Snake Oil & Comb-overs: A Rant.
I initially posted this graphic in 2008. Seemed appropriate to bring it back…
A friend of mine is a world-class chef. He got there after a lot of hard work. He studied under other chefs, all of them masters at what they do. He’s really good at what he does; he’s both a craftsman and an artist. He did not get where he is by re-heating TV dinners in the microwave and calling himself a chef.
You’ve heard me rant about the big camera companies flogging cameras that they promise will allow you to “shoot like a pro” or “unlock your vision,” or similar desperate crap. So it should come as no surprise that my blood pressure begins to go up when I read about so-called teachers flogging plug-ins for Photoshop or Lightroom that “turn snapshots into great shots.” Bullshit. Shame on them.
Amazing photographs are not made with plug-ins or Photoshop actions. They are made with the imagination and the heart and the mind. They are made with hands that know the camera well and with a mind that understand how to use it in service of vision. They are made from amazing light, great lines, and astonishing moments. No plug-in in the world will turn a mediocre photograph into something amazing. Patience makes great photographs. Composition makes great photographs. Vision and a desire to express makes great photographs. A great many things make great photographs; plug-ins are not among them, because if a plug-in or an action is a part of polishing a great image, and they can be, that image was already great.
So why am I so bent out of shape about this? Because part of my life’s work is to teach and, I hope, encourage people as they grow towards being solid craftsmen and growing artists, and none of us will get there by pursuing short-cuts or relying on plug-ins, any more than an aspiring chef will get there by re-heating something someone else has cooked. The chef needs to put the time in and learn about his ingredients, and his tools. He needs to put the time in to learn knife skills and how to recognize a great cut of meat. And when a respected teacher is making more money flogging plug-ins, or encouraging his students to rely on them instead of making great photographs and encouraging his students to do the same, I think it’s time to pipe up. This blog is my pipe. So I’m begging you, for the love of your art, use all the damn plug-ins and actions you want, but the moment you rely on them to “make a great shot from a snapshot,” you’re not only stepping away from a thriving, vital, creative process, but you’re settling for polishing the mediocre instead of doing what should have been done in the first place: scrapping the image that didn’t work and starting over again. A weak image run through a plug-in or action fools only the same person fooled by a bald man with a comb-over: the person who’s doing it.
Plug-ins aren’t without use. Neither are Photoshop actions or Lightroom presets. Find the ones you like, dissect them, learn from them, and then use them as starting places and jumping-off points. But don’t rely on them. Unless you want your work to look like everyone else’s. Then by all means, spend the money, and use the plug-ins to salvage a shot that could have been beautiful had you just waited for the moment or spent more time on composition or studying the light. Photography isn’t easy. Making art and discovering beauty or telling compelling stories, isn’t easy. Time spent learning the craft will make it a little less painful, and equip us for the task of expression in new ways. We’d be better off spending our time learning to use the tools of expression than looking for that new trendy action, because those only make our photographs look new and trendy, not honest. There are a lot of voices out there, many of whom will help you in your pursuit of the art, and others who will happily offer the latest panacea if it makes them a few dollars. Be careful who you listen to.
(My way of photography is not the only way. It’s just my way. But it’s all I’ve got. We all do photography for different reasons, I get that, too. This is all just one man’s opinion. And God knows there are people out there that think I’m a hack, so here’s to there being enough room for us all out there to do what we do the way we want. That said, I still believe craft matters, and when it comes to this issue, and this nonsense is published by high-profile photographers, in much the same way as a “system” for “going pro” is, then I’d be doing you a disservice by keeping my mouth shut. When I see someone selling snake-oil to people I love and respect, I lose my usually calm and too-Canadian decorum. But still, if this comes off as less-than-graceful, I apologize….)