Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Sailing Parable

In sailboat racing there are more or less infinitely many things one can do to the boat to make it go faster. You can sand the bottom with 1000 grit sandpaper, for instance. These things will, in general, buy you some few seconds over the course of a typical race. Some of the tweaks will get you a little more, some a little less, and a few things actually matter quite a lot.

Out on the racecourse, there are things you can do, strategic things which involve a lot of observation and estimation and intelligent guessing, largely about things which are not the boat, things like wind conditions, currents in the water, and what other sailors are doing out there. These things will buy you a lot of seconds and sometimes minutes.

The tweaky little things you can do to the boat matter, to be sure. They are important psychological tools, they make the boat slightly faster but they make the sailor faster as well. In close competition, particularly at the highest levels, races are commonly won by a small number of seconds. However, the things you do that are not about the boat matter a great deal more.

There is an analogy here with photography. Photographers are frequently nerds, especially in this modern era of digital photography. They love all that tweaky stuff. Here are some things people obsess over:
  • white balance
  • sharpness
  • black and white conversion
  • local contrast
  • the "fine print"
Notice that these are all internal things. These are all about stuff you can do to an image you've already shot, these are not about that dangerous squishy stuff like composition and ideas and meaning and semiotics.

Try an experiment. You can do it entirely in your head if you like. Think of an iconic photograph that you really like, something you think is really strong stuff. Now go find a copy of it on the web. It doesn't have to be a good copy, or particularly high resolution. Pull it in to your favorite photo editing software and start playing with it. Blur it a little, not a lot, just as if it was taken with a bad lens. If it's color, play with the color temperature a little, just to see what would happen if the white balance was done badly. Play with the contrast a bit. If it's black and white, try to make it look like whatever you think is a mediocre conversion. Maybe burn and dodge a little bit to mess up the local contrast.

Most especially, mentally list what post-processing procedures you think are most important. Try to make the target image look as if those were done poorly. Not disastrously, just not well.

At what point does this iconic image stop being "good"? Possibly, for a few of you, it stops being good immediately. I will speculate here that for most people, you can get it pretty screwed up before it stops being a great photograph.

In sailboat racing, of course, we need only be faster than the other boats. In photography we want, roughly, to be as fast as possible. Of course all the tweaky little things you do in post make the image a little better, a little stronger. I don't suggest that you stop doing them, only that you accord them the appropriate importance. In particular, if your photo isn't very good then the greatest job of tweaking in the universe isn't going to make it good. Nothing is going to make it good.

Of course, some photographers and some sailors just love tweaking, and don't really care much about the final result. That's ok, too. These people are not serious contenders on the race course, and they're not serious about photographer as "art", as a medium of communication. Let me say it again: THAT'S OK. Enjoy the tweaking, it's fun.

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