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I was invited to give a talk recently at a local nature photography club. I asked what topics they were most interested in, as well as suggesting what I thought would be most beneficial. My experience has been that talks on a philosophy and approach to photography provide greater lasting benefit than any specific technique or how-to. Maybe that’s just my opinion, but it’s what I believe.

“What we’d really like is a talk on how to take a mundane photograph and turn it into a great one,” the clubs president said. “How would you process an image to achieve this? You know, we don’t always get the perfect conditions, so how can we ‘enhance’ the image to really make it really spectacular?”

My initial excitement about the invitation quickly faded. “Uh, that’s a tough one…I’m…um…not actually sure I qualify to talk about that,” I said, half astonished yet not surprised. “Maybe I’m old school, but I think it’s far better to get a great shot in camera. Then you’ve got something you can really interpret afterwards. You know the old saying, garbage in, garbage out.”

He looked at me somewhat disappointed and said, “Sure but there’s so much you can do now in the computer, and many members have been asking for techniques to make their average shots look great. If you can, let me know and we’ll schedule you in.”

“Ok” I said, “ uh…thanks for the offer and trust, I’ll let you know if I come up with something.”

Of course I knew it would be highly unlikely I would. That’s not how I approach photography, or any other creative act for that matter. In fact it’s just not how I approach life in general. Shortcuts, quick and instant gratification, and a false premise about goals that leaves out the most important question. Why?

“Art is best done all in, as if everything is on the line. When the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you know you’ve commited to whatever it is you make.”
– Seth Godin

Why do you photograph? If it’s to take a mundane image and turn into a great one using software, then I suggest you re-evaluate your motivations. Otherwise, you may not be able to stay inspired long enough to enjoy the true benefits and rewards of photography. Landscape photography is hard, difficult to make progress beyond the initial stages when you realize it all looks the same, and takes almost superhuman amounts of patience and perseverance.

I haven’t even mentioned the word “master.” Perhaps there’s no need to. Once you “master” something where else is there to go? It’s the process of doing that makes us wise, not the achievement of anything spectacular.

Don’t look for shortcuts, learn to be ok with who you are and where you are.

“If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you.” – Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

As always, thanks for reading, and I’d love to get your feedback and perspective.

RR Jr

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. I think you have a topic for them. However, you may not want to introduce it as “garbage in, garbage out.” But, you can go through how you believe it should be done, and why the approach to trying to correct a bag image later on the computer doesn’t work.

    1. Hi J, thanks for the feedback. By “garbage in, garbage out” I don’t mean it literally, but rather as the idea that only when you start with the best ingredients can you then really create something special. I’m all for post-processing, and interpreting the image afterwards, no different than what Ansel Adams did with “Monnrise Over Hernandez”. Perhaps I’m referring more to the prevailing attitude these days that images are created in post, and responsible for what we see as the “final” version.

      Thanks for your perspective!

      RR

  2. Robert,

    Good thoughts. There is no quick fix. How often do we try to work on photograph for hours, changing things such as contrast, cropping, and the like, and still in the end, it does not work? Yes, some images can be saved, and some can be improved, but for the best images, so much is in the original capture, and then the editing and selection. We want them to all be great, but failures can also help us get better in our attempts, work, and why it does not quite make it.

    I saw the contact print and the instructions for printing Moonrise over Hernandez at the Eastman House in Rochester once. It was over nine separate steps in the darkroom, with flashing the print, burning in, dodging, filters, and other work only a master printer could perform. But the difference is the negative had the raw information in it (exposure and detail) that could be extracted even in a wet darkroom.

    Many can learn to make a technically great print. Few can learn how to express the content and feeling in the print. David Vestal once reviewed my black and white prints as well as my daughters. He liked my prints on a technical level. He found my daughter’s images much more interesting. But I keep trying.

  3. Great post, Robert. I don’t know of any great landscape photographer that hasn’t put in the time to photograph in the field. Those people are too focused on getting pretty results rather than developing an appreciation for the art.

    1. Hi Richard, thanks so much for the positive feedback, and apologies for not responding sooner. I’m currently in Acadia National Park teaching a workshop, so my online time is limited as you might imagine. You summarized my post perfectly in one sentence, I wish it were so easy to get others to see, but I’m trying.

      RR

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