This is a photography post.
But writing about the S8 subwoofer yesterday (that article took me all day to create—I'm getting slower as I slide down the backslope from the middle of middle age) reminded me of something crucial: It's still the music that matters.
Yes, it's nice to have a beautiful-sounding stereo. One that allows the music to ravish your ears on occasion, when the stars align and it all goes right.
Similarly, with cameras, and software tweaks, and sharp lenses, it's still the pictures that matter. Yes, it's nice to have a camera that allows you to get the shot more easily, and it's nice to be able to make a technically impressive print or file. But it's still what you say with it that means the most.
I think this is probably a consequence of where I have to "live," so to speak, within the photography world, but when I scout the 'Net looking at pictures I'm often struck with the nagging feeling that people are missing the forest for the trees. I'm reminded of a group of audiophile friends who gathered at each others' houses to listen to each others' stereos. They preferred classical music, but they never listened to a whole piece of music. Too boring. They needed to constantly move on to the next "test of the system" so they could hear what the host's new bit of gear did to different kinds of sound. So they'd skip from one recording to another all evening long, never once listening to one whole piece of music from beginning to end. Another case: a famous tube aficionado who confessed that he would put one favorite "record of the moment" on his turntable and leave it there for months, listening to it over and over hundreds of times as he rolled tubes (that's the term for trying different brands, makes, and vintages of tubes in different positions in a tube amp or preamp. Did you know tube aficionados pay thousands of dollars for antique tubes? Tubes don't age, they just wear out. So if you don't use them, you can keep them. If you can find old ones that haven't been used, they're often still good. So they're sought after and collected like vintage wines).
We get into a particular mindset when evaluating technical properties. It encourages us to "see" pictures very differently...looking for all the subtle telltales of technical shortcomings—often very elusive—as though they mattered more than anything else to the success or failure of the picture.
This might be valuable, but you've got to learn to detach from it, too. You've got to be able to "switch over" in your head, and put the gearhead concerns aside, and become open, again, to what the photographer is trying to get at, what the picture is trying to do.
The trouble with technical concerns is that they can overwhelm one's thinking. Is this lens sharp enough? Are the colors bright enough? Is there even the slightest trace of noise or another known flaw?
If you can't ever set those concerns aside, then they're all you'll ever see. You'll miss the very pictures you're sitting in front of and staring at.
When people get excessively concerned with some technical property, an antidote is at hand...what they can do is just force themselves to embrace the opposite for a while. If you find you're obsessed with noise, figure out how you can get the noisiest shadows possible and shoot that way for a month. If you're obsessed with detecting whether the most expensive Leica lens is better or worse than the latest Zeiss Otus, buy an old $20 lens off eBay and shoot with that for a month. If you're constantly agitated about whether your colors are bright enough and saturated enough or do they just need a little more, you can back way off—force yourself to desaturate every photo by 15% for a few months. If you find yourself unable to back off from excessive post-processing, force yourself to look at only out-of-camera JEPGs for a while. If you're constantly buying new cameras in a consuming search for the absolute best, find a cheap, old camera that's nowhere close to state-of-the-art and shoot with that until the first of next year. You can cure yourself of photographic neuroses by embracing the opposite.
Even if none of those things applies to you, still, you've got to be able to switch those gears, mentally speaking—and say, yeah, this guy shoots with a lousy lens, but what's he trying to say? Yeah, I hate these colors, but what about the pictures—do they work?
Because it's the music that matters. The equipment is just the means.
P.S. three hours later: Note that I'm not saying you shouldn't use nice gear or strive to refine your skills and technique. We "should" do anything we want to do, and use whatever brings us pleasure to use. All I'm suggesting is keeping it in perspective, is all—perhaps especially when looking at work by others.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Adam Lanigan: "EXACTLY! I have, at times, spent a bit too much time hanging out on various gear forums. Typically, I'll be considering some new piece of gear or looking for technical tips and then just kind of...hang out for a while over a few weeks or months and slowly fall down that hole into oblivion.
"The absurdity of some of the discussions honestly makes me laugh sometimes. The various factions—and they really do become like tribal gangs—on whatever subject, be it the mybrands vs. the yourbrands; the sharpists versus the dreamy weenies; and the fawning fanboys versus the never-good-enoughs. It's quite amazing. The pointlessness of it all in the face of emotion, passion, meaning, and speech via photographs is, as above, hilarious to me. Each new camera or lens is a new reason to dive into the 2% difference between two products that are already 100% 'better' than what we collectively had 5, 10, 20 years ago.
"One recent 'discussion,' in particular, stands out, though just semi-related to your point. One poster put up a quote from a brand's engineer that the camera presents colours 'the way people remember them'—a seemingly innocuous addition to the thread. This brought out a multiple page flame war debating the science and 'absurdity' that an engineer would say such garbage, thus embarrassing the brand. This all sparked by the fact that the engineer had the gall, the nerve, to speak metaphorically about photography. I laughed, closed the browser, and have not returned (yet)."
Richard replies to Adam: "One quick note: the concept of 'memory color' is an important part of research into how we see the world around us and also in imaging science. Here's a def: 'A memory color is the typical color of an object that an observer acquires through their experience with that object.' An example that we can all call to mind is the yellow of a banana. It gets very complicated after that, but it's worth a Google if you shoot color."
emptyspaces: "HOL-GA! HOL-GA! HOL-GA!"
Pierre Charbonneau: "I agree with you Mike. For work, I shoot exclusively digital, of course. I appreciate using the best technique to satisfy my clients, meaning flash light, good and predictable optics, and pro-grade cameras for reliability. Since a little while, I am experimenting for personal photography with the analog/hybrid technique, shooting color film, having it processed and scanned at the local photo store nearby. I find this relaxing. The results are grainy, unsaturated, and the files are on the small side. And of course, not as malleable as a raw file. But often, I happen to like many of the photos. Maybe it is because I wait having shot few rolls and have forgotten about them? Or the absence of instant gratification? Maybe it is simply because these pictures taken for myself are the one that do matter."
Ed Hawco: "I've probably mentioned this before, but this reminds me of the time I was viewing the Fred Hertzog show at the National Gallery in Ottawa (Canada), and there was this 60ish guy walking around with his young protegé loudly complaining that the photographs were all 'crap' because the captions didn't mention the lens that was used, and the shutter speed and f-stop. I try to convince myself that this guy was a one-off, but there is plentiful evidence to the contrary."
robert e: "Love it. So, to put it in gearhead terms: the most important piece of equipment we own is in our heads, and it, too, needs regular attention, maintenance, calibration and upgrades?"
Mike replies: If you have to put it that way. :-)