Thursday, June 30, 2011

Identifying "Good Enough"

I've gone through a lot of phases with my shooting, the tools I've used and how I've used them. We've all had transitional dilemmas in how we develop our images, from being dejected by images that receive any treatment in post to afraid of developing an image with so much post as to give away that it has been treated to being afraid the image doesn't stand out enough because it hasn't gone through enough post. It's weird, really, how the process is processed mentally, and for simplicity's sake I'm going to assume everyone goes through the post-processing dilemma in the same manner as I do. Point being I am now at the stage where the mentality on post work has come full circle and the question nags at my brain, "Do I need to back off".

Over the past 8 months my post-process has taken on a very defined style that matches the subject matter I was mostly shooting perfectly. My images were always of decay and detritus, so the colors were muted, textures kept tack sharp, areas burned and dodged appropriately, etc. It's a style that has become a process so ingrained in my brain that I do it on autopilot, not unlike a daily work commute done so many times there's no memory of the time between when you left home and arrived and work. So long as the content of the image matches the style everything works out great, but when the image is of different subject matter I become lost and can't produce an attractive image to save my life. This was the dilemma I faced editing photos I took in Pittsburgh this past weekend, and it spawned yet another question, "What is good enough".

A majority of this dilemma comes down to one choice I made last year, a transition that spoiled me as much as now maddens me - switching from JPG to RAW. Back when I was still a Nikon faithful I refused to shoot RAW because the file sizes were ridiculous, the format wasn't universally recognized and the files were easily corrupted. It didn't matter at the time because Nikon's processing produced JPG images that looked just as good as a processed RAW, and since a majority of my shooting was of random street subjects and people my post work was very light. The catalyst for my transition came when I adopted Micro Four-Thirds with the GF1. Panasonic had (and still has) a long way to go as far as JPG processing was concerned, so the only way to get maximum image clarity from the camera was to exclusively shoot in RAW. Given what I was shooting this was not an issue, the images would require patience and labored attention anyway. But more so, the clarity of the RAW images led to an addiction. It became clear to me that the potential of a smaller sensor isn't necessarily realized unless the image is captured and processed in RAW. Everything I did was therefore heavily focused on the RAW editing process.

Fast forward to 3 months ago, an accident claims my greatest tool and I am forced to replace it with an even more sub-par sensor, a 1/1.6" XZ-1, a compact. And as time has gone on, especially after the photos shot in Pittsburgh last week, the divide between the convenience of JPG and quality of RAW has widened into painful obviousness.

The XZ-1 produces great looking RAW files. Even with the small sensor, the lens is so sharp that RAW produces images that can be sharpened into the clarity my GF1 provided. The great shortcoming, however, is its lack of latitude with color. If I were still shooting abandoned buildings all the time that would be fine, but as I'm recovering my subjects are less and less served by the desaturation and more by responsibly pumped color. Unfortunately, color management is a skill I've yet to learn in RAW developing. So then the idea entered my head, "I'll just go back to shooting JPG, Olympus is known for their great JPG images". Then comes the brick wall.

Olympus cameras are known for their JPG files because they feature art filters, special in-camera processing techniques that generate VERY stunning image results. So stunning, in fact, that I couldn't resist using them. Perhaps my greatest folly was shooting in JPG+RAW because it was once I got home to begin processing that the difference stood out to me. As amazing as the tones and contrast of the JPG images were, they paled in comparison to the texture retention and fine details recorded by the RAW files. Thus the internal war began - which was more important, the look of the image while zoomed out or the textures retained when zoomed in. It's a battle I'm still grappling with.

Desperate to retain texture while achieving the gorgeous look of the JPG images, I attempted to combine them in Photoshop with different layers and blending techniques. Not only was it a painfully long experimental process (as each image had to be handled very differently), the fatigue experienced creating those blends caused me to falter in very simple post work such as lens correction and color channel balancing. Whereas I had a method down with the GF1 and could crank through images one after the other, the shots from the XZ-1 enslaved me to my computer, requiring far more post work than the resultant images warranted. Although the process of shooting them was exhilarating, the post has brought me to a point of rethinking my approach to imaging in general.

Shooting in RAW and RAW alone is one thing. It sees its potential realized when the images are well thought out and meticulously captured with a specific look already in mind. JPG is clearly more functional as a spontaneous shooting format, which I would do well to remember as it saves the photographer from hours laboring in post. The gray area is the mentality behind shooting in which the art filters come into play - spontaneous artistic shooting. In Pittsburgh I shot in RAW+JPG because I not only wanted the effects of the art filters but I wanted the clarity of a RAW for optimum sharpness. Who knew if one of those randomly snapped images wound up being so good as to warrant dedicated time in post to bring forth its full potential. After this miserable experience, however, I've learned that keeping all the options open is paralyzing-by-choice. Get the tones of the JPG or get the clarity of RAW, but never both. Have the latitude to develop the image differently over time or settle with excellent processing out-of-the-box you can never duplicate. Insisting on having a RAW file comes down to one final question, "Is it worth the post work".

Having shot RAW for several months its very hard to step back from an image and see it simply for the way the camera manufacturer intends. The post-process I developed made the images feel more personal, but with varying subject matter it has planted me in front of a monitor far longer than I care to sit. When processed in-camera, each manufacturer has its own process and parameters, however customizable, by which the image data is developed. It may not be the way I would have processed it, the noise reduction may be too strong (I'm a fan of fine film-grain-ish noise) and the sharpness may not be at the peak I prefer, but it sure saves a hell of a lot of time. As much as I may want the clarity of the RAW data, I may very well regress to a strict JPG diet for all unplanned, spontaneous images I may capture. Frankly, anything is better than slaving over an image for hours just to try and get some semblance of what it looked like as a JPG but a fraction sharper.

Friday, June 17, 2011


Proverbially, we are told that "shit happens". Logically, we tend to ignore such a sentiment until the "shit" happens to us. When "shit" is a direct consequence of one's own action or decision, it's easy to digest and move on. Occasionally, though, insane, seemingly random occurrences of "shit" seem to crawl from sewer drains, cracks in the drywall and corners of the closet to introduce a complication that is impossibly brutal and cannot be prepared for. This random, brutal "shit" and I have been introduced.

Without getting into too many deliciously juicy details from a gore-junkie's wildest imagination (and for the protection of all involved), I was recently involved in a rather bad (and I am told that is an understatement) car accident. Bad enough that I have been out of commission for some time, but after 6 weeks am slowly transitioning into my life as it was prior to the accident. The event has had several impacts, many long-term ones that will likely manifest in mental scarring (which isn't necessarily a negative). But in relation to what this blog is supposed to be about, how my main hobby-hoping-to-go-business is affected, the impact was surprisingly high. But, again, that is not necessarily a negative either.

The most obvious impact would be my lack of a camera system. My camera died a tragic death in the accident, as well as the lens attached to it. Warranties do not cover such damage as missing mode dials, cracked casings, dirtied silicone and sticky-from-the-red-stuff focus rings. And as much as the system I had assembled was something with which I could work wonders, it is unlikely to ever be reassembled as the camera body is no longer made and the lens has become increasingly rare (prices compared to when originally purchased are simply prohibitive). My system is now incomplete, with 2 lenses left and the various accessories.

In this situation I have 3 choices that reflect reason: A) Purchase a camera body that works with my remaining equipment but is not a body that fits within my concept of a pro-grade tool, B) Sell the remaining gear for what it's worth and change systems entirely, effectively starting from scratch and at a loss, and C) Purchase a pro-grade compact as a stand-in for the time being and wait to see what comes out new this Fall that fits within the system I had. As much of a trial of patience as it is, I went the C route. For now, my only camera is an Olympus XZ-1, the best (in my opinion, anyway) pro-grade compact available. It will serve all the purposes I require of a camera for the time being, and when the next oh-la-la camera comes along that tempts my wallet, I will then have both a complete system for professional work and a compact for those nights out with friends when the bulk isn't reasonable. AND the extra time necessary for the next oh-la-la camera to come out gives me ample time to save up the funds necessary to buy both it and a replacement for the lens lost in the accident. Provided my patience holds fast, I should come out the other end of this with an improved tool set that, barring further intervention of random fate, should last me for a long time.

Amusingly, I was scheduled to sign the lease on my new studio at the Bromo Seltzer Tower the day after the accident occurred. I was lucky to have family both involved and interested in preserving that space for me once I got back on my feet - the studio was held pending my return to the living. As it stands I'm scheduled to sign a revised lease and acquire the space early at the start of next month, but my original intent on the use of the space has gone through some necessary modification. Without a competent system camera, I'm not likely to be investing in new studio lights and backdrops and other such things intended for model shooting. Truth be told, I lack the drive I had prior simply because it takes more energy now to pursue things that used to come on their own when I was at prime. Model, product and event photography have taken a backseat to photographic exploits that require far less involvement and stress, exploits that equate to sketching to more traditional artists. I'm not mentally or physically in a position to pursue the professional ideal, and as such the studio will more than likely end up more an exhibit of work I've already done for the time being. Printing, matting, framing, and maybe even some editing of those sketches I snap to keep my skills keen. Until I am once again functioning at least near to my fullest potential the studio will be my miniature gallery.

It is disappointing that I won't be able to chase down the business elements of photography like I originally intended. Money will not be made, gigs will not be booked, clients will not be met, rapport will not be built. However, all of these things will be realized eventually, given sufficient time. And in the time I have, a very important element of this business ideal can still be pursued. Advertising. Image. I will have the time to shape a face for my business uninterrupted by the business itself. A sort of head start. When Kneejerk was first brewing in my brain there were hundreds of ideas floating about that never saw any attention because the act of taking pictures was too distracting. Now I have at least a few months to let those ideas come forward, polish them off and put them into practice.

Typically I feel like traumatic events like this accident shouldn't affect the victim over the long term. Surely a few months down the road, once reintroduced to normal life, the old habits set back in and the personality resumes from the point it had left off. Technically I'm still in the wake of the episode so my opinion right now is horribly biased. There are a few sentiments that I used to hold and bury deep down that died in this accident, though. Not items that I will openly talk about, but certainly baggage that I'm glad to be done with and bid adieu. As terrible a thing the accident was, I will come away from it with some very happy realizations. Amazing how clear things become when the contrast between one's lowest low and those wonderful things worth hanging onto is cranked to 11. It is good to know for sure what matters.