POTD: Seeing the wood from the trees

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Fog. La Tania, Les Trois Vallees, France.

As ever, there’s a moral to this story. Look at the above image.

Suppose I tagged it ‘shot with the first preproduction Leica M10’ – there would be soaring traffic, minute discussion, questions over grain and image quality, people wondering why I didn’t upload a full size image, others gushing over the lens sharpness…etc.

Now suppose I left it as is, i.e. with caption only and no camera info – it would be seen as an image only, and merits judged accordingly – commensurate to the subject, composition and technique. (I like the image very much, but then again I clearly suffer from personal bias.)

Consider a third scenario. The truth: the image was shot in 2005, with a Nikon D2H – a camera that was already perceived as being under-specced noisy technology at the time of its release, with a mere 4MP and ISO 1600 that had to be used with extreme caution. Does it make it any less of an image? I should think not; if anything, the fact that it was possible to capture this tough scene – it was dark, extremely foggy and low in contrast – the camera focused cleanly on the trees at f2, with one of Nikon’s sharp but frequently miscalibrated DC lenses (in the days before AF fine tune) – should say something. The tonal range was also pretty challenging; frankly, at the time I remember being amazed that there was anything there at all, other than a white mess. If I reshot this today with a D800, would it be better? Better technically, yes. Better compositionally, I doubt it. The camera doesn’t influence that part of the image making process.

Forget what other people think: what would you think of the image in each one of those three scenarios?

Moral of the story: it really doesn’t matter what camera you use. Get over the gear lust: cameras are tools; some work better than others for a given purpose – know your tools, select the right ones, and that should be the end of equipment masturbation. Ultimately, it’s the sack of meat behind the viewfinder that makes the difference, not the metal. MT

Print announcement

Starting today, all of the current and past POTD images will be available as a limited edition (maximum 20) 13×19″ numbered and signed fine art print at US$300 delivered by courier anywhere in the world; please contact me for details.

Comments

  1. Robert Stark says:

    No, you are not being selfish in “selecting and editing” out from the chaos in order to distill “the beauty and the simplicity anywhere you look.” Quite the opposite as you are showing the way to the beauty that is there and giving pleasure to others as they pause and reflect upon your images. Thank you for that.

    My brother lives in Tokyo so I am aware of what you say about the pervasive spread of pseudo capitalism and the vulgarity of mass consumption/deception where oddly so many people (even very well “educated” and successful professionals) are convinced to buy and display (and eat) things that are dreadful and against their best interests. Aesthetically speaking, how many people wear “fashionable” clothes in which their particular bodies look quite ugly? Eating foul and harmful food is an even more serious problem — and, for you, a food photographer, even an aesthetic one. Critical thinking is at a low ebb.

    Robert

    • I think perhaps it goes one step further than that: society as a whole is so busy seeking instant gratification that people will do anything to make themselves feel good about their purchases, which includes perpetuating views and opinions that are clearly nonsensical. It’s a bit like the Emperor’s New Clothes: just because it bears the right label and the right price, it must be great – irrespective of whether it makes sense as a product or not, let alone for your particular uses. Compounding this is media that’s heavily influenced or paid for by companies with a commercial interest in selling you something. This in turn makes it more and more difficult for people – especially newbies – to get any sort of objective information. One more reason why I started this site…there’s a lot of noise out there, but without a very good filter you’re never going to find the real signal.

      • Robert Stark says:

        Han Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is one of my favorite stories too in describing much of the art scene today. As Andersen’s swindlers say to the king, “their cloth… was not just of the finest quality and design, but had the virtue of being invisible to anyone who was stupid or not fit to hold his job.”

        The aim of your site is admirable and I’m sure appreciated by many people — me among them. Thank you.

        • I’m happy if just one or two people appreciate the work – better yet if there’s more, so please share it with your photographer friends πŸ™‚

  2. Robert Stark says:

    I love the image and see it only as the image itself and what it evokes in me the viewer — someone who is neither a technical nor professional photographer and who loves all the arts, among them architecture, painting, sculpture, photography, music, literature, gardens, and the beauty and aesthetics all around us that are naturally occurring, man-made or both (sadly, one must edit out in one’s mind a great deal of ugliness in the world — the post-WW II years in Rome where I live have been an utter disaster).

    Some of my own images that I love the most were taken years ago by a hand-me-down, cheap, point-and-shoot film camera (non-zoom lens) exposed on inexpensive color film and later scanned with some being converted to black and white. Would they be the better had I an excellent camera ? Perhaps, especially if I wanted to enlarge them, but one need only remember how many great photographs we have from the very early days of photography. In fact, not infrequently the greatest beauty in the arts are derived when the artist’s tools are limited and constrained. Technical virtuosity may dazzle but it too often hides the sad truth that there is no substance behind the form. Of course the greatest artists are masters of their craft. As you and others have stated with respect to photography, the camera is just a tool.

    Actually, if I had the time to process and print in a dark room or had easy access to a good film laboratory, I would prefer to still be shooting in film. I was very very sorry to sell my Nikon F6 to finance the D800.

    Again, thank you so very much for your work and for your thoughtful commentary.

    Robert Stark
    Rome

    • My pleasure, Robert. Photography was initially about capturing and sharing a vision – perhaps not the actuality of the scene, given the initial limits of technology. Artists learned how to use their tools and make the most of them; this evolved into an art form where we were presented with a view of the world of the artist’s interpretation. Now, we have a view of the world through every possible interpretation (monochrome, duotone, HDR, 3D…), and few ‘artists’ who truly know what they want to present – but plenty of people who know how to present it. The trick these days is knowing what to leave out, it seems.

      I had the pleasure of being loaned an F6 by Nikon Malaysia shortly after its release; they moved office during the loan period, and misplaced the paperwork. I was confronted with a ‘but we didn’t lend this to you!’ when I went to return the camera – sometimes, I wish I’d said ‘oh, my mistake’ πŸ™‚ The serial number was PROTO 006, which seems fittingly appropriate. I wonder where the camera is now.

      Rome is one of those places I keep meaning to get to. One day!

      • Robert Stark says:

        Ming, you are very perceptive and sensitive in your observations. I was particularly amused by your stating, “The trick these days is knowing what to leave out….”

        One of the reasons I like black and white is it absolutely edits out the cacophony of disharmonious colour that is in so many places everywhere present in the way people dress — in some places worse than in others. Rome, for example, is particularly bad while I think in Paris most people still actually dress beautifully. Too many people dress with utter disregard for what even looks good on themselves let alone being in harmony with others and the environment.

        Compare paintings or photographs of scenes with people prior to around the mid-1960s with photographs today. In the USA last summer my young daughter took a few photographs at an Amish auction (generally one would never presume to take photographs of the Amish, as it is an invasion of their privacy but she was very young so no one objected). The photographs were beautiful I think precisely because the Amish dress in harmony even though there really is nothing fashionable or artisanal about their clothes. Also spoiling most photographs of urban scenes is the hideous mess of automobiles, which also lack any harmony among the many styles and colors. So, too, most modern cities lack any harmony in architecture with even the “top” architects designing buildings as if there were no other buildings around — too much selfish, self-absorbed ego.

        (All told, at least in much of the West, there is a false idea that individualism is in opposition to community. In fact, caring about the community is most beneficial to the individual.)

        But back to your extraordinary image of the trees, I don’t believe making a beautiful image is confined to happy scenes and lovely landscapes. A good photographer can photograph in an aesthetic way something that is even appalling and accordingly show the tragedy in a far more profound way than an “artist” who is nihilistic and celebrates ugliness. I can see from your other work that you understand this.

        • It’s the same in the east, perhaps more so – the rapid rise of capitalism encourages the ‘me first’ ego that just makes everybody want to outdo everybody else, and harmony be damned.

          I’m still a firm believer that there’s aesthetic beauty and simplicity anywhere you look, if you look hard enough and wait for the right light. Sometimes, this makes me select objects for their aesthetic value only – is that in itself another form of selfishness?

  3. Thanks MT for the wise words …. “know your tools, select the right ones”. I believe if ones able to use photography as an art – noisy image can deem to tell a good story. For casual shooter like myself, it is always a common trap that when ones acquire a state of the art tool – much time spend cranking up the image on pixel pipping for noise or finding imperfection of the sensor. However for those who still uses the much older systems – I believe they will spend more time enjoying the image as a whole. The other side of the truth also i.e. cannot burn a hole in the wallet.

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