By John Kennerdell
"I've finally figured out what's wrong with photography. It's a one-eyed man looking through a little 'ole. Now, how much reality can there be in that?"
"An extension of my eye," Cartier-Bresson famously called his miniature-format 35mm camera and, Mr. Hockney notwithstanding, it seems to have worked pretty well for him and his successors. In the eight decades since HCB first raised his Leica I to his eye, we have to a remarkable extent come to accept that photography is something done by peering into a machine pressed to the front of our head.
I'd like to talk about another approach: the handheld camera as an extension of the hand, or simply as an unobtrusive device off to the side as we engage directly with the scene before us, both eyes wide open.
It certainly was often so for a couple generations of news photographers with their Speed Graphics and action finders or their Rolleiflexes with their waist-level view. By all accounts, and on evidence of the photographs themselves, they manhandled those cameras into all kinds of positions. And of course it was possible, if rather hit-or-miss, to do it with any relatively small film camera, zone-focused and held against the body or even out at the end of an arm.
With the advent of digital, though, the handheld camera gained a feature with the potential to change everything. Those LCD screens on the back of small digicams positively called out for liberation from the eye. Well, to some of us they did. Many others quickly decided that they didn't like composing on the back of a camera, and that was fair enough. Unfortunately a few got so passionate about it that they lost, pardon the expression, their perspective.
"No serious photographer," announced one online guru at the time, "would ever compose on a screen held out in front of him." Er, why not? The biggest criticism seemed to be that it didn’t "look professional." That of course immediately suggested a fine reason to try it. Good photographers tend to do whatever works, and looking like a happy snapper is often the next best thing to an invisible camera. Freeing a camera from the eye not only makes it more mobile, but often less intimidating too.
Russian tourists, Phuket, Thailand, 2010. Composing on the LCD screen—for me, I mean, not her—served two purposes: it let me maintain eye contact (and a smile) with the woman, and it helped me get in close without having to practically rest my chin on her husband’s shoulder.
OK, there were some valid complaints. Those screens could be hard to see in sunlight, and a challenge to older eyes. Without the three-way support of two hands and a head, it could be tricky to hold a camera steady. And, for at least the first few years, what would become known as "live view" was limited to small-sensor cameras.
But dedicated freestyle shooters found ways around those, and soon technology decided that it could help out too. Before long we had articulating screens, image stabilization and, finally, bigger sensors. Some critics remained unconvinced. "A solution looking for a problem," sniffed a leading hobbyist site, of the first digital SLR with live view. Still, many of us immediately had all kinds of ideas for such a device.
And just for the record: non-viewfinder shooting doesn’t have to mean holding a camera out at arm's length. It's all about putting it wherever works for the shot. Held down at the waist, against the tension of the strap for stability (TLR shooters will remember this trick). On top of a beanbag or a wine glass or vertically against a wall or post. On a bended knee or angled up from a shoe. Held tight to your chest or on your shoulder or, ironically, even up against your forehead—all of which sound and probably look semi-ridiculous, but why not, if it gets the photo? In my experience the main thing is to be able to visualize your angle of view (a good argument for fixed focal-length lenses) and not to worry about having a perfect view of the screen. Street photography has been compared to dance, and never more so than when you shoot this way. It's an eye at the end of your arm.
I'm always telling new photographers to avoid the "if only" trap. You know, "If only I had x" or "If only they made y," where x is some coveted piece of gear and y is an outright imaginary one, guaranteed to the transform the user into a better photographer. So I guess it serves me right that along comes a whole generation of technologies and products that really do open up authentically new ways to shoot. And, for good measure, one more state-of-the-art feature that might be the most powerful since the LCD screen itself, except that most "serious" photographers apparently haven’t even deigned to notice it yet. Coming in Part II: the camera technology that dares not speak its name.
(Continued in Part II)
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by JL: "William Eggleston once told me that he took his pictures 'shotgun style'—i.e., not looking through the viewfinder at all, just sort of pointing it at whatever he wanted to hit, without really aiming. And that was when he was shooting on film. He said he knew the camera well enough that he knew what he what he was going to get. Not sure if I quite believe him—Eggleston likes to say provocative things, and besides, I'm not sure if that's how you shoot a shotgun, either. But I have seen at least one first-rate photographer shoot simply by holding his camera out the window of a car and more or less blindly mashing the shutter. And with burst mode on a digital, and cheap memory, you stand a reasonably good chance of getting something interesting that way."