When the Flash Goes Off

A "drive by" example

The process of taking a photograph is intensely personal, yet there are probably commonalities among the population of artists. I am a hunter, a stalker. I call that instant when I recognize there is a viable picture in front of me “the flash going off”. It is often a blinding recognition.

Disclaimer: some of this was inspired by Michael Freeman. I highly recommend his great book The Photographer’s Mind. It is part of a really good series. I will get no revenue from recommending this.

Let the camera make the decisions?

Long ago, back in the 1940’s, Bill Brandt said “Instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed.” I haven’t researched him enough to know if he was being truthful or if this was a tongue in cheek exaggeration.

Maybe it works for you, but if I just let my camera roam unattended, it doesn’t do much useful work. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I think I am completely guiding and directing the image making process. I may let the camera give me its opinion of things like exposure, but I make all the final decisions.

A theory of the process

OK, I make the creative decisions. How do I do that for scene selection and composition? Have you ever tried to analyze your process for making an image? Many of the things that happen are so fast or are part of such a deep experience base that we are barely aware of what is going on. And if we try to slow down the process enough to reflect on in, it becomes a muddle. I did an experiment once of trying to describe how to tie my shoes. I know how to do it, I can do it quickly and precisely, but to describe it – well, try it.

A possible explanation of the photography process is taken from cognitive vision theory. The basic idea is that, over time, we develop a history of the types of images that we are drawn to, that excite us or interest us. A photographer creates a mental library of these images.

The mind is quite fast at recognizing patterns and matching expectations. When we see a scene we seem to process it through our library and almost instantly recognize a promising image or reject it. This theory makes sense to me, as I recognize that scenes that have features I like seem to jump out at me.

Drive by

Some anecdotal evidence for this is what I see of my scene recognition behavior while I’m driving. It is not unusual for that flash bulb to go off alerting me of something that is probably worthwhile to photograph – about a quarter of a mile after I drive by it. Like this image with this post.

It is hard, mentally, to turn around on the highway and go back to check something out. It is especially hard when my wife is along. She rightly says “why didn’t you stop when you first saw it instead of having to go back?” I can’t get her to understand that when I am driving my mind is primarily occupied with that. The image recognition process is running in the background. This causes it to be delayed a few seconds. But when it gets a hit, it is like a highlight replay. It is clear and obvious, despite my having passed it by.

I’m usually glad when I bite the bullet and go back for the image. Whatever triggered the response is usually worth checking out. I admit, though, I sometimes take a picture even when I don’t like the scene, just so I don’t have to admit to my wife that it wasn’t worth going back for.

Learned library

This library, if it really exists, must be learned. We don’t come prewired with it. Although it could be said that some things, like sunsets, are universal. How do we create the library? Well, we all see images all the time. When we see something that appeals to us perhaps we somehow add it to the library.

A better way is to very consciously go through our catalog of images we have saved. Sort them into 2 piles, the ones we really like and want to build on, and the ones we are cool to and don’t really care about. Study the keepers. Decide what attracts us about them. Thinking about them will help build the library of images that match our vision.

Conclusion

The mind is incredibly powerful at recognizing patterns and matching images. Allow it to help sift through the clutter all around us. Pay attention when the flash bulb goes off. That is our pattern recognizer trying to tell us something important.

Let me know what you think!

To see the kinds of things I respond to, check out my galleries at photos.schlotzcreate.com

Next week I will give an alternative viewpoint to this.

Something out of Nothing

composite art

A great image is more than a subject. Sometimes the obvious subject itself fades to the back and the overall effect of the art becomes dominant. I would call this making something out of nothing.

Geoffrey James, a Canadian photographer, has said “A photograph is more than its subject. The real challenge is to make something out of nothing.” He goes on to say “it used to be everything had to be beautiful, picturesque”, but he was now making images where the subject (something beautiful) was not the notable part of the picture.

I don’t exactly subscribe to his vision, but the phrase captured me.

I find myself frequently making something out of nothing. It’s subtle and difficult to explain. It is not normally about the beauty of a subject. And it is not “it didn’t work in color, try black & white“.

Liberated from reality

I am a fine art photographer. (the term is actually distasteful to me; I consider myself an artist who uses digital media, but that’s a subject for another article.) This is extremely liberating.

One of the things this means to me is that the pixels I capture with the camera are just raw material. I am free to transform them any way I wish to create art. The resulting image may be “about” something entirely different than the original capture. Occasionally I see an opportunity to composite 2 or more images to make something different. I love doing this and I am sometimes surprised at the result.

Back in my early learning curve, I was active in my local photography club. It was great experience and a good organization, except for certain aspects of the competitions. They were narrowly focused on the “purity” of the image. It could have some minor spotting and color correction and cropping, but that was about it. In other words, about what you could do in a chemical darkroom. I’m afraid I generated quite a controversy when I submitted (and won a blue ribbon for) a digitally manipulated image what had some serious warping applied. That was the beginning of my break from any assumption that an image should be “as shot”.

The joy of Photoshop

What a time to be an image maker! Photoshop is a marvelous tool for working with images. There are other tools, but I do not use them so I will not try to act like I know anything about them.

Photoshop brings us almost infinite control over our pixels. It is far better control than the best darkroom masters ever had. We can adjust tone precisely and in totally localized regions. We can adjust color balance and tint in the most subtle or extreme degrees. It allows us to color grade, convert to black & white, remove distractions, selectively sharpen, warp and distort the pixels, and basically do anything possible with pixels. Pixels are raw material.

So images are now completely malleable. There is no reason to stop processing an image until it is exactly what we see in our mind’s eye. When we get done, the image might have a completely different “meaning” or effect than the original. It has been fashioned into a different piece of art.

What do pixels mean?

This has been a difficult transition for me. Coming out of a background that valued a respect for the image “as shot”, it has been hard to give myself permission to push the original image into something completely different. But this is what art is really about. And I love it!

In one sense, pixels are just pixels – a grid of little colored spots. They are a resource the artist has available to work with. Like paint on a canvas, they are there for whatever the artist wants to make of them. If the intent is to enhance the original image, that is great. If the artist wants to shape them into something completely different, that is their privilege and joy.

We are no longer “stuck” with the image we captured. We can make it into something entirely different. In that sense, we make something out of nothing.

If I have misused Mr. James’ quote, I apologize to him. I transformed the raw material through my own values and perspective and made something out of nothing.

Note

Please let me know what you think and what topics you would like me to address. I value your comments.

Is Black & White a “Thing”?

Fields at sunset, black & white

Is Black & White photography an art form in its own or is it a way to salvage images that just didn’t work in color? Hear me out before you flame me. I love B&W and believe it is a special medium.

History

Black & White is where we started. It is our history and beginning. Looking only at commercial films, the early world was totally black & white. There were a variety of film designs, with tradeoffs of speed, contrast, fog level, etc. Because processing was done chemically, the entire roll had to be exposed at the same speed. Generally, a photographer became familiar with a handful of films. Lots of work was required to become familiar with the film’s exposure characteristics. Different films were selected for different uses and effects.

In the black & white days lots of work was done in camera to adjust the tone values. Filters, usually red or orange, were used while shooting. Their selection was based on the artist’s subjective judgement of predicting the outcome.

The system worked pretty well for decades.

Color

Then along came color. It really took off in the 1950’s with the introduction of Kodachrome.

Finally ordinary consumers had what they thought they were missing – a color image. Color film sales dominated black & white.

Digital

In the early 2000’s digital cameras became practical and affordable. Now color film was eclipsed and it virtually disappeared from the market. Digital had better resolution, better dynamic range, it was cheaper, and we could print our own pictures on cheap inkjet printers.

So why, with all these advances, does anyone care about black & white anymore?

Digital saved black & white

The technological benefits that made digital imaging take over mainstream photography also brought huge advances to black & white images. A modern sensor is amazing. It captures more information than black & white film and it captures and retains the color information. This can be used later to tailor the tonality of the b&w image. And it allows far more control than color filters and a chemical darkroom.

The tools we have, like Lightroom and Photoshop, are very advanced and are able to exert a degree of control that would have been unthinkable in the film days. At the same time we have highly mature multichannel inkjet printers with sophisticated inks giving us archival prints. Added to that the development of many types of papers for printing and the options available to a black & white artist today makes this a golden age.

Why black & white?

But color is readily available and everyone can print it cheaply. Why would anyone still want black & white?

This gets to the heart of the issue. A black & white print is perceived as an entirely different experience. Black & white sheds the distraction of color. What is left is tones, shades of gray. These emphasize the shapes and forms of things. Composition and graphic design comes more to the fore. It is an alternate view of reality. That causes us to look at the image differently.

This difference is the beauty of it. It is a different interpretation of the world. The viewer immediately sees it is different and the artist can lead them through his composition more easily to see what he wants to emphasize.

I have heard photographers say “this didn’t work in color, lets try black & white”. That is a very limited perspective. I would turn it around and say “this image really needed the color information to make it work, so we can’t do it in black & white”.

Ansel Adams once said “the negative is the score, and the print is the performance”. This is still true, except the negative is a raw file and the print and processing are all done digitally. No dark room. No chemical mess.

So is black & white a thing in its own right? Definitely! It is a great art form with a long and glorious history. Today is the best time ever to be doing or viewing black & white images!

Art or Craft?

Headlights on a mountain road at sunset

Is photography a “pure” art or is it a craft? One of the arguments against photography is it is too quick and easy. Anyone can do it. It only takes a moment, not days or weeks to create. Let’s examine that.

It’s a medium

Photography is a medium. It is a technology for expressing images. It seems to me that any medium that produces the results the artist wants is a valid medium. I know people with formal training in painting who switched to photography because it better expresses what they want. I have also known people to go the other way, moving to painting after doing photography. That indicates they are equivalent medium.

Any art form is a craft

An artist is a craftsman. To be at the top of your field you have to develop an excellent ability to use the medium you have selected. For photography that is one thing that distinguishes the person who “just takes pictures” from the artist. A tremendous depth of craft and technique has to be mastered to make great fine art photography. I have used photoshop for nearly 20 years and I am still learning new ways to use it all the time. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t spend some time learning and practicing to improve my craft.

What is art vs. craft?

Some have said that art is based on creativity while craft is skilled application of technique. Something you learn from practice. That is a little obscure, basically that if you build the same things over and over it is a craft. Hmm….. That might sweep out a lot of artists.

Most of us have an inherent understanding of the difference between art and craft, even if we can’t articulate it clearly. Hardly anyone would claim that selfies at Disney World are art.

The harder part seems to be asking ourselves if the “art” we are presented is really art. What is that indefinable but perceptible thing that takes a work from just a well executed piece of craft to being called art? We often call it creativity, but that is hard to define. But we all have our values and preferences. I know the things I call art. I’ll leave it to you to define your own.

The point for this blog, though, is that the question of art or craft is independent of the media.

Photography is too easy

The story here is that you just point at something, click the shutter and you have an image you are trying to sell as art. It was too quick and easy. You have to suffer for art. It isn’t art unless it required hours of labor.

So if it is easy it’s not art? But a good painter thinks painting is easy. A good sculptor thinks sculpting is easy. A good writer thinks that is the hardest thing in the world. Oops – wrong argument. The point is that easy is relative and subjective.

It seems to me the discussion should revolve around did you, could you, would you. Did you take a picture just like that? Or did you look past it? Could you have done this? Ignoring the “my kid could have painted something like this splotch of color” reactions, could you really have captured this image? Do you have the technical knowledge, the equipment, the time to invest, the image processing skill, and the eye to have seen and composed the image? And would you? Would you really see this, or would you have walked by in a fog of busy thoughts that occupy most of us too much?

Capturing an image in the way the artist wants it can take days, months, even years. Realize that some of the images you quickly dismiss were long term projects. And for an artist, an image is never finished out of the camera. Each one requires extensive processing. This is one of the great creative processes in photography.

Are you ready to say it can’t be art unless it was hand carved from marble?

It’s a creative act

The same amount of creativity goes into photography as any other work that considers itself art. The technology may be very different, the process may be different, but it is still creativity. Creativity is hard and requires a lot of work on the part of the artist. Good art is art and craft. There is something that sets some works apart as not just craft. It is easy to recognize but hard to define.

Because it is so hard to define, be careful. It is fair to say that an image doesn’t appeal to you. Be careful judging that it is not art.