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Author Topic: Technical limitations of photography  (Read 22803 times)
feppe
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« on: February 05, 2007, 04:03:41 AM »
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I'm always surprised at the complacency many photographers feel towards technical limitations of photography. But I am shocked when this complacency becomes embracing, reinforcing and perpetuating these same limitations.

This came to the surface once again due to Michael's recent essay on cropping. Some photographers feel that the technical limitation of their equipment - frame/sensor aspect ratio - is something that should be adhered to at all times. Many feel these limitations should be at least respected most of the time.

Without going through the (de)merits of that discussion again, I'd like to open a discussion on the overarching issue: that photographers are often ok with technical limitations which limit their final results even when they could be easily overcome. This is especially true for any form of post-processing, whether it's wet or digital. Some photographers go as far as being proud of the limitations of their equipment: "this shot is straight out of the camera!"

What is the reason for such complacency or even embracement of these limitations? Photography is arguably one of the more technical forms of art to produce, but I still doubt that's the reason. Why do photographers feel it's ok to let your equpment limit your decisions even when that's not necessary? Why do photographers feel it's the engineers at Canon or Hasselblad who should delineate the limits of shooting when in many cases the photographer can affect them during and after shooting?
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Lisa Nikodym
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« Reply #1 on: February 05, 2007, 11:07:02 AM »
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In some cases, what appears to be going on is that photographers who got accustomed to doing things a certain way (when doing it otherwise would be difficult or impossible) are loathe to change their ways when doing it otherwise becomes possible (since most people are, in general, resistant to change), and they look for rationalizations to keep doing it the way they are accustomed to.  Humans are creatures of habit...

One example of this was a few years ago when many traditional film photographers were resistant to changing to digital.  Their arguments basically consisted of pointing out all the ways that digital was different from film and automatically assuming that digital was worse just because it was different.  An example was their complaints that digital images look "fake" or "plasticky" without film grain.  Fortunately, those sorts of complaints seem to have finally died out...

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Ken Tanaka
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« Reply #2 on: February 05, 2007, 12:22:45 PM »
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I've never seen the desire to work optimally, within the confines of a particular camera, referred to as "complacency".

Photography is, intrinsically, a process of placing boundaries around subjects.  These boundaries are not "limitations" but, rather, instruments of the medium.  I think many, probably most, photographers will not demur from redefining a photograph's original boundaries if the action creates an image closer to intentions.  

In the same vein, however, establishing a self-imposed discipline of creating the strongest original composition within the confines of a camera's native characteristics is hardly "complacency" or laziness.  To the contrary, it's an admirable technique that is generally more difficult to pursue but which nearly always produces superior results due largely to applying a more rigorous discipline.

Forgive me if I've misinterpreted your original declaration, "feppe".
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Kirk Gittings
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« Reply #3 on: February 05, 2007, 01:41:30 PM »
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Read "Beauty in Photography" by Robert Adams.

All artistic mediums have technical limitations. They give a medium definition. These limitations are not fixed but evolve as artists push against those boundaries and the equipment market innovates.

feppe,

You should show us some of your work that is not limited by your equipment.
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feppe
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« Reply #4 on: February 05, 2007, 03:00:10 PM »
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Ken, I do agree to a point. I worked hard to avoid analogies as people end up debating the analogy instead of the issue at hand. With the threat of that happening:

A photographer who boasts his work is "as shot with no post-processing or cropping" is akin to a painter who decides before she starts painting that "I'm going to paint on a 5 by 4 canvas, using only ultramarine, maroon and burgundy colors. If I make a mistake I'm not going to start over or paint over."

Now, let's try to avoid discussing the (de)merits of the above analogy. My point and question is that why do some photographers let their equipment limit them even when it would be trivial to not let these limitations to one's work?

Quote
Read "Beauty in Photography" by Robert Adams.

All artistic mediums have technical limitations. They give a medium definition. These limitations are not fixed but evolve as artists push against those boundaries and the equipment market innovates.

feppe,

You should show us some of your work that is not limited by your equipment.
[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=99322\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

How is my work or how I relate to the technical limitations relevant to the discussion? FWIW, I'm an amateur struggling to get a better understanding of the art of photography. I do extensive cropping and post-processing on some of my shots, and minimal on others. It all depends on my "vision" - and I use that word loosely.

I'll check out the book.
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Kirk Gittings
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« Reply #5 on: February 05, 2007, 03:11:40 PM »
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Feppe,

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I do extensive cropping and post-processing on some of my shots, and minimal on others.

I was curious about how you conceptualize being "limited by equipment". In my world the computers we use to do extensive cropping and post-processing are an integral part of my "photography equipment" just as enlargers are.

Apparently you were just referring to the limitations of cameras and lenses, but that is only half the equipment we use.

Photography now is primarily a desk job (I spend far more time sitting in front of a computer finishing images than out in the field taking images) and a computer is as important a piece of equipment as a camera! I own four cameras and three computers dedicated almost solely to image processing.
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feppe
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« Reply #6 on: February 05, 2007, 03:30:05 PM »
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Apparently you were just referring to the limitations of cameras and lenses, but that is only half the equipment we use.
[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=99336\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

No I wasn't. At no point was I referring to only cameras and lenses and thought it was quite clear from my original post as I even referred to post-processing. I'm talking about technical limitations, whether they are due to camera, tripod, lighting, enlarger, chemicals, PS, printer, inks, etc.
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Kirk Gittings
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« Reply #7 on: February 05, 2007, 03:39:17 PM »
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I guess I don't get your point then. There is nothing that we do that is not limited ultimately by our abilities to exploit the finite capabilities of the equipment that we use. Some exploit those capabilities to a lesser extent and some more, but in the end we are all limited if we want to produce a work of art that has some resemblance to and validity as a photograph. It is merely a matter of degrees.

I asked about your work, because I was curious how one could produce photography that was not ultimately limited by our cameras and processing equipment.
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Jonathan Wienke
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« Reply #8 on: February 05, 2007, 03:40:08 PM »
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A limit that can be freely ignored is not a limit, it is a habit.

Going back to the cropping debate, one can find examples of excellent photographs in a variety of aspect ratios, from extreme panoramas to square, representing a variety of angles of view from very wide to very narrow telephoto. There is nothing wrong with using the largest possible intersection of the aspect ratio appropriate for the subject and the aspect ratio of the camera to maximize technical excellence, but insisting that all of one's work should closely conform to any arbitrarily-selected aspect ratio is both misguided and narrow-minded, a classic example of a bad habit.

Much of photography involves creative ways of dealing with actual limitations that cannot be ignored without consequences. Shooting in low light without flash is an example. Getting good images in low light requires careful balancing of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture for best results, and learning steady handheld technique is also very useful. It is also desirable to use equipment that imposes the least restrictive limits on shooting in such conditions, such as a good quality DSLR and fast lenses. Carefully balancing all of the different factors and options can deliver surprising results when done with creativity and skill, but ignoring such things will most often simply result in terrible photos; either dark, grainy, blurred, or some combination of these things.
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feppe
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« Reply #9 on: February 05, 2007, 04:00:52 PM »
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I guess I don't get your point then. There is nothing that we do that is not limited ultimately by our abilities to exploit the finite capabilities of the equipment that we use. Some exploit those capabilities to a lesser extent and some more, but in the end we are all limited if what we want to produce ultimately has some resemblance to a photograph. It is merely a matter of degrees.

I asked about your work, because I was curious how one could produce photography that was not ultimately limited by our cameras and processing equipment.
[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=99343\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

The point is that a lot of photographers revel in the limitations of their equipment, while it would be trivial to overcome those limitations. This holds for those who refuse to crop their photos, do curves adjustments or clone out a seagull in the sky. What I'm curious is to understand why some photographers let their vision be bound by such arbitrary boundaries.
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howiesmith
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« Reply #10 on: February 05, 2007, 04:20:00 PM »
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What I'm curious is to understand why some photographers let their vision be bound by such arbitrary boundaries.

[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=99349\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

Some don't care or feel the pinch.  I know plenty of point and shooters that don't feel challenged in the least by their camera.  And if they did, they would back up or get a new camera.

Some enjoy the comfort of a box.  I know a fellow who shoots nothing but pinholes.  Just likes the challenge.  Another uses a Diana.

Some don't understand or know what their equipment can do (how it really works), so they make the box smaller than it really needs to be.  Most of us to some degree.  That's one reson I use all mechanical equipment.  When I get outsmarted, I did it myself instead of by some programmer in Japan.

Or some combination of these.  Some call it taste, and taste in indisputable.
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Kirk Gittings
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« Reply #11 on: February 05, 2007, 04:43:58 PM »
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I'm curious is to understand why some photographers let their vision be bound by such arbitrary boundaries.

I get it now. This is actually a historic argument in photography going back (at least) to 1932 and the disputes between the Pictorialists and the F/64 Group, the proponents of "Straight" photography.

see: F/64

"The name [f/64] referred to the smallest aperture available in large-format view cameras at the time and it signaled the group's conviction that photographs should celebrate rather than disguise the medium's unrivaled capacity to present the world "as it is." As Edward Weston phrased it, "The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh."
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sradman
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« Reply #12 on: February 05, 2007, 08:36:45 PM »
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I don't think it is a complacency towards the technical limits of photography, though that is what it seems like. I think it has more to do with the perception of both the authenticity of the image and the skill level of the photographer.

When an image is cropped some believe it is cheating, perhaps removing unwanted elements in the image. It is related to the theme of Michael's article Fake.

The second perception (or misperception in this case) is that a "good photographer" will get the composition right in-camera. Correcting it after the fact is like admitting a mistake or a lack of skill.

If you goal is pure aesthetic art then these things should not matter but most artists/photographers do worry about authenticity etc. to a certain degree.
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John Camp
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« Reply #13 on: February 17, 2007, 11:50:05 AM »
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In some ways, shooting and showing an entire frame acts as a suggestion that the photo is "straight" -- that is, that what you see is a mechanical representation of what was in front of the camera. People who insist on straightness have IMHO a good argument for what they are doing: they are trying to represent the world as it is to the best of their ability, to present historical facts. (A historical fact could be a nude woman lying face-down on a sand dune in a blazing sun, carefully composed and exposed.) Once you get away from straightness (my definition of straightness includes relatively unsophisticated improvements like dodging, burning, sharpening and cropping, and the use of camera movements and such techniques as lens blur or movement blur or panning) then you are in a wilderness of mirrors, where you don't know that anything is an actual representation of the world. If you clone out phone wires, and somebody who knows the neighborhood says, "Hey -- there are no phone wires. What else did they change?", what's the answer to that question, especially if it's asked twenty years after the fact and the photographer is dead? You no longer have a historical document, you have a an effort at art; once you clone out phone wires, nothing else in the photo can be taken at face value, because a careful observer knows that he's looking at a construct.

Some place between an absolutely straight photograph and a totally manipulated and 100% fabricated image there's a dividing line between a representation of historical fact and what newspapers now call "photo illustrations." This is one reason that family albums are considered valuable by historical societies. They tend to be the ultimate in straight photography, unmanipulated in any way, a little square or rectangle of an event, with the people portrayed in actual workaday clothing, with cars and wires and birds and cracked concrete all included in the scenes. Given such a photograph, a scientist might be able to come back years later, and given the view and the angle of the sunlight, be able to tell you what day it was taken, make a good guess about weather conditions, about social status of the people portrayed, etc.

In other words, there's a value to straightness. It can be pushed to a fetish-like point, but so can anything; but it is radically different than "photo-illustration," which is essentially an illusion created in soembody's mind, and has no real boundaries.

JC
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Geoff Wittig
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« Reply #14 on: February 24, 2007, 09:05:47 AM »
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In many ways, the limitations of our photo equipment define the art, not necessarily in a negative way. What can you acheive within those limitations? Some images are sublime art (I like to put Ansel Adams' Aspens, New Mexico {horizontal} in that category; insert your own favorite) while others are throw-away snapshots. Mastery of craft within the inherent limitations of the medium is a big part of the art, but only leads to sterile exercises in technique unless it's guided by a talented eye.

Robert Frost made a brilliant comment when he was asked about the increasingly popular "free verse" form of poetry. To paraphrase, he stated that poetry without rhyme or meter was like playing tennis without a net. The very limitations that the form and craft impose on us provide the playing field for art.
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rogerjporter
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« Reply #15 on: March 04, 2007, 11:51:59 AM »
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i like this discussion, it is lively...
here is a thought that pertains to me as a photographer...
my mentor from 20 years ago that taught me how to print black and white had worked the pro labs in los angeles printing for top names in advertising and beyond.
his take on it was you had to have the black border on the print to "prove" you had an outstanding photo from the get-go.  he was big into getting it right in the camera so everyone would know what a great eye you had.  i fell into this for many years.
now that i shoot digitally (fast forward 15 years) the black border means nothing.  i am free to spend less time in the field and play with fine tuning the composition in the computer.  and guess what, i can still add the black border when i am done using photoshop.  I also find myself cropping my photos to a square format.  I manipulate many of my photos to the point of looking like paintings or illustrations.  i forcefully use vignetting, dust, scratches, and anything else that tickles my fancy.
my limitation of photography (going back to feppe's first question) was that for years i tried to put myself in a box (literally and figuratively)  creatively, and now that that box is gone, i feel i am a better photographer.
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Rob C
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« Reply #16 on: March 16, 2007, 09:46:14 AM »
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Roger

This is a theme which can have no resolution. For the discussion to have any level of meaning it has to be assumed that the participants have a fairly good/pretty good! grounding in camera operation and print making, wet and/or digital.

From that basis,  I think, you can take the thread forward and discuss why it might be that some of us like to use the camera's natural format as the frame for our photography whilst others do not.

I fall into the camp that does. Using the Nikon's natural format, both the actual camera's physical size and weight as well as its framing arrangement, I have one attitude to the job in hand; when using other, larger formats, I feel totally different as a person and as a photographer. I'm not very sure why this should be so, but it certainly is the case for me. Perhaps part of the reason is that when working, there is usually a pre-ordained size of image required for whatever purpose and that, obviously, decides what goes; as I have mainly been lucky enough to control that, even in commercial situations, I relish the freedom of being able to use the camera's screen as my canvas and just work to suit the shape available, making the most of the shooting time and the on location costs without the added burden of further 'interpretation' clouding both my eye and the job in hand.

In other words, it's simple and practical and works well.

Ciao - Rob C
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rogerjporter
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« Reply #17 on: March 24, 2007, 10:44:42 PM »
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hey there Rob, i have not been ignoring your question, but it has taken me a week to mull it over.  i have looked through past images, stared longly at new images, and racked my brain to find out why i use photoshop.  i think, in looking at my older images, in which i payed close attention to the view finder (and ground glass-4x5) i think i was perhaps in some ways a better photographer.  my images are well composed , well printed, thoughtful, exhibit some emotion, and really look good.  
segue into the digital age, and my images turned really sloppy.  i took a 2 week trip to europe, and i got a couple of dozen great images, but i shot 2000.  10% is i suppose a great percentage of images, but really, i have taken to photoshop playing to make more of the images that aren't really all that good better.  browsing through my computer images, i have really settled into quantity over quality.  
some of my photoshop stuff is really good looking, and i have received praise from friends as well as sold several of them, but all of the photoshop images have been rescued mediocre images.  
like i mentioned above, i have been having fun exploring the electronic darkroom, and i think the end results are sometimes outstanding, but when it comes down to the original source images, they are frequently completely crummy.  i stumbled across the original color snapshot of the Astronomical clock in Prague, which is by far my favorite photoshopped image, and it really is just a snapshot, much like any of the hundreds (or thousands) you could see on flickr.com.  
this thread has really gotten me thinking about the viewfinder, and i think on my next outing, as an exercise, i will either shoot film, and only take one or two rolls, or take a 64 meg card in the ol' 30d.  
i will probably ramble some more, but i thought i would get some thoughts up.
simple, practical, and works well: hmmm, it's kinda kooky, but it could be fun.
thanks for the insight and inspiration.
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feppe
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« Reply #18 on: March 25, 2007, 04:59:53 AM »
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this thread has really gotten me thinking about the viewfinder, and i think on my next outing, as an exercise, i will either shoot film, and only take one or two rolls, or take a 64 meg card in the ol' 30d.
[{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

You are not the only one lamenting the easiness of producing images with a digital camera - as strange as that sounds to some. I've always suggested the exact solution you are trying: force yourself to shoot less.

I'd like to point out that shooting a lot is a method used by many a professional photographer, even before digital. The oft-quoted ~10,000 images shot for a single National Geographic article is one example. On the other end of the spectrum we have Jim Brandenburg's project where he took only one image for 90 days, and published the whole endeavor as a book: [a href=\"http://www.amazon.com/Chased-Light-Jim-Brandenburg/dp/1559716711]http://www.amazon.com/Chased-Light-Jim-Bra...g/dp/1559716711[/url]

My "method" of limiting myself boils down to keeping my camera in the bag, instead of having it hang around my neck. When I see something I'd like to shoot, I take a minute or two to explore different possible angles before I even take the camera out. I often just walk away from a subject.

I have the opposite experience than you do. Sure, my shooting has increased by an order of magnitude since I moved from analog 35mm and 6x6 to a digital SLR. But my best images are of similar or better quality than before digital, if I try to quantify such a thing. One reason for this might be that I shoot a lot in low light, and digital offers much better possibilities for blending, compositing and other tricks to bring out the best in each shot.

I also have the freedom to really explore a subject and take tens or hundreds of frames, later choosing what works best. This obviously can be done on the field - I do mostly travel photography -, but for me it's more convenient to do that after the trip.
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« Reply #19 on: April 01, 2007, 10:28:33 PM »
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I think it is very important that we identify our objectives why we crop or modify pictures. If we intend only to impress people, rather than to educate them, then I think it is wrong.

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