Monday, November 30, 2015

Nudes and Flowers

This post rambles a bit, and I can't really say that it goes anywhere.

These are kind of my safe zones, or at least they were for years. My dad shot a ton of these gorgeous flowers on black backgrounds, super saturated colors, on some sort of transparency film. Mamiya RZ67, no idea what film, but he wound up with Cibachromes. My stepmother's place is still littered with the things. They're gorgeous, they go beautifully with the Bateman prints and whatnot. Lovely decor, not a lot of ideas. My dad would probably think my obsession with Art, Concept, Ideas and whatnot is a bit suspect. Not that that taciturn man would have said a word.

Anyways. I've shot a lot of flowers myself. I spent a year pulling together 27 pictures of which these are some.

These things combined my two safe zones: I shot the flowers as if they were nudes, stealing an idea or ten from Edward Weston (if you're going to plagiarize, don't monkey around, steal from the best).

I do quite like these things. They're very decorative, for one thing, and I use them as decor. I keep trying to mix them in to something more serious, and I feel like one of these days they're going to work as just the right decorative seasoning to something or other. But they are not themselves particularly serious.

The nudes, well, my wife is very beautiful. If I had my way, I'd spend all day every day taking pictures of her without her clothes on; meaning, concept, and ideas be damned. She seems to feel that feeding our children and so on has some value, however, which leaves me with some free time to do other things, which is probably just as well.

I'm not going to share any nudes. Sorry. Imagine a human person with no clothes on in the photos above, and you'll have the idea, though.

Looking back now at these flowers, I see that I was much too interested in techniques. I learned a lot about making pictures that look like one thing or another shooting these things, although I think that in the grand scheme of things my lighting-fu is still weak.

There wasn't much of any idea here. Flowers as nudes isn't a terrible idea, but it's just a kind of a motif, a visual treatment. It's like deciding to use a lot of red in your paintings, I think.

Nudes are inherently more interesting. There's a person there, for one thing, and we like people. And the subject is nude, which is inherently interesting, and freights your pictures with a metric *uckload of symbolism and cultural commentary. But there's still not necessarily much in the way of ideas. Indeed, you might have more trouble getting an idea across, since the viewers are pretty much gonna distracted by the flesh.

Anyways, I feel like I am moving away from these things to murkier (literally and figuratively) things. I think that makes me happy.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Ideas/Communication II

The yammering in this blog post from a few days ago surely has some relationship to the Iceberg Theory of writing. This is, I think, attributed to Hemingway. The idea is that you leave you large and important chunks of whatever you're writing. The story is shaped by these absent pieces, and the reader can feel their presence.

In this form, it's attributed to Hemingway. But it's basic stuff, some people call it world-building. There's a reason Tolkien's books read differently from the knock-offs -- he spent decades building a complete world with a literature and a mythology, with epic poems, and so on. It's all there, more or less fully realized, and then almost entirely left out. The published books are shaped by this corpus, but don't include it. The reader can feel the presence of the larger world nonetheless.

My ideas for collections of pictures are not quite the same. I'm not leaving out the important pictures (although there's an idea, eh?), what I'm leaving out is the words that explain it all. The book, the portfolio, the slideshow, whatever, is informed and shaped by my ideas, and hopefully develops a richness and depth thereby.

Does it work? I have no idea, and I have no idea even how to find out. I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

State of the Industry, LuLa's going Paid

The Luminous Landscape is switching to a subscription model. $12/year. So what?

Well, it's an indication of the state of the industry, innit? Obviously the revenues are trending the wrong way. Ad revenue is surely in a crunch, for a couple of reasons: ad revenue is in general getting crushed on the internet, and the photographic enthusiast market is on a brisk downhill slope as well. I dare say it's getting ugly out there.

Michael tends to over-inflate Lula's place in the universe a bit, but it still seems to be in the top ten most visited photography web sites. 330,000 unique visitors a month, which probably translates to somewhat fewer actual people (I probably count as somewhere between 2 and 5, depending on how's analytics are counting me), and still fewer regular visitors. I am comfortable with 10,000 to 100,000 as the count of humans who regularly visit.

They've made some missteps. Michael, as I read it, hired a friend of his, so now the payroll includes three guys, at a time when revenues were about beginning that inexorable slide. The content, frankly, has suffered. Most of the front page articles are terrible fluff pieces, and they did a site conversion which left the archives of useful historical stuff in a bit of a shambles. They have too many staff, and too little web site. With all due respect, I have no idea what on earth they do with three staffers. So, there's trouble in River City. They gotta do something.

A paywall is a Hail Mary pass, there's just no other way to put it. You either start an inexorable death spiral, or you don't. Most of the time, you do. There's a short interval in which things look good, it's a joyful private club, everyone feels smug, and now if we can just get another 2x or 3x signups we're in fat city, and then people stop renewing and the new signups slow down because things are kind of dead in there, and after a while it's time to turn off the lights.

It's entirely possible that they did some research, I don't know. I'm an active member, and they didn't reach me with any kind of market research, which certainly doesn't mean they didn't do any. It's a datum, though.

Also worth noting is that, based on a handful of comments in their forums, they're tweaking the model to make the forums free. If this is genuinely the basis for the change, they're insane. They have, at a bare minimum, 10,000 regular visitors, and those are the people they need to persuade to part with hard-earned lucre. Just because 4 or 5 or 10 of the self-selected cranky jerks (I include myself in that number) who infest their forums say something doesn't mean it's true or even relevant. In fact, it almost certainly is not relevant, these are by definition outliers. You've got to figure out how to reach that silent majority and find out what's going to make those people part with cold, hard, cash.

Anyways, it's tough out there.

If you're running a popular web site, and you're wondering what to do to solve your money problem, watch LuLa closely, it's gonna get interesting. While you're watching, think about these ideas a little:

  • Launch a Patreon. Running simply on donations with an organized approach is a lot like a friendlier paywall. It can work.
  • Launch a market research firm. Get some books out of the library, read up, and start gently leveraging your subscriber base. Work out a way to compensate them for their time, for their information, in a way that doesn't cost you much, Premium content. Negotiated discounts from useful vendors.
  • Sell T-shirts and other merch. This can produce surprising amounts of revenue.
  • Do you sell anything else? Workshops, prints, videos, whatever? Launch a business helping other people generate and sell similar content and services.
  • Own up to vendor relationships and leverage them. If you like Nikon, or Tamrac, or Lytro, or whatever, ask them if you can be a spokesman. There's no shame in being a paid pitch man for products you like. Just don't lie about it.
  • Etc. Just think a bit, you'll probably come up with more businesses.

None of them are going to be all wine and roses. The trouble is that the pundits and players in the web-o-sphere don't want to do the hard parts. They want to fool about with cameras and write uninformed blog posts (I know that's what motivates me anyways) and they would very much like to get paid handsomely for their goofing off (well, me too, but I'm more of a realist than that). If you just want to play around, you can't expect to get paid a lot for it.

Some people have gotten paid a lot for it, but that was an anomaly, in an anomalous time, which time is now over.

Time to get to work.


There's ideas that we stick into a piece of Art. I make a bunch of pictures, I pick some out, and shuffle them around thoughtfully, and I shovel them into some sort of portfolio or booklike thing. Then I give that away. And it's all intentional, there's ideas and meaning that I intend in there, usually quite a lot of stuff.

Then there's the ideas that we get out of a piece of Art. You find a booklike thing in a coffee shop, let's say in Bellingham, WA, USA, just as a sort of randomly selected for-instance kind of a deal. You crack it open and poke around. Some of you buggers probably read it back to front. Maybe you toss it aside, having gotten nothing. Maybe you see some stuff. Maybe some of the stuff you see overlaps with the stuff the artist put in there.

In an ideal world, I think kind of the best we can hope for is that you get a subset of whatever I put in there, and you get it at an angle I never imagined, and then you get some other stuff I never intended, and you put it together into something that pleases you. If it's one of mine, you might flip it over and read the note that says this is a free book and you can take it home if you want.

It might even occur to you to think "if I take it home, does this mean my visitors can take it away to their own homes if they like?" and I'm just gonna leave that as an open question.

Anyways, that's kind of a practical best case. If I don't write a detailed artist's statement, it's totally unreasonable to hope that we're going to communicate any better than this.

Now, I have a theory, an idea, a feeling. It is this: Even if what you get out does not overlap with what I put in, the fact that I did put things in, that I made this thing with ideas and intent, somehow translates into a more accessible and rich object, from which you are more able to draw your own, unrelated, result.

This is based on nothing much at all. It's basically sympathetic magic that I am proposing here. But I can't shake the feeling. I happen to feel like I see it in other work. Stieglitz' Equivalents have this for me -- I feel like he's getting at something, but I can't find it. It's well known that he shoved a lot of intention in there.

Possibly there is something about density of idea-fragments. You can imagine that if I just thoughtlessly chucked together a bunch of crucifixes, melting clocks, and watermelons, people would probably read some stuff into it simply because of the density of symbols. Perhaps if I put enough ideas of my own in, I produce something with a similar sort of density, albeit a less obvious one. Perhaps the pieces can be re-assembled into your own ideas.

This begs the question, then, of which am I doing? Am I simply larding it up with a jumble of symbolism and hoping for the best, or am I actually executing coherent ideas? Michele Sons pictures of pretty girls in gowns standing in the middle of nowhere could go either way. I can read a ton into it, if I want, but I have no idea if she's actually got an idea, or is just thoughtlessly chucking a girl into the frame to spice up the otherwise 100% social-media-compliant landscape. Who knows? Does it really matter, in the long run?

Ya got me!

Monday, November 23, 2015


There's a veritable cottage industry now in sending people to Antarctica. If you're got about $30 grand you can go tromp around on the edge of the continent. Some, possibly many, of these tourists are moderately wealthy pudgy white dudes with $50 grand worth of camera equipment.

I'm pretty sure these guys grew up with National Geographic. The magazine had these magical pictures of far of places, like, say, Antarctica. It was crazy hard to get there in the 60s and 70s, it was a major undertaking. Indeed, it still is, note the price tag. The Southern Ocean is not to be fucked with and, frankly, it's only a matter of time before a boat filled with well to do older white guys goes down with all hands. They've had some close calls already.

Anyways. National Geo. They had these photos, and they were really pretty great. What made them great, though, was that we'd never seen these things. These huge masses of eerily lit ice. A million penguins massed on a pure white landscape (except for the penguin shit all over, so, frame carefully!) It was amazing, it was other-worldly. So these guys, now they've made their pile and handed a great wad of it over to Phase One, are now ready to, essentially, make copies of the photos of their youth.

Sure, they've all got their own vision. This bloke likes to shoot into the sun. This chap likes starfields in the background. Whatever. It's all cheap knockoff National Geographic stuff. The novelty is now gone, and with it a tremendous amount of the magic. Plus, they never manage to make it look cold. But, whatever. They're having a blast, enjoying the adventure of a lifetime. Good on 'em.

Then there's the workshop situation. At least one outfit offers photographic workshop trips for astronomical prices and I assume that, like rats, if you see one there are more.

The outfit I have in mind generously gave away a Free Trip to a deserving photographer. I don't know what process the portly older white men used to select the deserving young talent, but this was the result:

Now here's the wonderful thing. She went. She took some pictures. And they're pretty great. They're leagues better than a fake National Geo. stuff. It's tremendous vistas with a pretty girl in a flowing gown, small in the frame. Ok, it's not exactly Steichen, it's kind of twee, but it's quite decent. She's got a visual idea and she's working it pretty hard. I'm not sure I "get it" as such, but I at least feel there's something there to not get.

Good for Michele! And good for LuLa after all, she was deserving.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Abstraction and Photography

A recent comment has inspired me to really think about this a bit, and work out what I like and what I don't like, and what I think about it all.

Abstract photography is Very Much a Thing. Macro photographs of stuff. Smoke and colored lights. Oil slicks. Intentional Camera Movement. Extreme architectural isolations. And so on and so forth. These things are quite fun to shoot, unless you're me, and they can generate very appealing pictures. Graphically powerful pictures. That sort of thing.

I think a strong case can be made, though, and I intend to make it, that abstract photography has very little to do with abstract painting.

What's going on with abstract painters? Well, there's more ideas than painters, generally, but in broad strokes when they claim to be doing is distilling things out. They're experimenting with processes, techniques, forms, which explicitly remove or alter aspects of reality specifically to distill, to emphasize something important. Perhaps they're revealing the essence of the thing they're painting. Perhaps they're summarizing emotion. Perhaps they're commenting on Art itself.

The point is that the abstraction is, as a general rule, supposed to reveal something or other. I'm sure you kind find some bloke who's gone the opposite way, but this is the commonly held idea.

Photography, in its very essence, is connected to the reality at which the camera is pointed. This is the point. That is what makes photography photography and not painting. Therefore you start out with a problem, right out of the chute. A painter is able to re-mold reality as he sees fit. This is arguably what painting is. A photographer can't, without becoming a painter. A photographer is stuck with techniques which boil down to "get close, and isolate bits and pieces" which removes reality by simply excluding it from the frame, or my blurring it into smears. It's a pretty weak-sauce version of what the painters do.

The second and really important thing is that abstract photography almost never reveals anything. In the first place its one and only technique is one of concealment. In the second place, the practitioners of abstract photographer are, for the most part, either clueless about revealing, or simply not interested in it.

Mondrian did a lot of stuff, but is famous for his primary color square things with the black lines. Whether or not he succeeded in distilling and revealing I am doubtful, but he gets full marks for giving it a shot. Notably, nobody else does this. It's not like Mondrian developed a new way of painting and now we have a whole school of painters working away with grids and stuff because it's so powerful. Nope. That's been done.

We do, however, have apparently millions of people shooting oil slicks in fish tanks with colored lights, millions of other people waving their cameras around to make smeary colorful blobs, and so on. These people have nothing to say, they just think it looks cool. If you hang about and listen to the Serious Practitioners, you'll find a lot of discussion of compositional formalism, balanced frames and so on, but they're still not trying to reveal anything.

It does look cool, and they're having a hell of a lot of fun, and that's great. But the relationship to abstract painting is non-existant.

What can you do with abstract photography?

Well, as mentioned, you can create visually interesting graphical things, eye catching pictures. You can give a new reading of something familiar, with a series of semi-abstract closeups. You could even create a new thing, I dare say. With a carefully shot series of architectural closeups of a wide, squat, building, you could build the impression of a soaring Art Deco tower. You can reveal, if you work at it.

I think it's absolutely inherent in the form that you need many photographs. Because the only technique available is to exclude, you can only get fragments. Unlike an abstract painting where you can represent, albeit in wildly compressed or modified for, the whole thing, the woman descending the staircase, or whatever, you can really only get tiny bits and pieces.

Therefore to show anything, to reveal, you really have to use collage. Literal collage, or figurative. Somehow, though, you have to give us many fragments, and help us to assemble them into the whole, revealing the whole in a new way (whether the whole is the real building, an imaginary building, or the artist's reaction to the tragedy in his life hardly matters).

A Tip. Or, A Fallacy

When you're measuring some quantity that originates with several different sources, do not assume that when the amount from one source exceeds another's, that the other's becomes irrelevant.

We see this constantly in camera land. Blah blah noise is greater than blip blip noise so we can ignore the latter. The lens is soft so there's no point using good filters. Etc.

This stuff mostly either adds together, or combines in counter intuitive ways. But it almost never vanishes.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Photographically Rich Environments

Here's a piece from Ming. For once I'm kind of neutral about it, and I didn't even look at the pictures, really.

The comments as currently trending flow with the piece, reiterating the point I am about to make, so they might be worth a skim.

The whole enterprise in which these people are engaged has the cart before the horse, or possibly they've actually got a cat in the harness backwards.

They're taking about locations, cities, and how photographically interesting or not this city is, or that, and the relative advantages to being a visitor versus a native. Ming talks about how infrequently the light is good in Kuala Lumpur.

The essential problem throughout is that these people are all shooting things. And, since they have read on the internet about The Light! They know they want 'good light'.

Who the hell wants a flattering picture of a building? There are various reasons the building's architect or owner might want some flattering pictures of it, but I certainly don't want to hang one on my wall.

If instead of photographing things, you photograph ideas, then the only quality of a location that matters is whether or not you have ideas there. I am amused that Ming finds it hard to photograph Kuala Lumpur because, basically, it looks wrong.

Nothing looks wrong. Everything looks just like itself. Why on earth would you want to shoot Kuala Lumpur like it's Chicago? Shoot it like itself and you might get something worth keeping. Shoot it like some low rent Chicago and its gonna look like a low rent Chicago.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Booklike Objects

Keith Smith makes the very reasonable point that the standard photography monograph is essentially an archive of the greatest hits. There may be some relationships between the pictures, but that is, in general, secondary to the central idea that "these are the best pictures" from whatever context you have in mind. The best ones from last year, the best ones from such and such a project, the best ones from a lifetime of labor. I've made these things myself.

You pick the best ones out, more or less, and then you put them in some kind of order, and then you press Print.

This is somewhat akin to an Greatest Hits Album (remember those?). The Eagles Greatest Hits, or whatever.

In the 1960s and 1970s, more or less, the Greatest Hits Album was kind of pooh-poohed by people like, well, by people like me. The Concept Album generally meant something poncy and overwrought, but we anyways liked albums built around some sort of an idea, where the songs went together. Ziggy Stardust, The Wall. Now, I'm sure that the artists did their best to make each song excellent, but in the end the songs had to work. They had to serve the concept, the narrative, or whatever overall thing was going on. I'm sure that hook-laden top-40 friendly songs got dropped because they wouldn't work (don't worry, there's always another album, until there isn't!)

One could argue that you ought to simply shoot a Great Picture for that one spot, instead of plugging in an inferior one just to make the structure work, but I submit that there are cases in which what is wanted is specifically not a great picture. Perhaps you want a neutral picture, or a picture that does not jump out, or a silly picture. It might, in short, be necessary for the structure that you plug in a lesser photograph, in the same way that an album composed entirely of top-40 fodder is probably going to lose structure, shape.

What do we see in these kinds of albums?

We see a lot of repetition, interestingly. Earlier numbers are reprised, usually somewhat differently, but clearly recognizable. We see a lot of quotation, but then, we see that in popular music regardless, so that's not much help here.

My favorite example here is Rod Stewart relating how he wrote one of his hits, Mandy, I think. He'd been warming up at the piano with a bit of Chopin, and then started in to work. Pretty quickly he had the bones of the song, and was feeling very smug "that harmonic progression is bloody brilliant, I am a genius" and then a little while later "bugger, actually, Chopin was a genuis."

We see songs deliberately created to fill holes in the narrative, in the idea. We see new arrangements of a prior song intended to serve a narrative which is proceeding forwards (the same song, redone in a minor key because our protagonist is now sad, that sort of thing).

We see the same ideas hammered over and over. If we haven't figured out that Pink is pretty screwed up by the end of The Wall, we're being willfully inattentive. Novelty from song-to-song is actually an impediment. A strong degree, albeit not too much, of sameness is desirable.

All of this has obvious parallels in the making of photography books and booklike objects. I can't actually just write them down, because the parallels, to my eye, explode out in 100 directions at once. I might be able to write a book about it, but it would just be a brain dump.

Two questions, to which I do not know the answers, come to mind:

  • What happens when you give someone a portfolio and say "this is a book" versus "this is a portfolio"?
  • Can you apply any of this to commercial work? Can we usefully conceive of an ad campaign, a catalog, an annual report, as a booklike object?


After, I dunno, a decade or more of raising Expose To The Right, we now have this piece from Michael Reichmann over at LuLa suggesting what I think we can reasonably describe as Expose To The Left.

Whereas in the bad old days the best procedure was to carefully overexpose and fix it in post, now that we have these amazing new sensors from Sony, the correct procedure is to underexpose and fix it in post.

This may seem crazy, I know, but why not just expose correctly and don't fix it in post?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Copies and References

Something people worry about, including me, is making a picture that looks just like someone else's picture.

If you're in the land of the Single Iconic Image, then when you shoot something that looks a lot like Lange's "Migrant Mother" you're simply making a cheap knockoff, or at best, a very good knockoff. If you duplicate it with changes, perhaps you're commenting on Lange, on the original, or something, but it's still pretty lame.

If instead you are making something bigger, a portfolio, a book, something else, then there's an additional and important layer of possibility. You can quote Lange, literally or figuratively, in order to create a link to that work from your own. There are a bunch of reasons one might productively do this.

If you're writing a poem, and you simply lift couplet from Shakespeare, you're a plagiarist.

If you're writing a novel, and you quote Shakespeare, that is quite a different thing. You could be quoting Shakespeare for terrible reasons but, again, there are a bunch of reasons one might productively do this.

Liberating, innit?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: The New Structure of the Visual Book
   by Keith A. Smith

This is a pretty crazy book, no way around it. But it's awesome, as well.

There are some core ideas in it, which I will just present in a sort of jumble. These can be applied most obviously to books, but one could as well find them useful when presenting anything at all, but most especially anything with multiple pieces of content and some builtin organizing structure. It could be five photographs hung along a hallway, a movie, a web site, an iPad application.

Page-turning as an important mechanic. The binding determines the way the mechanic operates (codex, foldbook, fan, blind, etc). Turning pages defines cadence. It creates a moving shadow. Flipping pages quickly can create a sense of motion.

As a particular example Smith does not reference, there is the Amandine Nabarra-Piomelli's Bernoulli's Equation book currently on display at the Whatcom Museum, in which flipping the pages of the blind-bound book recapitulates the flow of water, which is the subject of the book. Which is artsy-fartsy as hell, but pretty neat. There's a video that is worth watching.

For non-book objects, what is the mechanic by which we move from one piece of content to the next? How is it relevant, how can we make it relevant, what problems can it create, and how can we use it?

The ability to see through one page to the next: transparency, translucency, cutout. This creates a stacked combination recto when you open to the first page of the relevant collection, and as you turn the pages, the pattern or collage is disassembled and rebuilt upside down verso. Smith does not mention it, but this occurs in a weak form with thin papers and with vellum -- you can see, murkily, the reverse of the page you're looking at, and there are problems and possibilities inherent here.

Using the blurb platform to make the cheaper trade books, you get slightly translucent pages. How can you use dark masses on the reverse of a page together with the main content of the page?

There's a lot of material about organizing, well, things. We can think of them as pictures, but the ideas are pretty general.

  • Group: Just a bunch of things.
  • Series: A bunch of things that organize themselves into a line, by physical order, allusion, reference, etc.
  • Sequence: A bunch of things with a mesh of interconnection, allusion, reference, etc.

A portfolio is most often primarily a group or at most a series. Certainly I tend to organize my portfolios in some order, and I present them in that physical order, which defines a linear order in which you can look at the things. A series.

A novel might well be a sequence. You have the linear ordering of words and pages, and a possibly second and distinct linear ordering of events in time if the novel is not told chronologically. You will often also find foreshadowing, references to prior events or images, and so on. A novel is a group of words, a group of pages, but it is also several series, and finally also a mesh of connections layered atop that. A poem may also be, in terms of its images and metaphors, but also simply in its rhyme structure.

These organizations can be imposed by the author, but the reader may not perceive them. The reader may, probably will, impose and discover their own.

Multiple organizations can be (are) in play. You almost always have elements of each in play.

Smith believes, and I agree, that you often (usually? always?) should strive for his notion of "sequence" simply to provide the reader, the viewer, with the richest possible experience, the most to enjoy, to discover, to feel.

How can structure and organization emphasize and support your ideas? Is it useful to your project to insert a reference to somewhere else inside the work, and how would you accomplish that? Does a mesh of references make the idea more or less clear? Which references can you remove to clarify things, and how would you do that?

This is an important book, as Mike Chisholm pointed out in a comment here earlier. What it's not is a how to manual, or even a dissertation on book forms. It is really a survey piece, surveying both book art that exists, and Keith Smith's ideas about books.

I suspect that the author has a good sense of humor (he defined "sequence" in a very personal and idiosyncratic way, and then berates other sources, including dictionaries, for getting it "wrong"), and would not particularly mind the following characterization:

The book is, I think, most usefully used as a device for prying open one's mind. It is a torrent of ideas, many of which will almost certainly seem completely outré, but they're all worth thinking about.

The weakest points of the book, unfortunately, are the tied up to the actual work presented. Mr. Smith's own content seems to be quite weak. He takes banal pictures and often does banal Art 101 things with them. His examples of sequence are usually quite forced and seem to originate with a particularly annoying branch of critical theory, the sort that finds Christ Figures in every novel, and is sure that every circle in a picture relates to every other circle in every other picture in some deep and meaningful way.

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes you actually need an idea.

But the ideas in this book are killer, even if the cited books are weak. If you're interested in presenting work in book form, you should read this thing, and throw out whichever 90% doesn't do it for you. But keep the rest.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Alain Briot on Composition

So here's an interesting piece: How This Photograph Was Made. It's probably not interesting in the way Alain means it to be, though.

In the piece we see Alain's process. He goes around shooting a bunch of material, and then tries to make sense of it after the fact.

Then, to my astonishment, he uses the Golden Spiral, Golden Ratio, and Rule of Thirds overlays in Lightroom to judge the success of his compositions. This is a guy who actually went to Art School. You'd think he'd know better.

As an aside, some things I've noted earlier in this blog: all this Golden Whatever, Rule of Thing stuff is very new and only photographers pay the slightest attention to any of it. Because it is all BS.

Having followed this process, Alain winds up with what appears to my eye to be a jumbled mess.

This strikes me as an object lesson in bad working methods. Shooting without knowing where you're going generates raw material that isn't going anywhere. Then if you judge your results with ridiculous overlays you're sure to wind up nowhere.

I can pretty much visualize how the composition overlays are focusing Alain's attention on the things he imagines are important, and taking it away from the pointless mess that makes up the bulk of the frame. He's got the hotel and the battleship in the right spots, he's got some foreground and some background. What else is there?

Then, hilariously, Alain drones on for a few hundred words about not doing what he's just done.

I don't much like Alain's work, but this seems particularly egregious. I cannot help but wonder if this is all a bit of satire, an intentional demonstration of terrible methods. Alain actually can make a well organized frame, albeit still not a very interesting one.

Friday, November 13, 2015


I recently took Mr. Thein to task for something he said about sharp tools. Obviously my motivation was that I am an asshole. However, there is a rationalization here. This is bad pedagogy, and promotes a myth that is prevalent in photographic circles. Mr. Thein claims to be all about education, so taking him to task is reasonable, here.

If you want to learn to play the piano, I can tell you immediately what piano to buy. You should purchase an older American made grand piano, rebuilt to the highest standard, with ivory keytops. Steinway is always a solid choice, but Chickering, Knabe, and a few others are also excellent if you select the year of manufacture with a little care. The rebuild is because that's the only way to get ivory. An acceptable alternative is a new concert grand.

Go for the 9 footer if possible. This is the best instrument you can obtain, and it's going to cost you about 100 grand. But it's the right tool for the rank beginner, because it will fight you the least. Of course, budget may be an issue. Do not get an upright or a digital, the actions can be truly excellent, but they're simply not grand piano actions, and grand piano actions are better. Do not get anything under 6 feet long, the tone in the bass is going to be muddy, it's physics, and that's going to interfere with your ability to hear clearly what you're playing.

The same applies to cameras. I used to own a Bender 4x5, and while a perfectly serviceable camera, the Sinar F1 I have now is simply better. It fights me less.

For decades the canonical starter camera was in fact a superb instrument. Simple, robust, well made. The K-1000, the FE2, and so on. These cameras fought the user almost not at all, they did a simple job well, and more or less transparently. They were perfect for the beginner. And just fine for the expert.

It is only now that we decree the beginner should start with a Nikon D3300 or the Canon Rebel Whatever. These are infernally complex machines, and I think in fact wildly inappropriate for the beginning. They're a weird and confusing mixture of unsophisticated "scene modes" and powerful advanced autofocus and exposure modes that even experts have trouble fully grasping.

But we have to start out cheap, and then only when we're "ready" can we move up to the sharp tool that is the D810, or 5DMkIV or whatever?

This is madness. The proper tool for the beginning is neither end of the scale, but an imaginary and much simpler machine. Given the reality of what is available, I suspect that the more Professional models, with fewer helper modes, would be better. I was a beginner back in the Good Olde Dayes, and am not any more, so I cannot be sure.

All, up, the beginner is going to have trouble with any of these instruments without a helpful mentor to tell them to stick it in Av (or M) with a center weighted meter, and leave it there for a year. Since that's the proper path anyways, it probably doesn't matter which you get.

No matter how you slice it, the myth that you have to be ready before getting a good camera is a myth, a very modern myth, and it deserves to be savagely kicked in the face every time it pops up.

But I'm still kind of a jerk.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Art, Kitsch, Subjectivity, and All That

These are themes I've written about in the past, and I feel like taking another whack at them. The interested reader can probably search the archives to find if I've changed my mind. Me? I am a forward-looking man! The past is the past.

Oft-repeated theme: art is all subjective anyways. False. Art is not subjective. Nor is it objective. There is a lovely word specifically invented to describe what it is: intersubjective which is, more or less, "something like subjective, except people seem to agree with one another about it". In practice, it means rough social consensus.

Oft-repeated theme: why don't people like good photos?

This one can be unpacked a little. Photographers are often heard to, roughly, divide photographs up into three categories:
  • Poncy Art Crap that only faggots from New York City like.
  • Garbage snapshots on facebook etc.
  • The pictures my friends and I like.
which is really to divide the world up in to:
  • Faggots from NYC. FfNYC.
  • Unwashed ignorant pigs.
  • Me and my friends.
which isn't very charitable. Still, we all tend to do this, don't we? There's always us and them, and we can generally divide "them" up into the fancy ones and the dirty ones.

Let's all take a moment and resolve to try to do better. ... ok, there.

So we have the idea of intersubjectivity, which tells us that a "good" photograph is something that some group somewhere more or less agrees is "good". If you like you can play games with measuring the size of the group. If it's pretty much just you and your friends, or pretty much just FfNYC, well, that means something, doesn't it? Not that many people like whatever it is. Which may or may not be a good thing.

Let me take a moment for an aside. I think that the Poncy Art that only Faggots Like is actually much more accessible than people make out. I think that the common man, of which I am an example, can get something out of practically anything if they simply apply themselves a little. Read the artist's statement, which will be ridiculous, yes. But struggle with it a little and try to get something from it, and look at the piece or the exhibit in that light. What are the ideas here? Stop fussing about the fact that it was painted with poop for a moment, and look with an open mind.

Which brings us, circuitously, around to the other axis which is ideas. There's kitsch and decor which are typically short on ideas and long on looks. Kitsch actually has ideas, often, they're just not ideas about society or humanity or the infinite, they're ideas about what things can be glued to other things. At the other end we have the Poncy Art which is long ideas and often short execution these days. And then there's all the stuff in the middle.

There's also Dada and so on which tries to avoid ideas, in a sense, but fails. "Has no ideas in it" is an idea. So there.

With all this stuff in play, there's really no point in judging something good or bad. Those words are meaningless, or rather have so many potential meanings as to be pointless.

You can say "I don't think this piece has any ideas" and "I think this piece is poorly executed" and "I think the colors in this piece would go remarkably well with my couch". These are factual statements about your internal state, and as such are not really open to debate.

Because we are humans and are indeed plugged in to our society, and are good guessers about what other people might think, we can extend these factual statements about ourselves to firm opinions, well-educated guesses, about what other will think. "I don't think many people will find any interesting ideas in this piece" is a statement you can make, if you're careful. It's not quite the same as "I don't find any ideas", you have to expand your mind a little. I, for one, have seen many pieces where I got little or nothing, but felt it possible that others might. I have seen many more pieces where I am convinced that the reason I see no ideas is because there aren't any.

Similarly you can say "I cannot imagine there is a couch in the world this goddamned thing would go with" and so on. Generalization from the personal to some broader scope is something that we are unreasonably reliable at, what with our big fat brains. We're not 100%, which is why we think of generalization as a bad idea, but we're much much much better than random. So, generalize away, just hedge a trifle, because nobody's 100%.

It is the intersubjectivity of Art and related things that lets this work. If Art were truly subjective, then generalization would not work. Since it is a social consensus, we, as members of society are both accurate guessers as to that consensus, and also contributors to that consensus.

So, judge away. But your judgement should be your personal experience of whatever it is, and then a considered and careful generalization of that.

Can't leave this one alone

Over here in a I Am So Sad and People Are So Mean post from Mr. Thein, we see a remarkable statement with respect to photography and the tools thereof:
The sharper the tools, the more likely you are to cut yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing.

In the first place, what on earth has this to do with photography? If you get a Really Good Camera, you're actually more likely to make bad or unsatisfying pictures? Huh? This is something that sounds wise, but it actually ridiculous.

As a guy who's actually used sharp tools of various sorts, I would also like the record to show that this is also completely false in a literal sense. You are much less likely to cut yourself with very sharp tools.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


I spend a lot of time bitching about pundits on the internets, while at the same time promoting my own ideas as if they were obvious facts.

Disclosure the first: I am aware of the essential absurdity here. I am perfectly aware that anything I say might be utter BS, and you should be as well. Of course, it's my best effort, and I think it's true at moment I write it. Flesh being flesh, and me being made largely out of it, I am fallible.

Disclosure the second: I make a little money from this blog. Unlike all the other pundits who do it because they love photography, and the affiliate links are just there to pay a few trivial expenses, I actually make money. I have this book (see Schwag) and I've made something closing in on $200 selling it over the last few years, which is 100% of my gross income from all things photographic.

Disclosure the third: There always have to be three disclosures. Also, I change my mind a lot. Things said with absolutely authority, as facts, on one day may be repudiated as ridiculous on another. See Disclosure the first.

I think I have better ideas than most of those guys out there, because I'm smarter, I'm prettier, and I read a lot more. Mostly, I read a lot more. That kind of gives me a 150 year head start on guys who are trying to invent it all from first principles, and also lets me simply steal ideas from much smarter people who helpfully wrote them down.

But your mileage may vary. All I can, and all I do, promise you here is your money's worth.


My favorite internet pundit has written a piece on ambiguity in photography. As usual, he's got the highest word:idea ratio on the internet, but as happens from time to time, he's on to something.

Ambiguity is a good thing to keep in mind. The idea is, and this is clearly his idea as well, to leave space for the viewer's imagination. As with all Art, it's as much about creating space for the viewer's conception of the piece as it is about the ideas embedded in the piece.

Ming's problem is that he started here, and then got lost in "How to use DoF to obscure the details of objects" which is to completely miss the point. Sure, making the literal objects in the frame unclear can be useful, but it's not the only way to create space for the imagination. A good portrait might be sharp, fully lit, leaving absolutely nothing in the frame anything less than fully visible. There are no mysteries as to what you're looking at. And yet, yet, the expression of the sitter, what is she thinking?

See also the Mona Lisa.

Whether you choose to obscure what one might choose to describe as The Facts of the Frame is usually almost irrelevant. Who cares if the building in the background is a skyscraper or just a pylon? Absent other reasons to think it's important, the viewer will assume it's irrelevant, not mysterious. Blurring out irrelevant details does not create space for the imagination, generally.

Mystery and ambiguity are potent tools, yep. But it's the mystery and ambiguity in the picture that matters, not the objects within (or left out of) the picture.

As always, worry about the endpoint rather then the point 2 feet down the path.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Review: Unhinged at the Whatcom Museum

Here in Bellingham we have what I would describe as a "surprisingly good" art museum. Which, given that Bellingham is quite a small place, means "a not very good art museum." They try pretty hard, though, and they do a good job with what they can get, which is pretty local and tends to be more on the high end "craft" end of things. Knotwork (macrame) and stuff.

Anyways, they did this show on book art. There's very little photography in this show, but I am interested lately in the intersection of books, book structure, and photography, so in my mind this show is related to my little blog here. Your mileage may vary.

Here's the thing about book art. It's all over the bloody place. Half the people doing it are just chopping up "found books" into new shapes. It's sculpture that happens to be made with books. (One piece in the show was actually some wooden sculptures that were simply in the shape of books -- we do a lot of wooden sculpture up here in the PNW, and it's often kitschy.)

The other half are making actual books with interesting structures (folding books of various sizes and shapes, and so on). Most of those people haven't got much in the way of content. They've got an idea for a structure, and then they jam some stuff into it. Crummy poetry they wrote. Good poetry from someone else. A bunch of scribbles.

A very few people have a good way to marry a non-traditional structure to some good content in a way that supports and enhances both. Of the 70 pieces in this show there were maybe a five that really managed it, I think.

There were some quite beautiful structures in play. There was a table of stuff you could manipulate and play with, which was nice, but most of the books were simply displayed. For obvious reasons the patrons couldn't handle them, but several of them could not be fully made sense of without being able to see some of the content, inevitably obscured by the static display. This is unfortunate.

I enclose some pictures of things I thought were noteworthy, with some remarks. This is my no means the whole show, and I regret not photographing one piece bound venetian blind style. The book is a couple photos of water, and the book itself flows like water when handled (as a real venetian blind does, kind of, if you hold it in your hand -- but much moreso, the design is excellent and appropriate). They had a video, which was mesmerizing. It's like a slinky, only made of slats, and it looked almost alive.

The show's greeting sign. Simple, cute. Welcome to my review!

Here are some legitimately beautiful and/or interesting structures. This one has little cards with pictures of ships tucked in, and the strings both hold the cards in place and form a sort of three-dimensional binding. I dare say there's something conceptual going on here, but it's forced and feels like someone wanted to make a folding book with strings all over, and just crammed some cool looking stuff into it. But the structure itself is quite neat.

This is a folding book bound together in a french door binding. The content is some graphics which, while perfectly amiable, don't seem to mean anything, together with a very short story about a beautiful staircase which you have to follow from one side of the book to the other, line by line. Unfortunately I don't think it was possible to read the last few lines of the story, given the display. But the staircase motif is nicely reflected in the book.

This is just a beautiful thing. I think it's called "Clematis" which fits very nicely. But it's basically a paper sculpture. If there's more content, I missed it.

We're beginning to get into some beautiful structures with good content, here. This is a foldbook, but each folding section also opens out like a double door to reveal another layer. The content throughout is these round shield-like drawings (there's probably a technical term for these) which combine iconography from various places to make a sort of conceptual history of the universe.

There's a three ring binder you can flip through that explains it all, which is arguably unfortunate. What kind of book needs another book to tell you what it's about?

Pretty sure someone wanted to make a book that folded out into a compass rose, and so they filled it up with salty nautical lore. The points of the compass form categories of lore, and the lore, stories, and so on are drawn and printed all other the various folds and shapes. It's a beautiful object (and really quite large, 8 feet, 10 feet across?) and the subject matter works. One can be drawn in reading it. It also is readable, more or less, in a museum setting. Some of the content in the center was hard to see.

The next two photos are of a folding book that was probably my favorite. It contains photographs and a short story about a childbirth in a small house occupied by what we might identify by the literary trope "poor black folk." The story is told from the point of view of a small child who doesn't know what's going on. It's quite touching, and more importantly it's actual writing.

Without judging the merit of the writing per se, I can say that it's a real short story that takes place and and around a small house. The book echoes the content beautifully, and nothing feels forced. The structure of the book doesn't have to be a house, it's just a folding book with some extra folds. The story and the book come together well.

And you can read the whole story while the book is on display.

This is a sculpture, pure and simple. There's some vague nod to "well the books I used to make this thing are some sort of social commentary blah blah also books look kind of like marble when you laminate them!" in the description, which struck me as a bunch of complete BS. It's not a terrible sculpture of whoever it is. I am remembering Chopin or Liszt, but it looks nothing like either of those guys, so I hope it's someone else. Plus, books DO look a bit like marble when you do this to them.

This is a simple and powerful structure. Fold a piece of paper in half. Then fold that into a foldbook at 90 degrees to the first fold (the first fold is the top edge, in this picture). Then, if you like, slit along that first fold in a couple of places (this one has two slits, which allow the reader to invert the pages on one side to create those square openings as seen from above).

I feel like this could be used for cyclical works that you want to allow some remixing of, since you can choose to see the pages in a few different ways, and the foldbook naturally wraps around to its "back" side, which then becomes a front side.

This is cute but ridiculous. It's a curio shelf that someone's filled with tiny pretend books. If they were real books, that would be something, but as it is, it's just kitsch. Albeit, book-themed kitsch.

Here's an almost interesting book. Plexiglass pages bound together with cord codex-style, with a grid etched on each page. The grid expands or contracts as you "read" the book, and at any given time you've got part of the book visible recto all overlapping, and the rest of the book verso. Smith likes transparency and he's got a point.

I don't think this book succeeds in doing anything interesting with its structure, though. It's just a bunch of stacked grids in the end. Maybe if I could leaf through it myself it would make sense? But I doubt it, it feels like someone said "cool structure!" and spend 10 seconds inventing some content to show off the structure.

This thing might or might not be excellent, we can't tell, because we can't turn the pages. It's clearly a case of "I will bind some giant sheets of metal codex-style, and put art on them!" and the art might be excellent or not. The one we can see looks OK, but it'll live or die by whether or not the other pages have anything good and related on them.

Props to the museum for pulling together a "book art" show at all. This isn't the kind of thing we see enough of.

There are some basic challenges to this kind of thing, firstly that a lot of book art sucks, and secondly that books are inherently meant to be handled. So, bold move to give it a try, and I think they were pretty successful in the end. I enjoyed the show, and will likely return to take it in again before it closes up.

If you're in Bellingham, go check it out! Almost no photography in it, but books are good too!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Market Research and The Pundit Class

Pundits out there periodically write position pieces detailing all the stuff they would do if they ran a camera company. They have all the answers, somehow, without having done any actual research. They just know, because they are awesome. Sometimes they refer to vague sources, their readers, that sort of thing.

Do me a favor, please. It's not a big one.

When you come across some joker pulling this gag, suggest mildly that they start a market research firm. These guys all have substantial followings, after all. Those mysterious readers actually do exist.

They could borrow a book on how to construct a good poll from the library, and read it. Then, from time to time, they could construct a poll, and they collate the results into report.

Then sell these reports to the camera companies.

This is in fact a totally doable business model for these guys. They could absolutely glean valuable data with a handful of well designed polls each year, and I'm pretty sure that if they demonstrated competence, they'd get sales. And they might even get a chance to influence design a bit.

Why don't they?

Beautiful Tones

When a socially popular photographer puts up a black and white photograph in one of his usual haunts, he will invariably get positive feedback in the form of the dreaded 'beautiful tones' compliment.

I've been noodling this morning on what this could possibly mean, and I am damned if I can work it out. Taken literally it's violently stupid, of course. 'I love your zone VI grey especially.' I suppose I have to reject that as an interpretation, however appealing.

I think that, if pressed, the writer of the remark would probably babble a little about liking the way the light is rendered or something similarly near-meaningless.

I'm pretty sure that what it really means is 'I like you and wish to pay you a compliment.' There is a further corollary that the reviewer has not really looked at the picture. Sure, they glanced at it, maybe even trained their eyes on it for a handful of seconds.

What they saw, though, was a bundle of expectations. They looked, and what they perceived was a bundle of good feelings they have about the photographer. They've probably seen many pictures from this fellow. Each of those pictures has passed very lightly across their vision. Each picture has left a gentle impression. The things the photographer says, and what other people say have likewise left an impression. All told, in this case, the impressions are good, of a talented and capable photographer, and so the commenter reaches for the standard stock phrase of positivity.

The point is that the chap who says 'beautiful tones' isn't expressing personal judgement, but rather agreement with a social consensus.

... and that in turn is driven by the fact that people don't really look at pictures, and are therefore not really judging the picture.

This is not to indict these people, this is merely to identify them as people. We all do this.

For whatever reasons, the person who says 'beautiful tones' has nothing to say beyond a generically positive feeling. It's a way of saying 'I like it' without sounding like a rube.

Anyways. This is just an example of the truth that people don't look at pictures any more than they look at anything else. We glance, get a couple of cues, and the visual cortex fills in the rest with whatever it has lying around.

I'm not sure how one can train oneself to actually look. I know it's important, and I'm pretty sure I can do a decent job at it if I apply myself. I assume, without any real information, that looking at a lot of pictures is part of the process.

This flows, finally, into an important question: what on earth can you do about it?

Shows and monographs aren't going to do it. The people who choose to look will, and the rest will pass trivial judgments based on the artist's reputation and some minor features (How saturated? How sharp? Are the subjects attractive? Are there any cues that this is Weighty And Important, and how do I feel about Important Art today?)

I have some theories in progress about books. I'm reading Keith A. Smith, about which and whom more anon, and I am thinking about these things. I think there's something to do with repetition and structure that might be able to cause people to, in their light and superficial viewing, to still get a more thorough impression of what you're doing, and thereby judge based more on the work and less on the surrounding gestalt.

My goal, I think, is not to use the book to further explicate the subtle depth of ideas in my work (there aren't any subtle depths) but rather to use the book form as a blunt instrument to further flog my coarse, simple, ideas into the consciousness of the unsophisticated reader! I am the dumb thug of Art Photography.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

"Skin Work"

Sounds obscene. And it is, but not in the way you're thinking.

Something wannabe fashion photographers seen to be obsessed with is their skin work. They seemingly spend all day turning their hapless models into plastic dolls and complimenting one another on their ability to do so.

The technique du jour is frequency separation, where you simply crush all the detail at the spatial frequencies where blemishes occur. At first glance the results are like friggin' magic.

Flipping through a fashion mag right now with a lot of high end photography. Here's the interesting thing: skin has good detail, interesting and important detail, at all spatial frequencies.

Do it with makeup, once, rather than botching it all up in shot after shot in Photoshop.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Cadence III

I posted some photos a little while ago. A "motif".

I'm not sure if it's obvious, or ever will be even remotely clear to anyone but me, and I don't even know if it matters, but there is a plan here.

The five pictures are, roughly, of 3 different kinds. Call the kinds A, B, and C. The cadence in my motif is ABABC, and by numbering the pictures we could say A1 B1 A2 B2 C1, five different pictures of three kinds. I think of it as kind of Pa-ping/Pa-ping/THOOOOM. The overall plan for the book looks something like this:

The A's are all on the verso page, on the left, and the B's are all on the recto page, right. The Cs generally stand recto against a blank verso, except the first one which is verso against a blank recto. The first and last Cs are bookends, facing into the content, bracketing and containing it. The other Cs are the final beat in a repetition of the motif, and are emphasized (THOOOM) by standing alone recto.

The C photos might all be the same C1, that goblin/spirit shape (which is actually a contemporary totem pole from one or another of the Salish tribes). I'm going to go back and reshoot the object, and may wind up using several variations, but i definitely want that as a repeated, anchoring, visual. It's central to the idea, as well, I think, so using it a bunch feels right. The As and Bs will, according to the plan, evolve, in some fashion to be determined. There will probably be some repetition.

This looks like a poem, and that is quite deliberate.

As I read more about "book art" I find that book artists tend to get carried away with structure, building incredibly beautiful and complex objects with utterly uninteresting content.

My plan here is, well, to not do that. I want structure and content to balance and complement one another. Repetition of actual photographs, as well as kinds of photographs will, I hope, make it easier for the unprepared reader to make sense of it.

One consequence of having this plan, approximate and malleable as it is, is that it will direct shooting pretty explicitly. I need a bunch of As, Bs, and a handful of Cs, right? And the Cs are easy, since they're all, by intention, very much the same. I need some breadth in As and Bs, to allow me to pull out some sensible evolution that means something (I have some ideas here, but they're even more vague and approximate than the rest of this scheme).

Baby steps. I predict that I'll look back on this thing years from now and laugh.

Friday, November 6, 2015

ETTR is Dumb

Here's another amusing use case.

You've got your new camera with ETTR mode set up to shoot that way, because some pundit says it's the best way to expose.

You're at the beach, the sun is setting. You've got the 70-200/2.8 mounted, because that's the lens the pundit told you to buy. You're shooting, it's great, you're zooming, you're zooming.. and the camera stops working. WTF.

What just happened? Is the customer happy with their new camera?


The point here is that there is a world of difference between shooting ETTR by hand, and in programming a camera to do it. There are issues that are gonna turn up, which are not trivial to solve, and all the talk about "blah blah blinkies EVF" won't make them go away. This is probably why Internet Pundits are not system architects, and I am. Well, have been, but that's another story.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


Expose To The Right. Often cited as a desirable exposure mode that camera companies willfully refuse to implement because they are dumb and don't listen to photographers. Let us set aside the fact that ETTR is a dumb idea.

Let's actually consider this. What would it take?

What is it? Well, usually the pundit will say that the camera should select the greatest exposure which will blow out at most some percentage (which translates trivially into some number) of pixels. Question: Before or after Bayer de-mosaic? Question: What do the error bars looks like? If the camera should blow no more than 10,000 pixels, does that mean plus or minus 10 pixels? Plus or minus 1000 pixels? Or do we insist on exactly 10,000 pixels?

How will the camera do this? Well, it has to take one or more exposures, and count blown pixels. If too many pixels are blown out, then the camera has to guess how much to reduce the exposure by. It can't calculate it, it has to guess, and try. The pixels are blown, we don't know by how much, after all. The built-in meter will probably help.

Let's suppose that the camera has a worst case of 5 guesses to get close enough to meet the criteria. At a 60 fps frame rate (let's assume we can retask some of the video logic for this process), we're talking almost 1/10 of a second of lag here just to calculate the exposure. Oops. Note: the more precisely we want to manage the number of blown pixels, the more test exposures we're going to need, with consequences that flow through the system.

How will we do these calculations? We're not going to chew through 5 frames of 24 megapixels each with some dippy little micro-controller, it's got to be the image processing engine. Question: Can we program the engine to count blown pixels? Question: Is there a way to get the count of blown pixels out of the image processing engine into the exposure control logic? Note: If either answer is no then we need to be looking at some new features in the next generation image processing chip, and ETTR exposure mode is impossible in this generation.

So now we're processing frames. We can reduce the shutter lag by doing rolling exposure estimation, but now we're running the image processing engine constantly, draining the batteries at a brisk clip. Question: How can we best architect this to give acceptable shutter lag performance in most cases, without excessively compromising battery life?.

So our best case development plan here involves several design meetings sorting out exactly what the feature actually does, how it works, and how to balance the various compromises. All compromises will produce noticeable shutter lag at least some of the time, and will reduce battery life by some degree. Let us assume that we do not need to build a new chip.

Next up is writing software for both the main processor (menus, settings and so on), some software for actually setting exposure, some software for the image processing engine to do the heavy lifting.

Then there's the manuals and the QA and the manufacturing and the translations and the reviews and all that stuff.

I am not seeing this as less than 1 month of full-time-equivalent staff time, assuming it's even doable inside the current camera architecture. A week from this guy, a day there from her, a couple days over there. A month is a light estimate.

An FTE (full-time-equivalent) that this level runs a fully loaded cost of something like $150,000 to $300,000 a year (salary, benefits, rent on office space, janitorial services, depreciation on computers and furniture, insurance, etc) so a month is going to run you $12,500 to $25,000, roughly. You need to recover that in profits, and since you're not running a commune here you need a multiplier on that, so you need to see a reasonable potential for something like $40,000 to $100,000 in profits. Assuming that you're looking at gross margins of something like 30%, you need to see $120,000 to $300,000 in sales (to the dealers, call it $150,000 to $350,000 retail). If it takes 2 months instead of 1, or you need to redo a chip, you could be getting into "a million bucks, retail" territory, which is 100s of bodies.

Now, when you do release this thing, the people who clamored for it will, you can be assured, complain loudly about the shutter lag and battery life issues introduced by ETTR, and urge their readers to wait "for the second generation when they will have finally sorted out these critical issues, we (sigh) hope." So your actual increased revenue will be somewhere in the area of $0, plus or minus.

I dunno about you but I cannot for the life of me see why camera companies aren't rolling out this simple, obvious, feature.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Product Development

I feel a satire post coming on, but for now I am going to write up a standard speech I have in response to the oft-repeated "Nikon (Olympus, Canon) should do such-and-such because it's just a few lines of code in the firmware". I've built some products over the last 20, um, 22 years and a few months, so I know a little about this sort of thing. If I had 10,000 dollars for every time I've had to shoot down someone who said "Couldntayajust..." I'd be extremely rich.

Hat tip, obviously, to Kirk Tuck. It is not a coincidence that I am writing this post at this time.

Here's how that actually breaks down.

Someone has to define the feature. Like, really define what it does. Let's say you want the ability to assign adjustment of the Frob parameter to a wheel. The Frob parameter exists and is adjustable, but you just can't assign it to a wheel. Simple. A few lines of code.

Which way does the wheel go to make the parameter go up? When you reach the end of the range, what happens, is there an indicator somewhere? How much does one click adjust the parameter? Do we do it on all platforms, or just the ones with at least two wheels? Or three?

You've got to decide these things. So, someone spends a little time thinking it through and writing down some sensible answers, and one or two people who know what's going on review that and make sure it's complete and not insane.

Oh, and now you need the exact text for a menu item. And you'll need a menu item, as well.

Don't forget, someone has to translate the menu item into all the supported languages. And someone has to review the translations to make sure they make sense.

Ok, now we can write some code! For the feature. And the menu item. And don't forget to include it in the "reset to factory defaults" logic, and any custom settings logic, and so on.

Someone has to QA it. But before that, someone has to write it into the test plan. Someone has to translate the detailed definition of the feature into testable attributes, and update the right parts of the most likely several plans with specific tests to make sure that the feature works as defined. On all supported platforms, including those with 1, 2, 3 wheels and the associated possibly different behaviors.

Better update the manual too. And review it. And translate it. And review the translations.

Do we need to test this thing in manufacturing? If so, someone's got to write the section of the manual the manufacturers use, and update the test jigs on the manufacturing floor to allow it to be tested. And review all this. And translate it. And review the translations. And finally build it.


Any feature, no matter how small, the smallest most atomic feature imaginable is going to unpack into a week or two of staff time. If you're lucky.

Ok, so you decide to do that. What are we going to drop to make room for this? We can either slip the schedule a little, or we can drop some other work we were going to do.

Your little "few lines of code" feature not only has to generate revenue to cover the week, or two weeks, or year of staff time. It has to generate more revenue than something that's already in the plan. You actually have to be able to move some serious cameras on the basis of this thing.

You would be astonished at the number of times the correct answer is "look, show me a million bucks in revenue and we'll talk, otherwise the numbers simply don't work". I know I'm astonished, and I am sometimes the guy that runs the numbers, at least roughly.

It turns out there's a whole discipline devoted to working out what to include in the plan, when. It's called Product Management, and you can go to school to learn it. And I am fairly confident that Nikon, Canon, Olympus, and all the other camera makers have entire staffs of people who are in fact experts in this discipline, and they're probably making pretty good choices.

It is not in fact true that they don't listen to photographers. They probably read your blog, and they put some of the ideas into the hopper. Not all ideas get implemented, because resources are not infinite. They are, dramatically, finite, and the product management team's actual job is to deploy the finite resources in ways that are most likely to produce the most actual money.

Selling one camera to a pundit is not actual money in any meaningful sense. Even less money is generated when the pundit doesn't even buy the camera because of something else.

The Moment of Creation

As I was writing the previous remarks on Science I said to myself, 'self, this is a rambling mess' but I wasn't really able to rein it in. It's all part of the process. Sometimes my brain contains rambling messes.

After sleeping on it, I think it's really a rant against reductionism. A rant against the idea that photography can be broken down into small manageable parts which you simply assemble at need. Photography can indeed be broken up. It is useful to break it down like that, in fact. You have to know what the buttons do, after all.

The problem arises when you feel like that's all of it. If you can simply master or purchase the right parts, you will achieve victory. This is the fallacy.

This is the essence of the gearhead, but it goes well beyond gear. It's an attitude that's endemic. It's an attitude I wrestle with myself. I'm a mathematician, for crying out loud. Of course everything can be reduced to a few simple ideas, re-assembled at need into whatever you need! I spent nine years in university being taught, basically, that. I am fairly confident that we all of us suffer from it, not least because the camera companies, the books, the bloggers, and everyone else keeps hammering the idea.

Ultimately, if you want something good, you have to transcend the assemblage of parts. Your knowledge of aperture and composition, together with your Zeiss lens and Phase One body, will get you to a point.

Then you have to perceive something more, and leap. There's an instant when the subject of the portrait smiles just so. There is the moment when you see it, whatever it is. Perhaps it's not a moment but a gradual shift and the moment is really the one where you realize that you've had the answer all day.

John le Carré wrote several novels about a spy named George Smiley. The plots are all, in broad strokes, as follows:

Smiley reads files. Sometimes he goes and had a chat with someone. Smiley reads more files. Then he says 'oh. I see.' And then they go scoop up the bad guy. I love these books.

Photography, all of Art, and I suspect most creative disciplines, works much the same way. You fool around with the parts, often to no particularly visible purpose. Then at some point you say 'oh. I see.'

And then you go make the thing. Or at least you've got your starting point. Maybe you have a false start. But you've got something.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Science, She is Hard

When you're studying the brain there are, broadly, two approaches. One can start with the parts and the mechanisms, the neurons, ganglia, synapses, and all that crap, and try to build upwards. Alternatively, one can start from a high level, and observe what brains do when they're inside organisms.

Ideally, some day, the bottom-up and the top-down scientists meet in the middle and have The Answer. So far results are mixed. Ask the physicists how it's going, for instance. Or the biologists.

The first approach to Brains is, well, one could say it's in its early stages. Derek Lowe has an nice piece over on his blog. The executive summary is: there's this animal, a roundworm, with a 302 neuron brain and we have no idea how it works. We have some theories about how very small (e.g. 5) neuron clusters work. We're missing some fundamental thing, we're trying to understand a radio without knowing that inductance is a thing.

The second approach is working out very well indeed. We actually know an enormous amount about what the human brain does and how to manipulate it. We just don't have any idea how it does it it. We know, for instance, that one of the things human brains do extraordinarily well is model, estimate, what's going on in other human brains. We can, to a pretty fair degree, tell what other people are thinking. No, it's not perfect, it's not telepathy, but we're really good at reading body language and facial expressions and whatnot.

In even slightly broader strokes, we can characterize these two approaches as "how it works" and "what it does" or something similar.

There are several basic problems in cognitive science, rooted in the fact that we're studying the thing with the thing itself. One such problem is that the brain is a marvelously malleable thing, prone to suggestibility leading to errors.

This property makes this kind of science a little harder than other areas of science which are, just to review, incredibly hard to get right. Experimental science is a bitch, and almost all experiments performed are wrong and broken, not because the scientists are dumb but because science is really hard.

How does this apply to photography?

The two approaches apply here as well, with very similar results (largely because a lot of what's going on is cognitive science in disguise, being performed by dunderheads).

We have a lot of rules of composition, for instance. Every rule of composition suffers from the malleability of the brain. Once you learn about leading lines, you cannot help but observe that "they work". Whenever you notice such a thing in a picture, your thought process goes "aha, leading line" and your eyes obediently follow the leading line, because that's what you have learned happens, and then you judge the success of failure based on where your eyes land. When you do not notice the leading line, or there is none, you don't. By learning about leading lines, you have in a very literal sense destroyed your ability to judge their efficacy.

And so on for other rules of composition.

Actually doing science to determine what really works is hard, and nobody bothers with it. Instead, they make up arbitrary rules, teach their brains to like them, and start judging goodness based on the use of the arbitrary rules. Lo, their photographs magically "improve."

And on it goes through other facets of photography, we have people seriously doing lens reviews and taking pictures like this thing:

which looks like science, but since it's not actually measuring much of anything, is just a bunch of bullshit. Most of the test charts pasted to their stupid little wall are measuring an inextricable tangle of lens properties: field flatness, sharpness, and various aberrations.

If they're trying to produce measurements of interesting aspects of lens performance, they're failing because they're not handling flatness separately from other properties.

If they're instead trying to measure some holistic notion of how the lens will perform in real life, then they're providing very interesting data to people who exclusively photograph walls with test charts pasted on them.

These bozos think they're studying neurons and synapses, but they're not even doing that.

Anyways. Photography is rife with people, web sites, books, essays, and videos that try to get at photography from the bottom up. By making measurements and laying out rules of thumb, perhaps we can construct a good picture out of parts, and along the way understand how to do that as a general thing.

You might as well try to understand the human brain (and, in a way, you are). As you go along, you teach your brain to notice and approve of the Rule of Thirds. You teach your brain that when the EXIF data indicates a Zeiss lens, or a Leica body, the photograph just feels better, it has a certain je ne sais quois. You teach your brain, because brains are malleable, all about these largely invented, poorly measured, parts and bits and pieces. If everyone else were on board, it would probably work, but most non-photographers and a lot of actual photographers don't know any of this crap. They may have ruined their brains, but probably with gin.

To an extent it does work, inside your social circle. Your camera club has all been trained in the same balderdash, and so will approve of your Magic Triangle Composition shot with the Wunderkamera 5J12. The trouble is that nobody else will. The trouble is that everything you've learned is a veneer, and your animal brain still doesn't know any of that stuff, and your animal brain still doesn't much like your pictures because they're kind of shitty.

Ultimately what works is the top-down, holistic, approach. Set aside all that you know, and look. Is it good? If it looks good, it is good. By definition. If the picture looks good, the composition is good, the lens is good, the camera is good, the artist is good. If not, well, not. Reach out with your feelings, Luke.

Of course it's all a cultural construct, but by setting aside all the camera club internet forum pep your DSLR images pseudo-science, you can at least judge a picture in terms of your culture, instead of the weird alien culture of camera enthusiasts.