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Thursday, 31 March 2016


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When I did B&W darkroom printing for a long time I did so in a shared darkroom at the school, so I had to work fast. A rule that I found useful to maintain mental focus was the "5 or 6 try" rule. If you took a work print and could not make it look at least decent in 5 or 6 tries you should just accept that the original picture was not really that good and move on.

I find this rule even more valuable with digital processing mostly because the controls and tools available to you are so much more extensive. Thus, the temptation to fiddle and diddle things forever is very strong and mostly unproductive.

Therefore I tend to keep my own processing fairly minimal. Usually if I can't get it done with the default tools in Lightroom I just drop it. Sometimes I'll use the local adjustments. Rarely will I export the RAW to Photoshop to do fancier things, and every time I do it's almost always a losing proposition.

The last time I remember doing a lot of work on a picture was to try and fix a weird polarization gradient in a pano I took with my iPhone:


As you can see if you stare at it, I still never really got it right, and it's not really a great picture anyway. I should have deleted it.

So that's my advice: don't work too hard at it. It's usually not worth it.

Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful post. This is why I read TOP every day.

I totally agree with the "fell out of the camera" view. I try to emulate that approach as in this image

Mi dos pesos

Yes, Indeed, Mike. The rule of thumb from my grad school days (U of MD, College Park, so we're grad school regional bros), was "Don't let the technique get in the way". That cuts both ways---lousy technique or such command that it starts overwhelming the work. Singer Sargent is a class A example of the latter, in some of his portraiture. He's in good company, the same could be said of Hals. Both 2 of my favorite painters, but that technical panache is dangerous...

The New York Times had another one of those overprocessed photos on Page 1 today.

As relevant as this is to color, it's even more so when it comes to B&W. I was taken aback upon first discovering that some photographers simply choose a B&W preset in post and... Voila! It seems a significant portion of photographers today haven't adequately experienced what good analog prints look like to properly appreciate the full potential of B&W, and then transfer or translate that quality and experience to the digital realm.

Mike said, "For my own work, my basic approach is that the processing choices—the controls, or "tricks"—just shouldn't call attention to themselves. If they do, then you've thrown up an additional veil or filter between the viewer and the picture."

I fully agree, but one problem with this approach is, the "critics" may not consider what you're doing to be "art." I'm a novelist, and this very topic is a continuing point of controversy among writers. Some of us (including me) want our writing to be totally transparent, so that the reader doesn't see the words but rather lives the experience. For others, including most critics, words are almost the whole point of the thing -- so you see high critical praise for inane stories because of the way they're written. In terms of story, I would challenge anyone to explain the difference (in story) between Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and any number of Stephen King novels. Yet McCarthy is considered something of a genius, while many critics consider King to be something of a hack. The reason for that is simply the way they express themselves -- but I personally much prefer the King stories, because I find them much more interesting and creative than McCarthy's work. (Not that McCarthy is chopped liver, because he does write well, but if you simply consider his stories, there really doesn't seem to be much there that you can't find in any number of sci-fi or thriller novels.)

If a photo looks like it just "fell out of the camera," what is there for critics to do? (And that, or course, is an important question for critics; they do have to eat.) In the view of most critics, IMHO, the art IS in the manipulation, and they want to see it and understand it. It's like looking at the Mediterranean while looking at a Cezanne, to see what he did and to tease apart the changes. For me, though, the changes are not as interesting as the experience of a Cezanne. The painting and the sea are different things. I think it's much more important to see and feel the painting, rather than figure out what he did. Same with photography.

While that's what I believe, I also recognize that critics are important to artists, because they spread the word about an artist's work -- and artists, like critics, have to eat. Whether or not to bend your work to meet the taste of the critics is something each artist has to decide.

I don't really accept this "subtle" thing as a rule. Not every photo has to be subtle. Going heavy on the clarity slider can work, too. "That's looking exaggerated" is not necessarily a bad thing if you're trying to exaggerate, is it?
As a portraitist, whenever I shoot male subject i flush subtlety down the toilet. Raw energy and strength are what I gun for. If it means cranking clarity up to eleven - so be it.

To confess, occasionally I can't resist making an image look the way it should have looked or how I re-imagine it, my ideal images eschew post processing artifice. I'll spend as many hours as necessary in Photoshop manipulating them to look that way.

With hat in hand, I offer this thought. Reporters with pens are just as privy to photoshopping their prose as are reporters with cameras. "The murdered woman was wearing a red dress," said the color-blind reporter. "I know it was red because it was sort of like the blood on the floor next to her."

So when people say 'gosh, you must have a really good camera' we should take it as a compliment... ;-)

"My position has always been that a photojournalist is a reporter with a camera, but it's the person, not the camera, doing the reporting. The statements made with the camera should be true according to the person, not just according to the camera."

I completely agree with that position, a reporter, or photojournalist are positions of trust. We trust them to provide an accurate account of what they believe they saw. There have long been journalistic standards for verification of what is reported, and we have trusted that professionals will report the facts as they honestly believe they saw them -both in words and pictures.
When a good writer writes there is style involved, the same story can be written by good or bad writers and we all appreciate clear and informative writing. If a photographer makes a photograph to inform us of the truth of an event as he or she saw it, I believe they deserve the same leeway for to express that truth.

But that is not what seems to be happening in places like POY or world Press photo awards, --last I read they were using forensic algorithms to see what sliders were touched.
Their thesis seems to be that it's the camera not the photographer who makes the picture. And any interpretation by the photographer, can only make them LESS true.
Part of this reaction stems from the fact that we now have the ability to alter facts, to add or delete items, and some unscrupulous individuals have knowingly altered the facts.
I am not trivializing that, it should not be allowed.
However there is a long tradition of making expressive photographs that still convey the truth of the matter, and perhaps more cogently---just like reading a great reporter's writing can help us better understand what he saw.
I have no first hand knowledge of what actual news publications standards are, but suspect many lean more toward 'the camera takes the picture', rather than the reporter
That's a sad thing.

I actually agree with most of this, but I do have a problem with your statement "Good processing is transparent, and gets out of the way of the pictures." I would say no processing is "transparent", and it can't get out of the way of the pictures, because the picture is nothing but processing. From the point the light rays pass through the first air-glass surface of the lens, through how the light becomes a chemical or electronic record in the sensor, and all the subsequent processing, to the final output as a print or illuminated screen, the picture is constituted by the processing. There is no "original" or "authentic" picture that the processing can be true to or not.

Our ideas of what is an "unprocessed" or "transparently" processed picture are determined by the historical and technological moment. A hundred years ago, a black and white picture was completely "natural" and unprocessed - that's what photography was. Today, with ubiquitous colour, a black and white image is seen as a conscious choice (it says, perhaps: this is an Art picture). However, because of its historical context, black and white is not thought of as "extreme" processing, even though slamming the saturation slider all the way over to remove all colour is really quite an extreme processing step.

Today, HDR is new, not yet fully familiar, and contested. As a result, obvious HDR effects call attention to themselves in the way that you (and I) object to - but in the future, as all smartphones come to have auto-HDR turned on by default, perhaps having photos that have shadow areas with no detail and where you can actually work out what the light source is will be seen as strange and "unnatural".

In the end, the transparency or otherwise of image-making choices (including lens and sensor selection, exposure parameters, post-processing and display medium) is as much to do with viewer expectations - determined by the current cultural and technological environment - as it is to do with your (or my) aesthetics.

Having said all that - I'm with you in practice. Go easy with those sliders, folks. Also - and this is a matter of personal aesthetics too - I'd much rather create the colour, tones, textures, etc., I want in camera, if I possibly can. It may make no difference to the viewer, but it matters to me.

We are pretty much in agreement once again Mike although what looks natural to one person might looked processed to another with a different aesthetic. Ironically, the "fell out of the camera" look that I also prefer, requires a reasonable amount of processing to achieve with the majority of photographs. Film, and especially digital sensors, do not see as the human eye does - everything from depth of focus to angle of view to highlight and shadow detail are all experienced quite differently by the photographer who's eye is flitting around the scene whilst constantly contracting and dilating the pupils. RAW files can only usually be a representation of reality according to the camera, not the photographer. I have only ever had a few photos that required almost no processing to meet my required aesthetic because of the unique lighting situation that agreed simultaneously with both my eyes and the camera. Thus I agree Mike that the processing should look invisible which is a good way to get some consistency as well. I like to say that even though my visual acuity has deteriorated as I have aged, I feel that my observational acuity has increased significantly, which can help with editing as well as when taking the photograph. Consistency however, is only relevant within certain creative phases of my life which is why for me a portfolio needs constantly reviewing and updating to keep it consistent. The critic in me has a much broader perspective than the artist within.

I bought the Harry Gruyaert book reviewed here on TOP and was surprised by how many photos had that "color has been messed with too much" look. I can still appreciate it as I really like the images but the colors in some photos are so beyond reality that they detract from the images by calling too much attention to themselves.

Absolutely! All of the gimmicks just die over time and "over the top" is one of those.

There was a chef on PBS named Justin Wilson years ago. He was quite a character. At the end of each show he had a bottle of wine with whatever he had cooked that day. He always said "what wine should you serve with this meal?" and after a short pause he'd say "whatever wine you like"!
Thus, there is, in my opinion, no definitive answer to the color correction arguments. If you are printing for a news outlet (I cannot ever understand this since I've never done such a thing) then I suppose you produce what that customer wants.
I print only landscapes now (living in Colorado makes this easy). The ones I frame and hang on my wall please me immensely and I don't give a rip what anyone else thinks. However, I used to sell prints at local fairs, etc. I guarantee that the overblown, over-sharpened prints outsold the "natural look" prints by 10 to one. The many unsold "realistic" prints I still have are just taking up space in my basement. People really want the "wow" factor.

... and never put your name or signature on the image!

Mike, the advice to find a consistent approach is among the best I've ever heard. Or at least, that's the most succinctly put I've heard it put. I needed that.

I agree with you generally on the treatment not dominating the picture, but I've just come from Jacob Aue Sobol's Kickstarter page. With him and Moriyama and even Anders Petersen a bit, that processing defines their images and carries the content of it to a new and different place.

Having been asked to judge a photo contest or two, I can tell you that problems arise when one's personal esthetic conflicts with that of the majority of photographers who are making submissions. I'm from the "less is more" school and have had to judge photos that seem to have been from the "there's never too much" school. I honestly felt the sponsors had picked the wrong judge and told them so, yet the die had been cast so I ended up choosing the photos I thought were the least grotesque rather than the most appealing.

"From a creator's perspective, it's good to let your work evolve toward what you love best, and what expresses you. You'll know it because it gets you in the gut."

Indeed a good suggestion, far better than advocating general restraint and unobtrusive manipulation. "Knowing Thyself" is a process that often takes many turns, sometimes into wilder neighborhoods. What, for example, would we have lost if this guy had heeded warning to cool-down. Of if this guy had toned-down his impressionism?

Of course one's "gut" is almost certain to change its opinions over time, for better or for worse.

"From a viewer's perspective, it's better to approach with an open mind and see if you can tell what another artist is trying to do, and whether they succeeded for you."

The best advice of all. I try my best to meet and/or hear from as many photographers as possible. It nearly always helps me to gain a better perspective on their work.

[As much time as I've spent trying to learn to write clearly, it's always discouraging when people don't follow the argument. I was not advocating for "general restraint and unobtrusive manipulation." I was saying that that's my personal preference and the way I do things in my own work. Next I described how I approach the work of others--and specifically said, about three times, that they're different things. I expended a lot of words making the distinction. It's just discouraging that it still failed to come across. --Mike]

Maybe I am not mature enough as an artist and maybe it makes it harder for my viewers to recognize my work but I find my self being drawn to some significant variety in my processing. In the same way I love Kubrick as a director I enjoy working on wildly different looks.

Some days I channel my inner Ansel Adams and try for grand black and white. Sometimes undersaturated and sometimes over processed. It intrigues me to try to match the processing to my vision and I enjoy working on new skills.

Most of the time I want the image to look the way it did and not have the processing get in the way, but not always. I think I would get bored if I had to just go for one style all the time. Maybe its a defect but it is the way I find the most satisfaction.

Dear Mike,

My overarching aesthetic intent has always been to produce a photograph that looks like it "fell out of my eyes." Artistically, I could not care less what "fell out of the camera." I'm into realism, and visual realism is a product of my vision system, not a camera's.

(Technically, of course, I totally care about what falls out of the camera, because I am the one who has to do the work to bridge the gulf.)

pax / Ctein

"So my basic guiding principle is, whatever control it is that you're using, take care to make it invisible. If you want to juice up the color, don't cross the line such that most viewers' first reactions will be "that color is very exaggerated." You want to back off until your tricks fall below the threshold of immediate noticeability (at least)."

Mike, I translated this paragraph into a direction to use restraint when processing color. Not accurately?
As an addendum to my earlier remarks I think it's worth noting that the overall aesthetic of color photography is shifting rapidily, both in the pop realm and the art world. "Tastefulness" is becoming redefined partly due to the constant bombardment of overcooked social media images. But also due to a wave of far more closely managed, usually very muted palettes applied, often very skillfully, in fine art images to affect viewer impressions. Either way, the days when trying to achieve fidelity with the scene you saw was a paramount goal are pretty much over.

Re your comments on my earlier post:
Reporting via photo has a big difference re other types of photo. The documentary photo viewer expects to see a representation of some real world situation or event, with usually some degree of objectivity-not a biased 'sales pitch' photo. Of course total objectivity isn't available. The process of editing by the photographer in selecting the exposures made, the editor's selection of a subset of these to present to the viewer is a second abstraction level, and the postprocessing used can be a third level. Each of these may have a significant effect on the understanding by the viewer of image and real world content and context - or not.
This doesn't mean we should, or even can, have a fixed set of processing rules for doc images, although apparently some news organizations have some fairly strict 'guidelines' for their photographers. What I am saying is that evaluating documentary images requires a somewhat different set of criteria than for other 'art' photos, where the implications of modified reality are different. Its a major issue in use of photos in legal proceedings. Unless the photos have an ironclad provenance, they are subject to challenge as to use as evidence. As photographers we are probably more aware of the extreme modifications possible in post, and how different an image can appear in different presentation media. The question arises of how relevant are any mods in post. For example,for the NYT Cuba story, and given the limits of newsprint images, how relevant to the content and meaning of the story was the processing used? And if negatively relevant, what to do to prevent other cases.
These are complex issues, which is why I suggested multiple columns and books.

This is just a really great piece of thought, and writing. Bravo, and thank you.

I subscribe to the Steve McCurry blog https://stevemccurry.wordpress.com/, whatever you think of the subject it is undeniable that many find his images compelling. For many years the poster boy for Kodachrome, his current work shot digitally has the same look. I know that "work" must be done to get the images to that point. I know, as a photographer, they didn't fall out of the camera that way and many would argue they exceed the "shouldn't look worked on" criteria suggested here, but they work for me and have given me license in my own work.

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