Kill Your Darlings

Field of giant hamburgers

Artists, especially photographers, need to kill our darlings. I have received this advice before, but it is seldom a happy or welcome activity.

Why in the world would any artist want to kill their darlings? These are our babies! We are in love with them! We need them! It makes no sense.

Photographers generate lots of images

OK, let’s get this out to discuss. One of the distinctions of using a camera is that images are (usually) quickly created. We tend to shoot many variations of a scene looking to capture it best. We take “brackets” of exposure, focus, lighting, etc. to work through subtle differences that may make an image stronger.

This is one of the key differentiators of photography to other 2 dimensional art forms. A painting is constructed slowly from the ground up on a blank canvas. The artist selects and only adds the elements he feels make the image stronger. A photographer starts with an existing scene and decides what to include or exclude, often in a instant. The resulting image is often a small slice of time. The process is totally different.

But besides being different, it is usually fast, fluid, immediate. We have the ability to change our perspective and try out variations. Each one may be a great image in its own right.

On a productive day in a great location, I may make hundreds of images. A painter may only make one, and that’s if they are working very fast.

This very fact of photography causes a problem for us.

We love our images

Ah, the beauties we see on our monitor. Most of them are lovely and lovable. Sure, I discard the ones that are unintentionally out of focus or that have unintended shake or movement. I may exclude the ones where the lighting was bad. And there are the ones where I have to admit the concept just didn’t work or my execution was poor. I can say goodbye to them without much grief.

But the “good” ones, well, they are all good. A well composed image captured with a great camera with a super sharp lens using good technique may be technically excellent. Any one of them is my work. I am proud of them.

I can’t just delete most of them and tell myself they are not as good as I would like. It is the work I made. I created these. They are mine.

Editing is hard

Editing is where is starts getting real. Editing is one of the steps that separate the great from the good. It is very hard for many of us to do as brutally as is called for.

For me, it helps to have a cooling off period. With time I can usually take a cooler perspective on a shoot. Sometimes a day or 2 is sufficient. Sometimes it takes years. Yes, there are groups of my images where I couldn’t be really honest with myself for up to 10 years.

I do my sorting and grading in Lightroom. I have used it since its initial beta release. My exact process of how I file and mark them is probably not of interest. I will just say that I go through many levels of exclusion before arriving at a set of “portfolio” images.

My initial pass culls out the imperfect images (if perfection was what I was going for), duplicates, and things that just didn’t work. These are thrown away unless I believe there is some redeeming value to them. And that is exactly the problem I am talking about here – I think that most of my images have redeeming virtues.

A second or third pass may look over a shoot and select the few defining images out of the set. These are marked for further processing. This process is repeated several times with increasingly strict criteria, usually with long pauses to gain perspective. In general, the best image of a shoot is not going to progress up the chain just because it was the best of its group. It has to provide some reason for being considered a top contender.

Editing is necessary

The editing process has been very good for me to internalize, even if it is painful. I realize now that without brutal editing I don’t have anything worth saying. That is, if I show you thousands of images because they are all “good” and I don’t have the discipline to choose between them, you will quickly tire and go away.

When I can be honest with myself and exclude great images that do not capture my artistic intent, then the ones I keep to show are stronger. You don’t want to look at everything I saw and was interested in. You only want to see very strong images.

Going through the pain and being honest with myself is not fun. But it is necessary to end up with art.

Fewer is stronger

It has been said that your portfolio is only as good as the weakest image in it. This has taken me a long time to internalize. Fewer is stronger.

Editing is a challenging and imperfect process. I know I make mistakes. I know I sometimes let my love for an image or a location or an event cloud my judgment. I am trying to learn.

Take an arbitrary category on my web site, like Landscapes. I haven’t checked exactly, but let’s say I have well over 1000 landscape images I consider “portfolio quality”. That doesn’t work and it is unrealistic.

By forcing myself to pare them down to, say, 50 images, I am able to present a strong set of art for you. It hurts. I have to exclude hundreds of images I consider wonderful. Indeed, some of my all time favorites have to go. But if I do it well the set that is left is strong and I will not be ashamed to show them to anyone.

The ones that didn’t make the cut? I keep them, of course. I love them. Sometimes at a later date I see something new in an image that I did not perceive before. Maybe it gets bumped up. Still, it is my responsibility to edit brutally and only show you the survivors.

If you go browse my web site I hope you agree.

Let me know what you think. Do you suffer from an abundance of riches?

What is the Cost of Digital Imaging?

An extensively processed image

Digital photography is liberating. We are not limited to 36 frames on a roll. It doesn’t cost anything to shoot an image, so shoot anything you see. Wait, is that true? Is digital photography really free? What is the cost of digital imaging?

The film days

Ah, the good old days, right? Not really. Almost everything about digital imaging is better. For 35mm cameras, which is what I will discuss, film came in rolls containing up to 36 frames. Yes, I know there were some weird specials, but let’s ignore those. A roll cost several dollars and processing it cost about as many more dollars. It seems like my metric was that it cost $.50 per frame. And that was in the 1980’s. In todays dollars that might be $1-2 per frame. After you finished a roll it took several days before it was processed so you could see what you got. Horrible. Primitive. Intolerable by todays standards.

Even a medium size memory card might hold hundreds of raw images and thousands of jpgs. The equivalent of that in the film days would be a large, heavy, expensive bag of film.

And when you were traveling with the film, you had to take it out to be x-rayed at the airport. If you were shooting “high speed” film, say 800 ISO or more, you had to put them in lead lined bags or try to get the agents to hand inspect them to prevent fogging by the x-ray machines.

Of course, when you go on a trip you have to carry all that bulky, heavy film back home. You usually did not want the expense of mailing them and the risk of them being lost in the mail.

What a pain. And I won’t even mention the cost and problems of a darkroom.

Digital solves the problems

Along comes digital imaging. The cost of shooting comes rapidly down and the quality of the images comes rapidly up. Very soon digital is clearly better than film. On Amazon today professional grade 64GByte SDHC cards are $12. That is unbelievable! A card like that will hold hundreds, maybe a thousand raw images. Say 1000, that makes the cost per image $0.012. And then you load them into the computer and erase and reuse the card. So the actual cost per image in virtually zero.

All is rainbows and unicorns. What can be bad about that?

Does digital imaging really cost?

Yes. A lot!

For one thing, for professionals, sensors now generate huge files and we need large, fast memory to capture them in camera. My current camera uses XQD memory cards. They are very fast, but a 120 GByte card costs $200 – on sale. That is steep, but not the problem.

Then there is the infrastructure problem on my computer. Loading all this data on the computer takes up a lot of disk space. My main storage is currently a fast 20TByte RAID disk. Since I am a fanatic about backup (seeYes, You Need to Backup“), the relevant data is backed up every day to another 12 TByte RAID disk. It is also backed up to yet another 12 TByte RAID disk. In addition, hourly Time Machine backups rotate to 2 other external disks. And then there is offsite backup… All of this gets expensive and requires a fair bit of maintenance. I’m drowning in data!

But that is still not the biggest cost.

Time is money

The true cost of digital imaging is time. Time to load, file, tag, grade, and process. It is easy to get completely buried in a backlog of images to process.

I’m mostly an outdoor photographer. Let’s say a productive day of shooting might bring back 400 images. That is about 20-30 GBytes of image data. Those have to be loaded in to the computer – I use Lightroom for all my image management. They have to be tagged by location and keywords added to assist in filing and locating. Then there is the difficult process of grading to filter out the best. My process involves at least 6 passes of review. Then there is processing of the best images. Since I am a fine art photographer, the images may be extensively processed, partly in Lightroom and partly in Photoshop.

At this point, maybe I have selected 20 images from the day’s shoot as my “keepers”. Doesn’t seem bad, but the true cost of this is several days of difficult computer work, maybe even a week, to handle 1 day of shooting. And it is quite possible that 1 or more of the images may require an extra week of Photoshop processing to get to my standard. I have been over a year behind in processing at times.

So, the main cost of digital imaging is the time to process them. If you are just culling through to find a few jpegs to post to Instagram, no big deal. But if you are doing fine art professionally, you can quickly get buried in computer work. It is a cost to count carefully.

Note

Let me know what you think and what topics you would like me to write about. I welcome your input.

Process

Abstract paint

Outcome vs. process. I believe this is a source of frustration and confusion for many people. I know it took me a long time to learn the difference. Outcome is the result we would like to achieve. Process is what we do.

We seek an outcome like being selected for a gallery or winning a certain award or being published. The reality is, we have no control over these things happening. We can seek them and create opportunity, but other people make the decisions. If we are not chosen we will likely never know why. Not getting the outcome we want may be no fault of ours and it is not an indication that we are a failure.

Should Have Given Up?

J.K. Rowling’s synopsis and sample chapters for Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers. Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was rejected 30 times. He was so discouraged he threw it away. Luckily his wife retrieved it from the trash. The winner I could find was Kate DiCamillo’s 473 rejections before Because of Winn-Dixie was published. The persistent and popular Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield was rejected 144 times. Canfield later wrote. “I encourage you to reject rejection. If someone says no, just say NEXT!”

All of these examples are for novels, because that seems to be the easiest to find documentation for. I believe it applies to all art, and to most of life.

Most of us will never be a J.K. Rowling or a Stephen King. That is not the point. They almost weren’t them either. If they had gotten discouraged and given up they would not have made it. The gatekeepers making the determination of who is worthy are not all knowing and all wise. Sometimes they are very blind. Coming to the realization that I cannot control their decision is a significant step in my growth.

What We Can Control

Anthony Moore had a great post recently that resonated with me. HIs point is that true champions focus on the process. They practice; they develop their craft; they become the best they can be. They realize they have to put in the long, boring, lonely work to achieve excellence in their field.

He says “Ordinary people focus on the outcome. Extraordinary people focus on what they can control — the process.” This is a hard message. I want to be chosen. I want to win. But I need to realize that I cannot make someone pick me. All I can really do is continue working to become the best I can be. Maybe that is not good enough. But if I am the best I can be, that is all I can do.

As a matter of fact, life gets a lot easier when we stop trying to run the world and instead focus on what we can control.

I don’t want to oversimplify or get tripped up in words. The world is not neat and simple. Sometimes the outcome is critical. If you are doing work for a client, it has to meet or exceed their expectations. If you are shooting a wedding, for instance, you can’t say “oops, I didn’t get it; we need to redo the wedding”.

This kind of outcome is the work we deliver. We can and do control that. The outcome we cannot control is whether or not we get selected to shoot the wedding.

Commitment

So when I am discouraged, when I have been rejected, what I can do is commit to doubling down and focusing on my process. I will intensify my technical and artistic effort and I will also become good at marketing. I realize that I cannot make anyone select me, but I can do important things to increase the likelihood that they will.

All of this: technical, artistic and business is part of the process required to succeed in my art. More importantly, I need to always realize that my goal is not to beat someone else, it is to be my best.

Attitude

Flattened

Attitude, that engine that underlies our outlook toward the world. When things go against us it is hard to keep our attitude upbeat. Sometimes I want to just sit and sulk and watch TV until my head rots.

Life can be a tough place. You get turned down for something you wanted; you get sick; you have a car wreck; it seems like there is never enough money. This is the “real” world we all live in. It seems to want to suck the life out of us.

What can you do? I’m going to sidestep the Christian message at this time. I hope you have the assurance that, no matter what happens to you here, you have something better waiting. But this is not the place to go into that.

Well, what I can do is work on my attitude. When I feel beat up it is easy to want the bitter satisfaction of wallowing in it rather than picking myself up and getting on with things. Wallowing is not productive and it does not help anything. It is just a way of feeling sorry for yourself.

Act it

My wife has always been good at acting like she is upbeat even when she is not. It serves her well as a fitness instructor who has to lead multiple classes everyday. I used to think this was silly and maybe a little fake, but now I see it as a very healthy technique for managing everyday bad situations. Many people demonstrate that if you act the way you want to feel then after a while you really begin to feel that way.

Harry Stack Sullivan said “It is easier to act yourself into a new way of feeling than to feel yourself into a new way of acting”. Gretchen Rubin‘s Third Commandment is “Act the way you want to feel”. She goes on to say “Although we presume that we act because of the way we feel, in fact, we often feel because of the way we act.”

Simple, Not Easy

Few important things in life are really this straightforward or simple. When you are really hurting it is hard to act upbeat or encouraging. Sometimes your feelings really do influence your actions. But it is a 2 way street. Deciding to have a good attitude really can help bring us to a better place. Sometimes it may be slow, but it may also be fairly quick. Either way, I recommend learning to act ourselves into feeling better and acting better. It is not dishonest. It is good behavioral psychology to bring about an attitude change by modeling the behavior we what to have.

Getting Real

Enough vague, general philosophy. I have had some strong headwinds in my career lately. Things that cause me to reevaluate my path. It is depressing at times. I want to make art, not worry about things like marketing or advertising. Why does it all have to be hard?

It has to be hard because life is hard and only the strong survive. If it were easy, there would be no accomplishment. In this school everyone does not get a ribbon for participating. If I want to be one of the survivors, one of the successful artists, I have to be able to fight the battles. I have to pick up and keep going when I feel knocked down.

There are peaks and valleys, in art and life. One of the important coping skills is to realize that neither lasts forever. I may be in a deep valley right now, but I know I will rise to a peak when I get my attitude together and get back to pursuing my craft with a solid focus. I can’t control when, but I can know that it will happen. It has in the past and it will again in the future.

Meanwhile, fake it until you make it.

Pretty Pictures

If I call myself an artist, am I allowed to take “pretty pictures”? If you look at fine art galleries and catalogs the answer seems to be no. Some would say I am not an artist if my images are pretty.

I know. I know. This is a long standing conflict. The modernists and postmodernists and surrealists and photojournalists and conceptual and fashion and even environmental activists have seized the microphone and control the dialog right now. According to their designated gatekeepers, “prettiness” is not a worthwhile reason for an image’s existence. It should have deep meaning or angst or futility or confront the evils of modern civilization.

I can’t wholeheartedly support the politically correct party line here. People are wired to perceive beauty. No, beauty is not in the eyes of the beholder. That is a silly notion. There are objective notions of beauty that most people share, regardless of race or culture – a sunset, flowers, waterfalls, mountains, the ocean, certain facial features, human bodies, etc. We are all drawn to these. Even, I believe, the most hard core postmodernist. There may not be much agreement about truth, but there is actually surprising agreement about beauty.

So if we all react to it and we share such common appreciation of beauty, why is it rejected? I think there are a couple of reasons.

First, I think the guild of artists is trying to protect their turf. Everybody who picks up a camera (or phone) rushes to take pretty pictures, so, by implication, it must not be something an artist would do. If everybody is doing it it must not be special; it must not be very valuable. Besides, if 4 billion pretty pictures are taken a day, how can I stand out as an artist?

Second, most artists want to be taken seriously. In the current vernacular this involves being gritty, dark, bland, sometimes ugly, confrontational, challenging. By going the opposite direction of the mainstream we show that we are different. Maybe that makes us an artist. We need to be elitist, above our audience and leading them.

There is some truth to all of these statements. It is necessary for an artist to stand out from the crowd in order to be seen and to make a living. Art is a business. Having a differentiator is good business.

But we should lighten up a bit. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We need an edge to differentiate ourselves, but acknowledge that beauty is still beauty. I may create some totally abstract, even surreal images in the name of “art”, but I am a sucker for a beautiful sunset. I have to shoot it, even if I know I may never show it to anyone. Maybe it’s partly because I am fortunate to live in Colorado where I am surrounded by beauty: mountains, plains, waterfalls, snow, etc. Within 40 miles of my house I go through many of the major climate zones of the country, from high desert to tundra. I love it. And I shoot it. It may not be what the “serious” artists would call art, but I love it and can’t resist.

Is it really art, though? If it is art to me, it is. And if I can create something a little bit above the norm, maybe other people will see it as art, too. I take it fairly slow and disciplined, asking myself “why am I wanting to take this?” I try to come up with a slightly different treatment of the subject. But those are refinements. The truth is I may be taking the picture because it is beautiful to me.

The image accompanying this article is a minor example. I just loved it. That’s why I stopped to take it. Sure, it was the time of day, the stark old barn, the bleakness and loneliness, the composition of the cloud formations, the expanse of the Colorado plains; these and other things. But what grabbed me was the beauty I perceived at the moment. I couldn’t. help myself.

Bottom line is that sometimes beauty triumphs. Beauty is beauty and it is worthwhile even if it is not bringing any “deep” message. We need more beauty in our world.