For the past six or seven months I’ve been working with young photographers (and when I say “young” I mean relatively young in photography) and I have had the opportunity to experience something both incredible and, at the same time, troubling. And that is a fundamental lack of understanding of what photography really is.
First of all, the wonderful: there are some amazing photographers out there. People with a passion both for photography and for travel, exploration, capturing and sharing experiences. There is enough raw passion and talent in some of these people to fuel the world of photography for another thousand years! Unfortunately, the equally massive “black hole” of actual skill, willingness to accept even the slightest review or criticism and the absolute, iron-clad belief that everything can be solved through a massive application of Lightroom sliders or Photoshop manipulations, takes all that talent and completely ruins it - turns it into bad, truly bad, images or little to no merit.
It is obviously not the lack of either technology or learning resources - today, more than any other time in history, equipment better than what most professionals had less than 15 years ago is within the grasp of anyone and for very little money. Training paid for through years of mentoring, trial-and-error, long hours and tons of blood, sweat and tears (to paraphrase Churchill) are now completely freely available online through literally thousands of video tutorials showcasing every single aspect of photography, lighting, post-processing etc. Let me repeat that: Every. Single. Aspect. For free. At the click of a couple of buttons.
The problem is, as always in history, people. Those same passionate people who pick up a camera and see their first images on a screen, in their eagerness to become good, immediately assume they know everything. For them, there is no image, however blurry or badly focused or framed, which cannot be fixed without cranking clarity to 100 or saturation to 1000. Or by taking a 16MP image, cropping out 1/20th of it - to create an interesting frame - and thinking that because they see that image full screen on their computer, it is a good, sharp image (or, at least, an image which can “easily” be fixed by sharpening it by 200% or even more).
The problem is lack of understanding of the basics. And the basics are, believe it or not, simple.
Photography comes from the greek meaning “writing with light” which, by definition, means, using light and shadows to draw an image of what we see. And because light is what generates colour, photography is all about capturing the colours and the hues of that picture (at this point I beg the indulgence of all you black & white aficionados out there - I will come around to you in a bit). True, digital photography has allowed us to manipulate those elements - light, shadow, colour etc. to create more toned or, generally, more potent, stronger images - what was once achieved through countless, mostly hazardous techniques, in the darkroom - but this is not a licence to take the envelope and turn it into confetti. It really isn’t.
As more and more people get into photography, it is only natural to think they can get amazingly strong images very quickly, almost effortlessly, by moving a few sliders around. Thing is, they are so completely wrong.
Cranking Saturation all the way to 1000 will not give you the deeply saturated colours Steve McCurry used to get by using Velvia or Kodachrome film. Nor will pushing Clarity and Contrast to 100 will make your blurry or otherwise flat images into the intense, attention-grabbing images you see jumping at you from the pages of National Geographic. A flat image MAY (and please, in your head, take those capitals and turn them into 3000pt bold and underline ones) be slightly improved through selective sharpening, contrast and curves adjustments and even made a bit punchier by slightly raising saturation but this is STILL a “may” and the operative word is “slightly”. Not “tons”. Not “massive”…not even “a lot”.
Let's have a look at the image on the left. It is a bad image. It is taken under direct sunlight - so, massive contrast there, contrast no amount of post-processing can fix -, it is blurry (or at least focused somewhere randomly on the frame and completely beyond the two bikers) and does not have any really interesting features. A professional - or at least an experienced photographer - would immediately bin it. No the case with the amateur as the two shots below show:
First shot: cropping to 1/10th of the original image. resulting resolution: 2MP. Sharpening, up by 80%, Clarity up by 50% and Structure by just a little more. This image was submitted to social media and gathered some support.
Second shot: Less cropping, but hey, let's crank shadows up to 200, saturation to 90 and clarity to 100. Also uploaded to social media, also gathered support and likes.
And yet, both images are way too blurry and, post-processing, they both look ghoulish and unrealistic.
In other words, the massive amounts of experience, learning, perseverance and attention to detail which are put into creating a good image are replaced by 10 completely misdirected clicks…and the results are always awful. And these failures make the gap between the amateurs and the professionals bigger and bigger.
The examples are simply way too many to disregard:
Taking an image shot in bright sunlight resulting in insane contrast and simply ramping up the shadows to balance it and then adding back tons of Clarity and Saturation to make it look like what you have in your mind or what you probably saw does not work! It never did and never will - all you’re doing is creating a bad (and badly processed) digital file with little merit. And even worse, you’re doing a terrible injustice to your image which may indeed be a wonderful frame in itself - in fact, quite a few of them are!
Taking any colour picture, turning it into black & white and then simply cranking Contrast to 1000 because that’s what you think black & white should be…well, let me tell you, it is not! And if you doubt me, look at the masters. Look at their images with hundreds of thousands of shades of grey - subtle maybe, but they are what makes them amazing, iconic, worthy of our attention. Oh, and another thing: not all images work in black & white…in fact, very few actually do, regardless of what you may think.
You may think me harsh! You may think I don’t know what I’m talking about, but let me ask you this: when you put your images right next to those of your icons, do you honestly think “yeah, my image is good enough”? Do you really think your image is true to life and to what you saw when you were there? If that is the case, I challenge you to go back and look at your RAW files as they came from the camera and compare them…believe it or not, you can be certain that your camera captured the original scene pretty much exactly as it was - cameras these days are pretty good even at fixing your lack of experience in framing, light-measurement and contrast calculation. You need to really learn their capabilities and limits and, above all, you need to learn yours. Because until you do, your images will always be caricatures of reality and a mockery of your passion and drive. Don’t let this happen - you deserve better and you should do better.