Creativity in an Ocean of Tech

I'm just back from the April edition of Photoshop World #PSW in Atlanta Georgia.  This was my fourth Photoshop World and I heard some very different messages from what I have heard in the past.  Posting what I was hearing to Google Plus engendered some "interesting" replies, some positive, some highly negative, and that, in addition to the pushing by my shooting buddy Isabel, has prompted the writing of this article. Photography is, or can be, very technical.  As a founder of a camera club, I constantly hear about concerns for what settings were used for a particular shot.  As an educator, I am frequently asked, what the right aperture or shutter speed is for a particular situation.  As a reviewer of photography and video products, I am asked which is better, or best.

I've struggled with this for a long time.  I can teach technique or explain the physics of light or help people "get" the exposure triangle, but I have been troubled by the tech-centricity of what I see in our photographic world.  Manufacturers assault us with techno-babble, megapixels, focus zones, patterns and rates.  All interesting I suppose and perhaps helpful in a purchase decision but not really relevant to your execution of your craft.

I heard very clearly from photographers and educators that I respect a great deal that basically settings don't matter.  In a one on one, an internationally respected photographer bluntly told me that studying someone else's EXIF was more harm than good.  These messages fly in the face of what many say, and I see educators placing a lot of emphasis on these things, and yet their students are not coming away less frustrated or as better photographers.  If all this stuff is so important, why are these aspiring photographers so unhappy?

When I look at the work that inspired me, and the photographers that created these images, I don't see the settings, I see the final art.  Sharp or soft focus, deep or shallow depth of field, motion blur or not, all these things go to create the story, the character and the emotion of the photograph.  I don't know what settings Eisenstadt used to make the photograph of the skating waiter from Switzerland, and in the end, they don't matter.  What matters is the story that the photograph tells about the time, the place and the culture.  When the world gasped at Steve McCurry's photograph of the Afghan girl as shown on the cover of National Geographic, no one cared about the exposure data.  (It's not published but I am pretty sure it was shot on Kodachrome 64).  What captured the eye was the story, or the framework for the story the viewer created for him or herself based on the facial expression.

Let me make this clear.  Settings matter in so far as they assist you to take a sharp, well-exposed picture.  But having done this for over forty years, you and I know that there are lots of exposure options that will get us a well-exposed picture.  We also know that getting  important subjects sharp is not all that hard, it's been done for well over a century.  Those are table stakes.  You don't get to play the game without them.  A friend of mine does online mentoring.  One of his exercises forces the student to put the camera in Full Auto or Program mode.  Lots of his students feel like their hands are tied.  At first.  My friend Gabriel jokes that the P stands for Photographer.  It doesn't but I suspect that in the minds of the manufacturer's rep it stands for "decent Picture".  Creativity is not forged in knowing your settings or your EXIF, it is only forged in experimentation, in spending time seeing as opposed to playing with dials and buttons.

In my composition classes, I teach the principles of composition.  We all know at least one, typically the Rule of Thirds.  It's not a rule because it's unenforceable, but it is a framework to start from and when all else fails, if you use it, at least your composition has a chance of being interesting.  I find it fascinating when I hear so called educators tell folks who are working to develop their compositional eye, that the rules are there to be broken, so go so far as to add only when you understand the rules can you break them but the general message is that these artistic guides are really worthless and that unfocused rebellion makes for better images.  This is, as you might expect, a crock of poop.

Composition rules will not create your compositional eye.  You won't learn to see solely by following the rules of composition, but they will help you to get away from plopping everything dead centre and you may in fact find that the rules help you build compositions that foster your creative mien rather than restrain it.

There's a big difference between taking a picture and making a photograph, as much as the difference between scribbling with a pencil on a napkin and painting oil on canvas.  The difference is what Canadian great Freeman Patterson calls "Seeing".  Others refer to the process as perceiving.  I don't care what you call it, that is considerably less relevant than that you do it.  I've made photographs where viewers have said "but is that what was really there?"  My answer is "that's what I saw".  The two are not necessarily the same thing.  A made photograph has emotion, a framework, a story.  It's not just visual, you can smell the waves or the flowers, you can hear the wind in the trees, you can feel the sunlight on your face.  I read of an impressionist painter who said he painted music.  And for him, he did.

When I see, I see the potential for finished work, not just what is in the viewfinder.  While I work hard to get things right in camera, I choose to include the digital darkroom as an integral part of my creative process.  The digital darkroom is not where I correct mistakes, although I have done so, it's really where I complete the image.  Just like you, I've encountered people who call the digital darkroom dishonest or fake.  Photoshopping is now a verb, rarely used in positive context, yet if you are really embracing creative experimentation, it's another tool in your creative arsenal.  I've been part of conversations where I hear work described as having been "Nik'd" meaning unduly processed in the Nik suite.  I like the Nik tools but they aren't an end in themselves, they're just a tool and when they are applied the same way to every picture, they aren't helping.  That's not creative it's brute repetition.  Now some would argue that "it's workflow".  I don't see this since by their nature, every image is its own, so how could the same post processing apply to everything the same?   As a creative person, do you reduce every picture you take to effectively hitting it with the same stupid Instagram treatment?

Creativity is colour, and lines and shadows.  It's perspective and perception.  A razor sharp picture of a statue seen from the standing position is evidence, not art.  If all you see is that sharp statue at eye level, feel free to take a picture of it, but that's not making a photograph.

Great photographs aren't great because of shutter speed, or aperture, or ISO or lens or camera.  Those are all just tools and can be used well or poorly by the tool holder.  A great photograph is made.  It answers questions.  I have taken thousands of pictures and so have you where you look at them and go "uh huh, nice, um why did I take this?"  We have to agree to ask the questions up front before banging out 12 frames per second.  Why am I pressing the shutter?  What story do I want to remember?  What story would I like viewers to see?  What message am I trying to send?  What's the relevance of this moment?  Why does it matter?  Who cares or will care about the subject?

To grow as photographers we need to be able to answer these questions and many more.  And, contrary to the proselytizers of "community" and "social" and a bunch of similar and ultimately meaningless buzzwords, the only answer that really matters is your own.  If you are out there trying to make photographs to please others, sorry kiddo, you're doing it wrong.  If you feel sick to your stomach because you haven't posted anything to the social network du jour, stop making yourself sick.  Vivian Maier is now recognized as one of the greatest street photographers of the last century.  She made photographs for her pleasure first and only.  We would never have seen them at all had someone else not discovered them after her passing and had a "oh wow" moment.  She never wanted to "share" or "post"  She was the most honest kind of artist, the kind that doesn't care what someone else thinks.  Would she be pleased to learn how much her work has done for viewers?  I have no idea. My guess is that it wouldn't matter all that much to her.

So let's suppose that growing as an artist and enhancing your craft is important to you.  What do you do?   Look at other photographer's work.  Examine what you like and don't like.  You're right.  Learn to see by asking yourself every day what exactly you see.  You'll be thrilled to learn that you see much more than what is there.  Stop chasing the daily theme on the social network and being driven to post on some bogatz community where the end in mind is not to foster art but to sell you something.  Don't get hung up on settings and EXIF and the latest gewgaw.  Ask the hard questions before you press the shutter.  BUT PRESS THE SHUTTER.  And the only way that really works is if you always have a camera with you.  Certainly to take pictures, but sometimes to step across the line, and to make a photograph.

If there's no emotional commotion, it's not a photograph.