Flowing green shapes and lines

For many people, one of the fundamentals of the craft of photography has been pre-visualization. This simply means that before exposing the image you have worked out the exposure and what mood and effect you want to capture and how you plan to process it.

I’m going to push back on this idea. My premise is that pre-visualization is no longer as important as it was in film days.

Ansel did

Yes, Ansel Adams was a big proponent of pre-visualization. He said “the term [pre]visualization refers to the entire emotional-mental process of creating a photograph, and as such, is one of the most important concepts in photography”.

I think he got a little carried away here. He is veering into mystical/religious experience. The reality is that, because of the technology of the time, he had to pre-visualize carefully to get good results.

Think about it, he was shooting film – no immediate preview. He was shooting black & white – he used strong filters to change the tonal arrangement, and he had to anticipate the result mostly based on experience. Negatives had to be developed and this introduced ranges of contrast choices that couldn’t be seen until after the fact. And then there was reciprocity failure that required compensation for long exposures – something those of us shooting digital don’t even know about. His negatives had to be fairly low contrast to try to capture as much information as possible so he could spend hours in the darkroom creating a final print. He generally exposed pretty conservatively to make sure he got something to work with.

All this made it critical to him to plan out exposures and filter sets and contrast ranges as much as possible without actually being able to see the result. Everything had to be carefully done to capture a decent negative for processing back in the darkroom. Hence, a strong need for “pre-visualization”.

Ansel and some of his associates even developed the famous “zone system” as part of pre-visualization. It divided the world into an 11 stop range from black to white. In normal practice, they pre-planned where the significant tones would end up after development and printing. This was part of the process of trying to make a useful negative at capture time.

Fast forward

We live is a very different world. Shooting digital, we can see a preview image and its histogram immediately. We know what we captured.

And our modern digital sensors are incredible pieces of technology. Despite what Moose Peterson famously says in some of his videos, we can capture a dynamic range of about 14 stops, with a “useful” range of around 8 stops. That is a game changer. And if that is not enough it has never been easier to use high dynamic range (HDR) to capture about as much as you could want.

For those of us still doing black & white – I love b&w and do it a lot – it is the best time in history to practice this. Very few people actually shoot in b&w, e.g. have their cameras physically modified to remove the Bayer color filter. Instead we capture full color images and use the fantastic post processing capabilities we have on our computers to do the conversion and tone mapping. But we don’t have to pre-visualize the tone effects we will get because we can non-destructively play with a wide range of effects to work out what we like. And we see in real time what we are getting. Ansel would have killed for this.

Post pre-visualization

John Paul Caponigro has said “Digital allows us to get away from pre-visualization and get back to visualization.” What does it mean? How can it be?

My take on this is that we are much freer now to let our creativity run wild. Unlike previous generations of photographers we have immediate viewing of our images and non-destructive editing for post-processing. Every frame can be a different ISO speed. It doesn’t cost much or usually take much time to shoot a bracket of images to make sure we get a good original.

And now, instead of huddling in the dark smelling strong chemicals, we can sit at our computer with a nice glass of wine and interpret an image however we want. The range of options is staggering. There are far fewer limits now. It’s a good time to be a photographer!

This plays directly to the imaging style I love. In the field I can be in the moment. As long as I am making good captures I don’t have to have worked out in detail exactly what I am going to do with each image. I am free to treat the processing as an almost completely separate creative act. The raw image can be modified in ways Ansel never dreamed of.

If you can get to the Luminous Landscape web site Alain Briot has a good discussion of this topic.

Getting a good capture

Pre-visualization is much less important now as long as we capture as much data as possible. Get a well formed histogram. Expose to the right where possible to avoid noise. Use appropriate technique for sharpness and detail.

Capturing good images is still an art form. It is just my personal values, but pointing your camera at a scene and saying you will crop a good image out of it later and “Photoshop out” clutter is sloppy thinking and lazy. I believe I should decide what the subject is and create the best composition when I am taking the picture.

Being an artist includes being a good craftsman.

Wonders of post processing tools

Pre-visualization is not as important because of the wonders that can be done now in post. I do not agree with the philosophy that “if it doesn’t work in color make it black & white”. But it is true that the decision does not have to be make up front. That is the point. I can make an artistic decision later when I determine the look I want for the image. I did not have to put a red filter on the lens or carefully place the tones on a zone scale. That can all be done in post processing. It’s great!

Darkroom work was sort of the dirty little secret of photographers way back. They would labor for many hours to coerce a good print out of a negative. We might still spend hours post processing, but we are probably playing with alternate looks and having a lot of fun with the image.

Free your spirit

I am telling you my interpretation and what works for me. I believe we have been liberated from the detailed planning that was necessary in the film days. Now imaging is a more fluid and artistic medium. Pixels are data. Data can be processed many ways and to different degrees.

It is not uncommon for me to see something completely different in an image at post than I felt in the field. This is one of the joys of being an artist today. I am free, creativity can flow, I am not tightly constrained by what I planned at capture time.

I encourage you to not be burdened by a literal concept of pre-visualization. Do your best creative and technical work when you are capturing images and then feel free to decide how you really feel when you process them. Give yourself permission to follow your instincts and take each image where you want to go.

Whose Art?

Extreme lens flare as art

Who do you make your art for? No, really. It’s a serious question. A recent post discussed Finding Beauty. I think it is important to follow that by asking who determines the beauty and worth of our art. Whose art are we making? Who for?

For the whole world

If you are making your art for everyone, time to rethink your plan. Not everybody is going to like what you make. Sorry, that is the truth. And if your “style” is determined by what gets likes on Instagram or Facebook you are just chasing popularity.

You have your own style and you should stick to it. You may not recognize your style or know how to express it yet, but you do have one if you are authentically trying to express your values.

I don’t care much for a lot of images I see. I won’t say they are not art, just that they do not appeal to me. My style and values are different. The same with you. What you make will resonate with some people and not with others. Even if you become very popular I guarantee not everybody will love them. Accept that. Not everyone gets a ribbon for participating.

Be honest and do the work that appeals to you. Be genuine. If you spend your time trying to make images that “everybody” likes, you are chasing a false and impossible goal. You are not doing your own work.

It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not. – Andre Gide

Why did you shoot that?

Why will I/did I shoot it? That is a question we all should consider and answer every time we take a picture. If it has meaning for us on a personal level it is probably worth taking the time to capture it and process it. If it is to duplicate something that got a lot of Facebook likes, forget it.

You have probably figured out I like to use quotes to reinforce ideas. And to let you know that greater minds than mine have expressed some of the same ideas before. Here are 2:

If you shoot for the love of it, you know why you shot it. Jay Maisel

There is no way to know what others want as well as we know what we want, so trying to please them instead of ourselves is a mistake.David Vestal

As usual, I am only talking about the realm loosely called “fine art”. I wish we had a better term. In order to create our own art, we first and foremost have to please ourselves. If this image doesn’t blow us away, why waste time on it? Whose art is it? It has to be our own. If we get to where we can make images that make us very happy we will find a core of other people who share the same viewpoint.

Your style

Is it your style? Are you developing a style? Is your style acceptable to your peers? How do you know your style?

These questions can cause a lot of angst for artists. I say stop worrying about it. Your style is a result of who you are, not a skill you develop or an affectation you present.

Someone said to go through your portfolio and pick out your 20 best images. Lay them all out and examine them. This defines your style right now. This is what appeals to you and how you make your images. It will show the types of subjects you prefer, the lighting you like, the composition you tend to use, how you like to post process them, etc. This is you. You are not what someone else wants you to be.

Can a style be consciously changed? Yes, some people are able to do it. I’m thinking of Picasso as he went through several distinct periods. Or Joel Grimes who has redefined his signature look at least a couple of times. This is unusual. But even for the rest of us, our style evolves with time. We change and adapt as we mature and get more knowledge and experience. I know that the images I make now are very different from the ones I made a few years ago.

The point is, we each have a style and it comes from within. Don’t worry about what is in vogue today or what you see on social media. Be you.

What critic do you listen to?

But I posted an image I liked on Instagram and it didn’t get many likes. Or the judges in my camera club competition told me my treatment of the subject was not going to win any awards. Or a gallery I applied to rejected me because my images did not fit their needs.

There are critics all around. That doesn’t mean they should dictate our values. To paraphrase the famous George Bernard Shaw quote “those who can, do; those who can’t, become critics”. It is a lot easier and safer to criticize from the sidelines than to be in the battle trying to do something no one else does.

No critic can define your values, your vision, your art. If you have done your job well so that your image is technically correct as far as you want and composed the way you want and pleasing to you then it is nobody else’s business to tell you it should be different. They will try, but don’t listen to them. Maybe they are an artist, too, and have some good suggestions. Fine. Listen to them, but take it in and process it through your own values and style. Keep what feels right to you and discard the rest. No one is qualified to tell you what you have to do artistically. Notice in my description above what kept coming through was “the way you want”.

Your inner critic

If you’re not your own severest critic, you are your own worst enemy. – Jay Maisel

The great Jay Maisel is right. You have to decide what is right for you. Only you can truly criticize your work. You owe it to yourself to be hard on yourself. Be brutally honest. Throw away most of what you do.

You might feel that you need to get a lot of images to fill out a portfolio. No. You need some great images for your portfolio. If 5 is what you have then that is what is in your portfolio. Anything that is not a stand-on-its-own, awesome image you would be proud to show to anyone detracts from the collection. Weed out everything that does not show your best work

Let me give an example. I recently went on a car trip. I allowed plenty of time for slow travel with side trips and stops for pictures whenever I wanted. This is how I like to travel. I shot over 300 images during the trip. My editing workflow is a multi-stage culling process for selecting images. Just in the first stage I eliminated all but about 45 to be further considered and processed. I am still in process, but I expect that maybe 4-6 will make it into my final select group.

That seems fairly severe. Less than 2% of the images I shot will make it. But actually it is probably not severe enough. Realistically 2-3 of these would actually add value to my portfolio. I’m still in love with some that should be cut. That hurts. But I have really come to understand that a single weak image can bring down the level of an entire portfolio.

The only critic

So the only critic you should listen closely to is yourself. Only you are fully qualified to judge your work. Look at a lot of images from a variety of artists with different styles and interests. Get feedback from other people. Take what you can learn from everyone but stay true to your own vision.

Whose art are you trying to make? I hope it is your own. Then you have earned the right to be very proud of your art.

How Fragile is my Style?

Deserted playground

Some photographers say you should look at and study as many examples of other artists work as you can. Others say you should not view other’s work. Underlying it is an assumption of how much our own style might be affected by other artist’s work. Is my style fragile and easily influenced or is it inherently robust?

I have been reading the book More Than a Rock by Guy Tal. (I have no financial incentive in recommending this) Guy is a very thoughtful writer and the book is challenging. I recommend it. It has no tips for taking pictures, it is about why we take them.

Artistic Promiscuity

A recent chapter titled Artistic Promiscuity made me examine some of my beliefs. Like many artists, I occasionally have self-doubt about my style – about whether I really have one. Guy poses the situation ‘I was baffled when I recently heard from a fellow photographer asking if I would recommend avoiding viewing other people’s photographs as a means of isolating one’s own “vision”.’

A vocal proponent of just such a position is my friend Cole Thompson. His blog is well written and has some great insights. But he has a controversial position for his own life, he does not look at other people’s images. He calls it Photographic Celibacy.

Guy attacks this straw man he set up, arguing about artistic history and how creativity flowed and developed over time as artists were inspired by other artist’s work. And he talks about how seeing great art is inspiring and elevating, especially to another artist.

He goes on to say “So be promiscuous, at least when it comes to art. Seek and study and contemplate and revel in art of all kinds and genres and styles – the more the better. Find what inspires you and articulate to yourself why it inspires you. Borrow but don’t steal; incorporate but don’t imitate. Find inspiration, wisdom, and knowledge in the works of others, and in return strive to inspire others with your own work. Such has always been the way of artists.”

Guy’s advice is very mature and inclusive. He has a strong world view and belief structure. A self-confidence that comes from experience and values. It is good advice, at least for him. It may not be universal advice for everyone in every stage of development.

Photographic Celibacy

Cole, on the other hand says; “As I stopped looking at other people’s images and focused on what I was creating and what I thought of my work, my Vision began to emerge. The work I am creating now is my work, not an imitation of someone else’s.”

He has been on this path for years and is not likely to change his mind. He says “Ten years later and I’m still practicing Photographic Celibacy because I find it a useful practice for two reasons: first I’m still inclined to copy other’s work. … And the other reason I still find Photographic Celibacy useful: it keep me focused on what I am doing and not what others are doing. When I look at the work of others I find myself comparing their images and successes to mine. Sometimes I get discouraged at the large number of great photographers out there and all of the great images being created. All of this is an unnecessary distraction that keeps me from my purpose: creating images from my Vision.”

This seems to work well for him. Cole has a distinct style and he is a great photographer.

What is Vision?

These two good artists disagree in how to develop your vision and grow as an artist, but what do they believe “vision” really is?

Guy says “There is nothing to find – your vision, voice, and personal style are already in you by virtue of the unique amalgam of experiences, sensibilities, stories, and beliefs that make you who you are.”

On the other hand, Cole says of vision “It is the sum total of your life experiences, it is the lenses you see the world through, it is your photographic personality and it is your inner voice (or the ‘force’ for you Star Wars fans). There is no need to be able to define, identify or describe your Vision. All you really need to know is that your Vision is there and then follow it.”

Put these side by side and they are really saying the same thing – our vision is a unique property of who we are. It is inherent in each of us.

Who is right?

It seems that the Artistic Promiscuity position and the Photographic Celibacy position share the same belief of what Vision is. The difference is how to get there.

Who is right? I believe Guy is right for Guy and Cole is right for Cole. They each recognize something about themselves that requires or allows them to behave in a certain way.

Cole adopted his philosophy early in his formal career when he had doubts about his vision and style. He recognized that he was being influenced by other artists and needed to isolate himself to discover his vision. He recognizes and clearly states that this path is not for most people.

Guy seems to be have a personality that thrives on the inspiration from other artists. He is confident in his vision and does not feel any temptation to imitate them.

They are both right – for themselves.

Fragile style?

So is style really fragile? Probably not, but following and expressing our style is a very personal and individual journey. We may be going to the same place but we all take a different path to get there. Some of us get lost on our path and end up in the weeds.

I admire that Cole recognized his nature and need and acted accordingly. It would be great to have the confidence of Guy, but in reality I am more like Cole. I am getting better, but the artistic spirit is a strange mixture of fragile and robust.

Theodore Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

I think this is a wise warning. It is well proven that spending too much time on Facebook is destructive because you compare your everyday life that you know has problems to the happy, exaggerated image others portray.

Likewise, being a photographic artist is a difficult thing these days. Everyone in the world is a photographer it seems. We are flooded with beautiful images all the time. It is hard not to compare ourselves to the best work we see out there and not feel doubt. It is hard sometimes not to think we should do work more like something we admired.

Promiscuous or celibate? I think we have to know our own nature enough to decide.

Is style fragile? No, not if it is really just who we are. It is probably not the style that is fragile but it can be hard to have the confidence to believe in ourselves and follow our own style. It can be hard to go against the stream of popularity. And some of us may need a quiet place to recognize our style and get to know it.

How about you? What are your thoughts about style?

Be Different, Like Everyone Else

I hate getting cynical (even though I am), but at times it seems to me that there is little originality in the art world. It’s just a business. The gatekeepers want to put you in a box to make it more convenient for them to stereotype you and know “where you fit in”. Difference and variety are actually discouraged.

Galleries and dealers say they are looking for fresh and creative and unique, as long as it is like all the works they already carry. Curators look for cutting edge, original work, as long as it is just like the shows they usually put together.

This sounds like middle school, where everybody is consumed with angst and frantically seeking their individuality; trying to be themselves. Which means they are desperately trying to look and dress and act exactly like everyone else in their group. Because if they actually were themselves, the leaders in their peer group would make fun of them. How ridiculous.

Standard advice for new artists is that you have to develop a signature style and a body of work focused on a few projects or themes. That does not work well for some of us. My themes and subjects are wide ranging. I might be doing street photography this morning and landscapes this afternoon and still lives tomorrow and composites the next day and … The forces that motivate me, helped by my borderline ADD, also prevent me from focusing all my attention on one theme or subject. I wander where my curiosity leads me and enjoy seeing what I find along the way.

So when people ask what I do, I can really only say “I’m an artist”. If they push beyond that, well, most of my work is outdoors, all is digital, it is usually based on photography, and it is “fine art” in the sense that it is not intended as documentary or reportage. I am not representing any of my work as “truth”. I lean toward the abstract and even surreal, but I also enjoy crisp, highly detailed shots of an old barn. My work may be heavily manipulated or composited – or not. I intend for the main destination of my art to be prints.

If I put together a portfolio for a gallery it may have an image of a church building, and an abstract view of a tree, and a wide landscape on the high plains, and a pure composited abstract, and a black and white landscape in the mountains and several other seemingly disjoint things. Their reaction is “what does this mean? what do you shoot?” I can only answer that this is my style. I am curious about a lot happening in the world around me. My style is the subject, the point of view, the way it is shot, the attitude and feeling I bring. Each one is me, my expression and my reaction to what I encounter. Purity, consistency, and following rules is not my strong suit.

Because of my wide interests, my inventory of images is pretty large. I would be glad to pull special portfolios for a gallery or designer if they have a certain subject or genre they are looking for. But if they take the attitude that I’m not worthy of consideration unless I only do the type of projects they value, it makes me wonder who they think the artist is. They expect me to be different, like everyone else.

So should I follow the path that calls me or do what other people expect of me? I like what Darius Foroux said: If you want to stand out from the crowd, guess what, you have to stand out from the crowd.

Visit my web site

To get a better idea of the range of things I value and do, please check out my web site:

Stick to Your Own Vision

You have a vision. It’s your own and it is different from anyone else. This is a hard thing for many of us to believe and accept. It sounds pretentious to say “I have a vision”. And it is hard because we are insecure and, deep down, don’t really believe we have one.

A friend of mine, Cole Thompson, tells this story about a defining moment in his career. It happened during a portfolio review. I will tell you that Cole is a B&W artist:

During the last review of a very long day, the reviewer quickly looked at my work, brusquely pushed it back to me and said “It looks like you’re trying to copy Ansel Adams.”  I replied that I was, because I loved his work! He then said something that would change my life:

“Ansel’s already done Ansel and you’re not going to do him any better.  What can you create that shows your unique vision?”

Those words really stung, but the message did sink in: Was it my life’s ambition to be known as the world’s best Ansel Adams imitator? Had I no higher aspirations than that?

That sent me on a journey to find out if I had a Vision. I did and it changed not only my photography, but my life.

What is your vision, then? It is the way you perceive things, based on your history of experiences and your values and beliefs. That is why it is yours and unique compared to anyone else. That is one reason you should not try to copy anyone else’s vision. It would be artificial. You need to do you.

Have you ever been our shooting with a friend and later compare your results? Isn’t it amazing that your images are different, even though you were both is the same place? Sometimes it doesn’t even look like you were together, because you perceive different things as significant. That diversity of results comes from our differing vision.

But what if you submit some images to a competition or a call for entry and they are rejected? What if you go to a review like Cole did? What if they tell you, in effect, that your vision is not worthy. Don’t believe them. Even the so called experts (I’m not sure they actually exist) can only answer for their own vision. If they reject your work, they have a different vision. That does not mean yours in not equally valid. That is so hard to remember when the sting of rejection is fresh.

So when I get insecure and wonder if I really have a vision, I look at a lot of my images and discover that there really is something there. There is something unique and different from what I see from other artists. There is even something I might even consider worthwhile.

Trust that you have a vision. You do. You are a person and you have a history of experiences and values that have shaped you. You will choose what you photograph and that will be based on your vision. That is you.