Susan Sontag’s “On Photography”

But despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth. Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience. [...] In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing their standards on subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.

Susan Sontag, On Photography

Via my old friend Chris I’ve been picking at Susan Sontag’s nearly forty year old essay on photography, written well before I was even born, and it’s a little dismaying how fundamentally different things aren’t now. Some things really don’t change much. Well worth a read if you, like me, had somehow not been shown it before.

End Of The Year Thoughts: Photography

Whew. Seriously, the last day of 2013 already? What a year, folks. And, rather than bore you with a recap of it, here instead is a list of thoughts I’ve had rattling around about photography as you encounter it on the internet. A lot of these are inspired by my time spent recently trawling around 500px looking for some lighting inspiration, the rest come from helping customers at the day job. As always, my perspective is as a fine art and portrait photographer, I don’t consider any style where simply being in the right place is the entire first half of the battle (photojournalism, sports, travel) to be governed by the same rules as the styles where you’re out to create and not just record a moment. But that’s a separate issue all together. So, without further ado, some thoughts:


  1. Good gear is always worth what you paid. I promise. Yes, better gear is worth more money. It’ll last longer, make your life easier, give you more options, let you spend less time swearing, and (often) will be more versatile.

    Flipside: I would only ever recommend buying what you expect to need, with about 10-20% more than you currently think you do. Take the money you’ll save by not going to a higher price point needlessly and apply it to another piece of good gear that does something else instead.

    In general, you’ll know when to move up to a higher price point because it’ll become the only thing you can find that does _______ that you’ve been trying to. Unless you can already fill in that blank with something, I’d stick to the middle range gear aimed neither at beginners nor at bored doctors and already-famous fashion photographers. The middle of the pack is a sweetspot for most photography, and there are some real gems to be found in it.

  2. When you’re getting started, spend most of your time figuring out what it is you want to do. There’s a lot of gear, and a lot of advice, and it’s all pretty much bunk if you don’t know what you want to do. My kit is very, very different then it would have been if I had decided to spend my time shooting birds instead.

  3. There’ll come a point in gear shopping when it can’t be avoided, but as often as possibly avoid unitaskers. It’s true when Alton preaches it, and it’s true in photography too. A tool with a dozen uses is always a better return on your money than one thing that only has one purpose. You’ll get a lot better shots by reacting to what you’e given that by trying to make circumstances fit the narrow slice your unitasker demands.And, for what it’s worth, I will insist until my dying breath that every prime lens on the market is a unitasker. It gives you one look. You will find with regular use that there’s one type of photo it consistently gives you that it excels at, and a lot of others it never will. A good quality constant-aperture standard zoom is only more expensive until you realize you need five primes to pull the same weight. Buy primes hesitantly, and only when you’ve hit a wall where you just can’t get that look without them. Or, if you’ve just fallen in love with that one look that they do and you’ve decided to commit a bulk of your photography to it. That second one’s not for me, but I’ve seen people who can flat-out rock it.But when someone tells you to skip a zoom and just buy a 50mm prime, be really, really skeptical. Especially if you haven’t decided what it is you want to do yet.

    [Personal note, the biggest benefit to primes is f-numbers faster than 2.8. Past f4, I dare you to pick out the difference between most primes and good zoom at the same focal length. Buy a zoom or two, shoot around. Find what focal lengths you shoot at most, then buy a prime in there for those times when you need shallower DOF.]

  4. The single best thing you’ll ever do is to start putting the lighting first. The second best thing you’ll do is learn the light should come from the sides and not above.

  5. You probably need a bigger light source. I mean, yeah. Probably. And, if you’re in doubt what to do about lighting, then you definitely need a bigger light source. Buy a parabolic umbrella, you won’t regret it.

  6. The third best thing you’ll do is admit that every single in the history of ever has been dicked with, adjusted, or altered. There’s no such thing as an honest photo, and learning all that boring stuff like black clipping, gamma, saturation, sharpening masking, and yadda yadda yadda will give you way more results than any lens or body ever will. A copy of Adobe Lightroom was the single most cost-effective thing I ever did to push myself up a notch. People were willing to swear I had bought a new camera. Just saying.


  1. If you can’t take a good picture of a pretty person, you have some real issues you need to work out. They’re doing the heavy lifting for you, as far as most viewers are concerned. Not to say you should get discouraged, I’ve taken plenty of unflattering pictures of pretty people and “I’m making sure the camera thinks you look as good as you do” is common patter for me at shoots anymore. But, still, if you’re taking pictures of good lookin’ folks and they don’t already look halfway to stellar, I’d hold off on hanging that shingle out just yet…

    Corollary: It’s really stupidly easy with good light and pretty people to take good photographs. People will love them and you’ll get lots of empty comments and likes. But if that’s where you stop, they will be boring and immediately forgettable. Any photo of a pretty person in pretty light that doesn’t also have ambiance or meaning is just a fashion ad. And the thing about ads is they’re meant to have text on them. You know, to give them a purpose.

  2. Ambiance trumps concept every time. Concepts are sticky things, and I’ve seen a lot of otherwise decent photos fall into the Deep Well of Hokey because they couldn’t let the concept go. Ambiance is better, and it’ll make a viewer linger. Concpets tell, but ambiance asks. And asking is good. Photos should make me ask questions. Just not “What the hell were they thinking?” That’s the wrong question.

  3. Light everything as if it were a nude. What is it about nekkid people that makes photographers break out an A-game they’ll leave on the table unless a model piles clothes on it?

  4. Speak of nudes, do you really need boobs to sell it? Your image, that is. I mean, I like boobs as much as the next guy, and I’ve shot boobs. But, in my trawl for lighting references lately it’s become obvious that “boobs” are conflated entirely too much with “art.” Here’s a helpful reminder, if the only reason you have a naked person in your photo is because they look hot, that’s porn. There’s a time and a place for porn, and you can have artful porn, but don’t go thinking you can just insist it was Art and it’s somehow different. If the person’s only there to get someone’s juices going, you’re shooting porn bucko. (Hint, this actually extends to boudoir and lingerie shoots too.) (Bonus hint: all lingerie ads are basically porn. They may be the most valid reason to take well-lit pictures of a tall gal in her knickers, but the back of your mind should always be reminding you the reason she’s in her knickers is to look sexy. It’s right there in the last word: sex. Don’t lie to yourself.)

    Megan inserts at this point that she thinks the previous disclaimer is a fairly male assessment, and she’s never looked at a lingerie ad and thought that. I counter that even when targeted at straight women the point of them is to show how you would better attract the male gaze, which is sorta the flipside of the same coin. I’m also assuming, based on portfolios I see online, a very large chunk of people shooting lingerie stuff are dudes, which colors it a bit more. This may apply less for women shooting lingerie as that power dynamic is different, but hey, YMMV.

    One last thought here, and it’s a bit more rambling so bear with me. Most nudes I see are more what I’d think of as studies. There are some really good reasons photographers love shooting nude forms. Doing so will teach you how to control lighting very, very quickly. It will do so because all of a sudden you’ll actually pay attention to what it’s doing, something you mostly won’t when clothes are helping pick up the slack for you. But, keep in mind that drawing students also spend a lot of time with nudes. Most of them don’t fill a portfolio with those sketches though. Shoot them, learn what you need to, show them on your blog or Flickr or what have you. But there are a lot of nudes out there, unless you’re doing something more than “celebrating the human form” with them, maybe skip the portfolio and just accept that they were studies.

  5. You suck at titles. There’s no shame in numbers, untitled, or titling a photo for the model. But, you’re shooting hundreds to thousands of pictures a year: they don’t all need titles. Honestly, none of them do. Spend more time shooting, less time being cute. Blue Dream, White Queen, and Sacred Shivers aren’t photo titles… they’re next year’s featured fragrance lines.

  6. Your photo is going to get stolen. Take a deep breath, calm down, and admit that now. If it’s online, it’ll get stolen. Period end. No amount of watermarking will stop that. Don’t believe me? Remember that time Capcom stole the cover for their own game off of a blog?

    Need more than an isolated incident (even if somewhat notable) to convince you? Why not trawl PhotoshopDisasters posts where stolen stock photos made it all the way to production with the watermark in place?

    Starting to come to grips with the fact that it will be stolen? Good. Now, instead of putting a huge watermark on your images (which will do nothing to actually stop it being stolen, clearly), if you’re worried about losing money to this take the actual steps of shelling out and copyrighting your photo. Embed your copyright info in the meta. And then if you must keep watermarking your photos still, show some reserve and decorum and keep it small so I can actually see your photo, k?

    And for the love of the gods, pay someone to make you a logo and don’t just type your name in the lower corner in papyrus. There is no quicker way to spot an amateur playing at being a bigger fish. NONE.

  7. If your HDR image looks like a newly-discovered Thomas Kincade, you’ve gone too far. HDR is both the Kincade of photography, and the solarization effect of the new millennium. It’s not going to age well, and it’s going to turn off more people than it turns on. Or, at least, I hope it does. Just… show some restraint, yeah? Used right HDR is a wonderful tool, especially at night, to fill in the dynamic range our eyes can see but our cameras can’t. Used wrong, and, well…

Categories: photography  

Why We All Take Pictures of The Same Old Shit

We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.

Don Delillo, “White Noise”

In turn from a nice article by David White on Oxford’s Tall Blog.

Source: We Have Become The Barn
Categories: photography  

Finally Posting: ETC’s Caesar Shots

Now that my fine friends at Eclecticpond have had a chance to introduce all of these shots the way they wanted to, I can do a summary post for you all. This series was a lot of fun for me, and I’m pretty happy with the results. The idea came from a Cracked article which linked to some awesome old criminal photos taken by the police department of New South Wales in the 20′s. These were just common criminals, but the mugshots were surprisingly elegant, like a piece for Esquire and not for one’s permanent record.


Mr. Moore Here Sold Fake Opium. No, Really.

So, that was the starting point. I like the slightly angled focus plane, which seemed likely to be the result of an un-evenly adjusted bellows lens, and the choice of framing and the diptych were all elements we wanted to keep. But, this production of Caesar was being set in the ruthless world of a modern Western business, so, we wanted less of the old-timey feel and more of the cold, heartless world of CEOs. For that, I took more influence from David Fincher’s way of portraying the world, with harsh shadows and an unnatural blue tint washed over everything, giving it a very clinical feeling. The results, I think, are stellar.











The set-ups for all of the above were pretty simple. All of them were shot with an 85mm PC Nikkor fully tilted either one way or the other. The head shots were done with a single small softbox close by, and the full body shots were done with a strip box a good 8 or 10 feet from the actor. The directing for them was also pretty simple. Since we wanted ‘mugshot’ as the tone, I just asked them to take a neutral pose, unless they had an angry character, in which case they were to look so. The lighting diagrams are below, and pretty self-explanatory. The cool blue cast was done with some highlight split-toning in LR, but otherwise it was just some simple corrections for tones, crop, and the occasional horizontal distortion correction.



ETC’s run of Julius Caesar opens, appropriately enough, on March 15th here in Indianapolis, and features a gender-inverted cast and updated corporate setting to go along with the original language. You can order up some tickets for one of the shows here:

Quick Toys: Cliché Photo Business Name Generator

Just a quick toy for you I put together based on a post over at Expert Photography. All credit for the concept goes to Josh Dunlop, I just made it easier to use.

On Photo Gear

An oven doesn’t make a great cook. A camera doesn’t make a great photographer. You don’t need fancy gear to make beautiful images.


I know what people are trying to say with this. I do. I get it. I’m one of the first to say that our world has a sort of gear fetish, a cult of the ever-newer. I get it. But, pithy, over-simplistic sentences like this don’t help anything either. A good cook can make something good with a bad oven, sure. They can make a lot more better things faster with a good oven. And even that’s too simple. I dare you to try making a milkshake without a blender, or shred cheese without a grater. Go ahead. Try it. Not so fun, right?

There’s a reason I recently jumped systems to Nikon, and it certainly hasn’t been the thrill of writing the payment checks. And it’s because in any profession, there is a nearly symbiotic relationship between the professional and their tools. A better camera won’t make you a better photographer by itself. But if your camera is what’s holding you back, then getting a better one will. But that’s not tweetable, is it? It’s tough to look at your gear and your photos and know, really know, when faults were due to the gear, and when they were due to you. But you need to. Sometimes you need better gear. Often you don’t. There’s no simple way to tell which is which every time. It’s messier than that. But, for what it’s worth, here are things I look at and think about before I upgrade gear.

  1. Do I know all of the specs of my current camera. All of them. Not just sensor size and AF points. How many of those points are cross-type? At what EV do they act up? When do they fail? How does the camera handle exposure? Levels? How much headroom do files have? If I miss an exposure, how many stops can I push or pull it before the image breaks down? How does it do in strobes? In ambient light? On a tripod? What’s the x-sync? What’s the real x-sync I can cheat above the stated one? And so on.

    If you don’t know your camera’s specs on that level, then how can you even begin to know when the camera is failing, and when you are? Tech review sites are a great place to get a basic idea of that intimacy, they’ll tell you the theoretical limits. But make sure you burn the frames yourself and spend that time in post and in the field learning your tool and how it behaves when you use it for your work. Unless you shoot test charts and brick walls for a living, the real measure of a camera is how it handles in your day-to-day work flow. You’ll find a lot of those “deal-breaker” idiosyncrasies and flaws never even affect you. When they do every single time, well, then maybe you’re looking at a real reason to upgrade. But be prepared to answer what it is that you’re hoping to overcome. It should be a concrete answer, not something wussy and nebulous like “well, maybe some more resolution might be nice…”

  2. Lenses are investments. People always tell you the glass matters more than the body. Largely, I agree. But as with everything, you need the right glass. And I don’t just mean the biggest, fanciest glass everyone’s drooling over. This is a tool, remember. Something you’re in symbiosis with. The right glass is the lens that will accomplish the goals you need it to, every time you need it to. Sometimes that’s a big pro lens, there’s no escaping that. Sometimes it’s a $400 refurbished consumer telephoto. It depends on what you shoot, and how. But the fact is, it’s only an investment if it’s something you both need, and will keep. Otherwise, it’s an expense at best, a waste on average.

    Why? Because a different lens will only deliver better photos if you know what you intend to do with it, and why you need that focal range, that aperture, and that sharpness. If you can’t tell the difference in total image quality from two focal lengths on the same kit lens yet, you’re not there. Keep at it. You will be. And then it’ll be painfully obvious to you what you need from a lens. Then it’s a matter of finding the one that does that, which is way easier than guessing at lenses you might need. Cheaper, too. Even when that one lens is more expensive. And then you get to call it an investment.

  3. Learn how to edit. An “edit” is not just a change made to a photo, it’s the process of looking over a body of work and choosing what’s good, what’s trash, and what needs poked at until you know it’s good or trash. There’s a combination of things that go into this: a knowledge of subject and composition, of lighting, of in-field technique (aperture choice, ISO, shutter, handshake, etc) and post-editing technique (levels, white balance, sharpening, noise reduction). Be diligent about editing. Be honest. Be hard on your photos. If you’re shooting five hundred photos, why expect more than a dozen will be good? Why expect more than maybe one or two will be great? They won’t. I can take a hundred shots in controlled studio lighting with a model and they still won’t. Poses don’t work. Lights don’t fire. You miss your exposure. You miss your focus. You get too close to a light and stop down and you pixel level is all fuzzy from diffraction limitation. All this happens, every time. Experience minimizes it. Honest editing shows you the consequences of all of it, and makes you come to terms with them. It also teaches you the greatest secret of them all: most photos absolutely suck. Being a good photographer is knowing to only show the ones that don’t.

    Spend the time to know which ones don’t. Stick with whatever gear you have until you can. Once you can figure that out, then you’ll know what else you need. It might be a new body. Or lenses. Or studio lights. Or a tripod. But whatever it is, once you know how you shoot and what part of your gear regularly fails you where, it’ll be more than immediately obvious what you need.

    Then, go get it. And repeat it all.

Categories: photography  

Why You Should Always Start With At Least A Mid-Level DSLR

They say you can take good pictures with any modern DSLR. And, while technically that’s true, I can’t in good conscience ever recommend that someone getting started in photography as a profession or art consider starting with one of the cheaper entry level cameras. I just can’t. For a lot of reasons, really. I started with an entry level body myself, and used it for a while before inevitably upgrading. The problem is, you upgrade in photography at a stiff loss. Especially since if you start with entry level you often find yourself upgrading both the body and lens. That’s a lossy experiment. I ended up replacing my first body and two lenses wholesale. That’s a lot of cost.

So, why did I think it was so important to move up? After all, they really do say you can take great pictures with entry level cameras. You’ve seen people do it, probably. And, you can’t really afford the mid-level stuff, and the specs aren’t that much better are they? And your friend told you the sensor on this camera is the same one used on the last mid-grade body anyway…

1. Lifespan

The life of a DSLR is limited by the durability of its shutter. Once the shutter fails, you’re pretty much sunk, since replacing one costs almost as much as a new camera once you get about a year out. So, the life of the shutter is roughly equal to how much work you can put through your DSLR. The numbers for entry level DSLRs aren’t commonly reported (which should give you a clue in and of itself), but the average shutter life for an entry-level DSLR is 80,000 – 100,000 actuations. The life of an advanced DSLR is almost always 150,000 across all brands. That’s 50-87.5%% longer life for the camera.

Compare that to the price. According to Roberts, there are 16 current in stock entry level cameras (including body only and kits with lenses), averaging out to a mean price of $723.08. There are 10 current in stock advanced cameras (also body and kits) with a mean price of $1064.88. That’s a 47% increase in cost, but between 50-87.5% more life to the camera. Simply put, the shutter life alone, discounting all other factors, is actually literally worth the increased cost.

2. Controls

But life isn’t all. For example, there’s also controls. A camera is, ultimately, a tool. It is the tool you use to capture the vision you have. I use paint brushes and palette knives for paintings, I use a camera and lenses for photos. I don’t have to think about how to use a brush. I pick it up, I use it. The brush becomes transparent in the process. A good camera does the same thing. You should be able to forget you’re even using it. And that means it needs to be capable of making the adjustments you need it to quickly and easily. The more direct access it allows you, even if you don’t know what the features are as you get started, the better off you’ll be in the long-term once you discover just how much easier those functions make it for you to forget you’re making changes,

For example, this is the camera I started on, the Olympus E-410:

And this is the camera I used for three years, the Olympus E-3:

Look at all those extra buttons. Look at the two command wheels, a very common difference between an entry level body and an advanced one. The addition of a dedicated ISO button. A button to control how AF works. What drive mode (single frame, continuous, timer) the camera is in. White balance. Metering mode. On the E-410, you had to go into a menu for each of those. On the E-3, it was much faster. And the top LCD meant I didn’t have to move the camera as far from my eye to verify the changes.

But, Zed, you say, Zed… that’s an entry-level and what they call a “pro” body… and no one uses Olympus. OK. Fine. How about some current Nikon bodies? Here’s the entry-level D3100 compared to the mid-level D7000:


You might have to click on those to see them larger, but let’s look at wha’s on the second body (D7000) and not the first (D3100):

  • Two command wheels (I leave one set to EV comp, the single most used function on my camera).
  • A topdeck LCD to review settings
  • Dedicated drive mode dial (Single, Continuous, Timer, etc)
  • A dedicated focus mode switch
  • Two programmable function buttons up front
  • Double-loaded buttons for accessing Quality (Raw/JPG), ISO, and White Balance.
Those are important functions. Some of them are even easier to use if you go up another step (on the D300s, ISO, WB, and QUAL all get their own buttons, not doubled up). If you’re going to be serious about the camera disappearing so you can do your thing, those buttons all help. A lot. Like, a lot a lot.

3. Build

Entry level bodies are made to be small and light, to appeal to people who want a camera they can carry around. As a result, they’re exclusively plastic. Or, fiber-glass reinforced resin. Good enough for casual use, sure, but a bit cheap. Advanced level bodies will often incorporate metal frames, and partial metal chassis. This goes back in the the shutter life. If you’re serious about this, then consider the camera a tool, and make the slight up-investment to get yourself a more durable tool. You may not need it, but you never know what’s going to happen in the field. I had a 17″ monitor fall over on my E-3 once. It had a solid magnesium body and came out fine. I doubt the resin-bodied E-410 would have.

4. The Little Things

There are often a lot of little things that get changed between entry models and advanced ones. And, if you’re just getting started, it’s easy to write them off as things you don’t need to worry about now. And, maybe you’ll never have to worry about them. My camera has at least ten features I never use. It has another ten I use constantly that the entry level body lacked. Until you get versed in the technique and start to develop a style, it’s a bad idea to rule out flexibility. Later, once you know your needs, you can more wisely pick and choose. In the beginning, err on the side of flexibility. A maximum flash sync of 1/250 vs 1/180 doesn’t seem like a big deal, until you learn you like shooting with strobe lighting. A maximum shutter speed of 1/8000 versus 1/4000 isn’t big until you’re trying to freeze water from a fountain on a sunny day. 5 frames per second isn’t better than 3 frames per second until that time you’re shooting birds, or sports. The hidden menu setting that let’s you cap auto ISO, or build custom banks with different shooting settings don’t matter until you know you want those different in daylight than in a bar. On the E-410, I had to change settings constantly. On the E-3 I had to custom presets I could just toggle between and go. On my D700 I have three modes I can switch between. All of that matters once you get going seriously, it helps the camera get out of your way. You can accomplish most of the same things with an entry level camera, but it’ll take more fussing, and you’ll be painfully aware you’re dealing with a tool.

Additionally, there are little things the specs don’t tell you that are different between entry level and advanced models. Almost universally, advanced models will have improved white balance (which yes, does matter even if you shoot RAW, for some really technical reasons). Advanced models will have gentler processing curves that’ll blow highlights less and leave more detail in shadows (not as big for RAW shooters, critical for JPEG shooters, or for more accurate histograms on the LCD).

There are occasionally some other benefits as well, but they’re not as consistent across the board and you have to check on each product individually. Some things the advanced models might have over entry models can also include: PC connector ports for studio lights, available vertical grips, available AC adapters, support for proportionally cheaper CF cards over SDHC. Faster write support. Nikon advanced models support older AF lenses thanks to a built-in screw motor. Modern Canon Rebels have fewer metering modes than their bigger siblings. You’d be surprised the things that get left out of a camera to bring the cost down for those entry level bodies.

5. Lenses

Once you get used to photography, your style and needs will dictate what lenses you need. People have less choice in the lenses they own than you might think form systems offering dozens and dozens of choices. For example, 98% of my work can be done with two sharp zoom lenses. And is. I have no need for a macro lens, or for a super wide angle, or for exotic telephotos. I don’t need a 70-200mm f.28. I can’t stand using multiple fast primes, and by and large they aren’t notably better than a quality zoom. Once you know what you’re shooting, the lenses you need to accomplish it will be more or less obvious.

Until then, you need something to get started with, and if this is your first DSLR, you’ll probably go with a kit that includes a lens. This is another place where the advanced will serve you better. The standard lens for an entry level body is an 18-55mm f3.5-5.6. Or in Olympus a 14-42mm. The kit lens for advanced bodies is an 18-105mm f3.5-5.6  (or a 12-60mm 2.8-4 for Olympus). That’s a lot of extra zoom to play with for the same light loss. These bigger kit lenses will also tend to have more durable metal mounts, rather than plastic. Image quality is always a set of compromises in any kit lens, but on average these advanced lenses will have equal or better sharpness, and might even have less distortion or chromatic abberation. Maybe not by much, but still by some.


And for all those reasons, I cannot in good conscience recommend anyone serious about photography consider an entry level camera. I know the price tag on the advanced model is daunting, as are all the buttons. Save up, reach out, get it anyway. A year later, you won’t be out the extra 400 bucks. You’d have saved 700. I guaranty it.



Categories: photography  

Best. Tutorial. EVER.

So, found this today. It’s an absolutely brilliant how-to that completely, and fairly accurately, riffs on the internet/Flickr aesthetic for what makes good and buzzworthy photos.

It’s the simplicity andmatter-of-factness to it, I think,that makes this excel. Well worth the read, I promise.

Retouching Photos is So Old Skool, Yo

Mr. Colberg’s lucky old book find has lead to a decent day of reading for me. Obviously I’ve known that photo retouching is much, much older than the modern “that’s been photoshopped” outrages, but having an entire book now over 60 years old on how to do it adds a whole new level of fascinating to it.

Colberg highlighted one passage and I think it’s worth repeating here again, because I think it’s immensely true and it’s why I defend the use of photo retouching and manipulation in my own studio work:

The photographic lens is an instrument of great precision, but it does not discriminate between the essential and the unessential, and so when the lens is used in such a way as to give clear definition of detail where it is wanted, there is often equally clear definition of detail where it is not wanted. The lens does not create lines and wrinkles and blemishes on the face, but it merely reproduces them when they are there and makes these unimportant details just as prominent as the important ones. Therefore it is sometimes necessary to subdue such imperfections or to remove them entirely by means of the knife or the pencil.

This has never been truer than in digital, where a perfectly flat sensor plane (film, being uncurled celluloid was virtually never truly flat and therefore introduced inconsistencies and looser tolerances), lenses that are being improved through new materials and computer-aided designs to be incredibly sharper and with more resolving power, and with continually increasing pixel resolution and color fidelity all add together to create final pictures so unerring in how they represent reality that it can look absolutely artificial.

I’m unconvinced that retouching in the modern world doesn’t carry the stigma it does because digital imaging demands retouching so frequently to subvert the relentlessly mechanical feel of perfection. Because, it’s not like retouching is new or that we’re even doing it to more extremes. It’s long been established, and as this book evidences long considered a necessity in portraits. It’s just the fear that digital might be lying, as it’s easier to manipulate than analog mediums, that frightens us. Which, is really ironic since digital is far and beyond better at showing us the unflinching truth, which very few people I know want to address in quantity.

Anyway, hit the source link below to read Jorg’s article and go grab the book in question in PDF form for yourself. It’s a good read.

More Thoughts on Retouching

So, I know it’s popular right now to cry foul at any retouching and it hurts our ideas of self-perception and blah blah blah. And, by and large, I agree. That said, I usually come out on the side of supporting mild to moderate retouching, especially for studios purposes. How far is mild to moderate is–of course– the real issue of contention here. And it’s not a hard line, so I can’t define it. In general, I believe in allowing retouching to correct for stupid things introduced by bad posing or lighting. I believe in retouching as a way to convey what a person looked like when you were there, and not just how a frigid moment of compressed 2-D perception looks. I do not approve of this (give it a moment to load and it’ll animate between before and after: