Sunday, March 31, 2013

Seeing Photographs

One often comes across people on the internets who are offering critique, or who are making their own pictures, who don't seem to actually see the work. The critique is all about white balance. The work is technically superb in one dimension, terrible in others, and ultimately a crummy picture. Sometimes the guys who "have been shooting professionally for 20 years" are the worst. The picture is sharp, the white balance in the sky is perfect, but the subject's skin looks like bright red plastic.

My theory is that these people are mostly getting drawn in to technical details, and by diving deep into such details they lose sight of the overall image. A photographer who likes cameras but not photographs is especially prone to this.

How can you avoid being one of those guys? How can you train yourself to see the picture instead of a rectangular array of technical trivia? I'm going to take a crack at devising some exercises which might help you train yourself. The goal of these exercises if to create a little mental distance between you and a photograph, and to try to make it easier to see the image holistically, as a single complete thing in and of itself.

Exercise #1

Find a picture, ideally something you like. Look at it for at least one minute, trying to memorize it. Look at details, patterns, textures, contrasts, whatever elements you think will help you remember the image. Now go away for a couple of minutes. Listen to some music, do some pushups, read a magazine. Take at least 2 or 3 minutes away, maybe more, until you're fully immersed in something else.

Now close your eyes and try to reconstruct the picture in your mind's eye. Paint in, in your imagination, as much detail as you can remember. Contemplate that imagined picture for a while, and then open your eyes and go look at the original some more.

Exercise #2

Step back from the photograph. Stretch your arm out full length in front of you, and hold out your hand. When the photograph is about the same size as your hand, stop. Look at it. You're physically quite far away, details should be obscure. You can apprehend the image as a single thing, without really moving your eyeballs. Pause. Look at the image and think about the image, think about what it is a picture of.

Look at the photograph from varying distances, but always far enough away to obscure technical details to a degree. Sharpness, exact focus, and so on. The overall color palette and contrast treatment will still be visible, but try at any rate to put physical distance between yourself and the image. What do you notice about the image at one distance? What about when you step back 3-4 feet further?

Exercise #3

Look at the photograph under very dim light. Things like contrast and color balance should be hard to see now, and perhaps you can ignore them more easily. What do you see now?

Again, the goal is to hide technical detail, and to force you to look at the image as an image. Does it work? Again, think of it as a picture of something and not a technical exercise in photography and post processing.

Exercises #4 through infinity

Invent any new physical process for looking at pictures. Blink rapidly, use peripheral vision, put your nose against it, and so on. Anything you do differently has a chance of breaking you out of the process of looking at the image as a collection of degree-of-contrast, sharpness, white balance, and other technical features.

When you're looking at your own work, whether a photograph you have taken, or a photograph you are "working on" in some photo editor, ask yourself always "does this look natural?" or "does this look right?" Don't ask questions about contrast or sharpness of color balance. Ask if it looks right. To be sure, when you're adjusting contrast, you should be asking yourself if the contrast is right. But then, step back and ask if the picture itself is also right.

Friday, March 29, 2013


I occasionally opine that all the photographs, in certain genres at any rate, have been taken. What does this mean, exactly?

What I mean is that if you were to take a photograph in that genre, you would be able to find another photograph made by someone else which is very similar to yours. So, what do I mean by similar? After unpacking this a bit, I have decided that it means the following.

Suppose we have two photographs and you wanted to measure how similar they are. You could label than A and B, and then ley them down side by side. If you cannot distinguish them when confronted simultaneously by two prints, obviously they are very similar. Suppose instead you had a chance to inspect both prints for a period of time, and then the prints were taken away. Some interval of time, T, passes. Then you are shown one of the two prints, and asked to identify which one it is.

Obviously as time T grows, this task may become more difficult. If one print is of the Eiffel Tower, and the other of your mother in law, it probably does not matter how long T is. If, however, there is some similarity between the two prints, T begins to matter. Over time, most likely, fewer details remain in your memory and what's left is an overall sense of the image. The subject, usually, remains. The ideas, if any, probably remain as well as a general notion of how it looked. The overall placement of forms, the way the light fell, the color palette. At some point your probably cannot distinguish between two mirror images, unless there's something special about the left-to-right orientation, for instance.

This measures similarity in a way which I think is particularly relevant, since what it's really measuring is how similar two prints are in terms of how much of the content sticks in the viewer's head. Since I am mostly interested in photography which sticks in the viewer's head, I find this measure apropos. Your mileage may vary.

When I say that all the photographs have been taken, what I mean is that if you shot a photograph in the genre, there is very likely to be another photograph in existence which would get confused with yours on a timescale of, say, T equals 24 hours or so.

There are subjects which have been shot over and over. Landmarks, geographical features, cityscapes for which particularly fortuitous vantage points exist. Everyone sees the same shot from that vantage, and shoots it. Nearly pixel identical duplicates of every photograph of the Eiffel Tower surely exist.

Pictures of peeling doors, pictures of factory windows (one pane broken, natch), pictures of driftwood; these things have many duplicates "similar" on the 24 hour time scale. You might have to hunt a bit on flickr to find one "24-hour similar" to yours, but there's a good chance you can.

Photographs of mountain ranges you do not recognize probably tend to all blend together after a few weeks, in the absence of some very distinctive element in the frame, as do park benches.

Why does it matter?

If you want to create an image with impact, which connects with the viewer and communicates something unique to the image, you probably don't want yours muddled up with a whole bunch of other similar ones in the viewer's mind, six months hence. This uniqueness property pretty precisely measures how impactful your image is in the minds of the viewers.

Depending on what you want to achieve, then, you may need to consider this. Maybe, though, your goals do not rely on uniqueness, or perhaps your goal is in fact the subvert the idea, and you're deliberately making images which get muddled up with other ones after a while. I don't presume to judge, at least not out loud.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Developing Style

A question commonly asked on the internets is "How can I develop my own style?" or something similar. This post is an effort to answer that question in a more useful way than is frequently done.

First, I've talked about style in this post which might be worth reviewing. In brief, I consider a style to be a set of photographic choices that are made the same way, repeatedly. Photographic choices cover a lot of ground. Essentially, everything that goes into a photograph is a choice made by the photographer. Photography is the fine art with almost no physical skills: making a photograph consists almost entirely of simply making choices. A style is a set of those choices made in advance, and made the same way for each photograph.

In order for a style to work, it must be applied consistently across a body of work. A small portfolio, or everything you make, or anything in between. The style must also be visible, the choices must be obvious enough to the viewer to create a visual coherence within the body of work. Finally, the style should support the subject and the ideas. Visually dramatic choices for visually dramatic subjects -- or to emphasize and underscore the banality of the subject, for example.

So how do you develop a style? You do not simply go out and shoot a lot, and wait for your own unique style to emerge. We have many photo sharing sites that provide ample evidence that this does not work. Shooting a lot is probably necessary, but not sufficient.

You need to look at photographs, you need to make photographs, and you need to look at your own photographs.

What do you like, and what don't you like? More generally, what elements of the photographs (yours and others) do you wish to keep and emphasize, and what elements don't you? If your goal is commercial success, you might well develop one or more styles that you quite dislike, but which are marketable. At this point you're thinking purely in terms of final results - do you like the color palette? The way the light wraps? The way the subjects look?

If you have any photographic sensibility, the effects you're finding desirable will support the subjects, they will "work" for the photographs you want to make. Still, this is a good time to double-check that, and discard any effects that you just love for their own sake. Stick to effects that "work" with the image.

Convert these desirable effects into photographic choices. Color rendering might be reduced to an approach to color in post-processing. Light wrap probably reduces to placement of strobes or reflectors. The way the subject looks might be reduced to a camera angle, or a camera height, that produces the effect that you like. Perhaps you simply like a certain type of subject. Perhaps you're looking for a certain way skin tones textures are rendered.

This doesn't have to be all conscious. Some things probably will evolve organically, without you being aware of them. Your mind may well absorb things you're seeing, and you may well unconsciously use those visual ideas. That's ok too. The main thing is to be looking and absorbing and thinking.

This process goes around and around, your style or styles being refined and evolving. You might refine a single style to a razor edge, and work entirely within it. The process might also spin off alternate styles, especially if you are working commercially. You might develop a portfolio of quite different and distinct styles. Nobody says you have to have 1 or 10 or 100.

It's not a process which stops. You don't develop a style, boil it down to a set of 4 photoshop actions, and stop. Well, you could. You'd probably get bored, and your commercial success would probably dry up. I don't recommend it. I recommend continuing to look at other people's photographs, and at your own, "borrowing" new ideas constantly, and trying to integrate them in to your own work.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The indefinable look of <X>

Something one sees a lot on the internets.

Someone will post some picture with a caption that says something like "Shot on Tri-X souped in coffee with my Leica and the Sommerstein 57mm lens."

Then there will be comments, talking about how there's no way to reproduce the look of Tri-X, or film, or coffee, or the Sommerstein 57, or whatever, and it's so awesome.

Here's a protip: You're looking at a 1500 pixel wide JPEG image. You might imagine that you're seeing the ineffable something that film, or medium format, or Zeiss, or someone brings. You're wrong. While there certainly IS a look to each of these things, they can all be faked. Also, and this is important, when you squish the result to 1500 pixels wide, run it through a JPEG compressor, apply some random color profile, and render the whole mess on a monitor, probably uncalibrated, pretty much all the ineffable is squeezed out.

Just because you see it, doesn't mean it's there. You do see it, I am sure. You have a very firm idea that you're seeing the ineffable whateveritis.

It's not there, though. Sorry.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Fine and Vernacular Art

Fine Art photographers more or less give up the right to take snapshots of their kids.

Most fine arts don't truly have a vernacular form. One does not casually make sculptures about one's kids. One does not write a sonata about one's trip to Disney World. Photography does, and boy does it ever. Almost everyone makes photographs of random crap. Some artists even attempt to co-opt this stuff, making collages of found photographs and so on, trying to express some essence of Americana or whatever. The only other nominally Fine Art I can think of with a vernacular variant is fabric arts. I suppose that if you sell enormous macrame pieces for millions, you probably have to be careful about knitting socks for the cousins.

A Fine Art photographer, like any other Fine Artist, is working away at an oeuvre, a body of coherent work. That body of work has many things in it, but not too many. Enough to support the market, not enough to dilute the value. The artist's brand relies on this. Just as Rolex cannot design and build an inexpensive digital watch the Fine Artist cannot be seen as making a huge body of lower grade material. The body of work that backs up the brand must remain relatively pure if the brand is to remain valuable.

Sally Mann might have a shoebox or two full of color snapshots of her kids, but I'm gonna bet that she keeps pretty close track of them if she does.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Clarity of Vision

One thing pretty much every successful artist has is clarity of vision. The work fits together, it's a coherent body of work. Whether the artist is truly visible in the body of work or not, the work creates the illusion that the artist can be discerned. One believes that one recognizes the work collectively as all work by so-and-so. Successful artists are not, in fact, just drunkenly welding together random piles of crap, they are welding together piles of crap in a very very purposeful way.

Whether the artist meditates naked in the rain for 24 hours before picking up a chisel, or instead simply drives forward welding, painting, cutting, toward some indefinable goal barely felt, the result is the same. The result is the product of a clear vision. Can the vision be put into words? Is the vision clear in advance, or only when the work is complete? These are not questions that particularly matter.

The clarity of vision creates the coherent body of work. The body of work is arguably the thing that matters, each piece being necessarily similar to something else we have seen. In photography this is clearly a big problem, since so many photographs already exist. In other media, comparisons can still be made: "This sculpture feels a lot like so and so, but bigger, and I sense a strong influence from what's his name" and so on. The body of work is really where the artist speaks clearly. The body of work expresses the artist's ideas, the process of creating that body of work drives forward and refines the artist's ideas. If every day is a brand new day, and you're shooting something new each day, you're not developing anything. You're not going anywhere.

The body of work is the artist's brand. Fine art is as much a branding effort as it is an artistic one, after all. Without a body of work, there's no market. A tastemaker isn't going to be happy with a single work. Why invest time and effort into an artist, unless there will be opportunity to sell other works? These other works need to be identifiably by the same artist, identifiably evolutionary work connected with previous work. Nobody wants to sell or buy a sculpture by a hot new artist only to learn that it was not a bold new work by a rising thought leader, but rather was a one hit wonder.

Commercial artists need the body of work for essentially the same reason. Nobody wants to hire a wedding photographer who's going to do something random and new every time. They want to hire a wedding photographer who is going to produce work pretty much like what's in the portfolio. Ditto fashion, and every other commercial venue. You're hired on the basis of the portfolio, which needs to be a coherent body of work which expresses something pretty specific. It is precisely that specific thing expressed which you are selling, as a commercial artist.

The only photographers with the luxury of not creating a body of work are the amateurs, and they would be well served by nonetheless working at a body of work. While there are no dollars on the line, the satisfaction of following a seam of gold to its conclusion, to developing a set of ideas and pulling together a coherent "collage" of work around them must surely have value. In particular, it's pretty much the only way you're going to make anything genuinely new.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Collage or, What To Do When It's All Been Done

One of my favorite themes is how many photographs there are out there. Arguably, all the photographs have been made. If you don't believe me, try uploading an image into google's image search. As of this writing, it will pull out a bunch of what it terms visually similar images, and that's just exactly what it does. Given that it always seems to scrape up some startling stuff, and given that google probably has some infinitesimal fraction of All The Photographs indexed, we can learn something from this.

If every photograph has been taken (and yes, I know there are several dimensions in which this isn't and never well be true, bear with me) we still have the fact that not every photograph has been placed next to every other photograph. If we assume that there are, really, one million genuinely distinct images which can be made, then there are 1,000,000,000,000 possible pairings of images. Not all of these pairings make sense, but there seems to be a lot of potential here.

A pair of images, presented together as a piece of art or as decor, potentially says something different or at any rate larger than either piece alone. Collages, portfolios, shows, these are all new constructs which can be fundamentally new and interesting even if they are made of up things we've seen before. This suggests that one could create a show or portfolio out of other people's photographs, and yet still be making art. Copyright issues aside, of course. This has, of course, been done. Curators and editors have long been with us, perhaps we should promote them to artists? I have argued that Gary Winogrand and Vivian Maier might as well be constructs of their curators.

The general notion of a body of work, of multiple images (or pieces of art) juxtaposed is a theme I'm thinking over a fair bit these days. It's more important and central than I thought it was.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Outgrowing Cameras

A remarkably common theme on internet forums, and probably almost as much in the days before them, is this notion of outgrowing a camera. You might buy an entry level camera, and then outgrow it, and need to upgrade to a new camera.

This is a wonderful idea for camera companies, of course. It's also a wonderful idea for many amateur photographers, the ones who like cameras more than they like photographs.

The implication of the term is that as your skills grow, your camera will begin to hold you back. This can actually happen with some devices and systems. When racing sailboats at some point it may make sense to acquire a faster boat. Generally speaking a slightly slower boat isn't going to be the limiting factor, your terrible steering and bad tactics are why you're losing races. If you work at it, though, you will find that you're doing everything right and still losing the races by a couple of seconds to the other fellow who is also doing everything right and who has a slightly faster boat. A golf club, I imagine, might hold you back. After your swing becomes perfect the inaccuracy of the club is the limiting factor in placing the ball onto the green.

These things simply don't happen with cameras. Well, there are probably some weird corner cases where you could make an argument, but as a general thing your skills do not expand to the point that the camera is limiting you.

What happens is that your taste and desires become refined and more precise, and you learn what manner of photographs you would like to take. Then, in some cases, you will find that a different camera is what's necessary to make those photographs. If your desire is to shoot sports, you may really need a higher burst frame rate. If you want to shoot wildlife, you will want longer lenses (and longer, and longer, without end). If you want to shoot in low light, you may truly need a better sensor.

There are reasons to upgrade. "Outgrowing" a camera isn't really one of them. Perhaps this is the best word we have available to describe the refined tastes and desires, but it still doesn't fit.

If you want to upgrade because, hey, shiny new toy, that is ok. It's disingenuous to assert that you've outgrown the old one.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


I am increasingly testy about the modern habit of printing everything very large. It strikes me that this is an effort to wow the viewer with a mass of detail and the sheer bigness of the thing, and to conceal thereby the lack of content.

There's more to it, though. There is a definite field of view that we can apprehend "all at once" and it is surprisingly small. By making large prints and then hanging them in such a way as to force us quite close to them, the artist alters the way we see the work. We have to scan it, and mentally assemble the image. Our visual cortex helpfully does all the heavy lifting for us, and in general we're unaware of the scanning process unless the print is very very large indeed.

Let's imagine we're in a museum, looking at prints on the wall. Let's say we're something like 8 feet away from the wall. My experience with museums suggests this is a pretty typical viewing distance, plus or minus a few feet.

The width of the visual field we're conscious of is something like 40 or 50 degrees wide (this is the view a "normal lens" gives on a camera). To see a wider area than this, we deliberately turn our head from side to side. In the museum, if the print is more than about 5 feet wide or so, we're going to have to start doing this, or we need to step back.

The field of view we can actually grasp "all at once" in some useful sense, seems to be much smaller. Let's say about 5 degrees (experiment yourself, fix your eyes on the page, estimate what you can actually see clearly without letting the eyeball move, and do the math). This corresponds to a print size of about 8 inches across at our 8 foot viewing distance. Call it an 8x10 print, since the stuff around the edge of the frame probably isn't very important. We can grasp the essentials, the central portion, of an 8x10 in one go if we're 8 feet away. More or less.

There's a great deal of daylight between the 8x10 print and the 5 foot-wide prints you have to consciously scan to grasp, and this is pretty much where everyone is printing these days. With the typical 16x24 and up prints, our visual cortex is working harder. We're assembling a notion of the forms in the print with peripheral vision, and unconsciously scanning to fill in detail here and there, and over the course of a couple of seconds building up a clear picture of the image. What's really interesting here, by the by, is that it feels instantaneous because we're editing our memory to obscure the time lag. Look up chronostatis for the details.

Finally on to the subject of this piece. Thumbnails are a new thing. They belong to the Internet, they originated there and are a uniquely digital artifact of the way we organize and present images. They're small, which is the point. They're small enough to apprehend in one go, we see them in an instant. While we see them in an instant, they also have certain properties akin to a very large print, in that they are really a low-resolution summary of the image in the same way our peripheral vision provides a low-resolution summary of our current field of view.

It doesn't happen to me very often, but occasionally the thumbnail presents a very clear idea of the image I am about to look at, which is completely wrong.

Always, the thumbnail provides a wildly different experience of an image. In pretty much all cases, I find that the thumbnail tells me if the photograph is any good. That is, if I like the thumbnail, I will like the photo, and if not, I won't. But not always.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Photography as Consciousness-Raising

We see a lot of pictures of homeless people. This is usually justified as some sort of social commentary or consciousness-raising exercise. Some good background reading here, by the by, is Sontag's little book Regarding the Pain of Others which as usual isn't exactly the last word here but will get you to think of some stuff.

Most photographs don't change the world. We sort of think that they do. "Migrant Mother" and so on we think of as important photographs that were the prime movers of certain important changes. This isn't really true, and as a consequence, photographing homeless people isn't just trite and exploitive, it's (mostly) useless.

First of all, try to think of all the iconic world-changing photographs you can. Can you think of ten of them? I can think of perhaps four or five off the top of my head.

Now subtract out all those photographs that were in the hands of a skilled propagandist, that were used as a part of a larger campaign, which campaign was applied to a population that was poised to change already. Are there more than zero left?

We think of the pictures as the prime movers because they're the thing we remember. We don't really remember the speech as well. We don't remember the editorials. We don't remember the mood, and the idle conversations that encapsulated our mood and the mood of the society. We are visual creatures, and so we remember the picture.

Your photograph of the homeless guy isn't going to set the world on fire. It might, though, persuade a couple of your friends to give a few bucks to the local shelter, and that's certainly not a bad thing.

You could make the argument that (as noted above), in order for society to make profound changes it must be ready to change. Perhaps photographs of homeless people prepare society for these changes. Perhaps my photographs of poverty help with the gradual, imperceptible shifts of attitude which render the society ripe for change at some unknown future time? This is not an unreasonable hope, but it is a bit tenuous.

One could as well argue that the constant stream of photographs of the homeless and impoverished instead desensitize us. We react to these photographs in a variety of ways: Gladness that it is not us in the photo, a desire to change and improve the lot of the people in the photograph, a contrary desire to leave things exactly as they are in hopes that we will not end up like the person in the photograph, and probably many more. These reactions can, of course, overlap. Humans are fully capable of exactly contradictory and simultaneous emotional responses.

Ultimately, the ways in which societies change and evolve seems to be too subtle and complex for us to understand at this time. Arguments that our pictures aid this change, or direct these changes in a particular direction, are therefore a bit suspect at best. They are hopes and aspirations, not really arguments.

Should you photograph the homeless? I can't answer that. The question is complex and difficult, though. The answers are not obvious. Your motivations as a photographer are certainly not clear to us, the viewer, and it seems likely that they are likewise unclear to you, the photographer.