By Andrew Molitor
As humans, for almost anything we do, we seem to want a set of step-by-step instructions: a recipe. We use recipes in our jobs, to cure our addictions, to lose weight, and, with somewhat less success, to make art.
Photography has a recipe for everything. What f-stop should I use for landscapes? Where should I place the strobes to take a portrait? How can I do the Brenizer effect? Where in the frame should I place the subject? Answers to these and a thousand other questions can be found in the form of simple step-by-step directions in a thousand books, on a thousand web sites, and at a thousand workshops. Worse, we tend to communicate in recipes. When we're asked how we did a certain thing, our reply as often as not is in the form of simple step-by-step instructions. The industry conspires with us: for every photographic problem, there are a dozen gadgets which solve precisely that problem, each packaged with a little booklet of instructions.
Cooking has long worked well with recipes. So why should photography be any different? In the first place, photography is (or can be) art, and the ability to produce an identical cake day after day is rarely what we want to do. In the second place, cookery has had centuries of effort expended on standardization specifically to make recipes work. A measured teaspoon is more or less the same size everywhere in the non-metric world, as is a cup. Baking powder has roughly the same concentration of sodium bicarbonate in it regardless of brand. To get a handle on how far cookery has come, try reading a cookbook from 200 years ago. It's quite different—and almost completely useless in modern terms.
Why is this "recipe culture" a problem? Surely it's not necessary that everyone should earn a Ph.D. in optics and deduce everything else from there. The problem is not that we start with a recipe, the problem is that all too often we end with the recipe. When investigating what is to us new territory, of course we can usefully start with a couple of recipes, and try them out. All too often, though, we find a recipe that works and we stick with it.
The problem, really, is at least threefold:
- Every recipe contains tacit assumptions, without which it will not work
- Recipes tend to suppress learning
- Recipes tend to dictate results, which tend in turn to dictate taste
Hidden assumptions mean that, frequently, a recipe simply won't work for you. Photography has a lot of variables—enough that making all of them explicit is difficult. Such-and-such a technique only works with a full frame sensor, or has to be modified in such-and-such a way for a crop sensor. This technique assumes that the day is windless. That one only works with a sufficiently fast lens. And so on.
When we have a recipe that works, we have a very human tendency to stop there. We don't dig into it further or take it apart and see what makes it tick. One can argue that this is inherently bad by itself, but there is a practical point as well: when the unspoken assumptions of the recipe are no longer true, the recipe will fail. Usually at the worst possible time.
Finally, recipes dictate results. We come to expect portraits to be made with one of a handful of lighting idioms, and, if we do, then we assume others to be simply wrong. If we refuse to place our subject on a one-third "power point" we're never going to win the first prize in the local camera club's annual picture competition. Perhaps it's worth thinking about how many photographers have built careers around simply using the "wrong" lights, or the "wrong" post-processing effects.
A simple recipe for composition might produce pleasing pictures when seen one by one, but produces a certain sameness after you've seen it too many times.
What can we do about it? We can try to communicate less in recipes than in information. We can make a little effort to push ourselves whenever we catch ourselves blindly following a recipe. We can experiment more, and cleave to orthodoxy less. We can remember that if it looks good, it is good. If it looks good, it doesn't matter where the lights were or what the white balance is. If it looks good, it doesn't matter which of the thousand parameters are "right" and which are "wrong."
"Your Turn" is a series of guest posts by TOP regulars (longtime readers and/or frequent commenters). Sometimes they are posts from readers' own blogs. Want to submit one? Here's how.
Andrew Molitor writes software for a living, occasionally writes about photography for himself, and fondly remembers being a mathematician 20 years ago. His blog is here. He lives and works in Norfolk, Virginia.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Stan B.: "One of my biggest revelations about 'the creative process' came during my brief assisting career when a photographer came up to the studio I was working at, all excited to show his latest. I became excited in turn—this pro was going to unveil his latest right in front of my very eyes! And there before me were a couple of the worst Grade B Helmut Newton imitations I've seen to this day.
"A grown man, a working professional, actually excited about consciously having made sub-standard imitations! A sad day—and a learning experience nonetheless."
Mike adds: During my short assisting career, it was my pro himself who proudly unveiled the artwork. I'll see your Helmut Newton and raise you...Vermeer.
Really. They were so tasteless I think I was actually speechless, not a small accomplishment in my case. But he had the recipe right!
Andre: "Your own personal style isn't always a good thing. My mother's signature photographic style with family snapshots was to shoot too high, resulting in pictures with lots of sky or blank wall/ceiling and little of the intended subject. Distinctive? Yes. Good? Well...I know a lot about what the skies and ceilings of my childhood looked like. If my mom had followed the recipes, I'd likely know a lot more of what my siblings and I looked like back then. :-) "
Jimmy Reina: "One night, in response to a member's submission at a local camera club meeting, a colleague suggested, 'You know, you are never supposed to shoot into the sun.' It was a photo of a sunset."
robert (partial comment): You say, 'Perhaps it's worth thinking about how many photographers have built careers around simply using the "wrong" lights, or the "wrong" post-processing effects.' I'm interested in your opinion about this sentence. I agree with the spirit of the article, I tend to avoid the conventional, but there is a difference between rules and recipes."
Bron: "Nice post Andrew. As an artist/craftsman (the ancient craft of gilding) who has tried to blur any distinction, I believe good art requires a foundation of good, technical craft. But that is all it is, a basis. I have recipes I start from, gram scales and measuring cups, but every mixture is often modified, to meet changing conditions or just to modify working qualities. My best art starts from an idea and grows, all by feel. As in cooking, if you stray, you'll have some failures, but you will also have some grand successes."
Tom Clifton: "Hmm, when cooking, I have never met a recipe that I didn't alter. A recipe is a starting place; from there, find out what works and what doesn't."
psu: "On recipes in cooking: 'The recipe is a blueprint but also a red herring, a way to do something and a false summing up of a living process that can be handed on only by demonstration, a knack posing as knowledge. We say "What's the recipe?" when we mean "How exactly do you do it?" And though we want the answer to be "Like this!" the honest answer is "Be me!" "What's the recipe?" you ask a weary pro chef, and he gives you a weary-pro-chef look since the recipe is the totality of the activity, the real work. The recipe is to spend your life cooking.' (Adam Gopnik, from The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food.)"
Crabby Umbo: "Interestingly enough, the only people I know making a middle-class living are those who are shooting catalog and retail, usually pick-up days at the companies studios—and if you do that, you do the same stuff the same way all the time, unless the art director is 'trying something different.' When I was in management, I actually had to let a guy go who was OK, but who, every time he got an assignment, tried to 'reinvent the wheel,' mostly to the detriment of getting the assignment done. And he really didn't have the chops to make it wonderful anyway. He would have held on to his job if he had just thrown the lightbox on the thing the same way every time."
Mark Hobson: "I have avoided cooking by recipe simply by not owning any cookbooks. Instead, I have consumed lots of full course meals—a.k.a., picture monographs—all of which tasted great and have left me with a delightful aftertaste which continues to inspire me to make my own edible creations, all of which are, of course, cooked from scratch."