the photoshooter's journey from taking to making


When additional detail needs to be extracted from shadows and from the texture of materials, HDR (High Dynamic Range) is a great solution. This shot of the entrance to the New York Public Library is a three-exposure bracket composited in Photomatix. Is this process great for all images of the same subject? See a different approach below….


SOMETIMES I LOSE MY WAY, CREATIVELY. Given that cameras are technical devices and not creative entities, we all do. We have been given, in today’s market, wonderful aids to seeing and interpreting what we consider noteworthy. Technological advances are surging so swiftly in the digital era that we are being given scads of pre-packaged effects that are baked into the brains of our cameras, ideally designed to help us calculate and fail less, succeed and create more. To that end, we are awash in not only genuinely beneficial shortcuts like programmable white balance and facial recognition, but “miniature”, sketch, selective desaturation, and, recently, in-camera HDR options as well. Something of a tipping point is occurring in all this, and maybe you feel it as strongly as I do; more and more of our output feels like the camera, the toys, the gimmicks are dictating what gets shot, and what it finally looks like.

Here’s the nugget in all this: I have been wrestling with HDR as both a useful enhancer and a seductive destroyer for about three years now. Be assured that I am no prig who sees the technique as unworthy of “pure” photography. Like the old masters of burning and dodging, multiple exposure, etc., I believe that, armed with a strong concept, you use whatever tool it takes to get the best result. And when it comes to rescuing details in darker patches, crisping up details in certain materials like brick and stone, and gently amplifying color intensity, HDR can be a marvelous tool. Where it becomes like crack is in coming to seem as if it is the single best gateway to a fully realized image. That is wrong, and I have more than a few gooey Elvis-on-black-velvet paintings that once had a chance to be decent pictures, before they were deep-fried in the conceptual Crisco of bad HDR. Full disclosure: I also have a few oh-wow HDR images which delivered the range of tone and detail that I honestly believe would have been beyond my reach with a conventional exposure. The challenge, as always, is in not using the same answer to every situation, and also to avoid using an atomic bomb to swat a fly.

Same library, different solution: I could have processed this in HDR in an attempt to pluck additional detail from the darker areas, but after agonizing over it, I decided to leave well enough alone. The exposure was a lucky one over a wide range of light, and it’s close enough to what I saw without fussing it to death and perhaps making it appear over-baked. 1/30 sec., f/6.3, ISO 320, 18mm.

Recently, I am looking at more pictures that are not, in essence, flawless, and asking, how much solution do I need here? How much do I want people to swoon over my processing prowess versus what I am trying to say? As a consequence, I find that images that I might have reflexively processed in HDR just a few weeks ago, are now agonized over a bit longer, with me often erring on the side of whatever “flaws” may be in the originals. Is there any crime in leaving in a bit more darkness here, a slight blowout in light there, if the overall result feels more organic, or dare I say, more human? Do we have to banish all the mystery in a shot in some blind devotion to uniformity or prettiness?

I know that it was the camera, and not me, that actually “took” the picture, but I have to keep reminding myself to invest as much of my own care and precision ahead of clicking the shutter, not merely relying on the super-toys of the age to breathe life into something, after the fact, that I, in the taking, could not do myself. I’m not swearing off of any one technique, but I always come back to the same central rule of the best kind of photography; do all your best creative work before the snap. Afterwards, all your best efforts are largely compensation, compromise, and clean-up.

It’s already a divine photographic truth that some of the best pictures of all time are flawed, imperfect, incomplete. That’s why you go back, Jack, and do it again.

The journey is as important as the destination, maybe more so.



2 responses

  1. aldraggin

    have been struggling with imagery through photography and video for some fifty years give or take, and have read and practiced a variety of processes and workflows during that time. overall, i resent and reject the faddish tools that overshadow what is for me the goal of all this study and effort – to be able to create an image that resonates with other human beings. while the seeming vitality of some hdr images, reminiscent for me of van gogh imagery, is an occasional delight, few stay with me very long. on the other hand, the overwhelming impact of chiaroscuro, with it’s majestic and mysterious darks and brights, continues to delight my inner sensory world even to this day. little detail here, rather the interplay of strong values to create form and vigor, enen when still. i still experience a joy and a thrilling sensation as i recall karsh portraits, pre-color movies, and nineteenth century photographs (not pix), which were COMPOSED and not ‘shot’ as in a modern burst of images from modern digital machines. yes, i must admit i am old school, and my voice, along with contemporaries, will sooner or a bit later, fade from the collective consciousness. all that said, i am delighted to hear of your continuing awareness of yourself as you view the world……through your camera.

    September 13, 2012 at 2:07 PM

  2. This sounds identical to the debate I have had with myself over the years. I love what you said about Otto Karsh. The first radio station I ever worked at (that was my profession for years) had one of his portraits in the lobby, as the head of our small network of stations, a former Truman cabinet member, had had his portrait taken by Karsh. It inspired me to research his work, and so he was one of the first photographers I located mentally within the confines of a “style”. One thing I have learned over a lifetime, and that is that it’s every musician to his own instrument. We have all seen amateurs produce stunning work with primitive cameras, just as we see people push the parameters of the possible with advanced gear. The only telltale sign of fakery is when you can see someone hiding inside a technique, as if it will protect him from detection as a meager talent. It never really works. Thanks for inspiring me. You have struggled to remain an honest mind.

    September 13, 2012 at 3:27 PM

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