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Ant Smith
Creativity is an action not an attribute... Photographic Skill: The Book - now available CLICK HERE


Art and Craft

With very precise photography (such as macro and astro) there comes a struggle for expression. Something that allows the image to transcend the corporeal fact of the subject. Like, how many photographs of the moon can there be? What does just another lunar shot really add to the story, or the sum total of human experience? What's the point of my photograph of the moon, however nicely it may have been executed?

I'm hounded by such questions. Is this truly an image with artistic expression, or is it just a record of mundane fact?

We got such a lovely garden trowel as a Christmas present, that I thought it worth a photograph; just as an exercise.

Focus-stacked image of garden trowel

I'm currently doing a lot of focus-stacking (Focus Stacking - An Introduction) which is thought of as 'extending the depth of field'; but actually the technique is subtly different to that.

DoF vs. Critical Focus

72 frame vs 3 frame stack detail resolution

Shot from a distance of 80cm with a 105mm lens at f/8, the calculated depth of field would be about 2.4cm. At its tallest the trowel stands about 5cm proud of the background, so a focus stack of just 2 or 3 shots ought to be ample.

The final image was composited from 72 individual shots, with the focus point shifted by 1mm between each. I was looking to record the finest possible detail in the brushed metalwork of the blade.

Comparing the full (72 frame) stack of the final image with a 3 frame stack shows the difference in the resolution of the fine-scale details - despite a depth of field of well over 2cm.

Depth of field is somewhat subjective and relies on restrictions in just how large an image will be and just how closely we will look at it. But highly detailed macro images will be closely inspected at magnification - it's kind of the point of them really.

The notion of 'sharp enough' (on which depth of field relies) becomes critical. This is why I prefer to shoot my stacks at 1mm increments irrespective of the supposed depth of field the set-up delivers.

And I think it is a very fine shot! Somewhat compelling due to the degree of detail. And it fulfils one of photography's fundamental purposes,

to show us that which we may not otherwise (bother) to see.

But is it an artistic shot? Or just a mundane record akin to an architect's blueprints? Are blueprints a form of art even?

These aren't answerable questions. We can all, each of us, answer them - but only for ourselves, never on behalf of others. There is no ultimate, concrete, truth here - because some questions are more about the pondering than the solving.

I'm going to do more astrophotography soon, so these questions are looming larger than usual for me - since any images I make will exist in a world where we have the Hubble telescope, among many others! I decided to explore how we can do more than present a record of a thing when we photograph the mundane. And I wanted to photograph more metal things, partly because I love the smell of the Brasso I use on shiny surfaces.

That was my motivation. So where is the art of the matter?

When I'm shooting street the art of the matter is always front and centre, I know very much what I'm saying even before lifting the camera to my eye. The same is true when I'm shooting 'naturally expressive' subjects at close quarters in staged macro work (such as chess pieces). But trowels and spanners and such? Things very quickly start to feel phoney when you try to coerce 'artistic value' into photos of trowels.

All of which left me wanting to photograph something mundane and metal wherein the image transcends the mere record of its subject without coercing some flaky 'artists intent' into the result.

So I drew on the mantra I use when the end isn't visible - do the next little thing that you can. When I don't know where I'm going or how to get there, I will just keep doing the next little thing that seems somehow useful. Until I get to a point where I realise I've done it all and where I was going is suddenly here.

Rooting about in my shed I found a pair of drop forged steel adjustable wrenches. I don't know what photograph I'm going to make yet, but I do know that two things placed together will naturally create a dynamic arising from their relative positions and attitudes within the frame.

And since they are spanners I snagged a handful of nuts along with them. With these materials gathered the next littlest thing I could do was immediately apparent: arrange them in the frame.

I decided to place the spanners in opposition, with a line of nuts passing between them. I mean honestly, what else would one do given such materials? I didn't wake up that morning thinking "I'll photograph a pair of spanners spitting nuts at each other", I'm just not that creative! Except of course, I am (and by extension so are you) as evidenced by the fact I was stood there arranging the nuts. Creativity isn't an attribute, it's an action.

And I used action, not intent, to define the composition. How many nuts should I use? Odd numbers are easiest to work with, evens have a habit of balancing out, odds more readily add imbalance and tension. Three didn't seem enough, seven too many; I settled on 5. How to arrange them? A straight line seemed more aggressive, an upward arc more playful. How to space them? Just for the hell of it, I chose a spacing pattern of 1:1:2:3cm between the nuts - why? Well I liked the inherent acceleration, and I could well just go mad fiddling on with them if I tried to lay them out simply by eye. The regular pattern gave me a really strong starting point. Which I then disrupted a little bit (nudging the second from the left nut a tad to the left). Details, details, details!

Still uncertain of exactly what I was creating, I made a series of decisions as they presented themselves that were beginning to coalesce. I had a pair of spanners in opposition playing with a nut that was accelerating between them as they took the latest shot in their rally.

Two spanners at play with nuts

And there it is! A narrative, a story: Tools at Play. Which is wonderful because tools are meant for work not for play, the idea of a secret life of tools at play is captivating. All of a sudden I have a whole series of images I can make - I'm looking forward to doing so.

The trowel image may well 'just' be an expression of craft but the full story here is an example of how craft is not so much subservient to art, but rather its enabler and at times its instigator.

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