Far Enough


“You don’t know you’ve gone far enough until you’ve gone too far.”John Paul Caponigro

This very insightful quote by Mr. Caponigro has become important to me. But before getting too far into it, I need to deal with a basic assumption it is based on. It assumes that you will be processing your images heavily. Not everyone believes or practices this. I didn’t either for a long time

Do I need to process images?

Yes is the basic answer. The bits that come out of the sensor that you load into Lightroom or whatever you use to process your images are not just RAW, they are “raw”. It is a faithful data capture but it is not what you remembered or want to see.

Any image needs basic sharpening, contrast adjustment, color correction, and usually tone mapping. In addition there are esthetic changes like removing distractions, cropping, vignetting, etc. All this is usually necessary just to create a “straight” version of the image that faithfully matches the scene you saw.

Once you have bought in to the need for processing, now the question becomes “how much?”

What is the picture?

Every artist must be able to answer for themselves what their goal is for an image. Is it a faithful rendering of the scene as they remembered it? Or is it to create an interesting piece of art?

The answer has a lot to do with the type and amount of processing they will allow themselves. The answer is a personal and artistic decision. There is no right or wrong.

For me personally, the further I go as an artist, not just a photographer, the more tolerant I become of serious modifications.

On the other hand, in an article in the September 2019 issue of Photoshop User Magazine, Ramtin Kazemi states “I will never change the permanent subject matter of a scene”. His self imposed limit is that he will not move a tree or remove a boulder, although he may make dramatic changes in lighting and color. He will also change “impermanent” things like clouds. This is his decision as an artist. I will not criticize his choice. That does not mean it binds any boundaries on my artistic vision.

How far is enough?

When you give yourself permission to dramatically alter the basic image it opens up significant artistic opportunities. The digital tools we have today are marvelous. Artists today can do far more post processing than ever before; vastly more than chemical darkroom users ever could.

We have such an embarrassment of riches that it can be a challenge to know when to stop. This is part of what Mr. Caponigro was talking about. How do you know you have taken your artistic vision to its limit?

You do it by taking it beyond your limit and them backing off. I believe you will only know what your personal limit is in any dimension by going to the point where you say “too much”. Now you have found a limit for this image for where you are right now. In other words, the limits are moving targets and you need to keep pushing to find where they are today.

And that is just talking about post processing. The same applies to how we approach all of our art. Push the boundaries. Keep trying new things.

Use the tools

The marvelous tools we have usually allow non-destructive editing. Most of the tools have a workflow that can be adopted to allow us to remove or modify changes and make different decisions in the future.

For instance, Smart Objects in Photoshop allow most adjustments to be edited at a later time. Using new layers and adjustment layers prevents making permanent changes in the basic image information. Lightroom is inherently non-destructive for al its adjustments.

So assume you do your basic image correction in Lightroom. Push all the adjustment to the point where you say “I don’t think so”, then back them off to the point that seems best. This works for all the controls in Lightroom. You can come back to an image months later and visualize it differently. You can re-process it with no loss of fidelity. I do this often.

I occasionally see artists doing tutorials who still do destructive editing. That is, they do things like making a couple of adjustments in Photoshop and then merging them down. This commits them as a permanent, uneditable part of the image. Their work is beautiful. They must have such confidence in their artistic vision that they know they will never change their mind.

I admire them, but that doesn’t work for me. I am forever learning and seeing differently. I like doing “what if” exercises, where I take an old image and try new things with it. I am sometimes amazed at what I discover.

Is there a “too far”?

If there a “too far” point, it can only be decided by each individual artist. I know I lean towards a lot more processing of my images now than I did a few years ago. I also realize it is a moving target for me.

On any individual adjustment I can usually find a “too far” point. But in the larger sense, I do not believe there is a fixed point beyond which we should not go. There is no edge of the earth point where we fall off into chaos. The limit for any image is determined by my current artistic vision and my intent for the image. It is fair game to use any and all of the tools available to create the art I visualize. Ultimately, the far enough point is a personal judgment.

Your mileage may vary.

Dealing With Plateaus

Ice plateau

Plateaus are not only common in the landscape, they happen metaphorically in our lives in various ways. A simple dictionary definition of the type of plateau I am discussing is “a state of little or no change following a period of activity or progress“. In other words. we’re stuck for a while.

Life is not a linear progression. We’re not always moving forward to achieving goals and bettering ourselves. No matter how good our intentions or our will power, there are plateaus where things go level for a while.

This is frustrating, but something to accept. The plateaus are probably necessary to let us regroup and “catch up”. Kind of like getting a good night’s sleep. Usually we go on and start progressing again.

Like losing weight

Some of us have a body type that easily puts on weight. When it gets bad, we have to take some action to get our weight back in control. I hope you don’t have this problem.

Dieting is a futile activity. It doesn’t work long term. My strategy is cutting back eating to what I need and getting more exercise. But this is not a rant on dieting.

As I lose weight I hit plateaus sometimes. There doesn’t seem to be a reason for them. I haven’t changed what I’m doing. It’s just that sometimes the same actions do not get the same results. Sometimes my weight even goes up with no discernible cause. It can be very frustrating if I don’t remind myself that this is natural and expected.

Plateaus in our art

Progressing in our art is kind of like losing weight. We work at it diligently, but sometimes it is an up and down process and sometimes we get stuck at a plateau. I think we have to accept it and keep working.

We can’t force it. Inspiration, creativity, the muse, whatever you call it is not a constant part of our life. We don’t know why it chooses to visit us sometimes and not others. But that is the way it works.

As a matter of fact, what I observe is if we get too frustrated and try to force the creativity to happen, we are very disappointed with the results. Let it be and wait for it to happen.

Be persistent

We can’t force the creativity to come, but we can do things to encourage it. When we’re on a plateau, of even in a valley, I find it helps to train, to learn, to seek inspiration from other’s work. This is a great time for study, reading, reflection, trying new things. Not a discouraged resignation that our creative life is over. If a plateau is kind of like sleeping, get a good sleep. It helps a lot of things and life looks better in the morning.

Keep working, just don’t focus on the truly creative work at this time. I know I always have a lot of filing and cataloging to do. Re-evaluating portfolio selections and changing things around. It is a good time to contact galleries and submit to shows. Do the dreaded marketing that I put off when I’m “too busy being creative” to do it. Maybe even catch up on my bookkeeping. Yuch. But is needs to be done.

Accept the dark times, they will end

Know for a fact that the dark times will end. Trust that your creativity is not “used up”. Creativity breeds creativity. If you have been creative in the past it will happen in the future. Probably even better and stronger.

A plateau is a temporary stage. Our mind will decide when it is time to move on.

Use the plateau time wisely. It will help you come out the other side stronger and better equipped to move on.

Relish the joy of moving to the next stage

Finally it happens. One day you wake up with a renewed vision, a new point of view, an eagerness to resume work. Rejoice in it. Fill your work with the new vision.

You are rejuvenated. All is well. You are still an artist.

Enjoy. Do your best work. Know that the cycle will repeat and more plateaus are coming. But trust that they are temporary and you will come out even better. That actually gives you hope.

And I hope I will break through my current weight plateau and achieve my goals. 🙂

Is Digital Imaging Going to Stick Around?

Distorted view through a screen

Got ‘ya. 🙂 Sorry to disappoint, but this is not a rant against digital imaging or a plea for a return to the “good old days” of film. Digital imaging is a technology. As such it should be a neutral consideration. It doesn’t matter if our art if it is created “digitally” or by some other means.

It’s just a technology

Art, by its nature, is created with a medium using specific technology. Digital imaging is the currently popular medium and technology used by most photographers. If I were writing this 30 years ago, the medium would be film and no one would give it a second thought.

That is one reason I think it strange that people feel the need to qualify it most of the time. It is said to be digital photography using a digital camera and modified using digital post processing. To me that is putting undue emphasis on the technology.

Pushing the limits

Any medium or any technology has limits. Artists are inspired by pushing the limits of the medium. Whether it is painting or music or photography, a great craftsman knows the capabilities of the medium he is using. It becomes a game, a quest, to push the limits of the technology to create new art.

But photography is fairly unique in that the technology is advancing rapidly. I don’t think people are inventing new cellos ( well, there are the electronic ones…). The quality and capability of oil paints is probably improving slowly, but not being revolutionized. Digital photography is a much less mature technology and it is based on the electronic and integrated circuit industry, which is huge and rapidly moving. Consequently we tend to think of getting a new shiny gadget that pushes out the boundaries rather than learning the limits and using them as part of our art. That is a problem for photographers.

I love the quality of my equipment and the things I can express with it. But there is a tendency for most people to focus too much on the technology. The resolution, the dynamic range, the focusing, the low noise are easy to see as the important thing. I am glad these things are improving all the time. Too often, though, we get caught up in looking at what the technology can accomplish rather than focusing on what the artist is doing with it.

Art is made by an artist, not a camera

It is easy to get blinded by the brilliance of the technology and loose sight of the fact that ultimately, we should be talking about the art. Art is made by an artist, not a camera. An artist can make exciting art with a cell phone or a disposable film camera. Resolution and dynamic range do not make art.

I am delighted to admit that my main camera is a mirrorless 46MPix wonder. The image quality is remarkable. I will confess that in one part of my work I like super detailed, crunchy sharp images. But I also, more and more, find myself making extreme abstracts that are unrecognizable from the original capture. The technology enables this, because the images have such depth and fidelity to begin with that they can survive serious processing. Pushing the limits. The technology lets me do these things. It does not do any of them for me.

I love the technology and I make use of it, but it is not digital art, it is just art.

It’s not perfect

Saying that digital is just a technology also admits that is is not perfect. It is so good that it has displaced film, but it is not ultimate truth. Someday it too will be displaced by something else.

A digital image is simply an array of pixels. That means there are artifacts that become obvious at extreme magnification. The sensors are getting better all the time, but that is a built-in limitation of the technology.

A digital sensor can only capture about 14 bits of dynamic range (+/- 2). This is 16,384 brightness steps for each color. It is amazing how good this looks, but it is far short of the capability of the human eye. And the sensor is linear while the eye response is logarithmic. Again, the eye had a significant advantage.

Technically, current digital imaging products are the best photographic devices that have ever been made. Technically. That does not mean they produce better art.


Another important consideration for digital imaging is that it is and has promoted an ephemeral view of images. Digital images have fed the huge social media, entertainment industry, online viewing trend. People have become used to glancing at images for about 1 second or less and moving on. This has tended to devalue most images. Especially if they are on a screen.

I don’t believe this short attention span culture is healthy for the viewers or artists.

But there is a still more insidious problem with digital images: they have no physical presence. Did you at some time end up with a shoe box of family pictures that brought important memories back? Did you discover and enjoy a drawer full of negatives and old prints at your parents? Those do not exist any more.

Digital images only exist on your computer or in “the cloud”. E.g. once the computer dies or you stop paying for the cloud, they are gone. Totally. No record of their existence. A career of art, a lifetime of family memories can disappear in an instant.

This is a dark side of digital imaging.

Prints are even more important

Because digital images are so ephemeral, I believe it is even more important now to make prints of important images. Prints have substance, weight, physical presence. They seem much more real than an image on the screen. And they are.

A print is “permanent” – well, maybe 100 years for a good quality pigment print on professional paper. When you handle it it has weight and the image seems important. It is something that can be displayed proudly on your wall to view often and for others to see. It can be handed down to others later. A print is a real material thing, not just a bunch of bits.

Some photographers say an image isn’t finished until it is printed. More and more I’m coming to agree with that view.

Will it stick?

So, will digital imaging stick around? Sure. It already has. It is really hard to find film any more. Even harder to get it processed. Digital has become so clearly superior to the alternatives that it has displaced them all. That is not to say it does not have faults. Everything does.

But digital is just a technology. It will dominate until something better comes along. A technology does not make art. What an artist does with the medium is art. A super high tech digital camera is not a requirement to make art.

I would much rather be remembered as an artist than as someone who was very proficient with digital technology.

What You See

A different view of some wine glasses

An amazing artist, Karen Hutton, said “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” This is very wise. We cannot always control our environment. We cannot always surround ourselves with astounding subjects and grand scenes. Our environment should not control our art. Even when we are looking at a grand scene we should see it differently than others.

We can’t always control what is around us

It is easy to say to ourselves “poor me, I’m stuck in [fill in the blank]; I can’t take time off to go to the Grand Tetons to shoot amazing landscapes, so I guess I can’t do anything.” Get over it. An artist explores the subjects he can find around him.

Adapt. Reframe the possibilities. What you see should be a trigger. Your surroundings are a canvas you can create on.

Get excited about the environment around you rather than disappointed about where you are not. It is hard to put me someplace where I can’t find great images. That is not bragging. I’m curious about everything I see. That leads me to explore with a good attitude. My curiosity helps me seek out visually interesting things.

That is not to say we should be equally excited about everything. Each of us is called to by different types of subjects and situations. Flowers, for instance, do not excite me to do much. I know they are a great subject for many people, but you will very seldom see me present a flower image.. Unless I figure out something to do with it that I consider “interesting”.

You don’t require an amazing subject to make art

I am the artist. I can’t not look for image possibilities wherever I am. It is not my subject’s job to be so dramatic and interesting that I can just lazily point my camera in its direction and make a great image. I might even say that the more difficult a subject is to “capture” the more it excites me. I have to work at it.

The image is created in my mind. It is my reaction to the subject that forms the picture. Artists over the centuries have made wonderful pictures of bowls of fruit or fields of wheat or city streets.

Monet is a good example. Except for some time in the Netherlands and England, he found most of his scenes in a small area of northern France. He could take something I would walk by without noticing and make a great picture of it. That is making art, not just finding it.

And isn’t that what we should be doing? Shouldn’t an artist make art out of what is around?

What can you do with what you see?

Using Monet as an example again, he narrowed and narrowed his focus down to the point where he spent the later part of his career almost exclusively painting scenes of the lily pond in his garden. But he perceived art and drama in the intricacies of the color shifts and light at different times and different seasons. His images of this are amazing.

That subject doesn’t really excite me. I would love to see his gardens, but if I went there I would shoot some images to record his famous garden, maybe try to do a study of the shapes and colors, but it is unlikely I would create any real art there. He has already done it and that is not where I should spend my time.

But some things jump out to me that escape most other people. And they do not have to be grand scenes.

Nearly every day I wander around my little town. Of necessity, this is where I spend most of my time. I try to keep my eyes open and attentive for things that interest me. I’m not always successful, but a day seldom goes by without taking some pictures.

When you are “stuck” in one fairly boring location, you learn to scale your perception accordingly. I learn to be aware of smaller, more subtle things. After seeing the same scene a hundred times I sometimes suddenly perceive it differently. Maybe this is kind of what Monet did.

Everyone sees different

As Karen Hutton said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” We all see differently, or at least we should. If we train ourselves to understand and express our vision and feelings for the subject then our artistic interpretation will be unique.

Do we want to make images that are simply a record of a location or would we prefer to show the way we perceive it? One of the problems that de-values photography for many people is that much photography is it is just a camera pointed at a scene. If we cannot reveal our emotions or our beliefs or our point of view then there is seldom anything special about it.

Do you want to be one of the photographers fighting for tripod space to record a famous scene at the perfect time of day with the perfect lighting? Or would you rather turn around and find something interesting the other direction? Something they would not see because they were fixated on the iconic scene?

Maybe that is a foolish question, since so many people are intent on shooting the same image over and over. But for me, I would rather be the one seeing something different. As Apple said in their famous ad campaign, Think Different.

What do you see?