Embracing Limitations - Part II

A few posts back I wrote a short piece on embracing limitations instead of a relentless pursuit of eliminating them. Actually looking back over the years I have written about that topic more than I actually remembered of the top of my head. Over the last few days catching my breath from my marathon proof-reading, getting thoughts from other photographers, and worrying about the Window Light Field Guide - I have thought a little bit more about limitations. As usual when something's on your mind you tend to see that theme and hear it everywhere. If flavors just about everything you look at even if it's not blatantly related to what you are thinking about. If flavors your thought process so that somehow everything is related in someway to what you are thinking about.

Describing all of those thoughts and their connected-ness would not really be possible given my whacky non-linear thought process so I wanted to just pick a couple bits and pieces to give you a flavor and hopefully a perspective on your own photographic endeavors - especially those related to removing constraints you may currently have.

Having done way too much driving lately I have had the opportunity to catch up on my podcast subscriptions. Some of which I really enjoy, some of which really grate on me. I listen to an insane amount of stuff. Without naming names or categorizing which particular podcast the following comes from I'll relate the meat of something that struck me from one of them over the course of a few episodes of the same people talking about two different topics that were weeks and quite a few episodes apart. For me they were only two days apart so I can track with this kind of thing pretty closely. More closely than the podcasters it would seem.

One of those people completely tore apart and poo-poo-ed a particular film-maker for his lament of shooting on real photographic film because said film-maker happened to use an example of how the process changed in terms of mandatory breaks in the production at regular intervals due to the absolute necessity of changing film reels in the cameras when they got low or ran out. It was part of the production process that was forced, unquestioned, and a matter of course due to the constrain of how much physical film actually fit on a reel. It was just what you did. He also described how that doesn't happen shooting digital and how different the production feels and questioned the loss and the rush and postulated how it affected the finished piece negatively.

Well this podcaster just went to town on what a moron this film-maker is because as he could just take breaks if he really wanted to. Yea - what a moron. If he wanted to work differently he could just do so. On and on and on about how the constraint was absolutely not influential on the process or the end product.

Fast forward a number of episodes and a number of weeks in the podcasters time… a mere two days from my perspective and the same person was discussing his personal lens choices and why he chose the way he did, etc, etc. To cut to the chase - he works with a couple of prime lenses instead of zooms. He had a bunch of reasons for his choice but the one that he really focused in on was not quality or weight or anything else. Get ready… I shit you not - he worked with them so that it took some actual time when he change lenses for a different framing and perspective and that little break that he was forced to take contributed to the feel of the shoot, and how he interacted with his subject, and blah blah blah and if he was using a zoom he would not work the same way because he wouldn't be forced to do so.

Of course I am paraphrasing this - in fact I have been meaning to point this out to him. Just to be a jerk - in a helpful way of course. To me these two things one he embraced and one he poo-poo-ed are exactly the same. I mean exactly, not just parallel thoughts but the same exact thoughts. Amusing yes but actually a really really important thing for you as a photographer and artist to think about.

In this case it's fairly easy to take something away. It's really really easy to arm chair quarter back what you could do if not forced to do it. In practice the question is really will you actually do it? I submit that you can theorize all day about it and believe that you will do the same things you would do if you had constraints with all the good faith to do so. When you are actually making pictures there are very good chances that you won't.

That's the simple case but there really are huge things taken for granted that I am going to go out on a limb and say wouldn't even be a thought in any of our heads if at some point in our history were not severe constraints that needed to be worked around, dealt with, or just lived with. In a lot of cases the constraint as long since been eliminated or almost eliminated but the things that came from that constraint are ingrained in our photographic vocabulary so so much that it's almost impossible to imagine ourselves without them.

Let's just take one tiny little example… slow film ISO's from back in the days where high speed meant (ASA) ISO 100 or maybe 400 - that was really really fast and came along later than you might think. This is what drove development of really fast glass not because people wanted shallow depth of field on smaller format capture mediums. It was practical. In fact it's easy to get crazy shallow when using an 8x10 at f5.6. You don't see that a lot in a historical context because those cameras had movements and are not hand-held. Definitely you don't really see it in a creative context until all the 35mm and 120 shooters started doing low light work at really really large apertures. I am exaggerating of course.

I would venture to say to you that if we had really small sensors and really high ISO's in 1800's we would have never ever seen lenses that were f2 or f1.4 or f1.0. Never. Now we will see them forever mostly for creative purposes and people want the ability to create that look. They will probably always be manufactured because no matter what ISO we can shoot with there will be a market for that look or the option of that look.

Of course that's speculation and even if I am completely wrong in my speculation it doesn't matter. Take lots of stuff that we have in our common visual vocabulary - now for some portion of them there is likely a constraint that forced a particular usage that we now look at as just an option in our list of many options. The common ones are options and will continue to be because they have become… standard. Many of which may not ever have existed, or been done, or gear be designed a certain way if there were not constraints that forced things to go that way. They live on even after the constraint is gone.

The point is for your own art and things that will not become standard options or are not done that way for you are very influenced by your own set of limitations. Embrace them and see what you come up with. Make some up that don't really exist and see what happens. You may be surprised. Don't fool yourself into thinking you will do the same exact things you do now if some limitations are eliminated. You may not.

Just food for thought.


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