Print It!

Abstract pseudo-aerial. A trick to edit and print.

Some would argue that an image is not final until it is printed. More and more I am tending to agree. Print it – you will learn a lot and be a better photographer.

What is the thing you are creating?

I am intrigued by the idea of creativity and I have studied creativity research some recently. Real, hard core theoretical psychology. It has been disappointing. One of these days I will write an article on what I have observed.

One of the things I do appreciate about the papers I have read is that they tend to tie creativity to producing something. Sort of the idea that if you just think creative thoughts, are you creative? If you can’t or won’t produce a creative work, is the creativity really there?

There is benefit in producing something and holding it up for yourself and others to see and examine. Small images on a screen do not have the impact

Why a print

A print is real – a tangible, physical product. It takes on a life of its own; it is held, examined, felt, passed around, hung on a wall. It is permanent.

Creating a print changes our thought process and our relationship to the image. We must finalize it, because the print will never change. And we have to re-think it in terms of the limitations of the print medium.

It is kind of like having a child. Initially it is my baby, very closely held and personal and protected. Then it grows up and becomes an independent person.

And by analogy, the print is made to be permanent and independent. It is a work we have produced for others to have and enjoy.

What do we learn

I am amazed by what I learn by printing an image. It was edited for hours until I am sure I am happy with it. Then when the print comes out, it’s “Really? That needs more work”.

Viewing a print is quite different than looking at an image on screen. We have a different relationship with it. Our perception is very different. Even at a simple technical level, an image on a screen is formed by light being generated, an additive process. A print is seen as light reflecting off a substrate as modified by colored pigments. A subtractive process. The perception and the psychological process is different.

But ignoring all technical considerations, there is something about a print that points out all the flaws in your image. Seeing it as a physical representation on paper changes how we look at it and what we see. If you want to find out if your image is any good, print it.

How is it that I can work with an image for hours on screen and not see that sensor dust spot in the sky? Why didn’t I see that the mid tone contrasts are inadequate? And that purple highlight just doesn’t have the punch I wanted. Where did that distracting line leading off the edge come from?

We see a print more critically. Since it is a different process on a different medium we have a fresh look. And a print is far more limited in dynamic range than our camera sensor or computer monitor, so we have to map it differently to get the result we want.

A real thing

Holding our image makes it real. It has weight and texture and it is a permanent work independent of us. To use the baby analogy again, before the child is born it is still kind of an abstract idea. After it is born it is real and living.

In the days of film, making your first print was often a seminal moment. The experience of seeing a black & white image “come to life” in the darkroom bath is often the moment people say they became hooked on photography. It can be somewhat similar with printing, if you do your own. Seeing this baby of yours coming to life on paper right there in your studio is a joy.

Have you held a print? Isn’t it magical? And if you hand a print to someone, watch their reaction. Wonder, joy, maybe fear of ruining it combined with a desire to touch it. They only see images on screens. When it leaps off the screen and becomes a real, physical object they perceive it very differently.

Summary

I am doing more printing recently. I knew it would be a change and a learning, since I had not done it for a while. But even I was not prepared for it. But I love it. A great print is a thing of beauty. The image becomes real, alive, permanent. Like our child, it grows up and has a life of its own.

Try it. It could change your viewpoint.

The Subject Isn’t the Subject

French street scene at night. The comp[osition carries it.

Huh? Wrap your self around that for a minute. When we shoot images, we almost always have a distinct subject. What sense does it make to say the subject isn’t the subject?

Inspired by a quote

This article was inspired by an article by Ian Plant in Nature Photography Network, Feb 8, 2023. In part, he said:

But the single most difficult, most counterintuitive aspect of photography, the one thing that most photographers have a tough time wrapping their heads around, is this: your subject is not your subject. Instead, your subject is just part of the overall visual design. The subject might arguably be the primary element of the design, perhaps the most important part, but it is only a part, nonetheless. To make truly exceptional photographs, you need to include more than just your subject; you also need to include other visual elements that work together with your subject, getting the viewer engaged with the story you are telling with your image.

This requires some careful thought. Many of us tend to be fixated on finding the “right” subject and filling the frame with it. Ian is suggesting that is a limiting view.

What else is there besides the subject?

But if you have a good subject, and if you light it and have adequate depth of field, and you expose it right, doesn’t that make the picture? He says probably not, and I tend to agree with him.

A successful picture is a complex balance of many, often competing, dimensions. Yes, a subject is usually important, but there is the overall visual design, the composition, the feeling, the processing, even the context.

Presenting a badly designed image of a great subject usually doesn’t work well. Maybe in a photojournalism context, if the subject is truly unique it would be considered a strong image. But as a normal visual image, no.

It’s that balance thing. All the parts have to be strong.

It all works together

A well composed image of nothing particular probably doesn’t work. Neither does a not well composed picture with a good subject. We’ve probably all experienced both.

Another statement from Ian Plant in that article is:

Once you learn to stop thinking of your subject as your subject, you instead start seeing your subject as an abstract compositional element, which is a necessary step for making compelling photos. You start to see your subject in terms of its shape, color, and luminosity value. Seeing shapes and learning how to arrange them effectively within the picture frame is of critical importance to successful composition.

So the subject is part of what you build a compelling image around. Everything else you have learned about composition have to be thought through. You know, the considerations of framing and leading lines and balance and contrast and emphasis and patterns and … it goes on. You can find a million videos on the internet with someone ready to give you the secrets of composition.

Viewer perception

Why doesn’t an interesting subject carry a picture by itself? For you, it might. You were there. The image invokes memories of the experience, or the subject is important to you. Not so for the viewer.

To the user, it is a picture. You have to give him a reason to keep looking at it. People are so inundated with imagery that they are going to move on in about 1/2 second unless you can grab them.

So, let’s say there is a picture you like of a heron. It was your first trip to Sanibel Island in Florida and you shot lots of bird pictures. It is significant to you. But put yourself in the place of your viewer. They see lots of heron pictures. What does this one have to offer to make them pause on it?

Is it a significant moment with the bird poised to catch a fish? Is the bird in an interesting pose? Does the lighting enhance the feeling? Have you brought something of the environment where the bird lives that is of interest? Does this tell an interesting story about the bird? A good image is more than just an interesting subject.

Your mileage may vary

Seems funny how most of my articles contain a disclaimer like “your mileage may vary”. Art is intensely subjective. There are no hard rules. There are only patterns that have been identified over time that seems to strongly influence people’s perceptions.

Ian is describing landscape photography. “Rules” may well be different for portraiture or photojournalism or other things. The fine art I do is a lot like landscapes. Sometimes it is straight landscapes. So his thoughts struck me as significant. As always, you do your own art according to what makes sense for you. Never let any so called authority tell you you can’t.

But listen to opinions of people who have a track record of doing good work. Don’t necessarily follow them, but listen, try it on, see if it fits before rejecting their advice.

Today’s image

This is a quick shot of a street scene in Paris. It is not a carefully planned set up shot. I was out for dinner with family when this grabbed me.

Quick or not, it passed the test of “I’ll think of a reason later“. The more I worked with this the more it went up in my estimation.

Why? It is a pretty standard tourist shot of Paris streets. Look at the things that help make it more. The curve of the street and sidewalk draws us into the scene, as does the diagonal line of light and color., as do the people walking into the scene on the right. The bicycles give movement and make it more alive. The light and color on the building draw us to the side of the street that has most of the interest. As you look along the lighted street, the people in the cafes each seem to have their own story and interest. They all seem to be enjoying the evening out and that is pleasant and inviting. The receding perspective of the buildings on the left also direct and guide us along the street and through the scene.

Conclusion

To me, there is a lot of interest to explore and reasons to keep moving around the image looking at things. A simple shot of a street at night blossomed into an interesting picture. It moved beyond a street scene and became a study of living in Paris.

Most all of that was instinctual, not planned. A (metaphorical) bell went off alerting me there was something here. I got in position and framed the shot quickly. I really didn’t want to hold up my group, and I didn’t.

It’s a fairly standard and common subject. Design improved it to something more special. Instinct helped me craft the interest. What do you think? Is it interesting? Am I kidding myself?

Throw It Away

Going to work on a Paris morning

This is a controversial subject. I have touched on it before, but it is time to circle back. My assertion is that most of us should throw away more of our work. Horrors! Kill our darlings? Sounds terrible! But I am convinced that one excellent way to improve our work is to throw it away.

We probably overshoot

It is so easy now days with digital cameras. There seems to be no cost for shooting a lot of frames. We “work the scene”, taking many shots at different angles and positions and focal lengths. Refining it to find the best view. And then shoot a few insurance shots, you know, in case one doesn’t record properly or we jiggle the camera. You know.

That’s a pretty typical process and can be useful. But the reality is these shots are not free. We have to edit them, cull through them to select the best, do some “quick” processing to see if they seem worth investing more in. This takes a lot of time. They take up disk and backup storage space.

So where with film, we might have taken 3 or 4 images of a scene, now we come back with 15 or 20 or more. That can be good. If you really have to work through different views to determine what is best, then do it. Or increased experience might help to get you there in fewer attempts.

For example, you come to a nice waterfall. So you shoot brackets of apertures from f/ 2.8 to f/22, and brackets of shutter speeds from 1/1000th to 10 sec, and exposures from -3 to +2 stops. Just in case. Why? You should know from experience what you prefer. You should know that f/8 +/- a little is what you like with this lens at this distance. The amount of blurring you prefer is usually achieved at around 1/4 to 1/10 second for this kind of subject. You should know how to expose to the right and prevent clipping of highlights.

Just that takes it from shooting all possible combinations to intelligently determining what to do. You have a style and preference and you should be comfortable with the craft. Why shoot things you know you won’t like?

Overshooting creates a huge backlog of work. And lots of wasted disk space. And a cluttered Lightroom catalog. Simplify.

We keep too much

OK, let’s say you intentionally shoot a lot of images of a scene as you work it. How much of that do you really need to keep?

Are you going to keep all the shots in case you later change your mind later about what you like? Don’t. Make an artistic decision and stick with it. Don’t keep that full bracket of apertures “just in case” you change your mind.

We make it hard on ourselves by second guessing our decisions. Decide what you like in the group, what matches your intent at the time, and throw away most of the others. My experience is that if I didn’t know what I liked at the time, one of the variations seldom captures “it” either.

The great gets lost in the sea of good

Are you drowning in a sea of pictures? So much that you can’t locate the shots you like best? I get the impression that this is an increasing problem for a lot of people.

A solution is a more disciplined filing and catalog system. This is made much easier when there are fewer images competing for our attentions.

You don’t need 20 decent pictures of that scene. You need the one that represents your best artistic sensibility at the time. And that one should be processed to bring out your vision as you saw it then. It should never be a case of wading through many competing images to pick out the best one.

Here is a hard lesson I have had to learn: good images are usually worthless. Only great images have any chance of making it. You seldom need the ones that are only good.

Declutter

I am arguing for decluttering our catalog by removing images you aren’t going to need. But yes, that means you have to kill some of your darlings. Delete perfectly good images.

This hurts. Why should you delete good images? Because as I said earlier, we are artists. We have to have the confidence to make a decision and a statement. This is my vision of that scene. None of the other attempts matter. DaVinci didn’t paint 20 variations of the Mona Lisa.

If you have a catalog of 100,000 images, are they 100,000 excellent images? What good are all those OK images that you will never use? Wouldn’t it be much better to only have 10,000 great images? The numbers are just for discussion. My point is, declutter your environment.

But, we say, I need insurance shots in case my great image gets corrupted. Really? How often does this happen. And if it does, that is what your backup strategy is there to correct.

But I really like all those shots. Yes, but when is the last time you used one of them? Why would you use one of them? If they are not the great image you love, their value is close to zero.

To use the example from before, if you have 100,000 pretty good images, how do you locate that 1 great one you want to submit to a gallery? It is hard to find the signal in the noise.

Declutter. It hurts at first, but is healthy.

Tighten up that portfolio

The same applies to our portfolios and projects. Less is usually more. This is another of those painful lessons experience teaches if we listen.

Your portfolio should have a max size you pick. If you want to add a new image to a portfolio, make yourself decide which one you will replace. This is hard. But here is a truth: every time you take one out, you make the remaining set stronger. Taking out a picture you love doesn’t mean you don’t love it anymore. It just means that it is not the strongest in the group.

I don’t think I have ever damaged a portfolio by taking something out.

Same with projects. That is a little trickier, because sometimes we need images to set a context or help tell our story, but still, they should all be strong. Less is still usually more.

A personal example. I recently needed to pull together a group of images for an exhibit. The subject was one I love, so I had a lot of images I really liked. In my first pass, I pulled out 162 images I loved that I thought would be great for it. I knew that was a ridiculous number for this exhibit, but I really liked all of them.

So hard core culling mode on. After my next pass, it was down to 125. Progress, but way out of range still. I had to remind myself that deleting an image from the set doesn’t mean I don’t like it, just that it was bumped by a stronger image of mine. So with a great struggle, I was down to 69. So far I have taken out nearly 100 of my favorite images!

Narrowing my focus and getting even more selective got it down to 44. It hurt, but now I have narrowed it to 23. I’m kind of stuck right now, but I know I need to get it down to about 15.

A funny thing has happened, though. At this point I believe ALL of them are great images and I could almost randomly select the next 8 to cut. That is an interesting realization.

Be reasonable

In all things you have to make reasonable judgments for yourself. I’m not saying never keep alternate shots of a scene. I routinely keep a few. But I don’t keep duplicates that do not add any value. And I don’t keep alternate images that I know from experience are not my style.

And there are those shots you know are flawed, but you just love them. Fine. I have a lot of those. Generally they are segregated from my “main” images, but they are important memories for me. Or they tell a behind the scenes story that is valuable to me.

I use a multi-pass editing process and I usually let images age some before making many final judgments about them. But I figure if I don’t delete about 1/2 of my shots, either I am on a great run (it happens sometimes) or I’m not being critical enough. Often it runs to 2/3 deleted. And by deleted, I mean really gone, erased, trashed, removed, never to be seen again, digital dust.

It hurts, but the remaining ones are stronger. I want to always be biased toward making the survivors stronger.

Today’s image

The project I described above is on France. More about the joie de vivre rather than a tourist view. To present more of a mirror than a window, to refer back to a recent post. This picture is one i am struggling with. Would you keep it? So far I have. I think it says a lot about the environment and culture and spirit of the people. I love it for a number of reasons. If it doesn’t make it into the final set, I will be disappointed, but it means the overall group has a higher bar.

Window or Mirror

In a storm? Standing bravely?

It has been observed that photography can be either a window or mirror. The idea has some merit. But like most real world things, it depends.

Szarkowski

The idea originated with John Szarkowski, at the time the head of the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was expressed in an exhibit named “Mirrors and Windows, American Photography since 1960” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1978.

Mr. Szarkowski was a huge influence on photography for many years. I don’t agree with many of his ideas, but I believe there is something to consider in the ideas behind this exhibit.

The press release for the show states that “In metaphorical terms, the
photograph is seen either as a mirror–a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window–through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality.”

Let’s try to unpack that.

A window on the world

At the beginning of photography, it was seen as a way to quickly capture real scenes. The “writing with light” aspect was a big thing. A landscape or a portrait could be captured much more quickly than by previous artistic media. What a breakthrough! To make a portrait in a few seconds instead of having to sit for days while a painter works! And it was “real”! Indisputable. Unaltered. Exactly what the person or place looked like.

This notion that a photograph is true to reality carries on strongly today. I see photographers who refuse to alter anything in the frame for fear of being dishonest. And most viewers have a natural belief that what they see in a print is real. Unless an image obviously looks like a fantasy illustration, it must be fact.

A great many photographers follow this tradition. I started there, too. The idea that an image represented exactly what was there at the time. No illusion or tricks or modification. Many great photographers like Ansel Adams and Gary Winogrand could be placed in this group.

This could be described as the “window on the world” view. What I choose to frame in the image is bringing the viewer an exact representation of reality. It is an outward looking viewpoint. The photographer is silently in the background. It is not obvious what he was thinking or feeling. There is little clear message beyond “look at this”. And there is always the implication that you could go there and see the same scene.

A mirror reflecting the artist

Somewhere in the mid twentieth century (around 1960 according to Szarkowski), many photographer’s intent started to shift. This would describe some great artists like Paul Caponigro and Jerry Uelsmann. It was no longer sufficient to just bring reality. It was important to express my beliefs, to make a statement, to convey my feelings. And it was no longer important that the image depict the scene literally.

Now the goal became to express the scene as I perceive it. That may require extreme processing or compositing or absolutely anything as long as my intent is brought through. The final image may bear little or no resemblance to the original. That is OK, though, because it is an expression, not a capture of reality.

There was one idea in the exhibit notes that resonates strongly with me. The image that a scene projects on the artist who then internalizes it and interprets it to the viewer. This seems to me to capture a large range of what is done in art now.

A natural evolution?

I believe this movement from window to mirror was fairly natural and predictable. By the 1950’s or 1960’s people had become used to seeing images of the world. Major publications like Life and National Geographic flooded us with images of the world, both landscapes and people. Pictures were becoming commonplace.

To take landscapes, for instance, there is only room for a limited number of shots of the major sights of the world. The market was saturated. So artists started to differentiate their work by allowing their own personality to show through. The notion of a personal style became important.

The part of this that seems valid to me is that, while there are millions of photographers out there shooting everything imaginable, only I have my personal point of view and style. Therefore, my images are unique. Even if they are of the same scene many others shoot. That seems to me to be the only chance of artists to carve a niche in the crowded market.

Both?

Even Szarkowski was quick to point out that this was not intended to be a clear division of artists. It is an axis, with strong window view points on one end and strong mirror view points at the other. Most people will fall somewhere in between. And they may move back and forth on the axis with time. Although I think the movement is typically from window toward mirror. At least that was my path.

But even with that said, I do jump around. It depends on the context and what I am feeling at the time. So, for instance, when I go to a new location that excites me, I may start out taking “window” shots. To capture the locale, the scenes I am loving. Many of these are consciously for my own memories.

If I have the opportunity to spend time in the location, I move past the “window” shots and start feeling a personal view that begins to be expressed. This is now drifting toward the “mirror” end of the axis. But in the same day of shooting I will probably do both. In familiar territory where I spend a lot of time, there is a greater tendency to concentrate on mirror views, since the conventional views are well gone over.

The metaphor is useful to help us reflect on how we are seeing subjects at any time.

Neither?

This idea of window vs. mirror views is just Szarkowski’s concept. That doesn’t make it right or some universal truth. I must admit, though, the model has merit. It is a valuable metaphor.

Photography started out as a window on the world. Just the fascination of being to quickly capture as “real” scene in all it’s complexity was one of the things that propelled it into popularity. And I think many new photographers still start out intending to shoot realistic scenes of nature or architecture or people. It is a great way to hone our technique.

And I believe that many who stay serious about the art move toward the mirror end of the axis. It is no longer enough to just present a scene and say “here is what it looked like”. We feel a need to express how we felt about it, or how we perceived it differently than other people.

Fine Art

Flowing color, impression of spring.

Fine art is a very nebulous term. I don’t like the term, but I don’t have a suggested replacement. What is “fine art” photography? How do I know if I am doing it? Is there a right and wrong way to do it?

Photography genres

Photography is a large domain. It contains many specialized disciplines within it. Each has unique focus and techniques.

I will not attempt to list them all. I don’t even know them all. But some that occur to me are portraits, street photography, photojournalism, architectural photography, food photography, commercial photography, fashion photography, macro photography, and landscape photography. Cross-cutting differentiators within that are things like High Dynamic Range (HDR), Intentional Camera Motion (ICM), and black & white.

In addition, the majority of the photos shot in the world every day are on cell phones. And a lot of these are selfies used to make other people think we are having a better time on vacation than we really are.

Each of these areas has different goals and motivations and markets. It is very hard to talk about “photography” in general.

What is Fine Art?

But narrowing it down, what is “fine art photography”? How do you know if you are doing fine art?

Fine art photography is distinct from most other genres of photography in that it is first and foremost about the artist. It is not about capturing what the camera sees; it is about capturing what the artist sees. In fine art photography, therefore, the artist uses the camera as one more tool to create a work of art.

One thing you should never hear asked about a fine art image is “is that the way it looked?”. It is not intended to be representational. That is, unlike traditional landscape or photojournalism, it is not a literal representation of what was there.

What are the rules?

We have to define our own rules. This form of art is about expression and interpretation. I want you to participate in what I saw and felt about the image. That may be considerably different from a straight photograph of the scene.

But depending on the situation, sometimes the captured image is the artistic impression I want. It is not a rule that an image must be modified extensively. There are no rules except those you adopt. If I am able to achieve my intent in camera, so much the better.

When I capture a scene for art, I consider it to be raw material. It needs to be shaped and molded to become the final image. So even if the captured image is essentially my final vision, approaching it with this attitude gives me more freedom to be more creative. When I expect to modify my images I have little inhibition to doing it.

Politics and causes

I try to avoid politics in my work, but that is a personal choice. Some photographers are very caught up in a cause and want to do work to support it. You might consider Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell to be advocates for the Sierra Club. David duChemin does publicity for the charities and non-governmental organizations he is involved with. There are many more examples. It is natural to want to use your talent to support things you believe in. I do not make any judgement one way or another on that.

I believe, though, that the first job of an artist is to make art. This is completely my own value that I cannot bind on anyone else. I see many artists get so caught up in their cause that everything becomes deathly serious. There is no more fun and enjoyment. No more creativity for its own sake. Everything is pushing their cause, and if you don’t agree, then you are evil.

To me, the end result of this is that you become a propagandist and cease to be primarily an artist. If that is what you want, great. But it seems very difficult to balance creative, inquiring, free ranging art with propaganda. One or the other will be dominant.

I do fine art

Whatever fine art is, I have concluded that is what I do. I want you to feel what I was feeling, and see what I thought was significant. Whether I achieve that in-camera in one snap of the shutter or through something that is edited extensively or even composited from multiple images is immaterial. No more important than how many layers of paint a painter applies to his canvas. He does what he feels he needs to do.

My work is intended first and foremost to satisfy my creative urges. It exists purely for its aesthetic qualities. I am my primary audience. No one gets to tell me, no, you should do this. Well, my wife can, but even then I may not listen to her.

My work is intended to be art, not documentary. I am not presenting literal truth, I want you to respond to it emotionally. And for an introvert like me, dealing in feelings is a stretch goal.