Saturday, October 1, 2016

Some Guy's Dilemma

Read this post over here. "Some Guy" is actually David Mantripp, and David is an occasional reader here, and basically a good guy, as far as I can tell. So I am going to use his problem as a jumping off point and, who knows, maybe lend a hand! Hi David, and thanks!

David's problem is that he's taken some education from some lovely people, who have a lot of specific suggestions about what to do. Often these suggestions are contradictory, which certainly creates a problem of sorts, eh? Peel back a layer. David's problem is that he's got the cart before the horse, and I suspect his workshop teachers do as well. How so?

The goal here appears to be to make a good picture and then make it even better in post without having a notion of what good picture. All this business about flipping the picture to check balance is a bit of a tell. Really, who gives a shit about balance? I don't. Balance is a thing, but it's not an unalloyed good thing any more than blue is a good thing. It's just a property of the picture.

What David lacks is a firm goal. What are you trying to do with this damned picture, what's the point? Lacking a particular goal, we can always fall back on the good old Ansel Adams goal of expressing what your honest emotional reaction to being there was. Sure, you could probably make a great essay about gender dynamics in the modern workplace out of your Iceland pictures, but honestly it's probably easier just to try to recreate what it was like to be in Iceland. The material is gonna fit that target pretty well, most likely.

So what was it like, David? (and not just David, all you folks in the cheap seats should follow along) Take some time. Get out a notebook. Write. Think. What was it like to be in Iceland? (or, if you really want to do gender dynamics, think very very hard about that topic for a while). Get your target sorted out, thoroughly. Not as a particular visual, just as a feeling, a flavor, an analogy. A list of words, an essay, a description of the way it smelled, a charcoal sketch, I don't care what it came out to for you, but you have to figure that out.

Now, and only now, start looking again at the work of your mentors, and at your own work. Try hard to avoid thinking about post-processing steps, about details, about technique. Just look at the pictures with a clear mind, thinking only of the pictures, and of your concept. Absorb, spongelike. Think about things. What resonates, what doesn't? Try to visualize in broad strokes what your pictures need to look like. Not in terms of "the clarity slider should be..." but "soft" or "sharp" or "dark".

One of two things will, eventually, happen. Either you will see the visual treatment you need, or you won't.

In the former case, now all you need to do is translate the visual treatment to a set of steps involving things like clarity sliders. But that's a technical problem, and beyond the scope of this tirade.

If you don't see the treatment, well, you can keep trying or you can give up. Keep looking at other work, and revisiting your own, though. It could happen. Maybe you took the wrong pictures all along, though? Next time you go, you'll know what to shoot. And good luck!


  1. I don't remember who said this, but it's an interesting thought: a good picture should be about something, not of something.

  2. Well, thank you for noticing, Andrew :-) I can hardly disagree with a word you've written, although if I was to try to follow up it would turn into an extremely non-linear ramble. At the end of this I would be certain that I had actually stumbled upon the answer to all my questions, but that certainly would last but a few hours.

    Actually, I could point to a few other haphazard things. First, my interaction with Iceland actually has little to do with photography. Photography is just the excuse to go there. And then I tend to end up in the “landscape photography” thing - (although I should note that the two people I mention are as far from your standard landscape gear heads as you could get, and could certainly hold their own in a debate with you) - and so I kind of have to conform. But as I mentioned in an earlier post on my blog, totally left to my own devices I’d be doing something photographically really quite different.

    I’ve just realised that when I’m doing non-landscape photography - whatever it is I do - I don’t feel this pressure or confusion at all, because basically I don’t really have any template to conform to, or guru to satisfy, so I just get on with it.

    I also realised quite some while ago that the urge I have to photograph comes partly from trying to create a sense of belonging to wrap myself into. Which sounds terribly precious,but it is probably true. Oh, and the other reason is to satisfy my lust for shiny toys and retail therapy.

    What the hell. It’s hardly a matter of life or death.

  3. I think the way to go is to keep post processing as simple as possible, just as David wrote in his blog post. The choices offered by current software are overwhelming, and it is easy to become distracted from what really matters in picture making. Adjustments to white balance, brightness, contrast and some dodging and burning is probably all it takes for most pictures. When you like the picture, just call it "done" and move on; avoid perfectionism.
    Judging from the pictures on David's website, I don't really get where he sees problems with his work in the first place, however. Probably different tastes between him and the workshop instructors play a role here, too. While many contemporary landscape photography is (in my opinion) heavily overprocessed, David's work looks true and honest. If I were him, I'd keep it that way.

  4. Waikiki… it is such a complex thing - I initially loved it for its sweeping combination of nostalgic travel history, understated but painful indigenous issues, and multiple approaches to modern entertainment/hospitality for the masses, and I just keep on finding more to it every time I go back.
    And yesterday on the train I wrote down Every Single Topic I could shoot, to make into an image series of "My Waikiki"… I have 3700 shots available on my new camera, I think, so we're gonna hit that...