Saturday, 21 January 2012

On photography

A friend lent me his new zoom lens to try out, so today I spent a happy morning with it. (For those who want to know, it was the Canon 18-200 with IS, which I attached to my 7D to see how it would perform.) In the cold clear light of January, wrapped up against a brisk wind, I walked down the Bailey to do some street photography, along the river banks where rowers provided a moving subject, then up to Kingsgate Bridge where the low sun was bringing the modern structure into sharp relief against its watery and sylvan setting. Back on the Bailey, I experimented with some architectural shots of the Cathedral's east front (in all its glory now that the student-proof fence has at last been taken down after 30 years). Back in the College, I took some close-up images of the 18th century sculptures on the water-tower.

The results were striking. My own super-zoom has never achieved images as good as these. It illustrates the truth that however good the camera, it can never be better than its lens (and indeed its human operator). Of course, sharpness is only part of what makes a good photograph. It's possible to make too much of it at the expense of what matters most in an image which is its composition. Some kinds of image, portraits for instance, should not be over-sharp. But a good lens gives the photographer the choice in this that he or she needs. Today, my eyes were opened to my camera could achieve.

'My eyes were opened.' It is a familiar phrase from spiritual autobiography: 'I was blind, now I can see' - the story in John chapter 10 of the man whose blindness Jesus healed is meant as a metaphor of how life is changed when we encounter God.   Eyes opened, seeing in a new way, is a powerful idea. In Calvin's Institutes, faith in the living word of the scriptures is likened to putting on glasses that bring everything back into focus again. 18th century rationalists borrowed the image when they coined their movement the 'Enlightenment', successfully exploiting its religious resonances.

Photography is about a way of seeing the world. This is not simply a matter of bringing it into focus (the job of the lens) but of using the discipline of the frame to make connections and elicit meanings (the art of the photographer). It is as much related to insight as to sight - what Gerard Manley Hopkins called 'inscape'. Because this is the essential character of photography, the use of the camera's viewfinder is pretty much essential, I believe. 'Live view' is certainly useful when a shot is physically awkward to take, but it should never substitute for the true live view that eye and viewfinder together provide. 'A new way of seeing' means that we need the camera to be an extension of the eye, not a substitute for it. The fact that it is almost impossible nowadays to buy a compact camera with a viewfinder ought to worry us about what is happening to photography.

The spirituality of photography is a rich theme. Thomas Merton, who was both a gifted writer and photographer, spoke about how it helped him to deepen his contemplative life, to 'see into the life of things'. A borrowed lens helped me to glimpse this today.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so pleased to read this. "Photography is [...] a way of seeing the world" has been a mantra of mine for a while now. I have been carrying my camera around with me for quite a few years taking photos all over, but I so rarely get around to sharing them unless they've been for a specific purpose. I remember hearing someone say that "one views the world differently through a lens" (borrowed or otherwise) but I've never thought about why that is - I suppose among other things it encourages you to look for the easily ignorable but beautiful details in the world around us.
    With regards lenses, a good quality zoom lens is a beautiful thing, but I have found one that I like even more - the fixed focal length (prime) lens with a huge maximum aperture (I have the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4); it makes photos such as this and this an almost daily occurrence. (No credit due to me here, this is all down to my camera!)

    Have you posted any of yours to flickr or twitter? I'd love to see them! If you'd like to borrow my 50mm you'd be more than welcome.