Thursday, September 4, 2014

Quit "Fixing" Your Images

Apple has all but abandoned Aperture. Like many others, I've been forced to switch to Lightroom. I was shocked at what I found.

Setting aside the inferior image handling capabilities of Lightroom compared to Aperture, one of the most surprising and horrific "features" of Lightroom is its Lens Correction module. This "feature" mangles your image to "correct" for perspective, lens distortion, chromatic aberration, vignetting . . .  in other words, all the differences that make a camera and lens combination unique and give it character.

Converging lines can emphasize imposing size and help preserve the sense of scale.
There's no need to straighten them out.

Lightroom's tools are a symptomatic expression of a much bigger problem: the desire to erase an image's unique characteristics and make it conform to some norm made up by some unnamed person or software team. This is the same problem one sees with things like Instagram's set of filters (or the "presets" provided by innumerable services and software packages): "feel free to express your individuality—so long as it's in one of the ways we say is okay!" Worse, the constant effort to make an image "perfect" stems from the same psychological illness as looking at a fashion magazine and trying to make your body look like that: it misses the point of fashion photographs and misses the importance of individual variety. Making something "perfect" by a contemporary standard doesn't make it good, any more than everything looking the same makes it attractive. What makes an interesting image is its content—not its pixel count or histogram or vibrancy, and certainly not its horizon line.

The "distortive" feature of a lens can be used to pull a viewer in toward the subject
and involve the viewer in the whole scene. Correcting the "distortion" ruins the effect.

Moreover, these efforts at "correcting" images are misguided. Translating a living experience into a two-dimensional representation is no easy task. When you experience something, all of your senses are in play and there is a great deal of feedback which contributes to that overall experience. The task of the photographer is to use as many visual cues as possible to substitute for the loss of the viewer's other senses. Aperture, shutter speed, ISO, film or sensor quality, the particular perspective provided by a certain lens, and what position the photographer takes in relation to the subject are all part of that creative process, and all of those decisions are required to capture an image which reflects what the photographer perceived in being there.

A feeling of being "in a scene" requires an image that creates imbalance in the viewer.
Fixing perspective and horizon lines would destroy that effect. 

Finding the right "look" for an image requires time and attention and investment. (If you want to know how much of an investment, do an internet search comparing the color, bokeh, and distortion differences among Leica lenses.) But that's the whole point of using the tool to make your art. If your image looks like every other, why take pictures in the first place? Indeed, neutralizing the distinct characteristics of a camera and lens is a signal that the photographer wasn't taking the time and putting in the effort to use the tool correctly in the first place, and instead is trying to salvage an image by trying to make up for what wasn't done right when the photograph was being made. The characteristics of tools aren't "flaws" to be corrected, but features of which to be aware so you can use them when it's appropriate.  A lens which easily picks up flare might be annoying—until you need some flare!

Sorry, Adobe: as it turns out, the horizon isn't straight because the earth is round.

If you want better images, start selecting and using the tools intentionally instead of "fixing" the images during development. Embrace wide angle lenses to emphasize space and perspective. Take advantage of the distance longer focal lengths provide to compress a sense of space. Pay attention to light and contrast so that you can match your exposure to the equipment's limitations. Quit being at war with the tool and objectively evaluate what it does so that you can determine how best to maximize that quality.

A sense of experiencing the vastness of Grand Central Terminal couldn't be captured
without a wide angle lens. "Fixing" the lines to make them straight would also
eliminate the visual cues which give the viewer additional sensations about the space. 

The history of great photographs is the history of photographers using their tools to help the viewer engage with a subject. Robert Capa didn't "fix" his horizon lines, and Cartier-Bresson didn't sweat over the pincushion effect of his lens. Instead, great photographers engaged with their tools to make great images by worrying about the one thing that does matter: the subject.

When working with two-dimensional space, it's hard enough to visually draw the spectator in.
Use your tools appropriately to help achieve the effect. Don't "correct" it!
Photography begins and ends as an unreal experience: freezing a moment of time and then presenting that fragment in a two dimensional form at another place and time to an unknown viewer. Photography is not eyesight, and efforts to make photographs seem "more real" only undermines the participation of the viewer by deemphasizing the subject. That isn't what art is about, and it's unfortunate to see photographers trying to "fix" their images to fit within someone else's conception about what looks right. An easy step towards better images is to quit "fixing" images during development and pay more attention to the visual features of your camera and lens when making the image in the first place.