In pursuit of clarity, redux

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Do you feel the warmth of the afternoon?

Some months ago, I wrote about the idea of clarity in an image: the experience of being able to see through the picture and beyond the facsimile representation to the scene or subject in itself; it’s akin to breaking the fourth wall in cinema, but In the opposite direction. Ironically, the ability for a still photograph to do this is very much related to technology: we need the hardware and technical chops to be able to make it look as though the hardware is unimportant.

At the time of writing the first article, I set myself in the pursuit of clarity as an idea; both trying to achieve it technically as well as figure out how to best deploy it aesthetically in an image. At that point, there were a couple of lens-camera systems that stood out as being able to deliver the kind of transparency I was after. I feel in the last year, that number has not just increased, but the image quality bar is being pushed ever higher. We’re finally improving on the output side, too; with wide gamut monitors, 4k monitors and Ultraprints now both being fairly commonplace as well as affordable. Notwithstanding anything technical will probably bring out the trolls and anoraks, the reality is that as the technology becomes more affordable, the greater the population who can experience a photograph as the creator intended.

One of the biggest problems with publishing an imaging-related site is that when I share or discuss images, there’s always the risk that what you see is not what I see and it’s probably not the way somebody else sees. I can’t simply post larger images, either; I’ve still got no way of knowing we’re looking at the same thing, and 4k monitors aren’t exactly widespread (my Mac mini will only drive 2560×1440, so I don’t have one yet ) not to mention there’s unfortunately far too much risk of having them stolen and misused. This means realistically that fewer getting the visual experience I intend. The Ultraprints are about as good as I can get; those who’ve seen them tend to agree with me. Their strength lies not just in ability to reproduce fine detail structures, but because the ink is laid down at such a high frequency, there’s also the ability to reproduce very fine tonal gradients and subtle color transitions.

So far, I’ve expended a considerable amount of effort and cost despite the output medium being the limitation; so the obvious question is why do it at all – given the obvious lack of accessibility and compromises in presentation? I don’t think that answer is quite so straightforward. I think it’s a combination of stubbornness and wanting to push the envelope, but perhaps more about trying to continue pushing one’s creative abilities and evolving an image and an idea to the point where the medium doesn’t matter.

I am aware that this article is starting to sound highly contradictory. Firstly, the pursuit of clarity and transparency – arguably characterised as an image where the technical qualities are secondary to the subject and idea, and do not draw attention to themselves – requires extremely disciplined technique and expensive, high-performance equipment. Secondly, the end goal isn’t to make an image that’s technically driven at all: it’s to be able to make one that isn’t. Allow me to explain.

The equipment portion is unavoidable. Unfortunately, it’s simply complex and expensive to make something that is absolutely transmissive and out resolves the subject matter, or doesn’t add any aberrations of its own. Correction: it’s not difficult to do it across a very small shooting envelope (good light, certain subjects, small apertures, no limit to exposure times) – most lenses are just fine at f8, most cameras will give you a great file at base ISO, and if your subject has moderate contrast and minimal detail, then ultimate resolving power isn’t an issue. You can easily make a faithful reproduction of the subject that will pass reasonably close scrutiny. On the other hand, if you want to do the same handheld, by candlelight, of a subject that’s high contrast, a funny color and packed with fine detail, good luck – there are few cameras that have adequate signal to noise ratio in all color channels at high ISO and still retain adequate resolving power and few lenses that perform at high standards wide open. The extreme cases are always the ones that drive the cost up by orders of magnitude.

The second consideration – the artistic one – is significantly harder to explain. For starters, there’s no good reason why a smaller format/ sensor/ cheaper camera should obey any different compositional rules than a more expensive one – e.g. wide angles will still make foreground appear more prominent, and the rules of subject isolation don’t change – but you can bet that even the most serious photographers will occasionally slip and use less care with their iPhones than medium format. If anything, the opposite is true: the more restrictions a system has, the more care we have to exercise in order to make an adequate result.

I believe one has to shoot extensively with more ‘serious’ systems in order to develop the [shot discipline] that’s required to extract the most out of more casual ones. There will always be a visible difference at ideal display output – both ideal size for the subject and the camera’s resolution – but for most purposes, and everything online, remember sufficiency and that ultimately, photography is about the image and the idea. The medium should be a supporting actor, not the star. Beyond that, understanding the limitations of the various formats and hardware to the point of intuitiveness will result in images and compositions that do not exceed the limits of the hardware – if anything they are complimented by it. Use smaller formats for stealth or greater depth of field, especially with more compressed perspectives. Use larger ones for separation, isolation at wider perspectives and a more natural rendering style. And it’s in this that I think the critical point lies: it’s both a case of format independence (you can make a good image with anything) and dependence (you know your format well enough to be able to fully use it’s strengths).

And this is where we come back to clarity: achieving clarity and transparency is not a function resolution, color accuracy, or print size; it is not limited to medium format or Otuses (though it is certainly aided). Clarity is the ability of an idea to transcend the inherent limitations of the photographic medium; a skilled photographer uses those limitations and an understanding of the psychological response of the viewer to enhance the impact of the idea. As usual, the simplest things are also the most complex…MT


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  1. “I think it’s a combination of stubbornness and wanting to push the envelope, but perhaps more about trying to continue pushing one’s creative abilities and evolving an image and an idea to the point where the medium doesn’t matter.” – Ming Thein

    “The medium is the message.” – Marshall McLuhan


    • Well, which is it? Every gallery I’ve seen has told me the medium doesn’t matter. Or maybe they all think photography is pointless.

      Marshall McLuhan was an advertiser, not an artist.

      • If the medium didn’t matter to the galleries, then they may as well have 4k televisions showing the images available for sale. Of course, some actually do that. 😉

        McLuhan referred to something different than the surface message of that quote. In your case, you’ve chosen a specific medium, because that is what you feel best expresses your images in printed form. I’m glad you’re not printing them on canvas, because that medium sends a different message. 😉 You’ve stated that your images would convey the same ideas printed larger and lower resolution.

        I’ve done the same with my paintings and my photographic prints. The choices I made there were because those things mattered to me. In my case, it was not up to the viewer to figure out exactly what I was thinking, though the choices and process were things I felt would subconsciously affect the viewer. It doesn’t seem we think that differently, despite that we pursue different processes?

        • Correction above “… images would convey the same …” should be … images would not convey the same …

        • Ah, I understand, and I agree. There’s so much psychology behind how the final work is interpreted – but most of it is subconscious. I really think that to be a good artist, or at least an effective one whose work actually conveys most of your intention, then you really need to spend as much or more time understanding how the mind works than the execution part…

  2. I understood the end of the article to mean that talented photographers can achieve clarity while skillfully overcoming the limitations of casual systems (and perhaps even output medium) — perhaps analogous to a virtuoso musician who is so gifted that he or she can produce astonishing music playing on a spent cola bottle.

    Near the start, you mentioned that there were a couple of lens-camera systems that stood out as being able to deliver the kind of transparency I was after.

    Do you mean that most systems had not reached the technical point of sufficiency for transparency even though those same systems have long been at the point of sufficiency for clarity ? Is is appropriate for me to carry away, then, a rather sharp definitional distinction between transparency and clarity?

    • No, you’re misinterpreting slightly. There is no perfectly clear or transparent anything, there is only how you use the properties of the tool to execute your idea. You can’t have a transparent image with an unclear idea. However, there are tools which work better than others for certain objectives…and matching the idea/objective to the tool is the job of the photographer. It is of course possible that we have ideas that cannot yet be translated because the tools don’t exist (e.g. Ultraprints).

  3. Ron Scubadiver says:

    I think it has more to do with content. Great photos have a story that last much longer than the instant of capture sometimes creating lasting fantasies.

  4. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Elisabeth Schwarzkopf once said in an interview,
    that music by Mozart was the most difficult to sing,
    because it had to sound so easy.

    • Bingo 🙂

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Let me add some (good) entertainment …
        In a concert 1967 honouring pianist Gerald Moore, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Victoria de los Angeles sang the following (not composed by Rossini as believed earlier),

        although there is only sound
        one can almost _see_ what they are impersonating!

        • Gerner Christensen says:

          Kristian .. thank you for bringing into memory I actually have this recording.. but never related it to photography. However music and photography have many things in common.

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Well, I was only thinking of clarity of performance and of the quote above, that it has to sound easy, both, I think, relevant to any art.

            ( The illustration is, of course, only partly adequate as the reaction of the audience helps you to see what is going on. But I think the quality of the singing would have been enough even without the audience – except, of course, that it inspired the singers even more. Not to forget the support of the good pianist.)

            I think you may be right about music and photography.
            Coming to think of it, Stravinsky’s little book “Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons” could also be read (at least partly) as a book on photography …

            • Gerner Christensen says:

              And furthermore digital and analog sound reproduction equipment has so many parallels to our cameras and PP. How to achieve maximum transparency and to ‘see’ trough it, and finally have a feeling of being there. The recording is our ‘RAW’ file. The DA converters and amplifiers our tiff or jpeg engine partly and our monitors/prints our loudspeakers…. well yeah, in many ways an analogy 🙂

    • The fewer the elements, the more of them have to be perfect in translation.

  5. A really great article, Ming. Particularly about the point about the output of most technology given favourable light for base iso, contrast and low detail scenes.

    In my mind I find that Steve McCurry’s images capture subjects with a truly outstanding level of clarity. I’m also a colour oriented person so his bias towards colour (I don’t know if he has shot much B&W) seem to contribute to this clarity for me.

    Art Wolfe is another photographer whose work shows great clarity. Interestingly both studied painting before photography. I think that this might contribute a great deal to that clarity and certainly to the painterly look that many of their images exhibit.

    Many of Steve’s images were taken before digital imaging and the advantages that this brought to tonality, sharpness and acuity. Yet he still made incredible images.

    It seems that clarity also comes from the photographer’s own inner connectedness. The ego may drive us into a situation but it is abandoned in the moment. It is the ground of insight and inspired creativity. No mental or emotional obscuration. Clarity.

  6. To paraphrasse the incomparable Gregory Crewdson, “you don’t look at a photograph, you look through it at something else.”

    • Agreed. But for that to happen, the idea must be clear and the output medium must be transparent.

      • I agree the output medium should be transparent; the idea? Not so much – in fact, I think pictures benefit from ambiguity and one of the characteristics separating art from mere representation is the presence of ambiguity, the absence of certainty. YMMV of course 🙂

        • Sorry, miscommunication on my part: it should be clear what the idea is, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be simple. Does that make more sense?

  7. I guess achieving clarity of intention on image making is the ultimate clarity. From there, the artist would have tried everything it could to communicate to audience and himself the rest is up to what the world will make of it.

    I’ve been recently taking lens “caracter” in account during my short recent G.A.S. phase instead of sharpness because I simply believe that outresolved lenses of great caracter will remain part of my intentions as image maker instead of sharp lenses that will simply achieve a technical feat while the megapixel count is still current. That’s how I figured I should proceed in this era of sufficiency.

    • Taking “character” into account may be a road less traveled. The “sharpest” lens is not always the sharpest lens. Years ago when I was shooting film I had all of what was considered the best of the Nikon lenses an F3. A friend offered me an old Zeiss 35mm folder and I shot off several rows of film. The images were, for me, a revelation in character/rendering. Sometimes the right lens helps you achieve that clarity of intention, where that ultra sharp lens is a hindrance.

      • Agreed – there are sharp but clinical lenses like the Leica APOs, sharp but flat like the Vogitlander APOs, sharp but blocky lenses like most of the better Nikons and Canons; and sharp but punchy like the Zeiss Otuses. Each have a purpose depending on the idea; pick your tools accordingly.

        • Years ago someone wrote that the closest thing to a Leica is a Holga. Depending on the vision of the user, either capable of being the right tool. Unfortunately, we only have the standard lens evaluation data to help us decide on our lens purchases. Usually, only by luck to we find the “magic” that works with our “idea”. If we are without vision we continually move onto to the next latest and greatest. If we have vision and do come across “magic” there still needs to be conviction to our purpose. Blessed are those that have been enthusiastically shooting with the same lens and camera for the the last 30 years.

        • No, not what I was thinking. The “character” of a lens to my way of thinking is more subjective than objective. That is, when we find that lens we may be lost for words to describe what we see.

      • Couldn’t agree more about this. It took me a run with the C Sonnar character on the A7 to realize this. It truly is about having the right lens that transmits the clarity of intention with great transparency (along with whatever post-work is done on image after). I love this blog 😀


  1. […] like, either: I think the Pentax 645Z is a great all-round device for me, because I know my output demands high resolution to translate an idea effectively, but you may only ever want enough resolution to post to […]

  2. […] A selection of limited edition Ultraprint images is available from The Gallery; in addition I am planning future large format editions in the Forest series, which will be announced here. The next image will be Forest IV, shown below and available in early January as a 57×22″ Ultraprint. Further reading on the Ultraprint can be found here, in the rationale behind the pursuit of clarity. […]

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