This is another in my series of night street photographs. This photograph comes from an evening in more or less the Chinatown area of San Francisco. This work is a sort of counterpoint to my landscape and nature photography. Although the two seem quite different, I think that each type of photography makes me better at the other. This work happens very quickly, usually without a whole lot of time to contemplate — so it exercises the fast and intuitive part of my seeing.
The photographs tend to occur in two ways. In some cases I simply see something happening and I have to photograph it immediately without a lot of time for conscious thought — if I wait the opportunity will be gone. Another sort of work has a stronger connection to landscape, and I think of these photographs as being a sort of urban landscape. As was the case with this photograph, I find a particular subject or composition and then I watch for figures to occupy the space in interesting ways. The interest can come from their relative positions, their posture and the direction they look, how they fit into the available lighting, and the color of their attire. And, as I have pointed out previously, this nighttime handheld street photography is something that only became reasonably possible very recently, with the development of small cameras that will work at very high ISO settings.
Imagining that a photograph that is “straight out of camera” is better than one that has been “manipulated” in post is equivalent to imagining that the words coming straight out of one’s mouth are better than those resulting from careful and thoughtful editing.
While there is an art to extemporaneous expression, there is at least as much art in carefully crafted work. Continuing to refine and perfect the content and its expression is not remotely unethical. The objective is to produce a pure, clear, concise, more powerful and direct expression of the artist’s truth.
This is true of essentially every mode of human expression: painting, sculpture, movie-making, writing, music, and on and on. Even the seemingly extemporaneous expressions (jazz, etc) are the result of long preparation and practice and planning and are ultimately not simply things that happen in the moment.
It is nonsensical to imagine that photography should be the one art that eschews careful refinement and thought and the distillation and perfection of expression that can make it truer and more powerful.
Over the past few weeks the arguments about “photoshopping” and “manipulation” have again come to the fore, this time as the result of the so-called “scandal” around alterations to some photographs by Steve McCurry. The discussions have evolved in all sorts of ways — as they typically do — some of which I regard as unfortunate: pronouncements about which techniques are “ethical” or “unethical,” declarations that photographs must be “true,” the usual stuff about “getting it right in the camera,” and more. In my view, much of this is naive and unrealistic.
At the heart of the issue are some problematic notions, including the following.
The camera sees accurately, and any modification of what comes out of the camera subverts the camera’s truth. Some assume that the way the machine “sees” is more accurate than the way our eyes and brains see, and that it is the preferred mode of seeing. There are huge problems with this assumption, beginning with the fact that people and cameras see in very different ways. (I’m more interested in how people see.) The eyes scan a scene, adapting to localized elements of the subject, and the full image never exists aside from a kind of mental abstraction of it. The camera non-selectively records light levels from the entire scene at one instant, all with the same “settings.” There’s much more to this, and the subject is far too big to fully deal with here. Suffice it to say that your eyes/brain are not a camera, and this makes a very big difference.
Modifying photographs in post-production (or “post”) makes them less honest and accurate. Some think that modifying what comes from the camera is dishonest. In fact, if the way that humans see is our model for accurate seeing, as I believe it should be, the way the camera sees is often quite inaccurate. (Who sees in black and white or telephoto or with tilt/shift adjustments or with colored filters or constrained to rectangles?) In order to render an image that is more faithful to the way humans see, it is often necessary to massage the image that comes from the camera.
The use of techniques for “manipulating” or “photoshopping” photographs is unethical. Some take the position that “manipulating” images is wrong, but it seems absurd to make such a blanket statement. If your photograph was slightly underexposed, how is it unethical to increase the brightness in post so that it looks exactly as it would have looked with a slightly longer exposure? How can it be OK to use a telephoto lens but not OK to crop in post? Why would it be OK to use a tilt/shift lens but not to adjust perspective lines in post? Are the “rules” the same for photojournalism and for photographic abstractions?
People often want to see this set of issues as a binary, where things are either right or wrong, but it is nothing like that at all.
Before I offer an example, I would like you to try an exercise — and doing it and considering the results is very important for understanding what follows. Go look at some subject in the bright sun that includes some shadows. As you do, look at the brightest areas in the scene, and consider whether you can see any details, however faint, in those brightest areas. You should be able to. Now shift your gaze to a shaded area. You should be able to see some detail there, too. (Your pupils likely closed down a bit when you looked at the bright area — in photographic terms, you used a smaller aperture — and they likely opened up a bit when you looked at the shadow area.)
This presents a classic photographic problem. Virtually no digital camera and no film can handle the widest dynamic ranges of common scenes that we photograph. Producing a realistic photograph of such scenes requires “manipulation,” and without it the scene will not correspond at all to what we see. Continue reading Photographs and Reality: A Complicated Relationship→
I have recently been posting photographs made with my new Fujifilm X-Pro2 Mirrorless Digital Camera. Before long I intend to share a review based on my experiences — but that is a bit too big of a project for today. For now I’ll just say that it is meeting and exceeding my expectations and I can recommend it to folks who can make use of its special set of features. A few pages on this website mention it:
But the main point of this brief update is to let you know about an excellent deal available on the X-E2, a 16MP interchangeable lens mirrorless camera much like (but better than) the X-E1 that I relied on for three years. Right now you can pick up this camera for as low as $499. Considering that you can apply a free Fujifilm firmware update and give it virtually the same capabilities as the newer X-T10 and X-E2s, this deal is even more remarkable. If you have been thinking about one of these little mirrorless cameras and would like to give it a try, check out these deals.
Several bundles from Adorama include include Fujifilm NP-W126 Battery, Fujifilm Half Case for XE1 Camera, 24/7 Traffic Collection – Small Holster
Fujifilm X-E2 Mirrorless Digital Camera with XF 18-55mm F2.8-4 R LM OIS Lens
This website has an affiliate relationship with B&H Photo and Adorama. Your purchases through website links return a percentage of the sale price to this website — but your cost remains the same. Be sure to verify pricing and descriptions at the vendor websites.
This is another photograph that I have had sitting on my computer desktop for months, since shortly after we returned from New York on the last days of 2015. There probably isn’t a whole lot to say about this photograph. (Or is there?) These food carts are everywhere in New York, day and night. And I hear that they are soon coming to the San Francisco Bay Area, too. It must have been a slow day for the vendor, since he seems to have plenty of time to sit at the front of the cart and watch the world go by.
The 31st annual Yosemite Renaissance Exhibit opens this weekend in Yosemite Valley. Come on by if you are in the park! The free opening Artists Reception is on Friday, February 26 at 5:30-7:30pm in the Visitor Center Gallery. The show then runs from Saturday, February 27 though May 1.
Yosemite Renaissance features artists who work in and around Yosemite and the Sierra. It includes a range of media — photographs, painting, ceramics, sculpture, and more.
I’m honored that one of my photographs was again included in the exhibit — for the fourth year in a row. This time it is a photograph I made at Devil’s Postpile National Monument last year: “Basalt Columns, Lichen, Autumn Plants”
A man stands near the doorway between two cars of a historic New York subway car
This is another of my historic subway photographs from late December 2015 in New York City. During the holiday season, on one day the system trots out the old rolling stock and folks can ride the old trains over a section of the modern subway system under Manhattan. We got there early and caught the first run of the train heading uptown, then caught it again for the trip back.
The experience is remarkable. Some of these subway cars are very old, and while they still look like subway cars there are aspects of the experience that are quite different. They are very noisy! Sometimes the lights switch off for a moment, presumably as the train rolls over un-powered sections. The passageways between cars are entirely open — the ends of the cars bounce up and down relative to one another and the wind streams past. This photographs looks through that inter-car passage and toward the connected car, where a man stands in the aisle.