Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Science of Photography -- Part Thirteen

This is the last of my series on science and photography. There is a lot more I could discuss, and I was considering an installment on lenses and how they work. But I’ve become a little tired of this subject after twelve episodes, and I think it is time to come to a conclusion.

And I do have a conclusion. I’ve mentioned a lot of features and functions that are available in better camera equipment and I’ve gone on ... and on ... and on ... about larger format sensors. By now I think everyone wants a Nikon D3X ($7996.95 on Amazon -- body only) or a Canon 5D Mark II ($2389.50 on Amazon -- body only) or a Hasselblad H4D-60 ($41,995 on Amazon -- but that does include the lens). But that isn’t the point of art.

I’ve lately put my zoom lenses away and put a little 35mm primary lens on my best camera. No zoom, but the camera is a whole lot lighter. Now I just try to move myself instead of the zoom. If you wish you had a wider-angle lens, just take two steps back. There you go. It works. Oh sure, there’s some long shots I really need the tele for, but I’m just enjoying the framing and movement with the simple pancake lens.

A very good photographer by the name of Ken Rockwell, wrote that “you’re camera doesn’t matter.” For one thing, the cheapest and simplest little digital camera is likely a better instrument than what we had 50 years ago. Even the camera in a phone can do a very good job of capturing an image. A good photograph, on the other hand, isn’t about the camera but the person behind the camera -- your vision and your thought processes that you apply to your art.

I started this long series with a discussion of art vs. science, and then spent two weeks talking about science. Well, that is natural, I have a lot more to say about science than art -- I’m a scientist, not an artist. I try to be an artist, and get a lot of joy from the attempt, but I am really a scientist by both nature and nurture.

They say it is a poor workman who blames his (or her) tools. Now, for myself, I love a big toolbox full of the latest gadgets, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to afford all those pretty boxes and fancy toys. But, even I don’t have top of the line equipment listed in the second paragraph. So what if I did? Would I take better pictures? Not really. One of my photos that won a blue ribbon was taken with my little, slightly better than a point-and-shot -- not a fancy DSLR.

Let me quote from the same Ken Rockwell:

So why do the artists whose works you admire tend to use fancy, expensive tools if the quality of the work is the same? Simple:
  1. Good tools just get out of the way and make it easier to get the results you want. Lesser tools may take more work.
  2. They add durability for people who use these tools hard all day, every day.
  3. Advanced users may find some of the minor extra features convenient. These conveniences make the photographer's life easier, but they don't make the photos any better.
  4. Hey, there's nothing wrong with the best tools, and if you have the money to blow why not? Just don't ever start thinking that the fancy tools are what created the work.

I think he hits the nail on the head. Of course, if all you have is a hammer, then everything will look like a nail. And a stitch in time ... Oh, enough of the old sayings.

Putting together an artistic and artful photograph involves framing. I have a friend who composes a photo like a bulls-eye. The main subject of the photo is dead center in the frame. Now that is fine, I think you can take very good photos that way. But artful pictures usually have an asymmetrical balance. An often quoted rule is called the “rule of thirds.” It states that you should put the key elements of your photo at a point one-third or two-thirds of the distance across the frame (or from the top of the photo). Like most rules of thumb, it is a good place to start, but art isn’t about following the rules. Often it is about breaking the rules.

I once asked my nephew, who is a very skilled and talented photographer, if he knew the rule of thirds. I had noticed how, especially his video, often put the main subject at a point 1/3 from the side of the frame. He said that he hadn’t heard of the rule, but that he had watched a lot of TV and video, and had paid attention to what worked.

Now that is the eye of an artist.

So I’m not going to write up some explanation of the rules of framing or try to teach you how to be an artist. First, I don’t think I know. Second, if I knew, I’d probably just give you some formulas like the rule of thirds. I don’t think that would turn you into an artist. Finally, I think you need to develop your own artist’s eye... and artist's "style." I suggest checking out some great photos and think about what made them great. I think good writing comes from reading good writing. Similarly, good “photographing” comes from viewing good photographs -- with that eye of the artist. (Also: practice, practice, practice.)

With the power of the Internet, it is easy to spend an evening with great photos and great photographers. I suggest you give it a try.

Here’s another quote that I’ll leave you with. It is from Edward Weston (1886-1958). He was a very influential early photographer. I suggest you check out some of his photos. I may not be an artist, but I sure can recognize one when I see one. If you think Ansel Adams was great (and he was), I suggest you check out some of Weston’s work. You may recognize them. I just finished viewing a web site called “The Fifty Great Photographers You Should Know.” Some excellent, modern photographers on this site, and you’ll see examples of all kinds of photographic art and even some great “Photoshopping.” (Check out the photograph I used with this article. It's by Pierre Choiniere. Look carefully at the eye.) 

So, get out there and look. Never mind stopping to smell the flowers, stop to look at the flowers. The beauty of God’s creation is somethings that can fill you with awe and wonder. Get out there and capture that awe and wonder. My personal favorite subjects are mountains and lakes because I don’t have to pose them. But, by far the most interesting pictures are those of people and the stories these photos tell. Remember the “Kodak Moment.” Go out there and snap those shutters.

Back to that quote from Edward Weston, “Now to consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk. Such rules and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact; they are the products of reflection.” -- Hmmm, reflection (no pun intended), would that be ... the artists eye?

So, forget the Science of Photography, and think about the art. If you find the science useful and interesting, that’s great. You’ll become a better workman as you understand your tools. If you want to talk about the science, I’d be happy to. If you want to discuss the art, I’d love that too. But, remember, it isn’t about the formulas or the physics or the optics. Those are the tools. We don’t remember Michelangelo because of his brushes or chisels, but we certainly appreciate his statue of David or his Sistine Chapel ceiling. I’m sure he was concerned about his brushes, paint, chisels and stone, but what we remember is his art.

Not a bad place to end ... with Michelangelo.

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