On The Importance Of Art
Maybe it's a bit of a pompous title, maybe it sounds a touch pretentious - neither of those things could be further from my intent. That said, this is going to be a bit of an off-topic post, not directly tied to commercial photography per se, but I hope that by the end of it I will manage to ramble and meander my way to something resembling a conclusion and more importantly, a connection.
Photography, when done right, is an art form. It is a form of expression, it takes skill, and talent, and most importantly vision. As photographers, we all start out from that lofty place, but I fear many of us tend to lose our way. This job is routine, that shoot doesn't pay enough, when it's a higher profile shoot I will go that extra distance but for now this will do... I think we all get mired in this kind of thinking regardless of the profession, regardless of what trade we ply. And it's wrong. It's just backwards if you ask me.
I believe that a true professional should treat every job with the same dedication, attention to detail and creative zeal. There is an old saying: even a broken clock is right twice a day - what sets a professional apart is that they deliver results consistently, every time. That they bring the same preparation and effort to every job, that they wouldn't want to be associated with anything less, and that their clients can rest assured they are getting the best possible value for their hard-earned cash. And yes, when it comes to photography, be it for real estate or for the commercial needs of your business, I believe the same should be true. Anyone can point a camera and push a button - you should expect far more from your professional photographer! And that "something more" should be readily apparent when you see the pictures they made for you.
Let me reference a couple of examples. Lets momentarily remove the "commercial" aspect from our discussion. Lets just talk about art for the sake of art.
Anyone can go to their local Wally Mart or the Home Despot in their town or city and buy a framed "photograph" to hang on their wall. It may even be a pretty enough picture, and may even pass the "50/50" rule, meaning it looks good 50% of the time, from 50 feet away... Just as it does in countless motel rooms and office lobbies across the land. The photographer who made the photo has little or nothing to do with the final product, no human touch, no nuance has been put into the making of the actual piece you are going to hang on your wall. At best, it will be neutral and inoffensive, at worst it will look cheap and tacky.
On the other, polar opposite of that spectrum are real photographs, made by real artists. Crafted by hand, each one printed individually in sweat and toil, sometimes after days of making "working prints" to establish the exact exposure, the dodging and burning needed in specific areas to bring the subject into the exact light pre-visualized by the artist. No two are exactly the same, no one can make an exact copy by clicking a mouse button and letting their ink-jet printer do the rest.
Take my friend Chris Baczynski of Silver Soul Photo as an example. A consummate artist and true master of an increasingly rare medium, he creates beautiful photographs on film. His prints, both black and white and colour, are made by hand in a traditional dark room, and are absolutely striking. Each one is unique, each one has a little bit of his soul trapped in its grains of silver. When you hang one of his prints on your wall, you know you are in possession of a one-of-a-kind piece of his life, captured in that photograph just for you. Even another print from the exact same negative will never be exactly the same, as the artist always improvises in the dark room, much like a jazz musician playing a solo. It may be the same song, but if you go to see the show ten times, you will be treated to ten different interpretations. The advantage of a photograph is the fact that you get to keep that moment, and travel back to it every time you look at it.
But lets say photography is just not your thing, sure you may (I would hope, as a meagre shutter jockey, at your service) appreciate it, find it useful and hopefully see its value, but you're just not that into hanging it on your wall. It's ok, "some folks likes pork chops and some folks likes ham hocks, some folks likes vegetable stew", as the song goes. The same goes for paintings. I understand that here the issue gets a little bit muddied, as many "famous" painters are simply out of reach for the vast majority of the population. Only a very small portion of us will ever hang a Picasso in our sitting room, or admire a Vermeer in the privacy and comfort of our own home. And I certainly understand the appeal of the image, the beauty of some famous works which leads us to choosing a reproduction over nothing at all. I get it. But so many of us will go to one of the above mentioned "big box" stores and buy "prints" of paintings that quite frankly... have nothing to say, are mediocre by design, and their only claim to fame is that they were judged not to upset a vast majority of the population. You buy one of these things, printed in some industrial print house, most likely by under-paid, border line slave-labour in a far away land. OK, I don't want to drift off into politics, socio-economics and the like - but I will say, real living, breathing, creative, passionate individuals walk among us. You may see them every day and not even know it. Talented people who toil to produce real beauty out of a calling, a passion for their work, a desire to make our world a more beautiful place, a need to express something real, something profound and enrich our lives by doing so.
I will use an example of another friend of mine, Aga Niemiec, an Ottawa, Ontario based artist. If you had to label her work I guess you would have to say modern realism and abstract impressionism. She works mainly with oils, but I know she is quite adept at other mediums as well. You can even commission a portrait! How regal is that, huh? But really, none of that matters - what matters is that for really not much more than a quality, mass produced chain-store print, you will have on your wall, forever, for generations to come, a real piece of art. Each brush stroke made by a human hand, never to be repeated, unique, individual, beautiful in a way that only a piece of someone's creative soul can be. I can assure you, there is no chain motel or national brand hotel, or walk-in clinic that will have the same image hanging in it's lobby. You can't buy it at the beds, baths, or whatever is beyond... On a tangent, I always found the name of that store somewhat creepy. What do they mean by "beyond"? Do I want to know? But I digress.
The fact is, weather its an original photograph or a painting, I would argue that each one is a better deal than the mass produced "equivalent" (using the term very, very loosely...). I would stand firmly behind the statement that whatever the cost of an original work of art, it is but a small portion of its real value. Whereas that thing you bought from the monster store... well... I would say you overpaid, regardless of how low the price. It's a commodity. A simple wall covering appliance if you will. Its price is roughly four times its cost to produce, and those are the only factors in that equation.
I guess we are getting to that time when I should start making a point, aren't we?
Do you want your business represented by that mass produced big-box store trinket? Or by a work of an individual who leaves a little piece of him or herself in each thing they do? Do you think your business deserves a tired piece of stock photography for its website? Do you think your lobby is best served by an odds-and-ends sale piece?
I would put forth, for your consideration, that no. It is not. That no, you do not want that. In fact, I believe you should strive for the direct polar opposite. Unique work, just for you, from someone who pours their heart and soul into every project they undertake. Find someone who has an insatiable need to do every single job to the best of their ability, who thinks every thing they do is a calling card, a reflection of them. I don't care if it's the guy fixing your car, remodelling your kitchen, or photographing your business. You deserve the best, and your clients will see the difference. You will stand out above the crowd because the people you chose to work with would have nothing else associated with their names.
And buy some art for your home, your office. Something real. Something with a soul, a message, a little bit of someone's irreplaceable spirit forever contained within it. It will make you just a little bit happier every time you look at it.
That, I think, is the tip of the iceberg of the importance of art.
I can't think of a better way to close this post than with an image of an original painting by Aga Niemiec. The pixels of your screen can not fully convey the living beauty of an original work of art, but even in this, digitally diminished form, I am sure it will brighten up your day, make it just a little bit more beautiful. Enjoy.
In the previous post in this series I talked to you briefly about Ultra Wide Angle Lenses and how they are a necessary tool in an architectural or real estate photographer's repertoire, but cautioned about the way these technical terms are used by some less than scrupulous photographers to advertise their services. They often use these terms to make it seem like they have something in their arsenal that others don't, or can't be bothered to use, and further more, like that item is not only necessary, but the very difference between bad photos and good ones.
This time around I would like to tackle my personal favorite: HDR.
HDR stands for "high dynamic range". What is that? Well, it's basically a way to show, in one photograph, more than the camera is capable of capturing in a single exposure.
Lets put it this way - cameras can only see a certain range of light and shadow at any given setting. If everything is evenly lit, all it takes is the right exposure and you have a perfectly competent image.
Problem is, interiors are almost never evenly lit. The sun, even when its behind clouds, is immensely powerful. Room lights are no match for what the sun pumps into a room through the windows, even on a cloudy day. The camera can capture the light levels from the windows - but then the rest of the room will be a black hole. Or, it can expose for the room, but the windows will be a nuclear bomb-like explosion of light, obliterating any kind of details in or around them.
Also, rooms are not usually very friendly to light - half walls, door ways, large furniture, dark paint, or simply the fact that one part of the room is further from the window than the other - all add more challenges for the camera to deal with.
Remember, the camera has a "dynamic range", and you can move that range left or right, but you can't make it bigger. Expose for the dark parts - the light parts will be what photographers aptly call "blown out". Do the opposite, and the shadows will swallow the room, every corner a horror film set of gloomy, inky darkness.
Contrary to popular belief, our eyes do the same thing - thankfully our brains compensate for that. Our brains "adjust the exposure", and interpret what the eye sees, often piecing together information from various openings of our pupils. This is seamless to us, our brains do this automatically and we don't even realize they are doing it. We just see the world around us in a way that makes sense to us - not how it is actually physically lit.
In essence, HDR is a way of getting a camera (or more often a computer back at the office) to do exactly what our brains do.
An HDR photo consists of several exposures (shots if you will) of the same exact scene, but each one with different settings: one that makes the dark areas look great, one that makes the medium areas look perfect and one that tackles those pesky highlights - the really bright parts of a scene.
After this is done, these images are fed into a computer which combines them, using some very complex algorithms, into one picture where everything is (theoretically) evenly lit. In theory, this produces a perfectly exposed picture without eye-gouging highlights or pit of despair shadows.
In theory, communism works really well, too.
Yet many photographers out there advertise that they use HDR as though it was a magic bullet, had no faults and anyone not using it is selling you short.
This is simply not true, for several reasons:
Now, I know I seem very negative towards HDR, and the fact is, I don't believe it to be the best way to produce a quality image. For decades - long before computers and digital imaging - photographers have taken wonderful architectural and interior images. They used lighting and knowledge of their craft. But, it is not HDR itself that bothers me the most. As with the previous post on this theme, it's the lack of honesty that bothers me. It is taking your clients for people of questionable knowledge, and of course, exploiting the fact that they are not, one and each, a photography expert. It's pulling wool over your client's eyes, a smoke and mirrors show. It's the attempt to razzle-dazzle your clients with terminology you hope they won't understand in order to make yourself look somehow more special. I can't stand that and I would never treat my clients this way because it is not how I would like to be treated.
And to wrap this up, here is the final bit of "dirt" on HDR: it is advertised as a magic bullet without which good interior photos could not be achieved, something special for which you should feel lucky you're not being charged extra. In fact, it's the quick and dirty way to do things. It allows just about anyone to "set and forget" their camera to fire off several frames at different exposures, and then a computer to mangle those images into the final product, quickly and with a minimum of effort or skill on the photographer's part (and trust me, it shows!). Yet it is sold as something special that you, the client should be impressed with.
And in the end, serious photographers with skill, talent and experience actually have a slang term for HDR: they call it
I know, its less than tasteful, but very descriptive. Steer clear of photographers who advertise their gear or their magical computer software instead of their skills and talent, customer service and dedication. The photographs should speak for themselves and the latter two items should be apparent from the first time you speak to the photographer you're considering.
TwoSixPix philosophies, tips and tricks, and just a little peek into who I am behind the camera.