Thursday, December 18, 2014

So you bought a DSLR

Here's a thing that happens. It's a sort of a parable.

You start taking some snaps, with some crummy little camera. Depending on the era, the camera is one thing or another, but it's crummy. When you take a photo of grandma at Christmas dinner, you're focused on getting the right moment. Sometimes you get lucky and a picture emerges that is just perfectly "Grandma" in one frame. Gorgeous. Your picture has heart, it has a point, it's good. Sure her head is chopped off and it's all fuzzy and the color is kind of weird. It's still a great picture of Grandma.

Now you get a DSLR (in earlier decades you might have bought a Nikon FE2, or a Mamiya something, or whatever). You want to take more pictures of Grandma, but you're determined to make them better. You get some speedlights, or equivalent. You read up on lighting, on posing. You practice with your gear. You buy more of this and that and you practice. You're working on technical detail, and this is a rabbit hole that goes down forever.

Your new pictures of Grandma are sharp, beautifully lit, her poses are spot on. Your little makeshift studio looks sharp.

If you practice real hard and spend a $1000 wisely, or $5000 less wisely, you can make pictures of Grandma that look just like the ones LifeTouch and Sears make. That is to say, completely fucking terrible pointless shit, but golly, they're sure in focus.

You're too focused on technical details to find the right moment, the moment what Grandma will emerge and impress herself upon the sensor. Grandma is self conscious and nervous because you're fussing around with lights and poses and bullshit. So you get a stiff smile, and the proper pose, and Grandma looks exactly like everyone else does when chucked into a studio with a nerd who's fussing with lights and poses and bullshit.

Now let's say you're Karsh, or Snowdon. You know that lighting and posing and all that crap matters, so you just do it. But you're not thinking much about it. It just happens and it's fine, it's pretty good. Whatever. It's not the most important thing. The most important thing is persuading something interesting to emerge. They know that they need to work the sitter past the fact that they're in a studio with lights and poses and bullshit. They need to work with the sitter over a period of time, until the necessary comfort (or discomfort) is achieved, until something indefinable but necessary can emerge to be impressed upon film, or a sensor.

That's why your photos are so shitty. That's why they look like everyone else's. That's why they look like LifeTouch.

Luckily, for a certain breed of bottom-feeding professional, that's what sells. So, there's a nice business here. The fact that there is a business seems to inspire loads of amateurs to think that this must be perfection. So, everyone's happy with the horrible lifeless shit.

Translating this parable for landscapes, "street", and so on, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


So I finally let emotions get ahead of my good sense, write a bitch-piece about LuLa, and then they come up with this.

It's a bit of techwank, and it's sort of trying to flog a color management system. But it does make some valid points about color perception. Some of which I myself have made.


Recently there's been a moderate amount of discussion about Peter Lik. Doesn't matter who he is. He sold some pictures for a pile of money recently, or, more precisely, issued a press release stating that he had. The whole thing is a bit sketchy, but whatever. The point is that the man has a moderate degree of success based on some extremely ordinary photographs.

What's the deal with THAT?

Do wish you were a successful photographer, in some sense? Really, whatever sense you want. Are you not successful? I will reveal to you an important secret, the reason, if you will, that you are not successful.

You are lazy.

Peter Lik, a guy whose work I actively detest, is successful. He is successful because he works hard, and has been working hard, for a long long time. He's invested in good quality equipment. He's invested in galleries (he's represented by 14 galleries, all his own!). He's worked hard developing a business, a sales strategy, and a pile of 500px-ready landscape photographs. His business has a burn rate in the 10s of millions, and, one hopes, generates revenues somewhere in the same range.

If you're not successful, it's because you haven't put in enough work, yet. The amount of work required is, unfortunately, open-ended. Still, the odds are excellent that you haven't put in much work at all. Mostly you've spent money on cameras, and you've dorked around a bit trying to "find your style" or whatever. You haven't busted your ass 90 hours a week for even one year, let alone ten.

Art's nice. It's not like technology where there's a market window. You can just keep plugging away at it. With a little luck, and a lot of sweat, you can find whatever success you desire, assuming that you don't die first.

Me? You ask if I am successful? Hell no. I haven't the slightest interest in working that hard. Ugh.

I'm lazy too.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Modern Portraiture, an Observation

I swear I've written this before, but I can't find it, so perhaps I have just thought it a lot.

Modern portraiture, of the LifeTouch/Senior Sessions/etc style, more or less by fiat, involves a lot of lighting. You have a key, a fill, a hair, something for the background, and probably a few more if you can afford them. The object of the exercise is to reveal all. Detail in the hair, the whole face lit, but with enough ratio for pleasant modeling, blah blah blah.

The point is that lots of gear and technique goes in to putting every physical detail of the person into the picture.

Then we suck that picture in to photoshop.

And we start erasing shit. Skin is smoothed, stray hairs are zapped. Sometimes the entire face is subtly reshaped.

Why on earth are we at such pains to put information in only to remove it in post? This is absurdity. We're doing it because we can. We can shovel lights all over the place, and then we can photoshop the crap out of the picture. It's busywork designed to make the photographer feel valued.

It certainly creates a look, to be fair. An ugly, fake, cookie-cutter look. A look that renders a pleasant picture that does not even pretend to reveal the sitter's personality, it only makes them "look good" in some sense.


(and no, just because she is smiling and holding a tennis racquet, her "true personality" is not being revealed. that is a lie we tell ourselves.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


This is a little drum I have beaten in one form or another before: Whence Inspiration for instance, and also How To Art, but my thinking has evolved a little, as it does.

All this business of sterile pictures about nothing is really about pictures that don't have an Idea (in the sense of the How To Art piece).

A concept, an idea, something to be conveyed. That is literally the entire point of any kind of Art with a capital A, as well as lots of other genres of photography (fashion, journalism, at least). Without an idea you're just doing exercises, or possibly making decor. I've made a lot of decor in my time, and at the time it seemed OK. It doesn't any more.

So, for me, at this moment in time, pre-visualization is almost entirely about the Idea, the concept. What am I trying to convey here, with this photograph which I am shooting right now? And, how can I accomplish that?

This pushes you past the point of simply copying things. You might copy something, but for a purpose. You might absolutely lift a method, a juxtaposition, a style. Absolutely. You almost certainly will. But it won't be merely to copy someone else's picture. You won't be making fake Ansel Adams pictures, you'll be making your own pictures using his methods. You might be saying essentially the same thing as Adams was, and that's OK.

Tell my how awesome, how sublime, that mountain is, that tree is, that river. But you tell me that. Don't just ape Ansel Adams because his photoz are teh awezome.

The point is that you're saying your own thing, using the toolbox of methods we all share.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


I find myself increasingly noticing and being frustrated with what are really quite good pictures.

You've probably seen a lot of these things. They're often strongly geometrical, pleasing to the eye. They're balanced and well organized. Often they're very clean. Sometimes they're architecture, found objects. Less often they're people or landscapes. The common thread is that they're emotionally empty.

Sometimes it's simply that the thing is overdone. There was a good visual idea here, but we've seen every conceivably variation on that theme, and we're done. Sometimes, more often, it's that there's just no point to the thing. Yes, the triangular form created by the building balances with the hard oblong shadow diagonally opposed, creating a strong and pleasing geometry. But so what? What the hell are you trying to say here? This makes me feel nothing, it shows me nothing, it reveals nothing.

Some of these things are quite virtuoso. All the technical details are there, the framing is perfect, the management of color and tone is terrific.

But there's nothing there. There's no soul, there's no passion, there's no heart hammering violently away inside the thing.

This is a vague and personal thing, to be sure. What seems dead to me might well breathe fire for you, but somehow, I don't think that's very common. I think you and I would agree more often than not on what has heart and what doesn't. You might be more willing to like a virtuoso picture with little heart than I am, but that's quite a different thing.

Here's some examples:

I have showcased this one before with basically the same commentary:

I shot this thing specifically to be liked by people on internet forums. It's an exercise in form, color, line. It's pleasing. I got some minor quibbles of feedback about sharpness this, color that, framing the other, or something. It was a while back. Nobody, but nobody, pointed out that it's a dead, soulless fucking nightmare. Focus this? Clone that? Stand closer? There's no saving this fucking thing. It's a pointless exercise in composition. It says nothing, it means nothing. If it makes you feel, the best we can hope for is that it makes you feel vaguely happy, on account of, pretty!

Here's something I shot more recently:

This thing is potentially part of a larger essay on intensity and authenticity I'm working on. This would likely be panned on any sort of photo sharing web site. Most people would comment that it's all blurry. I might get a few things about "liking the tones" or "good use of wide angle" or "cool car" but nobody would say anything like:

That picture has balls
That picture sits on your chest and punches you in the face

which is more what I'm after. Whether or not you think any of those things, I think them. It's not the best thing I've shot in the series, but it's pretty decent for my purposes. It hits the notes I want hit, and it's got some soul, some intensity. Which is, after all, the point.

This is why, basically, I am so set on concept these days. I want to understand how my pictures can have at least a little passion, a little soul. I think that, first, I must have it. And then I must try to take pictures that embody my passion, my emotion. Somehow.

Friday, December 5, 2014

I Hate LuLa

This is totally out of line and unprofessional. But guess what, I'm not a professional.

I hate LuLa. Every article on there is either fanwank (ooo, Leica, sooo worth it); some sort of techwank explaining why some arcane, silly, and sometimes just wrong, approach to something is the best (ETTR is sooooo a good idea); or worst of all some sort of walkthrough about how to use a ton of photoshop to crush the life out of some perfectly innocent, if boring, picture (watch me turn this generic landscape into a hideous fairyland).

The photographs are all perfect exemplars of the technically virtuoso pictures of nothing. They're dead, they say nothing, they mean nothing. To be fair, some of the main guys sell plenty of these horrible zombie things, but they sell them because they match somebody's couch, and because they're pretty, and because they're expensive. These guys can go to friggin' Antarctica and come back with a bunch of photos of ice.

Sometimes it seems, although it's not literally true, as if every essay is selling something. There's no denying that these guys are all hustling hucksters. Yes, they're selling some photos, but mostly they're selling workshops, photo taking trips abroad, DVDs, books, and one imagines, their own parents. They should run some workshops on how to sell workshops, since that's what they actually seem to be good at.

There's also the sniff of scam about the whole thing, to my sensitive nose. They love damn near everything they review. Of course, no money changes hands. But that's not the point. If you haven't got a lot of beef in the industry, bad reviews will cause you to lose access. They'll simply stop sending you equipment to test. Since clicks are LuLa's life blood, and gear reviews are easily the top click-getters, well, you can do the math.

Then there's the endowment thing, which I'm pretty confident they're not stealing anything from or even paying themselves salaries out of, but it's yet another relatively easy way to get clicks. Open applications for grants! Just click here, and here and fill it out. Everyone, come on over and apply. More content, more clicks, more everything. Drive that traffic. And traffic is life. Traffic is money.

Who got selected for an all expenses paid (or something) trip to Antarctica with a bunch of older portly dudes? By a coincidence, she's a very attractive young woman.

It's not auto-generated clickbait. It's lovingly hand-crafted artisanal clickbait. Which I guess is actually kind of sad.

The forums are pretty ok though. I almost never touch the front page, and when I do, I am usually nauseated and angry in a few minutes.