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.

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