Technology is Important

Technology is important in photography, maybe more than most other arts. I sometimes hear photographers say “I’m not interested in the technology; I just want to make pictures.” This seems to usually have one of 2 meanings: either they really do know the technical side but they are making an exaggerated statement to say that artistic considerations are more important, or they really don’t consider the technology. This later group is needlessly limiting their potential.

The term “photography” comes from Greek words meaning “writing with light”. It is a good name. Photography is unique among arts in that (for the most part) we start by capturing something that is there in front of the camera. Most other visual arts start with a blank canvas and the image has to be built from scratch by the artist. I’m not arguing that this makes photography more of less valuable than, say, painting. Just that the process is different.

Since we are capturing something that exists, we must know how to use the tools we have to maximize our success. Taking digital image capture as the norm, there is the lens, the camera body, the image correction process, and the creative manipulation process. Modern photography absolutely requires a good computer system.

  • Lens : The focal length and maximum f/stop determine the envelope of what can be captured for a certain scene. The focal length sets the magnification or “cropping” or framing of the subject. The f/stop choice determines the depth of field — the relative amount of the field of view that is in acceptable focus. They also interact to control the amount of light entering in to the camera sensor.
  • Camera body: In a typical modern camera this controls the exposure, the focus, the shutter speed, the image capture, and the initial image processing. Exposure is a combination of the ISO speed (the relative sensitivity setting of the sensor), the aperture, and the shutter speed. The image is captured on the sensor, a large silicon chip. The sensor is perhaps the most critical piece of technology in the system. It has a maximum number of pixel it can capture and a dynamic range — the range of brightest to darkest data it can record. The data coming from the sensor is not the image ready for viewing. It must have sophisticated and high speed processing done to it before it can be written to the memory card or even previewed on the back of the camera.
  • Image correction: Even after the processing done in the camera, every image needs some correction. This is not a flaw, it is a required part of the process. Typical processing at this stage include color correction, a little bit of sharpening, some tone correction (e.g. reduce highlights and/or raise shadows), and cropping.
  • Creative manipulation: This is a later stage of processing, maybe using in the same software; maybe not. This may include tone mapping, black & white conversion, removing extraneous objects, compositing images together, blurring, sharpening, and many other operations.
  • I’m not even considering here the final output. This can be prints, web postings, stock images, etc.

This is neither a tutorial of digital processing or meant to scare you away from photography. It is just stating what is involved to do a better than average job.

The point is that a good artist will have an excellent working knowledge of every one of these steps. Each one is an important factor in determining the final outcome. You have to become very familiar with your tools. It is necessary to work with them over and over for so many repetitions that they are second nature. An artist must make dozens of conscious decisions, often in a fraction of a second, in the dark, or in bad weather, to get the result they envisioned. This might be heresy to many, but my opinion is that an old camera you are intimately familiar with is better than a sophisticated new camera that you don’t know how to use quickly. (So get the new camera and spend a lot of time learning it 🙂

Any visual art involves making things. Making things requires tools. A good artist learns their tools well. This is one of the things that separates the good ones from the mediocre. When I hear someone say “I don’t do technology” I interpret it to mean “I’m not serious about my art.” Is that unfair? Not to me, but let me know what you think.

Be Uncomfortable

Humans don’t naturally like to be uncomfortable. We want to retreat to safety and the familiar. Whether it is speaking in public or joining a new group or expressing an opinion or changing jobs or doing something different artistically, we resist the discomfort. It’s easier and safer to keep low, to not let people know our aspirations, to not reach for that prize. After all, then no one will tell us that’s silly and we can’t do that.

Most of us have a little voice inside that tells us “Stop. Don’t do that. The risk isn’t worth it. Remember that time you did something like this and you were really embarrassed?” That voice is trying to help us do what it thinks is best for us, that is, staying on the safest path. That is a type of self-preservation. But that voice doesn’t look at the bigger picture. Sometimes discomfort is not bad. It may often be exactly what we need.

If we stay in our comfort zone we never try anything new; we do not get out of our rut. We do not grow and develop. We do not experience all we should in life. We can get to the end of our days and look back with regret on the dreams we were never brave enough to pursue. Pursuing and accomplishing are different things. We may not write the next Great American Novel, but the attempt will teach us a lot and help us discover things about ourself. We may never become a celebrated musician, but the study brings us a lot of discipline and satisfaction. We may never become wealthy and famous as an artist, but the path expands our creativity and skill.

Safety says to stay home and watch TV. Our creative urge tells us to get off the couch, pick up our camera (or whatever creative device you use) and get outside and make something. Sitting on the couch is easy. No risk. No failure. Going out to create something is hard. It requires thought and it risks “failure”. I believe there is no comparison, though. Long term, TV will rot your brain and your self-esteem. Making things will make you a better person. Not inspired? Get to work. Inspiration comes while you are working, not while you are sitting around thinking “creative thoughts.”

Failing is not a bad thing. Failing is not trying. Failing may mean you reached for something you weren’t ready for yet. Keep growing, learning, developing your skills and your curiosity. Someday you may get there. Or maybe not. Either way, you satisfied that longing inside yourself and you became a better person.

Yes, You Need to Backup

Sorry. I know no one wants to think about this dirty subject, much less talk about it. But is is a necessary part of a digital artist’s process.

Back in the “good old days” images were created on film. You kept the film in holders or sleeves in a file of some sort. Barring major fire or flood, you were pretty well backed up. The negatives or slides were fairly insensitive to water, tolerated a wide storage temperature range, and would last for decades or longer.

Forward to today. It has been many years since I exposed a piece of film. ALL my work is digital. And all the derivative works I create are digital. There are significant advantaged to digital images, but there is one glaring, horrible downside: when the disk they are on dies, they are gone. They are not a physical object.

Oh, but disks are very reliable. You can’t remember the last time one of yours crashed. (Cue whistling in the graveyard music). Here’s the reality: your disk is about to fail and there is little ability to predict when. After it fails is not the time to be doing a backup.

In a past life I was an engineer, so I know something about this technology. I’ll try to keep it pretty basic. Most of us use rotating magnetic storage (e.g., the hard disk). This is an amazing technology. Bits are stored as microscopically small magnetic blobs on platters of metal spinning at, typically, 5400 or 7200 RPM. The data is read and written by “flying heads” that fly above the surface of the platter a few micro inches away. This is like a fighter jet flying at supersonic speed 10 feet off the ground. It’s a wonder it works, but it has been engineered with enough layers of protection to make it very reliable. The other fast growing technology is Solid State Disk (SSD). It is completely different and usually much faster. Just because it is smaller and faster does not make it more reliable. There are many more failure modes associated with SSD than rotating disks.

What does this matter to me? My disk drive is rated at 1,000,000 hours MTBF (mean time before failure). It should be good practically forever. There is a reason disk makers throw out numbers like that. They are very impressive without really meaning much. It is a statistical measure of a large population of devices. It does not mean yours or mine won’t fail tomorrow.

What to do? The ugly “backup” word. I won’t recommend specific software or hardware, except to say if you are using Macs, please turn on Time Machine immediately. Instead I will give you an idea of the paranoid extremes I go to.

Yes, I use Time Machine for one level. It is a marvelous invention. It backs up my images and the computer every hour. My images are actually stored on a RAID drive. This means the information is redundant and one drive can fail with no loss of data. My drive is also very fast. The data on this RAID disk is also backed up daily to 2 other RAID drives. All of this is completely automated and requires no attention from me. About once a week I rotate a copy of my image data to off site storage, so it is backed up in another physical location.

I’ll confess it again: I am paranoid about this. But the last 2 times my computers crashed I didn’t lose anything. I use (and love) SSD as my main computer storage. I have stacks of rotating disks with many terabytes of data on them. With a good backup plan I don’t worry at all about losing data.

Can a Photograph Lie?

Yes. I’ll just state it categorically so we can move on. All photographs are lies in some fashion. Any image represents the point of view of the maker. How they choose to frame the subject, what they choose to include or exclude, where they are in relation to the subject, all these and many more determine how the image presents the subject. So even before we get to any issues of Photoshop manipulation, the image is a work of art, not “truth”.

Even if you are a wildlife photographer who sets up a triggered blind where the animal will photograph themselves by moving through a certain area, it is still a lie, in the sense that the photographer determined the lens, the location, the foreground, the background, the shutter speed, the time of day, and many more elements. Every image ever made exhibits subjective bias. It has to.

Should it Lie?

Yes. Again, I’ll state the inevitable truth. You want it to lie. It would not be interesting unless it did. The “lie” is what makes my image different from yours. It is what makes you want to pause and look at the image.

There are people, especially in the landscape or photojournalism arenas, who still feel a good photograph should be “exactly as it appeared to the eye”. I understand their POV. I used to feel the same way. This is a chimera, though. A camera does not see the world the way our eye does. The eye does not have a wide angle or telephoto view. It is not restricted to a narrow depth of field. It cannot freeze a very small sliver of time or blur a scene over minutes. The eye “paints” an image in the brain by moving and stopping. The camera does not work that way.

There are many excellent photojournalists in the world. They try to bring us “truth”. But the only way they can do their job is through interpreting events for us. Do not trust the image; trust the journalist. When you see images on the news or the internet showing you the “truth” about something, be skeptical.

I have seen people try to recreate views exactly the way a human would see. They only use a 50mm lens (or whatever the equivalent for their format), held at the (average) height of human eyes, with a shutter speed of about 1/60th of a second and no camera movement. The results are usually unbelievably boring, and still a subjective interpretation.

The restriction that an image should be “exactly as it appeared to the eye'” is an artificial rule. The people who believe strongly in this philosophy can shoot their images the way that pleases their artistic notion of perfection. We won’t tell them that the result is a lie.

Does the Question Even Make Sense?

A photographer is an artist. Their purpose is to create unique and pleasing images. They use all the tools available to them — technology, technique, composition, post processing, compositing, etc. — to achieve their end. The image is not reality. It was never intended to be. It is a work of fiction. Most people these days recognize that. if you don’t, it would be like reading “The Lord of the Rings” and saying “hey, wait; this is a lie; it didn’t really happen”.

If you really need images to document something, the best you can do is to get sufficiently close to accomplish your goals. Realize, though, that it is only an approximation to reality. Realize what those limitations are so you can see if you can live with the reality of the unreality.


Take the above image for instance. Remote, untracked wilderness? A place you will never reach? Actually it is at a rest stop on I-70 in Utah (the restrooms are just off to the right). This is in the median between the lanes of the freeway. Nothing was edited out in Photoshop, but the framing and cropping of this made it look like wilderness. Is it a lie?

Does it Matter?

What matters is that it is what it is. Accept any image as art or at least as an interpretation by the maker. That’s what artists do. Does this mean “anything goes?” Well, yes. There should be no limit or restriction on art.

When you look at my images, assume anything you see is created as art. I hope the result is interesting to you. To see some of my lies, visit

Online Exhibit

Here is a link to an online exhibit I am in. It will be up during February of 2019. I would appreciate your comments. By coincidence, the 3 images I have in this exhibit are “almost not lying”. That is, they are minimally manipulated. All 3 are exactly as found. But the above comments apply as to the manipulation of composition, lens, etc.