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Photography: The Big Lie

Discussion in 'Open Discussion' started by a_foolishman, Aug 22, 2012.

  1. a_foolishman

    a_foolishman Mu-43 Regular

    Jun 22, 2012
    Kelly Graham
    Since I received some flack for linking to my blog last time I'm copying and pasting my newest post here:

    The Big Lie

    Casual photographers often stare at their pictures in horror. Wondering how a majestic scene became an uninteresting image.

    “You had to be there. The camera didn’t do it justice,” is the despondent mantra of post vacation slideshows. The toss away line became an appeal to ancient wisdom after countless repetitions through the decades.

    The harsh truth is the photographer didn’t do justice to the scene. But why didn’t they? Blaming disappointing snapshots on a lack of care or concern is too easy. Nobody wants to take bad photos.

    The cause

    We glimpse the hidden cause of lousy photography every time a person says, “Amazing photo. You must have an expensive camera.” This statement results from a lie that’s been repeated since birth of photography. A lie that’s responsible for most people believing the camera determines a photo’s quality.

    From childhood we’re told, “What you see, is what you get,” with a camera. After all, that’s why photography is so darn easy. Simply point your lens at something appealing and click the shutter. Photography--unlike painting, sculpting or music--doesn’t require skill; just equipment.

    I believe this falsehood is the primary source of the second-rate photographs we’re subjected to everyday. The truth is humans and cameras see the world in fundamentally different ways. Cameras see an objective view of reality. Humans do not.

    The truth

    Humans perceive a highly edited and simplified version of reality. We live in a highly chaotic world making it impossible for us to process everything around us. Our brains evolved highly efficient information filters to prevent melting down from sensory overload. Unfortunately this means we tend to miss things if we aren’t focused on them.

    Speak with a police officer or reporter who’s interviewed witnesses at a chaotic event if you doubt your brains ability to willfully ignore things. You’ll be shocked at how many different versions of the event people recount.

    The most difficult skill for a photographer to learn is seeing the world as a camera does. Why isn’t this explained to new camera buyers?

    The way forward

    Many dreadful photographs would be avoided if every camera came with a simple pamphlet highlighting the largest differences between our vision and the camera’s.

    Once a photographer understands these differences the importance of things such as uncluttered backgrounds, dynamic range and lighting becomes obvious and intuitive. I believe they’ll automatically change their behavior when interacting with a camera just as they do when dealing with a person who speaks a foreign language.
    • Like Like x 13
  2. kchau

    kchau Mu-43 Regular

    Aug 2, 2012
    because then there wouldn't be any.
    • Like Like x 1
  3. Mellow

    Mellow Mu-43 All-Pro

    Aug 27, 2010
    Florida or Idaho
    This is an interesting topic; one I've been thinking about a lot recently.

    The key point in my mind is that a photograph is simply an image that evokes a response in the viewer. As you note, it can never actually represent reality, for many reasons:

    (a) reality is 3D; photos are 2D;
    (b) our vision isn't bounded by sharp edges; photographs are;
    (c) our brain does all kind of incredible processing of the images delivered to the retina. It flips it upside down; compensates for color casts (your white dog always looks white, even under fluorescent light!); and most importantly focuses attention on what's important and what's not.

    So a photograph can never be truly 'realistic' in the sense that it represents what the eye sees. That's why I think it's so funny when people dismiss things like post-processing because they want their pictures to look 'natural'. Sometimes it takes a lot of processing to create a 'natural' look--one that evokes the reality of the subject.
    • Like Like x 3
  4. whatisinthebag

    whatisinthebag Mu-43 Regular

    Dec 23, 2011
    Central California
    Oh if I had a dime for every time I heard someone say that to me or someone else.

    Most people don't understand cameras. There's a finite amount of time people have and only a small fraction take the time to learn about quality of light, aperture and shutter speed.

    My general response to statements similar like the above quoted is:

    "Well, my camera isn't really that expensive. I've been making photographs for a very long time, and I love it. Would you like some help understanding your camera more? I'd love to help you take better pictures."

    I've only had one person follow through and say yes.
    • Like Like x 3
  5. Hikari

    Hikari Mu-43 All-Pro

    Nov 26, 2010
    I have never found that to be true and I work in photographic education. Knowledge does not produce results, skill does. There have been a mountain of book telling you how cameras see ever since photography became a hobby and people still cannot take competent pictures.

    The other problem is that a photograph is not an objective view of reality. If it were we would not be able to judge it good or bad--you state your self that human vision cannot be trusted, but can discern the illusion of a photograph and judge it.

    Photography is subjective and the human visual system is really good at seeing that illusion and whether it holds up. We can also judge qualitatively. Some of that is cultural as much as anything else--we respond to known and accepted practices. New ways of expressing space are usually derided and scorned, but eventually are accepted and then considered standards.

    I am not convinced by your hypothesis.

    BTW, I have never been told that "what you see is what you get" with a camera. Nor has the suggestion that good photography is easy just because you are using a machine. Most people have had experience with photography and realize it is not that easy. Which is why so many people spend money self-help books and workshops.
    • Like Like x 1
  6. a_foolishman

    a_foolishman Mu-43 Regular

    Jun 22, 2012
    Kelly Graham
    My argument is that people don't take the time to learn because society has conditioned them to believe their is nothing to learn. Point + Click = Wonderful Result

    Are you arguing that skill is innate? I believe that skill first requires knowledge.

    My argument is that people don't take the time to learn because society has conditioned them to believe their is nothing to learn. Point + Click = Wonderful Result. If you've been told your entire life that photography doesn't require knowledge why would you invest in books?

    I simplified "objective view" a bit because I was writing a 500 word post but the reason they are used in science(mars rover) and court of law (security cameras) is that they provide an unbiased (I know frameing etc. can impact the reality) view.

    I think this sums up our conflicting views. I might be wrong but for you photography = art. For me photography can be art, but doesn't have to be.

    Fair enough. Thanks for taking the time to respond. Your thoughts have given me more to think about :) 

    I guess we have had very different life experiences. I can accept that this is the case for you. I know very few people who have taken photography classes, but I know many people that crank out a ton of photographs. I can't think of a single person in my life that doesn't own a form of camera or take photographs.

    Perhaps this is a difference in generations? I'm 34.
  7. Personally I would replace the word "expensive" with good/great/excellent in the above statement, and replace the word "lie" with half-truth (or quarter-truth, or whatever it may be).
  8. Bhupinder2002

    Bhupinder2002 Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    I agree and disagree. Its not that bad as u have PICTURED it . I agree that the main problems is people dont want to learn few simple basic rules of photography and expect camera to do everything . They dont want to read manual , learn even terms like ISO , shutter speed and aperture. We are in minority . A friend of mine who bought Canon 5DII mark as it was the best camera in shop as advised by salesman and can take amazing pics . The same friend saw a flower pic of mine and commented that Olympus cameras are so bad they that couldnt capture all flowers hahaahah and focused on one only . He has no idea what he is talking about and I cant do anything . Cameras have become quite common but willingness to learn and try something new is not there . Now its we use cameras for different purposes and ur purpose may be different from mine . Majority of people use it as tool to preserve precious moments and that doesnt need any composition skills . For some people its a bread and butter earning tool and they need to know everything inside out .So finally it comes to how much time and patience u have.We are facing an era were technology is changing very fast and many people cant cope with it . Only few people go to the camera store knowing what they want and majority of them go and ask salesman which is the best P&S or latest from Nikon and Canon and have no time to learn about minute details .
    • Like Like x 2
  9. demiro

    demiro Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Nov 7, 2010
    Photography doesn't have to be art, but I think someone with natural artistic tendencies and skills will take better photos, all things being equal.

    My wife is an example of this. She uses a waterproof Sony P&S, almost always on auto pilot. She can't be bothered to learn how to adjust settings to deal with a challenging situation, despite my alternating offers to help and nagging her about learning to use the camera.

    But if the conditions are not challenging she takes some great shots. She envisions the scene she captures in a way that is generally pleasing to the eye. She can also paint and sketch. She gets spatial relationships and all that sort of stuff. She doesn't think about it when composing a photograph -- she just shoots what looks good to her.

    So I guess the bottom line for me is that even if a camera could be made to always get the settings right that's still only part of the battle. If you take a perfect photograph of something that no one wants to look at will anyone really see it?
  10. Hikari

    Hikari Mu-43 All-Pro

    Nov 26, 2010
    I think there is a conditioning that the machine is easy to use, but I am unsure that that carries on to good photographs. The non-photographers I know separate the camera from the pictures--it is a great camera, but my pictures are not very good kind of thing.

    No, skill is not innate, it needs to be developed. But knowledge and skill work hand in hand. Reading about photography is no good without action--also called practice. So, written instructions by themselves are not enough. And I have certainly seen instruction not translate into results, unfortunately.

    The first photographers did not have anything more than technical manuals about processes, yet produced competent images.

    I also think you are group everyone that uses a camera as a photographer. The point and shoot crowd do not care about good pictures as long as the grandkids are in focus--it is not even a hobby for them. Lessons in composition would be lost as they simply don't care and that is not why they have a camera. I can't see faulting someone that does not care about photography for not learning about it. that is not simply cultural conditioning, but human nature. Some folks take chess seriously and some do not.

    If you are doing photography for pleasure and you still don't want to learn, there is no problem. There is no reason I have to be a competent photographer if I am doing it for fun and I enjoy my approach.

    Even remote imaging is not purely objective. And this is where the puzzle get complicated. The camera produces a 2-D representation of a 3-D world designed to simulate human vision with the intent of producing a pleasing image. A camera is an illusion maker. An interesting question would be why we would believe it is an objective view (the answer is because the illusion is so convincing).

    My view is far more basic. A good picture 100 years ago may defined as taken through a long focal-length soft focus lens with formal sitters. A good photo today could be blurry from camera shake with a crooked horizon and funky perspective with wide lenses. What is considered "good" is not simply bound by technical criteria, but also social tastes. But even technical criteria shift, what folks called sharp 20 or 30 years ago might be perceived as soft today. The same can be said for DR.

    Perhaps, I am 48. But I also work with college students.
  11. chlau

    chlau Mu-43 Regular

    May 13, 2011
    I agree that "lie" works for certain ppl, usually male, who are gadget men first and photographers second. You see them with hefty Canons, battery grip and red-ringed lenses slung over their shoulders shooting on full auto with pop up flash permanently up. Some of them even say it's the photog and not the camera but argue that a great camera goes ways to compensate for their lack of skills. Like somebody earlier pointed out with chess, you may play a bit of chess but you might not be interested enough to play it competently.

    My wife complains that I worry too much about technical details; photography should be spontaneous and natural and all about the 'feel' of the moment! So I got her shooting a La Sardina. Now she's constantly surprised by the predictable inconstancy of the shots. Her mom looks at the same shots and remarks: "What a waste of money. There's nobody in these pictures!" I look at these shots with the crazy light trails accidentally made by my wife's errant finger on the Bulb switch. She doesn't want to know how they got that way; she loves the suspense of not knowing how the shots turned out. It's not photography as the enthusiasts know it but I think there's a place in the world for that too.
    • Like Like x 1
  12. jyc860923

    jyc860923 Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Feb 28, 2012
    Shenyang, China
    with modern techniques and gears a lot of things have been made easy however that just doesn't mean there are as many people who really know how to get the most out of the gears. I wouldn't say more people became real photographers just because everybody owns a camera now.
  13. jyc860923

    jyc860923 Mu-43 Hall of Famer Subscribing Member

    Feb 28, 2012
    Shenyang, China
    and those who argues like "how come you don't use the flash at night" when they shoot buildings, squares...:rofl:
  14. nseika

    nseika Mu-43 Veteran

    Nov 22, 2010
    Jakarta, Indonesia
    What I heard is, 'if you can see, then you can draw/paint'. :D 

    Call this baseless.

    1) Taking pictures are common thing these days, everyone can do it if they have the tool.
    Lets put the argument of quality aside, many peoples can take pictures, so it must be something easy. We don't ask the tool plumbers use to fix our piping because we don't think we can do it even if we have the tools (regardless of how messy our work turns out if we try), so we leave it to the experts in the field.

    2) Taking pictures is an instant action.
    Yes, there's the long work of planning, imagining the picture, arranging the composition. But the act of taking the picture itself is instant, unlike making a new table in your garage during weekend. The part where the action of taking pictures are tangible would be the act of raising the camera and shoot. Just like Facebook just need to flip a switch and magically the layout changes to troll the enjoyment of many; how much man-hour they spent for research, strategy meeting, budgeting, coding and debugging seems unimportant.

    3) Specialist knowledge are not within grasp of the Average Joe.
    Imagine asking a programmmer how they made a program and they talk about their algorithm (equivalent of photographers talking about the exposures, timing, composition, lighting, etc). The average guy then just stand there dumbfounded like hearing alien talking in incomprehensible language, feeling like they've making a fool out of themselves. Taking it to the "tool" rather than "techniques" is an easy way to level the topic down to something that's comprehensible. Even more true if they're just asking to be courteous to the photographer rather than just look and say nothing; they don't want to hear lectures, they just want to voice something.

    So I think it's natural that the general public would think it's the tool, we're all born equal :D 

    Personal question: do you think it's the same as how nowadays, we have modern fighter jets but less well known ace pilots like during the world war ? Even the minority elite flyers are like nameless mass produced personnels for those at the sidewalk.
  15. kevinparis

    kevinparis Cantankerous Scotsman Subscribing Member

    Feb 12, 2010
    Gent, Belgium
    interesting that a couple of the posters here do not think that skills are innate.

    I believe that that many skills are fundementally innate...call them the artistic eye, the musical ear, the sense of rhythm, a way with words, an ear for languages, an analytical mind...hand/eye coordination or whatever. i know I have one of those skills and know that over the last 40 years have attempted to foster some of the others without success.

  16. chlau

    chlau Mu-43 Regular

    May 13, 2011
    I think I'll call that a "talent" rather than a skill. A skill is something you could acquire through practice, like driving a car. But though a skill may be honed, getting "good" at it may elude a person for years if they don't have any talent for it. No driver will reach Formula 1 on hard work alone; they need abundant talent (innate ability) too. But to get on the top step of the podium of any endeavor you need inspiration and you also need luck (presenting opportunity).
  17. foxtail1

    foxtail1 Science geek & photo nut Subscribing Member

    Dec 30, 2011
    Southwest Virginia
    Interesting thread, and timely for me. Yesterday I got this comment from a friend about one of my photos: "I'm happy you have a great camera with a magical lens."

    So, apparently, it's my lens that made the shot good.

    Who posted the analogy to complimenting a cook's stove when the meal was good? I guess my friend was complimenting the blender, or maybe the frying pan.
  18. DHart

    DHart Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    Jan 7, 2010
    Scottsdale, Arizona
    This is the analogy I posted elsewhere... but I'm not sure where I first read it, nor who to attribute the original to. To paraphrase...

    A photographer was among guests at a dinner party... the hostess commented "your photographs are wonderful... you must have a great camera!"

    After the dinner was over, the photographer commented to the hostess that the dinner was wonderful... and added "you must have a great stove!" :rofl:
    • Like Like x 1
  19. foxtail1

    foxtail1 Science geek & photo nut Subscribing Member

    Dec 30, 2011
    Southwest Virginia
    That was it, Don! Thanks!
  20. jeffg53

    jeffg53 Mu-43 Veteran Subscribing Member

    Aug 22, 2012
    Sydney, Australia
    Jeff Grant
    Ain't it the truth!
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