have a few KISS principles regarding my own photography. I don't suppose I'm the only one who does and each of us will have different approaches to our own working methods.

With regards to my digital-darkroom working methods, I prefer to keep things as simple as I can. I don't use multiple applications - I just use one and even with the application I use, I've learned to use around 5% of it. My belief is that by focussing on a restricted tool set, I have had the opportunity to become fully fluent with it, so much so, that it has become second nature to me, and my understanding of it has deepened over the years.

If I feel there is something I can't do with my current toolset, then I may enquire elsewhere.  But so far after 16 years, I've not felt the need to. In other words, I only employ new tools or techniques when the situation requires it. Rather than being let loose in a candy store, I prefer to work with what I know.

The same for my choice of lenses. For the first decade I only really used two lenses: a wide angle and a standard lens. Both were fixed focal length lenses. Because they were fixed, I got used to how they rendered scenes and what their technical limitations were (close focussing distance, depth of field range), because they only did one thing. By using only these two lenses, I was able to pay more attention to practicing my visualisation. It was only after so many years that I started to branch out to other lenses.

I also have a process for my kit. I keep everything in the same place, so I rely on muscle memory. Put something back in the wrong place and spend time hunting for it later on. I've also preferred to use the same tripod head for years because I know it well, rather than be tempted to buy new ones all the time. I'm tempted just as much as anyone else and when I have strayed, I've gotten lost or confused for a period of time while I've settled into using unfamiliar kit. These days I try to adopt new equipment carefully and spend a lot of time getting acquainted with it.

Economy has a lot to offer us as creative individuals. By reducing down to what you most frequently use and discarding the rest, your workflow becomes so easy that there is less of a chance of it hindering you while you are in creative flow. Whereas conversely, if you aren't too careful and keep employing new techniques when you don't need to - your creativity may get bogged down in technical troubles.

The skill is knowing when to look for new techniques and when to leave them well alone. If you feel you're getting on well with what you have, then I would urge you to keep it the way it is. If however you feel you've reached the end of where you can go with the tools you have, then it's time to engage in new tools. Just don't do it when you don't need to, as that is the best way to overcomplicate things when they didn't need any fixing in the first place.

KISS - Keep It Simple ( Stupid :-)

Photo Transit App

As some of you may know, I'm a big supporter of 'The Photographer's Ephemeris' application - which I will refer to as TPE from now on. It's a really useful application for planning a shoot. I use it all the time on my workshops for figuring out sunrise and sunset times as well as twilight times etc. It has quite a lot of useful features.

Stephen Trainor, the developer of TPE, has been working on a new application called 'Photo Transit' for the past six to nine months. Similarly to TPE, I've been a beta tester for the application, and have contributed feedback and feature requirements from the onset.

If you liked TPE, then you may like Photo Transit.

Whereas TPE is useful for calculating the angle of the sun / moon, and figuring out sunrise and sunset times, in an easy to use graphical manner, Photo Transit allows you to plan a shoot by figuring out the kinds of lenses you may need. You set up your 'camera kit' - the focal length's of lenses you have in your bag, and it shows you what each lens would see over a specified area of terrain.

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