Technical Versus Artistic Issues

It appears that an internal debate has always existed within photographers about the relative importance of learning technical aspects or learning artistic aspects. Most lean toward the technical, feeling that they have a handle on the artistic side, but lack the technical proficiency or expertise to produce truly good photographs. This is especially true of digital users who almost invariably conclude that if they can just nail down all the tools of Photoshop or get the latest app they will become great photographers. But most ignore the basic issues of understanding light, composition and, perhaps most importantly, the subject matter that truly means something to them in their search for photographic greatness. Without those basic understandings, they won’t make much progress, no matter how proficient they become with the tools. Furthermore, most photographers today seem to equate a photograph that’s tack-sharp with a good photograph, but that’s not the case. Ansel Adams once noted that, “There is nothing as useless as a sharp photograph of a fuzzy concept.” He was right. Sharpness shows a superbly manufactured and well-focused lens, but nothing more. By itself, it does not indicate a great photograph.

The artistic part includes the true understanding of light, because the only thing that film or digital sensors record is light levels, so it’s the only real tool for photography. It also includes the understanding of composition: the relationships of lines and forms and colors within the image area. And it includes the imagination to transform the scene in front of the camera (which the photographer generally finds but rarely creates) to the image that you show to others (which is purely the photographer’s creation).

It turns out that the technical and the artistic are integrally connected, with each drawing upon and supporting the other. As a quick example, suppose a photograph was made with exquisite lighting (either indoor, with controlled lighting, or outdoors with ambient lighting), and with magnificent relationships among the various forms within the image, and with excellent imagination that transforms the scene into an insightful photographic image, but the printing of the image is awful…perhaps it’s much too high or low in contrast, or much too light or dark, or the manipulations used to achieve the final print are blatant and obvious…than all of the artistic values are lost.

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New Thoughts On Digital Photography

Let me start by saying that after nearly 50 years of film photography — primarily large format 4x5 — I have been shooting digital imagery for the past ten years, and I’ve been processing digital imagery for three of my books:  “Art of Photography” “Plateaus and Canyons”and “Essence of Photography”. So, at this point I feel I’m qualified to discuss both digital and traditional photography with some degree of understanding of both. I should also admit that while I have quite a bit of experience with digital, I do not consider myself an expert, but a competent user.

There are several basic points I wish to emphasize in this article. The first is that traditional photography carries a host of powerful tools in its tool chest that are neither diminished nor superseded by digital. Second, digital has its own powerful tools. Third, both have limitations, but there are problems with the misuse of digital teaching and methods that should be recognized and openly discussed along with digital’s many attributes.

There is nothing about digital photography that forces lack of thinking, but there is much about digital photography that encourages it. You can grab the camera, point it at a scene and shoot almost immediately. Then you can look and even delete if you’re not satisfied. Not much thinking involved there. Having started using digital after nearly 40 years of traditional 4x5” film camera usage where I learned to carefully compose each image before exposing a negative, I find it hard to make an exposure — a so-called digital “capture” — without doing at least an initial quick assessment of some basic compositional elements within the scene...and also give thought to the quality of light before pressing the shutter. Unfortunately I see far too little of that from most digital users, especially those who have learned photography with digital equipment. Many seem so eager to “get it” (i.e., the picture) that they have no thought, whatsoever, to the elements of photographic art that could make it relevant. Thought can — and should — be injected into the digital process right from the start.

After 25+ years of development digital photography is still relatively new, yet some fine work has already been produced. Traditional photography has been around for more than 180 years, and extraordinary work has been produced by hundreds of greats, including Kertesz, Adams, Weston (both Brett and Edward), Cunningham, Emerson, Sudek, Mark, Uelsmann, Salgado, Porter, Sander, Haas, Caponigro, Cartier-Bresson, Riis, and many, many others. We can expect fine work in the future from both approaches.

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