The Place of Craft

In Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, The Craft, The Life Creative, Vision Is Better by David54 Comments

“Sharpness is over-rated. No one has ever looked at the best photographs of this century and been moved emotionally because it was tack sharp or because the histogram was perfect. We suffer, not from a lack of technical ability, but from a lack of visual literacy, imagination, and the willingness to connect emotionally – and vulnerably – with our subjects.”

That’s what I wrote yesterday. It’s not new thinking for me, and if you come by here more than once in a blue moon, you know it’s old hat. Hell, it’s not even new thinking in the photography world. It’s a sermon that’s been preached for generations. What confounds me is that this always gets taken as a shot across the bow by a predictably small but vocal group who seem to have taken on the role of defending the pixel, lens, and sensor. Put the torches down, friends, I’m not starting a reformation, and I’m not denouncing your craft, though you might be holding it a little too tightly for your own good.

“There are plenty of genres in photography where sharpness, even the pixel itself, isn’t remotely a consideration. Those words don’t even enter into the vocabulary. We could stand to be a little less precious about it.”

The need for craft and technique is assumed. The need to use focus, exposure, and every other tool of the craft to make your photograph is assumed. It’s a starting point.  It shouldn’t even need to be said. That’s why I don’t get bent out of shape about it. But it’s been assumed since we started this whole goofy process of painting with light. And tied to what is possible, and therefore to what some would call technical excellence, is the constant advancement of the technology itself.  And that’s a good thing. But listen, in this context, it’s a means to an end. Nothing more.  And it’s not even the only means to that end. There are plenty of genres in photography where sharpness, even the pixel itself, isn’t remotely a consideration. Those words don’t even enter into the vocabulary. We could stand to be a little less precious about it.

“The need to use focus, exposure, and every other tool of the craft to make your photograph is assumed. It’s a starting point.  It shouldn’t even need to be said.”

Here’s what I wonder: could it be that those fastest to jump on the need for technical perfection (whatever the hell that means) are those for whom technical perfection is all they have? When we have nothing interesting or important to say with our photographs, and I’m talking in broad strokes as a community in this particular place in time,  all we have left is “look how good my camera is.” I’m not sure the folks at Canon and Nikon squeal with conspiratorial delight when we say those things, but they sure don’t mind it and they love to quote us when we do. It keeps us distracted and addicted. Addicted to hope, the hope that the next camera will be sharper, bigger, faster, and that – abracadabra – our photographs will be better.

When we have nothing interesting or important to say with our photographs, and I’m talking in broad strokes as a community in this particular place in time,  all we have left is “look how good my camera is.”

Better. I love that word. I love seeing people touted by others or their own PR, as “the best landscape photographer” or some version of the same. Better than you. Better than me. Nothing makes me want to drink gin from the cat bowl more than hearing about so and so who made this years best photographs in such and such a category. Move over, Fluffy, I’m draining this drink and calling for more, and then I’m going to figure out whether Monet was better than Picasso, whether U2 is better than Bob Dylan, and whether butterflies are better than birds, and pasta is better than pizza.  Somewhere out there, right now, two nerds are gathered in their parents’ basement arguing about whether a tribble is better than an ewok. And you know who cares? Exactly.

Yes, clients want sharper and sharper images. Yes, the histogram matters, and no, we don’t want noise in our images either. But to a large degree these things don’t – they can’t – define what makes a good photograph, and I feel nothing but sadness for those for whom they do. Because they will never make a good photograph. Ever. Because the target keeps moving, and at a rate we can’t hope to keep up with. And so the image that’s good today will be too noisy, not sharp enough, not large enough, tomorrow.  And the collection of images that were good today will become a collection of images that gets worse with time. And so they’ll buy bigger and sharper cameras, bankrolling the hope that the next one will be the quantum leap forward. And they’ll keep making sharper, larger, cleaner images. And that will be the best thing we can say about them. And you know who will care?

Exactly.

“Humanity doesn’t need more sharpness. That is not one of the things for which we hunger. We hunger for beauty, and meaning, for stories, and for love.”

Make your art with the tool you have. Use a Polaroid or a RED camera. Use film or digital. Use Leica lenses or Lensbabies. Create abstracts and impressionistic studies of shape and colour, or stunning landscapes that are tack-sharp @ 400%, but don’t kid yourself – it’s not sharpness that makes it great.  It never has been. Humanity doesn’t need more sharpness. That is not one of the things for which we hunger. We hunger for beauty, and meaning, for stories, and for love – among other things, things that are communicated visually through light and composition – through our use of balance and tension and movement and scale and colour and a hundred other things that you can’t buy in the B&H catalog, and won’t be found in the manual of your new camera, no matter how much money you spend, no matter how much better your camera is than mine. We get it. Hell, every one of us has, right now, at least one camera that’s better than what every photographer who created a truly iconic image before the year 2000 ever had. You can make sharper, larger, cleaner images than any of them, together, ever made. And you know who cares?

 

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Comments

    1. A question: Were you a wet photographer; i.e., a photographer in the days that proceeded the digital age; i.e a film photographer?

      1. Author

        A long overdue reply, Doug, but yes I was. I cut my teeth on Tri-X, T-Max, and hours in the darkroom.

  1. …well said (with a ‘sharp’ tongue I might add) 🙂 I kid, I kid. You always hit the nail on the head David. Keep on keeping on…

  2. I’m sure glad my email tells me when you have a new post! Your words are always just what I need to hear. Thanks for sharing with us.

  3. So absolutely, magnificently true…

    Don’t get me wrong, don’t want to start a firestorm of controversy, but Moose Peterson has always been a proponent of “tact sharp” and “get it right in the camera.” However if you check out some of his teaching videos, he runs his images through all kinds of software to obtain the image he is striving for, uses NIK plugins a ton as well as Photomatix Pro, all of which I have no problem with personally, it just proves that the former catch phrases are just that, catch phrases and most everyone uses whatever software they are comfortable with to process their images.

    Now, I do try to get it right in the viewfinder, with correct exposure and the rest, but guess what, sometime when I get it on my computer screen I see a better crop, or blew the exposure or white balance, but it’s a great image. If I can save it, or make it stronger, by my standards, hey, I will, no guilt! I am trying my best to move people with the incredible beauty that is this life on this planet not accomplish a moon shot, I strive to be an artist, not an engineer, even though I truly love the computer that is my camera.

    Just my two cents!

    1. Tom,
      Excellent point. I stive to have one or two images that others will look at and be pulled in emotionally, not be looking all over it to see if it’s technically up to snuff.. That’s what the art of it is all about, not how clever I am with post processing, which BTW, I stink at! I’m sick to death of oversaturated, HDR’d, sharpened to a crips photographs

      V

  4. Thank you David for expounding on the quote. I have shared with my photography friends near and far!
    Virginia

  5. Hi David.
    Most of the time I think for myself that, I must be crazy, because I fell I am the only one with a certain point of view but then I read an post like this and…light for my eyes, music for my hears and hot for my hearth…thanks David

  6. Hey David – the entire thing above sounded so much like a resonating music. We all know its been said and done in past but hardly we get to see people amateurs and pro’s alike who fail to realize that images are more than just sensor/glass/etc Its not just the photographer even viewers have started to interpret images based on sharpness than the visual or emotional content of the image.
    Not sure how sooner if we will ever come out of this zone.
    Great thoughts and very nicely put down in words. Thanks for sharing it with all of us.

    Shiv

  7. Inspiring – thank you for taking the time to offer a sound and clear perspective on the camera versus ‘insight’ debate – from an amateur.

  8. I am happy with your wonderful words look good when I read what you write.

  9. Hey David,

    Another interesting post! Your words are concise and really ring true to the art of creation. The final print is the final print, really doesn’t matter what technique or pixel count or lack of pixel count is stored in the ink on paper, or the silver gelatin on paper, or the collodion/chloride on paper, albumin on paper, etc… It is all about the image held in hand and what it does or does not do for the person holding the image. Seems the goal should be anchored int the act of vision the photographer has when the image is created….

    What an absolute fantastic time it is to be a photographer! Never been better!

    Best,

    Craig

  10. Well said!
    I think this is a result of the materialistic and competitive society we live today. Wheter is your camera, cell phone or car, people seem to compete all the time.
    As you said, a picture to be really good, awesome, must tell a storie, be pleasant and beautiful to watch…
    Nice article!
    Regards,
    Rodrigo Feistauer

  11. You claim that technical issues do matter… but in the same breath say that they will never make a good photograph. I interpret this argument as a proposal that one side of the equation is more valid than the other. While your theory appears to be weighted toward impact and emotion as the more important elements of a photograph, I’ll make a case for technical perfection. Technical qualities of a landscape photograph certainly do impact my response. A properly sharpened landscape image does stir something emotionally in me, partly because it is done well so infrequently, and mainly because that is the inherent aspect of photography which separates itself from other art forms. The difference between a camera and paint brush is the capacity of the lens to see details from a distance that the human eye can not.

    Granted, sensor resolution beyond a certain point does not matter, depending on the size that you like to view your prints. But sensor size and technical flaws which are so pervasive in digital photography – I’m talking about things such as halos, chromatic-aberration, over-sharpening, under-sharpening, etc. – are different issues. You seem to lump all of those technical flaws into the category of “sharpness is over-rated.” However, those same technical issues effect the viewer’s appreciation of image detail, and image detail defines much of what produces a good photograph. Same as lighting, exposure, and composition emphasize the details of a good photograph. One of my big goals with photography is for the viewer to respond by recognizing something about the subject in my image that he had never noticed before… the texture and decaying parts of an old rusted farm implement, for example. For the image to have meaning and impact, I would argue that the details have to be successfully managed, or we get into all sorts of complaints about distractions and misunderstood intentions by the artist. And, as previously stated, the technical merits influence our perception of detail.

    Consider this: How many people appreciate good handwriting any more? Or strong grammar skills? It’s too easy to say “you know what I mean” in order to justify sloppy handwriting and terrible communication skills. Writing and photography are two sides of the same coin. Would you not get tired of reading a book if it was riddled with spelling and punctuation mistakes? The same holds true in photography if the image is fraught with technical flaws. You say that this concept is “assumed” among your readers. I’m not so sure. I suspect the majority of your readers want to hear that technical issues aren’t really all that important because post-processing skills are difficult and tedious to master. I’d guess that for most aspiring photographers, it’s a lot easier, and a lot more fun, to dream of our audience responding with a collective “wow, what a fantastic picture,” than go cross-eyed staring at pixels.

    I do not disagree that a greater sense of imagination would help all of our images. But in a digital world where nearly everyone is a photographer, a truly creative photograph is hard to find. Photographers travel the globe searching for something never seen before. Today, it’s Iceland and Antarctica, tomorrow it will be the moon. But other than changing the elements, we’re generally just swapping foreground, middle ground and background, over and over again. Even the most widely recognized photographers in the world continue to produce images that give me the feeling that I’ve seen something just like them somewhere before. That doesn’t make them bad images… it just makes me wonder if the objective of extracting an emotional response from the viewer is over-rated. Maybe the only thing we can control is our own emotional response… and, of course, the technical merits of our photograph.

  12. Five years ago, I made a pilgrimage to Galen and Barbara Rowell’s Mountain Light Gallery in Bishop California. I had the great good fortune to hire Galen to do photography for a publication celebrating the 20th anniversary of the University of California’s Natural Reserve System — http;//nrs.ucop.edu. In the field with him, he was a stickler for technical excellence, and he used a tripod for virtually all of his images (except for his climbs) to wring the maximum quality from his lenses.

    And, yet, when I toured his gallery, I was struck by the softness of his enlarged prints relative to what our digital technology can achieve today. Clearly, this did not impede Galen’s career advancement or tarnish his reputation. He was a master at producing emotionally powerful images, and he could be a master story teller, especially in his images documenting his climbing expeditions. His images from the dark interiors of monasteries and nomad’s tents are not tack sharp, but they remain very powerful and moving.

    David is right on the money. Pay attention to good technique, but don’t be a slave to it. For more on Galen Rowell, check out: Galen Rowell, A Retrospective (2008)
    http://www.amazon.com/Galen-Rowell-Editors-Sierra-Books/dp/1578051592/

  13. Thanks for saying so clearly what matters most in an image.

  14. I agree, to a certain degree. But i couldn’t respond more cogently than Ed Kunzelman has.

    Isn’t it wonderful when technical mastery is combined with extraordinary vision?

    1. Yes, but I think the whole point here is that “gear heads” almost always miss the “Big Picture.” A fabulous image is fabulous whether technically perfect or not, heck, what is “technically perfect” anyway, aesthetics are so much more important when it comes to communication than every freckle on a person’s face.

      1. Your statement “A fabulous image is fabulous whether technically perfect or not,” is simply false as Ed Kunzelman has explained. Both technical excellence and a vision are required.

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  16. The reviewer’s lament: We got gear for this and gear for that. We got software for this and plugins for that. We got tripods and we got ballheads. We got glass and we got sharpness. We got backups and we got fast cards. What we don’t got is something to put on the print.

    Crap remains crap no matter how sharp it gets. It amazes me that so many people are happy to spend tens of thousands of Dollars on equipment, but when you suggest that they come out on safari they consider it an impossible expense.

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  18. So well said. Points I am always reminded of when walking through an art museum and examining the photography on display. Those wonderful works would fail many a pixel peeper’s test, yet remain pinnacles of photographic artistry. Tonight, I’m planning to join my local photography group for some street photography. I’m taking a very old Canon film camera plus a Holga plastic lens. Nothing I photograph will be sharp, but hopefully some will be pleasingly atmospheric and evocative.

  19. Well said, Unfortunately you are preaching to the choir, i.e., your fan base. I hope this message gets re-blogged so that a broader audience sees it. Especially those who may just be “gearing up” (pun intended) to take their photography to the next level.

  20. Its been tough differentiating good and bad photography and sharpness as you mention has always been key. good photography indeed is not all about sharpness but what the photo offers. am glad you have cleared that doubt in me because i have always considered good photography by what the photo has to offer and not really about sharpness.

  21. As with most professional photographers, I find myself being overly critical of my own work at times. And in the past few years, the main self-criticism is that I don’t think the image is crisp/sharp enough.

    Which is entirely wrong. I forget to notice if the look on someone’s face is beautiful, or if their smile is shining out of their eyes or if the shot is perfectly lit or framed.

    All I see is that it’s not as gloriously ‘hi-def’ as it would be if I had the multi-thousand dollar lenses and gear I can’t afford as a working artist.

    Your post reminded me that photography isn’t about how sharp the lines are, it’s about what the lines embody and mean.

    Thank you!

  22. Perfectly timed reshare of this topic as I head off to lead a group of fellow photographers in a program on ‘seeing’, all camera types allowed, no edits allowed until the end, nothing overly technical about it, only time spent being in the moments, seeing their surroundings, looking at the world in a new way and hopefully being able to open up their visions of the world and share new stories from that. Thank you!

  23. I think that the part that’s harder to explain is the “art” part — how to make an image that emotionally connects with the viewer. The technical part is important, but it’s not the thing that makes a great image.

    I am reminded of a meeting I attended with my daughter at a university that has a great film school (not her focus). Folks (mostly parents of potential applicants) kept asking about portfolios, what to put in them, etc. Finally, the person answering put “an end” to that line of questioning by saying, “yes, those are important. But if you really want to shine, write a story. We can teach anyone how to run a camera, an edit machine, etc. But the real skill in film making is the story & how you tell it. That’s the art.” (Paraphrased)

    I think that that relates to the art of photography. Most folks with sufficient determination or motivation can get the technical details correct. But many of us still struggle with making images that (consistently) connect with our audience. Megapixels, firmware versions, new sensors nothwithstanding.

  24. I guess those who emphasise more on technical abilities are those who want to quantify how ‘advanced’ they are compared to their peer. These are the people who see flaws in a photo first before asking what’s the photographer trying to say. Love reading your thoughts. When in doubt read any your posts and I start to feel wise.

  25. WOW! Totally love this post! I especially love these lines “Humanity doesn’t need more sharpness. That is not one of the things for which we hunger. We hunger for beauty, and meaning, for stories, and for love.”

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