Occasionally at art festivals a visitor to my booth will point to one of my photographs and ask, “Is that what your camera saw?” This question points out a common misunderstanding about the physics and art of photography.
Those of us who are serious about our photography capture our digital images in RAW file format. That’s a format that does a minimal amount of processing on the image before it saves it to the memory card. It is more like what the camera sees.
The other format is JPEG and is not what the camera sees but rather a highly processed image that is controlled to a large extent by the settings the photographer sets in the camera – settings like sharpness, contrast and saturation. So if the photographer likes saturation he just has to up the saturation setting in the camera.
JPEG is much closer to the photographs that were captured in the wonderful days of film. Each different type of file had its own unique way of responding to the scene. Kodachrome film was great for reds while Ektachrome was perfect for blues. Fujichrome was prized for its treatment of greens and its high contrast.
So what did the film camera see? The question is really, “What did the film see?” Was it a faithful documentation of reality? Not in the least. The same can be said for JPEG digital files. They are no more a faithful documentation of reality than film was.
The fact is, RAW files are closer to what the camera saw than film or JPEG files ever were or will be. And, as one workshop participant put it to me, “I don’t like shooting in RAW because the photographs are so plain and uninteresting.” There you go. What the camera sees, exactly what the camera sees, is often plain and uninteresting.
So the physics of digital images captured in RAW format is that the images are the closest to what the camera sees. But from an artistic point of view, these images generally do not speak to us. These are documentation but that’s not art; art is interpretation.
Now, a RAW file is the perfect starting point from which to create art. It is neutral, unbiased and open to the artist to express what she saw, what she experienced that inspired her to set up the camera and compose the image, that led to the decisive moment that the shutter was pressed.
In the days of film we relied on our selection of the type of film that would do the best job of rendering particular situations. In the digital era we have much more powerful tools that we ever had with film – Lightroom, Photoshop, Photomatix and all the wonderful software that we have access to that allows us to express our vision, our interpretation of reality.
So, are my photographs what the camera saw? Not at all. They are what I saw.
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Tags: art, contrast, documentation, fine art, interpretation, JPEG, memory card, photography, RAW, reality, saturation, sharpness, vision, workshop
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What’s on your mind?
I’ve been thinking about ‘fine art.’
You’ve got to be kidding. I mean there are PhDs that study this sort of thing, masters of the arts that won’t touch the topic. What makes you think you can think about ‘fine art?’
I don’t know. I just wonder about it. I’m trying to be an artist and I wonder what it all means, if I’m truly an artist or if I’m getting any closer.
Ok, you’re a photographer, aren’t you? So you must be thinking about fine art photography. You must be nuts! Nobody agrees on what fine art photography is.
Yea, fine art photography, that’s it. What do you think? Do you have any ideas of what it really is? I mean I’ve heard people say that if you want your photography to be art all you have to do is to call it art and it is so. ‘My photographs are fine art.’ Lord knows you hear that enough. But that seems a bit too simplistic, a bit too easy. It seems like it should be more than that. I mean, can you snap a picture, run down to Costco to get a large print and call it art?
Continue reading “A Conversation about Fine Art” »
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“Did you manipulate your photograph?” “Did you use a filter?” “Do you use a Mac?” “Do you crop your images?” “I’ll have a nicer day than you; I’m not shooting a Canon.” Yes, someone actually said that to me at Bridal Vale Falls in the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon in response to my cheery, “Have a nice day.” I guess when you take the entire population of photographers you will always find those that are prejudiced and closed minded just like any other population. They think they are right and anyone that disagrees with them is wrong. It’s that simple.
The current issue of Lenswork magazine, the premier journal for black and white photography, has an article by guest contributor Jim Kasson titled “Previsualization in the Digital Age.” I couldn’t wait to read it. In my workshops and lectures I’ve always advocated that an artist interprets reality and communicates that interpretation through her or his art. In landscape photography I’ve encouraged our workshop attendees to leave their camera gear in the car until they connect with a location and only then set up their cameras to try to capture what is is they are experiencing. Previsualization, the anticipation of what the finished work will look like, is a big part of communicating what you are feeling.
Continue reading “Taking Your Photography to the Next Level” »
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Brooks Jensen published a very provocative article in the current issue of Lenswork. He delves into a topic that I’ve thought about ever since I first picked up a digital camera. It relates to the question of whether or not it is OK to manipulate photographs. I’ve always contended that it is not only OK but, at least for the kind of photography I do, it is required. The photographs I create reflect my interpretation of the natural world around us. Therefore, their subjects and contents are going to reflect something of me.
Jensen goes several steps farther by identifying three major types of photography – Documentary, Personal Narrative and Imaginative. Jensen describes Documentary photography as telling “someone else’s story.” What a great way of describing it. Clearly, then, in documentary photography, the photographer strives to be as true to the subject as possible and minimize or eliminate his or her own coloration or bias. The goal is total objectivity.
Continue reading “What Else Things Are” »
Tags: imagination, landscape, manipulation, photography, reality, Workshops
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