Photographic Biases - Cleared Up

2000_064_07.jpgI had an interesting conversation with a reader of this site that wanted to know about some of my photographic biases. Her words - not mine, note that she has never commented on any of the posts in question that display those biases and I doubt she will comment on this one so I hope I represent things fairly and accurately. My intent is to clarify some undertones that have obviously crept in over the years.

The main points of her inquiries can be summarized as follows:

  • Why do I hate digital - considering I use it and write about it and obviously know the digital world so well.
  • Why do I hate speedlights, built-in flash, and for that matter just about any little portable flash units.
  • Why do I hate HDR
  • Why do I hate new cameras and innovations.

I will take these point by point but first I want to say that I don't hate any of them - not one. I can see how one would think that I do based on quite a few flippant remarks and asides woven throughout the site - especially if you do not know me and we have never spoken. In general I would have to say I take the devil's advocate's position on what I would lump into the category of silver bullets, the emperor's new clothes, over-hyped technical solutions to problems that don't exist, over complication, and last but not least - snake oil salesmen that prey on the faithful in need of a cure.

Let's cover digital first. This obviously is in the context of film vs. digital. I don't hate digital, I am not an either or person. I just love film in certain contexts and applications. A lot of film has an inherent beauty that digital just does not reproduce - it has a different "look". I bring this up a lot because I feel it is important if you have a love of photography that you find some way to experience using film. I do this because the vast majority of people that I run into in 2010 that are photography enthusiasts have never really experienced film in a meaningful way, if at all.

I love the fact that more people are actually "into' making good photographs because of digital - the downside is that they really don't have an appreciation of film and some of it's wonderfulness. That wonderfulness extending to some things that are considered weaknesses. Yep - limited exposures, time to process, one ISO, less options for the treatment of color, actually choosing and knowing that you are shooting either color or black and white at capture time, grain, all of that stuff can be strengths and either teach or bring back an appreciation of subtlety. That last one - tiny, minuscule differences are one of the essential things that make or break a photograph - hopelessly lost in the age of digital where wild swings in color, saturation, sharpness, contrast, etc. are the norm. I don't think most people can even evaluate subtle differences any more. In my book this is a bad thing.

Moving right along to portable/small/built-in flash. I don't hate them either. I hate that built-in, autoflash, in the worst possible position has become the default. I think the default ruins most pictures people take. I think that the default makes people extremely lazy where they don't even think about the actual light in the scene anymore.

Here is where it get's really complicated. I also believe that most great images out there taken by ANYONE are not lit in anyway but ambient conditions.  After making hundreds of thousands of photographs both professionally and personally combined with my own viewing experience from masters to my mom - I think the best photographs employ only ambient light. This doesn't mean that there is not a place for "lit" photographs - of course there is. I made a living from this for 7 years. In fact some photographic endeavors are best served via strobe either aesthetically or practically or both. The other reason I pooh-pooh the current little light craze is because I think there are way too many people that know better purveying a bunch of nonsense for profit reasons - in other words telling people to do exactly the wrong thing to achieve a set of results - TTL automation, off-camera lights, expensive battery powered small units to achieve results that are easier, less expensive and better via manual large strobes.

HDR - now here is a topic that is sure to win me a curmudgeon of the year award. This one ranks right up there with things I consider wayward fashion trends that took too long to go away. I could be wrong here but I think HDR will go the way of the dodo bird real soon. Don't take this the wrong way - I mean HDR as it sits now - with that nasty Photomatix software and such things. When someone says HDR what they really mean is Photomatix or something just like it.

The act of translating the very very contrasty world onto a piece of paper has been in existence since cavemen started drawing on cave walls. Painters do it - good painters to it very very well. Black and white photographers have ALWAYS done it - black and white film captures an amazing amount if information. Slide film shooters and digital guys do it and always have with graduated filters and balanced fill light of sorts. Even digital guys do it with multiple exposures long before the advent of automatic blending nonsense like Photomatix. In fact I think some of the multi-exposure composites I have seen are fantastic - I linked to a guy that does this a long time ago - I think I titled it "HDR done right" or something.

By the way - the choices of what goes black what goes white, where there is detail, where there is not, where there is high midtone contrast and where there is low contrast is the art of making a photograph - both at time of capture and when it comes to making a print. The HDR that I hate - and I do hate it is the rubbish that I see run through Photomatix et, al. Yea I know, I know, we will all agree on the generality of "good" and "bad" HDR but I am going to go further - it is all rubbish. I have given it a chance, I have let it sit. Even the work of the "masters" of sliding those Photomatix sliders - guess what, a year later even the images that I thought I liked look ridiculous to me at this point. Without fail my desire is to see a "regular" version of the same scene done well. Polyester leisure suit of the early 21st century.

I will not bother to answer the last one because I in no way hate innovation. Hope that clears up my position on things a bit more than just a flippant remark pointing to idiotic things like the 9 speedlight ring flash.

RB

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