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Thursday, 11 October 2007


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>>>Then there's the thorny issue of authenticity. In the comments to Ctein's recent post, a reader named Taran asked Ctein about adding grain to his digital images.<<<

You're right, Mike: I have real trouble with the concept of adding grain to a digital picture — the first time that I did it I started wondering about the authenticity of what I was doing. After that I decided, at least for the time being for my current photography, to use small-sensor cameras, which, as Sean Reid has written, are a new type of camera and format the way 35mm was a new format when the first Leicas were introduced, characterized by a grainy look at speeds over ISO 200 and a huge depth-of-field.

But the more I think about this, using small-sensor cameras is simply a personal preference in that I prefer "natural grain" created by the "noise" of these files, which allows me to work more "directly" than I would if I added artificial film grain — but I still subseaquently do a lot of selective burning and dodging the way I would in the darkroom, except that it's easier to do so digitally.

Looking at the preference for not adding grain in this context makes me ultimately think that it doesn't really matter what you do: it's only the looks of the final print that matter: what I'm after is for the meaning of the photograph to emerge from it's form, the way the meaning of a poem does.

Ultimately, whether you add grain or not is no different from whether you burn and dodge, and need not affect authenticity at all, the authenticity being based of the overall effect of an expressive print, no matter how it's made.


I think perhaps part of the issue here is one of purpose. For you (and most of us reading you), the image is the point. How the image looks, how it was taken, is there a style or vision to the composition - it's really all about the image.

But most people - now and then - don't really care about the image. They care about the subject. If the picture of aunt Agatha in front of the Acropolis positively, clearly contains both Agatha and some white marble then that's a fine image for the user, and never mind if her feet are cut off and her face is smack dab in the center, directly facing the sun. If the picture shows a possibly newly discovered bug with enough clarity and detail to make a positive identification then it has served its purpose no matter how bland it may be as a photograph.

What has happened is that all these separate worlds now mingle together, on Flickr and elsewhere. And on Flickr it's usually not easy to read the purpose of the image you're looking at. I'm willing to bet that just as you sigh at all non-composed snapshots, there's plenty of people idly wondering why some people bother to post fuzzy, grayish images of nothing in particular.

Dear Mike,
I'm not sure that a Technical Style can stand on it's on feet whether Digital/Film (for long anyway) if it isn't accompanied by a personal Creative Style. It becomes great 'packaging' without heart. Creativity must be there first and quite honestly Technical Style is an optional extra. Hopefully what it means to be a photographer is to use both your creative & technical muscles i.e. to strive for perfection. If you're lucky on looking back at your own work you will see a distinction of both.
Keith Trumbo

Cerys Connor on Flickr ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/cerys/ ) comes to mind as someone who has developed a distinct digital style (although it has much in common with the "Holga look"), partly through the consistent use of a wide angle adapter on her compact. That said, I think of her style as being intimately tied up with her choice of subjects, viewpoints and locations (some of which are familiar to me).

As for personal style, I'd go along with your preference for vignetting, and indeed I tend to apply similar edits to all my monochrome film scans, but in digital I may work in colour instead and go for something more extreme. If I convert to mono, I tend to use the same technique and similar settings each time, rather than spend a lot of time fiddling with the channel mixer for example - to my mind this is no different to accepting the "default" mono conversion of a particular film stock. In that sense, there is some consistency.

Yes, Cerys is a perfect example. Obviously someone who has decided on a visual style that fits her subjects and that pleases her. Very consistent from picture to picture, allowing the whole to add up to more than the sum of the parts. Excellent example.

Mike J.

Mike wrote: "Still, I wonder why more photographers haven't used the great flexibility of digital to consciously develop a technical style or signature that suits their taste and their vision (and maybe many have, but I just look at too many snapshots). "

Yes, I do believe that your opinion may indeed be formed by looking at "too many snapshots". My impression is that many of today's busiest commercial and fine art photographers are 75% "STYLE", 15% talent, and 10% vision. Photoshop has become the primary act of photography for many otherwise listless photographers, enabling them to apply their own "style" (which generally represents manipulations to contrast and color saturation). Witness the fact that the word "photoshop" is commonly used as either a noun or a verb.

Not enough style? Surely you're mistaken. It can be hard to find any steak underneath all the catsup these days.

I don't know if Trent Parke shoots digital, but I find him quite distinct both in form and technique. Here is a link:


Your last two editorials were veritable gems.


>What has happened is that all these separate worlds >now mingle together, on Flickr and elsewhere. And on >Flickr it's usually not easy to read the purpose of >the image you're looking at.

I find that on Flickr, quite often. I might post a set of images shot in a consistent style. Then I'll also have snapped a few record shots of set-up, or to show context or something that I might plan to use to discuss the 'real' photos and how they were taken.

I get people 'faving' or commenting and critiquing the record shots, perhaps more often, than the 'real' pictures. I find it endlessly amusing, or bleakly sad - sometimes at the same time.

There's something about your plastic-wood/digital-film analogy. I agree. While digital is hugely convenient, there just seems something fishy about trying to make it emulate TMax P3200. Maybe once the films I like go away and a digital camera is made that I can both afford and feel really comfortable with, I will come to grips with achieving a style that I suits me digitally. Until then, my style is partly influenced by my choices in cameras and film. Interestingly, my tastes influence my choices, and my choices start to influence my photography. Some self fulfilling prophecy there.

Isn't it strange that it has become possible to go to a website like Flickr and find an infinite number of photos of total strangers at pubs and parties, or in front of something famous? In New York I see people taking snapshots all the time, mostly of Times Square and other landmarks we've all seen a million times through the eyes of others. As for the "social snaps," I could live the rest of my life without seeing another random image of drunk people floating around a party and die a happy man.
But snapshots can be really good. Sometimes, shooting from the hip (not literally) gets me my favorite pictures.
About personal style, I don't believe it's a deliberate thing you can "arrive" at, but something that evolves in tiny ways over time. I know what I usually want for one subject or another, and make some decisions, and they're probably different than what somebody else would make with the same picture, so I guess that's my style. I'd like to think it's consistent and all my photos hang together in some special way, but can you really force that?

One thing that I have noticed about photography is that there doesn't seem to be much discussion based on found vs. constructed subjects. Of course, maybe there is a lot of this around and I just haven't seen it yet, since my reading is mostly haphazard.

What I mean is the following. Different photographers can walk past a stairway on the side of a building and photograph it in different ways, reflecting their styles. But somewhere I saw a photograph of some books laid open, one on top of the other, viewed from the level of the table top, end-on the spines, showing the wavy patterns of the opened pages. The books' pages had different colours and combined with the lighting they produced an arresting image. But that scene was constructed by the photographer; it didn't exist until he dreamed it up. To my mind, it goes beyond simple still life. At the time (maybe 2 years ago I think) it struck me that that image woud probably never have occurred to me. I'm the kind that goes looking for stairways. That kind of work is almost a cross between painting and photography in the sense that the creator built a scene that did not previously exist. Since then, when I look at pictures, I mentally make a distinction between scenes that the shooter stumbled across and those that were made by them.

Well certainly I am not using any type of digital style...I am not using digital at all.

Gertrude Stein said "There's no there there."

She was referring to Oakland, where Stein spent her childhood, but it seems to apply to digital photography. It can be an infinite anything, so it is nothing. Nothing isn't bad...I mean "nothing" in the formless sense, as in "no-thing."

Mike, this "technical style" essay is interesting to me since I do digital audio recording in a little home studio. My first few attempts at home music recording involved experimenting with all the FX (effects) like choruses, flangers, delays, exciters, expanders, dopplers, reverbs, and compressors. Then I discovered Nick Drake, and I was blown-away by the simplicity of his recordings, especially "Pink Moon" which featured Nick floating his delicate vocals above his genius acoustic fingerplaying on a very cheap Guild 6-string. I was hooked immediately, and I've never been the same since.

What changed me forever wasn't so much the beauty of his music, or the profundity of his lyrics, but rather the HONESTY of his technical style. Nick didn't hide behind technical tricks, but he allowed his true self to shine through, and he created a record that sounded like Nick really sounds, as if he was playing for me in my livingroom. After experiencing this honesty, how could I ever go back to disguising and "enhancing" my voice with a Helicon Voice Prism, or making my acoustic playing sound like something it wasn't?

I've been trying to apply this same logic to digital photography by concentrating on capturing the finest quality photographs that I'm capable of, in the camera, and using software just for cropping, color adjustment and minor sharpening with Noiseware. It's honest, it's what I was able capture in the moment using whatever skills I have at my disposal, and I suppose it's a technical style devoid of technical style, like Nick Drake, and it's honest.

I've been pondering this over the last couple of days. Do I have a style? Would anyone be able to recognise a style in my work?
It hit me last night, though, exactly the style that I like to produce. I've been reworking some of my recent stuff, especially where i thought it was OK (sort order 2, in the 1,2,3 method). Now I'm much happier with the results and there is more of a distinct style about things.
The good thing about digital - it's like taking a single roll of film and trying every toner/developer/paper combination on the one roll. Same trial and error but less wasted shots.

A couple thoughts, digital chips do have their own inherent character, tone response, high iso noise, exposure latitude etc. Perhaps when "digital" is lumped together and seen as a whole you can make comparisons with plastic, but I think individual cameras and chips do have their own character and useful place. It seems that in post processing is when it becomes "plastic".

Adding grain can be helpful if you are trying to make large prints and are pushing the limits on your digital file.

As far as a technical style, perhaps in response to the infinite possibilities in photoshop, I now process most of my photographs to monochrome with a bit of toning. I like the consistent look when the photographs are seen in a group or essay.

As for a signature (digital) technical style, the one name that came instantly to mind was Loretta Lux...

"The question becomes, why would you do that? Why add arbitrary distortions to your pictures when you don't have to?"

You were talking about artificial grain and cross-processed-like colours, but I've always felt that the same argument should be made for black and white photography - especially when it comes from a digital sensor. Black and white images are and have always been a huge abstraction of the way we normally view the world, yet no one complains about that because of the history behind it.

Sorry, that's a bit of a digression from the main topic of discussion. It's tricky with the digital age with so many tricks available to put processing in service of the image and not the other way around. I don't print very often buy I do post a photo a day on my photoblog and it involves working intensively on an image until it's 'ready' and then posting it.

I've wondered once in a while about the stylistic inconsistency of my work. I wouldn't say it's all over the map, but neither do I stick to only one thing. I have questioned myself about this, but I think my self-justification is that I'm still in my experimental phase. It remains to be seen whether this phase ends before I do.

I graduated with my BFA in 1999, and I still remember my fellow students sneering at my insistance that mastery of technical craft is an important prerequisite to being able to express one's self through photography. Or any other art. A painter who doesn't know his 'craft' can make oil paintings that crack and fall apart (of you paint a fast drying color over a slow drying one...different colors of oil paint dry at different rates depending on the pigments used).

These students claimed that learning all that technical stuff "got in the way" of their creativity. The net result was that 99.9% of what they produced looked like crap because they were too lazy to do the work involved to make a fine print. Most of them also shot little, maybe a roll of 35mm film every week in class, while I was shooting 3-4 rolls a week. Practice helps. They didn't want to spend money on film..digital has taken away that little burden and the lazy photographers now produce a little better work than they used to, I think.

One thing that digital did for me was introduce me to color photography, which I had little interest in previously. All digital images are color unless you tell the camera or Photoshop to convert the color image the chip gives you to black and white. I found myself liking the color versions better with some images I shot and was converting to monochrome in Photoshop, and now I'm actually shooting a lot of color transparency film with the intent from the beginning to end up with a color photograph!


I don't know why......or if it matters.

"Technically" I think Ed has a subtle yet consistant similarity in all his photos even when straying amongst, color or monotone, subject matter and shooting "style".(i.e) found color,landscape or other things.

In terms of asthetic style the link to Cerys' photos is a good example of both technical and asthetic. While I did enjoy her work very much it runs a little too much into "sameness" for my taste. After 3 pages I clicked away. That said she is very good and I do like it.

To take a musical analogy, since that seems in favor here and the last post.

Why did the Ramones make a dozen (or so)records that are all in large part exactly the same? And why did Talking Heads not do that? Did the Ramones find their "true self" and did Talking Heads quit while still searching?

Given the "top 5 desert island albums" question, I would feel comfortable grabbing any one of my Ramones records as one of my choices. That said, I would have a very hard time picking 1 Talking Heads record (compilations not included)and might just pick 5

I wonder whether the question of authenticity is actually relevent since the advent of digital photography. I mean unless you print the raw file, or only shoot jpeg, everything has been manipulated by you in some fashion. Isn't one's choice of film a maniulation in some way. I mean you are consciously choosing to represent the world in a grainy fashion, or not, depending on the choice. Applying grain after the fact doesn't seem so different. For that matter, isn't converting a color image to monochrome just as unauthentic as applying grain. So I am with Mitch on this one. ch

A technical style is so important as it gives parameters to how we present our work to the world. That is one of the issues that I have with digital for personal work. To me, digital is both too bland in it's perfection, and too infinite in its maleablity to be specific without resorting to artifice. Since all of my professional work is digital, I found that the most effective way for me to draw the line between that and my personal work was to shoot in a way that was fundamentally different.

So, for me, if it's personal work, it's film, color negative, shot square, with either of the two lenses I carry. My choice of instrument is limited, but what I can do with it is only limited by my imagination.

Working within very tight parameters has made me a much better photographer because I have to work to get my images without the aid of automation of any kind or zoom lenses. I've been shooting the same way for about 7 years now and honestly feel that my personal work is now much better than it ever was before I decided on my present path.

For me, coming up with a technical style that would both give me freedom and parameters to work within is a key component to my particular point of view. My work has a look that is based on all of the choices that I make along the way. Such as the way I scan my images, the way I choose to use color, and the tonal range that I like all go a long way to make my photos look a certain way.

That look, combined to what I connect with and respond to emotionally when I make my exposures is the essence of what my photographs are all about. Now, I'm not saying that I'm unique in my way of working as there are many photographers who shoot the same way. However, a simple, consistent and authentic point of view over the long haul is what I'm after. It took me over 20 years to figure this out for myself, but I feel this is the only way to compile a cohesive body of work over a lifetime.

Profoundly interesting question, given this age we are in. I think that it has to do precisely with the new plasticity of the medium and the multitude of choices. Let's assume away the issue of technical competence; as I was already very comfortable in the darkroom . . . non-photographers would ask me about the process of making pictures and I would say that making a picture was like cooking an omelet. There are three variables: ingredients, time and temperature. For "ingredients" substitute your choice of format, film, paper and chemistry. Now with digital, the number of options is literally bewildering. I have stuck, by and large, to trying to reproduce the look I got in prints when my tools were a 35mm camera, Ilford Delta 400 and Ilford Multigrade FB. Although this is a technical set of choices, I view it simply limiting the variables so that I can get to a finished product. In other words: photography today is plastic enough that my old "look" is achievable without too much heartache. But if forced by Mike's question to sit down and ask whether that look was truly appropriate for all my current subject matter, I'd have to say "no" -- and indeed, the ease of producing a color print with modern materials (Epson R2400) has meant that I have strayed recently into realms of color that I just didn't consider ten years ago.

By the way, while it is true that digital chips have their own character, the same amount of plasticity applies to the 1010101 coming out of each of them. It is not comparable to the limitations imposed by a 35mm rangefinder, b&w film and a wet darkroom.
So in my case, the answer to "why not" is that I have found it too difficult to choose, that I have "upgraded" my hardware and software on a frightening learning curve and that I am somewhat overwhelmed by the multiplicity of choices. It is interesting to read others' responses to this.


Benjamin Marks

Mike, Did you have in mind today's thoughts in "technical style" when you wrote about "how to succeed as a photographer" yesterday? At least for me, the two writings work beautifully together, and help me to take a first step toward something I've really wanted to do for some time, but didn't know how to get started. In fact, I wasn't even sure what it was I wanted to do. Now maybe it seems a little clearer... the two musings seem really about "style" and "style"... I don't seem to have much of that. This will be fun.

I think you'll find Tim Tadder has a technical style.

`Why add arbitrary distortions to your pictures when you don't have to?'

Why choose one film over another? Digital is not an absolute accurate rendition of any scene for all time either; it's subject to the whims of sensor / processing unit design and AWB and all that! It's just another choice in an ages-old stream of choices, some of which are at source, some of which are afterwards in processing.

So to answer that question: simple, because realism as the camera recorded is not always everyone's goal. If you saw the rain hanging below a cloud with greater contrast than your camera recorded and want to emphasize the point "I was about to get very wet", well by all means apply some extra contrast in those particular tones.

Ken comments: `their own "style" (which generally represents manipulations to contrast and color saturation).'

The reason for this is too much chasing after a dream of realism. There are many, perhaps too many, sites (photo.net, DPChallenge) where a photo is "manipulated" if you've used any localized changes (sometimes except dust-spotting, but the emphasis remains).

Remind me to go out and have a creative idea that actually involves serious manipulation.

>>Finally, I wonder just how many photographers actually have arrived at a distinct technical style.

I've got a friend who's got a very distinctive post-processing style, all photoshop, that characterizes every image he's shown for years now. Click back through the archives of Kieth Kin Yan, and keep in mind that he's working now as a digital animator, heavily influenced by movies and video.


And these shots are a mix of digital (mostly Nikon dslr's) and scanned medium format film (mostly a Hasselblad).

Well, with the digital, where all the distinctions are what you DID to the image and not what the image WAS there is the problem with, well, intensity. Every style is intended to be distinctive. But the problem is that the people get used to one's style. Other photogs sometimes apply "successive" styles. And too often the photographer starts to intensify his own style. As he would say "Look! I'm ME! Now you get more ME in me, than in anyone alse!" And his work becomes nothing more, but caricature of his own work.
It's like some singers' songs: once you have heard one you heard all.
With real film you can't endlessly intensify the style because the film don't allow.

Hmmm, a very provocative an interesting post and discussion.

My first response is along the lines of, "who cares?" I'm interested in compelling, meaningful images that evoke an emotional response. The technique, and even style, used to create such an image is secondary.

I've seen plenty of images with great technique and/or distinctive style and no impact. They are interesting on a certain level, but quickly forgotten.

The images that burn themselves into my memory are those that have moved me most deeply. And to be honest, I rarely remember the "technique" or "style" used in those images.

That said, I do agree that the almost unlimited choice available to digital photographers often leads to bodies of work with no coherence or thread that ties it together. The work lacks context, and in lacking context, lacks meaning.

I admit to being continuously miffed by the whole "authenticity" question. Since when was photography ever about authenticity? What the camera records has *never* been what actually occurred in the moment recorded. It's a distorted and incomplete representation, from a very limited perspective. So I just can't understand these statements about film being more "authentic" than digital. It's all inauthentic, right?

For me, a good image isn't about technique or style. It's about communication. Has the image spoken to me in some way? Has it made contact with me? Has it changed me, inspired me, repelled me, moved me?

I think if we look at some of the most famous photographs of all time, they all have this quality.

As nice as Cerys' images look, I could never take photos that way. I would know that I had purposely removed information from those images and I would feel like I had stolen something from the viewer.

Mike, you seem to imply that style is largely a matter of how we deal with limitations. Also implied is that digital is somehow lacking in limitations, so to work within a style we have to add them in.

Nuts to that. Digital has plenty of limitations to overcome -- color resolution, color noise, washed out highlights, depth of field, "watercolor" noise reduction, jpeg artifacts, shadow detail, etc.

Not to mention the new possibilities presented by digital -- such as the LACK of grain, HDR, super-high ISO options, and high luminance resolution -- that allow digital images to see in new ways and with different precision.

One would expect digital "style" to come as much from an individual's handling of these as from their stack of photoshop filters.

"...you seem to imply that style is largely a matter of how we deal with limitations. Also implied is that digital is somehow lacking in limitations, so to work within a style we have to add them in"

Actually, I read the just the opposite in Mike's article. It's not digital's limitations, but rather it's many possibilities with which photographers can/should be taking advantage.

As for Mike's point about style, I think that many photographer refrain from post-process effects from fear of their work being labeled as gimmicky. It wasn't too long ago that the "Dragan effect" was all the rage, as was the look of Kim Fiscus' work. The Orton effect is still quite popular among photographers, and has made me feel somewhat uncomfortable about a couple of my images that use that effect.

The proliferation of digital manipulation has created an army of copycats and wannabe's, sharing stylistic techniques and information, thus rendering any unique and compelling style as overused before too long. The bottom line is that post-processing is so darned easy. Not that that's bad, it's just something to be aware of when working on one's style.

Before I proceed, I'd like to head off all the castigation I'll be barraged with by confessing I never use RAW--only the highest quality JPEG. If you have a problem with that, suck it up.

Since I'm just the opposite of Mike in my taste in color, I shoot digital exactly the way I shot Velvia, with NO post-processing. I can flip through prints--some analog, some digital--and not see anything to differentiate them. I do have some sort of style which has taken hold over the past thirty years or so. I can't judge if it's good or bad. Unfortunately, neither can any of you because several functions of my iBook, including iPhoto, have taken a digital dump, keeping me from uploading anything. This is where I really justify this comment--Apple products suck donkey gonads. If I'd bought some cheap-o from Circuit City I'd probably be humming along quite productively.

Anyway, the way I "see" has not been changed by switching to a new capture system. If any of yours HAVE, this might be a good time to re-assess just who's doing the driving...

Dear Mike,

I suppose I have a technical style. I don't think about it; I'm not terribly introspective about my work. The evidence is more circumstantial. I just do what I do, and it looks different from what other people do using comparable tools and techniques. So I must have one. But I rely on more insightful folks like you to point these things out to me.

I can't agree with you on the "authenticity" point, tho'. How is adding grain or texture to a digital image any different from using a texture screen in the darkroom? Or for that matter, any other kind of manipulation that takes the work far from its raw form -- Sabbatier effect, litho printing, cross-processing all come to mind as other time-and-professional-honored darkroom methods that 'distort' the original even more profoundly than adding grain or texture.

I don't practice them myself, but I don't consider the resulting work photographically inauthentic.

Although your analysis is considerably more nuanced and thoughtful, the core point reminds me too much of the silly and monumental PhotoImpressionist-f/64 feud. Aren't we 70 years past that now? Ain't we all grown up a lot, philosophically/aesthetically? (Well, you and I have, fer shure.)

pax / Ctein

"Thus, furniture makers exposed the natural properties of wood, paintings could be "about" paint, Rodin used the stoniness of marble as part of the subject matter of his work, and so forth."

Rodin sculpted in clay primarily to cast his work in bronze. No marble involved.

Mike - Although I usually agree with you, this time I think you are way off the mark with your statement:

"It's tough to judge snapshots. With snapshots, people aren't trying to express themselves or create an impression. Let's say you were a sports-car enthusiast: snapshots are the equivalent of taking the bus. Let's say you're a gourmet: snapshots are the equivalent of fast food. They're just random camera-product. Pretty tough to complain that they don't have any distinction."

Try telling that to Sarah Greenough and the other curators at the National Gallery of Art, where "The Art of the American Snapshot 1888 - 1978" has just opened as their major photographic exhibition of the year. Or the many other curators since the 1930s who have also shown snapshots right alongside other, more "serious" photographs, or the countless artists over the last 100+ years whose work has been profoundly influenced by the humble snapshot.

I cannot claim to be neutral about this issue; "In The Vernacular: An Exploration of Everyday Photography," the catalog for an exhibition from my collection at the Boston University Art Gallery, is due to be published this month. I have collected "vernacular" photographs, including snapshots, for over 30 years, and I have always believed that snapshots, or at least the best of them, are the most intimate and honest of all photographic images.

I'll grant you that the vast majority of snapshots are of little or no interest to anyone but those by or for whom they were made. But I would be happy to show you some that are positively sublime.

Now I can go back to reading the rest of your essay.

Ctein makes a good point (as always): What is the difference between adding grain by pushing a film and adding it by adding a mask of scanned film grain in postprocessing? As far as I can tell, nothing at all (except possibly the implicit snobbery of using an old rather than new way of achieving the same result).

Different subjects, lighting, lenses, etc may suggest different processing styles.

If one session is particularly successful, I may try to augment it in some way to expend the idea, but that doesn't mean that the new obsession means I have to call a halt to other ongoing projects if I find something that fits.

Each project gets harder to expand on. A couple of years ago, I was shooting abstracts of chrome and neon diners at night. I think I've found all the ones within at least a hundred mile radius that provide the necessary ingredients.

Ken Tanaka- Thanks for the chuckle. That last line was a doosie.

Damon- This is almost exactly how I feel, I am glad I ain't alone.

Mike- The article and its subsequent commentary is a great read.


I really don't have much to offer in terms of the article, except that technical style was initially forced on me. My first editor didn't allow horizontal framing of subjects. He threw them all out. "Why?", I stupidly asked. "Because the style editor at Us magazine won't be able to critique her shoes".

I'm sorry, but I don't think that the little, technical "tricks", used in image making going back to the caves of Lascaux constitute a "style". I may not articulate it well, but the medium is not the message. HCB carrying a Leica or HCB carrying a Canon SD800IS, would still produce HCB images. Rouge and lipstick do not make a pretty face; the basic image has to have something, nor all the tricks and puffery can change that.

IMHO, J.S. Sargent was the greatest painter of all time. Not the greatest artist, but an absolutely superb painter. There is a difference; all that technical mastery was in the service of...not a lot to say sometimes. Picasso, despite the "art historians" wasn't that great technically, but he had a voice, about women, and flowers, women, and bulls, war, women, sex, flowers, women, sex, life, did I mention sex and women?

Mike, you showed us three "snaps", with some PP on them. The fourth is a very beautiful portrait. Some is the force of the personality, but it needed you to bring it out. Are some subtle tricks really "style"? Remove the "makeup" and it is still a beautiful portrait of Zander.

PFUI, great topic, though with some wonderful thoughts.

Hmmm lot here to digest.

Animesh, Trent Parke still shoots film, black and white with a Leica and colour with a Mamiya 7. His look is very distinct as he under exposes quite savagely, although he says this first occurred by accident because his meter was faulty.

I think that the whole search for a "technical style" is really a quest to translate the world into our photographic vision. I still shoot quite a bit of film and I know instinctively what film stock, developer and paper to reach for for a given style. That is why absolute panic sets in when products are discontinued. So when it comes to digital do I throw out the accumulated vision of 25 years? No! I translate it to the digital medium so hence I try and give my colour work the slightly underexposed Velvia look and my black and white work an HP 5 developed in Microphen look. Colour work is printed on the nearest thing I've found to Cibachrome, Ilford smooth high gloss media, and for black and white I use Harman Matt FB to get that fibre based look.

This whole topic is very interesting in the light of the previous one. Cultivating personal style and vision is the thing that distinguishes one photographer from another. No art director in his right mind would have asked Helmut Newton to produce work in the style of, say, David Hamilton. I think the response would be if you want Hamilton hire Hamilton, if you hire Newton you get Newton.

The problem being now that we are in the digital era the tendency is to produce generic work and then modify it in PhotoShop so its not so important to hire a photographer who has a style or vision. PhotoShop is a wonderful tool but I wonder if it actually hampers people rather than help them. I see so much discussion about how if a photo is not very good in colour you can save it by converting to B/W and adding lots of grain. So now in some quarters black and white is seen as a dumping ground for poor photography. There does not seem to be an emphasis on pre-visualisation. While I was at Art School one of the lecturers stated that average photographers take pictures, good photographers make pictures.

Technical style is possibly ephemeral! Some technical styles, such as created by Loretta Lux, are born out of an artistic predilection that is transformed into the modern "digital image". This is, IMO, the mark of the truly creative artist. Other styles are born out of the technical characteristics of the medium. This "derived" technical style is difficult to maintain if the photographer adopts newer technology.

I, and I suppose many others, fall into the less creative that "adopts" the style due to the characteristics of the medium I work with. Noise (digital or silver) is one of the attributes I have worked with that is strongly medium dependent. When I switched to digital, I found that I "liked" the noise quality of images such as:


This is similar to my silver film days images on HP5 that had similar characteristics:


After converting to Canon systems, this style became virtually impossible to conveniently replicate because of the lack of any character in the noise content of the images. For us less guifted image makers, the development of a technical style is now possibly dependent upon the attributes of the equipment used which change with camera generations.

In this sense, technical style can be considered an ephemeral attribute of photography.

Ihaven't read any other responses here..I just have to speak up before I lose my train of thought.

I read and thought a lot about your last post. It dovetailed neatly with something I saw recently in Alec Soth's blog and also a long conversation three months ago with someone I consider a mentor. Your phrase--and forgive me if I paraphrase, "color uncomfortably goosed by software" stung me and I thought, ha, every time I'm tempted to 'goose' my colors I'm going to mentally thank Mike J. for staying my hand. Now I come here and I see, what, a bunch of crap applied to your photos and I'm utterly flabbergasted!

First of all, I shoot and love film. I also shoot and love digital. And digital only produces plastic looking photos, uh, if that's the way you shoot the darned camera. I went out tonight and shot at high ISO on purpose because i want the digital noise! Noise is not the enemy. Treat it right and digital noise can be a very, very, VERY good friend (just ask Mitch, he'll tell you!)

You don't have to add borders, ripples, smudges, lens babies or any other thing to achieve a technical style. You just have to have something to say and you have to feel that and stay true to it and keep digging at your insides until you get it right. You have to know your light and your tools and your heart. There is no photoshop filter in the world that will give you a technical style if it doesn't first come from inside. The reason people's portfolios have a little bit of this and a little bit of that is because they haven't figured that out yet. I know because I was that kind of photographer till a very few months ago, and quite obstinately so too, I might add. So, keep the faith in yourself Mike..you were right the first time. Really you were!

We had two articles now that are basically about the same thing: style.

"How to Succeed as a Photographer" tried to make a connection between style and success in the field of photographic art and "What About Technical Style?" asks about the options for having style in an all-digital world.

Do I have a style? Well, some people say so, but on the other hand, what I have up on my SmugMug site (which I need to weed out after a year) or what I publish on my blog is very inconsistent, in subject matter as well as in technical style, and thus meeting your definition of "the wrong way".

Of course I am an amateur and so it would not matter, but that's not the point here. I really feel about what I do as art, regardless of whether it is commercially successful or not, regardless of the fact that I would not publish every single image that I had on my blog any more. Yes, some of them are below my standard now, surely my standard is rising (as anybody's would do who underwent the rigid discipline of trying to publish a good image a day), but if you take them all together you would not find the consistency in subject matter and technical treatment that you seem to mean when you talk about style. Still, for me (and some others) it is art. Can it be, without style?

And here we are. Is style a precondition? Can anything be considered art when its producer does not have a strong style? Is it a byproduct that artists invariably develop? Can styles change? Do they have to or would that take away from the artistic nature of the artist's work?

I think the way you describe style is strictly from an outside point of view. For the art market, a style is something very convenient. I mean, it would be very much harder to sell Coke if the Coca Cola Company would change bottles, labels, typefaces and their whole advertising strategy every month or even half a year, and that even if the taste would not change at all.

As consumers we are very much accustomed to brands, and thinking outside of these categories is almost utopic when it comes to products we buy. The problem is, that we take this mindset over to the field of art, and it does not belong there at all.

The art market uses and sells styles just like brands, and I won't argue about your implication that style helps selling art. Of course it does, but selling well is not a necessary pre-condition for something being art. Eventually some art will sell, some other will not, and from that alone, nothing could be derived about the artistic qualities of either.

I have always felt very uncomfortable about styles. I mean, many famous artists, who certainly gained recognition for their style, have always seemed petrified to me, and that's a sad thing. As soon as money is involved, and for the stars in the art market there can be considerable amounts of money, we tend to take few risks. Honestly: if you have done something that has been found to sell well, would you risk that secure income for artistic honesty, artistic freedom or artistic growth, without any guarantee that your next approach will sell equally well?

I can remember having read an interview with Roy Lichtenstein, where he admitted that he had a problem with public expectations, still closely connected to his early work, that stood in his way as a developing artist. I think painting is an art where this petrification (or the development of rigid styles) can be seen very well, and in this respect I see no substantial differences between the art market and the entertainment industry.

For the artist it's all a matter of priorities. If I really, really try hard to be commercially successful, then I will probably need a style, but if that is my top priority, success, then I stop expressing myself artistically, then I start doing a job. An art job, but a job nevertheless, and considerations of job security will dictate that I shall stick to my style whenever I start selling well.

I would not want to do that. OK, I don't need to, I have an IT job, but I think if I would depend on selling art, having to stick to a style would take all the joy and passion out of making art.

Honestly: I'd worry less about the question whether art can exist in the absence of style, than I would worry about whether art can exist without joy and passion.

On the other hand, I do know photographers who have a very distinct "digital age" style, a trademark type style, that is characterized by post-processing in photoshop. Let's take for instance my friend Ted Byrne (http://imagefiction.blogspot.com/). He has a such a style, and it is easily recognizable. Is he petrified? No, he is not. He does take risks, he does change subject matter and in a way also technical style, it is only that he uses digital "substance" in a very distinct way. Ted Byrne paints in different colors, uses different "material" if you will, and that is what superficially could be taken as his "style". It is not. His style changes, his art lives, he does not reproduce himself. But he does not have to. He does not make it for a living.

For a distinct style achieved, in part, using digital technology, check out the images shown daily in chromasia. I believe this is an excellent example of an artist who has found a consistent,successful, original, and beautiful style.


I don't pretend to have digested all the comments and opinions here, but at the very start I was bothered by the term "technical style" Surely all you are talking about is a visual style achieved by manipulation of the medium - something all artists do. If we accept that digital has in effect "killed" what used to be photography, and that "photographs" are just a type of material starting point, then I don't see that there is a discussion here. I think it's more important that a photographer develops a personal creative style based on subject and intent.

Reading through these comments, I'm alarmed by the oft-repeated theme that people "shoot pedestrian pictures and fix them in Photoshop."

I have never seen a great photograph that had passed through the coccoon of Photoshop and started its life as junk. If the picture you shot is junk, no amount of processing will elevate it into high art.

For me, the bottom line is this: is the camera's JPEG engine smarter than me? Does it have a keener creative sensibility than I do? The changes I make to my photos are almost always what you might call "jpeg decisions" that the camera could make automatically, but usually gets wrong.

Ctein expressed perfectly how I feel about all this.

Who says that an artist has to make a photograph's style, or any other work's style, with the intention of making it "fit in" with his other works?

I make photographs to stand on their own. Sometimes I don't even put my name on them.

Sometimes my work uses a camera. Sometimes it uses oil paint. I wouldn't try to make my oil painting mimic film grain. And yet I consider them both my work, and similarly, if I made a photograph right now, I would make no effort to make any aspect of it mimic the characteristics of a previous work I had made, which has a message all its own.


Dear Mike,

Reading your post and the ensuing comments I begin to see a concept emerging (or perhaps finally penetrating my thick skull): that "technical style" in the best sense is the result of an artist interacting intensely and persistently with the potential/limitations/characteristics of a medium to express or pursue a vision.

I think it is too easy to overlook the fact that "technical style" of this kind usually evolves as the result of talent, mastery, experimentation and monomaniacal persistence and dedication.

Having had the good fortune to see several large retrospectives of great artists, I've gotten used to being wowed by the virtuosity displayed in the early works of these masters, before they developed their signature "styles". And I've come away with the impression that those styles emerged, were persued and evolved over years, decades and lifetimes.

I have also developed the sense that in many cases such "styles" are found, recognized and pursued; that it doesn't happen without all those steps; that it doesn't evolve fully without all those steps being repeated as much as needed, without the process being respected, and without things that get in the way of that process being sacrificed (whether technical, social, psychological, etc.). Perhaps that is what you were saying in the "Success" essay.

In retrospect, it might have been easier for me to get this had I encountered the "Style" essay before the "Success" essay.

It's true that some masters discovered and pursued several styles in one lifetime, while others seemed to have stuck with one. So what? So maybe genius comes in variety packs as well as single flavors.

But since we're focusing on digital photography, and everyone's talking about Chris Jordan, what about his "Running the Numbers" project as an example of an artist in pursuit of a vision who used the digital tools at his disposal, found and developed techniques that worked well, and in doing so has developed something perceived as a "style"?

And since you opened the door to critiquing your work, Mike, let me say that the newer stuff you've shown on this blog in recent months has a distinct quality that I find compelling, and I think it has a lot to do with the character of the colors and tones, or light. There is a subtle richness and depth there, an organic weightiness, that draws me in, and which seems to me rare in purely digital work. Whatever you are doing, and however, it works well with your subjects, or your subjects work well with it. I've liked other photographs you've shown, but I really enjoy the style you've developed recently. (And they all seem to be more or less portraits.)

robert e

For the ultimate in technical style, go check out Apple's PhotoBooth application. No seriously, once you try to use it "like a real camera", there is potential there. I did a series of self portraits some time ago (http://www.fotocommunity.de/pc/pc/display/5713975) and I find them to be more truthful than most regular portraits.
Obviously, you can achieve similar effects in Photoshop, but PhotoBooth applies the effects in real time and thus feels like a camera with built-in distortion and that really makes a lot of difference.
Weegee would have loved it.

First, a note to Fred M: Good for you re: JPEG. I am so very tired of all the hand-wringing over RAW, especially from those who also go on and on about "authenticity." Once you have a digital camera that does not automatically blow out highlights, JPEG is fine, better than fine, really. Despite what a lot of people think, RAW is not the digital equivalent of a negative and is just another way we tend to kill our vision, if we're lucky enough to have one, with too many choices.

A thought on style: you can tell you're starting to develop a style the day you stop being utterly surprised by your results on a regular basis. After decades I'm still not there.

I think I've got a technical style, pretty consistent: www.flaneur.com.ar

Adding to my above comment:

Any media entered into one's computer is essential converted into a "no-thing"; it doesn't matter if it's scanned film or a scanned painting. I think what Mike is really thinking about is not a technical style, but what architects refer to the quality of a material (i.e. rock is cool to the touch, is hard, etc).

Computers mimic. When one fakes traditional media, one can make fake wood, fake paint, fake letterpress mis-registration, etc. Computers are more plastic than plastic; with plastic there is an inherent "plastic-ness" when it's not trying to be something else. Think of a white plastic chair.

I am saying I am stumped about was a computer file "is."

Anyone who makes their own prints from RAW captures is very likely to develop their own technical style -- and there must be a nearly infinite number of variations.

What is truly stylistic in art is often based on the psychological profile of the artist in combination with their technical or tools based approach to their work.

Late to this party, and thousands of words already here, but...

Take the example of Andrzej Dragan, who has a style that is recognizable, but by its very digital repeatability, also reveals what may be a growing ephemeralness to unique styles. The style became well-known and then copied at lightning speed.

Others have recognizable styles built on both solid photography technique and additional post-processing include people like Dave Hill. His style doesn't appeal to everyone, certainly, but it is successful.

One other note: to ignore printing makes sense given its depth as a topic, but it is also where a number of folks take greatest advantage of the digital medium. Home printing offers more affordable and accessible variety in papers and styles than ever before.

But with that I'll not add too much more to the thousands of words already here.

- Marshall

Photographic images either communicate or they don’t. At their very best they leave the viewer with the emotion or the idea which the artist felt during creation. Few are that perfect. Most are ambiguous. To the degree that we do indeed understand what the artist understood… and it happens continually… then a style or a conversation also emerges which transcends the technical. The more perfectly it happens, the more unique the style becomes because each of us is so idiosyncratic.

A photographer’s voice is not the same as Elvis’s, Pavarotti’s, or Kanya West’s. I suspect one’s ear needs to be trained to pick out the subtly between Heifetz, Perlman, and say Sibelius as they work through a Mendelssohn. There are many soft images by Steiglitz which are impossible to separate from his contemporaries. Ditto super-sharp images by Ansel Adams.

Unlike say painting where artists were classified according to schools, there are no similar homogeneous stylistic disciplines that marry us beyond function (functions like: fashion, wedding, photojournalistic, graphic, sports, fine art… etc.).

Regardless of the medium, or the media, if it acts as a perfect transmission device for the essence of a unique individual’s personality, it is that unique-ness and not the media which creates the familiarity which we call style. If you hear the artists voice, that is style. The final question probably is, “Does the artist repetitively communicate uniquely to each of us, some of us, all of us… or to any one of us?”

Until a short while ago we were restricted in doing this by technical standards which made genuine achievement a rarity (the right subject/lighting/film/lens/viewpoint/chemicals/aperture/speed/shutter/format –yadda, yadda). Now tack sharp, stringent contrast lenses, free digital color, and post processing technologies have freed us from having to merely plagiarize a moment.

Now our greatest impediment is our imagination, creativity, genius. Never has it been more true that it is not the arrow but the archer when it comes to repetitive communication of a complex series of ideas or emotions. Now each photograph can be a phrase in an important graphic novel, epic visual poem, or representational symphony. We have the medium now to say whatever we can, but that presupposes that the artist has something to say. Lacking a message, style will never grow beyond some ephemeral technical wisecrack. It was neither Bergman nor Fellini’s camera work which made them stylish, but their continuity of life-view.

BTW: Style can transcend beauty, profundity, or even ethics. The communication can be quite unsettling, even repugnant. It is not the comfort of the message, rather it is its consistency in reflecting its author’s uniqueness. All else seems to me to be mere stunting.

In the case of photography McLuhan was wrong. The media is not the message: the message is the message. The best of us make the media go away… make it invisible. Too often we are distracted by looking at a photographic image rather than through it. That is our burden as photographers that we continually study how an image was done, rather than what it means.

It’s my opinion Dudes, that when the viewer can do that… style emerges…. Kew-el!

Ted Byrne
My images explained

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