Photography and Art

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Paths to Obsession

I spent a very nice day last Saturday relaxing in my cottage just outside the town of Haliburton. I had two good books that represented the ying and yang of current photography. On one hand, we had Mountain Light by Galen Rowell and on the other hand we had Photoshop CS4 Workflow: The Digital Phtographer's Guide by Tim Grey. These books could not have been more different if I'd selected them on purpose, but they both were Christmas gifts so it was serendipty at work.

Let me explain why these two books are polar opposites. On one hand, we have Galen Rowell, mountain photographer deluxe, who had a wonderful career as a mountain climber, traveller, National Geographic photographer and writer until he was tragically killed in an airplane crash at age 62. Rowell obsessed over the capture of the image and his book is full of details about how he followed the light and got the right exposure and depth of field to obtain the correct lighting and composition. He would be sent out in the field by National Geographic with dozens of rolls of slide film and would stalk light like a hunter stalks his prey. After capturing hundreds of shots of his subjects, he would send the exposed film to his publisher and wait months to see which shots (if any) had been selected for publication. Meanwhile, he would be on his way to his next assignment and would be enjoying himself out in the wilds taking pictures.

On the other hand, we have Tim Grey, photoshop expert deluxe, who makes his living writing about Adobe photoshop. Tim obsesses about the workflow involved in taking digital images from capture through to printing. His book is a wonderfully lucid explanation of all the parts of Photoshop that are useful to a photographer. He takes us through the basic image adjustments and all the way through advanced photo editing, including layers, masks and the fundamentals of non-destructive editing.

This brings me to the question of the day. If one's time is limited (and Galen Rowell's untimely departure suggests that the clock may even be ticking faster than we think), then where should we spend it? Should we spend it out in the field obsessing about the capture or should we spend it back in the photo studio obsessing about the digital developing and printing process?

Either activity could quite cheerfully occupy all the spare moments of my life that aren't spent working or hanging out with my family. Not only that, but both activities are enjoyable in their own way.

Let's take capturing images first. This is a set of pleasurable activities that can involve outdoor activities, travel, interesting gear and peace and quiet. Then there is the actual act of taking a picture. I don't know about you, but I get into a wonderful zone when I'm taking landscape pictures. My mind is at peace and I'm totally focused on the subject matter and the light.

However, there are barriers to the enjoyment of picture taking. First, there is the time element. You can't really get into the enjoyment of a good shoot without blocking off a few hours to drive or walk to a location, set up your gear and shoot. Second, there is the equipment issue. To do a decent job, you really have to anticipate conditions at the shoot and take the right cameras, lenses, filters, tripods etc. Rowell explains his selection of equipment at great length, so it was very important to him too. Finally, there's inertia. To get your butt out the door when weather conditions might be challenging or when it's dark and early before sunrise and everyone else is in a cozy bed is very difficult.

Developing and printing is a pleasure of a different sort. Taking a raw image and slowly and methodically building layer upon layer of adjustments to hone it to a final jewel and then printing it on beautiful paper is immensely satisfying. No wonder artists like Alain Briot spend hours and hours on each image. Briot, Grey and others have created this concept of a "master image" where you take a raw capture into Photoshop and build a pyramid of layers on top of it to refine it into a work of art. There are multiple curve layers, layers that adjust tonality in narrow ranges, dodging and burning layers, sharpening layers and masks on top of layers to narrow down the target of each adjustment. The artist can obsess over each individual pixel if necessary.

The beauty of this work is that it is done in the comfort of your home studio where it is cozy and warm. You can play tunes in the background. Just like any home workshop project, there is the satisfaction of seeing your work progress towards the finished product.

However, all is not wine and roses in the home studio. Every time you go on a digital shoot, you generate hundreds or even thousands of images. Sorting them, keywording them, trying to decide which ones to spend time on -- all these tasks are time-consuming and take you away from the pleasures of print-making. There is no editor waiting back at National Geographic to do all this for you - you are your own editor! Procrastination is futile as well. The work will just pile up and make you feel pressured. And this pastime is supposed to be fun!

I've been thinking about this for a few days and I think I've come up with a few guidelines to extract as much fun out of photography as possible as well as produce some very good work that, hopefully, others might enjoy and purchase from you:

  • Guideline #1: Take time for photography. People make time for golf, fishing, tennis and other activities, so why not photography? Book a half day away from your family and take off to a favourite location for a shoot. Prepare for your shoot just like you would prepare for a fishing trip - get your gear set up beforehand, get the car gassed up and leave early in the morning to capture that golden light at your location. If you'd enjoy some company, find some photography buddies that will come along with you. Take a picnic. Enjoy!
  • Guideline #2: Use the best tools to sort and categorize your photos. This job is a chore and you want to get over it quickly. Once your photos have been rated, sorted and keyworded, you can quickly focus on the keepers and not stress out about the other 90% of your images that didn't really work out. I've found Lightroom to be a wonderful tool for this job. I touched on the magic of Smart Collections in a previous post and find them to be a really good way of collecting your keepers by subject and organizing your workflow. The beauty of Lightroom smart collections is you can refine your workflow without having to go back and move images around - it is all done dynamically based on keywords and meta data.
  • Guideline #3: Know when to draw the line in the studio. There is a 90/10 rule at work here. If you're lucky enough to capture a really good image, chances are that you can get it print-ready with a minimal amount of development work. Not only that, but 90% of the changes needed can be obtained with 10% of the effort. Quick, accurate adjustments to exposure, white balance and contrast (using curves) can be all that's needed to make a good image work as a print. If you find yourself building a layer cake of hundreds of adjustment layers and masks, maybe your time would be better spent with an image that was a better capture in the first place!
My New Year's resolution in 2009 is to apply these three guidelines. I'm going to schedule more shoots and plan them out in advance so I can enjoy them to the full. I've already started to re-organize my workflow around Lightroom smart collections so I don't let the sheer quantity of digital images overwhelm me. And, I've decided that I will not succumb to the temptation of "polishing the stone". This is a term I sometimes use in my business life. It is all too easy to get into a business mode where a company spends all their time honing existing products and processes, losing total focus on innovation. I think photography offers the same trap. If you spend all your waking hours peering into the computer monitor trying to make a few images perfect, then you are missing out on all the enjoyment of getting out in the open air and taking photographs. That last 10% of fine adjustments that take all the time aren't really noticeable to your audience anyway, so why bother with them?


  1. Hi Hugh

    Excellent post. I've been playing catch-up on your entries after being referred to your site from a couple of sources (one photo, one work related). I have particularly enjoyed the entries on Lightroom, as I've been looking at moving away from Photoshop CS3 to Lightroom and trying to gauge peoples' opinions.

    Best wishes


  2. Hi Huw. Steve McCrodan here. I got your email from Mike and thank you for the information. I had been looking at many of those cameras which you mentioned. I wound up getting the Rebel XSi with a couple lenses (18-55 IS, 75-300 and 50mm) so now I am finding myself looking at everything around me in terms of "How could I make this look good in a photograph?". This is growning into an obsession that will compete with my Scuba Diving obsession. I am actually looking forward to time away from people to try to learn the camera in different environments. Every hour counts. Hopefully I can learn from your wisdom and experience.