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Author Topic: Fascism of flawless photographs  (Read 86376 times)
feppe
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« on: April 30, 2007, 04:44:46 PM »
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As I've trifled through different photography critique sites over the years, and listened to discussions here and elsewhere, it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that there is a strong drive towards "perfect" images. If someone posts an image that has the horizon smack in the center of the frame, or if the model's nose dares to cast a shadow, an image is automatically rejected. This absurdity was amply demonstrated in the tongue-in-cheek posting on The Online Photographer blog. I've struggled with the implications of the article, and the underlying bigger question - when is perfection too much? - for quite a while now.

Chinese calligraphy has been traditionally taught in a manner reminiscent of this. An apprentice learns to copy his master's writing as perfectly as possible. Only then is he allowed to deviate, to create his own style. Perhaps this is how the modern photographer learns. Photographic maxims - such as rule-of-thirds or having the widest dynamic range possible - become what the master calligrapher was to the student.

But I'm somewhat concerned that the accessibility, ease-of-use and ubiquity of post-processing tools is draining the life from some photography. I'm sure everyone of us has cursed the unsightly electrical wires in the otherwise pristine landscape, only to shrug and take it out in post. A problem arises when such "flaws" are seen as something that should be gotten rid of categorically.

I'm not advocating turning into a neo-Luddite, or to start making "gritty" photographs which record the world instead of interpreting it. There's not enough beauty in the world, in my opinion. But I'm afraid many of us are equating perfection with beauty - which is not the case. If you look at the women widely considered most beautiful, you can easily see they are not perfect. Marilyn Monroe with her mole, Angelina Jolie with her oversized lips, Michelle Pfeiffer with her eyes which are too far apart.

Perfection, while pleasing, often amounts to boring. A photograph has to have something more than just flawless execution. What that something is, is another matter - soul, touch, talent? Perhaps achieving flawless execution is just the first step in being a great photographer, and that casting the shackles of perfection aside is when images become iconic.
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howiesmith
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« Reply #1 on: April 30, 2007, 05:18:56 PM »
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As I've trifled through different photography critique sites over the years, and listened to discussions here and elsewhere, it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that there is a strong drive towards "perfect" images. If someone posts an image that has the horizon smack in the center of the frame, or if the model's nose dares to cast a shadow, an image is automatically rejected. This absurdity was amply demonstrated in the tongue-in-cheek posting on The Online Photographer blog. I've struggled with the implications of the article, and the underlying bigger question - when is perfection too much? - for quite a while now.

Chinese calligraphy has been traditionally taught in a manner reminiscent of this. An apprentice learns to copy his master's writing as perfectly as possible. Only then is he allowed to deviate, to create his own style. Perhaps this is how the modern photographer learns. Photographic maxims - such as rule-of-thirds or having the widest dynamic range possible - become what the master calligrapher was to the student.

But I'm somewhat concerned that the accessibility, ease-of-use and ubiquity of post-processing tools is draining the life from some photography. I'm sure everyone of us has cursed the unsightly electrical wires in the otherwise pristine landscape, only to shrug and take it out in post. A problem arises when such "flaws" are seen as something that should be gotten rid of categorically.

I'm not advocating turning into a neo-Luddite, or to start making "gritty" photographs which record the world instead of interpreting it. There's not enough beauty in the world, in my opinion. But I'm afraid many of us are equating perfection with beauty - which is not the case. If you look at the women widely considered most beautiful, you can easily see they are not perfect. Marilyn Monroe with her mole, Angelina Jolie with her oversized lips, Michelle Pfeiffer with her eyes which are too far apart.

Perfection, while pleasing, often amounts to boring. A photograph has to have something more than just flawless execution. What that something is, is another matter - soul, touch, talent? Perhaps achieving flawless execution is just the first step in being a great photographer, and that casting the shackles of perfection aside is when images become iconic.
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Certainly an opinion.  But if you don't another opinion about soemthing, don't ask.  Someone may tell you.

Post an image.  Get an opinion.  Do with it as you please.  But don't ask me what I think, and then tell me how wrong I am.  Even if it is as mundane as the horizon is crooked.

Have you ever seen an image that was so perfect that could be made better by messing something up?
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feppe
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« Reply #2 on: April 30, 2007, 05:39:59 PM »
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Certainly an opinion.  But if you don't another opinion about soemthing, don't ask.  Someone may tell you.

Post an image.  Get an opinion.  Do with it as you please.  But don't ask me what I think, and then tell me how wrong I am.  Even if it is as mundane as the horizon is crooked.

[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=115075\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

You're totally missing the point. My posting was not a reaction to some perceived injustices I may or may have not received on a critique site. It was an honest attempt at opening a discussion on the larger sphere, mostly outside of the critique sites' domain. That's why I posted this here instead of there.

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Have you ever seen an image that was so perfect that could be made better by messing something up?

Again, that's not the point. The point is that our sense of beauty has been damaged, so that it appears only the perfect images deserve to be even acknowledged.
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howiesmith
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« Reply #3 on: April 30, 2007, 05:59:08 PM »
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You're totally missing the point. My posting was not a reaction to some perceived injustices I may or may have not received on a critique site. It was an honest attempt at opening a discussion on the larger sphere, mostly outside of the critique sites' domain. That's why I posted this here instead of there.
Again, that's not the point. The point is that our sense of beauty has been damaged, so that it appears only the perfect images deserve to be even acknowledged.
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I have never seen what I would call a perfect image.

"The horizona is crooked." is a better comment than "Wow.  Amazing.  Perfect."

Next image will not be as good and the horizon will be crooked.

I have had chemical prints graded F and tossed in the trash can because of one dust spot that I didn't think anyone would notice.  Wrong.  Repeated the print, spotted it properly and was given a A.  I see nothing to be gained from presenting a print that you know is not your best effort.  (I didn't say perfect.)  Why should I expect someone to provide a critique of a print when all I have to say to their comments is "I know.  The horizon is crooked."  I wasted their time.  And I didn't learn a thing.  I already knew the horizon was crooked.  

(Crooked horizon was provided as an example only.)

I see nothing wrong in being required to copy the masters.  They are considered masters for a reason.  And I just might learn something from the exercise.  I learned plenty about studio lighting when required to make a portrait in the style of Karsch.  I am no Karsch, and don't want to be, but I can identify his works and reproduce his style if asked.  His style is not my style.
« Last Edit: April 30, 2007, 06:01:41 PM by howiesmith » Logged
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« Reply #4 on: April 30, 2007, 06:29:57 PM »
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Chinese calligraphy has been traditionally taught in a manner reminiscent of this. An apprentice learns to copy his master's writing as perfectly as possible. Only then is he allowed to deviate, to create his own style. Perhaps this is how the modern photographer learns. Photographic maxims - such as rule-of-thirds or having the widest dynamic range possible - become what the master calligrapher was to the student.
Learn the rules and then you can eff them up with understanding - is an alternative viewpoint.
Lots of the artists famous for doing things differently [e.g. Picasso+Cubism, Dali+ surrealism] were masters at the basics, before they screwed with people's minds.

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But I'm somewhat concerned that the accessibility, ease-of-use and ubiquity of post-processing tools is draining the life from some photography. I'm sure everyone of us has cursed the unsightly electrical wires in the otherwise pristine landscape, only to shrug and take it out in post. A problem arises when such "flaws" are seen as something that should be gotten rid of categorically.
Sometimes they should and sometimes they shouldn't, depends on what you are trying to achieve.

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I'm not advocating turning into a neo-Luddite, or to start making "gritty" photographs which record the world instead of interpreting it. There's not enough beauty in the world, in my opinion. But I'm afraid many of us are equating perfection with beauty - which is not the case. If you look at the women widely considered most beautiful, you can easily see they are not perfect. Marilyn Monroe with her mole, Angelina Jolie with her oversized lips, Michelle Pfeiffer with her eyes which are too far apart.
Flawless is dull.
which brings us to
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Perfection, while pleasing, often amounts to boring. A photograph has to have something more than just flawless execution. What that something is, is another matter - soul, touch, talent? Perhaps achieving flawless execution is just the first step in being a great photographer, and that casting the shackles of perfection aside is when images become iconic.
[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=115067\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]
I like ultrasharp technical perfection and I love blurry, gritty images. I simply choose to use whatever style suits the subject or my mood!
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« Reply #5 on: April 30, 2007, 06:53:52 PM »
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Your point may be more effective if suported by examples of photographs that demonstrate it.  Imperfections may or may not be problematic, depending on the contents of a specific image.

 Imperfections can also be part of a style, if this style makes constructive use of these imperfections.  Lack of depth of field, or selective focus, is a regular "imperfection" in street photography.  

Imperfections can also mar a style, if this style calls for perfect images, such as a near-far landscape composition where either the foreground or background are out of focus.  

It all depends what you your intentions, your style and your vision is.  

Without examples, preferably from your own work, this discussion is mainly academic.
« Last Edit: April 30, 2007, 06:54:21 PM by alainbriot » Logged

Alain Briot
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« Reply #6 on: April 30, 2007, 07:10:20 PM »
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Consider the history of photography here - for years, the "ideal" image was one that was more of a pictorialist approach, until the advent of "straight" photography began to arrive, and then took over.  Photography has since been held to a different standard than other forms of creative expression, because of its ability to record what exists in great detail in literally, the blink of an eye.
    Generations of people have grown up with this, and have come to expect it.  They expect photography to be in focus, sharp, and capable of being enlarged to BIG sizes.  Why?  Because it can.  Photography is largely consumer driven, after all.  Consumers see more sharp, in focus pictures through printed publications then they do the less technically proficient images.  That's got to have some effect, even if it is subliminal.  
     Carried to the extreme, this creates the people that Ken Rockwell has referred to in his tongue-in-cheek column discussing equipment "measurebators."  I suppose the same thing can be carried over to people who judge and view printed material as well.  It's much easier for most folks to quantify something by an arbitrary set of standards and stay "in the box."  
      There is nothing wrong with the technically perfect photograph - but a technically perfect photo without an emotional feel to it seems to me like nothing more than an intellectual exercise - something that I suppose Mr. Spock would approve of.
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howiesmith
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« Reply #7 on: April 30, 2007, 07:34:14 PM »
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Consider the history of photography here - for years, the "ideal" image was one that was more of a pictorialist approach, until the advent of "straight" photography began to arrive, and then took over.  Photography has since been held to a different standard than other forms of creative expression, because of its ability to record what exists in great detail in literally, the blink of an eye.
    Generations of people have grown up with this, and have come to expect it.  They expect photography to be in focus, sharp, and capable of being enlarged to BIG sizes.  Why?  Because it can.  Photography is largely consumer driven, after all.  Consumers see more sharp, in focus pictures through printed publications then they do the less technically proficient images.  That's got to have some effect, even if it is subliminal. 
     Carried to the extreme, this creates the people that Ken Rockwell has referred to in his tongue-in-cheek column discussing equipment "measurebators."  I suppose the same thing can be carried over to people who judge and view printed material as well.  It's much easier for most folks to quantify something by an arbitrary set of standards and stay "in the box." 
      There is nothing wrong with the technically perfect photograph - but a technically perfect photo without an emotional feel to it seems to me like nothing more than an intellectual exercise - something that I suppose Mr. Spock would approve of.
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Two comments.  Most of the stuff that is "in the box" is there because it has been tried and found to work.  Stuff out side the box has either been tried and found lacking, or not tried, or just plain not worth trying.  I would not be too quick to crumb on something just because it is in a box.

All other things being equall, the more technically perfect image will like be the one selected.  I would quess that an out-of-focus ad photo will lose out to an in-focus one most of the time, regardless of how hip and outside the box the out-of-focus image is.
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steelbird
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« Reply #8 on: May 01, 2007, 07:39:01 AM »
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All other things being equall, the more technically perfect image will like be the one selected. I would quess that an out-of-focus ad photo will lose out to an in-focus one most of the time, regardless of how hip and outside the box the out-of-focus image is.

And that's because most folks lack the imagination to see beyond the technical limitions of the craft.   Again, it's easier to stay within the technical limitations then to see beyond them.  


 Most of the stuff that is "in the box" is there because it has been tried and found to work. Stuff out side the box has either been tried and found lacking, or not tried, or just plain not worth trying.

Well then, with that attitude, there'd be absolutely no evolution or innoivation of art or craft, no matter what it is.  Straight photography, abstract impressionism were "out of the box" at one time.  Thinking inside the box just stifles innovation.  What is different may fail, but the effort to work outside of convention is worth trying, and may lead to something dynamic and new.  Sticking with the conventional just creates more and more of the same, and gets lost in monotony.   Granted, that's what people like, but that also goes back to the fact that most people cannot see beyond the steady diet of sameness that they get, whether it's advertising photography, action movies, and doctor/lawyer/cop shows on TV.
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James Godman
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« Reply #9 on: May 01, 2007, 10:32:10 AM »
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Some of the most moving images ever made are technically imperfect, such as Robert Capa's blurry and grainy images of troops storming the beach at Normandy.  So I guess we need to ask ourselves why these images are so incredible.  Perhaps they are moments of purity.  Perhaps we are sympathetic, grateful, or even moved to tears.  Why?

One's own definition of perfect of course makes all the difference.  I have always found images that leave me with questions to be better than ones that don't, technical qualities aside.

So I guess what I'm suggesting is to master your equipment and craft, and then move way beyond that to make great images.
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« Reply #10 on: May 01, 2007, 11:56:11 AM »
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Your point may be more effective if suported by examples of photographs that demonstrate it.  Imperfections may or may not be problematic, depending on the contents of a specific image.

 Imperfections can also be part of a style, if this style makes constructive use of these imperfections.  Lack of depth of field, or selective focus, is a regular "imperfection" in street photography. 

Imperfections can also mar a style, if this style calls for perfect images, such as a near-far landscape composition where either the foreground or background are out of focus. 

It all depends what you your intentions, your style and your vision is. 

Without examples, preferably from your own work, this discussion is mainly academic.
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There are nice examples of photographic geniuses in the TOP article I linked to with quite hilarious explanations. As for personal examples, I have a few which have obvious "flaws" I have either decided to leave as is, or to consider them part of the allure of the photo. [a href=\"http://gallery.harrijahkola.com/p/spain/spain-sevillabeautyandthebeasti33]This shot[/url] of a raptor and its handler has an awfully flat and dull sky, yet I've never felt the need to add an alluring sky in post. This one has the horizon smack in the center of the frame. I decided to leave the 6x6 in its original aspect ratio as I feel that's the only "right" way to crop this shot. And this example of a heavily post-processed portrait which doesn't even try to look natural. (My website is in beta, but mostly functional.)

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All other things being equall, the more technically perfect image will like be the one selected. I would quess that an out-of-focus ad photo will lose out to an in-focus one most of the time, regardless of how hip and outside the box the out-of-focus image is.

That's actually one of the things that drew my attention to this whole issue in the first place. Out-of-focus photography was quite popular in the late 90s and early naughties. - and still is to some extent. This was especially true in glossy fashion editorials. It quickly became a cliche, and rarely works.
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howiesmith
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« Reply #11 on: May 01, 2007, 12:22:07 PM »
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Most of the stuff that is "in the box" is there because it has been tried and found to work. Stuff out side the box has either been tried and found lacking, or not tried, or just plain not worth trying.

Well then, with that attitude, there'd be absolutely no evolution or innoivation of art or craft, no matter what it is.  Straight photography, abstract impressionism were "out of the box" at one time.  Thinking inside the box just stifles innovation. 

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[Emphasis added]

That should give you all the room you need to innovate.

Some innovation needs to be stiffled (read, put out of its misery).  What you call "straight photography" and "abstract impressionism" were once "out side the box," but they have been tried. found OK by some and put into the box.

While you claim thinking "inside the box" just stiffles innovation, it also profuces a bunch of very good images.
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feppe
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« Reply #12 on: May 01, 2007, 12:51:10 PM »
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Some innovation needs to be stiffled (read, put out of its misery).  What you call "straight photography" and "abstract impressionism" were once "out side the box," but they have been tried. found OK by some and put into the box.

While you claim thinking "inside the box" just stiffles innovation, it also profuces a bunch of very good images.
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I agree completely that some "innovative" techniques need to be put of its misery. My current pet peeves are unnatural, overdone HDR and the Dragan effect. But HDR is a perfectly valid technique which has its place if used with taste. So although an innovative technique needs to be stopped, that doesn't mean we shouldn't learn from it.

I believe the point some are trying to make here is that perfect, flawless images without a soul are sometimes kitsch - postcards, motivational posters, etc. Many photographers are fine with producing such material, but many want more than oohs and aahs. They want to connect with the viewer on a non-intellectual level, their art to be appreciated rather than ogled.
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« Reply #13 on: May 01, 2007, 03:39:54 PM »
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Some of the most moving images ever made are technically imperfect, such as Robert Capa's blurry and grainy images of troops storming the beach at Normandy.  So I guess we need to ask ourselves why these images are so incredible.  Perhaps they are moments of purity.  Perhaps we are sympathetic, grateful, or even moved to tears.  Why?

[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=115186\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

Would we not be as moved if the images were technically better?

Or are you simply saying that poor technique can be offset to some degree by content?
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« Reply #14 on: May 01, 2007, 04:47:32 PM »
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Would we not be as moved if the images were technically better?

Or are you simply saying that poor technique can be offset to some degree by content?
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In Capa's war photographs, imperfections are metaphorically representative of the situation in which his images were created. The chaos, the violence and the turmoil of war are conveyed through these imperfections.
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Alain Briot
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« Reply #15 on: May 01, 2007, 05:14:06 PM »
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In Capa's war photographs, imperfections are metaphorically representative of the situation in which his images were created. The chaos, the violence and the turmoil of war are conveyed through these imperfections.
[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=115239\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]

Or do we forgive the imperfections because of the chaos, etc.?

Were your supposition true would not photojournalists be sent into war with crummy cameras in order to amplify the story?
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« Reply #16 on: May 01, 2007, 05:25:13 PM »
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Or do we forgive the imperfections because of the chaos, etc.?
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Yes, that is the case as well.  We certainly tolerate more imperfection as viewers knowing how tough the situation in which the images were created was.  It goes both ways.  

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"Were your supposition true would not photojournalists be sent into war with crummy cameras in order to amplify the story?"[a href=\"index.php?act=findpost&pid=115243\"][{POST_SNAPBACK}][/a]


Capa most likely had the best cameras available at the time.  The quality loss is more a result of the situation than of the equipment.  I also think that, talking about war coverage, pro/tough cameras are needed.  I don't think a Diana, to take but one example, would last very long.  Finally, if "crumminess" as a look is a desired goal, it can now be added in post processing.
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« Reply #17 on: May 01, 2007, 05:37:20 PM »
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Yes, that is the case as well.  We certainly tolerate more imperfection as viewers knowing how tough the situation in which the images were created was.  It goes both ways. 
Capa most likely had the best cameras available at the time.  The quality loss is more a result of the situation than of the equipment.  I also think that, talking about war coverage, pro/tough cameras are needed.  I don't think a Diana, to take but one example, would last very long.  Finally, if "crumminess" as a look is a desired goal, it can now be added in post processing.
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From memory, development of Capa's film was totally botched, and only a fraction of the frames he recorded could be salvaged - the ones that are now iconic images.
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« Reply #18 on: May 01, 2007, 07:34:57 PM »
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Would we not be as moved if the images were technically better?

Or are you simply saying that poor technique can be offset to some degree by content?
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What I'm suggesting is that perhaps we as photographers sometimes put too much emphasis on the traditionally good technical qualities of our images (like focus, sharpness etc.,), when we should be trying to find a way to a illustrate a dream or a thought we had.  This is a contstant struggle for me.
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howiesmith
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« Reply #19 on: May 01, 2007, 08:09:21 PM »
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What I'm suggesting is that perhaps we as photographers sometimes put too much emphasis on the traditionally good technical qualities of our images (like focus, sharpness etc.,), when we should be trying to find a way to a illustrate a dream or a thought we had. This is a contstant struggle for me.
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"Sharp" is a money thing.  Spend money on good equipment if you require sharpness.  But a good photographer can produce good photos with any reasonable camera.  Did you ever hear a photographer who says he could take better photos if he only had better equipment?  Do you believe it?  No.  Same photos after he trades from Canon to Nikon.

However, I see absolutely no good reason for your image to not be exposed properly exposed.  Not necessarily the correct straight exposure, but properly - what you as the photographer - want.  If you want "normal" plus 2 stops, that is exactly what it should be.  Not more.  Not less.

Same for focus.  No good reason to have anything other than the focus you want.  And that includes depth of field.

Focus and exposure are two variables the photographer can control, so why not?  More control over those than the content.  I will repeat - Have you ever see an image that would be better if the focus or exposure were worse?  If it only had more dust spots.

Of coutse, there may be times when the equipment you have simply cannot do what you want to do.  Then you pass the photo by, change the plan or buy so,e new stuff.

Maybe James Natchway could be a good photojournalist if he only had a crummier camera, couldn't focus or set exposure.

_________________

If you can "dream it,"you should be able to expose it and focus it.  "Too busy capturing the moment" is a cop out for wrong focus and composition.
« Last Edit: May 01, 2007, 08:12:54 PM by howiesmith » Logged
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