The title of this week's column is practically my personal mantra when it comes to photography and photographic printing. I didn't come up with it; credit goes to Randy Nelson, currently Dean of Pixar University, formerly "Alyosha" of the Flying Karamazov Brothers.
There are several ways to read this. One is, "Improvise!" See where the art takes you and run with it. If you're not predestined to get somewhere in particular, it really doesn't matter how you get there.
One can invert it, though, and take it to mean that if you don't have a clear goal in mind the steps you're taking along the way don't matter; they lack a reason for existence.
I will admit the latter interpretation plays a bigger role in my photographic life than the former. That's because I almost always know where I'm going. The moment I raise a camera to my eye I know what the final print's going to look like. I've got no problem with Ansel Adam's jargon, "previsualization" because what I'm doing goes way beyond visualization. I just know.
Of course sometimes I turn out to be wrong. Every photograph I make isn't the gem I imagined it to be. But if it's going to be a gem, it'll be the way I imagined it to be.
Rarely, very rarely, the creative process doesn't go at all like I expected. Even more rarely, the results wind up being far better than I expected.
One of TOP's gracious readers, Jeff Goggin, loaned me a Contax 645 with a Phase One P30+ back for a few weeks. My experiences with it, comparing it to my Olympus Pen, will be the subject of several upcoming columns (please save your questions; details will be forthcoming in future articles). The very first thing I did was to take it out for night photography, because this is an area of special interest to both Jeff and me. Off I went hunting for scenes that would tell me how the cameras handled long exposures, low light levels, extreme brightness ranges, and illuminations whose CRI's ought to be measured in negative numbers. In other words, typical nighttime stuff.
I've been doing low ISO, high-quality nighttime photography since my college days. I know what the camera's going to see and how I can interpret that in a photograph. Forty years of experience have burned it into my unconscious. Consequently, when I saw the scene in figure 1, I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to do with it. I planned to take just enough of an edge off of the sodium vapor illumination so that everything wouldn't come out a monochromatic honey color. Once I did that, the composition would fall into place nicely. And that's pretty much what I did in figure 2, messing with the color temperature and color balance sliders in Adobe Camera RAW enough to get the balance approximately where I wanted. Real refinement would take place in Photoshop.
Then I got to wondering.That P30+ back could capture a hell of a long exposure range, well over 12 stops, maybe as much as 13. So, as an experiment, what could I pull out of the shadows without losing the highlights? I went into the ACR's curves panel and made an adjustment, à la figure 3, that opened up the shadows without blocking up the highlights and got me to figure 4. That had a very nice sense of luminosity...in fact it was starting to remind me of some of my old black-and-white film work with extreme compensating development (a staple of high-quality nighttime photography).
Hmmm, so what would happen if I took all the color out of the photograph and left it all about the luminosity?
Figure 5, that's what! Wow, I liked that a lot better than any of the color version.
So, that's where I went, and after suitable Photoshop legerdemain I got to figure 6, which makes a gorgeous print.. It's got luscious tonality and a classic look that suits the architecture perfectly, unquestionably a winner.
I'm equally comfortable making color or black-and-white photographs. In fact, as I wrote in a column several years ago ( "I Am The Camera...Or Is It The Other Way Around?") I can switch back and forth between the two effortlessly, from photograph to photograph. This is the first time, though, where have I switched after the fact, discovering that a photograph I'd made in color was going to work much, much better in black and white.
Sometimes you just have to riff and see how it sounds.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Michael Trupiano: "Figure 6 on my calibrated quad-core iMac is stunning! Superb nighttime image: wondering blacks and whites while holding detail! As a fellow night time photographer (historically with a view camera no less!) I am wondering if you would be willing to post a follow-on about how you got to figure 6 from figure 5? Looking forward to your future post(s) on comparing the P30+ with the PEN; especially as it relates to nighttime photography."
Ctein replies: I don't keep notes on my Photoshop manipulations, so I can't tell you everything. I can say there was perspective correction (I hate converging verticals), I used the Shadow/Highlight control to improve separation at the extremes, especially in the shadows, and I applied wide-radius unsharp masking to bring out subtle shadings and gradation. Prolly a bunch more fiddly stuff I don't recall.
Featured Comment by Joe: Malcolm Gladwell wrote a brilliant article in the New Yorker in 2008 called "Late Bloomers" that talks about those two methods of working that you describe, Ctein. To badly oversimplify: some artists know exactly what they want to create, and it's just a matter of making it happen. Picasso and Jonathan Safron Foer are Gladwell's examples. Others use the creative process as a way to discover what they want to create, to experiment and experiment, getting closer and closer, sometimes over an entire lifetime. Cezanne and Mark Twain are examples.
"The article is essential reading for every artist."