The Intrigue of Complexity

Art seems rarely achieved through complex techniques, hidden features or secret workflows. This is particularly true in the digital era where the distraction of the software itself can make the creative process become stymied in menus and self-doubt regarding using the program to its fullest potential. Add to this a steep learning curve inherent in the current transition to digital photography and you have a situation where “tricks” can effect results more than vision.

Any state of technology in flux, and in demand, also produces many willing to share their expertise. The seduction of photography as a career, combined with the vast reach of the internet, has produced a unique opportunity for those interested in a platform from which to pontificate, some well informed, some anxious to be noticed. It could be said that my words here are such a platform.

My concern is the level of distraction I am seeing in people struggling to understand this new medium of digital photography. I’ve seen people expend hours and hundreds of dollars pursuing complex solutions to problems that really didn’t exist. They were sure though, that they had to follow some special path because they read it on the internet, usually from someone with little or no reputation as a photographer or educator. These “special techniques” are often employed before an understanding of Photoshop’s built-in capabilities are understood, adding inexperience to sometimes questionable information, wasting aspiring photographers’ money, time, and more importantly, their emotional commitment which can be heavily impacted from great effort and less than remarkable results.

Contributing to this seems to be a conspiracy of unrealistic expectations. Manufacturers often contribute to this by promising print sizes well beyond their camera’s resolution capability. The seduction of big prints from moderate files leads many to lower their image quality expectations, rather than raise image quality, which is what I think can happen with digital imagery. There is a reason large-format cameras have traditionally been used, to achieve large prints with great detail. That really hasn’t changed. Also contributing is the “Tips and Tricks” mentality that has permeated the Photoshop experience since the early 1990s. Solid image editing is far less about secrets, trickery, hidden features and shortcuts, than it is about starting with a strong photograph, knowing your goals, and methodically working toward them. Craft is not tricky; it is most often plain hard work and care.

In the same sense that many software packages have promised to transform photographs into “art” (without even realizing the insult that statement carries), many workflows, plug-ins and Photoshop Actions now promise truly innovative and professional results if only you will use their stuff instead of the mere pre-packaged Photoshop capabilities. While there is real innovation and sophisticated interaction with digital images made easier by many of these offerings, far more seem to be distracting users from the real issues at hand––making better photographs, heartfelt and strongly seen. There is a presumption that one can process a photograph into significance. Editing rarely creates beauty and saturation controls are not beauty sliders.

More energy seems to be expended on editing the photograph in Photoshop than spending time making the photograph. If a day ends with hundreds of images having been made, you are either in the midst of exploding events, in a place beautiful and complex almost beyond belief, or possibly you are being haphazard in your making of photographs, hoping for one or two to be successful. Casually seen photographs are usually casually appreciated at best. Intensity and strength far more often comes from time spent and care expended.

I would strongly urge people to see simply, and edit simply. Your photographs are your asset, much more so than your Photoshop skills. Those image-editing skills may well be critical to your craft, but they are secondary to your photographic vision. “Fix it in Photoshop” is a prescriptive attitude that often leads to making images not worth investing time trying to salvage through image editing.
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Stephen Johnson is a photographer, designer and teacher. His photographic work has concentrated on landscape projects – exploring wild, endangered spaces, and human altered lands, while focusing on soft color and abstract design. He has also worked on refining the new tools of digital photography with the hope of empowering individual artists to use these tools to express their ideas. He has been teaching photography workshops since 1978, digital imaging since 1989, and served as a consultant and advisor to many of the companies involved in the development of digital imaging including Adobe Systems, Agfa, Apple Computer, Eastman Kodak, Epson, Foveon, Gretag-Macbeth, Hewlett Packard, Leaf Systems, Microsoft and X-rite. He is the author of five books, including his seminal “Stephen Johnson on Digital Photography” in 2006. He was named into the Photoshop Hall of Fame in 2003 and by Canon as an Explorer of Light in 2006. For more info, click here.