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Sunday, 22 June 2008


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Hi CTein:
That's a great shot. How did you determine the exposure? I vaguely remember something like 1/ASA at f16 for a sunny day.(If that's even right) How did you figure it out for a night shot with a rocket going off?


I might even go further than Ctein with this idea. I've always thought that the memory of how hard we worked to get a shot is one of the factors that routinely distort our own objective view of our own work. A failure you work hard to achieve is still a failure, but people often can't see that because they feel the need to honor the work they put into it.

I'm not saying it's bad to work hard for a picture. But once it's a picture, that's all it is, and all you can judge it by is just what it is.

Mike J.

I think the root problem in photographic effort comes from a category of questions like: Are photographers working less hard than painters?

A painter has to struggle to create light, shape, detail, etc.--whereas it's "given" to the photographer, so the proverbial argument goes.

Photographers claiming to "work harder" than others because they don't use meters/autofocus/dry plates/etc looks as silly as painters claiming they necessarily "work harder" than photographers. Although I think it's possible to compare the drawing skills of two painters, I'm not sure it's worthwhile to compare one's ability to paint shadows with another's ability to photograph them.

Yet we can't get away with the concept of hard work. Masterpieces impress us not just because of subjective preference. We also acknowledge in them a successfully realized effort of high calibre.

I've seen sometimes the term "pictorial intelligence" used to judge the quality of an artwork, and to discriminate the quality of the work against the mere difficulty of making it. For instance, one critic called Turner's "Snowstorm" was a major achievement because it succeeded in finding a new way of seeing, not because it was difficult to make.

So even if we put aside material difficulties for a moment, it's hard to avoid using a conception of hard work to qualify how good a work is. The art world is essentially a pissing contest between who "thinks harder" than the other!

Definitely agree with this. Of course photographers are entirely free to make things as difficult for themselves as they want to, but IMHO it's silly to expect others to care about anything other than the finished result. This goes not only for techniques and equipment, but also any physical discomfort, mental anguish, or other trials and tribulations that the photographer goes through to create an image.

I think all the arts nowadays have a lot of tech stats that are constantly repeated as if this will make the creation sound even better than it is.

How many times do we here about Hollywood digital and editing work that went into an animated film?

On TV's "Top Chef", one of the semi-finalists considered his cooking exemplary because he cooked with dry ice and packed salmon in plastic to prepare it some "high tech" way. Did his food taste better? Or was his process supposed to convince us it did?

Ugly and monotonous architecture is praised for engineering feats and we are supposed to ignore the ungainly proportions in the latest skyscrapers and concert halls.

And some professional photographers talk about "work flow" and "digital optimization" and seem to get work this way.

It's not fun to backpack into a campground that can be reached by driving.

It seems that modern photography has built roads to all our favorite places. The old skills were great fun when they served a purpose. Now, we can get to the same place without the effort.

Modern photography has given us much, but it has taken away some of the craft we used to enjoy. We lost something important, but we gained more than we lost.

Although I largely agree with Ctein argument, I still think it only applies to "art" photographers.
If we look at scientific photography, we find examples of photos that became famous not entirey for there artistic merits.

The first images from cloud chambers, particle accelerators, electron microscopes, deep space telescopes or deep sea robots were not very beautiful or artistically pleasing unless you knew that they were the first of something and they cost a lot of human effort and brain power to get.

So I am suggesting, such scientific "firsts" don't work on the basis of the image alone - they need the story to go with it.

How about 'the hyperactive photographer'? I'm one when I paint a subject with a 25w bulb in a home-made lampshade on the end of an extension cable with an exposure of about 30 secs. I have to make sure to keep moving so as not to appear in the photo, to wear dark clothing so as not to pick up stray light, to keep my bulb away from the camera, and never ever to stop the light from moving. This is interactive photography with a vengeance. Performance art with a capital P. Occasionally the technique delivers wonderful photos, but you NEVER KNOW!

Dear Fred,

I not only think you're right, I'd even extend it to 'art.' Historical work and context is, I believe, more the point, regardless of whether it's scientific. My Apollo 17 photos are uncommon, because making them did require a certain amount of unusual work. I saw some gorgeous early photos of the Pacific Northwest once, including crater lake-- 20x24 contact prints from wet plate negatives. Imagine hauling that kind of gear in to such a location in those days. Most folks made do with much smaller size plates in such winderness. The resulting photos are likely unique, and they are fascinating in some part because of the unusual effort.

Plus, as you said, the matter of being 'first.' It counts for something.

pax / Ctein

As is often the case for me, Robert Adams has the right thoughts on this issue. He wrote in "Beauty in Photography" that, among other things, "the success of a work of art can be measured by . . . the apparent ease of its execution. An artwork should not appear to have been hard work."

Why so? Why, in Adams's words, "do most great pictures look uncontrived?" The answer he provides is this: "only pictures that look as if they had been easily made can convincingly suggest that Beauty is commonplace."

I'm not certain the connection always holds, but there is certainly something to the idea. The grace that pervades a work of art is akin to an elegance, which in turn conveys a notion of simplicity functioning "appropriately." Difficulty or complexity in execution is very far from my measure of a work's value, certainly.

I call this the Degree of Difficulty, wherein a significant percentage of photographers think you should, before rendering judgment of a photograph, take into account how hard it was to get it.

personally, I don't care if you had to pile one boulder on another in order to get high enough for a shot, especially if the photo isn't very good.

I agree that the amount of effort shouldn't somehow convert a mediocre image into a good one, but would also postulate that good images are sometimes further enhanced when viewers have some knowledge of the processes involved. Just listen to how they defend their preferences, be they next door neighbors or your photographic peers.

This can also work in reverse. If you like something, then find out that the image was faked in some way that would have otherwise caused you to think the photographer worked harder than he did, surely the image loses some of its luster.

. . . . but yeah, it has to be something you are attracted to initially, hopefully before you consider the logistics.

Great commentary. I make (among other things) daguerreotypes, which are pretty hard to make and have a high failure rate (not as hard as dye transfers, though). This probably makes them a little more precious to me, but I don't make them because they are hard, I make them because they are so beautiful. And I hope that the people who appreciate them do so because they are beautiful. That's enough.

Gosh , I can't help myself to not give some counterexamples.

How a photograph is made can often be important.
Frank Hurley' photographs of Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic expedition are pretty interesting at least in part because of the "physical discomfort, mental anguish, or other trials and tribulations"

Or what about Robert Capa's D-Day Photographs?
Would they be as interesting if they were technically perfect photographs taken under less demanding conditions?

Not only that , I'm sure that both would be vastly easier to do a painting of.

The difficulty of the medium can be part of the intrinsic appeal of a photograph, for instance Jerry Spagnoli's daguerreotype of the World Trade Towers collapsing.
there are better daguerreotypes and better photos of the World Trade Towers collapsing, but...

For another example, I've had over 10 million , closer to 20 million , photographs viewed in the last month, on a web site I put together of my friend Jamie Livingston's Polaroids. Almost ALL the interest is because of the context of the pictures ( an autobiography of an interesting life ), and the fact that the project was only complete with photographer's death, although some of them are beautiful beyond description.

Leaving death out of the picture for a moment, which is easier? Painting a footprint on the moon , or photographing one?

Dear Eric,

It was a bit of do. When I got the press kit from NASA they did have a sheet of recommended exposures in it for photographing the Saturn/Apollo vehicle sitting on the launch pad at night and during launch. The exposures just weren't far enough apart. I knew a launch was bright-- I'd seen them on TV and the flame was clearly visible in sunlight and you could even see some glints of it off the steam plume sometimes. Either the on-pad night exposures were going to be way too low or the launch exposures were way overexposing.

Fortunately, I travel with chemicals and processing kit. So I photographed the rocket on the pad following NASA's exposures recommendations and prevailed upon my friends' Karen and Poul Anderson (yes, that Poul Anderson) to use their motel bathroom to develop those rolls of Ektacolor S.

The on-pad NASA exposure settings were just right. That made me certain the launch exposure recommendations were way off. So, during launch, I paid close attention to how much the scene brightened, and as it got brighter and brighter I dropped the shutter speed further and further from the known-correct night exposure, visually tracking the change in brightness. I ignored the actual rocket flame: I just let the neg film deal with that (the main reason I chose neg film over slide was knowing the luminance range would be hellish, far beyond what slide film could handle). I paid attention only to the light on the pad and the rocket.

I do not recall the total difference in stops between the NASA recommendations. I do recall the correct launch exposure was around three stops less exposure than NASA was recommending.

pax / Ctein
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

"which is easier? Painting a footprint on the moon, or photographing one?"

I'm not positive we're talking about the same things--you're talking (mostly) about *access.* No question that can be important. When I think of "working hard" on a photograph, I think of TRYING HARD more than anything--taking lots of exposures, setting things up, going back to locations, waiting for the right light. Granted, all such things DO sometimes result in better pictures, and there's nothing wrong with that. I think what Ctein's saying is that when a photograph doesn't work as a photograph, it's not a sufficient justification to say "but I worked really hard on it."

I think of it somewhat like this. In the beginning photo classes I used to teach, there were always students who liked to work and work to get a great print from a lousy negative, because they thought that "working hard" on the print was the way to get a great print. They'd show the print in critique, and I'd criticize it for being a bad print, and they'd always be affronted or outraged--"but I worked for TWO WHOLE CLASS SESSIONS on that print!" "But I used a WHOLE BOX OF PAPER getting that print!" *That's* what doesn't matter--a bad print is still a bad print no matter how hard you worked on it.

Of course, if you work hard and come up with gorgeous print, nobody's going to question that. It's just that hard work alone doesn't justify the result if it doesn't also stand on its own and carry its own weight.

Make any sense?

Mike J.

I disagree, at least in part. Most of Ctein's examples were technical in nature, and in those instances I do, for the most part, agree.

However, when it comes to other avenues of the art and craft, such as finding new images, studying photo/art history, finishing projects, creating a portfolio, or seeking feedback, there are many who can be categorized as "lazy". I've known more than a few. I've been one on occasion.

I think we've all known, or know, someone who wants desperately to be a paid photographer, but who has not taken the initiative or time to improve. I know several.

How many of us have spend more time in front of the television or computer than in front of a monograph? (guilty!)

I could go on an on, but am too lazy to write more....where's that TV guide?

Thanks, Ctein. I think you had to work pretty hard to get your results of the launch and it paid off.

Maybe another way to think of your point is to consider a soloist in a concert. It doesn't matter how hard they practice, it only matters they play their solo correctly and well.


I gave up making Dye Transfers when I discovered that my Cibachromes looked better. But without the experience (agony) of making the seps and mats and masks I would never have been able to make such fine Cibas (Ilfos?).
Now I've given up Cibas for digital color printing, because not only is it easier, but it's just as good (different, though)and often better.
In fact, it's gotten to the point where I can just prepare an image file and take it to my local Ritz Camera to have it printed to perfection on much larger machines than I could ever afford.
I'm not sure why this comment is pertinent!

A fantastic photograph may be captured in an instant with the latest digital technology or it may have been carefully crafted over several minutes of intense labour by someone using a cumbersome 10x8 camera. Either way, it's still a fantastic photograph.

What makes it a fantastic photograph, however, is the amount of effort put in before the camera is even set up or before the location is reached. It's the effort put into location research, being there at the right time and all the hard work a photographer has put into furthering his craft over a long period of time.

This is no more obvious than in the work of Cartier-Bresson, where lightning fast picture-taking reflexes, honed over many years of practice, turned the work of mere seconds into great art.


Dear Hugh,

It's always easy to create counterexamples by taking a position totally out of context. Honestly, what does this have to do with the "lazy" business, which is entirely about how CURRENT photographers puff and posture about how much better their work is because of how demanding their technique is.

What you say may or may not be true. It's not in counter to what it wrote because it doesn't have anything to do with it.

pax / Ctein

Dear Chuck,

Thanks. I'm not making a pronouncement about the universal nature of art and labor. I'm merely, specifically refuting the nonsense I see spouted in magazines (and in comments here) about the inherent virtue of hard work, and how it, in and of itself, makes them better photographs.

Those misguided folks who think, for example, that somehow they're better for making JPEGs instead of RAW solely because they think it requires them to make more accurate exposures. Not a better photo, mind you.

Ooooh, like I soooooo care that you can expose to within 1/4 stop and get as good a photo as I can get exposing within 1 stop. He said sarcastically.

That's just one specific, but I hope that sufficiently establishes context? I'm not talking about groundbreaking pioneers, I'm not talking about heroic work. I'm talking solely about people who think their labor gives them innate artistic superiority.

My original title for the column had been "The Craft Masochists." I thought being a little kinder and gentler would get the point across. Maybe I should have stuck with the sledge hammer.

pax / Ctein

Not so much access as context, maybe my examples were bad, and it sounds like we pretty much agree , I just think that some of the other statements were rather broad to the point of being demonstrably false, which isn't to say that there is no truth all there. The "which is easier? Painting a footprint on the moon, or photographing one?" is just an old joke from grad school.

There is often an hour or two so lag between when I start writing something and I push the submit button, during which the topic evolves into something else, and it's unclear just what I'm replying to.

"photographers puff and posture about how much better their work is because of how demanding their technique is" Yeah that's pretty dumb, almost as dumb as bragging that you used a $8000 camera.

I can't imagine why a professional or an artist would want to convey the idea that it was difficult for them do their work. I'd hire someone that made it all look easy. And going on about workflow is about as relevant as whether a painter ships their paintings with FedEx or DHL.

A graduate seminar in 4 sentences.

1) An artist's intent is not the same as the
art's meaning, but that doesn't make the artist any less responsible, for better or worse.

2) Being lucky is better than working hard, but being lucky takes a lot of work.

3) Being lucky is better than being smart, but it takes a lot of smarts to know when you are lucky and do something about it.

4) The context of the work can be vital to its success, but if it isn't readily apparent by looking at the work , the work will have to succeed for some other reason or nobody will ever bother to find out what the context is.

Of course in commercial work it's all the opposite , at least the part about work, luck, and intent.

Nothing would shake up a class of photo students than pointing out how the photographs one student took with an argus c3 and had kmart print are so much better that another students photos taken with a Hasselblad and printed with perfect technique.

Oh, and being able to make a mediocre print from a terrible negative is a good thing to be able to do, and worth teaching because sometimes that's all you have - see Robert Capa, but you are correct no one cares about how much or what kind of effort was expended to make a picture, unless maybe you are Neke Carson

"The Craft Masochists."

Ooooh....I like THAT! It puts your arguments into a more accurate perspective. The word "lazy" has connotations that may have distorted how I interpreted your message.

Whew, looks like I missed quite an airy discussion here.

My simple-minded point of view, for whatever little it may be worth, is that the final product is all that counts. Film? Digital? JPG? RAW? Dye transfer? Ink jet? Chromagenic? Albumen? Epson? HP? WalMart? Canon? Nikon? Leica? Kodak single-use? Pffft. It may make for interesting techie background but it won't make an image more or less interesting or appealing.

Just a couple of weeks ago I finished commissioned landscape work for a local hospital. I went out no less than four times to photograph the area they wanted. I had to work around all the stormy weather the midwest has had lately, I waded into the river to get what I felt was the best angles, etc. I shot at dawn and dusk to work the ambient light. Blah, blah, blah. I worked very hard.

As I was wrapping up my last shoot, I saw an angle I had not noticed before. I didn't like the sky and the light on the trees was too harsh, but I framed it up anyway and shot, and planned to return during softer light. I put less than 5 minutes into that last shot because it was only intended for reference.

The client then suddenly moved up the timeline. I submitted what I had including that last "reference" shot, and guess which one they selected.

Lazy photographers? Hmmm... no... I think it's more a matter of what it takes to become familiar enough with the tools and techniques of the craft to make images that a photographer wants to make.

Evaluation/comment/feedback comes after the fact if a photographer's work is placed before an audience. That's where things get a little "sticky". That's where it takes more than just the "artist" to accept something for perhaps what it was intended.

There is a community of practitioners whose output are Platinum/Palladium prints. That's a pretty difficult process for someone who is not familiar with the craft. Does it make their work any more "valuable" than, say, a $0.20 4x6inch digital print from the supermarket? It all depends on the viewer, doesn't it? It depends on people's expectations for what is "supposed" to happen when Pt/Pd work is shown or hung in a gallery. It all depends on a person's response to the images in question. Right?

While this is an extreme example, it illustrates for me the underlying point of the whole business of making images. Photography is just a tool for creation.

Lazy? I suppose there are folks who are making plenty of money with little effort. I'm sure we all know "photographers" whose work gets more recognition than we feel it "deserves". This no doubt angers those who work "hard" at their craft and were well "educated" in the field of classic art creation.

Last twist: William Mortensen pointed out (and I agree) that if "art" and the acceptance of "art" is seen as a purely emotional response to something, then a telegram stating your great uncle just left you 30 million dollars would be the very height of art itself.

No one said life would be easy, just, or care wit about what we think. Few viewers concern themselves about if you used RAW or jpg in your digital capture.

I must say I was a bit adrift reading the original article because it just doesn't seem very clear to me exactly what Ctein is trying to say. Perhaps this is because I didn't immediately recognise the "lazy photographer" thing. Nor do I really know what he is talking about people trying to find a harder way and then chest thumping about it.

I mean, I get the point about it being all about the end result and the fact that different people have different ideas about how things should be done, I just think I am missing seeing what or who it is that has led him to start talking about it at all, or indeed what the particular relevance was of guessing exposures for the rocket launch shot.

Maybe I just don't read the same magazines ?

I do agree with (what I think) is the basic premise though, that the only thing that matters is the end results, lucky or not.

To respond to Hugh just above - "the more I practise, the luckier I get"


(I think) I got Ctein's point right off the bat after having read enough forum polls along the lines of "how do you expose/focus/etc" and in the year 2008, an astounding number of us insist that the only way to photograph seriously is to do everything the hard way. I've been to a couple of seminars - I attended a Great American Photography Workshop with Bill Fortney and Marc Muench and a one-day seminar with John and Barbara Gerlach. The Gerlach's handed out a several-page article on how to expose (slides) for nature photography, and it's a manual, practices method. At Bill Fortney's class, he extolls the virtues of matrix metering and shows how 90% of nature photographs can be shot with no tweaks to what your camera reads. Also, out in the field one day, he mentioned a well-known nature photographer who is very "non-technical", "doesn't like to be bothered with figuring exposures" and "brackets like crazy". I guess there's a cult of craftsmanship in all crafts. There are woodworkers who use hand tools in the manner of the Amish ... there are those who realize it's a choice and, I imagine, those who think it's the only way to craft fine furniture and look down their noses at "lazy" power tool users.

As a former nature photographer turned dad-with-a-camera who now opportunistically shoots anything I can when I have a camera and a few spare minutes, I used to think it was "cheating" in some sense to shoot a scene *handheld* (shudder). I'm getting over that.

Sometimes the sheer quantity of labor is impressive, as in the random-stitch embroidery panels made by the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute in collaboration with photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum. Online images don't convey vaguely what these things really are, but in person they're pretty amazing--


I don't know that I like them as images, more than the photographs they are based on, but they seem awesome as feats of endurance.

Nice discussion. Apparantly I'm one of the lazy ones; my reaction to the pyramids is...."whoa, couldn't you have said that some other way?" Ken Tanaka, yes, the final image is all that counts. Nothing brings that to the fore more than a book recently lauded on this site, "The Americans". Robert Frank is not an inspiring technician. Nor HCB. But, those images!


Dear Robert & Chuck,

I'd been turning over the idea of a column about craft masochism for a bit. A few months back, there was a letter in Pop Photo expressing such a sentiment-- that the letter writer was a superior photographer because they worked with JPEGs that forced them to accurately meter each scene. What induced me to do it now, and invoke the word "lazy," were three recent comments in TOP:

"I shoot all raw but I also think it tends to make many photogs (myself included, sadly) lazy at times."
"I shoot raw 99% of the time, the flexibility and control it gives is just excellent. I agree with XXX it makes you lazy."
"The luxury of setting WB after the fact in the raw converter is valuable to me—precisely because I'm lazy."

Robert, clearly you've not met nor read much from craft masochists, for which I envy you. I do not assert these types are in the majority, any more than the Photo-Fetishists are (see http://tinyurl.com/ynr62a ), but I find them an annoying minority. One of the pleasures of writing a column is being able to skewer that which annoys me.

On the meta level, I now realize I should have offered more context for the column. You may have noticed that articles here often have a narrative. One topic will lead to a related topic which will lead to an article with further thoughts on the first topic, etc. Some of the columns I write spring independently from a list of ideas that I maintain. Others get inspired by the narrative and so get written on the spur of the moment. This was obviously one of those. I should've provided references to the previous articles, and that would've avoided some of the confusion over just what I was talking about. I will endeavor to do better in the future.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ please excuse any word salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital restorations http://photo-repair.com

Ctein - skewer away ! It seems like a very valid target.

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