Yes, You Need to Backup

Sorry. I know no one wants to think about this dirty subject, much less talk about it. But is is a necessary part of a digital artist’s process.

Back in the “good old days” images were created on film. You kept the film in holders or sleeves in a file of some sort. Barring major fire or flood, you were pretty well backed up. The negatives or slides were fairly insensitive to water, tolerated a wide storage temperature range, and would last for decades or longer.

Forward to today. It has been many years since I exposed a piece of film. ALL my work is digital. And all the derivative works I create are digital. There are significant advantaged to digital images, but there is one glaring, horrible downside: when the disk they are on dies, they are gone. They are not a physical object.

Oh, but disks are very reliable. You can’t remember the last time one of yours crashed. (Cue whistling in the graveyard music). Here’s the reality: your disk is about to fail and there is little ability to predict when. After it fails is not the time to be doing a backup.

In a past life I was an engineer, so I know something about this technology. I’ll try to keep it pretty basic. Most of us use rotating magnetic storage (e.g., the hard disk). This is an amazing technology. Bits are stored as microscopically small magnetic blobs on platters of metal spinning at, typically, 5400 or 7200 RPM. The data is read and written by “flying heads” that fly above the surface of the platter a few micro inches away. This is like a fighter jet flying at supersonic speed 10 feet off the ground. It’s a wonder it works, but it has been engineered with enough layers of protection to make it very reliable. The other fast growing technology is Solid State Disk (SSD). It is completely different and usually much faster. Just because it is smaller and faster does not make it more reliable. There are many more failure modes associated with SSD than rotating disks.

What does this matter to me? My disk drive is rated at 1,000,000 hours MTBF (mean time before failure). It should be good practically forever. There is a reason disk makers throw out numbers like that. They are very impressive without really meaning much. It is a statistical measure of a large population of devices. It does not mean yours or mine won’t fail tomorrow.

What to do? The ugly “backup” word. I won’t recommend specific software or hardware, except to say if you are using Macs, please turn on Time Machine immediately. Instead I will give you an idea of the paranoid extremes I go to.

Yes, I use Time Machine for one level. It is a marvelous invention. It backs up my images and the computer every hour. My images are actually stored on a RAID drive. This means the information is redundant and one drive can fail with no loss of data. My drive is also very fast. The data on this RAID disk is also backed up daily to 2 other RAID drives. All of this is completely automated and requires no attention from me. About once a week I rotate a copy of my image data to off site storage, so it is backed up in another physical location.

I’ll confess it again: I am paranoid about this. But the last 2 times my computers crashed I didn’t lose anything. I use (and love) SSD as my main computer storage. I have stacks of rotating disks with many terabytes of data on them. With a good backup plan I don’t worry at all about losing data.

Can a Photograph Lie?

Yes. I’ll just state it categorically so we can move on. All photographs are lies in some fashion. Any image represents the point of view of the maker. How they choose to frame the subject, what they choose to include or exclude, where they are in relation to the subject, all these and many more determine how the image presents the subject. So even before we get to any issues of Photoshop manipulation, the image is a work of art, not “truth”.

Even if you are a wildlife photographer who sets up a triggered blind where the animal will photograph themselves by moving through a certain area, it is still a lie, in the sense that the photographer determined the lens, the location, the foreground, the background, the shutter speed, the time of day, and many more elements. Every image ever made exhibits subjective bias. It has to.

Should it Lie?

Yes. Again, I’ll state the inevitable truth. You want it to lie. It would not be interesting unless it did. The “lie” is what makes my image different from yours. It is what makes you want to pause and look at the image.

There are people, especially in the landscape or photojournalism arenas, who still feel a good photograph should be “exactly as it appeared to the eye”. I understand their POV. I used to feel the same way. This is a chimera, though. A camera does not see the world the way our eye does. The eye does not have a wide angle or telephoto view. It is not restricted to a narrow depth of field. It cannot freeze a very small sliver of time or blur a scene over minutes. The eye “paints” an image in the brain by moving and stopping. The camera does not work that way.

There are many excellent photojournalists in the world. They try to bring us “truth”. But the only way they can do their job is through interpreting events for us. Do not trust the image; trust the journalist. When you see images on the news or the internet showing you the “truth” about something, be skeptical.

I have seen people try to recreate views exactly the way a human would see. They only use a 50mm lens (or whatever the equivalent for their format), held at the (average) height of human eyes, with a shutter speed of about 1/60th of a second and no camera movement. The results are usually unbelievably boring, and still a subjective interpretation.

The restriction that an image should be “exactly as it appeared to the eye'” is an artificial rule. The people who believe strongly in this philosophy can shoot their images the way that pleases their artistic notion of perfection. We won’t tell them that the result is a lie.

Does the Question Even Make Sense?

A photographer is an artist. Their purpose is to create unique and pleasing images. They use all the tools available to them — technology, technique, composition, post processing, compositing, etc. — to achieve their end. The image is not reality. It was never intended to be. It is a work of fiction. Most people these days recognize that. if you don’t, it would be like reading “The Lord of the Rings” and saying “hey, wait; this is a lie; it didn’t really happen”.

If you really need images to document something, the best you can do is to get sufficiently close to accomplish your goals. Realize, though, that it is only an approximation to reality. Realize what those limitations are so you can see if you can live with the reality of the unreality.

Wilderness?

Take the above image for instance. Remote, untracked wilderness? A place you will never reach? Actually it is at a rest stop on I-70 in Utah (the restrooms are just off to the right). This is in the median between the lanes of the freeway. Nothing was edited out in Photoshop, but the framing and cropping of this made it look like wilderness. Is it a lie?

Does it Matter?

What matters is that it is what it is. Accept any image as art or at least as an interpretation by the maker. That’s what artists do. Does this mean “anything goes?” Well, yes. There should be no limit or restriction on art.

When you look at my images, assume anything you see is created as art. I hope the result is interesting to you. To see some of my lies, visit photos.schlotzcreate.com.

Online Exhibit

Here is a link to an online exhibit I am in. It will be up during February of 2019. I would appreciate your comments. By coincidence, the 3 images I have in this exhibit are “almost not lying”. That is, they are minimally manipulated. All 3 are exactly as found. But the above comments apply as to the manipulation of composition, lens, etc.

http://www.envisionartshow.com/black-white

Walk slow

These are words from the great Jay Maisel, one of the finest photographers around. It’s a simple phrase, even kind of silly. But it partially describes a philosophy that I think has a lot of merit.

One of the tenants of Jay’s approach is to “go out empty”. That is, do not bring any preconceived plan or expectations. Just wander. Actually look at what is there. Let yourself engage with what you find rather than being disappointed because what you expected was not there or it didn’t work out. The “walk slow” builds on that by forcing us to take our time and look more and closer. Notice things you have never taken the time to really see. See details in target scenes. In some cases, wait for a scene to develop. Be patient.

This is exciting and energizing. You are in the moment, alive, fully engaged with the environment around you. You have given up trying to manage the world to make it be what you want. Instead you react to it and find beauty where it is.

This is a very meaningful approach for me. I try to go out empty nearly every day. Explore the familiar area you live. You don’t have to go to an exotic location to find inspiration. I find I can go by something I’ve seen 50 times and this time say “oh, I’ve never noticed that before” or “wow, this light changes everything”. And when you develop the habit of approaching the world around you this way, you can use the technique equally well when you do go to the exotic destination.

Jay also suggests it can be beneficial to get lost. Being lost implies you are off your normal path and encountering new territory, new sights, seeing fresh. You can probably “get lost” in your home town. The other day I was walking along a bike path going around an ugly industrial area. But with the low winter sun and some nice lenticular clouds in the sky, the bare trees were beautiful silhouetted against the sky. I enjoyed it a lot. I wouldn’t have seen that if I rejected the area because it was not pretty.

“It’s always around, you just don’t see it” is another quote from Jay. This makes me sad. It is human nature to only see what you are looking for. Taking this “go out empty” and “walk slow” approach helps us to overcome that. We will be the ones who are really seeing what is around us. And making great pictures!

Finding Your “Style”

Do you have a “style”? (spoiler – yes, you do)

How do your know? How do you find it? Does it matter if you develop one?

At some point, most people who wish to shoot “seriously” (whatever that means) wrestle with these questions. But if you’ve gotten to the point where you care, you probably already have one. You should have a deep enough body of work that you have intuitively developed your style and have enough examples to look at to discover what it is.

You have a point of view, the way you see the world around you that is different from anyone else. This determines your style. It comes naturally. When you select the lens to use and where to stand and how to compose and light your subject you are doing it based on your style. When you select the subject you want to shoot, it is guided by your style. These decisions make your image uniquely yours. Other people will make different decisions for the same subject.

To develop your style, though, you have to have the courage to make the decisions that guide your result. If you feel the subject should be shot from a certain location and the people with you or a workshop leader disagrees, listen to their opinion, but then do what feels best to you. You may not be “right”, that is, you may not like the result, but you made that image based on your beliefs at the time. That is letting your style develop. More often than not, listening to your gut is the best thing to do.

Look back through your images. I hope you grade and categorize them to let the best ones emerge. Be brutal in doing that. Examine the ones you feel best about – feel best about, not the ones that may be technically sharpest or follow the “rules”. Then decide what they are telling you about yourself. You should see patterns: of subject, of lens, of composition, of lighting, of color. There are many variables, but you should see themes. If these are the ones that you feel best about, learn from them and learn what your style is.

So, does it matter if you develop a style? Don’t worry about it. You have one already. Your preferences and likes and experiences lead you to approach an image a certain way. That is your style.

In your own back yard

Do you put off doing your art because you can’t afford to travel to an exotic location for inspiration? Well, get over it. Most of us will never have an unlimited budget to wander the world at our leisure.

Not being able to travel is an excuse we use to absolve ourselves for not doing the hard work needed to do our art. Art is hard work. There’s some inspiration and then there’s a lot of work to realize it.

But what is “inspiration”? The ancient root word means to “breathe in”. We are taking in the materials we can use to create. Steve Jobs said creativity is “just connecting the dots”. I believe he is right. But what are the dots and how do we connect them? The dots are information, examples, knowledge. We add new dots by studying something new, by looking at the work of an artist outside of your discipline, by reading lots of random, unrelated things we have never known, in short, to be receptive to new things, even if they do not seem valuable.

Ah, but the connecting is a key. This is getting harder and harder for most of us in this over-stimulated world. Connecting the dots requires quiet, alone time. We have to let our subconscious mind sift through all this juicy data we have given it and let it start seeing similarities, juxtapositions, possibilities. Go for a walk and try not to think about anything. Go get a cup of coffee and just sit and watch the world go by. Turn off your phone when you are doing these.

So, how about the back yard notion? Inspiration is not as much about external stimulation as it is about feeding your mind and connecting the dots. You can do this at home. Where you live is boring and uninspiring? Get out there and check it out again. Go out at different times and different weather. Get so familiar with it that you stop seeing just what is there, but begin seeing the details, the patterns, the structures that you never really perceived.

One of my self-assigned exercises is to go for a walk every day with my camera. I am exploring the same old area I see every day, but I vary the routes as much as I can. I usually only walk 1-2 miles. I often discover new sights that surprise and delight me. While I’m wandering my mind is switched into a mode of just receiving and thinking. Even if I do not discover a new sight, I often “connect dots” and come back inspired to do something new.

So I encourage. you to learn to appreciate your back yard. Explore, think, enjoy, use it for inspiration. It will also train you to get even more inspired when you do take one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips.