The “Right Way”

Are you doing things correctly when working digitally? What does "correctly" mean, anyway?



What’s right and what’s wrong? No, I’m not going to get metaphysical with you. I want to talk about the right way to do things and the wrong way to do things in digital photography.

You’ll hear a lot of talk in the magazines, on the Internet, in camera clubs and so on as photographers discuss what works and doesn’t work with digital images. Some of this debate can be useful and a lot of it’s a great deal of fun, but there’s an element of it that can cause problems for a photographer. That’s when it gets nasty and people make pronouncements about “right” and “wrong” as if they were Biblical issues.

I was recently talking to a friend who’s an excellent nature photographer. He liked the good things about digital, such as the immediate image review, the ability to try new things quickly, the instant accessibility of photos and more. But he felt frustrated because doing what the digital “experts” said he “had to do” was just taking too much time and energy. Somehow, he felt unworthy for even thinking of doing something other than those experts’ “right way.”

I don’t like being glued to the computer anymore than my friend (and no more than I liked processing film in the traditional darkroom), though I’m more tolerant of the process. Still, his experience brings up something a bit disturbing about digital photography—certain digital experts want to tell photographers they have to do things one way, the “right way,” which, of course, is their way. They’re uninterested in what most photographers really do, just in promoting their own way.

There’s a joke about how many Photoshop experts it takes to screw in a light bulb. The answer is 100—one to screw in the light bulb and 99 to offer a different way of doing it. With that said, you might think that there would be a tolerance for different approaches to digital photography. We all do have different needs that aren’t satisfied by one-stop shopping.

However, there are those digital experts who want to imply that you’re stupid if you don’t do it their way. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you can’t rely on digital photography experts to learn better ways of working. But the good ones always try to relate things to what photographers really do, and they’re open to other ways of doing things.

What I’m saying is you’ll run across the self-appointed digital elite who care little that their attitude causes frustration and disappointment, like that of my friend, who was trying his best to do things the “right” way, but that way wasn’t appropriate to his needs.

Another friend has his work with one of the big stock agencies. He tried to work with their “digital experts” in getting his digital images ready for submission, but discovered that many images adjusted the “right way” were also inappropriate to the photograph’s intent and that the agency’s size standards had little to do with real-world publishing.

In part, I believe, this happens because digital photography started with the computer people. There are a lot of excellent computer experts, who might even cheerfully call themselves geeks, who also know and care about the true goal of photography: creating a great photograph. However, there’s also a significant number of practitioners who want to do photography by the numbers. The photo is irrelevant to them if the numbers aren’t right, whether that’s size, bit depth, color space or other computer-based technology.

For a long time, these people dominated our industry as it made the transition to digital. Photographers didn’t know all this stuff and were a little intimidated anyway by all the computer work, so they had no place else to go.

These people still hold sway in many photographic courts. And they can make you do things you don’t need to do, are inappropriate for your work or cause you unneeded problems. They don’t have to deal with you as a photographer because they know what’s “right,” and they feel it’s their moral imperative to stifle anyone who says differently.

Think I’m exaggerating? Talk to any pro who has recently converted to digital and ask him or her what his or her experience has been when working with others to get up to speed. You’ll hear many stories of digital geeks trying to make these pros “do the right thing,” meaning their thing, without listening to the real needs of photographers.

I recently read an article by a digital photographer who was in love with the technology of RAW. Now I think RAW is an important tool for photographers (though not needed by everyone), but I really don’t care if any photographer understands the linear nature of tonal capture by a camera sensor. I can tell you from helping a whole range of photographers over the years that this doesn’t help the typical pro or amateur photographer get a better photograph.

Still, this author said, believe it or not, that anyone who didn’t care about such things was just a casual shooter and that “a truly casual digital shooter shouldn’t be shooting captures in the RAW format.” Truly, that’s a scary attitude. One person I know in the industry calls these people digital fascists, and with such people as this author around, maybe there’s something to that.

What is it about people who feel they have to “correct” the fallen and bring people into the “right” (meaning their) way of doing things? Perhaps that’s just human nature. Maybe because I grew up in the ’60s, I seem to have a need to fight those who say there’s only one way of doing anything.

Let’s face it, most photographers are more interested in what works photographically than in knowing the deep technological secrets of digital photography. You’re the people we produce our magazines for and the audience I want to help in my books and workshops.

Still, there’s this group that wants to imply that digital is some high-level thing that photographers had better understand at the highest technical levels or they’re just stupid. I can tell you we’ve received letters from photographers who tell us they feel we’ve given them the information they need and the permission to work as photographers, not computer experts, and thank us for that.

Then I’ve opened nasty letters from the digital purists who are convinced we’re ruining digital photography for not doing things the “correct” way. We’re well aware of the “correct” way, but it might not be appropriate to the photographer. We’re not in the “purist” business. I see no problem in having high-end explanations for the technically savvy, but we’ll not abandon people who need something else, nor will we denigrate those who need either.

What does this mean to you? I know that our readers just want a good photograph. Most don’t want or need to become computer experts or Photoshop masters. I’m here to tell you that this is okay. You have the right to question digital experts (including me) if things don’t seem to work for you. Some experts imply that if you do everything right (their “right”) you’ll have no problems, or if you do, it’s your fault for not following directions.

Well, as much as I’d like the computer world to be that precise, it isn’t (oh, I can see the letters coming now from the computer purists). We deal with a great variety of images from many sources for our three photo magazines, OP, PCPhoto and Digital Photo Pro. I’ve also worked with photographers around the country in many different situations. And I’ve now done 14 books from a variety of publishers. I can guarantee that regardless of the computer engineer’s efforts, the computer world just isn’t that precise.

That’s in large part because photography is an art as much as it’s a technology. Bill Brandt’s photos looked nothing like Ansel Adams’, yet they both used the same darkroom technology (if you aren’t familiar with Brandt, try googling him). And they got very different results. Technology only gets close to precise and unvarying when it’s in a completely closed system, for example, one person, one computer, one monitor, one environment for the work area, one printer and so forth. As soon as more elements get involved, variables come into play, not the least of which is personal choice.

I know that some people would like everything to be one-button easy. Luckily, digital has evolved so that good results are possible from such technology. But to work, this has to have flexibility and “unprecision” built into it so it can adapt to variations—such is the basis of so-called fuzzy logic.

For optimum work that’s most satisfying to us as photographers, I believe we must experiment and learn from our materials, use them as appropriate to our needs, then find a way that works for us. This is what craft is about, and craft has always been key to becoming a better photographer.

So read the experts and try out their suggestions, but if things don’t work for you, don’t buy into the arrogance of some that imply you must be stupid. Maybe they’re stupid for trying to force you to use something you really don’t need.

Just remember the joke about Photoshop experts and light bulbs. There’s always another way to do it, and just maybe, that way is perfect for you.