Friday, August 14, 2015

If It Looks Good...

I feel like there's often a disconnect between the picture and the gear. Ultimately, people want to make pictures that look good (whatever you mean by "good", that's up to you) and so they look for gear that would do that. They try to match specifications and methods and gear to their vision.

Somewhere along the way, the vision kind of gets lost, and people begin to wonder if they have the right gear, or if they've mastered the right techniques, and they stop looking so closely at the pictures.

It's as if photographers feel like there's more to the picture than what it looks like. If the picture had been made with a better lens, even if it looks the same, it would somehow be better. If I'd had another strobe to illuminate the whatsit, the picture would be better, even if it looked the same as when I just used a towel to bounce some light onto the whatsit.

The formula used to make a picture doesn't actually matter. What matters is what the picture looks like.

There isn't, ultimately, anything more to a picture than what it looks like. That's what it is.

If it looks good, it is good. Doesn't matter if you used a cheap lens.

Here's a caveat, though.

Perception is a construct of the mind. When a fellow spends $50,000 on a stereo, he can hear the difference, whether it's there or not. Doesn't matter if there's anything measurable. Doesn't matter if the differences are undetectable in blind testing. The point is that our fellow isn't doing blind testing. He spent $50,000 on the very best, and his brain is adding that to the construct it's creating of the sound. He can literally hear the money.

Same with photography. Buy an expensive lens, and you can literally see the money. Quite probably not in a blind test, but if you know which picture was made with the expensive lens, it will look better to you. Your brain will construct reasons why the picture is better, according to your expectations of the lens. If you think the lens is sharper, the picture will look sharper. If you think the colors should be better, they will look better. Your eyes can't see the differences, and in all likelihood there isn't one. But your brain is fully capable of filling in a difference for you, and it will. It's actually quite hard to stop the brain from doing this, which is why we have to actually measure, and do blind tests.

This can be good or bad. If you have money to spend on a hobby, you're going to get more pleasure from your pictures. Awesome. Money well spent.

See, for example, this essay from a while ago on this very blog: Photographers Lie Redux. This is not a very charitable piece. The charitable, and let us be blunt, more accurate way to talk about this phenomenon is that Ming Thein (and, I suppose, his Ultraprint customers) can see the money, and the effort. A quick objective inspection shows pretty clearly that there's nothing remarkable about Ultraprints, in reality, but I dare say they're quite amazing in the perception of a believer. If you believe, in short, Ultraprints may be excellent value. If you don't, you should probably just use MPix or the local shop.

If you're trying to sell pictures and make a living, this may be a bit trickier. On the one hand, in some cases you can tell your clients about the lenses, the lights, the whatevers, and they too will "see" the money. Not, however, in all cases. If your clients glaze over when you start talking about line pairs per millimeter and color temperature, you probably shouldn't have bought the Otus.

If you're trying to make pictures for a wider audience, an audience you cannot pre-prime with the pitch about the methods and the tools, you're not getting any of this stuff. You're stuck with how the picture looks, and literally nothing else. It behooves you, therefore, if you wish to reach an audience wider than yourself, to learn to see your own work without these beautiful veiling effects.

A healthy dose of cynicism helps. Using cheap gear helps, by removing expectations of awesomeness. Actually measuring and blind testing, from time to time, to counteract your lying brain, is probably helpful.

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