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On Experimentation And Camera Language

As a designer, one of the things that fascinates me about photography is camera language. In design, we talk a lot about creating visual grammar through choices of color, line, form and typography. These are the building blocks we use to create a grammatical system with which to construct visual communication.

In photography, the same concept is referred to as camera language (although in practice, the term is more frequently used when discussing cinematography and filmmaking). As in design, color, line and form are important elements that help define a visual grammar. But technical and mechanical forces are also at work: lighting and lens choices, film speed, paper choice, aperture settings, shutter speed and camera angles are all mechanical controls you can use to define a signature camera language.

For example, I came across photographer Vicky Slater a couple of years ago on Flickr through her amazing digital pinhole portraiture. The camera language is soft, ethereal and celestial. It speaks in whispers and hushed smiles to me. These are created with her DSLR, using a pinhole lens cap. When I interviewed her for this post, she had this to say about the aesthetic quality of her pinholes:

"I love the pinholes for their painterly qualities and for their gorgeous saturated colors ..."

In general, though, she prefers film, mostly working with natural light. Depending on the mood she's in and what she wants to communicate through her work, she chooses a different camera:

My most used is the Hasselblad with the 80mm lens, it's an all-mechanical camera from the '70s and it's a real workhorse. I know what I'm doing with it; it's familiar, adaptable and gives a lovely quality to the pictures.
I'm also pretty smitten with my Nikon F80. It's so different from the Hassy — light, fast, grainy and easy. I use a 50mm 1.4 lens with it and mainly black-and-white film.
The digital can be fantastic if I'm looking for a cool, detached look, but it's mainly used for the pinholes and quick snaps of the children's activities.
There are also various toy cameras that I use irregularly — the Holga, Diana and Great Wall and a couple of Polaroids, all of which I have a love-hate thing going on. When they're good, they're very, very good. But when they're bad ...

Through manipulation of equipment, color, lighting and composition, it's amazing how a photographer can establish a distinct visual language and then, using different mechanicals, add what can best be described as visual linguistic dialects.

Callie Neylan is a senior interactive designer for NPR.org.

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