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Author Topic: Photo Technology Luddites: Can they be Great Photographers?  (Read 21345 times)
fike
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« on: February 09, 2009, 04:08:16 PM »
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I have been spending a lot of time thinking of the tradeoff between the photographer as technician/engineer and the photographer as a creative artist.

I got thinking about this because of a young (teenage) photographer I know who freely admits her lack of technical knowledge of photography, yet she has a great deal of talent.  I am trying to decide whether to push her to mastering the more technical aspects of her craft, but she seems to have NO INTEREST.  So I got to thinking...



In the age of digital, is it really necessary to understand the technology to become a great photographer?  Can serendipity and experimentation create excellence without knowledge of the underlying principles?  What do you think?



P.S. Sorry about the forum posting location.  I couldn't really see where it would fit, so I stuck it here.
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Colorado David
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« Reply #1 on: February 09, 2009, 04:23:47 PM »
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I frequently work with a colleague who was a U.S. Navy photojournalist for something like fifteen years and is now a full-time free-lancer.  He has a degree in photography from an accredited university and has also taught photography at the college level.  He would tell his college students that if they shot a great photograph, but don't know exactly why it turned out the way it did or they couldn't repeat their success under the same conditions, then they weren't great photographers, they were lucky photographers.  You can jokingly say "I'd rather be lucky than good", but skill trumps luck most of the time.  We all benefit some from good fortune, for example being in the right place at the right time.  That being said, I think mastery of one's craft is essential to long-term success.
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douglasf13
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« Reply #2 on: February 09, 2009, 04:28:14 PM »
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Quote from: fike
I have been spending a lot of time thinking of the tradeoff between the photographer as technician/engineer and the photographer as a creative artist.

I got thinking about this because of a young (teenage) photographer I know who freely admits her lack of technical knowledge of photography, yet she has a great deal of talent.  I am trying to decide whether to push her to mastering the more technical aspects of her craft, but she seems to have NO INTEREST.  So I got to thinking...



In the age of digital, is it really necessary to understand the technology to become a great photographer?  Can serendipity and experimentation create excellence without knowledge of the underlying principles?  What do you think?



P.S. Sorry about the forum posting location.  I couldn't really see where it would fit, so I stuck it here.

  This may not be an original answer, but Ansel Adams was a master technician.  On the other hand, I've worked for very successful photographers who, while they do have a basic command of technique/technology, weren't as knowledgeable as many on these forums.

  I guess you could kind of look at it like Kurt Cobain vs. Steve Vai.  Who's work do you like better?  Personally, I see the value in both.


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Kagetsu
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« Reply #3 on: February 09, 2009, 04:46:40 PM »
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On a purely materialistic point of view, teaching the fundamentals of the technology behind the photograph can only aid to increase the 'success' rate.

I'm a tech head on the side of photography (seems to be a pretty common thing these days) and enjoy the technology aspect of the camera's... but honestly, I only need the basics to make a nice photograph... While I know how a bayer filter works, and can calculate transfer rates on camera's for comparison, it won't help me take a good photograph in the end.

The brian is a wonderful tool as well... you can just ignore what you don't want to know anyway. ^_~
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KeithR
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« Reply #4 on: February 09, 2009, 04:49:06 PM »
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I'll give you my own experience and you can take it for what it's worth. While in high school, I had been told I had a great flair for architecture and design and I really would have liked to go in that direction in life. But I lacked the desire/disipline to really get down to studying the topics I should have when I had the time and youth to do so. The same could be applied to your friend. She may be talented but in my opinion she's been lucky. She needs to know the technology to the extent that it becomes like breathing and will allow her talent to get stronger, if that's what she wants. For the past few years we've been witness to an evolution in imagaging. More so in the past 10-15 years compared to the previous 50 or 75 years. And technology has been driving this change at an extreamly rapid pace. Having an understanding or a grasp on this technology would only help IMHO of the advances that will drive the photography of the future. And let's face facts. No one is going to live in the past. I would ask your friend what direction she wants to pursue photography. If she wants to make a living off of it, she'll need the technolgy to survive. If she is happy with the results of a PHD camera and is happy with the WalMart/Costco/drug store kiosk prints then she may never have the desire to learn why print turned out bad or good or if the problem was something she could have changed(camera settings to post proccessing). Then again, she's a teenager and this just might be a fad for her.
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dwood
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« Reply #5 on: February 09, 2009, 04:55:13 PM »
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It's an interesting question. I've been a musician all my life. Early on in the process of learning the language of music, I studied a lot of music theory. When I went to apply the "rules", both in composition and in playing with other musicians, I found the results to be tight, uninspired, and frankly, boring. When I made the conscious decision to tuck the formal stuff away and instead write and play what I felt, things got a lot more interesting. It was still nice to call upon the technical knowledge when needed but for the most part, I went with my gut.

I think that being a musician and a photographer are similar in many respects. It's certainly good to have a good understanding of the nuts and bolts but in the end, you've got to let the creative juices flow. If you can combine technical prowess with an artistic vision, all the better but I've learned not to let the technical stuff get in the way of what I'm trying to do creatively.

Clear as mud, right?
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Geoff Wittig
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« Reply #6 on: February 09, 2009, 05:01:22 PM »
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Quote from: fike
I have been spending a lot of time thinking of the tradeoff between the photographer as technician/engineer and the photographer as a creative artist.

I got thinking about this because of a young (teenage) photographer I know who freely admits her lack of technical knowledge of photography, yet she has a great deal of talent.  I am trying to decide whether to push her to mastering the more technical aspects of her craft, but she seems to have NO INTEREST.  So I got to thinking...



In the age of digital, is it really necessary to understand the technology to become a great photographer?  Can serendipity and experimentation create excellence without knowledge of the underlying principles?  What do you think?



P.S. Sorry about the forum posting location.  I couldn't really see where it would fit, so I stuck it here.

All available evidence suggests that the answer is "yes".
I've attended a number of photo workshops over the years, and often the most interesting part of the course was the opportunity to review the work of the other attendees. More often than not, the most creative and breath-taking images were taken by retired school-teachers using battered, used, entry-level cameras, shooting JPEG's on program exposure. They had no idea about Raw files or endless polishing of the image in Photoshop, but simply had a fabulous artistic eye. On the other hand, I saw lots of folks with truckloads of high-end gear, only the best glass, able to argue endlessly about the merits and mechanics of various noise-reduction algorithms and multi-pass sharpening methods—yet their actual photographs were dull as dishwater.

There are plenty of brilliant photographer/artists who only know the bare essentials of gear and workflow, yet turn out gorgeous work. And lots of gearheads who produce thoroughly mediocre photos. I'm pretty good with the tech side of things, but learned many years ago to listen to my wife about what caught her eye, because she simply sees better than I do. She can't tell which end of the camera she should point at the subject, but she has a great eye.
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David Anderson
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« Reply #7 on: February 09, 2009, 06:00:50 PM »
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I see a lot of photos on-line that are post processed to the very edges of reality and at first glance look good, but most of them don't stand-up well to a closer look for the original image being an average photo.

It should be called nerdography and not confused with photography..  

Digital has made it very easy to take a photograph, but no easier to take a good one IMHO.




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JDClements
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« Reply #8 on: February 09, 2009, 06:23:11 PM »
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Quote from: dwood
I've been a musician all my life. Early on in the process of learning the language of music, I studied a lot of music theory. When I went to apply the "rules", both in composition and in playing with other musicians, I found the results to be tight, uninspired, and frankly, boring. When I made the conscious decision to tuck the formal stuff away and instead write and play what I felt, things got a lot more interesting. It was still nice to call upon the technical knowledge when needed but for the most part, I went with my gut.

Ahhh... but you are talking about one set of "rules": the rules of musical composition. Which would equate nicely to studying photographic composition. But what about the technical knowledge required on how to blow/suck/press the valves/fingering/foot work, etc. In other words, the technical knowledge on how to actually get a tune out of the instrument(s)? Without that knowledge, I think a musician would be hard pressed to make anything of their craft.

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fike
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« Reply #9 on: February 09, 2009, 06:34:58 PM »
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Quote from: JDClements
Ahhh... but you are talking about one set of "rules": the rules of musical composition. Which would equate nicely to studying photographic composition. But what about the technical knowledge required on how to blow/suck/press the valves/fingering/foot work, etc. In other words, the technical knowledge on how to actually get a tune out of the instrument(s)? Without that knowledge, I think a musician would be hard pressed to make anything of their craft.

What about a singer.  They may intuitively understand the rules of harmony although they are unable to recite them.  


Musicians are an interesting analogy.  I think that I am beginning to fall somewhere along the lines that you can achieve great things without the technical mastery, but it will perhaps be inconsistent and spotty.  As you get into more and more arcane issues, I think we are likely to get diminishing returns from technical knowledge.  It may be sufficient for me to understand that with my 24-70 lens I get the best results at somewhere around f/8.  I don't need to understand that beyond that point diffraction sets in and my increase in depth of field is offset by decrease in acuity.

so, the more knowledge, the better.  

I frequently am reminded of one of the early high-speed photography pioneers, Dr. Harold Edgerton.  He didn't consider himself an artist in any way.  He was an engineer.  I think his work is very artistic.  What did Buddha say..."There are many paths to enlightenment."
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« Reply #10 on: February 09, 2009, 06:55:43 PM »
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Quote from: fike
I have been spending a lot of time thinking of the tradeoff between the photographer as technician/engineer and the photographer as a creative artist.

I got thinking about this because of a young (teenage) photographer I know who freely admits her lack of technical knowledge of photography, yet she has a great deal of talent.  I am trying to decide whether to push her to mastering the more technical aspects of her craft, but she seems to have NO INTEREST.  So I got to thinking...

In the age of digital, is it really necessary to understand the technology to become a great photographer?  Can serendipity and experimentation create excellence without knowledge of the underlying principles?  What do you think?
...


Suppose your teenage friend gained enough fame that someone approached her to make an offer:  "I need a photo of (description) that includes (stuff, perhaps people) and portrays (an emotion, impulse, etc).  I've sketched out my concept.  It will be used in (output format).  I will pay you dearly for your efforts."  Could she do this?  Would she want to?




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Wayne Fox
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« Reply #11 on: February 09, 2009, 07:20:30 PM »
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Quote from: Geoff Wittig
There are plenty of brilliant photographer/artists who only know the bare essentials of gear and workflow, yet turn out gorgeous work. And lots of gearheads who produce thoroughly mediocre photos.

Of course I'm sure you agree that the opposite is equally as true. There are photographers with a great eye but are challenged capturing what they see because they are limited in the knowledge of their craft ... which means they cannot share their vision.  There are also plenty of "gearheads" producing some stunning work.  Most photographers are somewhere in between these extremes.

No amount of technical skill can make up for lack of artistic ability.  However, to completely ignore the technical side of the craft is short sighted and limiting.  That teenager referred to by the original poster will most likely find gaining a basic understanding of the craft will actually allow them to more fully capture and express the wonderful gift they have.
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k bennett
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« Reply #12 on: February 09, 2009, 07:45:44 PM »
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This is a common topic of conversation with my students. I think an artist -- in any field -- needs to completely understand the technical side of his or her art. Great artists make it look effortless, but that hides many, many years of practice.

Photography occupies an odd niche, since it's possible to make photographs without learning any technical stuff first. One just "pushes the button." This is different than playing the guitar, or painting a portrait, or singing an aria, or welding a metal sculpture. In all cases, though, the artist *uses* the technical skills to perform or create their art.

The problem, of course, is that for some people, the technical issues become the only issue. This isn't limited to photography, but it seems to be magnified especially with the advent of digital imaging and the "actual pixels" view in Photoshop.

So, I think your friend needs to learn a lot about photography in order to be a great photographer/artist.
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barryfitzgerald
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« Reply #13 on: February 09, 2009, 07:59:49 PM »
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Slightly off title really

Photo tech luddites, does not mean strong command of the "technical" aspects of photography.
The technical side is needed, no question to a point...it won't make a great photographer though
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SteveBlack
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« Reply #14 on: February 10, 2009, 07:05:45 AM »
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I think Michael said it best a while back when answering a question about being on a workshop and the commenter mentioning how quickly Michael was going from a moving car, to setting up his gear and taking a great shot.  

To paraphrase Michael - 'The key is that I actually took the picture from the car, the rest was just mechanics' - great comment, and some wonderful insight in the technology getting out of the way to let the artist execute his vision.  That comment has really struck me and I think that is a wonderful goal (at least for me) in improving my photography.

Steve
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Lisa Nikodym
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« Reply #15 on: February 10, 2009, 07:45:08 AM »
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Sorry to come in here a little late, but I just got back from being out of town for a couple of weeks...

Back before I figured out the technical aspects of my camera and just used auto-everything, I would come back from a trip with about six photos good enough to hang on my wall.  After figuring out the technical aspects, I now come back with about *sixty* good photos.  I no longer throw out most of them because of blurriness, bad lighting, bad exposure, etc.  Just how many good photos does your friend want to take?  Is she happy with just a few for all the time she's spending photographing?  If not (and I can't imagine she is), I strongly recommend she learns at least some reasonable minimum of the technical aspects.

Lisa
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BernardLanguillier
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« Reply #16 on: February 10, 2009, 08:44:39 AM »
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I believe that a Nikon D700 with a 50 mm f1.4 at f2.0, with Auto ISO set to a min shutter speed set of 1/60 sec, max ISO at 3200, zone AF, -0.7 exposure compensation, D lighting set to high and A mode is by far the best point and shoot cameras ever produced.

Never in history has it been as easy for non tech savy people with a good eye to get great color results without thinking too much about technique.

Do you think I would have taken that without all these automations?



Cheers,
Bernard

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A few images online here!
ErikKaffehr
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« Reply #17 on: February 10, 2009, 08:50:42 AM »
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Hi,

Nowdays the cameras are quite good at the technology, so if a person just has they eye for the subject and composition that person should be able to make really good pictures without much knowledge of technology. On the other hand knowledge is always helpful, at least as long it doesn't replace skill, exploration and actual picture taking.

I also know a young lady, she is highly technical (has an engineering degree in microelectronics), but not at all technical in her picture taking. She has a wonderful eye for pictures, on the other hand, she was also doing some serious painting.

Best regards
Erik


Quote from: fike
I have been spending a lot of time thinking of the tradeoff between the photographer as technician/engineer and the photographer as a creative artist.

I got thinking about this because of a young (teenage) photographer I know who freely admits her lack of technical knowledge of photography, yet she has a great deal of talent.  I am trying to decide whether to push her to mastering the more technical aspects of her craft, but she seems to have NO INTEREST.  So I got to thinking...



In the age of digital, is it really necessary to understand the technology to become a great photographer?  Can serendipity and experimentation create excellence without knowledge of the underlying principles?  What do you think?



P.S. Sorry about the forum posting location.  I couldn't really see where it would fit, so I stuck it here.
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fike
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« Reply #18 on: February 10, 2009, 09:25:10 AM »
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Lots of interesting responses here.  It is helping me to clarify the technical areas that I think beginners should focus.  

The technical fundamentals of photography remain important.  Exposure (aperture, shutter, ISO), lighting, depth of field, focus, etc... are technical issues that need to be mastered in order to have any consistency at all. These are important for all to master.  I would also add into this mastery of operating your camera efficiently is another aspect of this area.  

On the other hand, today we get hung-up on some pretty arcane technical stuff dealing with SNR, pixel pitch, color depth, noise-reduction, etc...  This stuff falls into a second tier of technical information that I think is less critical.  If you buy a decent camera, much of this stuff can be considered superfluous for most photographers--even some professionals.  

As much as I may be interested in understanding the second tier of photo technology, I think I should avoid pushing beginners into these areas.  They should focus on the fundamentals of photography--those areas that haven't changed in decades.
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« Reply #19 on: February 10, 2009, 11:41:50 AM »
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Quote from: Kagetsu
The brian is a wonderful tool as well... you can just ignore what you don't want to know anyway. ^_~

"The brian"...

haha  

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