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.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


This is a theme I've visited a few times in the past, here, for instance or here. The label "social media" will turn up a bunch more.

Time was, pictures had weight. Paintings, of course, were for posterity. They were for the unending future, for tomorrow but also for future generations, a permanent object. Photographs, on film, were also for the future. A instant was frozen, so we'd have that to look at next year, ten years hence, or when we were old. We took pictures of the kids so we'd have those moments in the future, and so our kids would have those moments to look back on when they were grown.

Pressing the shutter button cost something. A few cents for film, a few cents for processing, a few cents for a print. A factor at least as important and perhap moreso: the print bore the weight of permanence, of time. Susan Sontag remarked, glibly, that we did not photograph important moments, but that moments became important because they were photographed. While there's some truth to that, there was still a minimum bar of inherent importance the moment had to pass. We did not photograph our lunch, our coffee, that guy's hat. At least, not very much. There's a burden imposed on us when we commit some scene, some viewed object, to the permanent record, and we felt that as much as we felt the literal cost of film and print.

I've said most of this before.

With the idea of "use" in hand, though, we can push a little further. In past times, especially in the era of film, the "use" for a picture was almost always tied up in permanence. We made pictures because we wanted to use them, in some long-term way. The idea of taking a picture so that we should show a picture of a thing to our friends, and then throw the picture out, was absurd. Photographs might not be oil paintings, but they were certainly not so lightweight that we'd use them once and then discard them.

Besides, with the delays inherent in processing and printing, it would have been far too tedious.

Now, taking a picture is free. Sharing it is frictionless and instantaneous. And as a consequence, we are freed from the weight of time and of permanence. Photographs are free to be ephemera. They are an extension of our sight, we share a photograph thoughtlessly, trivially, not as an object in its own right, but as glimpse at the underlying thing. When a photograph is weightless and frictionless, the "use" can be anything at all, however trivial.

Mike, over on ToP, asks if we're in the middle of a new fad for photography. I think we're in the middle of something much bigger and more important, a sea change in the way we relate to photographs. Photographs are weightless and frictionless now. They float, they move, the appear and vanish. We are OK with that. This younger generations treat that as normal.

As artists, we seem to lean toward making things with weight. This probably explains, to a degree, the minor trend toward film, wet plate, and other permanent methods. It's a backlash against that weightlessness and ephemerality. The artists seeks to distinguish his work from the ephemera, to distinguish his work as permanent, as massy, as not trivial.

Here's a closing thought for the day: Why? If modern art has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that art need not be permanent. Ephemeral is OK. Tino Seghal, Banksy, many others. What can you make of that, in your own work?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Fine Art Photography

This is a pet peeve of mine.

When someone talks about "Fine Art Photography" they seem, usually, to mean decor. Technically decor is covered by the term Fine Art, so it's not actually wrong, but for some reason it still rubs me the wrong way. Is your giant landscape in the approved primary color palette with a splash of complementary color so it will go in with the expensively designed living room really all that Fine? It's not like it says anything about anything, it's just pretty.

I don't object to pretty. If people who were doing serious Art also called their photographs Fine Art, perhaps I wouldn't be irritated. Artists generally don't, as far as I can tell. Fine Art is reserved for expensive decor, usually big.

Art is something else entirely.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

P.H. Emerson

For reference, Peter Henry Emerson was a photographer working in the last decades of the 19th century, bringing the ideas of Impressionism into Pictorialism, roughly speaking.

I have run across two or three descriptions of Emerson's ideas of focusing, and how to produce an impressionistic effect in the camera. Writers all copy from one another, not as much as people on the Internet, but a lot. The result is that the references I have seen make more or less the same vague reference to the sketchy theories about how eyes work that Emerson was basing his thinking on, and then state briefly that he used "differential focus" to make his pictures soft. Sometimes they mention putting the subject a little out of focus.

There are a couple of points worth making here. Emerson's procedure is considerably more detailed and sensible than these writers make out, and Emerson was right even if his Eye Science was wrong.

The procedure is pretty simple. Focus on the subject, with the aperture wide open. Then, using a combination of narrower apertures (but use the widest one possible) and swings of the camera back, place everything except the subject out of focus to a greater or lesser degree. The use of the swing back may not be familiar to all photographers, although the use of wider apertures surely is. If you don't immediately know what rotating the back of a large camera relative to the lens does, read up on the Scheimpflug principle.

The degree to which Emerson suggests you should put things out of focus is very specific. It is to reproduce as far as possible the impression you have when looking at the scene. You place things which are not the subject out of focus not because of some theory of the eye, but because you are not looking at those things in the scene.

Finally, Emerson suggests putting the subject itself very very slightly out of focus, and only sometimes, to render it more natural looking. This is arguably an error, but even that is not quite clear to me.

Why is Emerson right?

Emerson's Eye Science may have been wrong, but it turns out that he had a pair of these things himself, could use them, and thought about how it felt to use them to look at things. This, not the flawed Eye Science, is essentially what his method is based on. I assume he put the Eye Science into his book to back up his theory, not as the actual source, but that is naturally just a guess.

When we look at an object we perceive that object as sharp, as clearly delineated and detailed. The rest of the scene isn't soft or out of focus, per se but it is out of our attention. The idea of sharp versus soft isn't really all that meaningful in speaking of what we perceive, in any case. What we "see" is a mental construct, bearing only a loose relationship to the actual image captured by the eye. We "see" it all as "sharp" but the stuff in the periphery is less within our attention, it is more extrapolated, interpolated, and just plain made up by the visual cortex, and we're not looking at it.

Imagine, if you will, an 8x10 print made with a normal lens. This print captures a fairly wide scene, one which if we had seen it ourselves, we would have been filling in a lot of periphery with the machinery of peripheral vision. Much of the scene, at any moment, would have been outside our attention. We take this whole thing, and cram it into a small object, a print, right in the center of our vision, where we can "see" the whole thing at once.

This is profoundly unnatural. Put in these terms, it's a little surprising to me that we can make sense of this at all, but we do. I think an argument can be made that the straight photography guys, and in particular the f/64 people, are characterized mainly by a willingness to embrace this unnaturalness. This is a sort of natural endpoint for photography, we trace nature with total accuracy, and then cram it, in a single chunk, into your visual cortex to see what happens. It's not natural, but it's definitely photography.

Emerson correctly perceived that this presents us with a problem, We're going to "see" the scene in the print all at once, we're going to "see" it much more as a single object, with all the elements of the scene as details of that singular object. Presented with the same scene in the real world, we would "see" it quite differently. Perhaps we would perceive the subject fully, in a moment, and only gradually over seconds or even minutes come to perceive the details of everything in the scene.

Emerson proposed quite an elegant solution with his differential focusing. It's not quite modern shallow depth of field, I think Emerson would have had no truck with bokeh. Things were to be soft, but the structure was always to be preserved. We might not "see" the surrounding scene in as much detail as we perceive the subject, but we are aware of it. We know there's a road to the left, a cottage behind, and a lake in the foreground. We just don't care, because we're looking at the girl. So, the photographer should not throw the rest of the scene into a mass of blur, but only soften the surrounding material, and render it less detailed and less important in the print.

In the modern era, I think we might more closely approximate the effect Emerson was looking for by taking a sharp picture, and then rendering a blurred layer over it varying the transparency of that layer from one area to another. Almost transparent over the subject and almost opaque over unimportant background, but never fully transparent or opaque. It is worth noting that extremely high-end modern portrait lenses do almost exactly this, at shocking expense.

In the modern era, especially the acolytes of f/64, we use other constructs to manage the viewer's attention. The use of contrast, saturation, leading lines, and so on, can also help the viewer sort out what to look at. There are a bunch of principles of composition and design which can help to arrange the masses within the frame in some sort of hierarchy of importance. Degree of softness is but one, but it's a neglected one.

Emerson's solution was pretty elegant, and really nothing like "just make it all soft, you know, impressionistic."

Saturday, March 8, 2014


Inspired by smogranch again.

So many photographers, new or experienced, seem to aspire to mediocrity. That's what they're aiming for, not even what they're actually doing. We see this all over. "How can I produce this effect" or "how does so-and-so light his models" or "where was so-and-so when he shot that". The goal seems so frequently to be simply to copy someone else. This is a useful learning experience, but it's not a good end goal.

In the first place frequently people aren't copying anything particularly good. The number of guys out there shooting scantily clad pretty girls on beaches is insane, and there has never been a picture of a swimsuit model on a beach that was worth a damn. How can I shoot a wedding, so the album looks like every other crappy bunch of plastic people. How can I shoot headshots that look like all the other crappy mugshots out there. How does Terry Richardson do it.

In the second place, even if you're aspiring to someone who is or was truly excellent, you are not that artist. Your copies are unlikely to be as good. The best you can do is copies of someone else, and what you're probably going to do is mediocre copies of someone else.

Aim higher. Aim for your own vision. You're never going to be excellent if you're just trying aping other people, other looks.

Study them, practice the techniques if you like, it'll all go into your mental machinery and help drive your own inspiration. That's great, that's even powerful, and maybe even necessary.

It is not the ultimate goal.

Keep your eye on the prize: your own way of seeing, your own vision for what pictures ought to look like.

Art is all Subjective Anyways

It drives me wild when people say stupid things like "Art is all subjective anyways" and "you can't define Art."

Both of these statements are completely false.

Art isn't subjective, it's intersubjective. Language and Money are also intersubjective, in roughly the same way. We don't agree, completely, on the definitions of words. We don't all have the same relationship with money, we don't all think about money in the same way. But we agree on enough stuff to get things done.

When you don't "get" some piece of art, that doesn't mean it's crap. It means that you're not part of the group that shares the relevant subjective experience. If you don't speak Spanish, this doesn't mean that Spanish is bullshit. If your corner store won't accept Euros, it doesn't mean that Euros aren't money. Get over yourself.

Art isn't even hard to define. There are lots of definitions out there, several in every dictionary. Before you get all shirty about how there are too many definitions, so you still can't define it, I point out that there are just about that many definitions for other words and yet nobody stands around like a dolt claiming that you can't define "Cat".

These things aren't even hard, and yet we see photographers mumbling around about these things like imbeciles every day.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


P.H. Emerson was adamant that one should never manipulate the photograph after shooting it. You must, he felt, shoot from nature with at most modest interference, and then you can manage tonal placement through development, and that's it. No burning and dodging, no erasures, no enhancements, nothing. He did ask people to pose, but used only actual people doing the things they actually do. Emerson felt that manipulating the negative or the print made you simply a bad painter.

He's got a point. Gursky is a painter, and a pretty good one. Between Emerson and Gursky, well, pretty much everyone else falls in there. So, of course, it's a spectrum. I manipulate pretty heavily, and am ok if Emerson chooses to dub me a poor painter from beyond the grave.

More specifically, though, Emerson felt that manipulations sucked the life, the juice, the vitality out of a picture. A photograph begins with a certain potent reality, due to being a true and accurate transcription of certain phenomena. Manipulating that may well improve some things, but it seems to me, usually does suck some of that juice from the picture.

We're probably all seen walkthroughs of "my post processing process" where some idiot starts with a pretty terrible picture, and then photoshops it gradually but determinedly worse and worse. Each stage of this bozo's process makes the picture palpably worse.

What's more interesting are the walkthroughs where each stage appears to make the picture better, but the result is worse. Our hero might straighten the horizon, and then clone out a little group of trees that is distracting or out of balance, and may warm up the colors to make the picture more appealing, and so on. Comparing each stage with the previous stage, we think "yeah, I see, that is an improvement" but when we finally compare the end result to the original, we are unsatisfied. The original feels better.

This is partly due to the fact that at each stage we're focused on the thing the artist is doing. Why yes, the little group of trees was distracting, and now they are not there, so we're not distracted -- but the whole picture, which we are ignoring -- has suffered. So we lend too much value to the change.

Then again, I think there are optical effects in play here. The group of trees may have altered the light falling on another object nearby, and now the light feels off. There are, at least some of the time, subtle optical effects that are rendered incorrectly by the process. We miss, in the step by step, any actual damage that gets done to the picture.

Finally, there can be end up being an unreal sense of too much perfection. This is most obviously seen in overly 'shopped portraits. Each effect is not too much, sometimes skin really is that smooth, sometimes eyes really are that brilliant, sometimes faces really are that symmetrical, but the overall effect is that of falseness. No face is that perfect, the sleekly plastic. We sense that it cannot be real, because it lacks the tiny flaws and imbalances that the world is filled with, made out of.

Somehow, this all adds up to a sense of wrongness, of discomfort, a feeling that the juice is gone from the picture.

Me, I paint, but I either paint a lot, or a little. If I'm painting, I'm painting. Work the picture until it fits with what my imagination loves. If I'm not painting, I'm not painting. Clean up a little this and that, but don't go nuts. Keep some of the juice.