Tuesday, March 24, 2015


This is a Work In Progress. Depicted here is a prototype book, two inches by two inches. No text. This is doing duty as a photobook of pictures of the granddaughters, for grandma.

Will be using the same design in six by six for another project hopefully over the next couple days. Pictures as they become available!

The Subjective Experience

Audiophiles, it is said, use your music to listen to their gear. It is well established that most of what audiophiles "hear" is subjective -- in blind testing, they cannot tell the difference between their solid gold cables, and cheap cables from Walmart. This doesn't mean, though, that they're not hearing something.

Hearing, like vision, is a construct of the mind. Just because we have to know some related fact before we can "hear" or "see" something doesn't mean we're not hearing or seeing it. The tricky bit is that you can tell an audiophile that the solid gold cables with the directional arrow on them are in use, and, whether they are or not, the audiophile will hear the more three-dimensional sound stage, or whatever.

There are, assuredly, things we can see in photographs that are not there. Photographs taken with a Nikon D800 and a Zeiss Otus Mumblefart lens (or, more to the point, with EXIF data which suggests this) appear on the internet, scaled down to 1500 pixels on the long side, and people will exclaim with delight. Shoot something with a cell phone, make sure the blacks are dark, and tell people you shot it on film, watch the cooing begin.

In short, people see stuff they think they ought to see based on what we tell them. Stuff that is not there.

On the flip side, "serious photographers" are fond of rattling on about "the light! the light!" which usually means either waiting for sundown, or using a really big modifier. Then they take a picture, and show it to people. If you tell your audience about how amazing the light was, they'll see it, most likely. If you don't, they'll see that you shot it at around sundown, and totally miss how "awesome the light is". That's because there isn't anything awesome about the light. It's sundown. Happens every single day. Also, we've all seen a zillion of these things. Ho hum.

In general, self-styled photographers spend a lot of time monkeying around with things that non-photographers won't see unless they're told about them. This is OK, because mostly self-styled photographers are shooting pictures for other photographers to look at, and those people will quite likely notice that you used short lighting on the plump subject, and will applaud approvingly.

So what?

Well, there's a lot of technical stuff that we won't consciously notice without foreknowledge. Either we get told about the Zeiss Zebulon lens, or we just know short lighting, or whatever. Without the knowledge, the technical feature is invisible. Either because it does not exist in any measureable way, or because we're blind to it.

There are technical things which do exist, in a measurable way, to which we are blind, but which may nonetheless change how we perceive the picture.

Try this experiment. Gather up some photos. Sort them in to pictures you think are "good" and pictures you think are "not as good". Now look at any real resource on composition, by which I mean, avoid resources aimed at photographers.  Take the ideas and principles you learn, and apply them to the pictures.

I bet you'll find that the "good" ones tend to align with the ideas and principles better than the "bad" ones.

Ugh, so now we're got a mess.

There's stuff that's measurable (real) and stuff that's not measureable (not real).

There's stuff we perceive consciously. There's stuff we perceive, but not consciously. And there's stuff we're completely blind to.

So, to summarize:

There are things we perceive consciously. These may or may not be real.

There are things we perceive unconsciously. These tend to be real, but there's probably some sort of continuum of consciousness, and of realness.

There are things we're blind to. These may or may not be real.

The magic is probably in the stuff we perceive unconsciously, which is mostly real stuff. If just anyone can perceive it consciously, they can probably just shoot it themselves. It's "obvious".

If most people are blind some stuff, who cares about that stuff?

If most people can feel something, but only unconsciously, well, now we've got something, don't we? This is the sort of thing that actual theories of composition are getting at.

If you don't know to look for it, you won't particularly notice that the most interesting thing in the frame (the "subject") is also the highest contrast point. You won't notice the way things are specifically organized by contrast, by position, into a heirarchy of importance. You won't notice the way complementary colors are used.

But these things will most likely affect you, you will mostly likely think the picture is "better" for them.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Sensor Size and Depth of Field

Just do a google search for the title of this post.

This is practically the most favorite thing for would-be photographers to talk about on the internet. They seem to like to rush down the rabbit hole and misunderstand one another, and say stuff that is perfectly correct if you happen to understand there are seven separate things left unsaid which have to absolutely be a particular way.

Why? Who the fuck cares? These just no goddamned point to this shit. If you have a specific application where you need to have a specific depth-of-field, hie thee to a calculator and get your answer.

If you do not have a specific application, then surely your sensor size and focal length and where to stand are pretty much a given, driven by a thousand other factors. Then adjust the aperture to produce the desired depth of field.

And none of it has any point at all unless you happen to know how you're going crop the frame, what size the final print it, and what the typical viewing distance is.

If you don't know those things, at least roughly, then the entire discussion is pure masturbation.

So why to people waste so much time on this crap?

My theory is that it hits some sweet spot for the gearhead nerd. It's complicated enough that nobody can actually explain it perfectly - some tiny detail, or some not so tiny details, always get left out, opening the door to arguments. And who doesn't like fighting about bullshit on the internet?

It's simple enough that one can (mostly) understand it in full, if you struggle a bit. So now you have something to lord over the slightly more new, something you can use to pretend you know more about photography.

DoF "discussions", just say no.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Talking About Art

I see this sort of thing from time to time.

Well, what Art means to me is ... craft ... something something skill ... something ... but it's all subjective isn't it?

On the one hand it's nice to see people wrestling with ideas about what Art might be, and what the point is and so on. On the other hand it strikes me as, if not the height of hubris at any rate one of the higher foothills, to assume that nobody else has ever tried to think their way through these things.

Why should I care what Art means to you, any more than I care about what Wool means to you? Or Carrots? People seem to reason from the vague notion that Art is in part a personal experience to the concrete idea that any random thought anyone has about it is equally valuable, unique, and interesting.

When you can't even be bothered to spend 20 minutes with the Wikipedia page on Art before opening your piehole and starting to emit sounds, why should I even bother to talk to you?

Especially if you're going to trot out wrongheaded platitudes like "it's all subjective" in the end. And usually, you are. You idiot.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

I Know What I Like

Thurber is credited with saying something along the lines of "I don't know Art, but I know what I like". Which is typically witty, of course, but also a little problematic.

Being pithy and witty it gets quoted a lot, and this plants the axiom that "liking" stuff is somehow relevant, or even superior to whatever it is that Art is or does.

In the first place, what do you even mean when you say you like something? Do you think it's pretty? Do you like that it challenges and/or teaches you something? Do you enjoy the second-hand experience of breaking the taboos it breaks? Do you think it follows whatever rules you think it should?

In the second place, it doesn't matter if you like it. No matter what you mean by "liking" when I make some Art, you liking it is not on my list of desired outcomes, and it shouldn't be.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Obsession With Light

An oft-repeated adage in photography is that it's all about light. Learn to see the light! Blah blah blah. I've addressed this before.

There is an internet forum I used to frequent which I still peek in to from time to time for ideas. At this very moment they're arguing the lighting scheme used by a NYC headshot guy. It's painfully obvious that the subjects are facing a large window, the photographer stands dead center, and shoots. You can see the window and the photographer reflected in the subject's eyes. This was explained early on by one of the few members of the forum that actually knows anything.

The discussion has proceeded in two directions: first, the photographer is an untalented hack because he's using head on lighting; second he must be using giant octobox/parabolic reflector/v-flats/some other lighting gear.

The takeaway here is this: These self-styled photographers equate talent and skill with using complicated lighting setups and these same self-styled photographers don't actually look at the picture particularly closely. I theorize that they're examining the lighting patterns or something, and then thinking about what piece of gear they read about most recently.

Hold on to that for a moment.

There's a style of lighting for people which is, perhaps, becoming more prevalent. We can think of it as the Terry Richardson look, it's pretty much dead-on from the front, often somewhat harsh. See also Martin Schoeller, who is less harsh but still dead-on. Another example: I read an article on/interview with Novak Djokovic, the tennis player, in which all the accompanying pictures were 100% Terry Richardson style.

These pictures are all of a sort that is panned by the kind of low-level pro/half-ignorant amateur we find cluttering up the internet, because, again, talent and skill = complicated lighting.

To be sure, complicated lighting can be flattering, it can hide a multitude of sins. If you sell low-end portraits, you want to do this sort of thing. But it's not the same as "talent" or "skill", it's pretty much paint by numbers out of one of a couple of books. Or you can do it the hard way and sift through megabytes of misinformation on the internet. With dead-on flat lighting, there's no place to hide. Pretty people still look pretty, though.

The point about taking pictures of people is that it's not about the lighting at all. It's about styling, direction, and about finding the right moment. Eliminate "Camera Face" and find the picture that's a good picture of the victim, not a bad one.

The guy they're complaining about on that forum is actually pretty decent. His lighting is revealing, but not interesting. He makes his subjects look appealing as hell with posing, styling, and finding the right moment.

It's Not About The Light.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Photographer is..

When I started taking photography somewhat seriously, one of the long standing jokes was A Photographer is someone who can blow without spitting. This is a reference to the fact that, in those days, photographers spent a lot of time blowing dust off of things, ideally without spitting on them. Lenses, film, cameras, enlargers, more lenses, negatives, paper, etc etc etc. Photography was, to first order, a war with dust.

This is a joke that doesn't even make sense today. Most photos are taken with hermetically sealed devices. Even the interchangeable lens camera is maintained largely dust free. And, of course, as soon as the exposure is made, the scope for more dust getting involved drops to zero. It's all digital after that.

And yet, as we've simplified the process, the dedicated amateur seems to spend just as much time getting a picture done.

In fact, there seems to be a pretty constant irreducible amount of time we're willing to spend, and that we insist on spending, per picture. If anything we're spending a bit more time these days. An ambrotype takes, I dunno, an hour of labor start to finish, plus some amortized time in the background maintaining gear, mixing chemicals, and so on. A 1980s era roll film picture might be a similar effort, or a bit more, depending on how fussy a printer you were. Two hours is about my limit, start to finish, but I'm a pretty brutalist printer.

Nowadays, now that all the messy chemistry and dusting and putting things in and out of containers, and washing up trays after and and and and.. we're seeing people spending even more time on a picture. Of course, many people spend far less time as well -- click, share. But the dedicated amateur might spend a couple hours per picture, without even getting to a print. This is just some shitty landscape to stick up for +likes on some photo sharing site.

I think there's something similar to the traffic engineering phenomenon in which one cannot build highways big enough to eliminate congestion. Bigger highways with more capacity just encourage more driving, until the congestion reaches barely tolerable levels. Small, low capacity, roads discourage driving to levels with, yep, barely tolerable congestion.

In the same way, a hobbyist is willing to, and in fact insists on, spending such and such time per picture. Somewhere between 1 to 4 hours, let's say, depending on the person. That's enough to feel like you've done something of moment, and not so much that it's getting in the way of your life. Most of that work is pointless bullshit. And lest people think I'm just a luddite, looking back on the old days of wet printing, I notice that I spent a lot of time worrying about dust. Cleaning gear, and then spotting prints, and so on. All to remove little specks that nobody would ever notice.

Little specks nobody would ever notice expect me.

In the same way I love my sheet film contact prints for properties that have that nobody will ever notice except me.

In some sense, it's all just for yourself, isn't it?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Various Incomparable Kinds

I've wrestled for years with the question of photography, what's it all about anyways. I think I have a little bit if the key here.

There are many uses for photographs. Here are four.

1. An extension of seeing. Sharing my lunch on social media. A picture of Susie making a funny face at the party. Susie is so great! These go on facebook.

2. Ritualistic recording of moments of life. School photos. Wedding photos. Baby pictures. God help us all, senior sessions. These go on the wall.

3. Photos for photographers. Ming Thein. Eric Kim. A closed self referential world of its own. Nobody buys these things, these are click-bait on flickr. Photographers +like these things for one another, largely on the basis of how much money was (allegedly) spent to make them.

4. Art. Photos with ideas. Nobody buys these things, except from a few artists. They don't go with the couch. Frequently, they go in books which are occasionally purchased.

These are not buckets into which pictures are strictly categorized. These are really just points of view. We might take pictures, look at pictures, or share pictures, or judge pictures, from one or another of them.

Retail photographers selling wedding packages tend to judge photos based on how they stack up as retail photos. Your average snapshot is terrible as a ritualistic record of life. So is an Art photo of the same thing. Therefore, the retail photographer will reason, they are bad. The Artist will look at the retail wedding photos and judge them as bad. Bad Art. Both Artist and Wedding Pro are, in a sense, right. And both are wildly wrong.

If I'm looking at a picture on facebook of Susie acting ridiculous at a party, I might think "ha ha that Susie is so great!" and then some killjoy leans over my shoulder and says "you know, that's not a very good picture". The correct answer at this point is "it's also not a pizza, who the fuck cares?" followed, if necessary, by punching the killjoy quite hard.

The observation that the lighting is unflattering in the picture of Susie is utterly irrelevant. That's not the point of the picture. Nobody except people who are judging the picture from the wrong point of view cares.

At least part of the trouble is that we're coming from the world of other 2D art, painting and so on. We tend to look at all paintings more or less the same way, as Fine Art or attempts at same. Nobody makes watercolors of weddings, nobody shares watercolors on facebook from the office party. Watercolors are always aimed at "something appealing you might want to hang on your wall and look at from time to time".

Not so, photographs.

This is not some sort of cultural relativism bullshit, either. I am not claiming that snapshots are just as legitimate as Pro Quality Images while secretly thinking they're not. This isn't "well, cannibals, it's just a thing they do".

There are no moral standards in play here, all there is is opinion. It's all in your point of view. Nobody's getting eaten here.

Friday, March 13, 2015

And one more thing -

In my previous post I have some issues with Mr. Thein's Ultraprints remarks.

Here is one more. In the remarks after his closeup photo of the moon portion of his print, he spends a little time talking about -- apparently -- things we cannot see in his photo of the photo.

I don't understand this at all. He's not photographing the moon, he's photographing a print. There are no dynamic range challenges here, and there are minimal to no color gamut problems (we're already in CMYK land in the prin, after all). Why can his photo of the photo not show us everything that is, well, in the photo? He seems to be implying that he cannot show us details that are visible in the print.

This makes no sense to me.

Tricky, though. We are again fooled into buying it (or at any rate I was) because it looks kind of like a picture of the moon, and we all know there can be dynamic range challenges there.

But it's not. It's a picture of a piece of paper with ink on it.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Photographers Lie Redux

Much as I dislike screwing around with technical details, I'm actually pretty good at it, and a great number of things begging to be debunked are indeed technical details.

Here's a pretty good example of the sort of rubbish that Photographers will trot out. Admire Ming Thein's page on Ultraprints. There's a little sample closeup of these things, to show you how awesome it is. I chopped this out of his sample picture, to get in a little closer. Look how incredibly sharp it is!

Wow. How sharp is THAT?!!! That "recursive sharpening algorithm" that perfectly suits the image to the printer and the paper is really great stuff. Ok, now check this out (this is a thing I made):

My ruler has centimeters, not millimeters, but the small marks are millimeters in both cases. This one was NOT shot with a Nikon 810E with a Zeiss Otus lens, and then Ultraprinted. This was shot with a Nikon D3100 (discontinued, but the followon model is $450 list). The lens was probably a 1970s era 50 f/2 lens. You can pick these lenses up for like $100 on keh.com. The print is a whatever Mpix produces. (yeah, it's a negative, it's an intermediate element of a longer process)

It cost me something like 85 cents.

Hmm. That's interesting, innit?

For reference, Mr. Thein's print appears to be resolving around 500dpi, not 720dpi, but that's a quibble. The point is that the 85 cent print with cheap gear and haphazard post is resolving about the same as the Ultraprint. I'm pretty sure that a good part of the impression of sharpness in Mr. Thein's picture is actually in the ruler.

Now let's look at a few other things. Mr. Thein addresses that weird lump on the inner surface of the moon's terminator, and claims that it's due to the craters and things on the moon. He uses it as evidence of sharpness. Unless the moon has suddenly acquired a 100 mile high mountain, this is complete rot. While the bump may have started out as such (probably some speckles of slightly lighter area just inside the dark side of the terminator), it's been ferociously enhanced by some sort of processing or printing artifacts. It is, in fact, evidence of unsharpness and/or ham-fisted handling.

Then, we see the usual vague mumbo-jumbo about almost three-dimensionality, and the sense of blah blah blah. Honestly, maybe this stuff is not entirely in the linked article, but it's the overall thrust of Mr. Thein's marketing of these things. I have had contact prints from 4x5 sheet film on my walls for years. It is my favorite way to print. I love the way these things look.

Check out this sample:

That's a contact print from a 4x5 negative. By my eyeball it's resolving 800 dpi, more or less. But it doesn't look three dimensional. It doesn't create some magical sense of transparency. It looks remarkably like a photograph. A very sharp photograph, with very little noise, but just a photograph.

The number of times someone has commented on any of the technical wonderfulness my various contact prints is small. In fact, it's zero.

Nobody has ever noted that these prints are special.

So when you see a commenter on Mr. Thein's blog waxing on about how they bought an Ultraprint and their friends are waxing on about how awesome it is, well, you might consider taking that with a grain of salt.

Mr. Thein goes on about color fidelity and so on, also at some length. I don't have any commentary on that, but given his discussion of sharpness, I find myself dubious.

When someone's going on with vague terms about something technical, you can be pretty well assured that they're full of it. They may not know it, there's a fair chance that they really think they see it, or hear it, or feel it. But, generally, it's not there. Actually go measure something, and it vanishes like smoke.

Or, more compactly, Ultraprint is a brand name for "small inkjet print".

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Two Pictures

Here are a couple photos I took.

I COULD tell you I shot them on sheet film with a Cooke PS945 lens, and it would be quite hard to prove otherwise. In reality, I shot them with the cheapest Nikon DSLR available today, and a 60mm Micro-Nikkor lens, and then I whacked them in gimp to look like the Cooke lens, with a bit of front standard swivel in one of them.

My kids are adorable, regardless of how I shot them. So there.

Photographers Lie

"I don't use Photoshop"

"I shoot film"

"Her skin/eyes/hair really look like that"

Photographers tell tall tales. A lot. Sometimes they do it for social cachet. Sometimes they do it to sell prints. Sometimes the do it to deflect criticism.

There's nothing to be done about it. In general you can't actually prove that the model's freaky plastic skin is the result of excessive photoshopping, and unless there's money or liquor on the line, what's the point?

I occasionally think about starting a flickr identity that shoots "film" in which I post only pictures from my phone, making sure to give rich blacks and not to blow the highlights. Then I think to myself that in the first place it would obviously work, so what exactly am I proving here, and in the second place there are probably 1000 guys out there doing it Right Now.

A corollary is that when someone says they can Just Tell when something is shot on film, or in medium format digital, or whatever, if they're not currently hunched over a 16x20 or larger print with a good quality loupe, they're just plain wrong.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


Apparently I disagree with Ming Thein about everything, but anyways, he's a thoughtful guy. So here's a piece you can read: A question of clarity. Essentially, in it he argues for ultimately realistic photographs. He claims that he's unable to get "through" the photo and see the scene as it was, and wishes that he could. It turns out, surprise surprise, that his equipment approaches this ideal in strict order of price, the more expensive ones doing a better job.

Let us leave aside the obvious fact that Mr. Thein is seeing not his pictures but the price tags of the cameras he uses to make them. He's gearhead, 'nuff said.

Now consider this thing some photographers do: They take photographs of photographs.

Ponder that for a moment.

In reality Mr. Thein is fundamentally wrong. Clarity, transparency, whatever you want to call it, is a property of photographs that comes for free. Most people look at a photograph and they see the things in the frame, not the photograph. The ability to step through the frame into the world depicted is automatic and basic to photography. Everyone does it. Consider their reactions: "what a pretty flower", "wow what an amazing mountain", "you look beautiful". In almost no situations do people comment on the photograph as such.

The guys who photograph photos are struggling against that. They're forcing you to consider the photograph as an object in its own right.

Does this mean that the search for clarity, for ultimately realistic and transparent representations of the scene, the object, whatever, is wrong? No. But it's boring as hell. If I just want to see Berlin as it truly is, I can go to Berlin, and, lo, there it is.

When I see your picture of Berlin I don't want to see Berlin, I want to see how you see Berlin. I don't necessarily need to be aware of the picture as an object in its own right, although that doesn't hurt any when it comes to distancing from me from Literal Berlin. I do want to avoid Literal Berlin, and instead apprehend Your Berlin. A photograph of a photograph of Berlin is one method to give that distance, and make me consider the photograph depicted as a thing which, perhaps, embodies something other than Literal Berlin.

As as side exercise, let us try to reconcile these two things from Mr. Thein's article:

Food doesn’t look that juicy, watches never look that perfectly lustrous and scratch/dust free, and I’ve never seen anybody who wears the clothes or carries the handbag ever look like the models in the ad. Clearly, this is both a cognitive problem and a visual one; our expectations of that reality are defined by the art director and the client because that’s what they want us to think; it’s more attractive and sexier than the real world, making it very easy to ignore the latter.


The interpretative school of photography [...] has almost zero commercial value at all, or only in very special circumstances: imagine if the idea you wanted to convey was a fuzzy happiness after drinking a certain brand of alcohol; an out of focus (but pleasing) image of the bottle would do absolutely nothing for product recognition.

Say whaaat?

Fun Fact

Nothing to do with photography, this is about blogs.

As near as I can tell, one comment corresponds to somewhere between 200 and 500 page views. There are probably outliers, of course.

So when someone describes their blog as a leading source of something, or an important blah blah blah, but they don't have really a LOT of comments (e.g. many posts with several dozen or more comments) then they're lying. They simply haven't got the page views.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Free Your Mind

This seems obvious. Your frame of mind when you first see a photo, or any piece of Art, affects what you will see and what you will take away from it.

While this is obvious, I think we forget it. Try posting a photo for critique in several different online venues, with different cultures. The wild variability of responses reflects (of course) the differing tastes of the venues but also the differing cultures.

In many venues critique is approached essentially as a 'find what is wrong with the picture' task. Others fall more directly into 'how much does this picture resemble the ambient taste' and a few, occasionally, reach for 'what is good about this picture'.

The point is, though, that your frame of mind has a large effect on how of look at a picture. If you know it's a Great Photo you look at it one way, if someone's just showing you their snaps you look at it another, and if someone's asking you to help them take better pictures, you'll look at it yet another way.

Witness the occasional games that are played by people posting well known photos "for critique". This first of all illustrates the deep ignorance of many would-be critics, but also illustrates the different mindsets we use when we approach a picture. If you approach "Migrant Mother" with a mindset of 'what is wrong with this picture' you'll find a lot, and profit very little from the experience.

Ideally, you should approach a picture with a clear and open mind. Look neither for greatness nor for flaws, look for what is.

You'll get more value from it, be it a throwaway snap of drunk girls, or a Victorian masterpiece of portraiture.

Friday, March 6, 2015

A Photo Of Grandma

It might be natural, upon reading some of my remarks, to wonder "who cares about all that Art crap?" This note might address that, a little.

Let us suppose that it is grandma's 82nd birthday, and we're taking a picture of Grandma.

The cell phone snapper yells "smile grandma!" and pressed the button when she does.

The 'See The Light' hero positions grandma next to a north facing window and photographs her in the gorgeous indirect light.

The wanna-bee pro waits for short lighting, or broad lighting, or whatever, and presses the button 50 times, and digs through the 50 RAW files to find the one where the lighting pattern looks as much as possible like it does in the book, or on strobist, or whatever.

The photoshop god is much like the wanna-bee pro, but spends hours in photoshop "fixing" stray hairs, and "cleaning up" grandma's skin.

And so on. You can probably make up some more.

None of these are necessarily any good. Please note: I have been all these people. There's a pretty good chance you have too.

If you want a good picture of grandma, consider not the light, but grandma. You needn't agonize and pull out your best Tortured Arteest routine, but consider who grandma is and what she means to you and try to make a picture of that. If you succeed, the light won't matter beyond there being enough of it. The stray hairs and wrinkled skin won't detract.

The cell phone snapper, alone among our heros, is thinking of grandma, and is thus surprisingly likely to come up with a decent picture. Surprising to the camera aficionados, at any rate,

The point is that even the most casual snapshot is better for being made with with good motivations, with a clear idea of what the snapshot could best be. You might not nail it every time, or even occasionally. But at least you've got a chance.

If you're a pro shooting some new blender, take a moment to think about the blender. What are we trying to say here? It doesn't have to be deep.

Art, it's not just for artists. You should do it too.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Knowledge in the Age of the Internet

I learned photography from books, and from people who knew what they were doing. I learned book-binding from the Internet. The differences are, well, they're illuminating.

Although this is less and less the case, when you're writing a book about how to do a task, you tend to organize the ideas together. You test procedures you're recommending, you research ideas you're proposing. You try to pull together a coherent set of more-or-less true statements that present a more-or-less complete picture of how to do the task.

When you're writing a web page on how to do a task, you pull together random bits and pieces of bullshit from a quick google search, stitch it together with a few things you've actually tried out superficially, and you fling the whole mess up there. The result is incomplete, riddled with nonsense, and disorganized.

In order to learn to sew a perfectly ordinary Smyth-sewn book binding, I had to pull together information from at least three different web pages. Were the authors of the web pages simply leaving bits and pieces out through carelessness? Do these authors actually just sew bindings incorrectly? Or do the authors in fact not actually know anything, but are filled with an inexplicable desire to teach others how to do this thing they do not know how to do?

I don't know and it doesn't matter. The bottom line is all the web sites on book binding that I have found have errors and/or serious omissions.

Web sites which purport to teach photography are just as bad. Incomplete, incorrect, and assembled by people who have no idea what they're talking about.

In a very real sense, the vast Internet which allows uniform access to knowledge to all has returned us to a tribal state in which "knowledge" is a mixture of truth, superstition, and cargo cult logic. This witch-doctor's brew is copied and passed on not by word of mouth but through the mechanic of web searches. It is inherent in copying that further errors are introduced. Without mechanisms of testing, editing, correcting, the errors remain to be themselves copied, so the each generation is always, unambiguously, worse than the previous.

Thus we get endless bullshit about "the medium format look" and "rule of thirds" and "exposure triangle". We also get endless overly technical descriptions, because these things feel weighty and "true" but often fail to actually describe anything. We're given depth-of-field calculators to play with, which may or may not be correctly implemented, but which most assuredly tell us not one damn thing about what our pictures will look like. We're given detailed descriptions of Airy discs and the optical details of diffraction, which may or may not be riddled with errors, which tell us not one damn thing about what our pictures will look like.

In this modern era, we increasingly see this same approach taken for books, formerly (albeit only to a degree) a kind of bastion. Book authors copy rubbish from one another, and from wikipedia, and the Internet, with increasing abandon, to churn out the how-to title du jour.

This is not exactly progress.

If you want to learn how to do something, get a book. An old book.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Fake Art

There's Art out there. Some of it is photographs.

There's decor out there, too. Some of it is photographs.

Decor is generally attractive, or at the very least suitable to the environment it's hung in. It might be soothing, warm, in a home. It might be high energy, dynamic, in a business environment. It might be situationally appropriate, pictures of products or clients or equipment or staff. Decor fits in with where it is hung, and enhances that environment in some way.

Then there's a Fake Art. This stuff isn't decor, or at least if it is it's pretty tough to imagine what kind of anti-living environment it would be hung in to enhance. This stuff is often black and white, usually ugly. It might be high contrast urban shadow play. It might be pictures of homeless people, or starving native peoples from far away. It has many of the trappings of Art: the subjects are very much in your face, the ugliness is often studied, clearly intended to separate the piece from "mere decor".

It's Fake Art because there's no idea there. There's nothing there except a sweaty, desperate, desire to be Art. Is the artist being true to himself? Who can really be sure? Still, usually one gets the sense that the artist is not. The artist is instead aping the forms of Art, and wants to be taken seriously. The piece feels outwardly focused, it feels as if it was made not to express the inexpressible, but instead to be Taken Seriously By People.

There's probably a wide grey area. After all, aping the forms of Art is how Art is made as well. Aping them with, I dunno, integrity.

Regardless, I think there's a well-defined thing here, and if you cast your mind about you can probably call some pieces to mind. Earnest, Serious, Photographs that can't get any farther than being Earnest.


Once again, Mike shares a wonderful bunch of insights with us. If you find my blog even slightly interesting, you owe it to yourself to read this post over at ToP:

The Old Question, Revisited

Monday, March 2, 2015

One Weird Trick!

Dozens of photographers are using this one weird trick to improve their DSLR images.

Open your god damn eyes

What Moment?

I have noted in the past that a photograph is, perhaps above all else, a moment, a "now" snatched out of the stream of time and preserved. This is not new, this is not original with me. Perhaps its weight is under recognized, I suppose.

There's a curious thing we do with these. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes we pry the moments loose from their anchor and set them adrift.

In portraits and "lifestyle sessions" and other retail photography, lights, makeup, and digital editing are used to make the young look older and the old look younger. The moment the client gets is, of course, "now" but the moment they want is the one when they were 22 years old and beautiful.

Photography apps of all stripes now come with filters, as we all know, and among the mandatory set of such canned post processing effects are vintage looks of various stripes. Aged prints, Polaroid, damaged prints, black and white, sepia, and so on.

We are thus confronted, this, with teens photographed 10 years in the future using "film formats" that have not existed for 10 years. The teenager indubitably graduated last spring and paid far too much for some trashy photos, but the referents on the pictures are all wrong.

Of course, this is mostly just social norms. She likes the pictures because they look the way they should, the way her big sister's pictures do, the way her best friend's do, the way the alpha girl's do.

But why do we want a picture that looks like that?

There is implicit in this some sort of sympathetic magic, perhaps best encapsulated in the reaction of others when they see a really flattering photograph of us:

You look great!

We don't look great. The person in the photograph looks great. But somehow, by some sort of alchemy, it feels as if we also look great, or at least did. We are flattered and pleased.

In the same way, perhaps, the vintage look in a photograph transports us to a previous time when (as with all previous times) things were carefree and wonderful. We can, perhaps, visualize ourselves then, when things were better, or at any rate different.