the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

SKETCHPAD PSYCH

St.Xavier Central HDR_2

A 2012 HDR mix of five bracketed exposures, my attempt to rescue additional detail from the dark areas.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

HAVING BEEN AN ILLUSTRATOR LONGER THAN I HAVE BEEN A PHOTOGRAPHER, I have long since learned to live with “the gap”, that unbridgeable space in the arc of creation between conception and execution. We’d love our art to be a closed loop, with an unbroken line from our original idea to our final product, but that gap, that realm of uncertainty and unrealized dreams, is stubborn, and keeps the circle from completely closing. In pencilling a notion on a sketchpad, I had to become resigned to the fact that, once I began inking the pencil lines, something indefinable would be lost in translation.

Being okay with the gap has kept me sane in the making of photographs.

Regardless of our training, practice, equipment or eye, we can never deliver images that fulfill 100% of our dreams. We work like mad over a lifetime to make the gap smaller, and in our best moments we nearly manage it. Ironically, it’s the pictures with the bigger gaps that really get our attention and sharpen our perception. The raw, gnawing irritation of knowing exactly how we failed is the only road to better images. Like an illustrator, we enter into a lifetime “sketchpad psych”, an acceptance that the devices we use to extend our senses (brushes, cameras, etc.) will never perform to perfection. Some of this is because, maddeningly, our internal conception of our own original ideas is never actually “finished”.

Up The Aisle EF

Same five images, remixed in 2022 with an exposure fusion process. 

These two images, both blended from five bracketed exposures, from super-dark to super-bright, were “mixed” a decade apart. Now, beyond the fact that, given modern tech’s more sophisticated ability to record wild swings in contrast,  I probably would not even approach the master shot in the same way today, it’s sobering to realize how much my conception of “correct” processing has shifted in a mere ten years. The top take is classic HDR, very heavy on the details, along with the slightly garish color palette and overall brassiness of that process. The bottom version is done with the same software, but using exposure fusion. A lighter tone over all, one that’s absent the micro-fine particles of things like woodgrain or wall texture. The first process changes everything in the picture all at once, while the second gives you a bit more control over individual elements, along with the option of understatement.

Both versions have their points, but in classic sketchpad psych, neither is a complete rendering of what I saw in the moment, but rather, an artfully constructed compromise. Some days, close is as close as you can get. The only cure is to turn over the page on the sketchpad and start drawing again. Here the graphic artist and the photographer can agree on the same two-word mantra: next time.

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