Purity vs. Trial and Error

Purity vs. Trial and Error

There I was, in Tyresta, trying to get a nice macro shot of a blueberry. I noticed something walking up behind me and heard a child's voice: "What are you doing?"

"Trying to get a good photo of this blueberry."

I wished I could tell the kid that I was creating art that would echo through the ages. I told him I was photographing a blueberry. I didn't even know if the blueberry would turn out all right.

The kid ran off. "Dad, dad, he's taking pictures of blueberries!"

"Somebody's got to do that, too"

A little while later I was doing a camera glide over a bog.

"What are you doing?"

"Just practicing moving the camera steadily."

I heard him go "Daaaad!" as he ran off.

So much for making the younger generation want to get into photography. Sorry everyone, I scared one potential master photographer away.

But is it really so bad to admit that most of the time I'm trying out new stuff, just to see what will come out of it? As far as I know, a lot of photographers spend a lot of time just firing away - we think there's a nice photo there, but we're not sure. For some reason this is considered "dirty". We should carefully consider the subject, spend time framing and composing, and only then release the shutter for that single, perfect photo.

Terje Hellesø thought so; but then he used stock photos and Photoshop[a] to produce his photos.[1]

Ken Rockwell, while doing his utmost to fuse the gearhead with the artist in him, still looks down on "spray and pray"[2], and thinks that shooting film while traveling is a good idea - despite, or rather, because of the long turnaround time from shooting to seeing the result[3].

I would agree that unthinking spray-and-pray is worthless. You're not going anywhere intellectually if you leave your brain in neutral. Thinking spray-and-pray, however, made possible by the instant feedback of digital, is about as good as it gets. A person once told me that, once successful, most people keep doing the same thing over and over in their lives. A photographer that once had great success with a photo of a sunset, for example, will keep shooting sunsets until they die. The sunsets will be very artistic and very beautiful - but they will be sunsets.

Spray and pray is the antidote to that. Whether you see yourself as an artist, a craftsman, a professional or as "someone with a camera", the more you explore of the creative space of photography, the wider your horizons, the better off you'll be. So grab a digital camera, put in a large memory card, and while doing your utmost to make it look good, blast away at stuff you would never have bothered with before. Even if it doesn't look good in-camera, there might yet be something that can be done with it.

Which brings me to the second point: post-processing. I've previously written at length about 'shopping photos, so let me just summarize: I don't consider it immoral in itself. It is only wrong when the editing is used to further a lie or to deceive; as in the case of Terje Hellesø.

Post-processing has gotten a bad reputation. Most online photo communities either ban photo editing outright, or require you to specify the amount of manipulation done. Some have a checkbox that you can tick to mark a photo you have uploaded as having been edited - the equivalent of an "I'm a horrible person"-option. OOC JPG, or Out-Of-Camera JPEG, is the peak of purity. A JPEG that hasn't been modified since the camera encoded it.

Well meaning as they may be, there are even some contests that stipulate that only OOC photos are allowed[d] - this to see "who is the best photographer". The problem is that post processing to a very large extent is nothing but light control. Light control can be done in many ways, but as a photographer you must do it if you expect to get good results. Here are six ways:

  1. Exposure settings.

  2. ND Filters, graded or not.

  3. Waiting. If you are out doing nature photography, the most efficient way of controlling the light is to not control it at all, but wait until it is right.

  4. Artificial light, in the form of strobes or continuous light. Studio photographers do it this way.

  5. In-camera processing settings such as saturation and contrast.

  6. Photoshop.

Of these, the first five are considered to be on the side of angels, while the last one is Satan himself. Since photography is all about light control, these "no editing" policies usually result in the unintended victory of...

  • ...the studio photographer who can buy and point the most strobes at the subject.

  • ...the landscape photographer who can buy the fastest lens and attach the most filters to it.

  • ...whoever owns a camera whose sharpening, contrast and saturation settings go to eleven.

But what about actual editing of elements? That is, not just doing sharpening and curves, but actually 'shopping in or out things? Well, Andreas Gursky, when creating his $4.3 million Rhein II, in his own words decided to digitalize the pictures and leave out the elements that bothered [him][*][e]. I don't know if Andreas is active on any photo forums, but my guess would "no".

To summarize: Forget about purity. Art is about transcending boundaries, not elevating them to divine laws. Go forth and create great images.


2011-10-16, updated 2011-12-11