Use of Flash and the Ethics of Nature Photography

A collage of my bird photos from 2022 – for more, see: https://frans.photo.blog/2022/12/27/selected-photos-from-2022-may-december/

I have been experimenting with ”Taavi Tunturipöllö” (the Snowy Owl toy that Santa brought me) by using a low-powered flash to create more illumination into nature photos taken during the dark winter’s days.

”Taavi Tunturipöllö”
(a toy photo outdoors experiment, using a remotely triggered flash).

Generally, I almost never use flash, as I think that the strong flash light makes photos look artificial, dull and uninteresting, I love the tones of natural light, and I also do not want to disturb the birds and animals that I photograph. However, it can be very dark for really long time over here, and I have found out that there are actually many different ways of using additional light sources — and there even seems to be a sort of “ethics of flash photography” scene that I was not previously aware of.

Today’s cameras are already very good in low light, and there are also now long-range wireless transmitters that allow one to position several relatively weak-powered flashes into the planned scene in advance, thereby creating more natural looking and also non-invasive ambient lighting, rather than suddenly just pointing a harsh flashlight directly at the poor subject. (One can try pointing flash into one’s own eyes to experience how that feels.)

Pointing a powerful flash directly to the eyes and face of a night-hunting predator like an owl can blind the animal for maybe even 5-20 minutes, and make it unable to get food – or even make it fly blinded against some obstacle and get injured or killed.

On the other end of flash-ethics, taking photos that use low-powered flash as a source of fill-in light during the daylight hours seems to be safe – it is just harmless flicker to them, ignored by most birds and animals. Even then, a flash positioned too close can create a sudden fright reaction in sensitive birds and animals.

It should be noted that the presence of photographer already might be the disturbing element to the animal, and the negative effects of a flash are secondary. And this is not even getting into the ethics of other techniques some photographers use, such as using taped bird-song as a lure (which can deplete the bird of energy as it reacts to an “intruder”), shouting or throwing objects at animals to get an eye contact from them (yes, indeed some idiot “photographers” apparently behave like that) or even hunting and chasing sensitive animals with photography drones to get “cool” footage.

Let’s not be that guy.

I will continue doing a bit of research on this topic, collecting some useful resources and links below. If you have some good sources to suggest, please comment below, or send me a line.

I made already one cautious experiment (photo below) where I used a remotely triggered flash in the dark while photographing this Great spotted woodpecker that was visiting a forest-located bird feeding site. In this case at least the woodpecker seemed to ignore the light and returned to the feeding site multiple times regardless of me taking photos. But this required me staying in place for more than an hour in the snow, immobile, so that the bird gradually started to trust that I was (mostly) harmless and that it could come close to me. Note, that there were other feeders also available to it that were not this close, but it chose this one.

Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major, ’käpytikka’; photographed in late evening in a forest feeding site using remote flash as additional light; the bird showed no signs of reacting to the disturbance and continued to feed.)

References:

”Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videography” (Aubudon started their nature and bird conservation activities already in 1896; this guide provides both general guidelines for ethical behaviour while taking nature photos, and information about bird specific situations that require special care):

”How to Be an Ethical Wildlife Photographer” (this guide, published by Amateur Photographer magazine, is a synthesis created by Peter Dench of several existing earlier guides; he points out that while not every photographer can be expected to be a biologist/zoologist, but everyone has the ”duty of care”):

”The Ethics of Wildlife Photography” (this article, written by Jill Waterman and published by B&H, a big photography gear company, highlights that while nature photography is born from love of nature, it is today so popular and increasingly invasive, even business-like activity that it has also dark aspects and bad practices that it is important to be aware of, while promoting the non-harmful and less stressful alternative approaches):

”How to photograph wildlife ethically” (National Geographic is a leading journal of photojournalism and high quality nature photography; this guide, authored by Melissa Groo, discusses the key ethics principles while also highlighing problematic practices, and, e.g., is advising to always ”caption one’s photographs with honesty”, meaning that we openly disclose the techniques we have used to capture that image):

”Does Flash Photography Harm Animals?” (Authored by photographer Will Nicholls, this article tries to discuss few available studies on the effects of flash light – noting that this is a controversial area and that different species appear to have very different sensitivities):

”Is Flash Photography Safe for Owls?” (This article, written by Sharon Guynup and published by Aubudon Society, notes the lack of scientific research on the topic of flash effects, but notes that bright light can lead into temporary ”flash blindness” which can be dangerous to owls and other noctural birds, and flash can also startle or wake sleeping owls, disturbing their rest and daily rhythms – there are just many reasons to avoid using flash photography techniques on owls):

See also:

North American Nature Photography Association NANPA ”Principles of Ethical Field Practices”:

Suomen Luonnonvalokuvaajat ry. ”Eettiset periaatteet”:

Birdlife Suomi ry. ”Havainnoi huomaavaisesti”:

-Any other good sources to add into this list? (Thanks to all experts and colleagues who have contributed and/or commented on this piece!)

End of year blog note 2022

There have been many nice things in this year, 2022, even though it feels that it has run really fast. Our Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies was operating in full speed, featuring great events like the GameBooks, the game studies spring seminar 2022. The mid-point evaluation of the CoE took place after the fourth year, and we prepared for it carefully. The efforts were rewarded, and the Academy of Finland international review panel gave us outstanding marks on the quality, impact and exceptional scope of our operations. We were awarded with funding for the latter CoE period with glowing marks.

Another big reason for party was that 2022 was also the 20th Anniversary of our Game Research Lab. We started in 2022 when we both initiated a bunch of important game research projects, publications, and also organised the Computer Games and Digital Cultures (CGDC 2002) conference. This was also where I advertised the initiative to establish DiGRA, Digital Games Research Association, which was officially added into the Registry of Associations in 2003 – another reason to have a 20th Anniversary!

Personally, I have continued to be engaged as the professor in the master’s degree program of Game Studies as well as in our doctoral program. I have also continued to work in the editorial board of Pelitutkimuksen vuosikirja (the Finnish Yearbook of Game Studies, the only peer-evaluated publication dedicated to games research in Finnish language). I published a historical and discipline-analytical article about “Game Studies” in the Encyclopedia of Ludic Terms, and also collaborated with Jani Kinnunen and the research assistant Milla Tuomela on the eight Pelaajabarometri (the Finnish Player Barometer survey 2022). There were many people who completed their PhD in game studies, and you can read six “lectios” (public doctoral defence talks) from the Yearbook of Game Studies alone (by Usva Friman, Tero Karttula, Jani Kinnunen, Heidi Rautalahti, Matilda Ståhl and Maria Ruotsalainen). Congratulations to all new doctors!

In even more personal note, I moved to use Apple’s Mac computers as my primary work and personal tools this year, after decades of mostly Windows PC usage. I have been pretty happy with the transition, particularly as the integration with my iPhone and iPad works so well – I have always access to the data and images I need. The user experiences provided by MacOS, iPadOS and iOS are pretty good, the Mac has the best trackpad and gesture control of all computer systems, and iPad Pro has been getting better in multitasking, even if it still has its limitations. But I have not given up other operating systems and hardware ecosystems completely: e.g., this blog post is written under Linux with my HP Elitebook (I just love the typing experience of its keyboard), and in our household, we continue to have several Windows PCs, as the support for gaming is still best in the PC. My family is full with serious gamers (I am the most casual one) and there are multiple things related to graphics cards, operating system updates, various game services, local home networking etc. that I sometimes need to deal with, as the local IT support guy. But I am happy that my family seems to love gaming with Nintendo Switch, as that console needs very little IT support – it just runs fine those Pokémon and Zelda games.

I have also continued my nature and bird photography hobby pretty actively – it provided me with a reason to go out walking and getting some fresh air daily, even if I have scaled down my ambitions with rare species a bit. I noticed that counting the species I had photographed turned the nature and art oriented activity into some kind of competition and gaming exercise. Today, I am happy to try evolving my photography skills with any, even the most common birds, animals, insects and landscapes I encounter and have access to, without extra stress.

There was also the sad day, when we lost Matti, my father, after a long and difficult illness. His funeral was in early December in Helsinki.

By the way, this blog was started in March 2004, and while social media has taken over most of the discussion, sharing and commenting functions already for the past decade at least, I like the leisurely style of reflective writing too much to let this site die. There is still more than a year to the day when I’ll write the 20th Anniversary blog post! (Btw, I needed to get away from the toxic mess that Twitter had become, so I replaced that site with a new profile in the distributed, non-commercial Mastodon network. I also remain pretty active in Facebook, of all places.)

Here are a few photos, at the end of the year – have an excellent New Year 2023!

Transition to Mac, Pt. 2

I got the first part of my ‘Transition to Mac’ project (almost) ready by the end of my summer vacation. This was focused around a Mac Mini (M1/16GB/512GB model), which I set up as the new main “workstation” for my home office and photography editing work. This is in nutshell what extras and customisations I have done to it, so far:

– set up as the keyboard Logitech MX Keys Mini for Mac
– and as the mouse, Logitech G Pro X Superlight Wireless Gaming Mouse, White
– for fast additional ssd storage, Samsung X5 External SSD 2TB (with nominal read/write speeds of 2,800/2,300 MB/s)
– and then, made certain add-ons/modifications to the MacOS:
– AltTab (makes alt-tab key-combo cycle through all open app windows, not only between applications, like cmd-tab)
– Alfred (for extending the already excellent Spotlight search to third-party apps, direct access to various system commands and other advanced functionalities)
– installed BetterSnapTool (for adding snap to sides / corners functionality into the MacOS windows management)
– set Sublime Text as the default text editor
– DockMate (for getting Win10-style app window previews into the Mac dock, without which I feel the standard dock is pretty useless)
– And then installing the standard software that I use daily (Adobe Creative Cloud/Lightroom/Photoshop; MS Office 365; DxO Pure RAW; Topaz DeNoise AI & Sharpen AI, most notably)
– The browser plugin installations and login procedures for the browsers I use is a major undertaking, and still ongoing.
– I use 1Password app and service for managing and synchronising logins/passwords and other sensitive information across devices and that speeds up the login procedures a bit these days.
– There was one major hiccup in the process so far, but in the end it was nothing to blame Mac Mini for; I got a colour-calibrated 27″ 4k Asus ProArt display to attach into the Mac, but there was immediately major issues with display being stuck to black when Mac woke from sleep. As this “black screen after sleep” issue is something that has been reported with some M1 Mac Minis, I was sure that I had got a faulty computer. But as I made some tests with several other display cables and by comparing with another 4k monitor, I was able to isolate the issue as a fault with the Asus instead. Also, there was a mechanical issue with the small plastic power switch in this display (it got repeatedly stuck, and had to be forcibly pried back in place). I was just happy being able to return this one, and ordered a different monitor, from Lenovo this time, as they had a special discount currently in place for a model that also has a built-in Thunderbolt dock – something that should be useful as the M1 Mac Mini has a rather small selection of ports.
– There has been some weird moments recently of not getting any image into my temporary, replacement monitor, too, so the jury is still out, whether there is indeed something wrong in the Mac Mini regarding this issue, also.
– I have not much of actual daily usage yet behind, with this system, but my first impressions are predominantly positive. The speed is one main thing: in my photo editing processes there are some functions that take almost the same time as in my older PC workstation, but mostly things happen much faster. The general impression is that I can now process my large RAW file collections maybe twice as fast as before. But there are some tools that obviously have already been optimised for Apple Silicon/M1, since they run lightning-fast. (E.g. Topaz Sharpen AI was now so fast that I didn’t even notice it running the operation before it was already done. This really changes my workflow.)
– The smooth integration of Apple ecosystem is another obvious thing to notice. I rarely bother to boot up my PC computers any more, as I can just use an iPad Pro or Mac (or iPhone), both wake up immediately, and I can find my working documents seamlessly synced and updated in whatever device I take hold of.
– There are some irritating elements in the Mac for a long-time Windows/PC user, of course, too. Mac is designed to push simplicity to a degree that it actually makes some things very hard for user. Some design decisions I simply do not understand. For example, the simple cut-and-paste keyboard combination does not work in a Mac Finder (file manager). You need to apply a modifier key (Option, in addition to the usual Cmd-V). You can drag files between folders with a mouse, but why not use the standard Command-V for pasting files. And then there are things like the (very important) keyboard shortcut for pasting text without formatting: “Option + Cmd + Shift + V”! I have not yet managed to imprint either of this kind of long combo keys into my muscle memory, and looking at the Internet discussions, many frustrated users seem to have similar issues with this kind of Mac “personality issues”. But, otherwise, a nice system!

Nature Photos Update

During the Spring Term of 2022, I have taken (according to my last count) photos of 129 different species of birds. Here is featured a selection, along with some random other samples of my nature photos. Excellent summer, everyone!

Adding Full-Frame to the Toolkit

Aglais io, the European peacock/neitoperhonen (an EOS R5 test).

With my focus on nature and bird photography, I have long preferred APS-C format cameras, due to the better “reach” (narrower field-of-view, with the same optics) that is important for photographing shy, far-away birds and animals particularly. Said that, several producers, Canon included, have put most of their research and development efforts into the full frame camera systems. I discussed the Canon EOS R System earlier in this blog (in February 2020), and while at that point I was committed with the EOS M line of APS-C cameras and lenses, I was also growing frustrated at the bad ergonomics and other limitations of EOS M cameras. However, there were also several downsides as well as possible long-term benefits in the more “professional” full frame EOS R System that left me hesitant at what to do in the long run. This summer, after rather lengthy consideration and research, I finally made the leap into the new, “full-frame era”. Or, more appropriately (as will explained below), I just decided to add one more tool into my toolkit.

EOS R5, with Sigma 150-600 mm C (shot late at night, with my EOS M50 and the old Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM).

When EOS R5 camera was introduced in summer 2020, much of the attention was focused on its amazing 8K video capabilities. However, as I am not a cinematographer, my interest was at the side of still image photography. The main “sales points” of R5 in this area include a 45 megapixel, full-frame sensor, up to 20 fps speed in continuous shooting (electronic shutter, and up to 12 fps mechanical), a built-in image stabiliser (up to 8 stops, with some selected modern lenses), and – perhaps most importantly for me – a really good autofocus system trained with machine-learning to pick up the shapes and even the eyes of animals and humans alike. There are additional benefits when moving from smaller, APS-C cameras, such as a really nice, deep grip to hold on (with M50 only two or three of my fingers, in addition to thumb, can touch the small body while carrying it), the full set of three rotary dials (enough for setting dedicated controls for both ISO, aperture and shutter speed, each with a dedicated physical control), longer-working batteries, better weatherproofing, dual card slots, less noise in low light, etc., etc. It is also worth noting that R5 uses the same processor (DIGIC X) as the more expensive, professional flagship DSLR camera EOS-1D X Mark II.

Muscicapa striata, the spotted flycatcher/harmaasieppo (testing R5 in a low light, fast situation inside a forest).

There are also significant downsides in a full-frame camera system, when compared to APS-C ones. The financial one is the most obvious: this is a much more expensive camera than any I have owned before. It is also worth noticing the camera body is just the first part of the investment, as the new, R system lenses are also generally expensive. They are robust, of high optical and physical quality, large and heavy. Going to a casual camera walk or run around a new city while on tourist mode, I will definitely rather prefer carrying the compact EOS M50 (387 g), coupled with e.g. the small and light EF-M 55-200 mm (260 g), rather than R5 (738 g) and RF 70-200 mm F2.8L IS (1070 g); there is also several thousands of euros/dollars price difference. Not to discuss the price and weight of any full-frame glass which reaches into the 400-600 mm area, which is where the true bird and wildlife photography generally tends to start. Thus, to sum up, I will not give up my EOS M camera and lenses anytime soon. There are uses and needs for both the large and the compact system. A serious R Series camera and lens setup is something that you would particularly take out when you are working for some particular, photographic goal or project. (This is why some people are actually paid to use these things. That is what “professional” means, after all.) The small system is good for those long walks.

Delichon urbicum, the house martin/räystäspääsky (a collage of shots testing the animal AF tracking of R5 with a very fast moving, flying bird).

In the actual bird photography, comparing ASP-C and R5/full-frame in the field, there are similarly plusses and minuses. The main strength (and one of the key reasons why I made this investment in the first place) of R5 is that the large, 45-megapixel sensor coupled with the image stabilisation and powerful AF system allows taking more, and more sharply focused images to start with. With very fast-moving objects like flying and bush-jumping birds, only a small fraction of photos is generally usable. A fast-shooting, fast-focusing camera-and-lens system makes a great difference in an actual wildlife photography situation. There is a “crop mode” in R5, which will narrow down the field of view into the same as the APS-C camera (applying Canon’s 1.6x crop factor, in-camera). But the full-frame image of R5, when cropped so that it would represent the same field of view as my old M50 APS-C camera is “only” 17.3 megapixels (my much cheaper M50 has 24.1 with that same field of view). However, the experience of shooting birds and wildlife with R5 is indeed better than M50: it is much easier to keep e.g. a flying falcon or swallow within the large image frame of R5, and the powerful AF system does a really good job in keeping the bird sharp in the image – as long as the photographer is capable of taking care of the targeting and composition at somewhat decent level.

Asio otus, the northern long-eared owl/sarvipöllö (it was almost completely dark, at midnight, at this point – testing the animal AF tracking of EOS R5 at the ultimate ISO 51200, f/6.3, 600 mm focal length, exposure 1/2000 s.).

In the 45-megapixel images there is room for cropping in many different ways. The optical quality does not magically change, of course, with the upgrade of camera body if one is still using same lenses as before; though, the reduction of noise and better low-light capabilities mean that it is possible to shoot birds with even pretty “slow” lenses (like my Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 C DG OS HSM), while going rather high ISO sensitivity values, and still come up with frames that can be used, particularly if software tools like Topaz DeNoise AI and Sharpen AI are applied in the postproduction. The main benefits of this upgrade from a crop-camera to a full-frame one in the end come from multiple areas, mostly ones related to the art and craft of composing and creating images, while it needs to be emphasised that the baseline optical image quality remains at the domain of lenses used.

A far-away osprey (Pandion haliaetus, kalasääski) fishing – EOS R5 does excellent work in tracking in harsh light, yet my zoom lens is also showing its limitations here, at this distance and with a lot of cropping applied.

There is apparently an interesting learning curve that comes with the transition from Canon’s entry-level into a full-frame/professional cameras. After couple of weeks, my automated procedures and reactions are still largely coming from the APS-C world, and, for example, I even still occasionally try to find the power switch from the old location (at top right; in R5 the switch is at top left). There are no pre-programmed “easy” photography modes such as the sports, macro, or portrait modes in the EOS R5 (there is the fully automatic, “smart” A+ mode, however). The idea seems to be that a photographer who wants to use a “pro” camera must understand the underlying logic of photography technique enough, and be able to set up different aperture, exposure etc. priorities according to the subject matter, scene, and desired effects.

It is nice to have a fast-focusing camera when e.g. a flock of Eurasian oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus, meriharakka) suddenly appear overhead.

The full user’s manual for R5 is 921 pages, and I have the feeling I have only just scratched the surface of what this camera can do, and how it should be set up. But I have at least started personalising the main settings, such as customising three back buttons for quick access into my three key wildlife focusing modes: animal-eye autofocus, spot AF, and single-point AF. The logic here is that when I can see the animal/bird relatively clearly (or, e.g., when I try to photograph a flying bird), I use back-button AF technique first with the AF-ON button set for “Eye Detection AF”. Secondly my asterisk (AE lock) button is now set for spot AF mode, and the last (AF point selection) button for single-point AF. These two are normally used when the focused subject is half-hidden, hiding among branches as is often the case; after the initial AF lock, the system usually is able to follow by tracking, so the focus stays locked, when the target has initially been pointed and identified. For this initial selection, there is both a joystick and a large LCD touchscreen that can be used for moving the focus point around. Currently, I find myself using the touchscreen more.

Falco tinnunculus (the common kestrel, tuulihaukka) – again, it was great to experience how effortlessly EOS R5 was able to keep the focus on the far-away falcon, while it was hunting.

There is more learning to be done, and I expect the possibilities opened up by the new system to challenge me for several years to come, in search for both better – or just more interesting – pictures and more improved photographic techniques and new ways of photographic thinking. However, my old cameras and lenses still remain in my toolkit, and they also have their times, places, and uses.

This common sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos, rantasipi) was captured late night while at lake with SUP / paddle boarding – this time again with my lighter EOS M50 camera.

Have a happy photographic summer!

Why take bird photos?

I have always enjoyed moving in the nature and taking photographs, but I have never been a particularly passionate ”birder” – someone who would eagerly participate in bird observation, or learn details about bird species and their lives. Nevertheless, for some time now I have taken bird photos in an increasingly active manner. Why – what is the fascination in bird photography?

A fieldfare (räkättirastas).

I can only talk for myself, but in my case this is like combining location-based game play of Pokémon Go with my love of photography. While living still mostly under self-quaratine style conditions of pandemic, it is important to keep moving, and taking my camera and going out is as good reason as any to get fresh air and some exercise. And birds bring the important aleatory element into this: you never know what you are going to see – or not see.

A swan (laulujoutsen).

Mostly my short walks are in the close neighbourhood, and the birds I will see are thus the most common ones: the great tit, the sparrow, the magpie, a flock of fieldfares. But then the challenge is to get a new kind of photo of them – one with a nice disposition, interesting lights, great details or posture. And sometimes there will be more rare birds moving in the area, which brings additional excitement with it: how to get close to the shy jaybird, get good details on the dark dress of blackbird, or a woodpecker.

Blue tit (sinitiainen).

There is also a very nice lake for birdwatching rather near, Iidesjärvi, which means that it is possible to go there, and try getting some beautiful pictures of swans, goldeneyes, goosanders or many other waterfowl with a rather short trip. Which is important, since I typically need to get back soon, and make kids breakfast, dinner or such. And this is also why I call myself a Sunday Photographer: I mostly take photos in weekends, when there is a bit of extra time that weekdays do not currently allow.

Blackbird’s eye (mustarastas).

This Sunday was a day of achievement, when I got my first decent photos of goldcrest – the smallest bird in Europe! It is not that rare actually, but it is so shy and so skilled in hiding itself within foliage, that I was mainly able to locate it with the faint, high-pitched sounds it makes. And even while I knew the bird was there in the trees, front of me, it took a long time, c. 200 frames of missed photos and some quiet crawling from spot to spot to finally get an unobstructed view and a sharp photo of this tiny, elusive bird.

Goldcrest (hippiäinen).

Thus, taking photos of birds combines so many different interesting, challenging and purely luck-based elements into one activity, that is just perfect diversion – something rewarding, surprising, joyful that can even have addictive holding power: a hobby that is capable of taking your thoughts completely away from everything else.

Goldcrest (hippiäinen).

My old camera

I wanted to revisit my old gear tonight, so I dug up my trusty EOS 550D, coupled with the BG-E8 battery grip and the classic, Canon 70-200mm f4L USM lens. The Friendly Cat provided again the modelling services.

I was immediately reminded by the obvious strengths of this older, bigger camera body: the ergonomics are just so much better when you can really hold the camera comfortably and steadily in your hand, and have large, mechanical control knobs that you can quickly and effortlessly experiment with.

On the other hand, the limitations were again also immediately obvious; in particular, the mirrorless digital camera (EOS M50) that I am mostly using these days allows one seamlessly move from using the viewfinder to the live view in the rear display, while making the composition. 550D also has rear display live view, but you need to specifically switch it on, and it is slow and imprecise, and the autofocus in particular is just terrible when shooting with it.

The optical viewfinder, on the other hand, is excellent, and the very limited nine (9) AF points do their job just well enough for this kind of slow “portrait” work. The low maximum ISO of 6400 also does not matter when taking pictures under the bright evening sun, and sharpness of that old Canon L lens fits nicely the 18-megapixel image sensor’s resolution capabilities.

Thus, if I would think about a “perfect camera” for my use, I would be happy with current M50 image sensor resolution (24,1 megapixels), but I would be really happy for a bit more capable autofocus system, and for more low-light performance in particular. The single most beneficial upgrade could however be a body with larger physical dimensions, with better/larger mechanical controls for selecting the program mode, aperture, and making the other key adjustments.

While the new EOS R series Canon cameras provide exactly that, the issue for me is that those are full frame cameras; and I am very happy in taking my photos with APS-C (the “crop sensor”). Full frame lenses, and new Canon RF lenses in particular, tend to be both large and expensive to a degree that does not make much sense for my kind of “Sunday photographer”.

There are alternatives like Fujifilm, with their excellent APS-C camera bodies (X-T30, X-T4, for example), and their sharp and relatively compact and affordable lenses. But I am deeply invested in the Canon ecosystem – it would be so much easier if Canon would come up with a well-designed camera like Canon 7D Mark II, but updated and upgraded into current, mirrorless sensors’ and image processors’ capabilities. One can always make wishes? Happy weekend, everyone!

Specializing or diversifying?

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Pikkutylli (c) Frans Mäyrä, 24/5/2020.

Having more ambition in photography often translates into developing some specializations: becoming expert in some topic, developing a unique and personal style. On the other hand, if there are no professional ambitions or pressures in one’s photography hobby, one can just continue diversifying: having fun in creative experimentation and testing one’s hand and eye in multiple different topics and styles.

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My photobook experiment, Spring 2020.

While the latter path can have a certain vague and drifting effect on one’s photography, there are also the positives: total creative freedom, constant possibility for new directions, and the sense of discovery.

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Tiny spider (macro photograph, (c) Frans Mäyrä, 9/5/2020)

My own experiments during the past month alone have included some insect and macro photography, testing the design and curation for a hardback photobook of my own, bird photography, black and white landscapes and nature photos. And it has been definitely fun, and this free-roaming style of hobby has also the benefit of being easy to adapt within changing conditions, such as the pandemic restrictions of this Spring.

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Winter plant telephoto (c) Frans Mäyrä, 26/2/2020.

Art of Photography: Vivian Maier/Ted Forbes

One of the vloggers that I regularly follow is Ted Forbes, the creator of “The Art of Photography” Youtube channel. He is a welcome alternative among all nerdy, pixel-peeping camera and lens technology focused voices there, as he actually is discussing photography as an art form.

One of Ted’a videos that I watched during this weekend was discussing Vivian Maier. This was originally published already six years ago, in March 2014, but remains interesting for reasons relating to Maier, Forbes, and to several questions of photography and as art more generally.

While listening to Ted talk about Vivian Maier’s work, it soon becomes clear that he is in a way struggling here – trying to be polite and repeatedly acknowledge the skill and significance of this self-educated, amateur photographer’s work, while also suggesting that there are reasons why he does not place Maier particularly high in his canon of great photography artists. These fundamental and underlying reasons are nowhere very explitly stated aloud in this video, though.

My interpretation is that there are two main reasons behind the hesitation of Ted Forbes – and probably many other art professionals who have somewhat similar backgrounds as Ted has. As listed in his short online cv, Ted Forbes has been educated in the Booker T Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and the University of North Texas, and he has also spent several years as a professor at Brookhaven College, and as the Head of Digital Media at the Dallas Museum of Art, among other things. His perspective is thus not only coming from a photography aficionado, but one who has been educated in the history and practice of the arts, and who has long served both as an art educator and a gatekeeper for an art institution.

Vivian Maier is an interesting borderline case for anyone holding up the more “serious” and professional, institutional perspective into arts, since she never aimed to display her photos in art galleries, or anywhere else, publicly, and kept her practice as a secret to herself alone. It was only after her death, when certain collectors (most notably John Maloof from Chicago) bought her negatives from an auction, and started publishing them, first online, then in exhibitions and printed art books.

The first hesitancy about the photography of Vivian Maier as works of art (as expressed by Ted Forbes) relate to the fact that Maier herself had not edited and organised the photo negatives into prints, exhibitions and books herself. There is a subtle undertone of authorial intention in play here: if the person taking the photos did not conceive her work as (institutional) art, and did not complete the necessary steps involved in submitting and getting accepted as a published artist, then it is questionnable whether the photos in question are indeed art. There is sort of “other half” missing: the final process of selecting, editing and filtering the abundant raw materials (captured in estimated 150,000 surviving negatives) into actual artistic ‘oeuvre’ – cohesive vision and flow of expression as a practicing artist.

The other question mark implied by Ted Forbes’s video review is sort of extension of the first one. He repeatedly says that while he acknowledges Vivian Maier as a talented photographer (though probably into the category of “talented amateur”, rather than a “proper photography artist”), he is putting a lot of doubt over the expertise and intentions of collectors (John Maloof and Jeffrey Goldstein are explicitly mentioned), and while he tries to put it nicely, he evokes questions about non-professional, non-talented, non-artistic people having produced the “Vivian Maier as great photography artist” as a phenomenon by making sensationalist claims for maximizing publicity and their opportunities for commercial exploitation.

I have zero role these days in official, institutional art world (just to disclose, I used to study art history, among other subjects, and worked for an art museum in Tampere, during my student years). So, I do not take any stand in the debate about the status of Vivian Maier as a proper artist and the artistic value of her work. There are many art professionals and critics who have taken a more positive stance towards Vivian Maier’s work than Ted Forbes, though. It was also interesting to compare the Vivian Maier video to another one which was also dedicated to posthumous reconsideration or “rediscovery” of a photographer’s work – in this case that of Daan Hansen, an enthusiast photographer / photo hobbyist from Utrecht, who died in 2013, but whose work was published in a large-format, self-published book just before his death. In this case, Ted Forbes is in his video openly emotional and enthusiastic about the range, diversity and value of Daan’s work, even while it is obvious that (somewhat similarly to Vivian Maier), not all of Hansen’s photos are of similar artistic quality. Ted is of course also honest that Daan being both an online and offline friend of his, no doubt somehow affects his reactions to seeing Daan’s published work after his death.

One could perhaps conclude, that for people who operate within, or at some of the multiple frameworks of “art world”, the question of how something becomes valued and valuable as “art” is not a simple one. The person and personal circumstances of the artist affect deeply the perception of their work – even decades after “Biographic Fallacy”, or “Death of the Author” were first introduced into the art criticism. Also, the conditions and processes of publishing and displaying of something as art, do play an important part, as some of these kinds of processes are more prone to adding “authenticity” and value into works of art, whereas others can appear questionable and lead into overall negatively tilted evaluation – as seems to have happened for Vivian Maier, at least to a certain degree, in eyes of a critic like Ted Forbes.

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