Improvement

Results of an experiment

In a recent post I quoted Todd Vorenkamp saying “Search yourself for improvement, not your gear”. I believe that our improvement needs to come from within us, not from better gear. What is your plan to make yourself a better artist? Do you have one? I am an Engineer. I know that nothing gets better by accident. We all need a plan and strategies to improve ourselves. I am not saying we need a 5 year plan or a 10 step process. But we need to consciously strive for improvement.

Study

Whatever you believe in and value and spend your life doing, you should be a lifelong student of. We are lucky to live at a time when we have so many channels for learning available to us.

If you were an aspiring artist in the 16th century you would have to apprentice to a master. There you would spend several years doing grunt work and menial tasks while studying the basics of drawing. Eventually you might advance to a stage where you were trusted to add some parts to a painting the master started. Someday you might be trusted to make copies of the master’s work. Now after 10-15 years you could be deemed ready to go out on your own. Of course, all you know is your master’s style. You don’t really know what you want to be yet. A pretty poor system in my opinion.

Now, though, there are an abundance of schools and online classes. There are books and magazines. There are mentors available and unlimited examples to view online. Most of us are reasonably close to good museums where we can examine great art at will. We could spend all our time studying and never make an image if we are not disciplined.

Online classes

I have gotten lots of good information from classes at CreativeLive and Kelby One. B&H Explora has a great free library to view, among all the sales stuff. Anything by Julieanne Kost is extremely worthwhile. Some other great instructors are Dave Cross and Ben Willmore. I do not receive any compensation for these plugs. Many of these things require subscription. It is worth paying for good instruction. For free stuff, there is more on YouTube than you could ever watch. Be careful. Be wary in deciding who you are going to listen to, especially on YouTube. It’s the wild west.

One reason I love Julianne Kost, besides that there may not be anyone on the planet who knows more about Photoshop, is that she said “I don’t want a recipe, I want to learn to cook.” This is wise advice. A lot of training presents recipes to do exactly what the instructor did. I don’t want that. I want to know how to fix my own dishes, to create my own recipes. She is good at presenting her training from that point of view.

The real thing is to do it continually. Learning should be a habit we cultivate for our whole life. We never know all of everything. It might be harder to find new and deeper things to learn, but it is there. I suggest you commit to study as an ongoing process, not an event.

Critique

I will put this here, even though I am very bad at it. It has been a long time since I went for a formal critique of my work.

I know it can be valuable. I remember years ago when I was in a camera club the critique was good discipline. As I matured, I also learned that you had to carefully evaluate it, because most critique was normative. It was trying to mold me to fit the biases of the group or the evaluator. Use at your own risk. Be smart about it.

I hear there are some good critique sessions you can submit your work to for evaluation. I have not done it, but I would if I found one I trust.

Possibly the most valuable thing about critiques is that they get you used to hearing negative comments about your work. This, in itself, is good training.

Experiment

There is a big difference between 20 years of experience and 1 year of experience repeated 20 times. A lot of people get trapped by their success. They become known for a style and feel they have to keep doing it for fear they may lose their audience.

I believe an artist grows and evolves throughout their career. Your interests change, your style may change, certainly your point of view changes. How will you follow these changes unless you give yourself permission to experiment some?

That doesn’t mean you have to suddenly make an abrupt 90 degree turn and go a completely new direction. Experiments may be personal. Most of them will fail. Some, though, will have a glimmer of a new idea, a new viewpoint. Follow up on them. Keep pushing.

A willingness to experiment and play is healthy. It will keep us fresh and creative as an artist. Evaluate what you have learned about yourself from the experiments and decide what to keep and build on.

A note about the image with this article: this was the result of an experiment. I liked it. Other people seemed to agree, since it went into a gallery and sold.

Be open and flexible

Are you willing to entertain new ideas? New technology and techniques? New points of view that are alien to your normal thoughts? You don’t have to buy in to them. You don’t have to adopt them.

Stretching yourself with new ideas is kind of like yoga for the mind. You stay flexible. When a mind becomes rigid and inflexible it shuns new ideas, new thoughts. The creative place within us requires fuel, new possibilities, new ways of looking at things. Otherwise we stay in our comfortable rut.

Creativity is like anything else with our bodies. We have to work at it to develop. If we don’t exercise we lose the ability to move and we get unhealthy. Likewise, being open to new things is an attitude, a habit. We can work to get better at it.

Think about it

We should be our own best critic and our own best evaluator. If you’re an artist, how can you not obsess about your art? It is a major part of your life. It should occupy a lot of your thought.

I am an introvert and an Engineer. That gives me an ability to look at my work fairly objectively. I know that will not be the same for everyone. We are all different.

But whatever talents we have, we need to learn to be able to evaluate our work fairly. You see what other artists do. You know your own work. What you do has to stack up against your own expectations and your evaluation. We never think we have arrived at the pinnacle. And we shouldn’t. Hopefully we will always be growing.

Thinking about where we are and where we need to go will help us plot our course. Being realistic will help keep us from deluding our self and also keep us from beating our self up. Don’t be negative. Improvement is a lifestyle. Look for new ideas. Embrace new points of view. Experiment with things that are very different that what we normally do. Grow.

What’s not here?

Your equipment is probably not holding you back significantly. Learn to think. Creatively visualize new things. Try new techniques. Grow into the artist you want to be. Then you will do wonders with that expensive new camera. πŸ™‚

Do You Need A New Camera?

An early image from my D800.

The reflexive answer is “Yes, of course”. Most of us lust for new equipment. But think about it a bit. What about your camera is holding you back? How will having a new camera make you a better and more creative photographer?

Resolution

Resolution is one of the technical parameters of cameras that increases over time. It is an easy thing to measure and use as a figure of merit for comparing cameras. Is it a good measure?

Well, yes, more is better, some of the time. It depends on your needs. Will you be making and selling prints that are 48″ or larger? You probably need a lot of resolution. But even then, it depends on what you shoot. If your subjects are highly detailed and you want your viewers to be able to come up nose-length to the print and see every bit of the fine detail, well, it comes with a cost. You want all the resolution you can get. And more.

Be aware there is a cost. Not just the price of the camera. File sizes get huge. After I’ve taken an image into Photoshop for editing I sometimes end up with files that are more than 4GBytes in size. Everything has to scale up with this: the computer memory, all my disk sizes, including backups, memory card size and cost, and my speed of working slows down.

So far it is worth it to me, but there will be a limit.

Speed

One of the other metrics people use to justify a new camera is image capture speed. If your current camera can “only” take 5 frames a second wouldn’t it be a lot better to have one that takes 10 frames a second?

Maybe. It depends on what you do. I no longer shoot sports so this has become insignificant to me. Occasionally I need to take a burst of a few frames to try to capture a certain moment. It is becoming more and more rare, though. I usually challenge myself to use my instincts developed over the years to know how to recognize and capture the “decisive moment” instead of blasting through a group of 20 frames hoping the one I want is in there somewhere. It usually works well for me and I feel like a better craftsman.

Again, your mileage will vary. It depends on the real needs you have. Don’t just optimizing specs.

Dynamic range

Dynamic range is one that can draw me. This is the range of dark to light values the sensor can reliably record.

I often have very wide exposure ranges in my images. It is much better for me to be able to capture the entire range in one frame instead of relying on putting together an HDR set. This is because many of my pictures are strongly oriented to motion. That makes each frame unique. It is almost impossible to stack them for HDR.

But are you really at a disadvantage with what you have today? I shoot Nikon, so that is all I can talk about. Full frame Nikons since at least the D800 (about 2012?) have excellent dynamic range. So if you have a high end camera that is not more than about 10 years old it probably does a very good job. Note, the image with this blog is one of my earliest pictures shot on my D800. Great camera.

Are you really being held back?

I suggest you give it careful consideration before laying out a lot of money on a new camera. Unless you just have thousands sitting around that you want to get rid of. If so, congratulations. Check out my prints. πŸ™‚

Instead of “do I need a new camera” maybe a better question for yourself is “how do I make better images?” This is much more difficult and important. And it is something you can do without spending much money.

Ansel Adams once said β€œThe single most important component to a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” Meaning, of course, that the photographer, the artist,, determines the quality of the image. Do you have the skills to get the best from the equipment you have now? Do you really know all the ways you can edit and improve your “negatives”?

Todd Vorenkamp, whose opinion I’ve come to respect, said:

“Search yourself for improvement, not your gear. A great photographer can make a great photograph with any camera. A poor photographer can make a poor photograph with the world’s most expensive camera. Photography is a technologically based art form, but the technology does not make the art, the human behind the camera does. Do not look for solutions in something that runs on batteries and arrives in a box. “

I believe this. And it is a gutsy thing for Todd to say, because he works for a large camera retailer. BTW, B&H is a great place to buy your equipment. Be assured I get no compensation for this plug.

We have come to a time where camera designers are pushing the limits of physics. Improvement in resolution and dynamic range are getting much harder. Incremental Engineering improvements still happen all the time, but true breakthroughs are more rare. Newer cameras usually have small improvements and more bells and whistles to have to learn.

How to move forward

Most photographers are always shopping for shiny new equipment and the greatest new technology. I include myself. Nikon, if you’re listening, I would love for you to bring out a 100MPixel mirrorless body. I would probably put my deposit down immediately.

But Todd is right, and Ansel is right – it is the photographer that makes the difference. I believe you should not go for a new camera (and the computer processing to go with it) until you are confident you can wring all the performance possible from your current one. Best to master your current tools before getting new ones to learn.

Are your techniques good enough to make the best image the camera is capable of? Are you confident you can edit well enough to achieve your goals? Maybe hardest of all, do you understand your vision for what you want to create?

When you can honestly assess those questions I think you will know when it is time to move on. Maybe you do need a new camera.

The Value of Editing

Rusted old Chevrolet against a contrail

Image editing has great value beyond just the corrections done.

I often hear photographers state a goal of minimizing or even eliminating the time they spend on the computer editing images. Some say they don’t like technology. Or maybe they are too busy to spend the time editing. There are some who seem to think that a well executed image should already be complete right out of the camera.

I believe all of these attitudes are mistaken.

Technology

I have ceased to like technology for it’s own sake. I’m not impressed nearly as much as I used to be by fast chips with great graphic processing and lots of memory. However, the computer is a necessary tool. Virtually all imaging is done digitally now. Digital images need a fast computer to process them efficiently.

Like it or not, photography is probably one of the most technical art forms you can find. It is inextricably linked to technology. The computer is our darkroom. Just like Ansel Adams and his generation spent hours in the wet darkroom processing their images so we will spend hours at our computer doing the same.

Of course, we have the advantage of being able to have a nice glass of wine next to us while we work. πŸ™‚

The inescapable fact is that computer-based processing is required for modern photography. In practice, this means learn to love Lightroom and Photoshop.

I have seen videos from well known photographers describing their process and it is apparent they only have a limited depth of Photoshop knowledge. Yes, results are what count, but I am sorry for them. They could possibly do more if they became more familiar with the technology they use. A craftsman should be an expert with their tools.

So if a computer is a necessary tool for our art then we should consider getting an adequate one. Bigger is better here. Bigger meaning more speed, more cores, more memory, more graphics, etc. Get one that makes editing very large files as speedy as possible. It is part of the cost of doing business.

Need for editing

It is a common misconception that the image you just downloaded from your high-end camera should be ready to share or print with little processing. Some people are able to do this for limited applications. For instance, I have seen wedding photographers or sports photographers who are able to ship their images out to clients almost immediately. What you often don’t see is the preparation that enabled that. They are able to shoot and ship jpg files and they spend lots of time getting their exposure and white balance dialed in before the shoot, along with presets for their typical processing steps.

This can work excellently for an experiences artist. But only for certain niches.

If you are following this blog I hope you do not shoot jpg files. For landscape or fine art RAW files are a requirement to make all the sensor information available to you for editing. Most of us need to dedicate the time for processing our RAW files.

Wasted Time?

OK, our images need some processing. Is the goal to minimize this time? To what end?

Something I am discovering is that, at a higher level, the goal is not to see how many images I can accumulate. The goal should be to make great art. I hear people complain that time at the computer takes away from time shooting. Yes, it does. That isn’t all bad.

I am even starting to consciously throttle my image making production because I get too far behind on the processing and refinement. Making new images is a joy. I would prefer to be out in the field shooting. But a balance is necessary and the follow on editing is equally important.

The images have to be assimilated and processed, both by my computer and by me. This is the process I am referring to as editing.

Value of editing

What I have come to realize is that editing is not just about making some corrections in an image so I can get on to shooting more. Editing is an extensive and necessary process. There is the filing and culling. There is the tagging and quick corrections. Then there is the more extensive edits required to bring a promising image to fruition. Sometimes over and over. Finally, there is more culling. Yes, ample opportunity to throw things away. And be sure to set aside time to play and experiment.

I am not a conceptual artist. Unless I am working on a project I do not shoot planned or designed images. Most of my images are discoveries, something that captured my imagination. Because of this the value of an image may not be consciously recognized by me until much later.

Some of my images need time to mature, time for me to understand why I was drawn to them in the first place. Sometimes this requires trying several variations on editing an image. And time. It just takes time for a tricky image.

The realization can sneak up slowly or it can come in a flash of insight. It is great when I finally understand a difficult image. Sometimes it never happens and I end up just filing it away or even deleting it.

I have written before that we should kill our darlings. It is painful but true. One mark of our maturity is what we choose to keep.

Understanding

It sounds mystical, but editing, for me, has become much more than correcting an image. The time spent with my images is a key part of the process of me understanding my art. I start to see patterns of being drawn to recurring themes. Understanding the way I subconsciously work a subject over time is significant. When I spend more time with my existing images I can gather more insight to better understand my art and myself.

Just the time spent browsing, culling, rearranging, and grading my images has led me to better understanding of some of the themes that are important to me. By removing good images that no longer align with my style or interests my portfolio gets stronger. Less is more.

So, if anything, editing time is becoming more and more valuable to me. I value it as a necessary and important part of the image creation process. Your mileage may vary, but this is where I am.

Teamwork

A crowd of trees. Working together or independently?

Teamwork can be a great thing. In my professional life I have been on excellent teams and worked with talented people to achieve amazing results. Different people can bring varied background and experiences to the mix and blend them to achieve good results.

Art, though, is a different thing. We are basically not trying to create a good result or a solid product, we are creating a work of art. Art is inherently not a team sport. It is a creation from one head – the artist’s. Some artists use a team, but they supplement the effort of the artist. The creativity and decisions come from one head.

Teamwork does not lead to creativity

I am going to have to say some controversial things. Things that go against the conventional wisdom you hear everyday. But all “conventional wisdom” should be challenged sometimes.

Collaboration is not creativity. It sounds like I am dismissing collaboration as useless. Not so. There are good times for it. Collaboration can let us overcome obstacles and come up with solutions to hard problems.

Working collaboratively is all the buzz in the corporate world. Schools have picked it up as the great thing for doing projects. I was there for years and my experience was that collaboration is a leveling process. It lets a group create at around the average of their capabilities. It is like the Olympic scoring where they throw out the high and low scores and average the rest.

This may be decent insurance for a company. It ensures that they will probably get OK work not poor work, but it is not creativity. I have not seen these efforts lead to actual original, creative solutions. And I have been through lots of creativity exercises with very capable teams. Even sessions facilitated by top consultants.

Let me concede for the moment that a team effort may lead to a creative solution. Whose creativity is that? Can I call this my creative work? Other people directly contributed to it. Is it really mine?

A lonesome sport

For an artist, the buck stops here. The artist has no one else to blame or defer to. No one else is responsible for coming up with the ideas and making the decisions. Right or wrong, it is his call.

Think what goes through your mind when you see an art piece: what was the artist thinking? Why did the artist make these decisions? Why even choose that subject? You don’t wonder if the artist’s team did mind mapping or used a focus group to select and refine the ideas and style. No, you assume the art is the work of a singular artist.

It can be lonesome and terrifying. As an artist you are sometimes almost paralyzed with fear and uncertainty. There is the terror of the blank canvas, when you don’t seem able to come up with ideas. There is the embarrassment of riches, where you have several images you like a lot but are unable to select the one to present. A certain subject is calling to you. Should you pursue that, even though it is different from your normal work? Should you go with the creativity you feel or play it safe and stick to producing work that is safe and mainstream?

Only you as the artist can solve these problems and answer these questions. That is, only you can answer them for you. Your answers are part of what make your art your art.

Teamwork examples

OK, to answer your objection that teamwork can work sometimes. Yes, it can, in certain ways. There are husband and wife teams like Wendy Shattil and Bob Rozinski or Sarah Marino and Ron Coscorrosa that work together very closely. And there are great friends who collaborate closely, like Tony Hewitt and Peter Eastman. These are very healthy, symbiotic relationships.

From what I’ve seen, these teams work closely on idea generation and location scouting. They give each other very candid and honest critique. They encourage each other and honestly want the other to succeed. But at the end of the day, they are in competition. Only one name goes on the print. They collaborate, but the final art is one person’s work.

If it was not one person’s work it would be a corporate product, not art.

A land of introverts

It has been said that a disproportionate number of artists are introverts. I believe that is true. We tend to enjoy working alone without having to negotiate with anyone to get something done. We are OK being in our heads without needing the validation of other people’s opinions. And many of us are shy. It is easier to create in silence than to ask other people for help or critique.

We may get completely caught up in our work, almost as a way to hide from the world. It is safe – until we have to exhibit it or sell it. We can let our inner self be expressed through our art rather than have to interact with people.

I disagree, though, that it is disproportionate. Who says what the right proportion is? Given the descriptions above it seems natural that introverts would gravitate to art. That is like saying a disproportionate number of talk show hosts are extroverts. No, the introverts run away from that and say “you can have it”.

Teamwork is not the natural style for us introverts. We tend to be very independent and self reliant. Not to say we are immune to fear and self doubt. If anything we are more susceptible to it. But good or bad, we want it to be our own work.

A circular argument

Since this is based on my first person experience, it is somewhat of a circular argument. The thesis is that artists are generally introverts and don’t do teamwork. This is true of my experience in my world. That is all I can really speak for.

There certainly are many successful extrovert artists. These people would need lots of interaction with other people and need to bounce ideas off other people. But even so, who creates the art?

Let me come back to the original thought. Introvert or extrovert, the art is almost always the creative expression from one head. It is not a team sport. We can get inspired and motivated by talking to other people. People can stimulate us or give us feedback to help point us in a slightly different direction. But in the end, no one but me is responsible for what I create. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Failing

Walking in the rain

Most of us fear failing. We often avoid taking a risk because we don’t want to fail and feel bad about ourselves. This is a deep seated behavior that is hard for most of us to overcome. Fear of failing can paralyze us.

But I feel that, if you are an artist, you do not have the luxury of always playing it so safe you can never fail.

Fear failure?

Most of us fear failure in most things. Maybe almost as much as we fear public speaking.

Are you a perfectionist? Are your expectations so high that you cannot try new things for fear that you might not do a good job? Does even thinking about the possibility of failing give you rapid heart rate, chest tightness, trembling, dizziness, lightheadedness, sweating?

Or, sorry I’m getting very personal with myself now, are you afraid you are a fake? That you are not good enough or able to do what you profess to do?

Do not believe the labels other people want to put on you. They are quick to want to do it. Did you get rejected for that exhibit you applied for? It doesn’t mean you are a failure. Did a gallery reject you? They were just looking for something else. You can’t really be a failure unless you accept that you are.

Accept disappointment

Not getting the recognition or sales we are seeking hurts. Being rejected by the ones we seek approval from is painful and discouraging.

We have to have a core of confidence in our ability that will keep us going. Our belief in our self must be stronger that the negative messages we get from the outside. Otherwise we will either give up or we will believe that our art is not worthwhile the way we want to do it and we will change to try to become someone else’s idea of an artist. That is living a lie.

We must persist. There are very few true “overnight successes”. Here are some examples from authors. They seem to keep score more.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers.

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill was rejected by 16 publishers before he decided to get an agent. The agent eventually rejected him as well.

Chicken Soup for the Soul, by Jack Canfeld and Mark Victor Hansen, was rejected 140 times.

Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times.

These are just anecdotes, data points. Your mileage will vary. But isn’t it great that these people persisted despite what must have seemed like overwhelming failure?

Redefine

Perhaps your expectations are wrong. Maybe you won’t be the next Joe McNally. There are very few of them.

It could be time to change your metrics. Are you defining success as huge sales? Is success for you to be rock star-famous or published in National Geographic? Try looking at it in terms of the satisfaction you get from what you create. Whether you get fame or rejection, the inner evaluation of your art is your own.

Maybe the failures are a necessary part of our growth and maturing. They can reinforce our will to succeed and our belief in our self. It is part of growing up as an artist.

Seek failure

I’m kidding, right? Who in their right mind would seek failure?

Well, when we put ourself out there, that is giving the world an opportunity to reject us. To consider us a failure. We have to do it, to persist, to accept that the rejection will come because we need to have our art seen.

β€œI love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” β€“ Sylvia Plath

We should embrace the rejections and failures as steps along the way. It is never fun or easy, but we need to get used to it. Keeping on trying even after rejections helps us overcome fear of failure. If we retreat into our shell and refuse to try anymore we will consider ourselves failures. We will believe that self-talk.

Plus, we learn from the experience.

Learn from failure

Whenever we are learning something challenging there is a time of testing ourselves to see if we are getting it. If we are studying math, we solve problems and take tests. If we are learning Karate we spar and go through testing to measure our proficiency. When we are learning music we are asked to do recitals to demonstrate our capability. The exercises develop our skill and the tests not only prove our ability, they develop our mental toughness.

If we never confront our fears we will never know what we are and what we are capable of. This is easier for some of us than others. It is pretty hard for me. I don’t like it. But I force myself to keep on. I may grumble and be in a bad mood for a while after getting a rejection, but I know I have to keep on.

Perhaps the real thing we are learning is how much we believe in our self. Do we consider our art worthwhile and worth the pain?