Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On The Internet

There is a line in Dylan Thomas' poem, "A Child's Christmas in Wales", in a list of gifts:

...and books that told me everything about the wasp, except why

A great deal of the internet will tell you everything about how to take a picture, except, well, if not "why?" then except some other terribly important things.

I see this especially for portraits. We learn where to stick the lights, and how to pose, and more sophisticated resources will copy out stuff on where to stick the lights for fat people versus thin people, how to pose men versus women, and so on. But none of them will tell you how to take a portrait. If you should chance to share your test portraits with other would-be photographers, you'll get a lot of feedback about where you stuck the lights, and how your "skin processing" looks. The closest anyone will come to critiquing the portrait is "she has a great expression".

You see it for landscapes as well. If you want to shoot a landscape you should wait until the Golden Hour, and then nail your camera to a very heavy tripod, and then set your lens to the hyperfocal distance and about f/11 and make sure the horizon is level and and and and and... These are instructions for taking not landscapes but very very specific kinds of landscapes. What if you see the landscape as a sort of post-apocalypse Mad Max dream of hell? I'm pretty sure none of that shit is remotely applicable.

Even commercial stuff like weddings, where the idea is arguably to do this, everything you read directs you toward shooting this wedding so that it is indistinguishable from all other weddings.

Nobody tells you to dig deep and find a concept. Nobody tells you to work with your subjects to find out what they want to say, nobody tells you how to make pictures with any guts at all.

Except, of course, for me. It's kind of my thing.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Word Games

Lately, I've been playing word games to drive photographic ideas. When I see something I'd like to photograph, to make something of, I play word games.

It goes like this.

I take some pictures of whatever it is. Not really trying to make photographs as such, just to record it. I walk around and I think about it, and try to develop some sort of reaction to whatever it is. Then I leave. Later I look at my record shots and think some more, and try to boil things down to a few adjectives, a phrase, some words. Some sort of verbal catch-phrase that covers some of how I see the photos I want to shoot. It might be how I really feel about it "an erotic dream" or how I think it might wittily be portrayed, "gothic", or something else entirely. The words are about the final result, not the thing I am considering making the subject, although those two might overlap.

Then I mull those words over, along with the record shots, and try to develop a shooting script. What techniques are going to produce a good result? When should I be shooting? Do I need props, lights, equipment? Will things need to get moved around? What lens(es) should I deploy?

Then I go and shoot it.

Then I look at those pictures. Either we're going someplace at this point or we're not. If we're going someplace, I'm probably going to return and shoot it again, having learned some things, e.g. "no, no, it should be raining!". If we're not, then into the bin with the idea. Or, I suppose, a new idea might arise, new words or phrases, a new reaction, idea, feeling.

I've done this with a couple projects over the last couple years and it seems to produce immensely satisfying results.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Thought for the Day

If you can't say something more or less intelligible about your picture, you probably haven't thought it through. Words are what we use to think with, mostly.

If you can explain your picture fully with words, then possibly you should have written an essay rather than taking a picture.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Just Shooting Stuff II

Here's a sort of thought experiment.

Suppose you're out with the camera, just shooting stuff. Looking for some good photos. Imagine that you see, parked on the street, a bright red Lamborghini Countach. If you're in to cars, even a little, you might decide to take a picture of it. Here's how your thoughts and actions might play out:

Cool car! <click>

Well, that's one way to do it. You probably won't get anything but a really uninteresting snap of a car.

Cool car! How can I make it look cool? <click>

Ok, that's better. You've got a sketch of a concept. You're probably going to make a more interesting picture. It might be a cliche, but at least you're going to think a moment, and maybe move around a bit. Depending on how sophisticated you are, you might do quite a lot here. There's a good chance that you'll get a cool-looking picture.

Cool car! How would "Road&Track" shoot it? <click>

Another viable approach. If you read the magazine and pay attention, you're going to wind up with a copy of a style. Probably a second-rate copy. But it's better than the dumb snap the first chap took, up at the top of this post.

Cool car! How do I feel about this car? <click>

(or any of any number of other ideas - How does the owner feel? What do the passers-by think of this car? How does this car related to global economy? - and so on)

This sounds like artsy crapola, and to an extent it is. But it's the beginning of making a personal photograph of the car. Do you think the car looks fast? How would you shoot it to capture that sense of speed? Do you think it looks ridiculous? How can you portray that?

You might wind up with a Road&Track shot when you're done, but in the first place probably not, and in the second place, it will still be your picture, not a copy of someone elses.

You might take the shot in a moment, in any of these cases. You might take a dozen test shots, go home, and hope to find the car again tomorrow. You might spend a month or a year or a decade shooting Lambos of various sorts.

How you execute the idea is up to you. The important thing is to have an idea, or at least to be searching for an idea.

Just Shooting Stuff

Lots of people, I venture to guess almost everyone who fancies themselves a bit of a photographer, tend to wander around just shooting stuff. You look for "the good ones" and you shoot those, and then you cull like fun. This is supposed to be the process.

If you wander around urban environments and shoot black and white, you call yourself a "street" photographer, for a little extra cachet, but the process is the same.

I'm on the record, repeatedly, as being OK with this. You can, as far as I am concerned, just wave the camera around pressing the shutter button wildly. Then you pick out the good ones from the contact sheets or equivalent. I've pointed out that, essentially, you're doing the "photography" part at the contact sheet. But, that's OK. Who cares when you pick out the good ones? Where is it written that you must select/frame before you press the button rather than after?

Still, in this era of digital cameras, this leads to a problem. You get a LOT of pictures you choose from. A fairly common theme online is something like I have 4 terabytes of RAW files and the backups are getting to be difficult! or something equivalent.

If you have 4 terabytes, or whatever, of pictures lying around that are just personal use stuff, you're shooting too damn much. Just as a for-instance, if you happen to have exactly 4 terabytes of RAW files, you've got at least 80,000 pictures. Probably more. You're never going to "pick the good ones out" of this mess. Your "photography" in the sense of selecting a frame and moving forward with it, is never going to happen.

So, while that process is perfectly legitimate, it's impractical.

It also dodges, and this is the real problem, the issue of having something to say. If you're just wandering around looking for "good photos" you're probably going to find some now and then. They're going to be, at best, sterile exercises in composition. The might be visual jokes. They might be copies of something we've seen before. It's extremely unlikely that they're going to be strong personal statements. It's far less likely that you're going to be able to pull together a portfolio of related pictures that pull together to fully explicate a strong personal statement.

Now, in theory, you could pull a strong personal statement off a contact sheet. You're going to have a lot more luck pulling it out of the real world which is, until photography overlaps completely with photo-realistic 3D modeling, much much richer. I do not think you can pull a strong portfolio off a contact sheet, no matter how you try.

You've got to shoot with some kind of purpose. You've got to have some sort of goal. You needn't walk out the door with a ten page shooting script (although that wouldn't be a bad idea) but you do have to have some notion of what you're trying to say by the time you squash the masher.

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.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Legacy? No.

A pretty common theme I see here and there among photographers is that they're shooting to create a legacy, to leave something behind to be remembered for.

I suspect this is yet another terrible thing we can ascribe, largely, to Ansel Adams. His writings go on obsessively about archival processing, and making sure that your negatives and prints will last for decades or centuries. I think this has evolved into a sort of undercurrent, in photography, that photographs should be permanent objects. Your pictures will be, if you are good and live a blameless life, granted eternal life and you will live on forever.

This is idiotic on several fronts.

First and foremost it's not going to happen. Nobody cares all that much about your photos. There are a billion photographers on the planet today, in 100 years the general population might remember one or two. Art history nerds might remember ten or twenty. Maybe even a hundred. The odds are profoundly against you. Also, if you're concerned about a legacy the probability goes up, to 1.0, that you will not be amongst the favored few (see the sequel for why).

Secondly, if you're shooting for a legacy, you're not shooting because you must. You're not shooting because you have something to say that has to get out. Great artists, even good artists, even terrible artists, don't make art for a legacy. Spend a few minutes with google, dig up some interviews with artists, dig up some "we asked 10 artists why they do the thing they do" pieces. There's tons of them out there. I defy you to find a single artist who says they're doing it to create a legacy.

If you're not shooting because you have something to say, then you definitely won't be remembered by anyone in 100 years. Because you had nothing to say.

You can argue, and I have seen it done, that well the legacy is really just for friends and family. These people will remember you anyways, you don't need to leave behind a bunch of prints that they will hang out of habit or because they feel they really ought to, until a new spouse makes them take the prints down and put up something else, and then the prints languish in a storage unit until they get wet and then they get thrown out.

Be remembered for being amusing, for telling great jokes, for being the best uncle ever, for your amazing pies. Don't be remembered as the guy who foisted a bunch of boring photographs off on succeeding generations.

Shoot because you must. Shoot because you lust to create. Shoot because you love cameras. Shoot because it gives you something to do with your hands. Shoot because you're shy and the camera gives you something to hide behind. Shoot for any reason except to create a legacy.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Transformation versus um, not

So you're someplace, and you're trying to follow my instructions. You don't want to just take a picture of the thing, you want a concept, some idea to realize with the camera. How do you get yourself a concept? I've talked about this in months and years gone by, in a series on inspiration and pre-visualization. Here's another take on it.

This isn't the only way to break it down, but it's one way.

You can take a transformative approach, and realize whatever it is as something it is not. Something you can imagine, but something which is not what the thing is. You might want to photograph a supermarket aisle as a circle of hell, perhaps. Perhaps it makes you feel like you're in hell, but it's not all that hellish in reality. How can you transform it into a hellish vision? What specific photographic choices would you make? Where should you place the camera, what length of lens should you use, do you need props? Actors? And so on.

At the other end of a spectrum here is.. the other thing. I haven't thought of a good word for it, so it's "not transformative". You're trying to photograph it as it is. How can you shoot that supermarket aisle to show what it truly is? What is it, truly, anyways? And what kind of photographic choices can you make to bring that out?

This is a spectrum. Rarely is a photograph 100% non-transformative, although the news media would surely want us to believe that theirs are.

Also, it applies to more than places. Events, people, grounds, objects. These can all be handled in the same sort of way.

Does it matter? Not really. It is not a requirement to measure the degree to which a concept transforms the scene. Still, it is useful, I think, to consider that a concept is permitted to transform to a degree. Possibly, by considering the spectrum described here, a concept can be helped to reveal itself.

Monday, December 1, 2014

How Do I Find That Photograph?

So you're looking at something, and you think there might be a picture there.

A lot of people point their camera at it and push the button and they're done. Or they think for a second about shit like leading lines and isolating the subject, or whatever. They make some compositional choices based on what they know, and they do that, and then they push the button.

That will certainly expose a sensing system of some sort, but it's only going to make a photograph by accident.

Why do you think there's a picture there? How does it make you feel? What should it make you feel? What could it make you feel?

Let's say you see a gorgeous landscape. Great.

If you're a 500px photographer looking for upvotes, you're going to get a tripod, go somewhere hard to get to in hopes that your picture won't be an exact copy of someone else's, you're going to screw your Lee Big Stopper on the lens, you're going to take about a 60 second exposure. Then you're going to clean it up to the nines, push the greens to the limit, and post that piece of shit. And maybe you'll get a bunch of upvotes.

If you're me, maybe you take a few documentation shots just to remember what it looks like for later. You're going to think about it. What could this be? Could this be a gothic nightmare? A sun-drenched fairyland (see also: 500px photographer)? Is it majestic or bucolic? Is it beautiful, mundane, or both? Is it a maze of cliches? What's my concept here?

If there's no concept, there's no picture. Screw that. I have better things to do than make copies of photographs. I could, sure. But what would be the point?

If there is a concept, what am I going to need to make it happen? How do I present gothic, or bucolic, or cliched? How am I going to shoot that landscape, instead of the one I see in my documentation shots, instead of the ones I see on 500px?

What technical and compositional choices can I make to produce something that might hit the concept? What equipment will I need to execute those?

Then, if you're me, you go out and you do that. Probably you try several times. Quite likely the concept does not survive, but mutates, and becomes something related to the original but different. Sometimes the concept mutates into something non-viable, and it dies. That's OK too.

This is how Ansel Adams worked, essentially. Sometimes it took a couple years to get the shot that carried the concept. It worked out pretty often for Ansel. He was pretty stingy with the shutter button.

This is how Henri Cartier-Bresson worked, but it never took very long. And a lot of the time it didn't work out. Henri was pretty button-happy.

That's how you make photographs instead of copies of photos, or just random crummy assemblages of color.

At any rate, it's one way to do it.

I'll be breaking down the process a bit more in upcoming posts. I have more to say.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Arrrg Signs

Photos of signs. Arrg. Please stop.

There's a genre. You've probably seen it. God help you, you've probably shot some of them. In the picture there's a sign that says something, and then there's something else next to the sign or under the sign, usually people. The people (or whatever) are contradicting the sign (people standing under a No Standing sign is popular) or sometimes they're demonstrating something about the sign, or whatever. There's some sort of witty relationship between the sign and something else in the frame.

These things make my teeth itch. They're facile. They're common. And most important, they usually say nothing about anything. It's all right there, a self contained little witty bubble, unconnected to anything. It's a LOLCATS for the intellectual.

The first one shot was probably pretty good. It's a one-time-only gimmick, though.

So, anyways. Please stop. Or don't, but if you must (and, what the hell, I have plenty of bad habits myself) please keep them to yourself. Like masturbation, these sorts of things are best done privately. We enjoy them in solitude, but we don't make other people look at our junk.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Slide Film Canard

Every now and then in some discussion or another online some idiot will trot out a line about how, in the goode olde dayes wee shote slide filme, and soe wee hadde to gette it righte inne thee camera.

This sounds great but is total bullshit. If, like most slide shooters, you didn't ever do anything with your slides except drool over them on a light table and -- rarely -- bore the crap out of some victims with a slide show, then certainly the transparencies were the end of the road. A pointless stupid end of the road that nobody cares about.

If you actually did anything with your slides, such as selling then to a print publication, or making prints, or having prints made, then there was, well, hmm. What was there? Oh! A printing step in which, my goodness, all the usual corrections can be made. Wow.

Most slides did languish as a worthless endpoint. Most slides never sold to anyone, and getting prints made was never cheap.

If you never did anything with your negatives except admire them, then you could make the same silly argument that you had to get it right in camera. In the goode olde dayes wee hadde to gette it righte inne the camera because wee nevere printede, wee just admirede the negatives in the sleeves doesn't have quite the same cadence, but it's pretty much the same thing.

Indeed, these days the requirement to get it right in camera is if anything greater. Most photos are unadjusted JPEGs, slammed helplessly onto the internet as-is. In the goode olde dayes of yore, most photos were machine printed color prints. Which had a bunch of adjustments made in the printing process.

Now, I'm not the right kind of nerd to answer this, but I am pretty sure that the in-camera adjustments to make a JPEG are less than the automated machine printer adjustments. I could be wrong there, mind you, but I think I'm right. If I am, you gotta be closer now than you ever had to be in the past, for most pictures.

Which really means that the camera's exposure and white balance software has to be better than it ever was. Which it is, so, hooray.

Anyways, next time some old bugger trots out the slide film canard, now you can snicker quietly, or start a big argument, or whatever. Enjoy!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Now That's a Photograph

I'm honestly not sure where I am going with this blog now. However, I've mulled it over in the last month, wondering if I have anything to say. Then, a friend asked me in another venue if I would ever be writing on this blog again. And now, a relatively recent commenter wished me well, having just stopped by the find the place closed!

It's possible I do still have some things to say, and it's certain that my life is now more settled than it has been in a while.

So, with no promises that this isn't just another "last post" I find I do have some things to say.

The hard part of taking a picture with a camera is recognizing that there's a picture there at all, and what that picture is. Sometimes the picture is impossible. Sometimes it's impossible with the gear you have. Sometimes you haven't the technical ability to make the picture (in that third case go practice some more - none of this stuff is hard, go learn it)

When I say something is a photograph, what I mean is that it's the right picture. I mean that standing two feet to the left, pressing the button a minute later, and so on, would have been inferior choices. I mean that the choice to drag the shutter or put the strobe there or to render it in highly saturated color was a good choice. Another choice would have given a lesser result. Some people would say snapshot, but I don't have a word I like. I just say not a photograph.

Recognizing that there's a picture is the the key, and recognizing what the picture is is the lock. Put them together, take the picture. This is the act of photography. Street photography, really, is about recognizing and shooting in a moment. Landscape can be about refining the recognition and searching for the photograph over many exposures, years of trying. Landscapes hold pretty still, so you have that luxury. A portrait might be something you search for over hours, or over several sessions over days. It might also happen in a moment.

So, really, pre-visualization is just one path of many. A pre-visualized photo is generally one where you've looked, you've seen, and you've imagined the final print in some detail. It's the opposite of street photography, but it perhaps most clearly lays out the important acts of recognizing that there is a photo, and then recognizing what that photo is.

You can argue, and I have, that sometimes the recognition of the photograph occurs in post, at the contact sheet or at the computer. That's OK too.

Far too many people spend too long mucking about with technical details. These are minor and easy. Stop it. Far too many people don't look for a photograph in anything. Or rather, they don't look for their own photograph, they look for someone else's. They try to duplicate Ansel Adams. They try to follow the strobist instructions for such and such a portrait type. They try to copy someone else's wedding photography style, but color everything pink instead of gold as 'my personal style'.

Copying someone else's pictures is a fine way to develop technique. But it's not a way to make photographs, it's only a way to make copies of photographs. By all means look at other people's pictures. Then go find your own. It might be a copy of someone else's, in fact it'll probably look a lot like something or some things you've seen. But it should not consciously be a copy. It should be what your heart tells you if the right picture in that place, of that thing, in that moment.

The standard 500px landscape (of Type II) with the saturated greens, the fuzzed out water (by use of a Lee Big Stopper, natch), and the incredible depth of field is up-voted, +1'd, favorited or whatever. But it's rarely the right picture of whatever the camera was pointed at. It's not a photograph, it's a copy of a photograph. It was made to get +1'd, not because it was the right picture of that scene. The portrait with the perfectly dialed in Rembrandt lighting and the hairlight just so is made because that's what the book says, or that's what Rembrandt did, or because my peers will like it. It's not the right picture of the sitter. It's not a photograph, it's a copy of a photograph.

The idea of the right picture is at least partly subjective, of course. But people can tell. They can tell, ultimately, if you're putting your heart into a portfolio. They can tell that you're struggling for an idea and finding it, that these are -- for you -- the right pictures of the things. They can tell you're not just copying someone else popular. They probably can't put it into words, but they can tell. They might not like your pictures, but they can feel the power, if you put it in there. At least, some of them can, some of the time, and that's about as good as it gets.

People +1 the landscapes, but they don't look at them, and they don't come back to look at them again. +1 just means "meets expectations".

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Closing up Shop

I hate when blogs just get abandoned silently. I don't much like when they're closed down officially either, but I dislike that less.

For a variety of personal reasons I won't be writing here any more, for the forseeable future. Life is long and the world is large, so never say never, but I have no plans to write any more. I will swing by from time to time to moderate comments, if any. I expect traffic to be light.

You're always welcome to buy my book. I've sold something like 60 copies! Which is about 10x what I expected.

Godspeed, gentle reader. I hope that in the archive you might find things that are interesting, amusing, or at least thought provoking. Make some good pictures. Avoid the fools and charlatans, who are legion. I might even be one.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Lytro Illium

I don't review gear on this blog. This isn't a gear review.

Lytro Illium is a new camera from Lytro, who are doing consumer-targeted light-field cameras. The point of these cameras is that focus and aperture is, to a large degree, computed in post. I've commented in the past that this is part of a natural progression. Digital photography has been, to a large extent, about moving activities from before the shutter button press to after, and light-field technology is just (potentially) another step along the way.

First a technical remark. People complain that the resulting picture size is small. Lytro is coy about these numbers (see below) but the new camera seems to produce something like a 4 or 5 megapixel picture, once the computational smoke clears.

I think this is, or any rate can be made, irrelevant. We're in the land of software. Stitching up enormous pictures out of small ones is old hat. It's not even hard any more.

Here's a tip for the Lytro guys: let me stitch up whatever size picture I like, based on the "as much as possible in focus" model, and let me apply the computed depth of field on the result. Ideally, give me options to compute a plane of focus that is not parallel to the sensor (simulate T/S or large format movements). Even better also give me options to compute a non-planar field of focus. Now I can put this and that in focus, and leave the rest soft. Now we're making some wedding photos, baby!

What's more interesting, though, is this. The Lytro guys seem to be dodging the issue of resolution by recasting the photograph as a new kind of object. They really want to push this idea of an interactive object, where the viewer -- the end-user, not the photographer -- manipulates the depth of field, and performs small rotations, to really explore what's going on in there.

This is to literally re-imagine the idea of photograph. That's pretty damned bold.

I find it incomprehensible. Fiddling with these interactive objects is something that makes no sense to me. But then, as a still photographer, of course it makes no sense to me. I am, by definition, the guy that wants a faster horse, not an automobile. Of course the automobile baffles me.

I have no idea if they're going to succeed. So far it's not looking so hot. But it's interesting as hell, and one wonders what else is around the corner. Is the still photograph itself about to be abruptly supplanted by something we literally cannot imagine, and will not understand when it arrives?

Maybe! Wouldn't that be fun?!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

On "Workflow"

Digital photographers seem to obsess, sometimes, over this idea of "workflow". This is the work that occurs after the shutter press and before the final result, whatever that is. There's a lot of "here is my workflow" or "what is your workflow?" floating around out there. People write up their workflow, "Step 3: Level the Horizon" and 17 other absurd tiny steps.

It's not that this is a terrible thing. The great leap forward digital has given us is the ability to do a bunch of stuff after the shutter press and before the final result. That's a good thing.

I see two things that are bad about it, however.

The first thing is the obsession over it. It's just some stuff you do, it's not the heart of your creative process. Your art isn't in your "workflow" unless you're a digital painter. If you're a photographer, the workflow should be secondary, it should enhance your photography. A common workflow will tend to create similarity between photographs, which is great for a portfolio or other body of work which is supposed to be coherent.

Which leads to the other problem. If you standardize your workflow, then you apply it to everything you do, whether the process is appropriate or not. All your landscapes look the same, whether they're supposed to or not. Your portraits looks kind of like your landscapes which look kind of like your still lifes.

Standardize workflow as appropriate. It's just a tool, use it as such. When a tool suits the job at hand, use it. When it does not, set it aside and take another tool, a tool that does suit the job.

Do you make bespoke wooden furniture, or are you a chisel-user?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

An Exercise

I don't know that this will teach anything, but it's cool, and it gets at some stuff I've been thinking and writing about.

Go get a physical photograph. A page from a magazine will do, or a print, or a page of a book, whatever. You needn't tear it out, just get it in front of you so you can touch it.

First examine it as a physical object. It's a sheet of paper, probably. Some thickness. It smells, feels, sounds, a certain way. It has some sort of pigments or metallic deposits on its surface.

Now consider the pattern of tone and color on the surface, created by those pigments or deposits. What are the colors? Are they complementary, or what? What's the range of tone? What patterns are present in shapes and lines and masses of tone and color, on the surface of this piece of paper?

Descend further. Step through the frame now, in a sort of Matrix-like transition: What's it a picture of? Note the visual details. Is the man wearing a tie? Is that a mountain in the distance? Inventory the contents of the frame and place them in space relative to one another. Consider those relationships a little, and how that translates into visual relationships on the page.

Further. What is she thinking, is it hot or cold there, how heavy is that thing he is holding? What do you imagine about the scene?

A picture is always many things, and a photograph has the additional feature of having once been something real (usually).

Monday, April 21, 2014

Karsh at the National Portrait Gallery

I seem to fall, always, into the general idea that Karsh wasn't very good. Then I happen upon an exhibition of his work and I remember that it's not so at all, he was very good. Very good indeed. Now that I am old and sophisticated, perhaps it will stick this time around.

The pictures in this show are mostly black and whites, mainly of famous people. I gather that the exhibition will rotate prints in and out, which seems very confusing. If I read the notes properly, Karsh's widow gave a rather large collection to the National Portrait Gallery (why the US one? Karsh was Ottawa based. Surely the Canadians are annoyed!) and this is a subset of those. A few dozen portraits, including some very well known ones.

The dramatic light and large format gives us a wealth of the wrinkles and tiny features that we call "character" in every face. These are nothing like the traditional airbrushed messes we see from lower end commercial guys (Karsh was, after all, commercial). These are all a riot of details, both flattering and unflattering.

Post any of these on an internet forum, and you'd get a huge raft of shit. Plugged up blacks, chopped off limbs, hot spots all over the place. You really need more fill light. You ought to have a hair light. The framing is either too tight or way too loose. Blah blah blah blah. In short, these look nothing like Senior Portraits from LifeTouch Studios.

What Karsh accomplishes with these pictures is wildly beyond the reach of most amateurs, and most low end commercial portraitists. These pictures create a powerful impression that you, the viewer, know the subject a little. Indeed, many of these pictures did a great deal to create our conception of these people. Hitchcock is a haughty auteur, Churchill a glowering lion. This is of course a construct, this is the image of the subject that Karsh chose to make and to keep. Walt Disney was not an affable fellow at all, but this portrait makes us believe that he is.

I think, based on these pictures and on a short film I saw decades ago, that Karsh worked much like a street photographer does. Rather than soaking up the rhythms of the street and learning to feel its flows and patterns, Karsh instead worked with the subject in the same way. He must have learned the patterns, the ebb and flow of emotion and body language in the subject, and was then able to wait.. wait.. and then click at precisely the moment, the decisive moment, the moment when there was a picture, the picture, the one Karsh wanted.

A profile of Snowden I read recently suggests much the same of him.

It is this that separates a good portraitist from a bad one. All the lights in the world, all the strobist studying in the world, won't help you be good if you can't get in synch with the subject, if you can't press the button, click, at the decisive moment.

Conversely, if you can, any god damned lighting at all is fine.

Unfortunately, while lots of people will teach you a bunch of useless shit about lighting, skills that will launch your career right into the bottom end of the portrait market, nobody seems to have any insight into how to work with the subject.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

On The Use of Photographs

The use of a photograph varies with context. Photojournalistic pictures claim to show us what really is and so we tend to look through or past the photograph, and tend to see instead what is depicted. The photograph is transparent. Take that same photograph and place it in a collection of the Best New Photos of the Year and we will tend to see the photograph itself, we'll see the design, the colors, and so on. When told that it's a good photograph we will tend to examine it on those terms, as a photograph.

Simply by directing attention this way or that with context, we can change the way a viewer experiences the photograph. "Look at this object" causes us to look through the picture to the pictured. "Look at this picture" causes us to examine the photograph as a thing itself.

Photographers, but especially novice photographers, worry too much about the photograph. Being interested in the craft of photography, and having recently learned a few things about, say, composition, color balance, lighting, they will tend to examine photographs in those terms. They have a built-in bias against looking through the picture at the pictured, and toward examining the photograph as a photograph. In particular, they tend to examine it in terms of whatever they learned most recently. Non-photographers tend, on the other hand, to always look through the picture to the pictured. They see what the photograph is a picture of, and judge the picture largely on those grounds.

If the flower is beautiful, the non-photographer will like the picture. If the color balance is off, the novice photographer will dislike the picture.

The claim is made, and I have made it, that getting photographic, technical, details right -- good composition, skilled use of selective focus, and so on -- will support and enhance the subject and make even the non-photographer like the picture better. While this is true, the subject will surely dominate. A badly lit picture of my child being charming will trump a beautifully lit picture of my child looking like a criminal, every time.

There are a lot of consequences to this.

How do all these horrible fauxtographers get clients?! Because their customers don't give a god damn about your stupid 85/1.8 lens, what they care about is that Julie takes great pictures of their kids. Maybe a little blurry sometimes, but the kids are so happy. You, on the other hand, take razor sharp pictures of sullen children, and charge 4x as much. Screw you.

Who shall I ask for critique? If you want technical details examined, ask a novice photographer. For anything else, ask.. anyone else. Just as the mom literally cannot see the technical quality of photos from the angry local photographer, so the novice literally cannot see the subject, or the emotional aspects, of a photograph.

How shall I judge a picture? Step past the technical, and look at the whole thing. Don't judge the portrait based on the lighting, judge the portrait based on whether it flatters the subject. The difference is "this type of lighting pattern is generally flattering to this kind of subject" and "this is actually a flattering portrait of the subject."

Technical details only make the picture better if they actually make the picture better.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Garry Winogrand at the National Gallery of Art

There's a pretty substantial retrospective of Garry Winogrand on now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. I happened to be in town for a few days with the kids, and managed to take an hour and stop by.

There's a large number of photographs shown in more or less chronological order, from the beginning to the end. 1950s through early 1980s. We get to see a substantial stylistic evolution. Many of the pictures have never been seen before, and probably many more had been seen but not by me. There were certainly samples of styles I had not seen from Winogrand before, at both ends of his career.

I had never seen (much of?) his early photojournalistic work, which struck me as workmanlike, competent, but unremarkable. No particular trace of Winogrand, just a good picture of this politician at that event. I, and everyone else, had never seen much of his later work, about which more shortly.

Also included in the exhibit, as I suppose one must, were various papers and so on. Winogrand's application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as several contact sheets about which, also, more shortly.

A final preliminary note: The curators helpfully noted by each print whether Winogrand had had it printed in his lifetime, whether he had at least marked the frame on a contact sheet, or whether someone else had selected the frame (often because the film was developed posthumously, I suppose?). The curators selecting frames did a good job. I tried to discern some difference between photographs selected by curators and photographs selected by Winogrand, and could not. They seemed to be good pictures, mostly, but not the best pictures. Representative, good, but not remarkable. It's possibly, barely, that the curators picked slightly better frames on average than Winogrand did. However, I am prejudiced here, and not to be trusted.

I was struck by a few things.

I recognized most of the really good ones. I've seen them before. This was not, to my eye, anything like an unearthing of a marvelous trove of outstanding work. The few dozen really good ones might be all the really good ones that there are in Winogrand's oeuvre, at least as far as this exhibition shows us. There's tons of quite decent pictures, there's tons of pictures with a bit of interest, that look quite "Winogrand", that show off one or another of his tropes. There just aren't all that many truly excellent pictures here.

I'm on the record as wondering how much of his really good work was deliberate, and how much was simply the result of skillfully curating an enormous collection of random snaps. I have come to the conclusion that while curation surely played a large role, the underlying enormous collection of pictures from 1960 to 1980 must have been shot with some ability. How much I don't know, but there must have been some clarity of vision, some ideas, some deliberation, however large or small.

I believe this, now, because I have also seen what happened when Garry Winogrand truly did start firing away at random.

The work at the tail end is frankly tragic. It looks exactly like the pictures that might be selected by a curator from a large heap of rolls of film shot out the window of a moving car, more or less at random, by a man driving aimlessly around Los Angeles. The curators helpfully wrote up some text to accompany some of the pictures "the speed of the car echoing the blah blah in contrast to the static blah blah blah" the worst sort of art school horseshit. These appear to be junky random shapshots of nothing, shot carelessly.

Looking at the contact sheets we learn why. It's because these are junky random shapshots of nothing, shot carelessly. Winogrand clearly was shooting anything that looked like it might evolve into something. A girl crossing a street (half of what the guy shot in his life was, apparently, girls crossing streets), a car pulls out of a garage, whatever. He seemed attracted to motion, to transitions, which was a good impulse. It allows the curators to pull a few dozen pictures that they can sell as credible out of the 90,000 or so undeveloped frames left at Winogrand's death.

I don't really care to guess what was driving Winogrand here, but it's certainly consistent with a guy who just couldn't stop squeezing the shutter button. Was it a compulsion, was it just habit, was it some sort of complex half-assery about the way he viewed or related to the world? I don't know, but whatever was driving him, his work from the 1980s is nothing.

Winogrand's estate would have served the man better if they'd simply swept the last few years of stuff under the rug and forgotten it. Tragic development accident, such a loss, we'll never know what work he did, etc, etc.

Ultimately, the retrospective clarifies some things, and muddies others. It calls into question the entire body of work, while at the same time proving that there was actually something there in the middle years, by showing so clearly its absence in both the earlier and the later years.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What Looks Real?

It seems that every time someone mentions the idea of photographs looking real, or not looking real, or whatever, a chorus starts up about how every photograph is inherently false. I've beaten this drum myself, mostly in discussions of photojournalism. The name of the game, from the chorus' point of view, is to shout down the idea that a photograph "looking real" is a meaningful, and to make themselves look terribly clever in the process.

As usual, the chorus is is quite wrong. Any fool can see that some photographs look real, and others look fake, and there's some sort of grey area as well. The fact that the chorus isn't capable of sorting out what's going on doesn't mean that nothing is going on. Here's what's going on.

No photograph is a "true" representation of reality, to be sure. Neither is what we see a "true" representation of reality, our eyes and visual cortex are mighty liars. This matters for discussion of photojournalism, where there is a planted axiom to the effect that a good photojournalistic picture is "true", but it doesn't matter for most other contexts.

A photograph "looks real" for you if, when I give you the photograph and allow you to compare it with that which was photographed, you respond intuitively "that picture looks like the thing it is a picture of". It's entirely subjective, and partly some sort of social construct, but much of the time many people will tend to agree. It changes over time, as well. 50 years ago, most people were willing to accept black and white photographs as looking "real", but now very few people will. Younger people will likely accept saturated colors and HDR-style processing as "looking real" whereas old bastards like me won't.

Photographs are not even remotely "real" but we train ourselves, and are trained, to accept certain things and to not accept certain other things.

  • There are photographs that "look real"
  • There are photographs that "look fake"
  • There are photographs that are in some grey area between these two
None of these photographs actually is an accurate representation of reality.

So, next time someone wants to wave off the idea of a photograph looking real, you can tell them to go pound sand.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"Master The Light"

How often has some fatuous idiot told you that in order to be a photographer, you must "Master Light" or something similar? Heck, I've probably done it on this blog.

There's two problems here.

Suppose you have two pictures. One has a random assemblage of junk crammed badly into the frame, but with marvelous dramatic or interesting light. The other has a small grouping of meaningful objects, well-placed in the frame, but the light is, eh, the light serves only to let us see the objects. One of these is a good picture, and the other one isn't. Great content can make a great photograph, regardless of light. Great light cannot save a crummy picture.

Somehow, though, fatuous idiots never say "You must Master The Framing" or "You must Master The Perspective". Nope, it's always the bloody light.

The other problem is that the fatuous idiot always makes it seem like you have to go meditate silently in Tibet for a year before you can begin to Master Light. This is false. It turns out that we have two organs in our face which don't do anything except sense light and keep our eyelids from chafing our brain. Mastering the Light is called "seeing" and many of us do it quite a lot. To be sure, you have to see with some intent and intensity, but for crying out loud, you just do that. Look at some pictures, good ones, and then look at the world.

What you really need to Master is Master Not Looking at 500px for shitty landscapes you can copy. You need to Master Not Trying To Make Amateurish Copies of Second Rate Crap. You need to Master Not Taking Advice From Idiots on the Internet.

Now go away and stop taking advice from me. Git. Go look at some things.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On Critique

I am on the record, several times I think, as being in favor of critique. Over the last year or so, my thinking has, shall we say, evolved. Mainly because I've been watching the process as it plays out on the internet in some detail.

I still believe in it. How can I not? If Art in general, and photography in particular, is about communication, how can we not devote some effort to testing and refining our ability to communicate?

Now, though, I think one must take at least a two pronged approach. Really useful critique of an individual piece has to be a conversation, you have to probe a little. This means that you need to find someone who will put up with a conversation, who is willing to be probed a little. Good luck with that, they're out there, but they're wildly outnumbered by pompous asses who want to force you to comply with local norms.

This does not mean that you should ignore the pompous asses and their local norms. The little bits of local dogma that circulate in one context or another (and they are local, they'll always cite Rembrandt but that's a bunch of rubbish) are based on something and it's not a waste of time to work out what the something is. You can add that to your little store of ideas, of things people like. Occasionally you can add it to your list of things not to do.

In any case, when you're dealing with the tribal behaviors of a camera club or internet group of some sort, keep in mind that you're not there to "learn" what they tell you. As a general, albeit not universal, rule they have nothing of interest to tell you. You are there to unpack their belief system, and to get at the underlying ideas of it. That's actually interesting.

So, just smile, nod, and think "idiot" very very quietly to yourself. And keep your eyes open for someone who's open to a conversation.

At some point I'm going to investigate paying for portfolio review. With the right person, I suspect this might be useful. Mostly, of course, the people offering to do it are charlatans, but I'm pretty sure they're not all.

Sunday, April 6, 2014


There are many things in life one can study, practice, and with diligent effort get a little bit good at, or even very good at. Two of them, just to pull some handy examples, are baking bread and taking photographs.

The progression runs, roughly, as follows. You learn a little, and you get some positive results. Your bread rises, your photographs are in focus. You think you're pretty good, and your friends agree. Everyone is a little surprised and astonished that your bread rises, and that your photographs are in focus. Still, everyone also recognizes, on some level, that there are degrees of goodness. You are not suddenly the best in the world, you're just "good" on some very broad spectrum of "good".

As you learn more, as you experiment more and find things out, develop skills, and so on, your idea of what's good will probably narrow. As you begin to actually understand what separates your first efforts from the greatness that you always recognized, you will perhaps, probably, begin to view your early efforts as "bad" rather than "good". You might also grade your current efforts as "bad" but you work to get past that.

At about this point there seems to be a very very natural event that can occur, almost regardless of discipline: You may find a social group with a set of ideas, methods, procedures, doctrines. You discover that by hewing to these, your results get to be pretty good. Leagues better than your early efforts. Furthermore, by espousing these ideas, methods, procedures and doctrines both in what you say, and in how you work at your chosen craft, you gain acceptance into this social group. Some people who you consider to be expert begin to compliment and accept you. This is powerful, this is tribal.

Now there is an excellent chance that what you know at this moment will harden into dogma. You may give lip service to the notion that you're always learning and growing but inside, somewhere, you secretly think that in fact you have found The Answer. You know the true method for ultimate excellence, and now it's just a question of more perfectly executing the approved methods and procedures. Your growth stops. Your results are pretty good, more or less, but as you perfect your adherence to the dogma you have selected, something is lost. The creative spark is gone.

Bakers stuck here just wind up producing a couple kinds of decent bread, and being happy with that. Photographers who get stuck here produce emotionally dead garbage. Any soul they once had, any fresh ideas they once had, will be inexorably squeezed out in the relentless refinement of the approved methods and procedures. These photographers eventually reduce their "mistake" rate to vanishingly small, and wind up crapping out an endless stream of more or less identical lifeless examples of a very very specific form, while their social group cheers them on with cries of "wow, another great one! you are so great! can you teach me your workflow?" (arrg, "workflow" I must write an essay on that particular horror as well)

There is another way.

It happens that I am an excellent bread baker. I hew to no dogma. Well, at any rate I am not aware of any particular dogma to which I hew. Instead, I have a pretty firm and yet ever changing idea of what constitutes excellence. My approach evolves constantly. I understand, clearly, distinctly, and differently week-to-week, the ways flour, water, salt, and leavening work together. At any moment I have methods and approaches, and I have firm ideas about what sorts of things will affect the resulting loaves in what ways; and these ideas changes and evolve constantly. Sometimes I develop genuinely new ideas, and other times I simply think about old ideas in new ways, I develop a new mental image of what's going on to describe the same things.

What's important here is that my thinking is (usually) right, or at least not very wrong. It changes and evolves constantly, but rarely diverges far out of the zone of being pretty much correct. I'm usually in the zone of right, because I do know a lot of stuff, and I have spent a lot of time reading, talking, hanging out with dogmatists who do indeed own a piece of the puzzle. Still, there's infinitely many ways to think about these things, not just one.

This means that my bread constantly changes. Sometimes it is frankly not very good. Usually it's somewhere between good and astonishingly excellent. It's rarely boring. And, let me repeat this: sometimes it is astonishingly excellent. This is an important point.

You can, I think, approach photography the same way. Learn from the dogmatists, take their ideas of excellence and add them to your own. You have always known that there are good pictures, and better pictures, and superb pictures. Your job is to develop an ever-evolving, constantly changing, theory of what makes the astonishing ones astonishing. Keep your mind open, and your thoughts flexible.

Try to hold on to that early naive idea that everything is good, only some things are better.

Sometimes, you'll make pretty bad pictures, or pretty bad bread. If you're not a commercial photographer or baker, that's OK. If you are, of course, you have to find some formulas that work and stick to grinding them out -- at least in the day job. Even so, at night, when nobody's looking, remember that everything is good. Devise a new theory of what makes it good, and shoot a bunch of that for a while.

If your stuff isn't crap some of the time, then, eventually, it's crap all of the time.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Another Common Refrain

One sees from time to time on the internet someone complaining that much critique comes from people who lack knowledge. Many of the people who comment on other people's pictures don't have the knowledge, the training, the skill to know a good picture from a bad one. Sometimes, when it gets personal, there is an attack on the commenter's portfolio, or lack thereof.

This all contains a planted axiom: that we take pictures for other photographers. It's not just a planted axiom, it's false. I could not care less what some bunch of half-baked gearheads think of my pictures. Fuck those guys. And here's why:

For the most part the person making these complaints also has no particular ability to recognize good pictures. In fact, what ability they may once have had, they have carefully trained out of existence. What they have is the ability to recognize pictures that meet the norms of their little social group of photographers. They recognize certain "mistakes" and call them out with stock phrases, and they declare a picture good when it lacks any of these supposed mistakes.

The poor ignorant sods who dare to comment do not know, or do not care about, these social norms, and so they cannot or will not shout out the stock phrases. They are recognizably not part of the social group, and therefore must be either forced to comply, or hounded out.

This is not to say that every random joe has anything valuable to add. People who lack this sort of "training" (ahem) are generally very generous, and like pretty much anything that's in-focus. But consider, what does that say? Think about that a little. On the other hand, it's not helpful for improvement. Random people, who are not part of some ugly little club, are a better source of critique, but I think you have to work with them a bit, and have a conversation.

This is also not to say that every picture is good, it's not. But there are more things in heaven and earth, random internet blow-hard know-it-all, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Also, random blow-hard, because your taste has been trained to like a sort of lowest-common-denominator social norm, your taste is garbage and should be utterly ignored by anyone with any actual ambition.

Some contexts have a bigger problem with this than others, of course. Use caution, and keep your wits about you.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


This blog hit 20,000 views yesterday. I am so excited. That's almost 10,000 views a year.

Of course popular blogs get 10,000 views a day but we take what we can get. Now I have to figure out how to monetize my audience! Yes, both of you!

Thanks, everyone. I hope you're enjoying it and maybe even finding something useful here and there.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Am I Good Enough To Charge?

Yet another common theme among photographic amateurs. It's a natural question, I guess. All hobbyists wonder if they can turn their hobby into a profession. I periodically wonder if I should start a business baking bread. And then I remind myself that this is stupid and that there's absolutely no way I want to start a bread company.

Should I start a business?

Should I charge?

Should I put up a web site?

Long time readers will no doubt not be surprised to learn that I think you should charge, or not, or start a business, or not, as it suits you. But don't be half-assed about it.

There is no such thing as "good enough to charge money," either you charge money or you do not. Your customers will judge whether or not to pay the rates you ask. It doesn't matter if you're good or bad, there are plenty of terrible photographers charging money, and plenty of excellent ones who do not charge. Making money is a marketing and business problem, not a skill problem.

Don't launch a web site just to have a web site. That's stupid. What purpose does your web site serve? Is it intended to drive business? Is it a convenient place to place your best work for review purposes? Is it purely for vanity? These are all fine reasons to have a web site.

"All these other people have web sites" is not a good reason to have a web site.

As always, the theme here is:

Figure out what you want to do, and then do that.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

More Color Fidelity

Here's more things to think about.

I've been thinking about how much stuff we look at doesn't really have real colors any more; so much of what we see is a perceptual color created by mixing a small set of dyes or lights. We spend hours looking at a computer screen, and more hours looking at printed materials. We spend almost no time looking at apples, and no time at all really looking at an apple.

Color-managed workflow, that paragon, that ideal state of perfection, is all about managing those perceptual colors. It tries to ensure, and largely succeeds in ensuring, that the perceptual color I see on one monitor is the same perceptual color I see on another is the same perceptual color I see on the printed page.

A good process can actually do this, for a pretty broad range of colors. The color my visual cortex comes up with based on the Red, Green, and Blue light sources on one monitor is more or less the same as the color my visual cortex comes up with based on the Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black inks used to print the page. With certain fairly stringent restrictions.

What's missing from this? Did you notice the elephant that we're not talking about?

There's nothing in there that makes sure that the color on the monitor, or the page, looks like the color of the thing I photographed.

A side note. We occasionally see some eggheaded idiot explaining that the Red Channel is Clipped, and how that's Unacceptable. This same person would not complain that the highlights are blown where the sun appears in the frame, because anyone -- even an idiot -- may know that the sun is simply out of range. If you're going to get a picture of anything else, you have to let the sun go. Yet, when photographing an object with an out-of-gamut color, precisely the same problem exists. One or more color channels will clip. Fixing it will destroy the rest of the picture.

Some experiments to try: Use your favorite method for getting a "correct" white balance, and photograph a handful of small objects, all in one frame. Use a grey card or whatever you like to "get the white balance correct". Produce an image file with correct white balance. Now hold your objects up to the monitor, or set them near the monitor in good light. Do the colors on the screen match the objects? What happens when you tweak the color to get one of the objects spot-on?

In my tests the answer is "ha, ha, ha, not even close" but your mileage may vary. The hell of it is that on-screen they look pretty darn good. They're convincing when compared with my memory of the object, but place the object close to the screen, and the illusion falls away. The object I was mostly interested in was not even out-of-gamut, I was able to persuade my monitor to produce the color quite closely without much trouble. Correcting the picture for that color simply ruined the others, though. With an out-of-gamut color, I cannot imagine the situation would be any better.

Cameras, for excellent technical reasons, tend not to actually see things the way eyes do. Some cameras do better than others.

The result of this experiment might be liberating. If the prospect of getting the color accurate is taken away from you, then you don't have to worry about it any more. Make your picture look nice.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Pictures You Take Before The Pictures You Want To Take

I have railed against this before, but I'm going to take another stab.

Lots of people who imagine themselves as serious about photography seem to be stuck practicing. They're taking the pictures they feel they need to take before they can get to taking the pictures they actually want to take. They're testing, they're shopping. They're getting together the gear and the skills they're going to need to take the pictures they actually want to take.

Some people do this forever.

Stop it.

Do you want to take aerial photographs? Stop mucking about shopping for the right lens, and discussing what the best camera is. Go get your pilot's license, buy a drone or a kite, or learn to skydive. Do it now.

Do you want to shoot erotica? Stop shopping for lights and modifiers, stop arguing about scrims versus beauty lights on internet forums, stop reading strobist and making tests with a basketball. Hire a model who will get naked, and take some pictures. Do it now. Get on modelmayhem or onemodelplace or whatever, find a model you like, and make contact. Contact 3 or more, in fact. GO.

Do you want to take large format photographs from the top of the Burj Khalifa? You will need to buy a large format camera, a plane ticket to Dubai, and you'll need to figure out how to get a permit. Go get started. Stop reading up on what the lightest field camera is, just go buy something that's in your budget, and GO.

I see people, even quite good photographers, posting pictures with some commentary along the lines of I was out and about and I saw this and I thought I'd shoot a little series and it makes me sad. You're pretty good, and you're wasting your time and talent taking pretty good pictures of .. stuff .. for no apparent reason except to post them on the internets so people can look at them and, maybe, tell you that you're pretty good.

Figure out what you want to do, and do that. If you don't know what you want to do, then stop farting around and figure out what it is you want to do. And then go do that.

Take the pictures you want to take, not the pictures that come before those.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Color Fidelity is Bullshit

The title, obviously, is hyperbole. The pursuit of color fidelity is a thankless, often impossible, job. The amount of time and effort spent on it is probably wildly out of proportion to the actual usefulness. That said, if you need it, you probably know enough to know where the limits are, and you probably know what a thankless job seeking it is.

This essay is for everyone else.

You probably know that we "see" three colors, more or less, and there's something about Red, Green, and Blue.

In the real world things have colors. Light sources, or objects reflecting light, or whatever. These are all, essentially, things from which light comes to our eye. That light has an intensity for every wavelength of light. Let's consider only the visual spectrum here, that still means that the light we perceive as colored has an intensity for every possible wavelength between 390 nanometers and 700 nanometers. Every single one. 307nm? Yes. 519.97234nm? Yes, that one too. All of them. This spectrum is a physical color.

Our eyes have three types of color receptors, each of which responds to every wavelength, but to varying degrees. You can think of them as "mainly red", "mainly blue" and "mainly green", but these are really just the humps in a graph of sensitivity. The "mainly green" ones are highly stimulated by green light, and less stimulated by blue light of the same intensity, and so on. We may think of these things are producing a number, a quantity, which represents how stimulated it is. It's actually slightly worse than that, but this is close enough.

The "mainly green" cones in the eye will produce the same output for a very intense blue light as they do for a much less intense green light. The "mainly blue" ones, though, would produce a much greater response to the intense blue light, which is how we distinguish colors.

Anyways. What it boils down to is that there are lots and lots and lots of (infinitely many) physical colors that will cause the same overall visual response. Different physical colors will produce the same perceived color.

So what? As long as we all perceive the same color, who cares?

Well, of course, we don't. Very close, but not quite.

What we actually do in imaging (analog, digital, it doesn't matter) is we use a small set of fixed physical colors, which we can combine to vary the amounts of red, green, and blue light hitting the eye. We are, emphatically not, generating a full gamut of physical colors. Nothing like that. We are generating a very very very small set of physical colors which happen to cover quite a lot of the perceived colors. To get quite specific: we are mixing this small family of colors up in varying ratios to produce a wide range of visual color responses, of physical and neurological responses, which we identify as "colors" in our minds.

There are two problems with this.

The first problem, which everyone who's looked into it in any depth knows about, is that we can't actually generate all of the perceived colors. This is the "out of gamut" problem that every display or rendering medium has. There are colors that we can see -- there are mental constructs of "color" -- that the medium cannot produce. Every medium is surprisingly limited in what it can produce, and no two media even produce the same gamut of colors.

The second problem is that we perceive colors differently. It is in fact that case that we can have two people who, when presented with the same synthesized perceptual color (the same mixture of red, green, blue, let's say) will assert that it precisely matches two different swatches representing two different physical colors. In the absence of color blindness, the colors will be very close, but still each subject will see the other's swatch as "slightly wrong", given the very same mixture of red, green, and blue.

What does this mean?

Suppose you're photographing an apple. The sunlight -- which is some spectrum or another, some physical color -- bounces off the apple, which absorbs some wavelengths more than others. The reflected light has a physical color, a spectrum, based on the combination of the two. Our eyes would chunk that into three quantities, and we'd see it as "red". The camera likewise chunks that light into three numbers, R, G, and B, which numerical "color" drops into our color managed workflow.

If we're lucky, the perceived color of the apple falls into the available gamut for our computer monitor and our printer, so we can in theory make a print that "looks the same" as the apple did. How we would know what, exactly, the original perceived (or physical) color of the apple was I am, I confess, not sure. By which I mean "we don't, and pretending we do is a fool's game."

Even if everything is in our favor, and all the colors are in-gamut, and even if we could get that very apple in that very same sunlight and show it to people next to our print, some people would say that the match was perfect and other people would say that it is not. This is because the physical color of the apple, and the synthesized perceptual color, are in fact quite different physical colors. Two different people will respond to the same physical color slightly differently, so there is no way with our limited set of inks, to mix the inks in such a way to to produce the same visual response as the apple in these two different people.

The point of the synthesized perceptual color, made by mixing a few colors of ink, is not that it is the same color as the apple. It is not. The point is that it induces, in the human eye and visual cortex, the same perception of color as the apple. People are amazingly similar in how they perceive color, but they are not identical.

I haven't even touched on the way that viewing light color affects the physical colors of a print, and therefore the perceived colors. I haven't even touched on the emotional impact of one color balance over another. I have barely touched on the problem of knowing what the original physical color was. I have left out entirely any discussion of how plastic perceived colors are, and how we will tend to see an apple as the same value of "red" because we know it is a red apple, under a wide variety of lighting conditions -- which translate to a wide range of physical colors.

The point here is that when you get your little ColorMunki(tm) out and calibrate your monitor, and get a custom profile built for your printer, and all that crap, your colors are still wrong. Having a "color managed workflow" isn't a magical system which guarantees that you're right. You can't even get the perceptual colors better than "pretty close" in the most scientific and technical sense.

My favorite example here, by the way, is landscape photographers who go on about this stuff. You're taking pictures of stuff under a light source of wildly varying spectra (i.e. the sun) and you're fussing about hyper-accurate color? Pull the other one, it's got bells on!

Should you give up? No. But you should definitely stop worrying about the technical details, and start worrying about making a good picture. Some of you need more accuracy than a "follow your nose and fiddle with it" process will produce, but not very many, and you already know all this stuff.

If you're the kind of person who harangues other people about calibrating their monitor, and having a color managed workflow, you should knock that off. The people who actually know what they're talking about tend to be pretty vague about this stuff, "well, if you really need accuracy.. ", it's the half-ignorant amateurs who really get excited about it.

If you're really excited about it... well, you can do the math.

Monday, March 24, 2014


Susan Sontag was very in to the idea of a photograph as a thing. It was a thing, back in the day. There was a physical piece of paper that had a picture on it. Sometimes it was a little rectangle of colored, translucent, material. It was an object, something you could see and touch and taste. I mentioned this in the previous remarks.

Digital imaging changed that. Almost no pictures are things in their own right now. They're an abstract pattern of 1s and 0s, replicated across the multiple disk drives of some cloud thing somewhere, generally. We render those on screens of one sort or another, a computer monitor, a tablet, a phone, sometimes even a digital picture frame.

There's still a thing, but you can't touch it any more, or taste it, and what it actually is is somewhat obscure and technical.

Worse, we generally render these things on a screen that we've become used to treating as a window. We look at many things on that screen. We don't think about the screen, we think of what we're looking at. In the case of a photograph, we're as likely to think of the thing photographed as anything else. The object or objects shown in the photograph are something real, something we could touch or taste. The photograph itself? It's an abstraction. The screen? Invisible and out of our thoughts.

Photographs have become transparent, as well as weightless and frictionless. When we take a picture, we're not taking a photograph any more, we're simply showing our friends, our family, something, this thing, this object or scene we have chosen to photograph. The act of photography is now, far more often than not, essentially equivalent to pointing a thing out to a friend we're walking with. It's the same thing as showing your friend the object in your hands "hey, check this out", it's the same thing as telling your friend to turn on the TV and flip to channel whatever, because you won't believe it.

I just tested with instagram. It takes 7 taps, and whatever I want to do for typing in a description. With a one word description, it took me 20 seconds, including launching the app, to share a picture of my Nikon FE2, which object happens to be sitting in front of me as I type. Instagram is notable in that I can (and did) select a little "effect", which makes us perhaps a little more conscious of the photograph-as-object. This is slightly more difficult than holding out my hand to show a friend an object, but only slightly. Compared to using film, it's indistinguishable from hold-out-my-hand. Check out my Nikon FE2.

There was always an element of this transparency, with a photograph. The essence of photojournalism is the illusion of transparency, that this is what is real, and you're seeing it. The transparency was never so dominant as now. We have to fight, now, to make pictures that are not just windows onto something else. When we think we've won that fight, then we have to fight to get past the "rule of thirds, we didn't you use fill flash, the highlights are blown out" technical irrelevancies.

I'm not saying you have to print, although a print is way to add weight and to force the issue of a photograph as a thing. I do suggest, though, that if you appreciate the photograph as a thing in and of itself, you've got a fight on your hands.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Language of Photography

Over on Disphotic, Lewis Bush asks "Is There a Language of Photography?" I don't really propose to answer that question here, but rather to shed some light on it.

In any representational art there is the art object itself: the photograph, the statue, the painting. Also, there is the thing represented: the model, the mountain, the landscape. Photographs are, I think, unique in that they at least begin with an accurate representation of a real thing. A painting needs no actual model, although often there is one. A statue need not look much like the model, and indeed tends to be idealized or at any rate altered.

A photograph is like a story that is based on a true story, while a painting tends to lean more toward fiction.

In between the photograph and the model, there are some other concepts. The arrangement of masses and lines, perhaps, might be said to be a thing, something we can name and talk about and think about it. That thing, whatever you call it, is neither the photograph nor the model. Perhaps it's something that lies between the two. One might argue that there's a spectrum of things between the photograph-as-an-object and the model-as-an-object.

More on this later, but for now let us think about language specifically.

What does this have to do with a Language of Photography?

The point is that there's "language" embedded in all these layers, potentially. By "language" I mean pretty much anything that communicates something that we can, more or less, agree on. It doesn't have to translate into words, it can be an emotion, a reaction. When communication occurs, it's simply because the maker and the viewer agree to some extent on what it is that is communicated, and that, I consider to be "language" enough.

Since the photograph is first and foremost, based on a real thing, some of the visual elements are simply real things. The expression on the girl's face is not, first and foremost, any part of a language of photography. It's body language. The artist might be using that somehow, but it begins as a real thing based on a language of its own.

Arrangements of light and shadow might be a better choice, since these, while real, are not generally any part of a language of their own. Here we run into the problem of whether any "language" in play is photographic, or part of a more general language of visual art.

There probably are language-like things in play in some photographs, which are specifically photographic. You could reference other photographs, there are lens effects one can use such as depth of field or more generally managing the plane of focus. See also P. H. Emerson. You can use lens flare. The use of monochrome is not exclusive to photography, but it certainly rare elsewhere. Other things, vignettes for instance, are tropes which could apply to any visual art, but appear almost exclusively in photographs.

Regardless, I think any attempt to pull apart the communicative aspects of a photograph into "photographic language" versus everything else is going to be pretty hard.

There are ways to try to express things you want to communicate, when making a picture. Some of them are about directing the model, others are as much about painting as about photographs, and some are purely photographic. I think it might not be the best use of our time to try to categorize them too much, but it's definitely worth our time to think about them.

The more we know and the more conscious we are of everything that goes into a picture, the better the chance we have, surely, of communicating what we want to say.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Once again I feel compelled to make a short industry post, despite my disdain for such things.

The camera industry is experiencing a dip. I discussed this here, the reasons are not complex or difficult to understand.

What is interesting about this, to me, at the moment, is this. There are many pundits out there on the webernets who will happily tell you why the dip is there, and what camera companies can do about it. Their answer is always the same:

Camera companies are stupid, and have not been listening to professionals and serious photographers, i.e. to me, and this is the cause of their troubles. If they would only listen to me, or if only they had listened to me back then, they would be fine. The solution, going forward, is for them to listen to me.

This is completely wrong, of course. When you're selling consumer gear, the opinions of professionals and serious amateurs are largely irrelevant. They're not your market. For the last decade, Canon and Nikon have been focused on selling cameras to moms, to people who Just Want Pictures. Sure, they talked to serious photographers and professionals, those people sometimes have ideas and there are products in the lineup aimed at those people. Still, the target was the people who just wanted pictures.

To claim that the camera industry is stupid, and that fill in the pundit is much smarter than the camera company is, is ridiculous and insulting. These companies have been insanely successful, and remain insanely successful, in a tough, competitive market. Of course they didn't execute perfectly, but they executed well enough. They rode the digital wave to something like a five-fold increase in market size in something like 10 years. That's incredible for a market of this size and maturity. That's mind boggling in fact. It's like GM suddenly figuring out how to sell 10 cars to every person on the planet.

The market shift they're seeing now is probably not a shift the major camera companies were capable of following, any more than the buggy whip manufacturers could have started building cars.

In particular, listening to some dolt with a website is not the answer to their problems. The answer is probably figuring out how to capture a larger share of the shrinking market as it adjusts, while downsizing to fit, without destroying the company (or the camera division).

And no, I am not pointing fingers at any one, or any two, pundits. There's a bunch of these people out there, bleating the same silliness.