A question of clarity

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Photography as an artistic medium is limited: by and large, the structure of your image is restricted by what exists in reality. Sure, you can alter that representation of reality by changing the light, your composition, your physical position, focal length, perspective, white balance, saturation, or a thousand and one other technical and artistic parameters. But ultimately, it still remains both interpretative and approximate. This is a good and bad thing: it means that assuming there is no post-capture manipulation of content going on, a photograph can be used as a relatively accurate representation of something; there is an assumed level of integrity in a photograph that isn’t present in an impressionist painting, for example. However, photography as a medium isn’t really encouraging of the same interpretative latitude as other media where one starts with a blank canvas/ sheet of paper (forget three dimensional and mixed media for the time being, that’s something which photography will never be able to replicate).

Dimensionality issues aside, I’ve recently been having the feeling that something is missing – and ultimately, I think it’s a limitation of the medium because I haven’t seen it in any photographer’s work, either. It’s a question of clarity: not sharpness, not resolution, not color accuracy, not depth of field, not chromatic aberration or corner softness or distracting bokeh – though all of these things undoubtedly play a part in the final image – but it’s the simple fact that I frequently come across scenes that I see but can’t capture. The resulting image is but a poor facsimile. This applies to my past work, too – I’ve always felt there’s a degree of something lacking in virtually every single image I’ve seen.

I think there are three main problems: firstly, the limitations of capture: the world usually has more dynamic range, detail and tonal subtlety than our cameras can capture – or rather, our cameras aren’t as good as our eyes, yet. But that gap is closing, and output from this year looks markedly better than output from ten, or even five* years ago; that said, my CFV-39 digital back is noticeably better at representing reality than the D800E, which is in turn better than the OM-D and so on down the line. Next, we have limitations in the output medium; here we lag even further behind. There’s no display that can show all of the pixels of a D800E at the same time, in full gamut; no print can match the highlight reproduction of a screen because it isn’t a lightbulb; similarly, no screen can match the shadow reproduction of a print because it isn’t absorptive. Our reproduction media may be able to discriminate between more tones than our capture devices, but they can’t match the dynamic range and luminance output of the real world; perhaps this is why some of the brilliance is missing. Lastly, I think we have a bigger issue in cognative limitations: people simply don’t want to see reality, they want to see what they imagine – which is bigger, more exciting, more saturated and more extreme than reality. I blame that entirely on Hollywood.

*As much of a leap ahead as the D3/D700 generation were, it’s clear that the current generation really leaves them in the dust when it comes to reproduction accuracy. Even smaller sensors like the OM-D.

Curiously, work shot in an entirely controlled environment – a studio still life or product shot, for instance – fixes the problem of imaginative clarity, but introduces another one entirely: we never see anything in reality like that. Food doesn’t look that juicy, watches never look that perfectly lustrous and scratch/dust free, and I’ve never seen anybody who wears the clothes or carries the handbag ever look like the models in the ad. Clearly, this is both a cognitive problem and a visual one; our expectations of that reality are defined by the art director and the client because that’s what they want us to think; it’s more attractive and sexier than the real world, making it very easy to ignore the latter.

Bottom line: I cannot shake the feeling that no matter how good an image is – and in some cases precisely because it’s a good image – I’m not looking at reality, but always at an image.

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This may seem like an obvious conclusion to come to, but given that every technical advance in photography has been pushing us towards fidelity of reproduction** – does pursuing this even make sense, given the fundamental limitations of the medium? I suppose this is a question I’ve been pondering with increasing frequency in the context of my personal work. One can have a strong idea, but a poor presentation of it; or the opposite. Very rarely can you have both – and the overwhelming feeling I’m left with is that even that tends to fall short, because the idea is typically grounded in reality – and we’re back to photography not quite being able to keep up.

**At the high end, this game is decidedly reminiscent of hi-fi audio – just look at the prices of medium and large format gear, and the amount of periphery required to go with it – I’m surprised nobody’s made a vibration-damping woven titanium cable release yet. Or maybe they have, and I’m just not in that league yet.

I don’t think it’s easy to have both – in fact, I’d argue that it’s impossible to have both a strong interpretative (i.e. a communication of what you imagine, rather than what you see) image and a strongly realistic image; the latter implies giving up creative control of your vision to some extent, and being a finder of images rather than a maker of them. Once again we must consider the strange ground that is the studio: yes, we still make images, and control the vision (though one could easily argue that creative control has long been surrendered to client or creative director) – thought these images frequently lack the spontaneity and slight imperfection that is frequently required to communicate some parts of an idea – e.g. speed, urgency, imprecision – to the viewer at a more subconscious level. (In fact, I examined this idea here, in balancing content vs. technical perfection.)

The interpretative school of photography has been developed quite well already – in fact, you’ll find a huge number of photographers anywhere – even on Flickr – that shoot in this school very well. In general, it suits the personal work genre well; fine art a little less well, because success is very dependent on the strength of the photographer’s initial vision and their ability to translate that into an image; it has almost zero commercial value at all, or only in very special circumstances: imagine if the idea you wanted to convey was a fuzzy happiness after drinking a certain brand of alcohol; an out of focus (but pleasing) image of the bottle would do absolutely nothing for product recognition.

I feel that the realistic school has been developed even less – perhaps because there’s not a lot of development that can be done independent of technology. I exclude photojournalism and editorial work from this category of images simply because the image is heavily dependent on the story, which in turn depends on conscious exclusion/ inclusion on the part of the photographer: this is very much interpretative. I suppose the best way to describe realism is something along the lines of: I see something interesting, it exists, I capture it precisely as it is – I don’t know if Andreas Gursky’s images fall into this category or not; I’m inclined to say no, simply because there appears to be far too much postprocessing etc. going on for them to pass as natural.

By definition, though, photography is unnatural. It’s a two-dimensional of three-dimensional reality. I plan to start experimenting with stereoscopic photography from natural perspectives – between 28 and 60-70mm or thereabouts – to see if the presentation of reality can be developed further; I’m sure some interesting (and very confusing) results may be obtained through extreme angles and processing. I’m more interested in seeing if I can capture the simple beauty that just is in a scene; be prepared for some experiments in the near future: successful or not, I’ll have no idea until I try.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why I chose two very pedestrian images to illustrate this article; it’s because they’re extremely close to representing the reality I saw at that instant – or at least they are in my mind’s eye, and when seen at a good size on a good monitor. It’s a development of the realistic school: the truth is, I’m not even sure if it’s possible to turn an ordinary scene into something special without a healthy dose of subjective interpretation, be it in-camera (perspective, composition) or postprocessing (color, sharpness, contrast); the last thing I want to do is produce something technically perfect but boring: that’s completely pointless. The reality is that postprocessing is either used to make up the gap between interpretative perception and reality, or worse, correct for technical errors. No matter how much we process, however, it’s simply impossible to restore the ‘pop’ – either the tonal separation, sharpness and contrast become too much, or they’re not enough. It also doesn’t help that the ‘right amount’ changes depending on the display medium and size. A print requires a different amount of contrast and output sharpening to a monitor – and even then, different papers and different display lighting conditions have to be adjusted for, too.

A quick survey of socially (read: democratically) popular images via Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr or the like reveal that the most popular – not necessarily best from an artistic or technical standpoint – tend to be those that portray ordinary objects or scenes in a very unconventional or different way. Consider the popularity of long exposure landscapes, black and white images and bokeh: none of these are even remotely close to the way our eyes see reality. Simply: in a world of sensory overloads competing for our attention, plain reality just isn’t interesting enough for us anymore.

I want to bring this to a conclusion by opening up the floor to hear your thoughts: do you think there’s something missing from your images? My images? If so, what? And better yet, any ideas why? MT


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  1. akismet-e013593b2f068e52eb925d2b3af8ce65 says:

    The brain sees, not the eyes. An understanding of how we make a picture in our brains is useful and it becomes clear (no pun intended) that the camera has one eye, it has a complete focal plane and, on the whole, an even representation of contrast across the scene. What do I mean by this? Take a moment to relax and look at your thumbnail. After a few breaths you’ll notice that the rest of the “scene” becomes dull and blurred.
    Our brain builds up a scene by “twitching” our eyes backwards and forwards (saccadic eye movements) and only the point we are focussing on, where the light is hitting the fovea in our eye, is truly sharp, contrasty and colourful. So when we give the person’s eyes a bit more contrast, colour and sharpness, that actually matches reality more than leaving them at the same levels as the rest of the face. This understanding helps us when composing and finishing a picture.
    All best

  2. I’d just like to say that I love reading your blog and recently bought 2 of your video tutorials just to see and hear your thoughts on capturing images.

    One thing that I notice, and cannot quite figure out how to replicate from your images is the “clarity” or “sharpness” of the images you post on your blog (I cannot quite put a term on this feeling I get, but it’s somewhere around that!). At first, I thought it was a technical limitation and you’re probably using full frame (I use a Sony NEX), but later realised that some of these shots are from compacts and hand phones!

    Would you care to share how you achieved this kind of sharpness and colours? Is this helped with post-processing in Photoshop? Are there tutorials that you have that relates to this topic? Currently, I’m using Lightroom 5 and bumping my sharpening and vibrance slider to the far end doesn’t exactly achieve that either.

    Thanks for hearing me out and being an inspiration 🙂

    • You can only enhance the presentation of something with PS, not fix fundamental deficiencies. Half of it comes through good shot discipline, which is covered here; half of it through good postprocessing (that’s covered in the Intro to PS workflow video).

  3. extremely interesting piece, as usual. As you seem to imply, as photographers, we don’t have any choice but to embrace the “interpretive” approach for an image, as the “realism” one is more or less doomed by the very nature of misc. constraints we face. Just wondering though : for paper reproduction, why isn’t it possible to reproduce the same amount of dynamic range, since it is also a reflective medium, as “the real world” is ? Let’s assume we can illuminate the print with as much light as we want.

    • Because of the nature of the medium: blacks will never truly be black, or your extreme highlights cannot be truly metallic and reflective. Arguably choices like here are what makes the output different and interpretative…

  4. I just ran across this entry, and I’m still digging through all the comments, so forgive me if I’ve repeated something —

    Why do you feel that it’s necessary for your photographs to be a 100% accurate representation of a 3-dimensional, nay 4-dimensional, scene?

    • It’s not. It’s just that we expect it because it’s already so close to begin with; what I’m trying to convey is more of a feeling of immersion than point for point quantitative accuracy.

  5. i have an compulsive obsession (or obsessive compulsion?) to pick out lines in a photo. and observe that the left line on 2nd photo is quite distorted. (also the right one is not quite parallel to frame. which screams at me louder than if it were much more obtuse).

    was this a conscious choice of yours to instruct the viewer to examine the subject and ignore the noise? was photo heavily cropped to one side of the original capture? or is the curve simply an inherent feature of the imperfect structure? curious to understand whats behind the photo.


  6. I think it’s definitely a losing battle to try and capture a perfectly natural looking image on a medium that doesn’t truly collect the same type of data as our brains. Video is obviously a stronger medium for this.

    Having grappled with this subject here and there, I’ve just sort of started to embrace what photography is as opposed to what it isn’t. You have a device that records a small portion of light from one perspective, say, 1/125th of a second. From there, you can make it more aesthetically appealing while maintaining the content. That is my current view on how to create images instead of forcing the camera to do something it cannot.

  7. stratiformus says:

    What’s missing from my images, that prevents them more accurately conveying the way I recollect the scene? Temperature, smell, sound, texture – on both sides of the camera. My mind stores more of the scene than I can pipe through a lens.
    But my best photos (for me) are the ones that prompt recollection of these other senses, as I recall them. They remind me of what I felt when I pressed the shutter button.

    • Do you think your visual memories would be the same, stronger or weaker if you had one of the other senses missing? Say you were looking at the scene through glass, or had your headphones in, or there was some distance involved?

  8. Paul Stokes says:

    If there is something missing perhaps something should be added. Having just seen a number of Kate Breakey’s canvases from her Slowlight collection at an exhibition today I thought it an approach worth mentioning.

    Article discussing her approach. [http://www.seegallery.net/artist/artist_coment.aspx?id=64].
    As the exhibition only presented her landscape work I’m not able to comment on everything Coleman mentions in his article. She has a rather simpler and more straightforward view.

    I’m not sure I would recommend her approach for anyone without a lot of time to commit to their work and a steady income behind them. Her landscapes begin as gelatin-silver prints and she works on them from there.

    Not a lot of street photography present.

    • An interesting read – thanks for the link. I’d love to be able to see these in person! Can’t imagine what’s being lost in translation here through the very limited viewing medium of the monitor…

      • Paul Stokes says:

        To appreciate them, the landscapes at least, I think you have to see them as they really are huge. Square though with two rectangular works.

  9. After reading through all the comments, I am still left with the thoughts I first wanted to convey. In some ways it seems that you are journeying through photography, much like the first pioneers. It probably sounds out to say that, though this comes from my own studies, and a more recent piece of my history. A few years ago I came across some very old lenses. I’ve had a habit of buying, fixing, and trying some historic gear, so items tend to find their way to me through friends of mine. Anyway, as a result of this, I maintain the serial number list for Holmes, Booth & Haydens lenses. That company was in the early era of manufacturers. I had to do research at the library to figure out what I had, and in that process discovered some of the thinking in the early era of photography. The heyday of HB&H was the mid 1850s through mid 1860s.

    The earliest efforts in photography sought to capture the world. Soon after the development of the Petzval portrait lens, and somewhat faster methods of capturing an image, portrait studios began to appear. Prior to that, one needed to sit for a painter to get a portrait, though it was thought that those paintings were very realistic. As some of us learned in art history classes, or art foundations courses, images can be realistic, representational, or abstract, though it is the perception of the viewer that often determines which of those descriptions fit. So a painting intended to be realistic was often thought to be that way, even though it was more likely representational. Photography also made images of people more accessible to the masses. Convenience and speed were the draw, along with a perception of lower costs (sound familiar?). As photography grew, portrait painters had trouble getting commissions. It has also been stated in many art history books that photography allowed painters to explore other areas, ushering in an era of many more representational and abstract works towards the ends of the 1800s. Photography moved towards stereo images, all in an attempt to show an even more “realistic” view of the world. It took many, many decades before photographers attempted more representational and abstract images, and were accepted for those efforts.

    “Photography as a fad is well-nigh on its last legs, thanks principally to the bicycle craze.” – Alfred Stieglitz – 1897

    I don’t think the wide acceptance of digital cameras really changed photography. Despite the technical advances, many of us can still view images of the past, and enjoy those images beyond a simple nostalgic consideration. When I see some of the best images in advertising, one common aspect is the removal of details, which helps the viewer focus upon the main portions of an image. If we consider images from Jeff Wall or Thomas Demand, we find that idea from the world of advertising entering the images of photographic art. Viewers make think of these images as real, much like in dreams the important details are the ones needed to trigger memories.

    • In some ways it seems that you are journeying through photography, much like the first pioneers.

      It isn’t out of place at all, and if I’m taking it the right way, perhaps one of the best compliments I’ve ever been paid. If we simply accept the popular expectations/ preconceptions of what already is, and how things should be done, then we are not breaking any new ground or producing anything original. It is absolutely necessary to question and discover and ask why; it might well turn out there’s no good reason for something in particular at all. And that might lead to a shift in the way you shoot, and consequently the production of stronger work. The minute we stop doing this, we stagnate creatively. If you examine any of the revolutionary movements in art, they were all born by the artist re-examining the medium and questioning the fundamentals again.

      Framing is conscious exclusion. The less you need to communicate your idea, the purer the message simply because there are fewer distractions. If there are gaps, the viewer’s subconscious fills them in to meet their own expectations – there are no unexpected portions, and thus the image is more complete in concept than one with everything explicitly shown. Maybe clarity requires even more exclusion, in addition to the fidelity of reproduction and right medium already discussed…

      • Yes, I meant it as a compliment.

        Sometimes what is left out can be just as important, or more important, than what is left in. There were times when I wished a canvas I was painting was even larger, though part of the challenge is working within the frame.

        • That’s an interesting thought in itself: I’ve frequently noticed that wide angle images tend to hold much more depth/ story/ richness – to me at least – than telephoto ones; I don’t think it’s a perspective thing, but perhaps there’s something to having a bigger canvas with more context? As with everything, if used incorrectly, the effect is lost. But I do find myself gravitating more and more towards wider lenses…

  10. Ian Christie says:

    A great thread, and rightly so since it’s in response to a really superb article.
    Tom’s question is the right one: why exactly are we taking photographs? For a huge range of reasons, just as the motivations for any art or record-keeping vary enormously. I take photos partly as a record of moments with family and friends: the photograph is the nearest we can come to time travel, and for that reason it is comforting (there is that moment again), poignant (that moment is there only in 2-d and it is gone in 3-d) and mysterious (because it is about time and also being ‘outside’ time). I take photos too as a visual approximation to writing a poem (which I also try and usually fail at). The aim there is to fix an experience, not just as a record but as a response to something that ‘speaks’ to us beyond words.
    Alan and Tom… I like the idea that the perfect photo would be a ‘view from nowhere’ , distilling what a moment was like and transcending the viewpoint of the photographer – but of course we can’t ever get to that point.

    • The photograph doesn’t have to be the moment: it just has to remind us of the moment. The more involved we were, the less complete the description has to be in order to be evocative; the further removed, the more details are required for a faithful reproduction.

      • Ian Christie says:

        Thanks Ming. Yes, I agree with this – thanks for yet another perceptive reflection.

        What do we find present in a photograph? There’s the subject matter: a reflection of something ‘out there’, an image of a moment that sets off processes of memory (I was there) or association (I wasn’t there but it speaks to me, etc). There’s the selection of a slice of time and place, which tells us or hints at least at something about the photographer (position, framing, selection of colour/B&W etc). And there’s the reflection of someone’s consciousness and self (attention, interest, motive, interpretation). The further we are culturally and temporally from the image the harder it is to enter into imaginative sympathy with the image and understand its context in detail. The greater the gap, the more we need footnotes and explanatory context. But the most evocative, richest images still hold enough universality of associations and connections that we can respond to them regardless of that distance, just as we can with a great poem or painting etc. Perhaps the unattainable ‘clarity’ we are discussing relates to a blend of qualities that make an image both intensely evocative of a unique place and time and also of relationships, emotions, situations that transcend the moment at hand. Ronis’s Avenue Simon-Bolivar comes closest to that fusion for me, and I am glad others on this thread have now discovered that wonderful photograph.

        • Clarity of thought/ idea/ concept is one thing; clarity in presentation and that ‘realism’ is related, but not quite the same…I think we definitely need the former, and to also have the latter would take things to another level…

  11. Ming, but I wasn’t referencing studio work.

    Anyhow, as the decisive moment, there is indeed control. Cariter-Bresson did tell the person where to jump, he did ride the bike, he did tell the Russians how to pose. So it isn’t an illusion, he controlled the environment but made it look like an illusion.

    And that was the point I was trying to make, that the control is there as in any other medium (paint, sculpture, etc), but especially comes alive in portraiture.

    • My bad, then.

      Is it still journalism and authentic reproduction of events if the events recorded are not spontaneous? Of course this is another question entirely…

  12. Ming Thein, you certainly are The Master. Like any good Master, you teach in a combination of Socrates and his Socratic Method and the Shaolin Priest from The Kung Fu tv series. 🙂 You bring up a subject that I stumbled across one day. It has bugged me enough that it occupied my mind in much the same manner that Sir Isaac Newton must have muddled over the apple that fell from above him…thus figuring out the equations for gravity. Gravity existed for eons without the equations. Similarly, “digital clarity” has esisted equally long…even without a digital camera. Forget about bokeh, forget about composition, forget about equations…what makes clarity?

    Or better yet, how do I know clarity when I see it?

    For me, it all began when I saw an image of an apple sitting on a table. Forgive me Mr. Newton. We have all seen clarity or rather the lack of clarity in nearly 99% of all photos that we have every seen. So, what is clarity? For me, this apple in question on my tablet’s screen was different somehow. But why? What appeared different?

    The apple appeared to be real.


    The apple appeared to be in 3D on my tablet screen.

    But what made this any different from the millions of other photographs of the common apple? It not only appeared to be in 3D on a 2D display, but the more I looked at it, the more it stayed a 3D image. I believe it is because the can pick up the subtle shades of red in this case. There were a greater numbers of shades of red in the shadowed side of the apple. It is this greater number of shades that the human eye can see and it is this difference that makes it seem like 3D.

    So, it happened to be from an 800E, but eventually we all will be shooting with hundred thousand mega pixel files instead of 36Mp files.

    Thanks for bringing up the subject Ming 🙂

    • Haha, thanks Mike. I’m assuming you’re referring to the apple in the next article – the intention was *not* to create a realistic reproduction at all; perhaps it’s the expectation in your own mind that’s translated a very interpretative image – after Dutch master paintings – into something more…

      • Ah, good point, the lighting from the Dutch masters certainly comes into play here. HOWEVER, your point is valid but I think you missed my point. Dare say :-).I am saying that clarity comes from being in focus and having good light, but super clarity SEEMSto be missing from 95% of the photos that we all see. That was the original premise that caused you to pose this question. I am saying that there is a difference in clarity which is most easily seen in photos that appear 3D. I conjecture to you that the REASON is because the eye can see gradations in dynamic range beyond that of 95% of the pics that are taken. Moreover, I pose the question of whether this is solely because of the extra pixels and range in the D800E that allows you to see shades of colors that we see eith your eyes. A test of this may be difficult with the normal greys in your watch pics. But, the leather watch straps may prove differently. What if you were the only or first photographer who could “consistently” capture leather watch bands which JUMPED out of the photo because they imparted a 3D quality? Albeit, the high priced watch makers are few but they’d beat a wider path to your door. Imagine leather watch bands that appeared like you could pick them up or touch them. Certainly, the dream of any marketing rep! It is the realism in the shafow shades which our eyes see. Our eyes do not see flat plainly lit leather because it just looks like a pic, nothing special. Nothing our of the ordinary. This range of colors between the brightest to darkest brown leather colors is what I am referring to. Any camera can get the brightest and darkest shades. Likewise, there must be a formula for lighting to maximize this effect. 🙂

        • My bad, sorry. You’re right: we can see more than our cameras can, still; but it’s partially because of a lack of data, and partially because of the presentation of that data – we can only see what our displays show us.

          What you’re talking about is already done through composite images – leather absorbs a lot more light than reflective watch cases, so there’s no way you can light both the same way and expect an optimal result for both portions of the watch. The problem is most composites are overdone, i.e. look unnatural, either because of the processing applied, or the wishes of the client…

  13. This post resonated with me for two reasons, even though I rarely think about art in a philosophical way:

    1) I like walking outside, because there are many pretty and interesting views to be seen, and you can only fully experience them when physically there.

    2) The photos I like best are typically a bit rough, conveying a realistic view of the world. As you wrote, the masses seem to prefer ones that are too polished (or maybe it’s the average photographer with 500px account who prefers them). That is why I like most of your photos and got particularly excited about this post having seen just the attached pictures (superb).

    Still very much a beginner, I’m constantly reminded of the various differences between interesting views and photographable views (a useful term that could surely be researched and taught to a much greater extent). In the real world, the brain tends to automatically block out distracting elements, while the photographer has to compose and expose carefully to isolate the interesting parts (and then there are dynamic range limitations etc). When evaluating my own and others’ photos I’m getting always a stronger feeling that visual weight is the key tool in leading the eye in a natural manner. Resorting to bokeh, vignetting, unnatural leading lines, etc. tends to deduct from the realistic feeling.

    For the missing elements – imagine walking around with earmuffs, nose plugs, well cushioned shoes and a hood on your head (or try it). That is an entirely different experience to our normal way of observing, and perhaps provides an upper limit to how much you can directly convey in a photograph. Many visual artists try to extend the experience by the use of soundtracks in their galleries, but for me the combination of a static picture and sound always seems awkward.

    I like the idea of using multiple photos together to provide a more complete feeling of a scene (sort of like your photoessays, but perhaps 2-3 shots more closely stitched together). Though I think I would use different vantage points and matching visual style instead of different techniques/exposures as someone suggested above.

    • Visual weight definitely affects the eye of the observer: the key is exposure. What you spot meter in a contrasty scene is the best example of this; your exposure choice affects balance, and is thus a creative decision not just for mood/ tone, but also composition!

      If we do not make the conscious choice to isolate in an image, then we land up with chaos – it works for some scenes, not so well for others. I think perhaps more experimentation is required here; you’ve sparked the seeds of an idea. 🙂

      I might try the isolation idea. But only somewhere relatively safe where I’m not going to get run over by a car!

      • Alex Webb, one of my favourites, springs to mind when you mention chaos. His photos often seem chaotic but still work like magic and convey a strong feeling of presence. Coincidentally he seems to use mainly normal lenses and doesn’t worry too much about dynamic range limitations.

  14. Hi Ming,

    A nice one fom Garry Winogrand: “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.”

    Maybe it’s not your pictures that lack something: How much time do you spent meeting customers expectations, blog readers expectations and how much time do you actually spent to follow your gut feeling? I mean how can you lack something if it feels good to you? Do you think too much and that might come in your way?

    I don’t think, don’t care for technical things, don’t force anything when I take pictures. I use very few gear choosen after ergonomic aspects that is out of my way. And as always: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


    • Hi Stefan, that’s a quote I’ve heard before: I think it’s slightly odd because I’d imagine after shooting thousands of rolls with the same film, camera and lens, you’d have a pretty good idea of what the end result would look like – i.e. developed the ability to previsualize. Otherwise that would imply all of his photography was nothing more than random accident!

      Photographically – ignoring the text content here – for work: I meet customers’ expectations all the time, as a minimum. My own are usually much higher or significantly different; if it’s the former I’ll do my best to get there; the latter, I generally won’t take the job because the differing expectations can cause serious issues further down the line. This site? Almost never. I started it to have control over what I publish; I only publish what I’m happy with. So the answer is most of the time, I’m shooting the way I want to. The introspective thinking and examination process is part of the way I evolve. After a while, you’ve answered most of the basic questions, so you either go on to examining the difficult ones, or back to questioning the basic first principles again…

  15. I think I understand your article, and I think it hits squarely on the nail regarding some the limitations of photography. However, I would be a proponent that Portraiture is really the blank canvas; Man Ray, Watson, even Bresson controlled the environment/canvas to make the what they envision. It is through people that the artist can both control the environment and the camera, just as a painter, the brush, and a canvas. On a side note and not related to the musing of any here, the thought of the “decisive moment” is less luck/spontaneity than most agree. It was about capturing between the frames even though the event itself was preplanned.

    • Studio work is 100% controlled: if not, then you ought to hang up your camera. That was the point of the studio to begin with!

      As for decisive moments: anticipation and observation are key skills any photojournalist has to hone. The control comes entirely through timing and position and nothing else; it’s an illusion of control in the final image, since the photographer has no ability to direct the action. Yet it works…

  16. Jeff Smith says:

    Excellent essay. Resolution wise I think decent cameras today are as good as most folks eyes, perhaps even better, but they cannot yet capture the dynamic range of eyes – yet. I am not sure that they all do a great job matching our eyes on color spectrum either. Will technology get as good as our eyes, I don’t know, but I do think the next big break through will, should be, in improving sensor dynamic range.

  17. Hmmm that could be an interesting challenge, to take a photograph that allows you to experience the moment as if you weren’t hiding behind the camera. Which since you were hiding behind the camera to capture the moment…

    Photographic technology is not yet neutral in its impact on a photograph, but potentially it is, which I guess is part of its attraction. In the meantime we’ll need to understand its limitations and the best way to manage these. However, from the discussion so far its sounds as if introspection and a better understanding of what makes ourselves tick and react will be the key to a more satisfying photograph.

    The points Jack Siegel makes about risk strike a chord as well. Once any style beomes formulaic and commonplace it loses the spark or sense of frission an original style may impart. Perhaps that is part of it, we substitute the feeling of risk and excitment in the real world with risk and unpredictability in our shooting styles. Once that style becomes fixed the photos seem to become staid. Bit of a conundrum there, we search for techniques to excite us, but once we’ve found and understood them the excitement is lost.

    Great article, but as good as it is the comments it has generated are fascinating.

    • I suppose in that sense the photograph itself does cover the detachment from the scene experienced through seeing it from behind the camera as opposed to immersively.

      We as humans always search for stimuli to excite us; it’s the anticipation of the new rather than the new itself that generates the interest. Artists are probably never satisfied with their work; they keep pushing and developing precisely because of this. It’s nicely encapsulated in the philosophy of “your best image is your next one.”

      The depth and thought in the comments of this thread are beyond anything I’ve ever seen on any photographic forum anywhere. I’m honestly awed.

      • So the photographer will never find the clarity they hope for, but the viewer will still appreciate the discoveries?

        • That sounds extremely frustrating; I certainly hope not! Clarity may well come in the ideological form rather than the literal/ direct/ pure/ accurate reproduction one. The viewer will always see something new because the point of view will always be a different one to their own.

  18. Tom Hudgins says:

    “I think that I shall never see
    A poem lovely as a tree.”

    • Tom Liles says:

      Reading through the comments last night, squinting with sleepy eyes at an iPhone screen… I needed a double take at your name, Tom—as I saw the lyric then when I scanned your name, it read “Ted Hughes.”

      True story.

  19. After reading your thought provoking article again and the in depth thoughts of the fellow commentators as well as the more down to earth comments – which I also appreciate – I’m coming to one first conclusion not far away from what Tom just wrote above: I think we can’t reduce the object of the photographing process to the question of reality/imaginary. It’s more a matter of “the seer and the seen”. The output of a camera is a frozen moment of time which in itself is a representation of the seer/photographer in examinating (?) his environment. The output on which ever media in truth and in its last consequence is a representation of our selves. Maybe 99% of all the photos published all over the world – award winners included – don’t fulfill the criteria of being perfect enough to represent the photographer. I think often when we are hunting for the image of our life (which is the reason why we`re also always on the hunt for the perfect gear) we’re also hunting more or less for self affirmation (through self perfectioning?) with our photos as a presentable alter ego for our selves. This is only one part of the truth- But if someone succeeds in making an outstanding image with his camera on a continous base the photography turns into art. This is why – when looking to some piece of art – often we don’t name the object of a painting for example but we’re speaking of “a Picasso” or “a Dali” (and not so much of surrealistically melting watches). As I already wrote in another comment of an earlier article of yours – can’t remember which, I’m more and more convinced that one can only cross the border from average photography through parallely improving not only one’s technical and compositional qualities but also one’s personality. Maybe this is the gap or missing thing you’ve been searching for. I also think this gap or border can’t be defined as a gradual one…. it can’t be overcome by effort or talent only. Both are necessary but success only comes from outside / somewhere else in form of inspiration …. Just my two cents! Thanks again for this boost of inspiration through your blog Ming!

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Faruk. Photography as self-examination? Certainly. Our compositions are a reflection of our own biases, and thus saying plenty about the photographer; perhaps more than about the scene itself. The act of composition and selection in itself shows what we find interesting and/or important. Can self reflection overcome the clarity/ reality gap? I’m not so sure; I think if you have a good idea of what you want to say and enough control to execute it, you’re pretty much there. The missing element I’m after is something a bit more subtle.

    • Tom Liles says:

      Faruk, I doubt you’ll see this but I hold out hope that you will. I’ve been wanting, but waiting, to reply to a few themes in both of your posts and to applaud your thoughts: I think you have cut right to the quick of something here. I think so because I agree:

      1) there is common ground between dream images (real memory images + emotions/thoughts projected onto the mind’s visual plane) and photographs. (supplemental: I think investigating symbolism — the psychologic history and contemporary position — may bear fruit [apples? Now THAT is a reference!])
      2) therefore the native perspective of the human eye is all important; though we don’t seem settled on what the correct DOF choice is—given the way eyes/visual cortex/brain processing works, as explanied by the guys early on in the thread, this is perhaps an impossible choice. Maybe Lytro technology with the chance to dynamically alter focus point AND pupil diameter. At any rate, we don’t have that; so this DOF property is left as a creative choice and reflection of a photographic artist’s taste…
      3) artists’ works — the content, the object, or both — invite a kind of Metonomy: a Dali, a Picasso, etc., rather than The Persistence of Memory or Guernica, etc
      4) because of that, we can make the inference — correctly, I think, with you — that artworks are an alter ego, or projection of the self, at any rate a conduit for personality—and we all recognize this when we consent to and participate in the Metonomy
      5) so to make better pictures we must improve ourselves as personalities (hopefully as people) as well as technicians (just as vital?)

      This last point (5) is seminal Faruk. Thanks for saying it. It’s a truth that’d been on the tip of my tongue for a long time (I’ve only just begun photography; but have been writing slogans, copy — commercially creative writing — for over five years now, and have gone through much of what I’m going through now with photos, with copy).

      I came closest to realizing the lesson in (5) regarding the work of Grayson Perry. He went through a lot of psychological therapy to heal complexes he felt burdened with. And he did it against the advice of every art friend he had—who all believed, very mistakenly in my opinion, that the artist *needs* to be damaged goods in some way in order to make anything interesting. We all know of the artistic alcoholics, the mentally imbalanced, the products of broken homes and checkered pasts; and slip into a kind of cowardice: that these things are necessary to be an artist. A real artist. It’s so entrenched, many do it initially only as a kind of performance: getting into the habit of heavy drinking for example… then end up hopeless addicts for real… Anyway, all of Mr/Mrs Perry’s circle (he is a cross dresser) told him not to get therapy; I’m sure they saw it as way of destroying his gift, neutralizing his power. Like Samson cutting his hair. But Grayson did it anyway. And became the successful artist (artistically and financially) that he is today. Improving one’s personality must improve one’s art.

      C.G Jung would’ve called it individuation. Though the great man considered art a mode for achieving this end, not a reflection of the end itself. Perhaps both could be true—a virtuous circle: making art individuates, develops our personality; better personalities open the door for better art; making better art takes our psychological journey one step further, etc., etc.

      This all sounds very teleologic. And I intend it that way. I am a believer, a religious believer. Though my ideas on it are quite far off the plantation—I’ve bored the gallery with a few of my beliefs here, before. Breath a sigh of relief fellas: I shan’t open a can of self-configuring-self-processing language and cognitive-theoretic models on you tonight… But, art is a form of religion; certainly religious in nature. So that a concept like teleology should be revealed during the course of a serious think about it, isn’t surprising. And I applaud there too—you are already ahead me and mentioned religious connections in your first comment.

      So, Faruk, you’re well ahead of me; at least I have the R-D1s over you 🙂
      That little camera is permanent collection for me. I just pray that the CCD doesn’t die yet (it will though). I’m taking it to the Epson service center next week for its first ever service since I bought it, five months ago. You don’t see fold away LCD models (the R-D1 and R-D1s) so much anymore, but R-D1x and R-D1xG (R-D1x with grip) come up on the used market here. I even know a few shops that have brand new R-D1x in the box. Still now! Definitely a cult camera. And you have to hand it to Epson, Seiko and Cosina Voigtlander: they beat Leica to market with the first ever DRF, and it still doesn’t have half the faults the M8 had. The IR pollution is not as bad; but most definitely there. The ISO performance is way better—I would actually like MT to check this. If he has time in Tokyo, I’ll loan him my R-D1s for a day or two… there might be a mini article in it sonewhere 😉 => I just don’t know how this ISO performance was possible on such OLD sensor and processing architecture (the first R-D1 hit in late 2006/early 2007, but its Sony CCD is from 2005!). I can shoot with no noise penalty upto ISO 800. Or, the degradation upto and including 800 is too trivial to get bothered about. ISO 1600 totally useable with good shot discipline and some light NR in post (but it really is a cliff with 1600, bad exposure and it’s very difficult to rescue something printable). I don’t know, even modern CCDs shouldn’t be this good…

      I feel like Mephistopheles is going to swoop in asking after his debt with this ISO performance.

      All I can think is that Ian [Christie] was right and it’s some perfect storm (of luck) of sensel size, lens mount/light delivery, micro lenses, A/D converter and processing engine—all luckily just so to create that sweet spot.
      (In terms of resolution, though, 10-16Mpx range is “it” for me; I just want as good a dynamic range and as wide a tonal map as technology can give me there… I still think MT’s proposal of having massively high native resolutions then binning down to this sweet spot is THE way to go. Maybe some maker, somewhere will give it to us?

      Until then — probably even after — I’m enjoying the R-D1s
      (And the DMC-L1K
      and the D3
      and the DP1M
      and the DP2M
      and the Bronica SQ
      and the F2
      and my wife’s D60
      and a lucky find, a nice bit of news, a Kodak Retina IIc my wife’s Mum found in her father’s effects and passed on to me to see if I could get it working again => free to keep and use if I can => I can AND I WILL 😀

      • Hi Tom, thanks for sharing your thougths and your experiences with photography. I’m trying to follow all the comments here, but wow, it’s not easy because of my deficiences on a technological base and my weak english language, ☺ However first of all thanks to Ming that he leaves us room for even theosophical or esoteric speculations far away from what I think he intended with his article and question. Nevertheless I think that’s legitimate although breaking the boundaries between photography and spirituality. So I want to put into perspective what I wrote in my comments without withdrawal of anything I said there. First of all, yes, Ming is completely right that there is a problem with the output devices and they don’t keep up with what high-end cameras are able to deliver! This concerns Mings intention of what he is searching for with his photography and in this sense it is fully comprehensible and he is absolutely right. I think this can only be solved in a technical way. On the other hand I think for myself it’s legitimate to doubt that it is possible to reproduce reality with a picture if that is the intended way – not even with 3-dimensional holographic photography, although I think we’ll soon see something like this. The ultimate technology in its last consequence only can be an attempt to reproduce reality. To give a famous example of the sufistic (often called islamic mysticism) tradition: If you want to explain someone who never knew honey before, you can show him an image of honey or a pot with real honey and show him its consistence, you can explain to him scientifically its chemical consistence and tell him that it is sweet, but does he know the reality of honey through that? Reality here is a synonym for truth and truth in its depth is what you know by the essence of something. The wise men say it’s not possible to achieve the truth of something without tasting it, so if they want someone to know the truth of honey they open the pot and let you dip in your finger and put the honey into your mouth to taste it. You will know the essence of honey, more than any scientist who only analyzed its material consistence. It’s the same with everything whether religious belief or even pornography in the internet: You can find a doubtful satisfaction by watching it, but it never will be the same as real sexual intercourse with a beloved partner. So even if you should be able to reproduce an object three dimensionally, still you won’t be able to touch it or taste it or smell it. In this sense a reproduction of reality isn’t possible. Things are changing when altering your expectations or better perspective and you don’t draw too many limitations to the technical framework and accept any artful reproduction like photography not as an attempt to reproduce reality but as a symbolization or symbol of reality. It’s very much a question of whether the glass is half full or half empty. We can focus on the technical limitations of photography and lamenting on it or we can be happy about its potential, that we are able to use different focal lengths, are able to alter the depth of focus, use tilt- and shift technologies, are provided with increasing dynamic range of the sensors. are able to easily change things digitally with picture software etc. In that sense gear doesn’t matter for most photographers. Ian gave a good example above with his mentioning „Willy Ronis and his image of Avenue Simon-Bolivar“. I didn’t know this before, but this image really has this magic I am searching for and I’m missing in my images at least. You can’t describe it completely only with technical arguments. Seeing that image you’re nearly drawn into it and like with a time machine it catapults you into the time of it’s take 1948. You can nearly smell the atmosphere. With this image Willy succeeded in making the beholder part of what he framed in a photograph. With todays technical focus we would maybe say it’s noisy and we would even find things like hot-pixels and chromatic abberrations. But that doesn’t diminish it’s worth. And artfulness. The people of this time knew how to use their – from todays perspective – limited technical conditions in the best way to produce outstanding images and they have this specific quality of timelessness. It would be interesting to hear Mings competent analyze of this picture. I have this feeling also when I’m looking at my homies images the famous Ara Güler. His images draw me into the shooting situations. I can smell the streets of old Istanbul and most impressive are his low light photographies which he made with his old Leica cameras. Maybe it’s only a nostalgic feeling and his images only evoke sentimental rememberances to my earliest childhood and someone else can’t comprehend these feelings. And here I want to come to an end although there is enough for a book project to write about the pot that Ming opened with his article. The important thing about photography maybe is that it is a tool for rememberance whether it’s high-flying spiritual philosophy that reminds us of the master creator for whom maybe this world is like photography for us where he develops nature and human beings as well as for the family father who just wants to freeze the beautiful moments of his children or vacations with his family. Photography is a beautiful hobby and a source of inspiration!

        • Reproduction and conveyance of the idea is experiential: I understand that much, and it makes perfect sense. There are three things at play here:
          1) Can we figure out what elements are required to simulate the experience faithfully and allow the viewer’s subconscious to fill in the details, and be able to arrange them in a way that firstly is aesthetically pleasing; secondly excludes distractions; thirdly relates to each other in the correct manner to allow the viewer to form the conclusions/ feelings we intend?
          2) Can we execute that practically?
          3) Can the medium deliver 1 and 2 faithfully without adding or removing anything unintended?

          That particular image of Ronis’ delivers on all counts, I think. It is not a faithful or accurate reproduction at all; it doesn’t even have color – and it’s not as though most of the world operated in black and white until the early 20th century. It is of course aesthetically pleasing and balanced and has great light that defines and isolates the individual subject elements well; it goes a bit further in telling the story; it finishes off by giving us enough little visual cues so as to not overwhelm, but allow somebody who didn’t live in that era to believe they are experiencing it vicariously.

          As for the tangents – I just ask the questions; the really interesting stuff happens when dozens of very intelligent people jump in with their thoughts and interpretations – in a way, it’s really quite a lot like the photographic process, but for philosophy. 🙂 I have no doubt that this article and its accompanying discussion thread is going to go down as one of the future classic must-reads of the site…

          • Thanks for your answer Ming. I’m in awe of your patience and commitment to the readers of your wonderful blog! It has become much clearer to me now what you mean by your initial questions. I don’t really have the answer, because first of all I’d needed to enter your level of photographic and compositional understanding (Your new videos are on my list for the near future hopefully). First of all I have to learn the basics and practice them much more. Especially your analysis of Will Ronis’ image opened my eyes for the fact that also in photography not only what we see matters, but also what we don’t see. It reminds me of Duke Ellingtons Jazz song “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” Now as a former passionate lover of Jazz Music I know that we can’t really describe the swing although it’s there. Some of the secret about it is that swing or soul can be produced by a slightly asynchron rythm, so the gap/silence between two tones nearly is more important than the tones themselves. Something like this could be transferred maybe to photography through what you are saying in point one about excluding distractions. I also found interesting what you are saying in one of your comments about the wide-angle perspective. It was heart-breaking for me but I had to return the Ricoh GR to Amazon. I don’t want to go to much into detail about this, but one of my arguments for the GR was that I wanted to cover the wide angle area with the Ricoh GR and use the Fuji x-e1 with it’s zoom lens for the standard focal lengths. Unfortunately apart from some bugs of the firmware (sometimes the display of the GR is freezing and skin tones showed up artefacts in high contrasty situations) I discovered that using the converter for the 21mm perspective unexpectedly delivered noticeable worse image quality (Chromatic abberrations, vignetting, loss of details in the corners and a worse low light perormance:noise). To make it short that’s why I returned the GR with the dispense of compactness, hoping that I’ll be able to buy it eventually later again. Instead of this redundancy of focal lengths (the 28mm end of Fujis Zoom lens is fabulously good in my opinion) I bought the 14mm (21mm) Fujinon and so far I am more than pleased with this decision, because it opened up a whole new world for me. Before I thought that this is an extreme perspective, but meanwhile I feel more and more comfortable with it and I think we’ll becoming good friends. It really might be that the gap or elongation in the time line of Jazz music between two tones has it’s counterpart for photography in the “elongation” of the depth of field in space by using the wide-angle perspective. It offers us a wider field of compositional control … Even more important I find your executions on the perception of the beholder of an image: about Ronis image: “it finishes off by giving us enough little visual cues so as to not overwhelm, but allow somebody who didn’t live in that era TO BELIEVE THEY ARE EXPERIENCING IT VICARIOUSLY.” and
            “….On the other hand, if the representation isn’t meant to convey anything other than an idea or a feeling, the lack of precision results in the observer filling in the blanks with whatever is in their own imaginations, completing the scene to the expectations of the individual rather than coming across as a facsimile falling short of perfection.”
            You’re opening up another cup here and maybe one that is even bigger than before. I was very focused – and by that restricted – on seeing photography as a medium to capture reality, but photography CAN (doesn’t need to necessarily depending on one’s photographic skills) be a tool for opening up the imaginary faculties of the photographer as well as the beholder of an image. One question about this actually is what you say in “2) Can we execute that practically?” I don’t know the answer yet, but I’d like to believe it should be possible! For me it’s enough for the moment that your executions provoked my understanding that the two-dimensionality of photography isn’t restricted to the dimensions in space but the real two-dimensionality of it is one of reality/imaginary. Photography is like a boundary between these two and as a medium suited to bring both together (again I can see the analogy to dreams). In a certain sense I was aware of this before, but meanwhile I think the imaginary part is the more important part to care for, but it needs the understanding of the basics of reality to be able to deal with the imaginary part and after that being able to master that in a way that we are able to execute this with our photography intentionally and transfer that to the beholder of our images. That’s a fundamental discovery and a game changer for myself. I think we’re coming nearer to the possibility to explain the whole world through photography 🙂 Thanks for this!

            • Hi Faruk, no problem – I’m enjoying myself immensely with this discussion too!

              As for your GR experience: you might have a defective converter. I’ve used a couple and they don’t seem to be built to the same tolerances as the main lens. The sample I landed up with is excellent bar distortion (to be expected) – but the central area is comparably sharp to the naked lens wide open, and the corners match by f4-5.6. CA is minimal. In any case – choice exists so we can use whatever works best for us 🙂

              Interesting analogy between the elongation of the tonal scale in music and the WA perspective – I’ve long thought there are a lot of analogs between music and photography, but I’ve had trouble articulating this eloquently in an essay; I think it’s due to the limitations of my understanding of music in this case! Time for more research.

              Art (and photography) is all about imagination: the creator has to be able to previsualize the end result in order to know how to execute; there has to be a leap of faith to the audience’s expected knowledge/ “gap-filling” ability; then the audience must in turn make the logical leaps between what is shown and what was intended. Most of this takes place subconsciously, making control of the process even harder to attain, simply because we’re dealing with things that mostly don’t even think about. Interesting? Absolutely. Easy? Definitely not.

  20. Tom Liles says:

    I’ve read the article a few times now and it seems like there’s a lot to think about in there; or maybe I just want to think there’s a lot to think about. I thoroughly enjoyed it, at any rate. Never mind some of the brilliant posts down here below the line. I liked what Clint said. I liked what Faruk, Thomas, Jack Siegel, Riccardo, David [both]… OK, I liked every comment down here. Yep, even Nizar. And especially Michael Matthews who gains ETERNAL ENTRY TO THE PANTHEON for getting Midsomer Murders in here below the line. Really, there should be some sort of prize for this stuff.

    I suppose my thoughts, condensed down — for once — number only two:

    1) So what’s the problem with just your eyes? You, we all, already have the clarity we want…
    2) So the real topic here may just be: why am I taking photos?

    [I remember mentioning this a long while back — about just wanting what my eye sees, I have the lens and sensor, and processing in my head already, I want to transfer the data –> just tether me to LR and let’s do it! Good look with the RAW format codec! — do you remember that Ming? At least three of us were talking about it; it ended up being a pretty funny conversation actually]

    With one caveat:

    3) Let’s be mindful of falling into the blackhole of “what’s real?”—I loved Clint’s post, and philosophically that is right up my street, what I’m very very interested in and spend a lot of time reading-thinking-reading-writing about. But it’s not the question at hand, if I’ve understood MT right. We’re relativizing everything to human vision of a scene –> that’s the baseline for “real” that we’re after.

    But on the question of what is real?

    “It from Bit”

    The best start on it, I think, gifted to us from J.A. Wheeler.

    • 1) It’s not my eyes: it’s sharing what I see, or making sure that connection between my observation, my image, and the observer stays intact.
      2) That bit is clear 🙂

      Was the RAW format codec where the anti-tomato got introduced?

      3) Not just relativizing it to human vision per se: but our own vision, our own interpretation.

      • Tom Liles says:

        It’s (1) and (3) [in your response there] isn’t it… I was going to mention cloning technology and suggest a thought experiment whereby we could clone your eyes perfectly, or to within some statistically insignificant tolerance; we could just steal a pair of your glasses 😉 then hook a visual cortex up -> cooking with gas. There, we have touched our baseline of human vision (I was general with the phrase, but yes intended that it means any one human’s vision). But suppose we could capture and decode that data stream. Case closed?
        No, because, if I’m understanding it right, you also want to express something of you, outside the bio mechanical, to a third person; and this introduces all the psychological content which inhabited the original scene, for you (Faruk’s thoughts there were good). So:

        i) biological fidelity => the scene as your eye captures and brain interpreted
        ii) psychological fidelity => the coloring added to the scene both conscious and unconscious

        It follows:

        (i) + (ii) = Clarity (of capture)
        when 99<(i)<100 ; 99<(ii) as you have shown us now: perhaps output medium is the final impasse… isn’t the mind’s eye of Ming Thein, the gold standard for Grand Clarity? So how can we approximate? Cave like darkened viewing rooms, with the image projected on the wall?… Doesn’t sound right does it.
        (Plato thought so too)

        After reading the article once more, the comments once more: I’m now of the opinion that a step back might be a step forward (or just all there is). Actually aiming for less clarity, as we’re treating the term here, might result in more. The source and target languages — primary capture (eyes), secondary capture (camera); primary output (mind’s eye), secondary output (screen/print) — are so different, thinking in terms of 1:1 translation is the problem perhaps.
        Dreams communicate the contents of our unconscious — which, being the unconscious and prehistoric, can’t just say it straight, i.e., there’s no 1:1 language — so it communicates via the intermediate language of symbolism and an important subset of that, the psychological archetypes. This language is hazy and indirect—you don’t understand on first exposure, you really have to consider what a dream is telling you. Then you only get it through a glass, darkly. And there’s no way to really verify your conclusion. The symbols shown mean different things to different people, different things to the same person at different times, even!

        I think that’s about the best clarity that could be hoped for.

        Lest we get into the scary world of Cameron Vale & Darryl Revok..
        [completely shoehorned reference to David Cronenberg’s classic film, SCANNERS 😮 ]

        A double exposure I found while researching the Bronica SQ: this. Feels drenched in the version of symbolic clarity I’m on about.

        • Tom Liles says:

          Oh 😦 what a kick in the balls… Just lost a chunk of text there. Around the “(i) + (ii)” part. I’m sure the chevrons are to blame, WordPress thinking I’m typing HTML flags in? The missing bit:
          (i) + (ii) = Clarity (of capture/processing)
          where (i) is in the limit 99 to 100; (ii), likewise. Or some threshold you/we decide on.

          Is this it? No, I still don’t think so => you’ve shown us now that the output medium is the final impasse…


          /missing bit ends

        • You could get an identical pair of glasses, but I think my terrible vision might induce nausea if you actually tried to wear them 🙂

          You’ve got the point, though: you need the data feed and the decoder. The data stream, correctly interpreted – conscious exclusion, framing etc – is where the magic lies. That’s the first hurdle, and I think one that isn’t the problem. The second hurdle – sharing it in a ‘faithful’ manner – is where we’re falling short. Maybe it is the reproduction medium (limitations of screens, prints etc), or maybe it’s the artistic medium itself. I’m not inclined to say that latter, simply because if we can see it – why can’t the camera? It’s not as though the rules of optics are different for different capture devices…

          Less fidelity forces the viewer to focus more on the idea rather than the details. The trouble is when the idea requires the details.

          That image doesn’t quite do it for me, by the way. It could be saying too many things for the idea to be clear…

          • Tom Liles says:

            Maybe this one is a little more on the nose [though I don’t like it as much]. But I know what you mean. Her pictures aren’t right up my street, either, but I do like them and was impressed the creative use of double exposure. Up until seeing her work, I’d only seen the typical “guy does different poses in same frame” type or one flower made to look like three. Very gimmicky and not really saying anything. This shows you most definitely can try and say something with a multi; it works very nicely on film; and can approach the images we see in dreams, or what we think we see in dreams, quite readily. That’s to say, you can up the symbolism a notch with them. Though it becomes more obvious and perhaps easy to slip up on when we do.

            But yeah, I thought “well done” to her. Especially for doing it on film cameras; we don’t see the duds, so I’m not sure how many tries [and how much money] it took to get them right [for her]. Whichever way, definitely more daring than doing it on digital or in post [PS, etc]. Perhaps that amount of attention, and tension, going into each frame comes out in the finished product? I’m always reminded of your keeper rates for both platforms [and wonder if it isn’t also related to your thoughts on clarity here].

            • If I were to use the double exposure overlay at all, I think I’d be very careful not to overlap things too much; there would have to be empty space in each of the individual frames that would be balanced out by the composite. It makes no sense to obscure one subject with another. So long as the fundamentals apply to the overall composition – I think there’s no reason why multiple exposures shouldn’t work…

    • Michael Matthews says:

      Wait a minute…what happened? Am I wounded? Unsure of the Eternal Pantheon reference.

      Speaking of context, the TV episode suggested directly relates to the original comment on taking hundreds (if not thousands) of pictures of the same subject…multiple views over time possibly adding up to a more complete image. My admittedly obscure blurt on the topic got a bit removed from its place in line thanks to my slow response time.

      • Tom Liles says:

        No Michael, The Pantheon –> brilliant/memorable/quirky remarks, quips, comments, one liners and references found here at blog.mingthein.com. Lainer1 is currently Zeus, in my book, for his list of hobby recommendations, on the hobby thread (naturally). Larry Kincaid’s anecdotes about Amish prayer and bombs missing by football fields are up there; as was Todd’s line “the downside of Haptics: Pawing” (and the “pawing” is again a reference to an MT quip). There’s some Ian lines; Eric’s faithful list of Ming’s articles, collated at his cost in time for our benefit. Gordon’s posts on colrspace and printing, a while back that one. And now there’s your Midsomer reference Michael. I’m sure it was right on point and relevant; it’s just like a happy and minor miracle to me that we can make mention of Midsomer Murders down here.

        Nothing untoward intended. I’m lionizing your reference!
        [for eternity, in The Pantheon]
        [[I’m not serious, this is all tongue in cheek]]

        • Michael: Tom is already Master of The Pantheon for his ability to transmute any topic into any other topic in a seemingly logical and flowing manner; Li Mu Bai and the Anti-Tomato being the ultimate mutation…

      • It’s a compliment. Don’t worry about it. 🙂

  21. Thanks for the thought provoking article.
    The bottom line is that photography today in the digital age is and has been in an endless pursuit of hyper-realisim. Look at the 4K video revolution going on right now what 1080p not good enough?

    • Resolution is but one aspect of realism: there are the technical aspects, and as Louis pointed out in another comment, the implied stimuli from the other sensors our brain ‘fills in’ when we see the appropriate visual cues. Yes, movies can do this too – but I’m sure that it isn’t a limitation in resolution that’s causing it. You seldom, if ever, look at a great image and go ‘if only it had more pixels!’

  22. A related issue: Visible light is limited to a tiny fraction of the electro-magnetic spectrum. But as human beings continue to merge with computers, the visible light spectrum–light that humans can experience without the intervention of an image–may well expand to include UV, infrared, radio, microwave even x-rays. What will photography then look like?

    • Maybe the current problem is a simpler version of that: the spectra our eyes are sensitive to isn’t the same as our cameras, which in turn isn’t the same as our display media either…

  23. I thought this blog post summed it up well. On Honesty. Perhaps you saw it. http://www.johnbcrane.com/blog/2012/11/honesty –Kenneth

  24. Oh my gosh, I’m so relieved to hear a *professional* photographer admit to this 🙂 Do you think photography is very artificial? What I mean is, we see something that catches our eye. For the most part, it’s quite ordinary but yet, through various means, we *contrive* to make it an interesting photo. Or on the other hand, we see this really amazing, extraordinary scene and at best, all we can do is make a reasonable, two dimensional facsimile of what we see. In either case, it isn’t real.
    I don’t really know what I’m getting at here, Ming, sorry. It’s just that, in the past, I’ve seen something but couldn’t quite translate it into a two dimensional image and that frustrates me. And, if I understand fully what you wrote, it seems that you’ve experienced this, too. I know scientists are doing studies on how our brain works and perceives things. I hope some of those scientists are photographers!
    But, is ‘fidelity of reproduction’ the goal of photography? I don’t think so … Sorry, I’m totally rambling at this point and have no idea what I’m thinking.

    • I think you know exactly what I’m talking about: the ability to see/ visualize something and then not quite able be able to translate it into the finished product. This can happen even if you have your composition and postprocesisng process locked down – there’s not much else you can do to get that ‘pop’ out; the reproduction just looks flat. It might well be a limitation of the medium, because even the best photographs seem to suffer from this.

  25. Thanks for the insightful article MT. Bottom line is, I guess all of us want our wives to look like a supermodel. But then reality strikes back, she is not a supermodel and the supermodel herself is a creatively photoshopped product of an ordinarily pretty woman. That’s what a photograph is .. a distortion of reality or an interpretation of reality by the photographer. I’m expecting brickbats here after making this statement if not for the fact that your blog is one of the few places where photographers can have polite conversation without getting lambasted by others. I’m a lawyer by profession and in law, you cannot tender a photograph as evidence in court without having the original photographer and negatives to speak for the photograph.

    Someday MT, I hope you could gather all your rantings, musings and the discussions here into a book. I would certainly buy it for its philosophical value alone.

    Thank you and selamat hari raya sifu ! 🙂

    • It’s a fair statement – why the brickbats? Yes, photographs are interpretations of reality subject to the biases of the observer – no question about it. But what I feel is that there’s an additional layer of bias that was not the intention of the photographer but rather an artefact of the process or equipment, and that’s what I’m trying to understand and remove…

      Out of curiosity, are digital images admissible as evidence these days? Would raw files suffice as evidence?

      The book is in the plan…eventually. It’s a lot of work in the editing and making the flow work; the economics are a bit of a disaster though.

  26. pwright92 says:

    The thing of it is, real life is boring. If you have ever accidentally (or purposefully) recorded a telephone conversation, the lack of affect that you hear versus remember is astonishing. It is the difference between watching a great movie as opposed to a surveillance tape. As commercial photographers we are responsible for inserting a product into the viewer’s consciousness. As artists, our mission is to communicate our vision of the world to the viewer. Striving for reality is neither realistic or productive. As an artist, the real struggle is to actually have something to say and then having the ability to communicate that something. After 40+ years as a photographer, the Idea is the struggle for me and that struggle is where I have produced my best work. My seeking out artists in other media has born many more creative fruit than just about anything else I have done. These people do not get bogged down in the technicalities of producing an image, but rather are much more interested in the message and my success in getting the message across.

    • What you’re talking about is the selective editing: we’re doing that already through the mere act of framing. We observe something interesting and throw out the boring/ irrelevant bits. It’s replicating the actuality of what you observe as a photographer, in what remains inside the frame, that’s the challenge – something is missing when I look at the images. It’s not the message or the content or the technical bits or the framing, rather it’s a little subtlety I can’t quite put my finger on. That said: I have not seen it in any other photographer’s work, either.

      • pwright92 says:

        Not so much selective editing as the presentation of the essence of what is being portrayed. Perhaps you are looking for something that cannot be communicated in a two-dimensional medium? I think that photography is best at presenting that which can be photographed. If you start looking for other things, photography will always come up lacking.

        It would be like some of the ambitious modern dances that I have seen where the choreographer attempts to move beyond portraying that which can be represented in dance. These pieces are interesting, not so much so in what they present, but rather in the gaps which dance cannot fill. Perhaps you are seeking something that would be better pursued in a mixed media work or perhaps another media altogether? If you find yourself continually bumping up against the inherent limitations of photography, then perhaps collaborations may satisfy the itch you are feeling?

        • If you can see it, it can be photographed. Granted, there are some adjustments to be made for composition, exposure etc. – but light is light, and at least that much is physical and not subjective.

          I don’t know if the limitations I’m seeing are a result of the medium or my own skill – but in order to solve the problem, I have to ask the question 🙂

  27. you know Ming .. as much as i enjoy reading your article whatever it is, i also enjoy more seeing your images … cheers

  28. Wow, Ming, congrats on being brave enough to tip-toe into these waters! Very few photographers / writers / bloggers seem to even think about this kind of stuff let alone voice it for the world to comment.

    IMO I don’t think any two-dimensional representation of reality will ever reach the level of clarity in which you speak. Can it? Do we even want it to? When using a camera, for example, many factors play into the creation of an image that will, in some way, affect the final outcome. Heck, I would even argue that what a photographer decides to point his/her camera at BEFORE any other decisions are made affects the final outcome. This may seem obvious since I may choose to photograph a particular subject when a thousand other photographers might simply walk by it. Therefore, my choice to translate this particular subject has already affected the outcome.

    Then, we come to a many other choices that will affect “reality.” Where I stand…height of the camera in relation to the subject (i.e., viewpoint)…lens choice…depth-of-field…and on and on. All of these choices are now directly affecting the representation of clarity as I believe you’re defining it. I won’t even go into the many down-stream choices during the post-processing and printing stages that have direct impact on the outcome. All of this I’m sure you’ve already considered!

    But, all the foregoing is mostly technical in nature. What about the photographer and his/her feelings/emotions toward what is being photographed. Again, affecting the outcome / clarity of reality. Ansel Adams always said, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” Think about this statement in relation to your clarity…the photographer is going to bring to bear their feelings, life experiences, abilities, etc, in translating “reality” into two-dimensional space, and the viewer is bringing their feelings, life experiences, etc, to the party when viewing the final image. So…what is reality…really? How can we interpret any reality in a way that clarity is as strong as postulate? IMO–and that is, of course, all any of this is–we can’t.

    But, bottom line…does any of this really matter? My vote is: NO as long as the viewer is sufficiently moved by your image! Does your image make the viewer feel/think/react differently about/to what is being seen? For example, I still remember to this day an Ansel Adams image (not one of his popular ones) at a show of his at MoMA in 1979. It was a square format image (probably taken with his Hasselblad) of a rock outcrop and a single bare tree in the middle of what looked like fairly heavy rapids somewhere along the Merced in Yosemite. It was a B&W image, of course. I’m sure I stood in front of it for what seemed to my wife an odd length of time for a simple “rock/tree in some water” picture! But, I couldn’t remove myself from it because there was something in the representation of that picture–the subject, the light, the many tones and transitions of grays, the feeling of the water–that made me literally drool!! I stood there desperately trying to figure out what it was about this image that was affecting me in that way; I never really came to any conclusion. Rather, I was satisfied to let it be what it was… Was it the most clear representation of the reality of the subject that affected me in that way? Dunno. But, what I do know is that it was a tremendously exciting image and in 30+ years I’ve never forgotten it!

    Anyway, thank you so much today’s though provoking post.

    • That’s what this site is about, Alan 🙂 You can only go so far with gear and technique – ultimately, photography is a great psychological experiment: one of observation, communication and interpretation by a third party/ external observer. We change the way we observe to create the intended result in the audience. Forget the third party audience for the moment: I’m talking about even replicating a scene to your own satisfaction as the original observer, i.e. yourself. Then only we can think about moving to the next level…

      Are we individually falling short? Unquestionably; anybody who thinks otherwise is probably deluding themselves. One thing that all artists seem to have in common is a dissatisfaction with the way they present their work; we keep pushing and evolving to try to eventually reach that envisioned end state, but none of us ever get there. I suppose that’s the fun of the process. For me, at the moment, it’s trying to be able to represent the “reality” that I see – it’s subjective, yes, but I still can’t do it. It’s not compositional, it’s not observational, I think it’s in either the reproduction side, or capture and reproduction.

      • Well said, Ming. IMO, though, “reality” can never truly be replicated in any two-dimensional plane. I think the best we can ever hope for is as clear as a representation as possible. You’re probably correct that we’re deluding ourselves because so much of what we do is, as you say, subjective. The best that we can probably ever hope for is to present our “reality” in a way that conveys our feelings/ emotions/experiences toward our subjects in a way that resonates with an observer. For me, anyway, if I can pull that off I consider it a successful image. I guess if we’re not satisfied as original observers, then we’re not seeing strongly enough or lack technique to translate our vision. That said, I’m always more interested in the image I haven’t made, yet, or bore quickly with those sitting in my library! Guess I’m not really satisfied as an observer, either. 🙂

        Thanks for the conversation, though.

        • I think we’re in the same boat. Though it doesn’t seem to be bringing us any direct, actionable things to try, at least being aware of the problem is one step closer to a solution…

  29. Ming, all these posts and your responses – how thought provoking! Thank you.

    “Do you think there’s something missing from your images? My images? If so, what? And better yet, any ideas why?”

    Yes, in every photo there is a gap between reality and image. I suggest however that the place to look for reality is not in the subject of the photo, but in the artist.

    The artist selects a scene to convey something that is in his or her heart. That which resides in the artist’s heart is real and true. It is a feeling and cannot be improved. But the photographic representation is part of the Maya, the illusion, which can always be improved. When this is done well, when the gap is small, we notice because we are social creatures. Then we feel an intimacy with the artist, a shared sense of the truth.

    I believe this human connection is the purpose, the challenge, and the reward of great photography.

    • I’m happy and proud that this community has such an incredible depth of thought and is willing to share – I just ask the questions.

      Your comment now makes me ask: how do we increase the objectivity of our own observations? Would that even result in the desired end result? Or are there other limitations – or maybe I’m missing the point entirely, and by removing any sort of subjectivity in a photograph, we land up with something totally bland and uninteresting to everybody?

      • Thanks Ming. My thoughts in response to your fine questions:

        “Your comment now makes me ask: how do we increase the objectivity of our own observations?”

        By working to understand ourselves better. So we get to know the reality inside. The “reality” outside is only a foundation for our creativity.

        “Would that even result in the desired end result?”

        Yes, our inner truth provides context so we know what to bring out in the photo.

        “Or are there other limitations?”

        Yes, the limitations include skill, talent, desire, insight, honesty and so on. In some cases even technology and equipment.

        “Or maybe … by removing any sort of subjectivity in a photograph, we land up with something totally bland and uninteresting to everybody?”

        There will always be a gap, subjectivity, and that’s good. Drawing the observer close to a truth, without fully disclosing it, makes a photo compelling. “The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.” Oscar Wilde.

        • There will always be a gap, subjectivity, and that’s good. Drawing the observer close to a truth, without fully disclosing it, makes a photo compelling. “The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.” Oscar Wilde.

          But do you think the artist who created it fully understood their own work? Was everything a conscious choice?

          • “But do you think the artist who created it fully understood their own work? Was everything a conscious choice?”

            I don’t think so, Ming. Neither fully understood nor all a conscious choice. Yet one can learn to improve the conscious part. As we put more of ourselves into the photo, some people will probably get more out of it. For them, less will be missing.

            Of course as we know, sometimes even the work of the greatest artists such as Van Gogh, who seemed to put all of himself into his work, is little appreciated until the artist is gone.

            • Appreciation is another issue entirely: then it becomes scarcity. You can’t get an X if X is dead and no longer able to produce work…

              I don’t know if this is the same for photography or not, mainly due to the ability of a photograph to be reproduced at infinitum. Perhaps not for prints or tintypes or daguerrotypes, but I’d imagine not for digital files; the market values accordingly, it seems.

          • The artist does. Plays.
            Later critiques, observers, spectators say “hey, that’s what her/he wanted to do, to say, to express” (That means: _I_ have understood the artist.)
            Frequently when the artist is dead! 😉

        • There will always be a gap, subjectivity, and that’s good. Drawing the observer close to a truth, without fully disclosing it, makes a photo compelling. “The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.” Oscar Wilde.

          But do you think the artist who created it fully understood their own work? Was everything a conscious choice?

  30. Hello from Alsace in France. I’m keeping reading your blog for a few months now, and find some of your articles and images very inspiring.

    I agree 200% with your conclusion, for a load of reasons most of which where still well expressed. But in my opinion there is a but! 🙂

    « (…) in a world of sensory overloads competing for our attention, plain reality just isn’t interesting enough for us anymore. »

    I personally would get rid of “anymore” because I believe that art has never had to do with reality, not even in photography, and that this has noting to do with to-day trends which only emphases the phenomenon.

    Perhaps the most obvious example of what I mean are the annually priced images by photojournalists. If the prices had to go to reality, there would be a gazillion photographs winning! What one can say is that most of these priced images express and concentrate in one image what oneself is probably unable to translate in a thousand words, images or whatever.

    The most famous images of Elliott Erwitt, Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Werner Bishop and others makes clear that street photography itself has nothing to do with reality. As each piece of art, it have to do with symbols, emotion, dream, surprise, magic, strong or peaceful or surprising or lovely composition, anecdote, humour and so on.

    The Lords of the Rings, Harry Potter, Romancing the Stone, Stephen King, but also early cave paintings and “Le Roman de Renart” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reynard) or Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, and in general the great number of famous fairytale-like and symbolic-rich pieces of art over times, makes obvious that compelling and attraction is not housed in the representation of reality itself which is not the point in art. That’s only more obvious in abstract art. What excites you yourself in your “cinematic” style? I personally cannot say it, but I can feel something of it.

    So I would say:
    1. The support of reality makes dreams more believable and symbols more understandable. That’s probably why manipulated photographs are so successful. As a process they are easy and don’t need high skills in photographic imaging (!). Also many of them refer to the culture of comics, which is very widely spread in the same “slice of population” that the one who’s acting on Flickr. Culture influences the spectator. What’s more popular today than comics? To be noticed: in comics all beings are “humanoîdal” if only a little bit!
    2. Street photography is perhaps a sort of a process today, see that number of sites referring to it. But mostly it is a kind of hunting. Hunting: one eternal archetype of being, humanly or not, isn’t it? I believe that this is true for any type of photography, we are always hunting when photographing. Hunting subjects, lights, moods and so on, even in still life. But that’s me. Perhaps a good word would also be “questing”. Old archetype too.
    3. The common stream of images has probably nothing to do with art (Flickr isn’t a mecene). I don’t know but this don’t mean that it is without value (Flickr isn’t a news stream nor a catalogue too).
    4. If art has nothing to do with reality, I believe it has in many cases to do with transfigurating it.
    5. Our most influential photographic tool is our culture. Our culture influences our image making far far more than our bodies and lenses!

    Keep on the good work and making me dream with some images,
    Serge Schmitt

    P.S. I would add that while I’m not a yogi nor a believer of any kind, I agree that a report of reality can only be both partial and imperfect but not for spiritual reasons, only for a concrete-like one. In a finished work there are always physical frames and a limit of accuracy, while reality is felt as infinite in all his dimensions perceptible with our five senses and associated tools. Some philosophers will refer that to our powerlessness or limits.
    So 6. One should never want to describe reality per se when making a photograph, because it is impossible, or so long as one is not preparing a scientific publication where the limits of the field of reality to be considered are clearly defined in the scope. Art is not description nor illustration.

    • Thanks for the detailed thoughts, Serge. To your points:
      1. Very true. We need to have some sort of ‘anchors’ to keep the scene relatable. Anything too abstract or different loses impact because our brains just can’t figure out what’s going on – there’s no point of reference.
      2. Hunting is an interesting way of looking at it; I very much feel like I’m doing that when I’m out and roaming a new location. I’m definitely searching for light and subjects, and trying to bottle the essence of a feeling or place into an image.
      3. It’s very, very basic documentation solely focused on subject, and with no thought given to presentation or its effect on the viewer. And there we have >99.9% of all images captured today.
      5. Absolutely! Social and cultural biases of any sort are precisely why we produce different images at all; the bit we need to master is figuring out how to use those biases to produce something unique, but at the same time retain enough commonality to allow viewers to relate.
      6. I’m trying to describe my perception of reality. And still falling short.

      • Hi and thanks for your answer.

        The most Important:

        6. You fall short ? I hope you do! Unsatisfaction is the fuel of work, because it is the reason of desire, perhaps it is the engine of life. We don’t desire what we have or have done, only what we are missing. The day a creative don’t fall short in some field, he is probably dead. As a creative of course, but often shortly as a being. So, I think you should want to be glad of that.

        On my side I suppose that when I am “falling short” as you say, it is probably because I don’t know what I want. In such case I think the best to do is to let go, and something will happen which inspires me. It effectively does. I had some outings with coming back with zero photogaphs. So what? Nobody is at 100% each day and certainly not creative people.

        Other relative thoughts, less universal:

        3. I agree of course.
        Nevertheless I’m quite sure that they all – we all? – want to transmit emotion and such things, they only fail to do it. So what’s their difference with so-named artists? The last one make a way of life with artistry, ok. I don’t mean making a living, of course. Or/and they are inhabited with unextinguishable passion and desire to (paint/write)photograph, in opposition of “Sunday gamers” as we say in French. So-named artists also master their favourite medium, as speakers or novelists master language. Or are supposed to. This is related with passion: without a bit of passion, who wants to make the efforts to learn the rules of whatsoever a medium?

        5. Culture. I also agree with you. I also meant it in the sense that during the last 67 years or about, I looked at megatrillions of photographs, paintings, films and all sort of images, including yours ;-). So it’s impossible that I am not influenced when shooting. A bit consciously but I guess mostly not. Totally independently of the gear I am using.

        6. (bis) Hey, it’s _always_ our vision. A seasoned photographer is only more conscious of that than other people. The difficulty for common people is that photography _seems_ to describe precisely the reality, while that is obviously not possible with painting for example.

        My method: working hard to learn and master what can be learned and mastered, that’s only technique, and simultaneously to make as great efforts to grow my culture of images, not only photographs. And of course shooting as much as possible. Actually all that never seems an effort for me. I love(d) doing it so I never felt nor I feel I am working hard, but yes, both represent a lot of time to be consumed. This is also a real choice, conscious or not, because one only has a limited time granted. In other hand, I like let it go when photographing, like a child playing. In this manner it’s sometimes possible to be really surprised with some results once returned home, versus being satisfied with having done a good job.

  31. I believe it’s possible to modify a two sensor 3d camera to record depth information as a grey scalehe idea image. This will then be interpreted by a 3d program which will then send the depth info to a 3d printer, which should thenbe able print a mixed media with form and structure.
    I have digitally sculpted an artists face and have had that file cnc into a 3d organic jelly sculpt on which live living cells were grown onto this likeness of the artist.
    So im certain that it could be done IF some camera manufacturer would modify twin sensors to capture depth information as a greyscale file. Even colour would be possible.
    Therefore a real 3d sculpted photo of portraits should be entirely feasible. If you discuss this, you heard the idea from me first. 🙂

    • http://stelarc.org/?catID=20243
      heres the link to the artist in question, a crazy chap.

    • That’s a very interesting idea – but I presume you’d have limited information in the Z-axis simply because your 3D stereo camera can’t see ‘behind’ something? I suppose it would work well with forms that do not have any occlusions, like faces…but be less useful for say, street scenes and buildings.

      • vincent1 says:

        You are right in that occlusion would be an issue, although not insurmountable, think panoramic stitching but in 3d. That should take care of occlusion. As of today, it is already possible to take front side top bottom portraits and have software to interpolate automatically and create a 3d printable bust of a person.
        Im sure such a camera as I suggest would be real in less than 5 years, even more possible is a more advanced version where halographic projection would be utilised and beamed from an ipad.
        My peers in the exhibition arena already have such halographic projection capabilities although in a more confined form requiring an enclosure.
        What an exciting time to be a photographer…

        • Holographic projection is interesting…but are we photographing or something else now? I suppose it’s related to photography in the same way that sculpture is related to painting…

      • Google Street View. 😉

        The funny thing is that there have been a few exhibits from “photographer” simply using prints made from scenes found on Google Street View. I don’t really think we can call these individuals photographers, though this idea is quite interesting.

        • They’re definitely not photographers in the classical definition, but what are they? Interpretative artists/ observers of a sort, I suppose – they are doing the conscious exclusion and framing portion, but not the actual capture.

  32. darkasana says:

    “I don’t know if this is even possible, to be honest. And even trying to figure out precisely what it is that’s missing is tough, because I feel that we lack the language to even describe it in the first place…”

    It isn’t possible. And, we cannot put into words the missing elements that you describe… We can only get close, and we continue to get closer. However, as the walls of this gap between what we know on an energetic level “is there…” and what we can actually produce, given our gear and the ability to use it, the bottom of the Abyss grows exponentially deeper, as in “the more we know, the less we understand”. Yes, the ‘Blad with the digital back will outperform the D800E and there are the principals of physics to support this function. I want a Phase One with an IQ260 and a mess of S&K glass to go with it. Will these things bring me closer to a state of photo-nirvana? Sure… But will I ever be able to convey what I feel in my core through then lens as I felt it in the moment? Not entirely.

    So enter “good enough”. We do our best through trial and tribulation, education and practice, courage and experimentation and we arrive at a place of acceptance, appreciative of High Wisdom and the knowing that yes, this is as close as I can get to my experience of the subject and/or an expression of what I felt at the moment I pushed the button and slid the sliders in an attempt to speak what cannot be spoken… either in words or images. The real and the un-real move closer, but the bottom moves more distant as a result…

    Rock on, Ming…

    • Actually, the more big prints I do, the more I realize that in most cases it’s the reproduction medium that’s the limitation, not so much the capture device. I was seriously looking at a 4k 80″ LCD TV the other day just to view images on – that must be a completely different experience to anything so far, providing the whole thing is properly calibrated, of course. I guess it’d be like when I moved from a 15″ laptop to the 27″ TBD…

  33. Picasso once said: Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.

  34. OK, before offering thoughts on your photographs and reality, we need to get something straight: Maybe you don’t look like the models in the ads when you parading around with your handbag over your shoulder, but when I am out with my handbag, red pumps, and technical view camera, I always look better than the models in Vogue.

    I detect a sense of angst on your part. Sounds like you are bored with photography or in a bit of a rut. If so, I am not surprised. I have great admiration for your skills, your architectural and product photography, and the consistency of your look. However, I think the latter may be the source of any angst. Having read your blog and reviewed your photos for some time, I detect a formalist. For example, you argue for a step by step approach to post processing, with no deviation–at leasts that how I interpret what you say.

    I think you need take some risks. I don’t find your street photography risky. The photos are “too” perfect. Lately I have taken a new approach to street photography, which is a largely dumb and meaningless term. I study a monograph showing the work of one well-known photographer and then try to emulate it. Lately, it has been William Klein and Saul Leiter. I like how Klein aligns people and gets close. I like Leiter’s use of color and multiple planes. Last week, I went to a contentious public meeting and shot like Klein (at least tried to). Processed the photos rather quickly that night and felt very uncomfortable. It wasn’t me. I don’t normally use that wide of a lens and I don’t normally get that close. Were the photos crap? Were the people jumbled? Were the photos to contrasty, too grainy? Were the exposures off? At first, I had real discomfort and anxiety. I’ve spent the last week looking at those photos. They are getting better with time and I am less uncomfortable and unsure.

    I think any angst on your part stems from the fact that you are in a safe zone and it isn’t working for you anymore. Break the mold. I am convinced that unless I am occasionally uncomfortable, I won’t produce work that excites me.

    All said with great respect an no offense meant.

    Jack Siegel

    • Yes and no – I know where I want to go next, but I’m having trouble getting there because of the limitations inherent to the technology and the medium. The experiments are just that: experiments. I don’t show what I don’t think works, but I certainly incorporate elements of that into the rest of my work.

      Formalist? Perhaps. Why does the work need to be risky? I *like* it this way, and it’s certainly what clients pay for…

      • Experimentation isn’t random. It should be part of the process. Risky refers to the photographer’s willingness to take risks (work outside his comfort zone) rather than to the photographs.

        I also think your reference to popular photos on social media sites draws an artificial distinction. You say those photos aren’t necessarily artistic or technically good. A false dichotomy, if there was ever one. If people like the photo and connect with it, who is to say it is not artistically or technically good? Technicality is irrelevant and technically good is an elusive concept.

        Here is a photo I took in NYC about two months ago.http://www.sanyasi-aesthetic.com/p500705673/h6e5c2c73#h6e5c2c73. Obviously I like it. You may hate it. I imagine many would say the exposure is terrible, but it captures a very real moment and sensation. It is very hot and this child is delighted by the spray of water. That is the reality I saw, it is the reality I captured, and it is the reality reflected in the photo. More dynamic range might have eliminated the extremely blown out highlights, but it wouldn’t have made a photo that carried more emotional impact or reality.

        Once again. Thanks for doing what you do. Best

        Jack Siegel

        • Tom Liles says:

          Jack, I’m just going to waltz in here, even though you were talking to MT.

          Well, I liked that photo. And agree with much of what you wrote –> so much I felt motivated to barge in here and say so. I think you’ll sympathize with the following, at least get where I’m coming from, but I recently spent a couple of weeks snapping with disposable film cameras and think they are pretty good for getting a version of the “clarity” Ming speaks of.
          I didn’t choose film disposables for hipster irony or a naive art project; but because I was on paternity leave and spent my days carting my 3 year old daughter and 2 year old son about, while my wife recovered from the birth of our third — it’s a girl! — at hospital then home. Even in these busy circumstances, I wanted to be taking pictures, when I could. But I couldn’t take a digital body out with me each day as they are too big and as any Mums and Dads out there know: frivolous luggage is NOT what you want when carting kids, and all the bumpf they need, about. Delicate or expensive things? FORGET ABOUT IT. I could have gone out and bought a tough digital compact, or used my iPhone. Both, unfortunately, really aren’t durable enough, i.e., kids proof—basically anything with a back screen and more than one button is bad news [it’d be unfair not to give the kids a go on the cameras]. If the kids get hold of it, and they will, it’s toast. Everything is a communal toy to children; they have no fixed concept of property or value yet [and good for them]. Give me one of those supposedly scratch proof sapphire screens that Leica put in the M8.2 and M9-P, I’ll guarantee here and now my kids can get a scratch on it. And that’s at the kinder end of what they’d do to it.
          So I spent a couple weeks with film disposables. I had the films developed and scanned at a supermarket chemist—by a McStaff whose main job is to operate a till [this choice, again, wasn’t for irony: Mums, and Dads acting as Mums, have no time to go do stuff like run a roll to film to a proper lab; but they do have to do stuff like unfailingly make sure there’s enough food in the refrigerator, etc., I actually felt lucky I could get the food shopping and have the cherry on top of getting film processed and scanned while I did it]. So even with all these layers of anti-quality, the result, and this was quite quite a deflating result: I really liked the spirit of the photos [fixed exposure, taken single handed in the midst of trying to wrangle two kids, with a plastic lens and processed by a muppet, the technical aspect, though, leaves a little to be desired]. Like really really liked.
          I’ve honestly never been able to take anything as in the moment before or since. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed of my photos, but they don’t deserve any eyes other than my own, to be frank… this said, here is a photo of my daughter, one of the best images I’ve ever made (to me). She is a lot more pretty than the picture makes her look, though she did look like that at the instant of capture—the picture proves it [how’s that for circular!]. The framing is subject dead-center and not interesting. The picture doesn’t ostensibly say anything. I hate this “stories” stuff with photos; but OK, it’s a pillar of the craft, I know: and there’s no story here. But one glimpse at this image and I’m right there, in that moment, with her. It may affect only me. So what. But I don’t know how I did it. Not sure if I want to or not [Tom’s Mum breathes a sigh of relief].

          Here it is

          • First and foremost, congrats to you and your wife on the birth of your daughter. You both have your hands full with three kids. And thanks for the nice comment about my post and photo. You might want to hedge your bets a little by taking some conventional DSLR shots of the kids, but I agree that the less “technically perfect” photo of your daughter has appeal. I would keep working with the disposables. It might even be fun to give one to your other kids and let them take some photos of each other and the newborn. They will appreciate all of this when they are older, assuming you archive it. I also liked many of the other photos on your Flickr page. Were these made with the disposables?

            In any event, it is a good thing to occasionally break the mold. I wonder how using the disposables will affect your DSLR shooting the next time you do go out with your DSLR. More tricks in the bag.


            Jack Siegel

            • Tom Liles says:

              Thank you very much Jack. What a gent. No, listen, not at all—I’ve been visiting Sanyasi-aesthetic since a while back. I can’t remember when it was, but you dropped an interesting comment on here and I was interested and had a click on your name [I’m interested in everyone, so I do do this; but it’s weird, more than half of the time people’s links lead nowhere or are blocked content, i.e., why put the link in? Must be some wordpress thing. Curious. Your site is a gem though, Jack]. The post about the iron girders coming out of the sea [header image of the blog], that you drove past a few times before going out to photograph them was what hooked me on your site and galleries. That little story and the resulting photograph felt very right to me.

              God no, only a few of my Flickr pics are the disposables. I collected everything I got with them [not a lot] in one set. It’s so obvious I bet I didn’t need to mention it, but absolutely no PP there: no time for that, and [until my first two rolls of 120 which went to a proper lab but aren’t scanned yet] all my negatives, even ones from my Nikon F2, have been processed and scanned at the chemist. So with all the film shots in there, the best I’ve got is 1500px odd jpegs, all output decisions the McStaff’s and machine’s –> and I willingly uploaded what I got. As much as I could. Even ostensibly horrid stuff. I quite liked it [only quite]. The reason the total number of photos, then, in the disposables set seems lean is that there were a lot of shots of hands and fingers at point blank range –> and there you have it Jack, of course half the reason I went for disposables was so that the kids could use them too. You were right on the money 🙂 It was originally intended to be a little joke for my friends and family spread across the globe: they could follow me while I was on paternity and keep up with how my wife and kids were doing at the time of this new arrival… since everything I put up on Flickr, I put up on FB too, they’re all probably sick and tired of seeing “Tom Liles uploaded 38 photos to the Album…” in their FB feeds and honestly, probably consider it a nuisance—plus I doubt they rate me much as a photoer 😉 For a laugh I titled the disposables album “which ones did I take, which the kids?” A bit of self-depreciating humor. So yeah, some of those pics in my disposables set on Flickr were taken by my kids. And the kids LOVED the throw away cameras, by the way, especially my three year old daughter [depicted in that previous snap]. Even when the film ran out, she’d walk around the house with the camera, framing things up and trying to close the shutter [she mastered the “wind on” very quick; my son didn’t have enough dexterity for it]. Maybe an artist in the making?
              [And maybe this behavior shows us something about photos Ming? She knew the camera was out of film, but continued to “take pictures.” There is some definite performance aspect of what we do]

              But no, not all the pics on my Flickr were with disposables! I’ve organized the photos into sets; the sets by camera. That’s how my brain works [not organized by feeling, or composition, subject matter or style, etc…]

              My main and most prized camera is a Nikon D3, I graduated to that from a brief affair with a D7000, which I came to from my wife’s D60. I also have, and love, a Panasonic DMC-L1(K) a kind of hybrid DSLR in the now good-as-dead regular 4/3 platform [but the lenses for that are AWESOME]; a little digital rangefinder, the Epson R-D1s, one lens, I LOVE it; and the Sigma DP1M and DP2M => two cameras I’m very very attached to, the DP1M was, in spirit, the first camera I ever bought [a silly but happy choice] these two are coming to the grave with me; I’m not finished yet –> I also have a film camera, the Nikon F2, I didn’t buy that, my Boss gave a beater to me as a present on being a Dad of three. And last, drum roll please, I managed to buy myself YET ANOTHER camera — the Zenza Bronica SQ — a 6×6 medium format lovely. Which gives me headaches trying to figure out how to just get things bloody straight in the finder. But the first two rolls of 120 came back the other day and they look good [to me!]. I haven’t scanned them yet; I don’t know what to do…
              I’m a complete nut when it comes to the gear. But in a nice way. I don’t go in for any of the “tool for the job” stuff. I’m not a pro and even if I were, I’m still not sure I’d stick to it. I just look at my cameras in the morning, pick up the one that looks nice to me. And that’s that.
              [Honestly, this has crept into my night before now. I’m already thinking about which beautiful thing I want to cradle the next day.]

              I was really hoping for some earth shifting change thanks to the disposables. I don’t think I got it; and perhaps it was an unreasonable expectation to have… They definitely give me a better “in the moment” feel; though thinking about it some more over lunch, I think it’s more that they match visual memory much better. And that’s all. That’s useful though. I find if I look at someone’s, anyone’s, disposable pics, preferably a layman who has NO interest in photographic technique, then the pictures look very, very real to me. You look and go, “ah yes, I’ve sat in rooms like that…” “I’ve seen people like that…” I think it’s because they [the pictures] are so unflattering. That definitely has something to it. Either way, what disposable cameras give me seems peculiar to the format and untranslateable to my other equipment because I try but can’t get the same thing from my other cameras and lenses. It all looks too good or purposefully bad—basically, more obviously manufactured.

              I think you’re dead on about breaking the mould, though. I said it to myself, I maybe even said it on here somewhere? But a lot, nearly all, of my pictures feel like I didn’t dare to do something. I really get a palpable sense of that. I haven’t come to a decision what to do or where the line is yet… Rolling up in someone’s face and snatching a flash photo is the summit of cheap selfishness and utter dogsh*t to me; yet I know there is danger, and interesting images waiting in it. I want the danger, the daring, the fear and drama of not knowing, me and the subject, what’s going to happen in that split second you invade someone’s private space. But I’ll never do it—ever. As art, no, I think that is dogsh*t. Cheap. That is someone’s private space. A kind of precious place in today’s day and age. Invading it and taking a photo, without permission, is, it really is, stealing and everyone who does it should be ashamed and pilloried for doing so. Is art more important than manners? F*ck no [boom boom]. But there is a line: right in someone’s face? No –>10 meters away? Yes. But what’s the distance, where’s that “no go” line? Must be different for each and every one of us [both photog and subject]. Anyway, “daring.” I feel like this is often a key ingredient for a good picture.
              I think what I’m most interested to do at the moment — and have a chance to fulfill — is akin to studio portraits. I want set up lighting and a simple background, probably plain white, and get someone infront of my camera. Then see what happens. I don’t necessarily want unguarded moments, again, I think we have to be very careful with those as, in my opinion, photogs easily slip into a distasteful, predatory vein and steal or rip or feed on or take without permission these delicate sentiments and instants. I want the instant, but I want to make it with the subject. So probably a classic conversation style shoot: me, the subject, we talk; I have my camera set up on them and on a cable release so I can sit in a chair and look at them while we talk: hopefully the moment will come. This is nothing new at all [structurally]; but what I want might be waiting for me there. And it will be surely be “new” in some way as everyone is unique.

              On the kids though—you bet I have tons, and tons, and TONS of photos of them, with every device possible. Honestly, they are some of the worst photos I’ve got. I was saying this to MT the other day, but I feel like if you love someone as deeply as that, it’s impossible to take a decent — read “truthful” — picture of them. But I have to admit, I’m getting better at getting them.

              I’d like more tricks in the bag.
              [And more shiny things!!!!]

              • Oh, without a doubt: the act of taking a photograph is enjoyable. More so with the right camera. And it forces us to remember the moment better in our own minds, oddly enough – maybe because we are forced to consciously observe and visualize.

              • Thanks for the nice comments about my site.

                Not suggesting that you believe I am advocate of getting right up in people’s faces, but it seems like your comments are directed to my William Klein comment. As I said, that is a bit unusual for me. But the advantage of being at an event, is that people view you as media, so they do let you get close. That is one reason I look for demonstrations, speeches, and other public goings on rather than just hanging out the street. As for hanging out on the street, I find if you are there and have stayed in one location for some time, people forget you are there and you can work without being hassled. As others have said, it helps to smile or make a comment on occasion (“You look great”). I did that with this couple: They started going at it and were laughing right along with me. Should have had them move the carmel corn bag. http://www.sanyasi-aesthetic.com/p855279000/h6aaba3d2#h6aaba3d2

                At the end of the day: I think most of us put too much pressure on ourselves, which is why Ming’s post may resonant with so many. Reality? It depends on whether you look at the photograph right after you processed it, or come back in six months or a year. You views on whether you captured reality will differ. So you will perceive the photographs of your kids that you take this weekend much differently when you look at them when your kids get married than when you look at them this Monday.


                Jack Siegel

                • Tom Liles says:

                  Jack, no, sorry, I wasn’t aiming those comments at you; that I’d be aiming anything except compliments at you was so unthinkable to me, when I was writing I didn’t think about it 🙂 And now you mention your William Klein exercise, I see I’ve really put my foot in it. Sorry Jack.

                  But this doesn’t change my opinion of the in-the-face flash shot, done on the street, to people going about their daily lives [the event you mentioned, where you are obvious and anticipated, is different by kind not degree, I think]. This practice, the strobe snipery, is about as anti-humanist as it gets in my opinion. The basic idea is: no-one, no normal person, wants a point blank flash photo in the face, unannounced and uninvited, while they are getting from A to B, going about their business. There are privacy arguments, but it’s really one of human solidarity. I don’t want someone rolling up into my face and snapping a flash off; most people are the same => we don’t go around flash photoing each other in the face. We know this as “The Golden Rule”: what I wouldn’t like done to me, I won’t do to others. There’re millenia of human progress and civilization wrapped up in that simple precept. We owe where we are, right now, to it. But the selfish flash-assasins, demand to be different—for no reason other than their own personal satisfaction. I really can’t think of any more plainly piggish act that than the flash photo of unsuspecting pedestrians, point blank. And usually people targeted because they look a bit funny. Just look how many people take photos of the homeless. On the SWC903 thread someone introduced the work of a Japanese photographer [who shot everything with a Hasselblad 903SWC], I forget his name and can’t be bothered to go find it now, he had done this exact thing, lots of homeless people—but his treatment was so different, in a really good way. He co-opted the subject, invited them to have their picture taken [though this usually leads to very boring photos, so that’s why I liked him, he went the hard way, and got there]: he wasn’t mocking them, in the unthinking way others do, his photos seemed to laud them: they were characters, people of worth and interest. I liked it. But that’s definitely the exception. Many photogs [just being people, at the end of the day] go for the funny looking OAPs, the mildly disabled, the mentally ill, the homeless, the ugly, the underachievers and losers in life. It’s very zoological; almost bullying in a way; and ultimately treats people as something like prey –> most of all a means to an end. And that end, what your view of its value is, is really the crux.

                  Photographs are akin to one liners to me. Nothing more or deeper than that. I’m sure I won’t win many friends here by bringing my view up again, but there it is. And it does follow that, on a scale of things, I think photography is quite low down and not much to get excited about. I love HCB [to use a cliche a reference as I can] as much as the next guy and could sit and listen to the man talk for the rest of my days. He’s a Titan. And at the same time, just another mammal in the long line of mammals that ever lived. I like his portrait of Coco Chanel the most [and after what I’ve been talking about over these posts, I’m sure that makes no sense and sounds very hypocritical—it’s nonetheless honest, though]. I revere the man and his images, above all this Coco Chanel image; yet I challenge HCB himself or anyone who supports and loves him, to answer the question “So What?”

                  I mean, plumbers, dustbin men, civil engineers, computer programmers, etc., etc all have a tangible use and meaning in the World. They leave something objective in the World but with a status above merely “object,” (i.e., rather than just “tap” –> “working tap” and all that follows from taps that work) that they can easily point to and say “I did that.” And without whose existence and participation in the World, the wheels would fall off the whole enterprise of our modern life.
                  Living back in the UK the Christmas before last, our hot water boiler broke down: my son was still only few months old at the time: without hot water, in the dead of winter, with young ones to look after, we were sharply reminded of how critical to our lives something as taken for granted as warm/hot water is. Ming sometimes speaks of a Hierarchy of Needs/Wants/Desires from the social sciences — Maslow? — I forget and don’t have time to look it up; but this theme I’m on here isn’t entirely that—Maslow invites the thought that art is a necessary luxury [something we get up to when we’ve got the food/hot water/ stuff sorted]. I think it’s just a plain necessity: proven by the fact there really are starving artists –> and there were caveman artists too [who definitely DID NOT have their surroundings under control]. Art is necessary, for the soul. Yes, I agree. But are photos as important as this? I think the photographers should also answer themselves: it doesn’t have to be written or spoken, but I invite them to answer “So What?” Images as obviously worthy as HCB, etc., would have trouble making a vigorous case; what does this say about the work of the flashing space invaders? Who at very best can only claim to have been in the right place at the right time; and still, then, produced an image at the expense of their subject’s dignity…

                  I don’t think the ends justify the means.

                  The couple kissing couldn’t be more different, Jack. A nice picture. Who can’t join in the smile on that one. That is co-creation, a mirror of what happens when I look at the photo—with you the only constant on either side. Brilliant.
                  [yeah, if you hadn’t told me, would I have known? No. Would it have mattered? Yes. Go figure]

                  Speaking to a friend about pictures of the kids and he told me his Mum and Dad gave him a picture book, all of him, for his 20th birthday. He said it was nice to see himself growing up and seeing the memories, again. But he said what he really wanted was pictures of his parents, with him, in the frame—as they were. I’m sure my kids will never believe it in the future when they are 20, but their Mum and Dad were young too, once. Wore fashionable clothes and looked forward to life, just as the future kids will be doing. That gestalt shift probably does a lot to us psychologically, to see our parents, as ourselves, now.

                  Cheers Jack.

                  I’ve been really lucky the last couple of days to connect with some people, yourself included Jack, that are capable of imaging on a level that is really on another planet [not just plane] to me. While I don’t think much of Photographs in the big scheme of things, or photographers as agents in the World, I do want you to know I am in amazement of what you’re all capable of. And I want to get there myself. Most of all, to understand that where I’m coming from is not garden variety iconoclasm or contrarianism, that one of my favorite books was Camus’s Sisyphus. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t mean anything; that’s the point. So my answer to “So What?” is “Yes. So what?”

                  • Hi Tom. This is not to challenge your “so what?” comment, but I have something for you to consider. Without the artists, we lose a large portion of history. It’s not just recording the scenes and events. It is an expression of the feelings and attitudes of a time. Art is a look into the sole of the artists, even when we don’t know exactly what they were thinking. The puzzle is not to figure out what the artist was thinking, because it is the mind’s eye of the viewer that completes the image.

                    • That’s a good point. I’ve been forming the seeds of an article on how various eras in history have different ‘colors’ because of the interpretations, artists and popular media of the time (think 60s and slightly washed out color neg film), but it’s slow going…

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Ah what a shock 😦 I wrote a decent reply to you there Gordon and it looks as though it’s been lost to the ether…


          • Don’t take this the wrong way, Tom, but isn’t the psychological/ emotional impact of images like this due to observer bias and your brain filling in the blanks? I’m sure I’d feel differently if a) it was a random kid b) a friend’s daughter c) my daughter – even if the image itself doesn’t change.

            • Tom Liles says:

              Of course not! I value honesty more than anything. Even myself.

              But I think this illustrates the ultimately selfish nature of both the photographer and the viewer, i.e., humans generally. We demand it mean something to us, do something to us. And when it doesn’t we question the value. As you say, does that change, though, for me the value/emotion in a picture of my daughter? I think this does have a bearing on its objective worth.

              So I honestly think that pic has something. Why I feel it’s my best. Even if the entire population of planet Earth says “no, that’s not your best.” They’re wrong.

              This is all more like a religious faith to me, though, let’s remember!

        • True – but the difference is one of conscious choice. I don’t necessarily think all hipstagrammers would choose the output they do if they were aware of the options; some care, most don’t. Surrendering that creative choice weakens the end result because there’s one more element of control that was left to somebody else and not necessarily suiting the message – if there was even one to begin with.

          Whilst shooting different things/ different places/ changing any part of the process can certainly yield creative dividends, I’m not so sure about change for the sake of it, or taking personal risks just in the hopes of getting a good image – that seems a bit too random to me…but then again, I’m squarely in the formalist camp 🙂

  35. Wonderful post. It got me thinking about a particular tree I’ve shot hundreds (if not thousands) of times. Perhaps the problem isn’t with the photography format itself. Perhaps the problem is how we all approach it. More specifically, the problem may be with the photograph (singular), not photography. While a single photograph has the problems you and others mentioned, photography doesn’t have to be a single image of a scene or a subject. What if the clarity of perception (strictly in the visual sense) could be achieved with many individual photographs of the same scene or subject? I’m not talking about motion pictures, although maybe I am unintentionally (or maybe I’m unintentionally talking about time lapse work in a sense)…I’m talking about a single gallery of many images of the same subject, each with different focal points (such as our eyes naturally create when viewing a scene), different color palettes, some hyper-saturated, some natural tones, underexposed, overexposed. Some black and white. Some with all the different things that our eyes and brain naturally team up to do in real time in the real world to make a visual sense of a scene.

    Within the context of this one tree that I shoot often, my problem has been that I’ve tried a million ways to shoot it to represent it exactly, in perfect clarity, as I see it when I’m in its presence. But I fail every single time. Your post today made me realize maybe my problem is that it can’t be captured in a single frame.

    Or maybe photography really just can’t ever realize that kind of clarity. Maybe photography is analogous to the social sciences like economics. The best model can still only be at best a rough approximation.

    • Many interpretations of the same subject is an interesting idea, but surely this would just result in a *lack* of clarity due to crystallizing the range of possible interpretations? I’d imagine a single image to be more definitive…

      • Not necessarily, since a viewer’s brain could (emphasis on *could.* I really have no idea) create a mental composite (compositing digitally usually results in something wholly unnatural) of all the images into something more like clarity. When I think of a gallery of travel photography in one single city, for example. The city is the subject. And no single photograph develops a clarity for the whole of the project, but the subject (in my mind, the clarity of the subject) is enhanced by viewing all the images in collection.

        A single image has the problem that it can only be definitive of one focus, of one perspective, of one exposure, of one moment in time. The benefit to multiple images is that it can let a viewer’s brain make a composite of several foci, of several perspectives, of several exposures, of several moments, that is a closer approximation to the way our eyes and brain composite the world.

        • That might work if there weren’t too many other distracting elements for the viewer to process, like differing styles or wild perspectives, for instance. This is probably part of the reason why photoessays work in presenting a complete impression of something rather than just a single image. It isn’t always practical, however, which is why I’m keen to explore the limits of the single image…

      • Michael Matthews says:

        For anyone with a fondness for…no, I’ll take just plain tolerance toward…British TV mystery series, consider the following:

        Netflix/Midsomer Murders/Series 10 Episode 6 “A Picture of Innocence”.

        A sense or humor would be helpful.

  36. The clarity you talk about is called video.

    • No it isn’t. You can’t make a print of a video…

      • not yet…

        • Tom Liles says:

          I’m not sure what we all mean by “print” here… But is video is a print. A temporaly dynamic, rather than static, one. And if you want the static version: you can just pull out the magnetic tape?

          • Tom Liles says:

            *video is
            *is video is

          • I mean a still you can hang on the wall, of course. But therein I suppose lies a disconnect in itself: the real world moves…

            • Tom Liles says:

              There’s the new Sony Bravia 4K sets with triluminds technology for that MT 🙂

              I’m saving for mine, to hang on a wall.
              [and never leave the house again => I have a film collection that’s 24 removals boxes deep. And counting.]

  37. Perhaps true and complete fidelity of reproduction is not to be desired . . . The data load Reality presents us is unfashionably large. We rely on our brains to sift thru it and to winnow it down to a mentally and emotionally manageable “image.” Our photography does the same and, hopefully, brings more focus to those elements of emotion that the reality of the scene evoked in us. Also to consider is that the intercession of the lens and the camera’s inability to render reality with total fidelity offers us a degree of emotional protection . . . reality can be overwhelming, even frightening, but when viewed thru the plane of glass (lens or otherwise) or past the curtain line of a stage reality is “removed” from us even by inches and we feel safe from its awesome effects. My conclusion? The lack of clarity of which you write is not all bad. Btw, I love and am grateful for the insights you share in your posts.

    • The idea of emotional protection against reality is an interesting one. Maybe that’s precisely what I’m looking for, though: that awesome punch when you hit a nerve. I’d bet that would be one powerful image; unlocking the ability to use that at will would certainly make some interesting photographs…but it has to transcend pure graphic content; that is a tried and tested route.

  38. Hmm.. I think you are pushing a little too hard here Ming. Firstly, ‘photography as an artistic medium is limited’. True, but name me an artistic medium that is not? Painting is far more limited by the artist’s skill – although as a painter you can visualize anything, in a way the camera cannot hope to show, you have to be able to paint it. Sculpture is as equally static as painting (and more so than video, which is arguably a branch of photography).
    You then suggest that the medium is getting better, with the gap between what we see and what we can capture narrowing. I would respond that some of the most powerful pictures I have seen are from the first century of photography – from the civil war portraits, through Cartier-Bresson to Capa to Vietnam by a number of photographers. Their vision, subject and skill arrest the viewer, irrespective of the limitations of their equipment.
    This article reads more as a sense of frustration with your own ‘state of play’ than an objective comment on the art. Photography, for all its warts, remains the most fascinating of the arts for me, precisely because it has this striking tension between hard reality and artistic vision, married to the whole ‘art verses craft’ aspect of marrying a technical, process focused mastery with a personal artistic vision.
    Just don’t stop! On a broad perspective, the better you get, the more self-critical you become – so you must be doing well…

    • Jan, yes, all artistic media are limited – that’s a given. Painting is limited by the artist, photography is limited by the physical reality in front of the lens. A powerful image is an evocative one, but not necessarily a realistic one: I’m talking about examining realism here. Frustration in the state of play? Definitely. If you’re not questioning why you’re doing what you’re doing, then you’re not improving…

  39. David Challenor says:

    Hi Ming, Thinking on what you wrote, and on a less intellectual note, I am looking out of my window at a wonderful scene, here in the Algarve, Portugal. It is a warm crystal clear day. The trees and bushes in my garden are full of various shades of green and copper brown, beyond are fields with yellow dry grasses dotted with bright green bushes, alive and sparkling. At a distance are the blue tinged hills silhouetted against a deep blue sky. The birds are singing and a light breeze sways the grasses and branches of the plants. There is a sweet smell in the air. The scene has no bokeh, rule of thirds or HDR, etc. If I were to take a technically perfect picture right now of the view as I see it, I know the print will look very ordinary and not impress anyone. Our literal picture would fall flat. However, it would remind me of a special moment in time. On the other hand an experienced photographer would see many possibilities in the scene and could possibly conceive many pictures using some of the numerous photographic techniques available.At this stage we would be manipulative.In my opinion you are right in recognising something is missing in our pictures, but surely it is all the other non photographic elements that are missing.At best photography can only be what it is..Visual sense only and in two dimensions.Thanks for your interesting thoughts.

    • Hi David, you are absolutely right: there’s more than one sense at work here. But even if we tried to capture purely the visual portion, I suspect we’d fall flat. Maybe we need the interpretative aspect to force our subconscious to focus on certain elements of the scene over others and in turn evoke the right feelings from our memory of experiences…

      • David Challenor says:

        Hi Ming, In my opinion real satisfaction from achievement only comes if you firstly have a clear objective in mind.It does not matter what the objective is provided you are clear yourself.We are all our own best judges as to whether we have succeeded. Having achieved satisfaction for ourselves we can only hope it may be shared by others.I think we are today bombarded, through all the media with millions of mindless pics, just because its easy and satisfies some individuals desire to be noticed. Once in a while a picture will hit you because it is trying to communicate something that the original photographer was trying to say, and it stimulates some emotion.Comments so often used like “nice pic” do not mean much, but ” That pic made me feel something” would be a real compliment . Maybe part of the missing “something” in a photograph is this lack of a real objective to communicate something meaningful .With todays technology taking pics has become too easy and mindless. Maybe the trend back to simple film cameras and fewer pics is telling us something?

        • More thinking, less randomness? I can certainly say I have an objective for every image; I have a previsualized outcome, too. But sometimes, the technology falls short…

  40. David Beaton says:

    To answer your question I would say ‘yes’ there is a lot missing in many (most?) of my images – primarily because although I think I’m improving I am not yet a good photographer. But surely the real issue is to accept that all photographs are just a unique representation of an image seen by the eye. The representation can be affected by lens size, shutter speed, ISO, filters, post processing, etc etc.. Sometimes the representation is deliberate and calculating sometimes random and lucky. I find that most of my favorite photos are technically not that great but just convey a pleasing or interesting composition and what makes it pleasing or interesting to me in one photo is not the same as in another and others may take a different view altogether. I suppose what I’m trying to say is beauty is in the eye of the beholder – a Picasso is a worthy as a Constable if you happen to like it. Just my 2 cents.

    • Sometimes we see – previsualize – an effect the camera can reproduce as a result of being biased by prior experience with the camera; sometimes we see something but fail to be able to execute. The representation/ reproduction should never be random; at least personally I know that what I produce is about as close to the intention as I can manage – sometimes it hits, sometimes there are external factors that get in the way. Perhaps fundamentally I’m a little frustrated by some of the inherent restrictions of the medium as a pure reproducer as opposed to an interpretative one…

  41. Dear Ming,

    What your article so clearly portrays is the yogic understanding and definition of Maya: The Illusory World. It has been said in many ways that the world of the senses is seen, felt, tasted and touched by the corporeal self. And given that the body, mind and emotions are integral parts of the flesh-based existence, they cannot be interpreted as real. Sure, you can walk out into the street and get the body killed by a bus, but yoga, Tantra and occult understandings teach that the Higher Self is something apart from, not a part of the human experience of existence, which is finite… Which was exactly Krishna’s point with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: Their swords can only kill your body, they cannot kill You…

    There is a tone of frustration in your impeccably written article which to my ears, speaks of an experience of Realization. Your Higher Self is speaking to you and it’s perceptions cannot quite find the proverbial “light of day” because of the inevitable signal loss between your Center, the subject and the signal degradation caused by the machinations of throughput. Indeed, the signal path gets cleaner with years and technological advance, but the principals of yogic wisdom will always rear their heads to one who is enlightened. Given your background and skill sets, it would be my supposition that nothing we create will ever be as good as we wish because we know, inwardly, that there is more than meets the eye, whether in the viewfinder, the LCD, the screen or the print.

    But this is the High Magic of Initiation. Like Morpheus said of the Matrix: it’s something you cannot feel, see, taste or touch, but yet, you know it’s there…” My question is whether or not or technology will ultimately bridge the gap between these two worlds of perception and true reality…

    Lao Tzu said “the truth cannot be spoken, if it is spoken, it cannot be true”. Your article is indeed an affirmation of this and many other ancient gifts of knowing… The article talks about this gap.

    Thank you!

    • There’s definitely some frustration and signal loss here – my perception, the camera’s limitations, the display medium’s limitations, the viewer’s display limitations, the viewer’s secular/ experiential/ knowledge biases etc. – I’m trying to figure out a way to overcome this in images given in order to convey the same fundamental feeling or experience to the end viewer. I don’t know if this is even possible, to be honest. And even trying to figure out precisely what it is that’s missing is tough, because I feel that we lack the language to even describe it in the first place…

  42. This is very a interesting topic but at the end of the day I found it strictly related first with our phylosophic view of reality and secondly only with photography. In my view reality is just a matter of our personal interpretation, so there is no such thing as a “reality as it is”, but only a “reality as we see it”. We can see it through our eyes, through a lens or through a viewfinder but. Subject always matters as much as the object. For this reasons I found a little non-sense trying to picture the reality through the lens as if we’re doing it through our eyes.

    • Photography is philosophical by nature: it’s your interpretation of my interpretation of reality. Both interactions are affected by own personal biases. The intended end result is precisely that though: reproducing what we see without the coloration of equipment or other technical limitations. Why would this be nonsense? Isn’t this ultimately the end purpose of photography?

      • Because “reproducing what we see without the coloration of equipment or other technical limitations” it is (IMO) just impossible. I think that the ultimate purpose of photography is to give an interpretation to reality, not reproduce it. Just think about the b&w photography: no b&w will ever be a “reproduction” just because the world isn’t black or white.

        • Not really: we cannot remove our interpretation bias, but the ability of our equipment to accommodate that keeps increasing, to eventually reach a point where the limitation is on us.

          B&W is a separate discussion – it is a representation of luminance independent of colour – it has to be, by definition – which is in itself a reproduction of reality through a different bias.

          • Personally, I do not feel so comfortable in thinking equipment as a mere tool for reproducing the reality as it is. Remember that in some cases equipment is more powerful than human eyes: you can’t zoom with you eyes, you can’t wide view and you can’t “macro” view. I do not think there are such big limitations related to gear and equipment today.

            • Those are limitations of perspective, not equipment – we can visualize these and other perspectives and exposures, but not always execute them.

      • I must admit that I enjoy the results that seem to come along with technical improvements to equipment. I appreciate the beauty conveyed by certain images, beauty that I believe would have been missed or much more difficult to perceive if the sensor had been more primitive, the optics shoddy, etc. I find it easier to be transported to that street with the weathered, peeling paint on sun-drenched walls if the image was executed well with gear that was up to the task. Is that the equivalent of painting with a more brilliant colored pigment?

        “The intended end result is precisely that though: reproducing what we see without the coloration of equipment or other technical limitations.”

        Yes and while advances in technology have some benefits and allure, it may be profitable for some to keep in mind that advances in technology or increasing capabilities (eliminating technical limitations) of the medium, taken by themselves, are insufficient either to describe or produce the desired end results.

        Is the intended end of photography usually to create a completely neutral representation of “data”, to provide a spreadsheet so that the viewer can consume and interpret sterile but thorough and realistic data? Is the end of photography to build a virtual reality machine — ultimately a kind of avatar — so the viewer can stand in the same place the photographer once stood?

        Probably with most people the answer is “no” to those last two questions; the photographer is probably not seeking to play the role of an engineer developing an avatar for others to use, no matter how perfected the avatar might eventually be.

        • In my mind at least, the purpose of the gear is to produce a completely neutral representation of data according to the biases we choose to impose on the camera – exposure, angle of view etc. I don’t think we’re there yet. Definitely NOT the spreadsheet, though – heaven forbid photographers turn into bean counters – I’ve been one before, and there’s no way I’d go back! 🙂

          • I’m not sure the Lomo folks would exactly agree with you, but I suppose I would go along with you. Even so, it’s nagged at me a bit that other art forms (e.g. oil paintings) exist which have works that seemingly don’t inspire people to comment that “something seems to be missing…”

            I haven’t tested the notion but perhaps different art forms have differing fundamental requirements for works to feel “complete”, “clear”, excellent? Perhaps oil paintings rely on ability to distill an idea or emotion without reality; perhaps photographs on the other hand need to move towards increasing qualities of reality?

            There are so many comments here I’m not certain whether you mentioned whether or not you feel something missing is missing (in the same way as photography) when you consider other art forms?

            • Oh, definitely: something is missing from every art form; however eh thing with photography is that it’s the one that comes the closest to representing reality (except perhaps mixed-media sculpture) – so there’s a greater expectation on the part of both artist and creator that it should match.

  43. Thanks for posting this Ming. I’m off the view that ambiguity always adds value to a picture and allows / encourages the viewer to remain with it longer.

    • This leads back partially to the questions of subject isolation and bokeh: you need enough ambiguity to hold the view and provoke thought, but not so much that we struggle to identify exactly what’s going on.

  44. It’s a good read. 🙂 Personally I think that people’s hunt for “Hollywood style” saturation, HDR photos, and so on is precisely *because* our output devices are so poor at reproducing reality. If our displays displayed photos from a D800 in their full clarity, I think this would actually go out of fashion, because such manipulated photos would end up looking completely over the top. Yes, many think they do already, but that’s nothing in comparison to how they would change with a revolution in output devices and I think even amateurs who’re fans of these methods would start realizing what’s wrong.

    • Thank you, Jonas. Here’s the question, though: why go for hyperreality as a substitute for regular reality when by its very nature it can’t satisfy? I agree with you though: the nature of the display medium/ output device plays a huge role in our perception of the finished image. There’s no question that the overprocessed stuff looks really retina-searing on a good monitor. I wonder if that’s at least partially responsible for my quest for neutrality…

  45. Hi Ming, with this article you nailed it again. Very, very interesting and enough stuff for several book projects and years of contemplation..! To make it short, I think that the beauty of photography lies in the fact that it can be both a medium to represent reality as well one of art which – as Gurskys photography – contains of full control of the creation of the imaging process. I saw a documentary on Gursky and his images are far away from representing reality having the character of projects with an initial phase of long term planning, the actual shooting situation and again a longer phase of very detailed and important post processing development.

    Maybe the two dimensional character of photography is it’s real strength. It reminds me of the potential that our dreams have where reality and interpretative portions mix up. In fact many of our dreams have an interpretative character, because they bring on a visual plane not only our rational and intellectual experience but also other entities of heart, soul and spirit which we are usually not so aware of, but they exist and they do have an effect on our personalities, our decisions and lives. Something that spiritual traditions of every religion pick as central theme…. If you’re searching for the realism in an image than I think first of all one has to stop using different focal lengths. Every other focal length than 50-55mm is interpretative and like you – as far as I understood – I’m struggling with this focal length because it can be boring if you’re not mastering it, wide angle and tele focal lengths make it easier to create an effect on the beholder of the image…. but at the same time it’s the real challenge to make stunning pictures with this focal length and eliminate interpretative elements…

    Also I think that human beings are not realistic themselves. Our view on the world ALWAYS is interpretative this starts with the perception of colors as well the fact that how we see something is also depending on our past experiences, our current feelings in the moment of beholding, our associations with the imaginal components, etc. Our common view on the world is one of an agreement on how to see it, but is restricted to our intellectual perception and this is also the fundamental argument for humanly communication. So this is the question that moves me to photograph the world around me: What is reality, how are things really in themselve, what do they tell us and how are they NOT VEILED by our personal experiences, associations, our personal background etc.. In so far photography is a constant source of inspiration for me.
    So far now… I will read your article some more times …. real food for the intellect and meditation…. Thanks very much, great piece of PP – photographic philosophy!!!

    • Thanks Faruk. I’m actually finding myself becoming increasingly drawn towards normal FOVs; I think the mismatch/ challenge is not in the FOV per se, but matching it to the right format: the ‘normal’ lens feels much more natural to me on say, a 6×6, than it does on M4/3. Different FLs having different drawing styles and all that.

      Realism vs clarity and bias/ interpretation: so far as we can try to be objective, the challenge – for me at least – comes in attempting to replicate that ‘objective view’ in an image. So far, I don’t think I’ve quite succeeded yet. Part of the challenge may well boil down to nothing more than physiology: photographs are two dimensional by nature, and rely on projections of light to have any suggestion of depth. Light itself is somewhat subjective because even the direction of shadows depends on the point of view of the observer…

    • Tom Liles says:

      Hello Faruk. Excuse me for diving in, but yours was a great comment and reading it I had exactly the same thought, from the same experience, that Ming mentions in the first paragraph of his reply.

      I took my Panasonic DMC-L1 out with me today. That’s a 4/3 format camera [for digital, it’s old now => the format and the camera!]; if you’re familiar with crop factors, I’m sure you are, 4/3 is x2 crop. Mounted on the DMC-L1 I have one of my, once, favorite lenses: the Leica D Summilux 25mm. Because of the crop factor, this focal length translates to a 50mm field of view, in 35mm camera speak. I also put the DMC’s kit lens — a zoom, the only zoom lens I own as it happens, the Vario Elmaritt 14-50 f/2.8-3.5 — in my bag. After a while, the D Summilux was off, the Vario Elmaritt on, and I continued the rest of the day on 14mm (28) and 35mm (70). Looking through the finder, I was happier with the frames of the World at these lengths. But, getting back to the computer and uploading my images for the day; the pictures I got with the 25mm were quite good, I kept most of them. And I threw away more than 80% of the 14mm and 35mm ones. I’m completely in love with myself and think I’m a living photographic legend, so throwing away that many is a real rarity for me. But! even though I kept more of the 25mm shots today, they didn’t feel good through the finder; and even though on the computer they were better, this was only comparatively so. I didn’t really get any strong images from the 25mm today [anything that made my eyebrows go up].
      I also have an “FX” format camera: Nikon speak for “full size” [as we all seem to call it –> though it’s all relative: when I started, start of this year, I was petrified of “FX.” This was when all I’d used was “DX.” Now I’ve used FX and now I’ve gone bigger again and started with medium format, the 35mm “FX” almost seems like a toy format to me—imagine how large format ye olde camera photogs feel!]. Anyway, FX. I have an old Nikon auto index or “Ai” lens I like in the 50mm focal length: an Ai 50 f/2—they’re not famous or popular, but do the job. I first bought this lens to go on an APS-C sized “DX” sensor camera my wife owned, the Nikon D60. Since the crop factor there is about x1.5, the Nikkor gave me a FOV like 75mm: mild telephoto. And on the APS-C camera, the D60, I had a modern Nikon lens, the AF-S 35mm 1.8G, a specially designed “DX” lens [which I actually like using on my FX camera for the huge vignetting]. The 35mm AF-S gave me the 50mm field of view on the D60.
      Lastly, I have a (digital) rangefinder camera — the Epson R-D1s — with an APS-C sized sensor. Rangefinder lenses have a whole different mount schema to single lens reflex cameras, so the lenses are designed and perform differently. I have only one lens for my Epson: a Cosina Voigtlander 35mm f/2.5 Color Skopar. Because of the x1.5 crop factor, in terms of FOV, that acts like a 50mm lens…

      So that’s four different cameras, three different formats — 4/3, FX, DX/APS-C — that I can get the same field of view on. I’m just a beginner, but through relentless picture taking I really get what Ming was saying. I noticed the results of it: same FOV different cameras; but some pics I liked, some I didn’t –> but didn’t know why. Or if it was just me? The difference is slight, I doubt laymen would be able to put their fingers on it, and there are depth of field effects going on too, but the point is: all those cameras render differently; and even though the big picture — the World inside the frame — is the same for each, some of the frames, finished photos I mean, just feel pen-penultimate or uninteresting to me, others not. Actually, only one camera’s 50mm feels “there” and right and interesting to me. Can you guess which one?

      The Epson rangefinder!

      It isn’t coincidence that I’ve never added to the lens arsenal there. I don’t need it. That one CV lens is all I need. And as a matter of fact, for all my rabid picture taking with other cameras, somehow, I really don’t know how I did it, I have more photos, kept, from my Epson than any other camera. All down to the FOV + the format, no mistake.

      Have you found this Faruk? Try 50mm on some different stuff—you might find something that works for you.

      I’m sorry to have been so literal on such a philosophic thread and comment. Very unlike me 😮

      • Thanks very much Tom for your comment. Very appreciated! It opened my eyes for some facts I had overseen in the past. Actually I must tell that when i had the Nikon j1 for some while I also had bought the Nikkor 18,5mm f1,8. Actually this lens with its 50mm equivalent focal length didn’t leave the camera until I sold it again, I loved it for many reasons. It was fun using it. To make it short, I remember many discussions on lenses with this focal length and really most of the people when writing about the Panasonic/Leica 25mm for m43 or the Fuji 35mm f1,4 or the Nikkor 18,5mm talked about them as their “favorite lens”, “always on”, “my walk around lens” etc. Meanwhile I think that it’s actually a psychological matter when I say that I struggle with the seemingly” boring view of this standard focal length, I think some people – me included – just don’t want to see – often unconsciously – the reality on their pictures and are favouring “unusual” focal lengths – which not necessarily is a bad thing. If it wouldn’t be a matter of affordability I would currently buy either the Fujinon 35mm for my new x-e1 or the Oly E-P5 or Pana GX7 together with the Panasonic 25mm. However i must also admit that Ming is totally right when he says concerning the standard view of 50mm that the beauty of it is connected also to the square format of the Hasselblad, I must say that square format’s becoming also one of my favorite formats. Could’nt tell you why at the moment… Very interesting is your mentioning the Epson RD-1. Again it’s only a matter of affordability in my current situation and for sure I would have bought one if I could have found a valuable unit of it! I only know this camera from searching the web for pictures taken with this camera. Not only that the output of it can be the nearest to film produced by any digital camera. More than that for my personal taste it’s the only camera of which I’d say it can produce images that I would declare as miracolous or magical… The colour rendering and contrast for my taste seems to be fabulous and the images do have this dreamy character I mentioned in my comment when I compared the two dimensionality of dreams with the photographic media…. Thanks for your comment again. Care well for your Epson Rangefinder and continue having fun with your cameras! Cheers, Faruk

        • Ian Christie says:

          Thanks to Ming for a brilliant article, one of the best I have ever read on the limitations and mysteries of photography. It chimes very much with thoughts I have had, but could not express so eloquently.
          Faruk and Tom – your points are well made and I agree about the R-D1: I am beginning to suspect that 5-6 mp sensors were some kind of ‘sweet spot’ but we haven’t recognised it. And around 80% of the photos I have ever taken, and 90% of those I am almost happy with, were taken with lenses of 40mm and equivalent focal lengths – the ‘perfect normal’ lens which is neither too wide or too long. As Mike Johnston once said, more extreme lenses draw attention to themselves – the picture becomes a demonstration of what the lens does to reality, whereas a 40mm or equivalent gets us closer to the scene itself.
          But can we do justice to the scene itself? I think the few photographs I have ever seen that do this, and the even fewer I have taken that get somewhere close, are a fusion of faithful record (it looked like this at that time) with a quality that evokes in us a sense that the picture is also telling another kind of truth (it felt like this; and this feeling transcends this photo; and something essential , universal, ‘timeless’, has been unveiled about the place, person, emotions in question). It is extraordinarily hard to pin down, but we know it when we see it, because the seeing always goes with a feeling. With most images, there is just something to see – not much to feel, if anything.
          Let me commend a great photograph that I think makes the point more vividly than I can hope to do: Willy Ronis, Avenue Simon-Bolivar, Paris, 1950: a black and white image of a street scene that somehow says profound things about the place and time AND about any such street scene any time.

          • Thanks Ian. The visual prominence of extreme FLs are a consequence of unnatural perspectives: we simply cannot relate to 15mm or 1000mm because our own eyes simply cannot see that way. It might well be different for a fly…

            As for sweet spots, I think that might have been something to do with sensor technology more than resolution. We didn’t have anything similar for film, for instance; bigger was always better.

            I looked up the image you referenced – that’s a great one. There’s structure but at the same time the kind of slight chaotic imperfection that signals it wasn’t staged; the light is brilliant; the frame is balanced, and yes, it’s evocative of a time and place. It’s also not that great technically. Clarity of idea: definitely. Does it put me there? It does in my mind, but I’m definitely conscious that it’s it’s my imagination that’s completing the loop, not my eyes. I suspect because of that requirement for our social-cultural ‘experiential’, memory to bridge the gap, somebody who’s never been to Europe or studied history/ architecture etc. would not be able to appreciate it in the same way.

          • Thanks Ian for this helpful comment and thanks Ming for your answer to it. Yes, you nailed it and put in words better than me what I’ve been feeling… The focal length of 40mm is definitely the most versatile as you say. I’ve used for some time the pana 20mm for m43 and it’s delivering stunning results. I sold it because I didn’t like the somehow nervous bokeh it delivered. And I feel that the micro contrast of the Panasonic 25mm for m43 or the Fujinon 35mm for x-mount deliver a more pleasing microcontrast. But that’s lamenting on a high level. Think it’s time for a compact camera like the Ricoh GR with a fixed focal length of 40-45mm for the second Jacket pouch! I also used the DP2 Merrill with its 45mm equivalent focal length. Here it was the software that made me sell it again. However the Epson RD-1 seems to be a jewel on its own. It’s on my wish list, but at the moment it would be pure luxury to buy it…. and thanks for the mentioning of Willy Ronis. Didn’t know that before. It’s a brilliant image and I wrote some note on it in my answer to Toms comment…

            • Ian Christie says:

              Thanks Faruk. Agreed! I had the GR1 for years and always wished it came with a 40mm. I use the Sigma DP2s, which is the closest the digital era has come to the great old Rollei 35 (with 40mm lens), and the R-D1s with a 28mm Elmarit, which becomes a 40mm-equivalent on it. The R-D1 handles beautifully, has a 1:1 finder and makes the most of the 6mp on the sensor. Keep saving for it…

              • Hopefully one day there’ll be another GT converter for the GR to give us a slightly longer view…I can only guess this wasn’t that popular with the original GRD, hence the lack of a follow up version…

          • Tom Liles says:

            Hi Ian, kids dying to get to the park, but I’ll make them wait just a sec to bob in and thank you for that comment, and bask some more in the adoration for the Epson R-D1s. When I researched and bought one, I came across a comment by a chap on rangefinder forum, or some place like that, to the effect: the R-D1 was as perfect as it is ever going to be.
            The strange choice of tenses [all three in one!] threw me a little, but I don’t think they are a mistake and the line does still say something; though from a grammatical standpoint, it doesn’t bear scrutiny [most spoken language, and language in general, doesn’t, as it happens: and this is a non-trivial point—a few philosophers and academics have made careers on the foibles of language –> a proxy for how your mind works. Stephen Pinker is one of the more prominent and enjoyable authors on just his topic. Anyway, let’s not worry about incorrect grammar—I’m a copywriter and I’ve gone the full circle from language as I spoke it; to porcelain polished and perfect lines, back to unkempt prose: because that’s what works].

            In a way I feel like if they updated or changed anything to it—it’d kill what they have. Just the simple act of trying would be enough to destroy the mystique.

            And that said, I’d still like them to try 😛

            • They did that with the D700 and ruined it in the D800…

            • Ian Christie says:

              Thanks Tom.
              Glad to meet a fellow admirer of the R-D1. I think of it as the ‘missing link’ camera, the one that bridges the gap between film and digital. You get files that really can look ‘film-like’ and you can use the camera almost exactly as you would a film machine: no chimping, a lever wind, no need whatsoever to delve into menus to set anything… It’s a shame Epson dropped it, but a miracle they produced it in the first place.
              Thanks again to MT for such a fine article and for inspiring a truly wonderful thread (not a phrase I often find myself using). Before I go, let me recommend another B&W photographer who came close to the ideal of ‘clarity’ that I think we are beginning to converge on… James Ravilious, documenter of the life of a rural community in SW England in the 70s and 80s. See ‘An English Eye’ and the website on him run by his widow Robin.
              Best wishes to all

              • Tom Liles says:

                Absolutely Ian: I’m really glad I went for the R-D1s [and the R-D1 would’ve been OK too, of course] because of that fold-away-able rear screen. Most people are probably going “?” reading us say this, but it really is true. You don’t need it.
                It might be the psychological benefit of something as simple as the screen being able to be folded away. I have tried with my other digitals to just not use the rear screen, but on them it’s right there. You can’t fold it away. You can’t not use it.
                And, yeah, I’m glad that even if you wanted to use it; it’d be a fools errand. The R-D1 and R-D1s’s screen itself isn’t that good and the menus were designed by grey beards who’d never used an electronic device before: it’s all the encouragement first-timers [who haven’t shot film before, like I hadn’t] need to try going without it. The liberation I felt when spending my first day with the R-D1s and without a rear screen was amazing. You get all the good things from the film camera experience, 1:1, without having to pay for mistakes or limit your shot taking [though the shutter cock and folding away the rear screen take care of that]. I use real film cameras now; but I feel you’re right Ian: this is the missing link and there’s plenty of useful DNA here that shouldn’t go to waste…
                [Though Epson went right ahead and started wasting it when they killed the foldable screen in the R-D1x. As you say though, we should thank our lucky stars someone was brave and nuts enough to even make the R-D1 for us, in the first place]

                The other thing about folding the screen away is it doesn’t get covered in nose and face grease. Which drives me INSANE. I go through wipes and cloths and lenspens [I have them for finder windows even] like the clappers. My cameras must be pristine, all the time. Absolute rule. My Mum probably dropped me when I was a baby.

                I’ll go and have a look at James Ravilious — in part because THAT IS A GREAT NAME OR WHAT — but of course mainly to see his photos; thanks for the tip Ian.
                Ah, without a doubt: this place — this site, these articles and comments — is the bomb isn’t it. What’s great about that is, a small part is all down to us. With eternal doffs of the cap and pats on the back and endless applause and Ewok parties for MT, for doing the big, big part and making the site.

                For free!

      • I hope not to confuse you on this Tom, but I want to give you an example. I have an adapter to place large Nikon F mount lenses on my Nikon V1. If I take a photo with the 28mm f1.8 FX format lens on my Nikon V1 (2.7 crop factor), then take a photo with my D3 (FX) with the same 28mm f1.8, at the same camera to subject distance; the depth of field is the same. If I crop the D3 shot to match the V1, then the images look about the same, other than the V1 has crammed more pixels into the same dimensions. Basically, a 28mm is a 28mm, even when you crop it. (Technically the circle of confusion is different, though that is best left for another discussion). This highlights one of the issues with small cameras, in that the focal lengths must be small to get the FoV near what you are accustomed to on larger cameras.

        The opposite is true of medium format and large format. Where this is important is that the FoV equivalents mean using longer focal length lenses. In these bigger cameras, if you cropped down to a 35mm frame size, it would appear the same as if you had it on a 35mm camera. So even when you match the FoV across many large and small cameras, using different focal length lenses will alter the appearance of the results. Anyway, I don’t want to start a technical discussion about optics, so I hope this suffices as a simple way to consider what you are seeing in your images.

        • The underlying point is this: different formats render differently for the same field of view.

        • Tom Liles says:

          Morning Gordon. Thanks for that: yes, so many sources don’t write about this clearly or just plain get it wrong, this stuff confused me greatly and — like overexposing for bright scenes and under dark ones — still requires an extra conscious step, a stop and think each time it comes up… The hazy explanations all over the internetz were frustrating enough that I ended up doing the DOF dance with a pencil and some paper, camera on a tripod pointed at a tree out the window, a few bodies and lenses and a laptop running PS and a DOF calculator. Just as you say — and as makes sense [in my head anyway] — the focal lengths written on our lens barrels or faces is what decides it: a mechanical property of the lens construction (and our feet back on solid ground). 28mm is 28mm.

          I actually like DOF differences the different formats introduce for the same effective field of view [but different focal length]. I’ve never been a a bokeh fan so that’s OK; but for stuff like zone focus or hyperfocal, the smaller sensors are great. But pulling in the other direction is that to do the classic zone focus thing when you’re out and about, wider angles are preferable—exactly what smaller formats, like 4/3, are not really good for. Even APS-C: I found the paucity of affordable wides just too annoying.

          Going back to my conversation with Faruk, there, what actually made me wonder, and continues to, was why the 35mm on the D60 and the 35mm on the R-D1s weren’t equally as pleasing to me. Same sensor size, therefore crop factor, same effective field of view… but one feels MUCH better than the other. This is where the crux is, I think. The lens mounts, and lens designs, were different. Things like focusing planes and probably a lot of other difficult and tiny optical stuff, that in the aggregate makes for a different feel to the photos.

          I do doubt myself though. When I say it, I sound just like a “Leica Effect” type.
          [and I know that pyschosomatic effects are not only possible but prevalent: the famous story about wine tasters and Riedel glasses to underline it]

          I’m currently reading “Optics in Photography” by Rudolf Kingslake. An old book, but even most of the stuff Newton found and wrote about still holds so…

        • Tom Liles says:

          P/S Gordon, I completely forgot to mention this — and it’s important — but 6×6 is unique because of the difference in diagonal—the conversions, if we should call them that, to 35mm equivalents are slightly suspect, I think.

          Of course this is true for any format that deviates from the 3:2 aspect: 4:3 (6:4.5)… but squares especially, I think. That’s where there’s just that something to the output of these cameras?

          Again, this could all be Leica Effect, so what do I know…

          • When we talk about rough 35 equivalents for the other formats, we’re referring to the approximate diagonal FOVs. As for squares – perhaps it’s the possibility of biaxial symmetry that isn’t quite as strong in the thinner formats?

  46. Funny you should write this now as over the weekend I was discussing something similar with a friend of mine with respect to my own work. I am working on a long term project examining how the internet is kicking cultural globalisation into hyperdrive. Bit of a mouthful i know and I wont bore you with the details, but in this context I feel a lot of my images are too literal, too blunt and don’t leave room for the viewers imagination. But when you let the viewers imagination loose the intent of the photographer can get lost. In the end that may not be a bad thing so long as there is deep engagement by the viewer.

    I would prefer to minimise the use of the studio for the project so my challenge becomes how to use real life situations to convey a somewhat abstract, or at least not commonly understood, concept.

    • Too much clarity, perhaps? Or too explicit a definition of the elements involved? A sort of impressionistic method of photography might be something interesting to explore…

  47. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Ming, that is a thought provoking piece. My view is there is so much reality out there to capture that it is really not a limitation at all. I view what you call the limitation of clarity as more of an inherent characteristic than a limitation. The frame (surprised you did not mention it) may be viewed as a limitation or in my view the defining characteristic of a photograph. In the end, it is a photograph and not reality. There are so many possibilities that the medium is not limited at all.

    Perhaps someday we will have a holodeck.

    • The frame imposes conscious exclusion: what we choose to leave out says just as much as what you include. I suppose it’s this exclusion that creates the impression of the photograph being a limited representation of reality…

      • Ron Scubadiver says:

        All I know is one can’t make a photograph without a frame. Exclusion is the key word.

        • Tom Liles says:

          Ron, it’s funny how our brains all differ, yet often get to the same point. I haven’t been taking photos that long — and would literally sell my own mother into slavery to be able to take pictures like Ming or you or any of the guys; I’m going the long way round and just practicing instead 🙂 — but ever since starting, my thought has always been: Inclusion is the key word.

          What do I want to photograph? –> get it in the frame.

          This is the same thing as you said, I suppose. You’re talking about excluding the things that aren’t relevant. I’m talking about including the thing(s) that is(are). I doubt we can ever know if the two approaches would give the same photograph; it can never be tested scientifically since time is unidirectional, and I doubt the same person could ever legitimately claim to be able to faithfully follow both processes; and two different photographers give two different photos, by definition. So there’s only gut feeling on this.

          All in all, time for my morning coffee, I think.

          • Ron Scubadiver says:

            Thank you for comparing me to Ming. All I know is the frame is essential. You can think of it as excluding or including, but in the end what you get is surrounded by a frame.

            Look for emotional content…

            • Tom Liles says:

              Ahh Ron, for sure I enjoyed your pictures => the beachside hut series you introduced us to on a thread a while back, they were great. I kick myself as I say it, because I hate the Flickr style “great shot,” “nice capture,” “love this,” stuff… because it just seems so blandly ungenuine.

              But yeah, I sat and looked at them, ever so slightly my head nodded. Got through the set and went “hmm” in an upbeat voice. Then looked at some more of your pictures.

              I enjoy your comments too!

              • Ron Scubadiver says:

                Tom, I am happy to get any comments. What concerns me more than uncreative comments is comments that are merely social.

            • Tom Liles says:

              The Belize sets?

              [Have just noticed all the updates –> there’s my 3pm tea break spoken for then!]

  48. It was while recently watching an experienced artist work on a painting that I experienced the sensation of something missing or constraining in photography. That painter represented a scene, or rather conveyed something about an experience of the scene, by not attempting to be accurate or precise at all. His technique of not bothering himself too much with accurate or precise reality reminded me powerfully of the Picasso quote.

    One might wonder how many pixels of information were generated by the number of brushstrokes he took vs, say, the information captured by a D800E.

    As far as output medium is concerned, an oil painting is also not a lightbulb — but do oil paintings seem to be missing something or constrained quite so much as photography?

    Again, an oil painting is also unnatural as a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional reality.

    It’s interesting to think about active visual processing of reality versus fixing one’s gaze on a two-dimensional surface. But IF photography is missing something that is not missing from older two-dimensional art forms, then the effects of active visual processing (lack thereof) would be only partially involved as a factor, at best. I might consider as well that a lot of active visual processing people do can be experienced as quite uninteresting.

    Disney presents stereoscopic movies complete with tactile wind-effects, odors, and water droplets. Impressive to be sure, but I do speculate that those who feel there’s something missing in photo images would also in time feel something is missing from those movies.

    Does art of any form fulfill entirely the unspecified thing we’re looking for?

    Does photography merely leave “it” missing in a way that is more pronounced and thus easily discernable?

    Could it be that we’re looking for more than one thing to be fulfilled — for example, perhaps other forms of art could be more fulfilling in certain ways but ultimately all ‘experiences’ leave something missing still?

    • I actually think it may be because photographs are *too* close to reality: we instantly recognize them as attempting to be facsimiles of reality but falling short. On the other hand, if the representation isn’t meant to convey anything other than an idea or a feeling, the lack of precision results in the observer filling in the blanks with whatever is in their own imaginations, completing the scene to the expectations of the individual rather than coming across as a facsimile falling short of perfection.

      This is perhaps one if the greatest challenges a photograph – and the photographer – faces: how do make it overcome the constraints of reality to represent the desired message? Perhaps that makes the hardest thing for a photograph to do be an accurate representation – no more, no less.

  49. Well, I’ve been having the same problem with clarity of images but from the oposite perspective. I’ve like conceptual (but unscripted) photography)thoughts, emotions) and I’ve noticed that the grounding in reality is the problem from my point of view. I suppose it’s a limitation of the medium. It’s very hard to get people to see past the reality presented in a photo: if X&Y are doing something in the photo, then 99% of the viewers will see only that. (no matter what concepts, symbolism exists there).

    • I think your challenge may be one of context: there’s a common experiential human visual ‘vocabulary’ – which means we can all recognize happiness, sadness, facial expressions etc irrespective of which culture you’re from. But a lot of the time, without a bit more detailed context and visual cues that might seem overtly blunt to us, there’s no way to ensure the audience gets the intended message. It’s a challenge akin to charades or hand signals – there has to be no ambiguity whatsoever if the story is to be clear, but simultaneously we only have a very limited vocabulary to work with. But that’s half the fun, isn’t it?

      • Cornel Petrescu says:

        Indeed. :). Thanks for your insight.

      • Is there more expressive capacity in other forms of art precisely because those forms of art are less structured (restrictively) by what exists in reality?

        Photos are perhaps experienced more often than other art forms, and then each photograph itself presents a visual experience that is perhaps more similar to our eyes to ordinarly life experience than viewing other art forms. So is scarcity at work as a principle? (I don’t really think that it’s the most important thing, but the question did occur to me as one to consider.)

        • Perhaps – the limitation of conscious exclusion by the edges of the frame forces us to distill down the message to its minimum elements; not always being fully in control of those elements adds a further degree of challenge. The overall impression is one of building with blocks rather than starting from scratch…

  50. Great write-up.
    How does the BMW drive? 😉

  51. Patrick A. says:

    Thanks for the feed back…..I enjoyed the article….keep you the great work!

  52. NeutraL-GreY says:

    This has given my tons to think about.

    • That’s always the intention 🙂

      The more consciously we approach our photography, the more control we exert over our images – and thus the stronger they will eventually become.

      • Leading to the old adage pracitce makes perfect or at least perhaps a step closer. I love the insightful article and comments. Much of which is considerably over my head. It will take a few days for me to disect this. Perhaps it is that individualism in perception that allocates a subconscious influence on taste and preference. What we strive for may be more or less a desire to reach a percieved level of perfectionism that another person holds. I’m not as technical as most I just strive to get my photographs to look the best I can.

  53. Patrick A. says:

    Yes, but not just scanning back and forth because we adjust our focus with objects close or far. Looking at a photo we will always only focus on one depth or set distance no matter how much variety is in the photo itself. Our active vision focuses on infinite different depths within in our field of vision. I really think this active focusing of far and close, more so then up and down or side to side is the difference. A photo can have a range of depth but the paper or screen we view it on somewhat locks our first level of gaze.
    I may be completely full of shit…..what do you think? I’m new to photography so I’m still feeling my way.

    • I don’t think it’s full of s*** at all – there’s one more thing to consider: binocular vision giving us a sense of depth which we of course can’t get with a photo. Stereophotography can alleviate that to some extent, but display sizes are limited.

  54. Andrew Ferris says:

    What I would say is missing, as someone who’s newly drawn into photography via having access to a 5D3, is a consensus on what naturalistic photos should strive for versus, … sigh, unnatural ones. In other words the HDR’d, bokehed, saturated, etc others. I know that it is entirely possible to say the the camera only has 5 stops worth of dynamic resolution so my ‘Shoped or ‘Roomed, or Apertured end product is closer to the scene the photographer actually saw but I still see an over-processed aesthetic that strikes me as false. I know we needed to get past the idea of a photo as a perfect capture of a scene. But I do agree that cameras and photos still have room to get to the point where they can deliver a more natural representation from the get go.

    • This is a tricky question to answer, as the potential number of ways to overcook an image keeps multiplying every day as more and more useless apps and filters are released. I think perhaps the simplest litmus test is this: does it look plausible/ feasible as something you’d see in reality with your own eyes? Do you see the processing first, or the image? And we have to remember not to confuse processing with the result of conscious lighting…

  55. Patrick A. says:

    Spot on article….I would only add that i think one issue is that our vision is not static. We are constantly focusing on different objects, if ever so slightly, within our field of vision. A photographic image is completely static while are vision is active. Even if we stare at a single object our vision is actively focusing around it.
    Just a thought…..what do you think?

    • A good observation; if you consciously stare at something and try not to move your eyes, you’ll find that everything outside your central field of vision will grey out somewhat. Our eyes have to keep scanning to keep gathering information.

      Whilst a photograph doesn’t do this in itself, our eyes do when we look at a photograph – this is why it’s so important for the underlying structure of the image to be engineered in such a way as to direct the eyes where the photographer intends.

    • Will Needham says:

      Came here to say just this – our eyes work in weird and wonderful ways; We have two blind spots directly in front of us. Our central vision is significantly sharper than our peripheral vision yet our peripheral vision works much better in low light. We only have colour vision over a very small percentage of our view (our brain remembers the colour of things outside this area and “colours them in” with the colour they were when we last saw them). When we move our eyes, they “switch off” and then our brain back-fills the memories of what we perceived with the image we see once they’ve finished moving.

      To sum all that up, the image in your head is further divorced from what your eyes actually see than a photography is from the scene in front of you. I think this also gives us a clue as to why certain effects are popular – vignetting and large quantities of out of focus areas both mimic what our eyes actually see. They remove the ability to explore the photograph and discover new details but especially when viewed small and for brief moments they add familiarity and impact.

      • Thanks for the insights: now to the real challenge: how do we interpret and replicate all of this in a static image? Or at least the impression of it? Perhaps it is impossible by definition?

        • Will Needham says:

          I don’t know, but writing it did give me an interesting idea that might be possible with your stereoscopic rig – take a pair of shots or a relatively close subject with a reasonable DoF but then combine the two in to a single flat image. The subject at the intersection of the two lines of view will appear as a single image but the background (and foreground) will appear as kind of double image blur. I have no idea if this would look appealing or hideous but I’d like to give it a try!

          • I actually tried that not long ago; viewing them gave me a colossal headache. Interesting exercise though – and you certainly don’t need much resolution because display sizes are quite limited without special viewing equipment.

            • Will Needham says:

              Not sure why, but that’s honestly made me giggle! Might have to give it a go myself and let you know if I reach the same result.

          • Maybe combine eye tracking with a light field image (eg. Lytro)? The computer would track your eyes and re-render the picture depending on what you’re looking at. Maybe one day e-ink will get good enough to match current giclee papers and inks, and then you can have a hung print that looks back at its viewer, and decides what to show them … like a cyber version of Dorian Gray.

            • I forgot to mention a 3D vision thing: if you have an iOS device with a front-facing camera, download i3D, which is a demo of an earlier concept that uses head-tracking to simulate 3D. Within its limits, the effect is uncanny. If we have pictures tracking us, there’s no reason why you can’t also simulate 3D like this, assuming you collected the right data in the first place (always the same original problem!).

            • Now that is an interesting idea…

        • I think that is the idea behind the Lytro camera, in that the viewer can move the in-focus and out-of-focus areas to see other aspects of the scene. To me, this seems more like an idea that answers a question very few people really wanted answered.

          • I actually dislike the idea of Lytro a lot, partially because of the IP rights implementation around the viewer, but mainly because changing the focus changes the composition! This is definitely NOT part of the way photographs should be viewed. The ability to tweak focus after shooting by a small amount is useful for near misses, but anything more basically devalues the creative input of the photographer and encourages mediocrity. It’s like hipstagram…

            • Absolutely agree.

            • Tom Liles says:

              But wouldn’t it solve The Anxiety of Infinite Composition?

              At the limit I could see this just going a full 1:1 immersive recreation of the scene. Which then makes us (and probably an audience) ask, well what was wrong with just our eyes and experience as it was? Then the question—so why take a photograph? The answer invariably starts with “because I want to…” And here is the crux –> I want

              Art is an act of ego.
              [as is writing, painting, etc., etc]

              I think the thing that I didn’t really dare say is not only “why am I taking photos?” But “why do I want everyone to see what I see?”

              • Honest answer: I don’t know. The act of taking a single image is in itself at odds with infinite composition.

                I think the thing that I didn’t really dare say is not only “why am I taking photos?” But “why do I want everyone to see what I see?”

                That’s a very, very good question. You’re probably right: it boils down to ego. It’s because we are making the assumption that our view of the world is unique and aesthetically pleasing and that other people care; even if it isn’t. If you don’t stop to objectively question whether your images are really any good or not, then you run the risk of the ego taking over and your work falling into mediocrity. I personally try to take nothing for granted; I’m always asking “is this good enough?” – and rarely thinking the answer is yes; there’s always something that can be improved.

                • Tom Liles says:

                  I may have mixed two excellent articles into one: there were the ideas in Anxiety [required reading for anyone who hasn’t tried it yet—it’s brilliant, give it a try]; and, I can’t recall the title, but remember the one where you took a frame of work men, building another tall building, out if the studio window with the D800E? And you could crop the grand picture into many other, “smaller,” compositions. It was similar to the Cropping article, but not that one…

                  The basic idea was about frames within frames within frames, on and on, to infinity (if you like).

                  Have more to say, but it’s the kids’ bath now. Must run! 🙂

      • To add to Will’s insight, the reason we perceive such a huge dynamic range is precisely because our eyes are constantly scanning what we see. Our focus jumps around the scene (in a fairly random sampling actually), and as we focus on each area, our pupils adjust minutely to regulate the amount of light entering. Our brain then interpolates all these mini-images for us to see. In a photographic sense, we are creating HDR in our brains. At a given pupil dilation, our dynamic range is actually reasonably limited (and my understanding is that it is reasonably close to modern cameras’ dynamic range). We just benefit from the tremendous computational engine that is our brain. Natively, we also throw out details deemed not necessary by subconscious processes and interpolate others. This is why static optical illusions work, they trick the brain. That is also why “lossy” image compression algorithms work (e.g., JPEG). JPEG-2000 actually works more like the human brain than JPEG (though still *very* far from what really goes on in our heads… at least what we know about that is), but it never really caught on.

        I think the only way one can compare a photograph to what one can experience is if one shuts out all other senses. Without smell, sound, or even feeling (for instance the frost or sun on your skin), there is nothing for our brain to inject into our experience that a photograph cannot. This ultra-minimalist view of a photograph seems deeply distrubing to me. When I see an excellent image, it makes me feel that frost on my skin or hear the sound of a busy street. Those other senses which are completely uncapturable in photography are what our brain *attempts* to fill in. To me, seeking reality in a photo is like tilting at windmills. I think the beauty of photography, and the power of it, is the power for a uni-modal medium to impart multi-modal effects by innately pulling at our sensory experiences.

        • The visual cues definitely make our brains ‘fill in the blanks’ – since it’s impossible to experience any scene solely visually, there’s no point in thinking about removing the ‘implied stimuli’ our brains attempt to attribute to a photograph. If anything, we should be figuring out how to exploit this characteristic more! I wonder if there are any neurologists in the audience reading this – if so, would be great if you could weigh in!


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