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 Japanese azalea, Ryogo-tei Garden near Osaka, Japan

Wild geese

 
I still haven’t found a way to write and post this newsletter any earlier than the last minute, Maybe that’s not to do with time so much as with me. Anyway, this is becoming a long trip. I’m still in Shanghai, although right now on my way to the train station to go to Hangzhou, where my friend Tutu will pick me up and we’ll drive to Anhui Province to climb another two tea mountains. In fact, I did have a break from shooting a couple of weeks ago—in Kuwait. After judging the Kuwait Grand Photography Contest in early March, Sheikh Mohammed, whose initiative it is, asked me back for the awards ceremony, which was kind of him. But there’s no straightforward way from here to there, and it ended up as 26 hours bed-to-bed. While I was there, I took part in a new project from my publisher, Hachette, called Where I Write, and the result is a video I shot of a visit to the printers who were hurrying to finish the book of prize-winning photographs. I like visiting printers, because it’s where photo assignments are finally turned into something tangible. If that interests you, too, join me here.
 #WhereIWrite | Kuwait 14th April 2015

After three days in Kuwait I flew back to China, to Beijing to give photography talks for a few days. Which brings me in a roundabout way to the first wild goose I’ve been chasing this month, because one of the talks was inevitably my Composition one. Question time at the end of these is always interesting, as it stops me from being complacent about repeating the same words time and again. This time, the idea of harmony, balance and proportions came under scrutiny, and I realise how intolerant I’ve become about ‘recommended’ proportions. Partly it’s because I see so much written about it online, and the usual nonsense hones in on the Rule of Thirds. Why should it be a rule? Why should there be any rules in what ultimately is a creative activity? To further focus my mind on this, a French magazine just asked me to write a long article on composition, and one of the suggested headings was about rules. I turned that instead into the heading There Are No Rules, with what seems to me the watertight argument that we’re doing photography, not engineering, and rules are designed to make things accurate, predictable and repeatable—pretty much the opposite of what you’d want from an interesting, surprising photograph. 
 
One of the good things about the internet is that there’s always someone who’s researched whatever it is you’re looking for, and I decided once and for all to find out how the Rule of Thirds got started. It turns out that the term was invented in 1797 by John Thomas Smith, a painter of little note, misinterpreting the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, who simply made the point that if there are two distinct areas of different brightness in a picture, one should dominate and they should not be equal. Smith wrote, “Analogous to this ‘Rule of thirds’, (if I may be allowed so to call it) I have presumed to think…” Since then, this rather silly instruction to make divisions a third of the way into the frame has been followed with mediocrity by artists and photographers who lack imagination. It should be obvious that if all photographs were composed like this, they would just be similar and boring. It’s probably the worst piece of compositional advice I can imagine. Think of photographs of any kind that have inspired you. How many are divided into thirds? The real puzzle is why it gets repeated so often, and never with any examples that are worth looking at.
 
The next wild goose chase was inspired by the revision we’re doing of my book Perfect Exposure, as the second edition will be published in early November. My editor, Frank, suggested I look into something called ISO invariance that’s been popping up recently on various camera websites. Sounds serious and technical. The gist of this is that some new high-end camera sensors perform so well that when you raise the ISO setting, there’s no increase in noise. Well, that really would be something, wouldn’t it? In fact, it would be a miracle. I’m really no physicist, but it still didn’t make any sense to me. On the other hand, with a technical name like ISO-invariant, there must surely be some truth in it? Fortunately, I’d just bought a Nikon D4S equipped with one of these sensors, so I could find out for myself (actually, unfortunately in another sense, because I had to buy it to replace the D4 I dropped on the floor three weeks ago). I waited until dusk, and then took a series of test shots from my balcony of the Suzhou Creek. Total nonsense. Of course dialling up the ISO increased the noise. What did I expect? The next day I had an appointment with Nikon Shanghai to borrow a lens (yes, same reason, to replace the lens that was on the camera I dropped). I asked the representative about ISO invariance. Look of puzzlement. I went into more detail. Nikon, as he said, never make public comments, but at least when I left the building I knew that this was another wild goose.
 
What both of these go to show is that if you come up with a good title, you can pass off all kinds of nonsense. And no, I didn’t say that that’s what book publishers sometimes do.


 Photography talk, Beijing, China

 
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