Lies, damned lies and photoshop

PSThis series of images has been making its way through the blogosphere recently,  I thought it was rather clever actually (setting aside the moral issues of vandalism/graffiti).  In case it isn’t obviously what it is – some clever soul took decals made to look like various Photoshop panels/tools and pasted them over public posters of celebrities/starlets… Presumably to critique the “phony” image that these (presumably Photoshopped) images portray.

and it got me thinking about one of the endless debates that rages eternally in the photo world – right up there with Canon v. Nikon, film v. digital, etc…

The ethics of Photoshop.

The question of photoshop is really the old philosophical question of “truth in photography”.   Must an image be “true” to be a photograph?   If so, how much can it be manipulated/changed/edited before it ceases to become a “photograph” an becomes something else altogether.   This is a debate that has raged from the first time a enterprising photographer dodged/burned/cropped a photograph in the darkroom to bring it more in line with his (or her) artistic vision.   On the one hand if we trust a photograph to be a direct representation of reality, then manipulating that image to any degree violates that truth by distorting the portrayal of reality.  On the other hand, we can argue that a photograph is never a “true” representation of reality by it’s very essence – it is inherently subjective and thus up to the photographer to use whatever tools are available to bring the image as close to their “vision” of reality as possible.   Quite the conundrum!

In short here’s how I see it It depends on what the purpose of your photography is. For something like photojournalism, which is generally trusted as a direct, non-editorialized portrayal of reality, the “Truth” of the image is paramount, Hence the stringent regulations against *any* level of image manipulation in the journalistic world, and the severe penalties issues to those who violate said regulations.    Of course the counter argument to that is the fact that any photograph is inherently subjective – simply by choosing what to include or not include in the photo, the photographer editorialized and “manipulates” the truth to some degree.   In the end we must simply come to a point where we say “close enough”.

However, outside of the realm of journalism, I believe that photography is art and, like any other form of art, is an expression of the artist’s unique vision.  To that end, I believe that manipulation is not only acceptable, it is desirable – the more tools available to the artist, the more fully his or her vision can be realized.    Fundamentally I consider myself an artist, and as such I love the freedom of expression that digital manipulation brings to my work.   I am able to conceptualize an image, create the groundwork for it with a camera and then manipulate it to fully realize my vision.   It is merely another step in the process of  concept->product.

Now on the other hand, when dealing with the type of glamor and fashion images portrayed in the above ads, there is a whole ‘nother ethical issue to consider, namely the image that said advertisements are portraying to their clientele.   Of course answering this begins to delve into the realm of personal politics, which is strictly off limits for this blog :-)

In the end, as with many philisophical questions there is really no “right” answer – so what do y’all think of said ads and their critique on image editing/manipulation?

Taking fewer pictures (part 2)

I didn’t originally intend for THIS ARTICLE to be a multi-part series, but THIS POST by none other than David Hobby got me thinking about it again.

DH talks about the “first frame” contest he and other sports shooter would play – in short each shooter would take the first frame on their roll (whatever it was) and whoever had the best action shot (this is sport shooting after all) would “win”.

Now this resonated with me because it touches on a skill that I think is very much related to my whole “taking fewer pictures” rant – and that is anticipating the shot.

The whole “first frame” contest is intriguing because it is a balancing act – snap too early and you might wind up with a boring shot, when there are more interesting ones down the pipe.   Snap too late, and you may miss the shot of the day.   The skill lies in being able to *predict*  when the action will happen, and where it will be – and nail it with your first shot.

Even if you aren’t a sport’s shooter (and I certainly am not), unless you are shooting food or still-lifes, your subjects are most likely dynamic – constantly in motion.  People certainly are, from street to fashion photography – they are constantly moving, walking, jumping, expressions changing etc… Even landscapes have a dynamic component – clouds shift, sunlight changes, trees blow, waves crash.   Pretty  much anything you can think of to photograph is in s constant state of flux.

Part of the art of great photography is learning how to track this ever changing motion and pace your shots accordingly.  Just seeing a great photo is not enough – by the time your brain has registered “oh that is a great shot”, sent the message to your hands which then have to aim the camera, focus and release the shutter, – chances are you’ve already missed “the decisive moment”.    The trick is to *know* when that moment *is about to happen*, so you are prepared – when “the shot” occurs you are already squeezing the shutter – without even having to think about it.  This applies from everything from anticipating when the sun will peek out from behind a cloud to when a model will turn her (or his) head to *just* the right spot – then *bam* you nail it.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert at this by any means, but I feel that it is a fundamental skill in the Art of photography that is in danger of falling by the wayside as more and more photographers fall back on the 10fps machine gun approach.  For me it is yet another thing that I try and practice every time I shoot, to make myself a better photographer.

Just more random musings…

The internet is awesome.

So I’m a Chase Jarvis Fanboy.  It’s true- the guy is like my photographic idol, not just for his photography per-se, but for his business acumen, his industry savvy, and the way he has managed to really build himself into a “brand”.  I think he is really doing great things for the contemporary photography industry as a whole, and driving some really great initiatives…

But to the point…

I was perusing the strobist flickr group, as is my wont – and I came across this post wondering how Chase managed to balance his strobe/ambient in creating some of the “frozen action” shots in his latest video.  After a couple of replies, who replies but the man himself, explaining exactly how the effects were achieved!

Honestly, how cool is that?  Sure, it may seem like a little thing, but the fact that you can basically have an open ended conversation, ask a question, and have it answered directly by the likes of CJ is just super cool.  Just went I start to get disillusioned by the endless flamewars and disinformation spread on internet forums, something like that comes along and reminds me of how the web can really bring people together to socialize and share knowledge in a way that would have been impossible less than 20 years ago…

Of course it also just points to how cool Chase is to hang out on forums and answer folks questions :-)  I decided to make sure that when I am that high-profile I will never become haughty or aloof and always be available to help folks out.  That’s what makes our industry great.

Buying knowledge…

I’ve been a big fan of the “Strobist” flickr forum, been following it pretty much since David Hobby started up his little blog :-) It was always a great place to pick the brains of some great photographers about lighting concepts, techniques, and yes even gear (although the slogan used to be “*less* gear, *more* brain…” hmmm). Recently though, it seems the focus of the group has shifted from discussions on controlling speculars and bright field lighting to “hey I have an xti and a 430ex and I want to do strobist stuff (whatever *that* means) what should I buy?”

To opine on the topic in a more general fashion, I would like to propose the following answer to most any “what should I buy” question.

Buy Knowledge.

when I look back at the evolution of my own skills as a photographer I cannot think of *any* instance were a particular piece of gear made a quantifiable difference in the quality of my photos. I can, however, directly attribute each and every improvement in my photography to *learning* or *understanding* something new.

To that end, the money I have spent on photo classes/seminars or even just having out watching more experienced photographers work has been exponentially more beneficial to me than any piece of gear. Sure the whole “it’s not the camera it’s the photographer” is cliched, but just look through flickr at the amount of absolute crap coming out of cameras like the d3 or 1ds… Folks are dropping 10k on gear who would make exponentially better images with an xti and spending the other 9k on a semester of photography classes at uni.

The bottom line is if you have a camera, you can make a picture. if you have a light you can light it (whether it’s a 20 year old vivitar or a profoto 7b). But you have to *know what* you want to make and *know how* to light it first. Once you do that, you will *know* what gear you need. Believe me, spending a weekend at a seminar with a serious photographer will improve you images so far beyond buying a 1D or set of profotos, it’s amazing.  It may not be as sexy as the latest toy, but when it comes down to it you just have to ask yourself – is it the gadgets, or is it the images? (and don’t get me wrong, I’m as much of a gadget-head as the next guy!)

If you *think* you need more gear to make better images, you don’t – you need more knowledge.  If you *know* you need a specific piece of gear for a specific application, well then by all means go crazy :-)

end rant.

I hate the 24-70/2.8

…Ok, so that’s a bit of a sensationalist headline.  I don’t really hate it.  But I’m going to offer a bit of a contriarian view on the much venerated “fast zoom” type lens.   On pretty much any photgraphy fourm/discussion a question that pops up all the time is “I’m looking to upgrade from my “kit” lens, what is a good choice”.   Invariably the responses will point toward the traditional “fast normal zoom”, ie a 24-70/2.8 or the like.

I, on the other hand prefer a slow zoom (high quality and still constant aperture, such as Canon’s F/4L lenses) and a fast prime.

Consider:
Point 1: f/2.8 is one stop faster than f/4.   In other words, the difference between bumpring your iso from 200->400 (or 400-800 etc…)  Us digital photographers sometimes forget how spoiled we are… back in the day we needed every bit of speed we could get out of our glass, as film speed was often the limiting factor.  Anyone remember shooting film past ASA400?  got grainy pretty fast didn’t it :-)   These days I will shoot my 5d at 3200 without even blinking.  And it’s only getting better from there!   Considering that an f/4 zoom is a)smaller/lighter b)greater range (24-105mm vs 24-70), I would much rather bump my iso one stop than carry the extra bulk/weight of a 2.8 zoom around all day.   Not to mention that when using strobes/lights, I’m generally working at f/4-5.6 maximum, it’s only available (low) light that demands fast glass which leads me to my second point.

point 2: in my experience, when I need low light capability *i need low light capability*, and in those cases even f/2.8 won’t cut it.   A f/1.4 lens gives you a *3 stop* advantage over an f/4 zoom (and 2 stops even over a 2.8!) – that’s the same as going from 200-1600ISO, not insignificant! or consider the low light potential of a 1.4 lens on one of the new bodies capable of doing ISO12,800 or even 25,600 – now we’re getting into the “EV -crazydark” territory.  Not to mention that at f/2.8 the prime is already stopped down two stops, while the zoom is still wide open, which will generally give you better edge to edge quality.

Ok, so maybe I’m a bit biased, as I am a “prime guy”, but I think a lot of folks underestimate the potential of the humble fixed focal length lens.  The classic 50/1.4 is a surprisingly flexible lens that can yield a huge variety of perspectives simply by taking a few steps forward or back.

Some will respond that it’s the combination of flexibility and speed that makes the 2.8 appealing, but to me it seems like you sort of get shorted on both ends – it’s not fast enough to be *really fast* and not flexible enough to preclude frequent lens switching.

(and before the hate mail starts, yes I’ve used the fast zooms plenty. Yes they are great lenses, and yes, maybe if I were a dedicated wedding shooter I’d change my mind.  All I’m saying is that there are other alternatives!)

Thoughts on Photokina ’08

Now that Photokina is all wrapped up something occurred to me – I can’t say I was really all that excited about it.  Surprising, as Photokina is usually the main “gear lust inspiring” event out there, and you can practically hear the mobs of photographers panting and salivating over each new announcement.  And sure there was some pretty cool stuff this year – (Olympus micro-four-thirds prototype? – Awesome.  5DmkII? – sweet.  The new paradigm of video on SLRs? – very interesting development.)  Overall though, it was just kind of like “oh yeah, new gear…”

I dunno, maybe it’s the economy or maybe I’m just becoming one of those crotchety old photographers who is more concerned with light and composition than with gear :-)  I think as is common with many photographers as our skills and experience improve, our interest in gear for the sake of gear decreases.  I’ve been doing this long enough that I know what I want out of a camera (high quality, light weight, fast wide glass- particularly primes) and I’m happy with what I’ve got.

I’ll probably take a hard look at the olympus “pseudo rangefinder” micro four thirds camera when it comes out (probably not for another year is my guess) but for now I just want to go out and take pictures :-)

Printing – Digital vs. Film and a paradigm shift.

I love prints, especially large prints.

one of the downsides
to me of digital imaging is that it lends itself to *not* printing your
work. Back in the “olden days” of film negatives, you *had* to print –
there was no image other than the print (I’m not counting slides) This
of course had downsides of it’s own – prints take up space, and are
harder to catalogue

but with the advent of digital, I feel like
more and more people are simply chosing not to print their images,
sharing them electronically via the internet and photosharing sites
etc…

And in some ways this is great. it is convenient, it
is quick, it is easy and it doesn’t cost anything. Prints are somewhat
more time consuming (if you do them yourself), require physical storage
space, and cost money.

but there is something wonderful about
the experience of looking at a rich 16″x20″ print, nicely matted and
framed that simply cannot be replicated by staring at a computer
monitor.

Another advantage to printing is that digital noise and grain is not
*nearly* as offensive in prints as it is viewed 100% on a computer
screen. I hate it when someone will rant on and on about minute
differences in noise performance between x camera and y camera and iso
settings etc… and when I ask them how it looks in prints they admit
that they never actually *print* these images. Arrrrgh.

So do it! make some prints! there is no reason not too, it’s as easy
as uploading a file to mpix or such and ordering. Photobooks are good
too. it is simply amazing to me that I can get a nicely printed and
bound book of my photograhs for < $20. (I’ve been pretty impressed
with blurb) I feel like it’s pretty much made the old-school 4×6 print
album obsolete.

With so many options available, making printing easier than ever it is really a shame not to print your work!

On Photography and The Phantom Tollbooth

This is a story about why I take pictures. (one of the many reasons!)

At some point in our evolutions as photographers, I’m sure we have all said to ourselves “Why am I doing this?” What drives us to grab our cameras in the morning along with our jacket and shoes and make photographs?

What drives us to attempt to transcend the realm of the “snapshot” and to create “art” with our cameras?

The answer to this is as individual and unique as all of us – we each have our own answer(s), so allow me to share one of mine.

Whenever I ask myself that question (or someone else asks me!) the first thing that pops into my head is “The Phantom Tollbooth”

To explain: “The Phantom Tollbooth” is a book by Norton Juster, one of my favorite books when I was a child. It is ostensibly about a discontent young boy who one day discovers a mysterious tollbooth in his room, driving through which takes him into a strange “Alice-in-Wonderland” style alternate reality. All of his adventures however are rich with allegory, social commentary, satire and even philosophical and mathematical discussions on the nature of life and the universe. It is one of those childrens books that can still be appreciated by adults for it’s depth of meaning and richness of language and concept.

In particular when I think about why I photograph, I recall a particular chapter in the book that made a profound impact on me when I was young.

The passage begins with Milo (the protagonist) coming upon what appears to be a bustling metropolis – people running here and there, going to work, going home – busy busy busy. The strange thing is that there doesn’t seem to be any “city” visible – no buildings, no parks, no cars, nothing – they people are just running around in seemingly empty space. And this is what Milo learns about the city (quoted):

The City of Reality

“…the most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that. Then one day someone discovered that if you walked as fast as possible and looked at nothing but your shoes you would arrive at your destination much more quickly. Soon everyone was doing it. They all rushed down the avenues and hurried along the boulevards seeing nothing of the wonders and beauties of their city as they went.

No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier, and as everything grew uglier and dirtier they moved faster and faster, and at last a very strange thing began to happen. Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear. Day by day the buildings grew fainter and fainter, and the streets faded away, until at last it was entirely invisible. There was nothing to see at all.”

Now when I read the book as a child, I thought that was just about the most awfully tragic thing I had ever heard, and it still stuck with me as a I grew older. I think too often we find ourselves in the positions of “racing from place to place, looking at our shoes” The hackneyed old “stop and smell the roses” cliche rings more true than ever in our increasingly hectic, fast paced lives. You can open any paper and find articles on how we are overworked, over-stressed, over-stimulated, over-everything-ed.

For me, photography is a way of “reframing” that state – of forcing me to slow down and actually *look* at the world around – not just with the eyes, but with the mind – with the heart. Whether I am looking at a flower, a beautiful landscape a model or whatever I want to make sure I *see* it. I refuse to let the city around me disappear.

The act of creating a photograph becomes a meditation on our true perception of life.

And that is why I photograph.

Did Apple just kill Photoshop?

I know, I know… it’s a sensationalist headline, but that was my initial reaction after about 10 minutes of playing with the new Aperture 2.1

In case you hadn’t already read, apple just introduced editing plugins for aperture, including true photoshop-style brush based controls such as burn/dodge etc… Noiseninja and others coming soon!

In what seems to be a largely (as of yet) unpublicized announcement, Apple has just dropped a bomb!

It may just be a .1 release, but I think this is a bigger shakeup than aperture 2 itself.  Software like aperture and Lightroom have been great for DAM (Digital Asset Management) and great for doing quick adjustments to exposure/tone/etc… but true “editing” remained the province of Photoshop until now.  The addition of brush based tools (particularly burn and dodge) is *huge*.  Many photographers have lamented that they’d love to use Aperture/Lightroom exclusively, but can’t because of the need for Photoshop to do targeted adjustments.  Not anymore – do all that in aperture itself.  With plugins coming from NoiseNinja (the other main use of Photoshop for me) and many others sure to follow,  aperture 2.1 may just make Photoshop a “non-necessity” for a number of photographers.

Of course time will tell :-)

Apparently we are all terrorists…

At the risk of skirting dangerously close to a political diatribe, this like THIS are really getting out of hand. (link goes to article, click the pic for larger image)police-warning.jpg

There are already plenty of reports of the general camera-unfriendliness that is growing in our ever-expanding surveillance society, but this is essentially painting anyone with a camera as a terrorist (god help you if you have a big slr & tripod). Have we as a people really sunk that low? (not to mention the obvious disconnect in that the folks usually being harassed are SLR users, whereas wouldn’t you expect a “terrorist” to want to use something small and inconspicuous? – quick round up all the G9 users!)

This is really an ugly reflection of our changing society. Honestly I was shocked (although maybe I shouldn’t be) by that poster – without hyperbole, it is something that could have come straight out of Soviet Russisa (“Report any suspicious activity, comrade! It’s your patriotic duty!).

I am a fairly young guy, but I can’t seem to ever remember this level of general paranoia and fear mongering being foisted upon the public ’till recently. It really makes you wonder why.

The dark side of photosharing sites?

There is no question that digital imaging and the internet have revolutionized the art of photography.  Now everyone with a camera and a computer has the ability to take literally unlimited amounts of photographs, without any of the previous “arcane technical knowledge” required in the days of manual cameras and instantly display them to an audience of millions of people.

Now I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing, it’s just a fact.

The flipside to this is that now millions of people sitting on the internet looking at photosharing sites are now essentially “photo critics”

This is an extremely thought provoking thread on flickr.com which raises a lot of tough questions about the nature of Art and Photography.

first some background: There is a Flickr group called “deleteme” where members post photos, then *in theory* the rest of the group critiques them and then votes whether to “save” the photo in the group pool, or “delete” it and remove it from the pool.  The idea is that eventually, the only photos left will be the best of the best, worthy of saving.

Unfortunately in reality, this is not always the case – very often the comment threads simply become a popularity contest, or a bunch of camera-snob wannabees ragging on anthing that is not their idea of a “good photo”

Now, I suppose on a lark – one member of the group posted a Henry Cartier-Bresson photograph into the pool, without labeling or indicating what it was.  This photo was “Mario’s Bike”, considered by most to be a masterpiece, a true work of art.  (and if anyone doesn’t know who Cartier-Bresson was, he is generally considered one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, his philosophy was “The Decisive Moment” which has influenced generations of street photographers, and revolutionized the genre).

Anyway, what resulted was a flamewar of epic proportions.  Many folks obviously didn’t recognize the piece (kind of surprising for anyone with even a passing knowledge of photo/art history, as it is such a seminal image) and basically wrote it off as junk, voting to delete it from the pool (blurry, not in focus, grainy etc…)

The photo and thread in question can be found here:

MARIO’S BIKE ON FLICKR

Of course, all the folks who knew it to be a HCB masterpiece, had a good chuckle but the thread raises some interesting questions:

is it still a great photo even if the majority of people think it is junk?  who decides what makes it great?  This question essentially is going back to the eternal question of “what is art” but this just shows how much more relevant this is becoming to photography.

As the barriers to entry in photography are lowered (Owning a dSLR is now pretty much within anyone’s reach) – what happens to the “art” of photography?  Is there still an absolute standard of what makes a photograph art?  or does photographic art now encompass the abundance of “oversaturated, oversharpened flower macro shots” that seem to dominate the photosharing sites as the most highly regarded.  Don’t even get me started on HDR!

the other effect of this ease of accessibility is that “everyone’s a critic”  from the most highty trained photo curator or artist to grandpa joe who just bought his first digicam last week, and now fancies himself and expert on digital photography.

With the “great unwashed masses” having easy access to photography, without any actual knowledge as to the *art* and *craft* of photo making, there seems to be a paradigm shift in appreciation of photography from something that is art to something that is just “pretty pictures” without going beyond that.

Not to say that there is anything wrong with “pretty pictures” – I take plenty of ’em, in fact I wouldn’t have the hubris to claim that 99% of my own photography is anything more than that.  But I am always striving to create “art”, and I would hope that I have an appreciation for the true artists and masters of the medium.

And this is essentially the crux of my question:

Is the “easy availablity” of digital photography & the internet destroying our collective appreciation for the true art in the medium?   Have we been so overexposed to supersaturated, supersharp, over-digitalized photos that we have lost the appreciation for other artistic aesthetics in photography? 

Further, how much of our appreciation of art (photographic or otherwise) is influenced by preconceived notions?  Is is possible that the only reason I consider “Mario’s Bike” a masterpiece, is that I know it is by HCB?   How would I have judged it had I not know who it was by?  I like to think that I would have appreciated it on it’s own merits, but since I can’t look at it without knowing the source, my speculation is tainted by my own knowledge.

Honestly, I don’t have the answers to these questions, and similar thoughts have most likely plagued artists and critics ever since the first scrawl on a cave wall.   However,  with the advent of technology that makes photography instantly available on demand to anyone, these questions become more relevant than ever!

P.S. – I hope this isn’t too much of an elitist rant!  I happen to love flickr and all the photosharing sites, and my personal opinion is that they are a good thing for photography if for no other reason that it makes it easier to find new talent!