Pete Myers: Making Images, Not Faking Images

As a fine art photographer by profession, and having spent decades participating in the transition of photography from analog to digital, what I find myself concerned about today is how the imaging software industry has created the illusion to photographers that technology is the path to great image-making. Particularly in the use of High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging, photographers have produced images based on a failed premise — that there is even a need for the technology. The resulting HDR images often look no better than what is printed on place mats — flat, dull, and lifeless.

HDR imaging was born out of the belief that creating a series of high-speed bracketed exposures of a scene could be blended to extend the dynamic range of the final image. The first non-photographic premise was in the belief that each of the high-speed exposures would be exactly the same scene as the previous exposure, which is nonsense. Any natural scene is going to vary greatly from frame-to-frame due to wind, clouds, water movement and the like. It is simply ugly to blend images that morph into some type of woozy disjointed collage. Photography really is about making one singular, meaningful exposure to capture the essence of the subject.

The second non-photographic premise is that the dynamic range of the modern digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera is simply not up to the task of rigorously photographing the full light throw of the original scene. This is simply hogwash. The dynamic range of a modern DSLR is adept at high contrast scenes. What is surprising is in how poorly most RAW conversion programs are in faithfully using the dynamics of the imaged scene. Fortunately, a new RAW conversion program will be on the market in early 2012, which I have beta tested and used in the creation of all the images shown in this article. The new RAW conversion software will help bring out every nuance from the RAW image to the point that the person taking the picture feels that he or she has an entirely new camera.

The third premise of HDR is that some blending of these various frames in a precision manner can open up the image with unseen beauty. The result is, more often than not, the creation of images that look as fake as a cheap oil painting at a garage sale: oversaturated colors, creepy illumination in the shadows that shows no respect for the light, and clouds that look as if they have been synthesized for a bad science fiction film.

Photography is not a technical exercise. Many people are drawn to the media because of the whiz-bang nature of cameras, lenses, software and printers, but a great photograph is about feeling. It is about the feeling that the photographer had through the lens at the time the image was made and subtly outlined to the viewer in the final print. It is not about shock. It is not about X-ray vision. It is not about technical trickery and technique that draw attention to the photographer, not to the photographic subject.

Technology can be fun. Technology is fun. The gizmos in the field of photography are among the best. I am a sucker for a beautiful new photographic toy. But at the end of the day, for me, it is one camera body, one lens, one monopod and a heck of a lot of work in the field to get the image right. The toys are for my entertainment at home.

Today, camera technology is so integrated into fundamental electronic design that only a handful of companies are capable of being competitive in their production. Cameras are created in vast companies, with extremely expensive development facilities and armies of workers.

Here in the United States, we do not compete any more in this arena — and I would say much to our shame. Our high-tech industries mostly hinge on software development, which still can be accomplished with a rather limited team of skilled programmers.

While basic image-processing issues remain unaddressed (ever try to get floating point to work correctly in Photoshop?), many of these companies are creating what I call “exotica-ware” in the attempt to fool photographers into believing that they can build the almighty “Ansel Adams Button,” which will automatically make your images as good as the best of the best.

You know what makes an image great? Hard work. Giving your life to the media. Giving your life to the art form. That is what makes a great image. It does not get poured out of a box into your computer and at the press of a button make all the hard work disappear before your very eyes.

There is no such thing as a straight photograph. All photographs are a metaphor for what is in front of the lens. A photograph takes a three-dimensional world and converts it down into a planar image. That very act makes it a lie. But the skilled photographer can create a feeling for the viewer that mimics what the photographer felt at the scene at the time the photograph was taken.

Over many decades, the fine art world has sunk to new lows as more and more people have attended university art schools. The fine arts have become a popular subject of study for many students not wanting to fit into the traditional mold. The dire consequence of this has been the emphasis of technique over all else in the students’ education towards the arts. Technique is easy to see, talk about and instruct—but feeling is not. To feel through one’s work requires a degree of maturity that is not easy to obtain and certainly difficult to transfer from one person to another by education alone.

My wife loves endurance riding her horse. Two summers ago, she and her horse, Blue, completed the Tevis Cup out in California on their first try. This is a 100-mile ride through some of the toughest terrain in the west, completed within 24 hours — including 11 mandatory vet checks and holds. Rated by Time Magazine as one of the top ten endurance events in the world, about as many people have completed it as have summited Mt. Everest. It took Kathy and Blue a decade of training together, with over 2,000 miles of successful competition together, to get them ready for this pinnacle moment. There is no substitute for doing the work. And so it is with creating fine art.

Over the years, Kathy and I have been exposed to a number of top horse trainers as a result of her interests. Those of you who have seen the movie, “Buck,” this past year, may have a notion that there is more to horse training than meets the eye. And indeed the quality of horse trainers varies tremendously from person-to-person. The top trainers whom we have seen can work with horses in ways that most of us would view with astonishment, but few of us can understand how. And despite the willingness and openness of many of these trainers, understanding the feeling that they are able to convey to the horse is abstract for most of us.

Horse training can be taught as a technique; and for some of the work, it is just that. But when it gets scary-good between horse and trainer, that is much more of a feeling that is carefully learned by decades of practice, practice and practice.

For me, fine art photography is my profession, and has been so for decades. Most photographers do not have that amount of time in their lives to devote to the art form. That is ok. But do yourself and your work a favor by not being caught up in the trappings of the software companies’ promises to turn you into a master photographer by the use of technological gimmickry. Their gimmickry makes your work look as cheap as a “cocktail waitress in a Dolly Parton wig,” as the band, Confederate Railroad, hinted at in its 1992 hit song, “Trashy Women.”

Digital imaging has come a long way in the past two decades. I remember not long ago when we were all making IRIS prints with dye inks that would fade as fast as they were squirted onto the paper. For more than a decade, digital camera technology changed so rapidly that we would change cameras as fast as light bulbs during a power surge.

Today we are blessed with amazing cameras. I would guess that we are close to having “decade cameras”—camera bodies that can be used reliably and competitively for a decade or more. Good equipment is still expensive. Great lenses even more so. But you need only one of each to have the tools that are capable of fantastic results.

To me, HDR is going to be gone at fast as the pictorialists were in vogue. Amazing photographic works have a fine, crystalline structure that is created out of the illumination of the natural light resonating the scene. But above all, they are made from the imagination of the photographers, and how they feel in their hearts, as they see through their eyes.

-Pete Myers

You can see more of Pete’s work on his website, www.petemyers.com.

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29 comments

  • What is the “New RAW conversion program will be on the market in early 2012” ?? I would love to keep an eye out for this!!! Thanks !

  • A great posting, Pete. Your remarks about attending a university art school has made me think. Last year I started a distance learning course at the Open College of the Arts in the U.K. I have found it a lonely and very uninspiring experience. Not so much because it’s a distance learning course (which I took into account before entering), but more so because my tutor only gives me feedback after I sent him an email. There’s no challenge, no depth, no inspiration whatsoever. I wanted to do the course for four years in order to obtain the Bachelor of Arts Photography degree, but am in serious doubt if I want to continue. Photography is my passion and I’ve invested a lot (a Leica M9-P and several lenses), but I don’t know how to continue to learn more and, more importantly, to get inspiration from an actual person (as opposed to looking at websites of photographers). I also agree on what you wrote about image processing software. I try to avoid using all the bells & whistles as much as possible and put in all the hard work when creating images. Best regards, Ron.

  • i read this blog every day, and quite frankly i get disappointed most of the time by the mediocrity of the contents (my fault, i guess, i have very high expectations for anything that bears the leica name!).
    however, once in a while, there is a gem that stands out, and today we got one.

    thank you much for writing all this so well; i am very glad to see that more and more people are starting to reject the quick & easy fix that technology offers us today. i am not opposed to it at all, let me be clear; i love all these new gadgets as much as anybody else, and i am heavily into computers and software; the one thing that we must keep in mind is that all these are simply tools, put at our disposal to help, facilitate, expedite a creative process that should be there regardless.
    without a great image to begin with, we end up with a very embellished mediocre image. more visually appealing for a moment, yes, but still mediocre.
    millions and millions of images are being posted every day (hour?) on the net … how many of those are truly artistic? how many can stand the test of time?
    the new challenge nowadays is to find the hidden gems, or to be found, among a sea of noise.

    HDR is the fad of the moment; we get attracted to it like children are to bright colors and shiny toys (it reminds me of a little gadget i had as a child, the viewmaster, which rendered images in a similar, dream-like way).
    HDR may or may not go away quickly, it is up to the individual to use it or not; true, the masses love it… to me it is like the movie avatar. a really mediocre story, lame, over the top acting, but still a huge success because the visual appeal was phenomenal, with super bright colors, great 3d, superb effects.
    oscar or no oscar, it is not a movie that will ever be cited as a work of art, but certainly as a great piece of entertainment.

    it is fine, i guess the world needs both.

  • “Photography is not a technical exercise.”

    I saw this sentence and my following outburst almost disturbed some of my co-workers. Good photography (as I’m sure Pete has experienced) is most assuredly an exercise in technical knowledge and application. No matter what time period photographers have lived in, the masters of the medium have always stressed that photography is all about the available technology and the ability to manipulate such technology to create their visions.

    Ansel Adams’ Zone System is a prime example of photography being a technical exercise. He was a master of the available technology, and his image management relied heavily on that technology. How many images did he dodge and/or burn in the darkroom to create the scenes that America has come to love? How many photos did he use filters and tilts/shifts of his camera to produce effects that had been unseen up until that point? What ethical difference is there between these physical techniques and the techniques of digital software?

    Though, after reading the entire article, I understood better what Pete is saying. He is right in the sense that there are no shortcuts to making great photos. There is no “easy button” that can compensate for poor composition and bad exposure methods. Unfortunately, HDR has become a tool that has over-saturated what big companies would like to define as the photography world. It has become a marketing ploy and a gimmick by the weekend wedding photographers.

  • Truly as spoken -it is all about transforming ideas and capturing the world around.
    Making, creating or just hit the button by chance?

  • Bravo Pete, One of the most concise and sensible pieces I have read or heard anywhere regarding HDR [and Fine Art Photography. It should grace the first page of every photo magazine in the world in their next issues – but I doubt of course that everyone would agree and this is the conundrum of photography today.
    My feeling would be to continue to do what you do and keep the faith in your own artistic endeavours – that is, I believe what will win out in the end.

  • i found this article to be a waste of time personally. i usually get this same argument from anyone that uses and starts with film, probably setting the camera up themselves for each shot. so the pride was always getting the right settings. hdr is just another tool, another method. you shoot landscape near as i can tell, and you can extract detail from shadow and such – however you will also wake up all the noise. it is true that a scene changes, but not so much in so little time that anyone would actually notice anything.

    if done correctly hdr can be a wonder, breath taking imagery can be made, and cannot be reproduced in traditional ways with a 1 single shot. a raw shot indoors for example will not work well if you shooting a window and you want detail of the stained glass windows, and the church pews at the same time without blooming or noise in the shadows. there’s not enough data yet in those, i wish there were.

    i specialize in hdr, nearly all of my photo’s are hdr, but you can’t tell, because i shade it in by hand. i don’t rely on horrible software. i will proudly say i use hdr, it’s another medium, another method of capturing of what i saw, and what i want other’s to see. you can’t group everyone together. it’s like you saw one oil painting that was bad, and you grouped everyone that does oil paint as also bad. if you do it it right you’ll have a great range of depth and coloring.

    what i create are not photo’s, they are art. most think they are paintings because i get a range that looks like an oil painting.

    —Mike Savad

  • oh and ansel adams – his work is not that great. bland actually, and if hdr was around when he was alive, you better believe he would use it. it’s another tool to get better depth. everything he did was edited in the darkroom, it didn’t just come out of his camera that way.

    —Mike Savad

  • Pete,

    IMHO, what are you saying is simple and mostly true. Too bad it can be undestood only by those who made the same road. It takes years and those who made it are few I believe.

    I looked at your photos edited with the mysterious “new RAW converter”.
    I must say I’m not thrilled. On the contrary, the photos are very HDR-ish, plasticky and look more like an 3D visualisation than a “true” photo.
    The effect is ok for some pictures for sure, but not for most color photographs. I believe that, like HDR, for B&W it works much better.

    Thanks for this intresting and informative post.

    Dalibor

  • Interesting post there.

    “Photography is not a technical exercise”… true. Setting up the camera is a technical exercise, but ‘photography’ really has nothing to do with the camera you use.

    Those images look great to me – I’m very interested to see what this new RAW converter is. They look much more natural to my eye, that is more like what you would actually see if you’re there. Since the human eye looks at all areas, light and dark, at the correct exposure whereas a camera only exposes correctly for one area of an image.

    What is a ‘true’ photo? One that is only correctly exposed for a limited part of the image and isn’t a faithful representation of what you would see with your own eyes?

    Although I’ve got to say that there have been very few HDR photos that I like, I agree most are tacky and I’m sorry to say – just plain horrible to look at. But I do still think there is an appropriate used for HDR, although it’s definitely not achieved by pushing the ‘HDR button’.

  • I believe that we will have to wait and see..will these images stand the test of time. The modern photographer looks for quick fixes..and HDR is a quick fix.He/she does not want to spend the time required to mature into a capable photographer. I have seen very few images that utilize HDR as a tool..most use it as a gimmick and it is apparent in the final image. These is no sense of emotion or passion etc, emulating from the typical HDR image.They are clinically perfect. They generally relay on technique to get attention..once seen, they are easily forgotten. What are the images that one will remember from this era of photography..I think that very few will be HDR images. HDR images are like Rap music..they both may not stand the test of time.

  • @ Yeshua Grundy:

    Miles Davis said: play the music not the instrument

    @ Mike:

    Some things are a matter of taste.

    Of course Ansel Adams work, especially his black&white landscape work, is bland compared to the over saturated pictures on your website.

    If most people think your photographs are paintings, that doesn’t mean that your photos are art. It just means that you’ve overdone post-production to a degree where most people do not recognise it as a photograph anymore.

  • @ sascha – does it make a difference? a camera is a tool that lets me deliver art to people. it doesn’t have to look like a photo any more. i wouldn’t it too, photo’s tend to be boring and usually have no real style. they all look the same after a while. if my images look oversaturated on your screen, i suggest you calibrate your monitor. ansel was never that great. he was a first, which makes anyone great, but his work is mediocre at best.

    i sell MUCH work, does it matter if it looks like a photo or a painting? does it matter? people are more likely to hang a painting on their wall, than a photo anyway, so i would rather them see it as such.

    —Mike Savad

  • I agree and I disagree… alot of photographers rely too much on technology than taking better pictures up front. But I don’t think we need to dismiss HDR outright. It us a tool just like your camera. Yes it is very often overdone and can look downright terrible, but it can also be used well and look very appealing and sometimes people may not even know it was used, but the photographer choose to enhance the photo to fit his or her vision. That’s ok!

    Will HDR be ok when it is done in camera? Is it just not acceptable when done on the computer? The dynamic range on cameras are improving all the time, will you only stick to old cameras when new ones give too much dynamic range?

    The software he is referring to, I believe is Lightroom 4, it it’s supposed to be pretty amazing at processing raw files. It is currently available in beta, you can try it out.

  • @ Mike

    Photos may seem to be boring to you. OK. But does oversatured Kitsch really help against boring photos? Isn’t the problem just that the photo itself is boring?

    If that what makes your photo “non boring” is just a post-production effect, it will soon wear out as there is no real substance below. Others knew this long before anyone thought about digital or HDR:

    You sepia tone a bad print, and what you get is a bad sepia toned print.

    – Linda Cooley

  • > It is true that a scene changes, but not so much in so
    > little time that anyone would actually notice anything.

    @Mike, they notice it not directly, but subliminally. And that’s one of the reasons, why they just say “nice” and don’t look twice at those pics.

  • Whilst I agree that it is misguided to think that technology is the path to photographic excellence, I also believe that photographers should take advantage of the full range of technical possibilities in creating their work. Ever since photography was invented there has been a succession of new technologies each presenting new opportunities. Photographers with artistic vision and technical skill have taken advantage of these to create great work.

    I am not sure I agree with the comments on university/college course in the fine arts place ‘the emphasis of technique over all else’. I have been studying photography with the Open College of the Arts in the UK for several years and have not found this to be the case. I have been encouraged throughout to use my photography as a means of communicating what I have to say and my emotional response to the world around me. My experience has been a very positive one and I have been supported and encouraged throughout by the tutors, other students and the academic staff at the OCA.

  • I love that the article is about feeling and denounces the importance placed on software and equipment. And then you read the comments where people want to know information about the RAW software that will be coming out.

    Don’t miss the point people. It’s highly likely that you are fuel for Mr. Myers’ fire.

  • Pete, I see where you’re coming from to a certain extent, and I agree with the sentiment. However, unless you are going to eschew all post-processing (which clearly you don’t), you can’t rubbish one particular technique just because you’ve seen it used badly (in your opinion). Any manipulation of the image after capture takes it into the realm of the subjective, and at that point all bets are off.

    When someone says “I hate HDR, it just produces unworldly, garish images”, they assume that all HDR processing produces those distinctive results – which I also don’t care for typically. In many cases it won’t be obvious that HDR methods have been used, and the result can justify the technique just as much as any other analog or digital darkroom processing can. However, the unworldly, garish use of HDR is still a valid form of art.

    And as for Ansel Adams, I enjoy much of his work. Though I doubt most of the scenes looked anything like the images produced.

  • Great article, Pete. As walways… right to the point. I also want to respond to Ron, above, about his experience with “distance” learning. I think what you might need at this point, Ron, is to attend portfolio reviews, and/or to engage a mentor/teacher who will work with you one-on-one, and give you feedback as well as encouragement. this is something I do, but there are many others out there. If you are interested, contact me at “tim [at] cygnetpress [dot] com”

  • Points well taken Pete! But let’s not forget the making of a fine art photograph begins well before the camera is even brought into the light. Without Vision, and subsequent Voice, a photograph is just that…another photograph. Ansel Adams’ quotes – “You don’t take a photograph, you make it” and “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept” both pertain here. Creative professionals are obliged to use whatever means necessary to express their Vision…whether it be in the Darkroom…or the Lightroom. Technology offers infinite tools for photographers today…but it is important that the technology be Mastered…in order to rise above it. This means in the field…and during the post-process. The photo world is filled with technically excellent images…but without Vision and Voice they remain just that….technically excellent images…with no soul or sense of Identity – Acceptable for a publication desiring a “pretty picture”…the kiss of death for a fine art photograph. It is a shame, and for obvious reasons, that many of the technology companies, from camera to filter manufacturers, leave out the most important process of all. But then again, for the creatives truly dedicated to their craft,and art, it inevitably comes down to the individual’s willingness to LEARN,master,make choices, and integrate whatever processes allow them to bring their image to life…and allow THEIR VISION to be seen. In the end,if the photographer feels the Viewer must know the process (ex:”this is film straight out of the camera- no photoshop”)… or have elaborate words to explain an image in order to appreciate it…the Image has failed to deliver…in my humble opinion. That’s not to say having this knowledge can’t enhance the viewer’s experience, but if an image can’t stand on it’s own, it quickly finds its place…in the pile of the mediocre.
    Basically…It’s not the technology’s fault…it’s the one using it… that is responsible.

  • Dear Pete,
    You outline one of the main problems with a lot of photography and particularly the so-called field of “fine art photography”. You speak to the cultural and generational phenomena of: everyone who has an iphone is suddenly a photographer, everyone with video capability is suddenly a film maker, and finally, everyone with any photography skill is now a fine artist.
    Digital photography has improved work flows, gives us much more understanding about the capture of light and dark, offers many more ways to express our vision, etc. The problem is that many people trying to work in these creative fields have not developed their vision or the tools with which to express it.
    The problems with HDR are similar to the excesses occurring with photoshop. For a long time I have observed the ‘over-photoshopped’ look of much of photography. Being a good photographer takes a lot of training and the development of ones own style and vision. Becoming an artist requires the same, and often, much, much more of it. Communicating ones vision is the final and most difficult step in the process of creating imagery.
    The seductive gimmicks that are proffered in photoshop, lensbaby and other software/hardware seemed to offer quickie strides towards interesting images. The users of the gimmicks don’t seem to understand that their images have been high-jacked into disney-like, uninteresting, and commercial sensibilities. The gimmicks are what reach out (sometimes scream out) to the viewers instead of the creator’s vision. Add to this the joke pulled on photographers by the printing industry of ‘wrapped canvases’ and we are surrounded by homogenized, mediocrity.
    You have reminded us of how frequently we are approached by strangers who want to know ‘what camera’ we are using.
    The answer really is:’It’s the camera that’s in my head that took me years to learn how to use’!
    (Thanks to my mentor, David Wells, for helping me through this process).
    Thank you, Pete, for your important insights.

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