Photography - Some Thoughts On Tools

Kind of a strange week of posts for me. Probably too much anger over the whole Adobe shafting a lot of it's customers or at least positioning for the big shafting to come. Maybe a bit too tool focused be it Aperture 3, or Lightroom, or VSCO, or the Fuji X100S. Enough of that for now, it's not about the tools really - it's not. As long as the tools are competent to some degree you're golden. Limitations, constraints and obstacles can be a good thing in a lot of cases as I have written about a number of times before. All of them cause you to work differently and think differently. As you can probably imagine I happen to prefer tools that just get the hell out of my way. Even if they have their own set of limitations. You may view that statement as a bit of contradictory things. In my mind it's not depending on your definition of limitations as well as your interpretation of "getting the hell out of the way".

To illustrate my thoughts more clearly let me use a bit of hyperbole. If I had to choose between a camera that quite literally eliminated every single photographic obstacle that one could imagine - low light, IQ, focal length choice, size, weight, everything that is floating your boat right this second but it had this robotic arm that came out and poked you in the eye after every shot vs say a camera that only had one focal length, was "so so" in the dark, and had a lot less "IQ" but it didn't poke me in the eye. Guess which one I would choose.

Obviously nobody would design something like that on purpose and the example is over the top. One mans poking in the eye is probably a bit different than another's. I would suggest you would be better served by choosing the tool that doesn't poke you in your metaphorical eye rather than go for the "features". I have posted quite a few things about forgetting how much I liked working in Aperture 3 and it't true - I haven't really been inside Aperture since the end of 2012.

Having kept myself busy working on the lighting field guides through all those depressing winter months. I made a decision early on to not do any special post processing with the illustrations and to use Lightroom as it's a bit more universal for people in terms of how it looks OOC. Import - one click preset of a know quantity - export - done. I hear a bunch of things all the time regarding tools and the critical need everyone seems to have for things a specific tool doesn't do. Whether it's some camera function, some lens, or some post processing tool. Heck I get caught up in it sometimes. Thank god I usually snap out of it pretty quick and get back to business. I criticized the the living crap out of the Aperture 3 version of VSCO lately - as compared to the ACR/Lightroom version was really the context. I was probably being way way too harsh especially without context. It's just a tool - no tool is going to be exactly perfect for everyone. What was I expecting? Well I was expecting perfect - who cares - it works - it's easy to fix it's shortcomings - and it's easier than rolling your own looks.

There were a couple of things that helped snap me out of the whole "the tools aren't good enough" mindset of the moment…

  • The number of positive responses I got to a random tweet I shot out regarding all I really need in an image processing tool regarding the whole Photoshop Adobe controversy. It was something like "Thank god I only need decent color tools and a curves adjustment". Really that's about it. The rest of it's gravy. I'm not a photo illustrator - I don't want to be.
  • Someone asking me if VSCO could be made to work in a simple way in Aperture 3. Of course it can. I was just being lazy. It's just a tool I know how to get it somewhere near what I want.
  • Some other positive response I got to a random shout out on twitter regarding my preference for Aperture 3 - the meat of the matter is that I like tools that reward you more as your experience with them grows as opposed to tools that make you ever more frustrated as you are more and more familiar with them.

There is a very big difference to me between tools that are "easy to learn" vs tools that are easy to use after you have gained experience. I will take the latter any day of the week and that's just how I feel about Aperture 3. Same goes for cameras I like vs ones I don't. On and on. You have to live with these things and I rather that be more and more enjoyable rather than less and less as time goes on.

I guess that brings me to my point here today. It's probably far more productive and rewarding to really learn your tools that you actually use to make images you want to make and dealing with the matter at hand - photography - than it is worrying about what they don't do that are edge cases or you don't really need to deal with in the first place. Endless preparation for problems you might have is worthless. It all changes - figuring out what you might need down the road is a fools game and has nothing to do with making work right now. Use what you like - make sure it's enjoyable and if it's not make sure there is a damn good reason you are using it.

Case in point - the image at the top of the post. Nothing super special, just part of a series I did in getting to really know my X100. First time I actually tried to use it seriously and was working through a number of things like how the camera's meter reacted and if I was "faster" using it one way rather than another, etc, etc. Turns out I will use the X100 and X100S a whole lot like I use every other camera I have ever owned.

During this sequence I was trying out evaluative metering and aperture priority and playing the "out smart the camera with exposure bias" game. Hey I am a romantic - I want to believe that some day this will be a good option for me. Not today. I successfully outsmarted the meter a few shots prior with an exposure comp of +1.33 as confirmed via chimping. Too bad Anastasia moved just a hair revealing 0.000003% more of that window right behind her. Checkmate - the camera outsmarted me. I lose. Seriously just a hair and wham this shot was way underexposed. Too bad it's the one I liked the best. It has the worst IQ but the rest of it works better in terms of gesture and expression. I guess I should have used exposure comp and AE lock. Screw that. For 90% of how I shoot I am way better off and quicker with manual where the camera just does what I tell it to do until I change the scene or change my mind. Of course if there is no way I can keep up I will use aperture priority.

Here's how horrible the IQ is in all it's pixel glory and how much I needed to increase exposure…

I had ISO 1600 set on the camera and boosted the exposure in Aperture 3 by a whopping 1.4 stops and added a bunch of contrast. No matter what camera or software you are using this is not a recipe for squeaky clean images. In the above screenshot if you open it in a new window to see all the pixels. What you cannot see is the noise I caused by all this monkeying around. Sure you see a ton of noise but you cannot see any of the camera noise - what you see is VSCO 800Z grain overlay. Yep used VSCO for Aperture 3 and their grain scan overlays. Dialed in additional exposure, applied VSCO 01 Fuji 800Z, dialed back saturation, added the grain. Done.

Would I like this image better if Aperture 3's noise reduction was better? Better than the current king - ACR7? How about better than that? Who cares. What if all the tools were perfect what if it looked like I shot it at ISO 50 on an H4D? No noise. Again who cares. For a lot of things tool features and comparisons of which one is "better" are irrelevant in most cases it just doesn't matter. What about the ones that do matter? Well to tell you the truth I am very unlikely to like an image better or worse if it needs to be pristine based on some relative performance of friggin noise reduction. It's shot wrong in the first place and will suck slightly less. Who cares if it sucks or sucks slightly less. Images that "pristine" is a requirement - which is a not a whole lot of them - the whole comparison on "better" ways to fix IQ problems you caused is idiotic - who cares - you shot it wrong it it sucks or it sucks slightly less. The ultimate armchair quarterbacking in photography. Comparing which lousy ill-conceived, mis shot, bad choice images suck less depending on what software you use. Really - this is what we are doing with our time? This is what we are thinking about? Everybody smack yourself - or the guy next to you. There I smacked myself.

Here's another one - sorry for the NSFW but I just had to use this one as it's the same story as the last one. Exactly with one additional thing I and others gripe and complain about from a tool perspective constantly. Specifically Aperture 3's lack of integrated profiled perfect lens corrections.

Check out the door on the right edge of the frame. This is absolutely a worst case scenario for the X100 or any other camera/lens for that matter. The X100's lens is not perfect from a distortion point of view. Not horrible but not perfect. That line doesn't look all bendy to me. Maybe Aperture 3 is dealing with it automagically - it does with Micro 4/3 stuff so it can. Maybe it just doesn't matter - for a good 90% of my shots - the things I shoot I couldn't care less about some slight distortion. I don't use it much in ACR, there's just no need. Let's pretend that the line was all curvy and it was bothering the shit out of me and I was correction-less because Aperture is just so so so lacking on critical features we cannot live without. Think I could manage that crop? Typically the lines that bother you are going to be on the edges. Lines real close to the edge are not a great idea anyway. Who cares.

Do you have a camera that Aperture 3 doesn't support? Or whatever software you like the best because it's enjoyable for you to use? If not who cares about camera support. Right up until you buy one that's not supported I guess. Deal with that when it's actually an issue. I just made a tool (Aperture 3) that is "useless" because it doesn't do all kinds of critical stuff and well as a set of presets I like less do exactly the same thing for me as the other tool does. There is no way you could tell the difference. I can - maybe - but even so I enjoy working in Aperture 3 in every other way by a large margin. I will take the enjoyment rather than worrying about VSCO's slightly less than perfect calibration or some lack of "good noise reduction". My point isn't Aperture 3 - my point is enjoyment and taking factors that may be more important for your photographic life into account than some ultimate comparison of "features".

Enough philosophy today. Let's go make some pictures. It's spring.


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