Blessing of Technology

A high resolution image with long and difficult exposure

I admit to starting to become a Luddite in some ways. I spent a long career developing and working with advanced technology, but I am starting to object to its misuse, especially by giant corporations and the government who spy and track and infringe our rights. But on the other hand, I occasionally step back and look at where technology has taken the art of photography and have to say “wow”. We live in the best of times for digital imaging. Technology can also be a blessing.

Old books

I think what precipitated this is that I have been going back re-reading my library of photography books. Many of these are by well-known experts of their day. It has been an amazing realization that many of the images in some of them would not be exceptional or even noticed today. And in some, the author’s discussion of the images was mostly about exposure and technical problems. Exposure used to be an overriding concern. We have come a very long way.

In particular, I based this on going back over the following books. This is just a fraction of my library that I have looked at recently.

  • The Fine Print, by Fred Picker, 1975
  • Taking Great Photographs, by John Hedgecoe, 1983
  • The Photograph: Composition and Color Design, by Harald Mante, 2010
  • Learning to See Creatively, by Bryan Peterson, 1988
  • Photography of Natural Things, by Freeman Patterson, 1982
  • The Making of Landscape Photographs, by Charlie Waite, 1992

Film

Most of these books were based on film photography. It amazes me the degree of technical sophistication and planning that was required. For instance, in The Fine Print, most of the discussion about each image was about the film choice, adjusting the camera tilt/shift settings, exposure considerations, development chemistry, and printing tricks.

Do you remember reciprocity failure and how to compensate for exposure degradation on long exposures? Do you know exposure chemistries and how to push process a negative to increase contrast? How about dodging and burning during printing? Or making an unsharp mask?

I skipped this whole generation by shooting slide film during those days. This complex process of color or black & white developing and printing was not for me. And I’m an Engineer. I generally like complexity.

I would say that many of the results I notice in these old books are “thoughtful”. They have to be. It was generally a slow process. It could take an hour to set up for a shot and determine the exposure and anticipate the printing that would have to be done.

I am very thankful I was able to skip this. I am able to be much more spontaneous and intuitive in my shooting. My standards have become very different.

Early digital

Did you know Kodak invented digital photography? I bet they wish they didn’t. It put them out of business.

The first prototype in 1975 was an 8 pound monster the size of a toaster. It took 23 seconds to record a blurry black & white image that had to be read by a separate, larger box.

But unfortunately, for them, Kodak suffered the classic problem of large corporations with entrenched technology: they did not aggressively pursue the new technology for fear of cannibalizing their existing products. They could not convince management that they are going to be cannibalized, and they would be better off doing it themselves. This has put a lot of companies out of business. Who is your buggy whip provider?

Many years of technology improvements and innovation were required before we got an actual digital camera, the Dycam Model 1 in 1990. The first practical digital camera, in my opinion, was the Nikon N8008s in 1992. It had a whopping 1.5 million pixels and could do color!

Collecting pixels is not much benefit unless we can do something with them. Adobe Photoshop 1.0 was released in 1990 on the new Macintosh computer from Apple. Hard to believe there was a time before Photoshop. Or Apple 🙂

Engineering improvements

As a note on something I have observed over a long career: don’t underestimate the power of engineering. The early digital components were just toys, but they gave a hint of what was possible. Most people dismissed them as impractical, predicting they would never be at parity with film. Now even the most die hard film enthusiasts would be hard pressed to make a good argument that film is better.

Engineers and scientists and manufacturers and marketers can do amazing things when there is a market to support them.

An anecdote will illustrate. A friend of mine at HP developed the ink jet printer technology. It was black and white and pretty crude and slow. Not too long after the first one was made, he told me that someday I would take an 8×10 print out of one of these printers, in full color, and it would look every bit as good as a Kodak print. I politely told him he was crazy. But now, here in my studio, I have a 17″x22″ ink jet printer that makes color and black & white prints far better than commercial prints of a few years ago. Much larger printers exist, too. It stretches belief.

State of the art

Look at where we are now (mid 2022 when this was written). I shoot a 47MPix mirrorless camera. The lenses have better optical properties than ever before. They support the full resolving power of the camera sensor.

I can shoot great quality at much higher ISO speeds than has ever been possible.

This camera has abandoned the optical viewfinder and has gone to a marvelous little video display instead. It shows a wealth of information that photographers in the 1990s and before would never have dreamed of. Or I could chose to see the information on the camera back instead.

Since the camera is mirrorless, the sensor is live all the time, continually measuring exposure across the entire frame. No more 18% gray reflected light meter to interpret. And this exposure information is real time displayed for me as a live histogram, focus tracking, etc. Whatever I choose to see.

Exposure is a minor consideration most of the time. I am usually in Aperture Priority mode and the camera’s internal computers do a wonderful job of accurately determining exposure from the data it can see from the whole sensor. Plus I have the histogram to look at to check for abnormal conditions. And the sensor has such an exceptional dynamic range (range of light capture ability from darkest tones, to brightest) that even if I miss the exposure by a stop or 2, I probably have sufficient data to correct it in the computer. Besides, I can immediately review any image to double-check it.

An embarrassment of riches

I am almost embarrassed to have all this power at hand. Compared to image making of a few years ago it is like going from Morse Code to an iPhone.

I don’t worry much about exposure now. I can see what I am about to capture. Even before shooting I know from the histogram that it will be well exposed. I can immediately review any images to verify them. No doubts. No anxiously waiting for the developed film to come back to see if I got the shot.

This technology frees me from most of the mundane technical concerns and lets me concentrate on composition and creativity. The resolution and tonal detail in my images is the best in history. The computer processing power and tools are the best in history. Printing or display of images has never been better. The ability to transfer even huge files anywhere in the world in seconds is amazing and unprecedented.

Thank you, technology! It is a golden age of imaging. We have a blessing of technology.

Out of Gamut

Abstract image with serious gamut problems.

That seems like a strange thing to say. It’s not a phrase you hear in normal conversation. What can it mean? I have written some about how sensors capture color, but I realize I have not mentioned the gnarly problem of color gamut. Unfortunately, I have been bumping into the problem lately, so I had to re-familiarize myself with it. Some of my new work is seriously out of gamut.

What does gamut mean

Most writers avoid this or give overly simplified descriptions. I’m going to treat you as adults, though. If you really are someone who is completely afraid of technology you might want to skip to the end – or ignore the whole subject.

The concept of gamut is really pretty simple, but you need some specialized knowledge and you have to learn some new things about the world.

I have mentioned the CIE-1931 Chromaticity Diagram before. That sounds scary, but you have probably seen the familiar “horseshoe” diagram of colors. I recommend you watch this video to understand how it was derived and what it means. This is the diagram:

CIE-1931 Chromaticity Diagram

After a lot of research and a lot of measurement, scientists determined that this represents all possible colors a typical human can see. Just the hue – color – not the brightness.

Very simply, a gamut is just a representation of what part of this spectrum a particular device can reproduce or capture.

Show me

The next figure shows the horseshoe with some regions overlayed on it.

Add ProPhoto colour space as a "working color space" - Which feature do you need? - DxO Forums

There are 3 triangular regions labeled: sRGB, Adobe RGB, and ProPhoto RGB. They are called color spaces. The diagram is indicating all possible colors that each color space can represent. The smallest one, sRGB, is typical of a computer monitor. It is what will be used when you share a jpg image with someone. It is small but “safe”. We lose a lot of possible colors, but everyone sees roughly the same thing on all their monitors.

Let’s jump to ProPhoto RGB. You can see that it covers the largest part of the horseshoe. In other words, ProPhoto RGB has the largest gamut. It is the best we have for representing image color and most professional photographers use this now. Unless they are doing weddings. That is a different world.

They’re not ideal?

Unfortunately, these color spaces are an ideal. The ProPhoto color space is a model for editing images. No actual devices or printers can give us the entire ProPhoto RBG gamut. Not even close. Most can barely do sRGB.

Here is a diagram of the color space a Canon pro printer can do.

The small horseshoe, labeled 4, is the printer gamut. It is larger then sRGB (3) and, overall, a lot like AdobeRGB (2). Smaller than ProPhoto RGB, which is not listed here.

It looks pretty good, and in general it is. I use one of these printers. But look at what it does not do. Most greens and extremes of cyan and blue and purple and red and orange and yellow cannot be printed. Actually, almost no extremely saturated colors can be printed.

And it is not just printers. Most monitors, even very good ones, are somewhere between sRGB and AdobeRGB spaces. This cannot really be considered a fault of the monitors or printers. The physics and engineering and cost considerations prohibit them from covering the full ideal range.

Any of these colors that I use in an image, that can’t be created by the device I am using, are referred to as “out of gamut”. Outside of the color space the device can produce. This is what I have been running in to lately.

What happens

So what happens when I try to print an image with out of gamut colors? Well, it is not like it blows up or leaves a hole in the page instead of printing anything. Printers and monitors do the best they can. They “remap” the out of gamut colors to the closest they can do. As artists, we have some control over that process, as we will see in the next section.

But the reality is that these out of gamut colors will lose detail, be washed out and without tonal contrast. When we get to looking at the print, we will say “yech, that is terrible”. Then we need to do something about it.

What can we do about it

There are things to do to mitigate the problem. Here is where we need to understand enough about the technology to know what to do.

First, we have tools to help visualize the problem. Both Lightroom Classic and Photoshop have a Soft Proof view. It will simulate the actual output for a particular printer and paper. You can also view gamut clipping for the monitor. Yes, because of gamut problems you may not be seeing the image’s real color information on your monitor.

Both Lightroom and Photoshop have versions of saturation adjustments and hue adjustment. These can help bring the out of control colors back into a printable or viewable range. With practice we can learn to tweak these settings to balance what is possible with what we want to see.

But even if we give up and decide to print images with out of gamut colors, there are options. the print settings have a great feature called “rendering intent”. They are a way to give guidance to the print engine on how we want it to handle these wild colors. Several different rendering intents are available, but the 2 that are most commonly used are Relative and Perceptual.

Rendering Intents

I use Perceptual intent most often, at least in situations where the are significant out of gamut colors. Using the Perceptual directive signifies to the print driver that I am willing to give up complete tonal accuracy for a result that “looks right”. The driver is free to “squish” the color and tone range in proportional amounts to scale the whole image into a printable range. I don’t do product photography or portraits, so I am usually not fanatical about absolute accuracy. How they work this magic is usually kept as a trade secret. But secret or not, it often does a respectable job of producing a good output.

The other common intent is Relative. This basically prints the data without modification, except that it clips out of gamut colors. That sounds severe, but the reality is that most natural scenes will not have any significant gamut problems, so no clipping will occur.

This is a great intent for most types of scenes, because no tonal compression will take place.

The answer

The answer is “your mileage may vary”. Most images of landscapes and people will not have serious out of gamut problems. When you do, this information may help you get the results you want. When you have a problem, turn on the soft proofing and try the Relative and Perceptual rendering intents. Look at the screen to see if one is acceptable. If not, go back and play with saturation and colors .

Why do I have problems? Well, I’m weird. I have been gravitating to extremely vibrant, highly saturated images. I like the look I am trying to get, but it can be hard to get it onto a print. The image at the top of this article is a slice of an image I am working with now. It is seriously out of gamut. I need to work on it a lot more to be able to print it without loss of color detail. Ah, technical limitations.

Labels

Curious reflections in a shop window

We use labels as a short cut to knowing what to think about things. But when we do this without conscious knowledge of what we are doing we blind ourselves to a lot of the world around us. It is probably one of the causes of social, racial, class, sexual biases today. Once we assign a label to someone or something, we cease to see them for what they are. They become what our label stereotypes them as. As artists, we severely limit ourselves if we allow labels to get in the way of actually seeing things.

Shortcut

Labels serve a function. They help us quickly sort through the barrage of information we get every day. They also help make the world around us more predictable. When I recognize something as a phishing email or a spam call I can quickly deal with it without having to analyze it or waste time. I get dozens of emails a day, but I can quickly label most of them as useless or useful and dispose of them.

We use labeling all the time as a prediction tool. I’m about to cross the street and a car is approaching the intersection. It is a fairly late model car and they seem to be obeying the law. I can mostly ignore them. They are not a threat.

Likewise, I’m walking at night and another person is approaching. They look like they share the same labels I apply to myself, so they are probably “safe”. Does this imply some bias? Of course. That is one of the functions of labels.

Self-fulling

We can observe, and psychologists have researched and proven, that labels tend to become self-fulfilling. If a student is told he is smart, his effective IQ usually goes up. In the same way, if a student is told he is deficient, his IQ goes down. And teachers tend to treat them according to the labels.

Labels set boundaries on the thing we are labeling. To us, it is only this. It cannot be more. When we correctly label unimportant things, it helps us be more efficient. I can get through my emails more quickly. I may occasionally mislabel one and miss something I would have wanted to see, but, oh well. Usually I am right. And it is faster.

But labeling people is a dangerous thing. People are much harder to judge and the consequences of labeling them wrong can be high. People deserve to be given a lot more leeway in our “judgments”.

The great old story about the founding of Stanford University after being rebuffed by Harvard is probably not true, but this one probably is:

In July 1998, William Lindsay of Las Vegas said he contacted an unnamed Scottish institution of higher learning by telephone and told them he intended to give some money to a university in Scotland. Taking him for a crank, the person he spoke to rudely dismissed him. His next call to Glasgow University met with a warmer reception, and in March 2000 that school received a check for £1.2 million, enough to endow a professorship in Lindsay’s name.

I’m sure you have your own story about labeling a person and then later finding you were very wrong. Did you feel a little ashamed?

Danger for artists

Setting aside the moral problems with labeling, as artists we are severely limiting ourselves when we trust labels to tell us about the things around us. We are putting blinders on ourselves. Labels prevent us from really looking at things and seeing them for what they are.

As an artist, I need to be open and receptive. I need to be able to see things in fresh, creative ways. I can’t do that if I artificially put the things I am seeing into labeled boxes. Labels are fast and convenient, but I feel they get in my way of creativity. And they take away a lot of potential enjoyment we could get from seeing common things in new ways.

Guy Tal brought out interesting points related to this in his insightful book “More That A Rock“. (I get no compensation for the link; I just point it out to you because it is useful) The title is based on a famous quote by the great photographer Edward Weston:

This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.

Mr. Tal goes on to say in the preface to the book:

In the context of photography, therefore, representation is accomplished primarily through technology and skill, and a fortuitous convergence of “right” place and “right” time. Creativity requires something beyond objective qualities that are inherent in subject, tools, or circumstances – something subjective originating from the unique mind of the photographer that would not have existed had they not created it.

To use Mr. Tal’s terminology, I am constantly trying to get past representation and find creativity. I believe this type of subjective creativity is difficult, if not impossible, if the thing we are considering is hidden behind labels. Unless we learn to overcome the tricks our minds play.

Mindfulness

This brings me around to a subject I keep coming back to more and more – mindfulness.

To be a creative person ,we have to learn to manage our mind and attitude. We have to train ourselves to stay aware and attuned to interesting things around us. One big part of this is to consciously decide to see beyond labels.

I don’t think there are any tricks or cheats. No shortcuts. We just have to be aware of being aware. Training and practice.

Try this sometime. It will be weird at first. Take a block of time to practice mindfulness. Go out walking (or whatever) and keep asking yourself “What is this I am seeing? Have I ever seen anything just like this? How would I make an interesting picture of this?” And do it. Stop and make a picture. Even of silly things: reflections is a window. A chalk drawing on a sidewalk. A flower in someone’s yard. Set your expectations low. You are not doing this to get wonderful pictures. You are training yourself to see and consider more things.

Give it an honest try a few times, then see if you are developing a new ability to see more and deeper. To see beyond labels. If not, write me. I would like to know why it is not working. And , even if it does work, feel free to write me and let me know what you discovered. I would like to share your experience. My email address is in the sidebar.

The image with this article is one of these. I was having lunch near my studio and noticed the way the corner windows were creating abstract reflections. I stopped eating and shot some intriguing juxtaposed scenes. This is one actual image, just found by chance. And because I was looking.

Excuses

Trying - and succeeding

Excuses, we have them for every occasion. There’s nothing interesting here. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. I’m too busy. The weather is not right. I don’t like this light. I’m not good enough. I’m shy. It could go on for a page or more. Excuses are our way of letting ourselves off the hook when we are scared or don’t want to do something.

As a heads up, this is about the dreaded topic of marketing. In case you want to stop reading now. 🙂

Why make excuses

Excuses are a way of absolving ourselves of responsibility. We shift the blame to someone or something else. It lets us off the hook. We didn’t fail, it was “their” fault we couldn’t do it.

Have you done that? I sure have. We don’t want to feel bad about ourselves. After all, we have a self image to nurture. The problem is when we rely on excuses to not do anything.

Fear

A lot of times we make excuses because we are afraid of doing something. Contact that gallery? No, they wouldn’t want my work. Submit for that show? No, I’m not good enough.

Fear of failure keeps us trapped in our own prison. We build a cage of excuses around us to protect ourselves from failing. But we can become trapped in a cage of our own making.

But we’re thinking about it wrong. What we fear almost never happens and not achieving our objective is not the same as failing.

What we fear

I believe a lot of us artists are introverts. We shun confrontation and don’t like to be criticized. Even if we are not introverts most of us do not like these things. So we fear that if we put our self forward we might be rejected. People might even think bad of us.

Here’s what I am learning: we will be rejected, again and again, and no one really knows who you are or cares enough to think bad of you. That sounds harsh, but it should actually be somewhat comforting.

I apply for a show and my submissions are rejected. I don’t know why. They do not give a critique. Perhaps what I entered doesn’t appeal to the juror. Perhaps they had different styles in mind. Maybe the juror was in a bad mood at the time. I cannot know. But what they didn’t say was “you are a failure; I hate your work; you are not worthy of being an artist; don’t ever enter this event again”. No, it was just a rejection. Get over it and go on.

Trying

You know the old Yoda line “Do or do not. There is no try“. It is a great line, but kind of misleading. Like Luke in the scene with Yoda, if we do not believe we can do it, we are probably right. The reality is that for most things, trying is all we can do. We cannot always create the outcome we want as long as we are dependent on other people’s decisions.

Trying does not mean we doubt ourselves. It means we recognize that many of the attempts we make will not succeed. And we’re willing to live with that.

It’s the trying that we fall short on. We’re afraid so we never try. We get a rejection so we stop trying. Persistence is required in order to succeed.

As I have said before, “build it and they will come” doesn’t work. We have to let people know about ourselves and our work. This is called promotion. It is called marketing. That is not a bad word. It is what makes us recognized and successful.

Just do it

For years I had the attitude that I love doing art but I hate marketing. I am shy so I am not good at it. People will eventually recognize the worth of what I do.

Ain’t going to happen.

People are not out there waiting anxiously to “discover” me. They do not know I exist and don’t really care. I have to take definite and active steps to make them aware of me. It may take many attempts before they will take a serious look at my work and see something they like. This is called “marketing”. I now see it in a different light. Rather than being a distasteful thing I should do, but don’t, I see it as an exciting opportunity to promote myself and be recognized.

No more excuses.

The great Wayne Gretzky famously observed “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” You cannot succeed unless you try. I have finally internalized that. Just coming to believe that made it far less distasteful. Starting to do it and discovering that a rejection is not fatal and no one blacklists me for trying has made it far easier as I go along.

Try something. Act quick. Learn from your mistakes. Keep trying. Believe in yourself and never give up.

You haven’t failed unless you don’t try. Stop making excuses. Just do it.