Craft Completes Magic

Moody, mysterious Aspen grove; a created image

Craft completes magic. I read this in a book on writing poetry by Robert Wallace. This was a new thought to me. It is unusual in my world for a random phrase to seem to crystalize immediately as truth. This did. I have often written about the 2 sides of art as being the creative, the magic, and the technical, the craft. I love the way this brings them together and completes the whole.

The magic

Oftentimes we artists focus almost exclusively on the creative aspects of what we do. After all, we think this is what separated us from other artists. And to a large degree, it is true.

So we look at the work of others we admire. We plan or write or set projects to focus our thoughts. We look for the new and different. The driving challenge is how can we bring a unique perspective to the things we see in the world.

Sometimes the muse visits us and we feel we have truly made magic. It is a great feeling. Creativity breeds creativity. We try to go on to leverage this new stage into even more.

But, have you ever had a guilty feeling, looking at your new creative work, that it could have been executed better? Not necessarily more creatively, but with better craftsmanship? Sometimes we don’t know how to make our great idea into a finished work of art. Concentrating too much on just one aspect can throw us off balance.

The craft

I believe our craftsmanship is as important as our creativity. Not a replacement, but to balance and complete our work. It’s this completion I want to emphasize.

There are 2 tendencies I see in a lot of photographers that disturb me. Some seem to feel that a technically perfect image is a good image. Some others take the attitude that “I’m a creative, I don’t know the ‘techie’ stuff”. I believe that either of these, if they drive your behavior too much, lead to bad ends.

Ansel Adams famously said “There’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” This, to me, is the danger of overemphasizing technical perfection. I see this a lot in online critiques where the objections are things like not enough depth of field or that the color correction may not be completely true to the original scene. The reality in many cases is that no amount of technical improvement is going to give this image life.

If you don’t have an emotional connection with the scene and a definite point of view to share, then it isn’t going to get great by technical skill.

On the other hand, it frustrates me to hear even professional photographers dismissively say they don’t do “tech”. Sorry, but photography is a uniquely technical art form. If you don’t understand and appreciate and know how to control the technical aspects you are at a severe disadvantage. You can end up with images that show a great idea but you were unable to produce a gallery-worthy image.

The whole

There is a symbiotic relationship between the creative and the craft. Mr. Wallace, who I quoted at the start, related it to the two legs of a runner. The creative leg propels you forward. Then the craft leg helps you bring it into being, which also thrusts you forward to another level. These work together, alternating, each with strengths to add. Neither is complete without the other.

A comedian doesn’t just walk out on stage and think up funny things. He spends many hours on each skit, refining and rehearsing and tuning it before you ever hear it. Likewise, a magician spends countless hours working on an illusion to make it smooth and believable, to make the magic happen. A musician practices day in and day out for years to get and stay good. Yes, famous musicians still practice scales. It trains their technique.

Art is hard work. It is hard to do creative things and it requires great skill to make it real. No one can tell you what you can or can’t do, or how you should do your art. But I believe that if we don’t put in as much work on the craft side of our art as on the creative we will never achieve what we could.

A boring image will never be great because it was technically perfect. On the other hand, you don’t get a free pass to ignore the craft because you are a “creative”. As the initial quote says, craft completes the magic.

What Excites You?

Pictures of pictures

I believe artists are passionate people. We do our best work when we are excited about it. Have you considered what excites you? Do you seek the excitement?

Do you get excited when you are shooting?

I try to have that level of excitement. Of course, we are just human and it will not be there in full strength all the time. Like everything in life it ebbs and flows with our mood or circumstances.

I find that I have different grades of excitement about the things I shoot. It can range from “I really should shoot this; it is kind of interesting; I might can make a decent image out of it” to “Wow! I’m so excited right now I can hardly be still enough to expose a frame properly”.

I don’t consider anywhere along that continuum to be “wrong”. But the high excitement side is definitely more fun and easier to get, well, excited about.

Not all scenes are great

What makes the difference in the excitement level? One is probably the inherent quality of the scene or subject. When I say inherent quality this is a subjective measure, as is almost everything in art. It can only be evaluated by you for you. I think it is a function of the scene itself and how it interacts with our values and our mood. Sometimes we just don’t feel it, even though the artist right next to you thinks it is spectacular.

It may not be what you wanted or hoped for, but it is what it is. Work with it.

Another difference is our perception of the scene. The reality is that most of us are not surrounded by world-class, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities everyday. Most of what we see is rather average. An average scene offers the opportunity to exercise our creativity by making it interesting. We have to work hard to make something of it. This is valuable exercise. It is not a bad thing.

As a matter of fact I will assert that the rare, unique, wonderful scene may not be that much of a creative opportunity. If the scene is amazing in itself, we may only have to record it. Yes, it lets us use the technical and compositional skills we have spent a long time developing to capture it well, but we actually don’t have to do much. Just don’t screw it up. It can be exciting to know we captured a rare and great moment, but it may leave us a little unsatisfied because we did not contribute much to it.

Dealing with the average

Mostly we encounter more mundane, average, day-to-day scenes. How can we build or keep our excitement going when surrounded by ordinary?

I have stated before that I like to go out empty and let myself be drawn to subjects. Still, just in wandering around randomly I mostly encounter pretty average things. If I think there is something there, the exercise is to be able to make it above average. Can I see it differently? Is there a better angle or lens choice that would bring it out to advantage? Does it need to be simplified? Or juxtaposed with another element to make a different statement? Does it need different light or even a different season?

My friend Cole Thompson says “I believe the real test of creating isn’t cherry-picking great images from great locations, but rather to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. To be able to find something remarkable in my everyday surroundings.” Very wise.

When I am able to take an ordinary subject that I am drawn to and make it into something special it builds excitement in me. It gets my energy flowing. I become more conscious of other things around me and more empowered to go after them. It is a reinforcing cycle. It helps me see other things as well.

Ideas to being back excitement

Working with the ordinary is one process that is very important to get me excited. Each of us is different. We have different values and expectations and points of view. So there is no simple list of “hacks” that will work for everyone. But let me give some suggestions to try:

  • Set yourself projects to work on. The thought process of concentrating on a fixed subject causes us to focus and think different. It can be energizing.
  • Travel. A change of scenery can help to change our perspective.
  • Shoot with someone. The interactions and discussions can be stimulating and refreshing.
  • Take on a new style or technique. It doesn’t have to be a permanent change, just something to shake up the norm.
  • Make it look strange or absurd. It helps you see it fresh. This is the Russian Formalism technique called “ostranenie”. It is interesting. More on this another time.
  • Go to a museum. Not just a photography museum. Studying works by masters can never hurt.
  • Look at other work. Read blogs and other artist’s web sites. Get books of art. Get more familiar with the way other artists see the world. Do not copy them, but feel free to steal. πŸ™‚
  • Find what gives you joy. A sense of joy is an important driver for excitement. Know what works for you.
  • Get out and do it. Really. Just making yourself do it can lift you from a funk and get you going.

Shoot for yourself

One of the most powerful motivators is reserved for a select few.

Do you consider yourself a “fine artist”? One of the definitions of that is that we create work for ourselves. If you are in the enviable position of creating art to please yourself, take maximum advantage of it. Follow your instincts. Don’t worry about what you see other artists doing.

When you get excited about a subject or a location or a technique follow your feelings. Work it to see what develops. It may be something entirely new that you become extremely excited about and that changes you. Or it may end up not being interesting to you and abandoned. Either way, you followed your artistic instinct. This builds excitement.

You don’t get a hit every time your swing, but it is important to keep swinging.

Is it work?

What is the difference between work and art? Maybe nothing. Please don’t read this blog as saying we should sit around waiting for the muse to visit us. Or to think you shouldn’t go out today because you just don’t feel any excitement.

Most of the things I describe or suggest are active. Based on taking positive steps toward creating something. We have to work at it. Action leads to feeling.

So whatever inspires you and creates excitement for you, don’t just think about it. Get out of the chair or up from the couch and go do something about it.

Finally, here are some quotes to reinforce that concept:

Motivation exists, but it has to find you working. – Pablo Picasso

Hard work will outperform talent any day of the week. – Joel Grimes

Inspiration is for amateurs. Us professionals just go to work in the morning. – Chuck Close

Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn. – John Wesley

JPG vs. Raw

JPG looks good in typical situations

It seems like deciding on jpg vs. raw formats for our images is a problem for some photographers. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is lack of knowledge or maybe because it is sometimes discussed in almost mythological terms. Jpg and raw are just 2 ways of saving our images. Each is good for some things but there are tradeoffs to consider. It is just technology, not magic.

Image formats

When you take an image on your digital camera, each manufacturer has their own proprietary magic they do on the bits coming off the sensor. This lets them tune their image to meet their goals. If you shot the same scene with different cameras you would notice subtle differences – slight color balance differences, slight variations is tonal contrast, different handling of shadows and highlights, etc. These are usually small, but they give a camera it’s unique character.

But we need to consume these pixels in our image processing software. So there needs to be standardized ways of storing the images and reading them in our computer. These are file formats. There are 2 main choices.

Jpg is an industry standard format. The format is very widely understood and used. All images, once converted to jpg, are compatible.

What we call raw files are really proprietary file formats created by different camera manufacturers. Image processing software, like Adobe Lightroom, has taken the responsibility to be able to read the files written by virtually all camera manufacturers. For instance, I shoot Nikon, so the images LIghtroom reads and handles have the “.nef” extension. Lightroom knows how to interpret this and convert it to editable pixels.

The key thing here is that these raw files all contain roughly the same information, but are not directly compatible. Thankfully our software handles the differences gracefully.

Technical details – jpg

The term jpg, more precisely “jpeg” is derived from a standard created by the Joint Photographic Experts Group. The name jpg is an abbreviated acronym.

The problem was that digital files are very large, this made them consume lots of disk space back when disks were small. It also used up lots of bandwidth transmitting them back when internet was slow and much more expensive (anyone remember dial up modems?).

The jpg standard is based on some brilliant insights on human perception to allow encoding image files so they look good but are much smaller. The underlying principle is that humans are more sensitive to variations of tone (luminance) than they are to color (chrominance). The jpg processing reduces the luminance information and greatly reduces the chrominace data to acheive reductions of about 10x typically.

In general, transforming an image to jpg is a multi step process. It involves a transformation where the luminance and chrominance information is separated. Then the chrominance information is downsampled, or reduced. Then there is a grouping of data into blocks and a process called discrete cosine transform is applied to the data blocks. This transformed information is quantitized and encoded. Finally the data is written out in a defined format as a jpg file. It is not at all necessary to know these details, just that the data in a jpg file is far removed from the original pixels that came from the camera.

It is a lossy compression technique. Yes, it throws away a lot of data. This is one of the big tradeoff points of jpg. But a fringe benefit is that the image is made to look “nice”. The result is pleasing to most people without further processing

Technical details – raw

These files are called “raw” because they contain minimally processed data from the camera sensor. They are absolutely not ready to be viewed or processed. Some people describe it as a digital negative. Conceptually this is pretty good way to help us think about it, but it is not a valid description. The data is not negative and it is not viewable. It might be better to think of it as exposed but unprocessed film.

To follow this metaphor, a raw image processor like Lightroom “develops” the image and makes it viewable and editable.

Why raw? It captures and beings into the computer all the data that the camera sensor was able to record. It has the full range of color and tones. Nothing has been eliminated yet.

In addition, the raw format has not had any lossy compression applied. Nothing is thrown away or reduced. Because of these things an image from a raw file requires manual editing to complete it. Sometimes a lot of editing.


So jpg is made small as possible and generally nice looking as soon as you see it. You can immediately look at it or send it to someone or post it to your social media. Yes, some information has been intentionally eliminated, but that is not important to most people. If you don’t notice it then it must not matter.

On the other hand, if you want to make a large print of a jpg you may see noisy patterns that are euphemistically called “artifacts”. This might be mitigated with clever software, but your mileage may vary.

And there is an editing danger you need to be aware of: every time you save a jpg file it goes through the transform process to reduce data. So every time you edit it and save it you lose information and introduce more artifacts. If you want to edit a jpg always save the edited file in a lossless format, like psd or tif.

The raw files are usually very large. On my current main camera a typical raw file is 50-70 MBytes. A high quality jpg of the same resolution is around 4-5 MBytes. So, 10 to 1 or greater differential. And the raw files require an investment of time and training and tools to process them into a respectable state.

But, and this makes up for everything, the raw file preserves every bit of information that we can wring out of the sensor. A modern sensor is marvelous and enables very aggressive processing. The raw format contains the full resolution of the pixels. It is not limited to 8 bit data like jpg. I often do things with the image data that I could not have envisioned when I took the original photo.

Different needs

When would you want to use one vs. the other? Well, if I was shooting a wedding I would probably use jpg. Say I come away with 3000 images. I would want to be able to scan through and see good views of all of them so I can quickly pick the 100-200 best to share with the client. If I did my job well the images should not need much editing. I would not have time to process this many raw files.

Also, if I am shooting snaps of my family that is a time for jpgs. And if I was on vacation and just shooting travel photos for memories that is good jpg territory. I guess if my memory card was nearly full and I didn’t have a spare I might switch to jpg to keep shooting a few more frames. I try to prevent that from happening.

For me, any other time requires raw files. It is my go-to choice. I know I want to process the images heavily. I am not afraid of the techniques. Given the choice I will always want to retain the maximum information and resolution possible. This given me the flexibility to make massive changes or change my mind and go back to re-process the image for a different look

I tried to present a very neutral view of the tradeoffs of the 2 formats. I can sympathize that the choice is hard for some people. For me, it is straightforward. Use jpg if I am taking shots of people and I am confident it will need little processing. Otherwise, definitely raw.

The image with this article is a jpg. It looks fine for this application.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Girl and Chandeliere

How do you get good at anything? Practice. Does it apply to art? Yes, practice. When? Now.

Seemingly it is a very simple thing, but constant practice trains your muscles and your brain. It refines your skill and makes your decisions automatic. It improves your concentration and your vision.

The 10,000 hour rule

You can learn to do many things pretty well with about 40 hours of work. Yet it is said that to become great at something takes 10,000 hours of practice. Now realistically, few people will put in 10,000 hours on anything (except maybe watching TV). That is 5 years of doing nothing else except practicing your craft for 40 hours a week. This is the level of effort required to become the level of a Michael Jordon or Tiger Woods. But isn’t that the level we aspire to as artists? I do.

That seems an unrealistically high standard. But in most unrealistic situations, you do what you can. Putting in the time consistently is key. A good discipline is to make yourself get out with your camera every day. Having it in your hand makes it comfortable. It teaches you to see more, observe. You will not make a great image every day. That is not the point. The point is to improve.

β€œThe discipline of practice every day is essential. When I skip a day, I notice a difference in my playing. After two days, the critics notice, and after three days, so does the audience.”

Jascha Heifetz, renowned violinist

One of my exercises is to practice street photography a few times a week. I touched on this in my article on hunting images. It gives great practice in consciousness, fast reflexes, anticipation, using your camera with little thought. Most of my work is not street photography, but this is great skill development for everything else I do.

Carry a camera

It is hard to practice if you don’t have your tools. Not impossible, just hard. Going to the trouble of having your camera with you provides an important discipline. It is intentional. You have consciously committed to making images. It gives you permission (in your mind) to look for and take pictures. It makes you aware and on the prowl.

The great Wayne Gretzsky famously said “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” This is true of photography, not just hockey. When you are carrying your camera, make yourself stop and capture interesting scenes when you see them. As I noted in a another post, it won’t be there tomorrow.

Examine, improve

The purpose of doing this practice is to improve. It has been said that in 20 years, some people get 20 years of experience and some people have 1 year of experience repeated 20 times. Doing the same thing over and over without improving is very sad.

Unless you have someone you trust to critique your work frequently, you have to learn to do it yourself. Be honest with yourself. And brutal. Did that work? Was it what you wanted? Is it technically perfect? Was the composition effective? And one of the hardest to judge objectively: is it actually a great picture?

I used the 10,000 hour rule to give a sense of how long it takes to become an expert, but it is well known that the so called rule is flawed. People often practice for 10,000 hours or more but remain mediocre. Why? They are not learning from their mistakes! They get 1 year of experience 20 times. Don’t make the mistake of not learning from your mistakes.

Be brutal on yourself. Better you than other people. The reality is most of your shots will not be very good. Most of mine are not. That’s OK. You have to get a lot of bad shots out of your system before you can start making better ones consistently. Be honest with yourself. When a frame just doesn’t work, examine it carefully. Understand why. What can you learn from it? A bad shot may lead you to a new understanding and be more valuable than a good shot that doesn’t teach you anything.

The few, the proud

The legendary Ansel Adams said “A photographer does well to get a dozen first-quality shots a year.” Technology has changed a lot and it doesn’t take much time or cost to shoot a lot of digital frames. But how many of yours are really great? Quantity is not quality.

I’ll be candid, looking at my digital collection only, less than 2% of my shots are “gallery quality”. Two out of 100. Is that discouraging? No, in a weird way it is empowering. Based on Adam’s experience I am encouraged to be getting that many. Or I could be delusional. Of course I keep a lot more than that for various reasons. And since I like to do collages I have a lot that are not stand alone but would be excellent material for constructing new composites.

Not the outcome

This leads to the final point for this post. When I am practicing, I need to concentrate on process, not outcome. I am learning, doing repetitions, trying experiments, getting more familiar with my equipment. This improves me over time and sharpens my eye. If I get a “keeper” during practice that is just a happy accident.

Practice daily and plan to throw almost all of it away. It is worth it.

Do you have a regular practice regime? Has it helped? Let me know!

Art or Craft?

Headlights on a mountain road at sunset

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

It’s a medium

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

Any art form is a craft

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

What is art vs. craft?

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

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

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

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

Photography is too easy

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a creative act

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

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