Quality in Photography

Much of my time these days is spent editing the manuscript of my upcoming (yes, long overdue) next book. The following is a snippet from the current draft. (I suppose you could call it a teaser, but that’s about as far as my marketing genius goes, or at least as far as my self-promotional comfort level allows.)

It is so characteristic, that just when the mechanics of reproduction are so vastly improved, there are fewer and fewer people who know how the music should be played.

~Ludwig Wittgenstein

We are today at a point where qualities of photographs that not too long ago used to be difficult to accomplish, no longer are. Our cameras’ built-in computers are sophisticated enough as to rarely miss proper exposure; digital sensors offer impressive dynamic range and color; high-ISO performance and stabilization technology provide usable, even excellent, results in many situations that previously required the use of a tripod; automatic focusing has become so fast and accurate as to now be the norm, rather than the exception, etc. Even reasonably priced cameras today offer excellent resolution, tonality, low noise, and others characteristics, exceeding in quality what was once possible with film. Computer algorithms now perform, quickly and accurately, complex tasks that previously required trained skills and honed instincts, and that today are easy and available even to novice photographers. All these suggest that objective measures of “image quality” today, generally exceed what was possible even in the not-too-distant past. Given that these improvements are largely owed to advancements in technology, it is puzzling that some still consider them also as reliable measures for the skill of photographers.

Just as puzzling is the fact that, in a time when a simple internet search may yield a plethora of known and vetted locations, practically guaranteed to yield beautiful photographs by following simple instructions; such photographs, too, are often considered as measures of excellence and skill, despite requiring neither.

Just as improvements in camera technologies made it possible to achieve high-quality captures with relative ease, similar advancements also occurred in the means of processing these captures. Software manufacturers now offer an abundance of easy-to-apply filters, presets, and other automated effects, making it possible to produce beautiful results that once required great skill, almost effortlessly, without great investment of time and without the need for any training. Likewise, high-quality prints of any practical size, today may require as little effort as to upload a file to a printing service, selecting the desired size and substrate, and paying a relatively small price.

In a time when capturing, processing, printing, impressive scenery, aesthetic appeal, and technical excellence, have become commonplace and easy to accomplish, and in many cases require no special talent or practiced skill, such things, in themselves, can no longer be considered as measures of the excellence of the photographer. When such things cease to be reliable measures for photographic virtuosity, what remains? What remains are the things that cannot be relegated to machines and algorithms, copied from others, or reduced to formulas, directions, and recipes: the artist remains—the singular human individual capable of creative ideas, original thoughts, deep contemplation, and unique expressions of complex ideas, philosophies, and emotions. What remain as true measures of photographic genius, are no longer qualities of photographs, but qualities of photographers.

The Air that I Breathe

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