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Friday, 02 August 2013


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Now I looked at the Brenizer video and since I'm building my own motorized panorama lens and use Kolor Autopano Pro for stitching, I was of course interested until mr. Brenizer sadly said that there is no lens that can deliver that field of view (50 mm) with that shalow DOF, of course there is....a 50 mm Noctilux on 0.95 on an M camera. Now most people including me don't have the cash to buy a camera and lens like that, so in fact what is even the point in taking up photography without it, recipe or no recipe.

Greets, Ed.

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. A favourite quote I attribute to Richard Serra is something like "be careful throwing out something that works just for the sake of the new". He is referring to process.

Sometimes a recipe, particularly if it is derived from experience is gold. And I have seen a few photographers when I was assisting that had a technique they used that was to my mind limiting and maddeningly rigid- however the results, which to some were "wrong" actually worked.

So sticking to a recipe can be beneficial, it creates continuity in work over time and can reveal a longterm aesthetic more clearly.

Think of it as innocence is bliss, sometimes the less you know the better.

I'm guessing if Andrew Molitor actually cooked, we'd not be reading this article.

I wonder if this recipe culture is more prevalent among photographers with no or little experience prior to digital. Or simply newbies in general who in the past would never have thought to do anything besides snapshots in a shoe box, but are now inspired by what they see on social media.

Oddly, I've bookmarked a number of pages that provide instructions on how to do "natural HDR" or how to do multi-frame noise reduction (Sony style) but from raw files using Lightroom, with the intent of one day putting my camera in its high speed advance mode and stepping outside my box. Years ago, I bought a Cokin P filter holder and a couple of cheap "Hi-Tec" brand grad NDs. And yet, time and again, it never occurs to me to do anything other than "straight" photography. Occasionally, I'll look at a photo in Lightroom and it immediately strikes me as something that would look good in black and white or with greatly reduced color saturation (usually via the vibrance setting) or softening via reduced clarity (I rarely ever feel the desire to increase those settings). But that's about it. I'm sure those methods I read about are effective. But I never think to try them. I eventually sold the grad NDs unused. (Part of my lesson learned 20 years ago: never buy stuff in anticipation of needing it, because I'm likely to never use it).

Recipes are great for cookies and for cookie cutter photography. And that's actually a step up for a lot of people who aren't photography enthusiasts, but simply snapshooters. But I agree that for anyone who considers his/herself a photographer, they're more a crutch than anything else.

In short: recipes are for REcreating, not creating.

The best cooks only use recipes as guides to be improved upon with experimentation.

Great post. However I do think it exposes a dilemma. It is in fact incredibly hard to be totally original without also being truly awful.

To some extent we all build on the foundations others have laid. To not do so is something of a self-imposed handicap. To not learn what is possible is to deny yourself the full facility of expression in the first place.

However, for all art and photography students, there is the equally serious risk of becoming so programmed in the prevailing style (such as Dusseldorf) that it's impossible to see past it.

A good chef will be able to consistently reproduce hundreds of classic dishes. The real greats will develop new recipes altogether, sometimes to much initial consternation.

Most professional photographers can satisfy most clients and make a good living by competently following recipes. Very few dare to really push the boundaries (and risk alienating their clients) or have the competence to make it work.

We should respect truly great craftsmanship. A recipe well presented is still a beautiful thing. But true originality is something to be admired, whether we feel comfortable with it or not. To be both original AND competent is a really difficult thing to do.

The craft of software design has found another way to move beyond recipies by using a "pattern"language" i.e. a collection of patterns that relate to each other in a particular field.

A pattern language is a structured method of describing good design practices within a field of expertise. The term was coined by architect Christopher Alexander who developed a pattern language to help solve common problems of the design and construction of buildings and towns in a book called The Pattern Language.

He said:

"A pattern is a careful description of a perennial solution to a recurring problem within a building context, describing one of the configurations that brings life to a building.

Each pattern describes a problem that occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use the solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice."

A pattern language is a network of patterns that call upon one another. Patterns help us remember insights and knowledge about design and can be used in combination to create solutions."

The important difference between "a collection of recipies" and a pattern language is the pattern language each pattern describes a solution to a single problem and refers to other patterns in the same pattern catalogue.

Some patterns describe how to compose solutions from collections of other simpler patterns. This moves it beyond a "collection of recipies" and into a language for describing potential solutions to problems.

Each pattern includes a rationale (and set of explicit assumptions) for its use so each pattern addresses a problem in a context.

For example, Alexander's architectual patterns, for instance, each consist of a short name, a rating for usefulness (0, 1 or 2 stars), a sensitizing picture, the context description, the problem statement, a longer text with examples and explanations, a solution statement, a sketch and further references.

As Alexander says by focusing on the impacts on human life (or the photographer) we can identify patterns that are independent of changing technology and find a "timeless quality" in the patterns. [That sounds more "woo woo" than I intended].

Some people might say "oh, your trying to codify art and do it by numbers". Not at all. Patterns attempt to codify craft.

Wikipedia does a good job of describing it


though you can get a better feel for it by looking for and reading part of Alexander's book on Google Books.

As far as I know no one has created a pattern language for photography but it might be a useful thing to do.

To paraphrase celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern (Bizarre Foods):

"If it looks good, [shoot] it!"

Also, people looking for step by step instructions on how to get "good pictures" were no less prevalent in the glory days of film, when men were men and used ND Grad filters instead of HDR.

I mean, just look at the Zone System cultists...

My mother too had an unique reciepe. she was avid about always having a camera about, and always taking lots of 'pics'. She however was a terrible photographer. Lots of walls, cut off heads, and the like. I don't think I'd trade those shots for anything, except to have her back to take take a couple more shots.-oh and I just found two rolls of undeveloped 127 and 620 roll film from ???---I wonder?....

Crawl, Walk, Run!

Your suggestion to beware of living in templates is good, Andrew. Nevertheless people without the benefit of formal art training, and with limited hobby time, undeniably find dance-step instruction productive at least for learning to "crawl" with a camera. The first time they make a picture that looks skillfully produced they're hooked on procedures, perhaps for decades.

And that's just fine!

My own suggestion to those wanting to break free of "recipes" is to ignore them. Rather, devote your attention toward just three factors when making pictures.

- Elements What's actually in the picture and what are you excising?
-Relationships Everything in a picture relates to everything else, however weakly.
- Gesture Gesture and inflection are often what distinguish the most compelling images from the mediocre. (This is a form HCB's "decisive moment".) Every picture, animate or inanimate, can feature gesture. If there's any single visual sensitivity that I would emphasize to photo enthusiasts it would absolutely be sensitivity to gesture.

I think you'll find that practicing this approach will be more productive for creating images that convey your thoughts than trying to mimic established (and likely very trite) styles.

My pence on the topic.

This article speaks to issues that goe far beyond photography into all walks of life and into the essence of how we educate young people today. I have see young people who could follow a "recipe" - a step by step procedure to complete a task - flawlessly every time. But if you change one step in the middle, they were lost. We are not teaching young people to think, in some (thankfully mostly localized) cases even go to the point where some official government education policies actually discourage teaching kids critical thinking skills.

Eh, if I want to make a bronze sculpture I have to make a wax sculpture first. Until recently because now you can also 3D print a sculpture and turn it into a wax sculpture. Now using a 3D application to create a person is not that easy, it is a technique but also an art. But the art does not flow freely without the mastering of the technique. Just as it did not flow freely without mastering the skill of wax modelling (toothpics and all).

Point being.....a recipe is a technique nothing more and nothing less. Mastering a skill is great but without the use of creativity it will not (and never) create art of any importance. You can have as many recipes for souflet you like, but you will never become Paul Bocuse unless you learn how to cook.

So I read an use all the recipes I like (even the Brenizer method without knowing Brenizer :)), but in my photography, with my subjects and my look at the world. And believe me the results will be different, not better, not worse but certainly different.

Greets, Ed.

Dinner at your house could be a dangerous adventure!

Yes - Your post reminds me of the old book
by Berger and Luckman: "The Social Construction of Reality"


There is this book I read a while ago, "The Politics of Experience", by R.D. Laing. The essence of it (as I remember it) is that we never experience anything directly by ourself. Our experience is always mediated by others, authority figures that validate our experience to a degree or another and that would tell us if we're getting it right.
Starbucks is a testament to this, the entire store there explains you what it is that you're going to experience when you drink your coffee, from the posters on the wall, down to the warning sign on the paper cup.
That is how we learn, we imitate others, and we seek for approval, so we know we did it right.
It is quite amazing that every now and then we actually come up with come up with something new.
Any good mistakes today?

Great post, it does capture the distinction of knowing rules and being trapped by slavishly following them. I think the recipes are indeed valuable in getting started in some new area, but once the recipe has been understood, one can start to make adjustments to further develop the technique and style (just like in cooking).

And this is why I TOP! Great discussion.

Recipes are vitally important early until one can develop one's own artistic expression. Even then the conventions never completed go away. We are built to organize our perceptions. The difference between us is how we interpret those primary perceptions or recipes. Some never make it beyond the recipe stage. But the recipe stage is not the end of the journey.

No, no, no. If following a recipe is bad, feeding that little voice in your mind that loves whispering little doubts, like how formulaic the shot you're working on is - that's *much* worse.

Great discussion.
I'd like to add that sometimes, is almost a reflex to follow the established templates because we've seen them so many times, (especially now with the advent of sites such as flikr, etc) . They are engraved in the subconscious...
Some time ago I shot this half sinking, rotting ship by the shore. It did not seem like a copy of anything I've seen before, but "remember" seeing it.
About a year went by, then during a visit to my parents' house I saw it: it was a painting by Quinquela Martin, they had hanging on the wall. They had it for many years and although was nothing like the photograph made, it had similar lighting and mood.
You see, I was born in La Boca, were this painter had made many murals all over the city. I used to stroll around by my grandfather's hand when a young boy and had seen all these scenes, just could not remember that when the shutter was pressed, but it became automatic to compose the photo in that way, with that light, and of that subject.
Now every time I look at that photo it reminds me about a past almost forgotten.

There's certainly an element of truth in what Mr. Molitor says, but let me offer another side:

"Every recipe contains tacit assumptions, without which it will not work"

Good photographic recipes are complete enough to specify a situation in which they work. They do not, and are not intended to, work in other situations. Fortunately, it is the nature of photographic recipes that they are usually simple, so it's not too difficult to create many. And bad recipes are, well, bad.

"Recipes tend to suppress learning"

Recipes can show photographers that there are amazing things that their cameras can do that they did not previously realize and offer a path to that result. To use a different analogy, if you've never heard the richness added to music by a well-done vibrato, it's fairly likely that you'll never try to figure out how to do it, to the detriment of your music.

Further, recipes form a solid foundation on which to build style and art. Photography, like most arts, must be firmly grounded in craft. Until the craft is understood, the art cannot stand except by chance. And the easiest method to learn craft is to follow instructions, ideally from a master of the craft, but failing that, recipes work.

"Recipes tend to dictate results, which tend in turn to dictate taste"

Recipes tend to reflect taste, which in turn dictates results. Sure, there are faddish results (overcooked HDR, blown out and hazed shots into the sun, or pick your own pet peeve if you happen to like those), but most popular recipes are aimed at getting a result that is pleasing.

E.g.: Moving the subject off the center point works well for most photos, because most viewers are attracted to that sort of minor dynamic tension. Shooting landscapes at dawn or sunset with a small aperture gives pleasing lighting and nice detail.

And if you should want the photographic equivalent of a recipe for deep-fried grasshopper, it's a good thing that somebody else has done the experimenting and published a suggestion. Would you really like to be the first down that road?

Repeatably achieving the desired result means happy customers (both formal and informal). And happy customers mean a happy photographer.

I have a PhD in optics (well, analytical chemistry, but I've never worked as anything other than an optical scientist) and I can assure you that it is no real help in photography. You want someone to formulate glasses for lenses, though, I can probably help you out...

I think, in both cooking and photography, that recipes can be good things when you do want consistent results. My kids are adorable and I take consistenly good pictures of them, but I follow a pretty consistent formula and don't mistake the results for art. (I've had a couple that might rise to that level, but almost by accident, and always when I'm messing around rather than just trying to get a cute picture.) Similarly, I might follow a recipe if I want a consistently good dish to serve to company or something. If I'm trying to be creative in either arena, the only formulas I follow every time are ones that have to be followed (e.g. have a memory card in the camera, don't rest your hand on a hot burner, etc.).

(N.B. Although I hesitate to say so for fear of bringing on a "What Is Art" war, I consider cooking to be a perfectly valid performing art.)

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