Vision vs. Technique

SmileMake Art – My Interpretation of Graffiti

I recently read a blog post “Wow, how did you do that?” by Cole Thompson, an amazing photographer.  If you have a minute, I encourage you to read it.  For those who don’t have time, here is the part of the article that really spoke to me.

“However when I see people focusing on technique first, I find they usually never get around to putting that same energy into finding their Vision, and as a result their work is technically perfect and masterfully imitative. Technique alone misses the mark.

So instead of focusing on Photoshop and its hundreds of features or following the latest fad technique, put most of your time and energy into your Vision. I promise you that this approach will yield better images and much more satisfying results.

Technique is not the key to a great image. Vision is.” – Cole Thompson

I am so thankful for Mr. Thompson’s words of wisdom! I have had so many conversations recently through which I have been told that I need to master Photoshop and manipulating images because that is the way to go. I have always held to my belief that shooting to capture my vision is the best way to work – I suppose I am a purist, but I want to capture what I see, what I feel, and what is inspiring me. I want to use the light to make my images, not have to go back at the end of the day to try to make what I thought I saw by using a technique that someone else is using.  To me, that would then become me using a vision that belonged to someone else.  I don’t want to lose my vision, or myself to what others think I should be doing to be successful.  Success will come with patience and through hard work and sharing my vision.  The beauty of working with my vision, and using manual settings on my camera and not focusing on a technique, is that I can successfully use a film camera or a digital camera to capture my vision.  Kind of cool, I think!

I’ve been told by photographers that they shoot with the purpose of using the image for an idea they have in PS, or other editing software. To me, that is digital art vs. photography. To call it photography don’t you have to be using the camera to capture light and use your artistic vision to compose the image and use the light to successfully create your vision?

To be clear, I am not opposed to post processing a digital image, after all, isn’t the software for digital imaging like the darkroom to film photography? In fact, you have to process an image to some extent, don’t you?  Some images are fabulous straight out of camera (SOOC), but others need a little processing – a color burn, a dodge, a color balance, etc., and there is nothing wrong with HDR work when done effectively so that the subject doesn’t look fake.  The reality is that no matter how hard we work to achieve the perfect image in camera, the camera doesn’t always see what we see.  My goal is always to get as close to accurate as possible with exposure and white balance and the best possible composition – do the very best at what I can control and edit what maybe I couldn’t control as well.

I think that Mr. Thompson’s  insight is accurate as far as differentiating artistic vision using photography vs. the art of digital manipulation and creation.  A little dodge and burn, etc. are post processing tools that even the greatest photographers used in the dark room.  But the over saturation and complete manipulation of an image to the point that the original image is lost, to me, is another art form – digital art, which, in and of itself, can be amazing when done right, and should not be discounted as an art form, just designated as digital art vs. photography.

Another link to check out is the website of Jerry Uelsmann.  He is a film photographer that has been called the father of Photoshop, not because he uses Photoshop, but because he uses tools, techniques and expertise in the dark room to develop his negatives.  Through his years as a photographer he has overlaid negatives, and done amazing, and sometimes crazy, things to create images, often using multiple negatives to do so.  His work is thought-provoking and time intensive.  But, his work was all created through his vision captured in the form of photographs.  He often combined his visions to create new visions, but because he used his vision and captured that vision in the form of photographs it still falls into the realm of photography, to me at least.  The title applied to his techniques; “the father of Photoshop” certainly applies as he inspired the digital art world to become what it is today.

Realizing this post has the possibility to be controversial to some, I want to note that I am in no way trying to offend anyone or discredit the work of any photographers or their techniques.  I’m just stating my opinion and explaining my thoughts and letting you, the reader, know how I work.  I thought Mr. Thompson’s article was very valuable and may perhaps inspire and help others to find and use their vision and grow as photographers vs. attempting to do the work others are doing.  The reality is that none of us can truly copy another’s work when it comes to photography because photography is capturing a moment in time using a vision that will never exist with the same light again. I think the key to successful photography is knowing your vision, knowing how to use your camera to capture your vision through manual settings, and following your heart to further develop your vision through post processing.

Another link I’d like to share with you is the website for the International Center for Photography in New York City.  One of the current exhibits is titled “What is a Photograph?”.  I can’t wait to see it and hope that some of you make your way to visit the museum as well.

Enjoy going out and creating “your” art this weekend!

41 thoughts on “Vision vs. Technique

  1. Several good points in this, Robyn. Photoshop, much like darkroom editing, has its place. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using software to enhance an image. That said, there are so many people who abuse with the hopes they are turning their image into something spectacular (which is often not the case). Many photographers – especially those new to the art – fail to learn about their gear. It is this lack of education that ends up producing overcooked and terrible images that seem to flood all forms of media these days. These same photographers often garner dozens of “likes” and “great shot” type comments which builds their ego and pushes them further down the slope. This type of “meh, I’ve got lots of positive feedback” attitude is a huge part of the problem in this modern world of social media photographers.

    Most people who manipulate their images have a clear vision. They are producing a piece of art based on a photograph – and the end results are usually quite outstanding and professional. The problem I have are those who maintain that their final creation is still a photo! They will often claim that “nothing much” has been done to the image and that it miraculously came out of the camera a vomit of colours. Nonsense.

    Learn how to process an image properly only to enhance an already good shot! You cannot polish a turd. A bad photo will always be bad, no matter how much post processing is done to it. Oh, and before I get lambasted for my opinion; I’ll add that we’ve all been there at some point or another. I’ve destroyed many photos with generous use of post-processing.

  2. Hi Robyn! Good post, thought provoking! I’m totally with you re the desirability of vision – technique alone is sterile and unthinking. Two points to make.

    First, I’m laid back about all this stuff – the simple thing, as I see it, is if an image works, it works, no matter how its been produced. Some require much manipulation, some virtually none, some are on film, some are on sensors, but if it looks good, it looks good. The way I think of this is “the end always justifies the means”.

    Second, while I am with you re vision – and I totally am – I think its also necessary to know camera basics and to be at one with handling the camera like a part of myself – because once I have that familiarity, I don’t have to spend time thinking about these things when taking a photo, I can channel all of my vision into taking it. By camera basics I mean very fundamental things like focusing and exposure – which can be mainly automated these days – because there’s no point in putting all one’s vision into a photo if the result is focusless or far too dark or light – unless those are the attributes my vision wants.

    Post-capture manipulation by software can really take things to another level, but it can’t replace the initial vision that caused the shot to be taken. Adrian

    • Good morning Adrian! I am with you 100%. Vision is the most important but a photographer must know their camera. In workshops I teach I always emphasize that if you want to create art, you can not leave your camera on auto settings and expect to create a masterpiece. Auto setting are meant to create average images, one must know their camera and be able to use shutter speed, aperture, ISO, focus, white balance, etc. to capture their vision. We are in agreement once again my friend! Great comment and I appreciate it! Robyn

  3. Robyn, thanks for such a thoughtful post. I had read Cole’s post also, and you point the light, as Cole does, on a very important subject!
    For me, this brings to mind something that just happened last week… a young woman wrote to me asking if she should buy a medium format camera. Her current camera is years old, and she wants to purchase one with better resolution, etc. I looked at her work, and was amazed to see someone with real artistic energy, but also a person who hadn’t “found her voice” yet. Her images were very interesting, quite unique, conceptually wonderful, but all over the map. It also turns out that her pictures were not very good from a technical standpoint. That said, I was so happy to see someone with the soul of an artist, someone who was in the beginnings of exploring this medium, someone who I’m sure will have a powerful voice in photography.
    I told her that, in my opinion, she shouldn’t buy a medium format camera, and that it was too early for her to make such a big commitment in that particular piece of equipment when it may not be right for her once she found her vision.
    My point to her was that equipment isn’t the answer, and that she should explore her vision, hone it, and later, decide whether a particular camera would make a good tool to put forth her vision.
    I think that the same is true with post production technique. It isn’t the answer, but a necessary tool to help get you there. Without vision, it isn’t worth much.
    Not to ramble too much, but I often think of this analogy… I used to ride motorcycles on the track. I wasn’t a racer, but I enjoyed the sport, and I would be on the track with people of varied skills, and varied motorcycles. One thing I noticed regularly… the fastest riders were not riding the fastest bikes! It was, interestingly, quite the opposite! There were riders on new Ducatis, with the most expensive leathers and helmets, all matching, who were constantly being passed by riders on old BMWs and low-powered Hondas. I saw it over and over again. On paper, the Ducatis were more powerful, but on the track, the riders’ experience made all the difference. This correlates to photography… you can have the most amazing camera (or suite of software plug-ins), but without vision, and a true understanding of how to use the tools needed to put it forth, it is fruitless.

    • Hello Herald. Thank you so much for taking time to comment. I agree with every word you said. Once must know their vision and be able to use their camera to capture that vision! It makes much sense to wait until the vision has been identified and explored with the heart and soul before investing in equipment. If we have “too much equipment”, it can become overwhelming and and we begin to focus on the tool, and the vision may escape us. We absolutely need both – vision and technique, but the vision is what makes the art.
      I love your analogy of the motorcycles. It is so accurate! I know people who have the top of the line cameras but use the automatic settings for all of their work. Oh how they could capture their vision if they only knew how to use their tools! Blessings to you! Robyn

  4. Very nice Robyn. I love what Cole does. I first discovered him with his, The Angel Gabriel photo and then with his Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau series and am now a fan. I’m not surprised to find that you enjoy his work as well. =) I love this graffiti piece and your words. Excellent post. Xx

    • Thank you dearest Nita! I too love “The Angel Gabriel” by Cole. His work is amazing and inspiring. Oh how I would love to attend one of his workshops some day! Have a wonderful weekend! Robyn

  5. You have pushed many a button here and hit many a nail on the head. I don’t have the time just now to provide full comments, though I’m inspired to do so. I have only two more days before 7 weeks of travel to New Zealand and lots of preparations to make. I think that the best way to share my thoughts is to do a dedicated post in the fairly-near future and provide a link in it to your post here. Please forgive the postponement, but these are very important issues, and I need more time to formulate my own take on them. Great post.

    • Can’t wait to read your thoughts when you have time to formulate them Gary! Safe travels to New Zealand! I’ll be anxiously awaiting your images! Robyn

  6. Robyn, I go out with a group of, what I lovingly refer to as photo geeks…great equipment and can tell you anything you want to know about the inner workings of a camera…I on the other hand shoot by gut 🙂 I know the basics and then create my art. To each their own since art is a form of expression and that’s really what all this time we spend behind the camera and ps is all about. Thanks for posting a very interesting read!

  7. Cole Thompson’s quote is excellent, Robyn.
    The entire post is outstanding, and the most fascinating lesson for me was that if I substitute writing for photography and art, I learn some very valuable insights!
    Well done!

  8. Thank you for these links, Robyn, and I look forward to finding a few moments to check them out. Having said that, I loved what you had to say. While I do need to work on, and learn about, technique NO DOUBT, and I am certainly just a beginner, i do believe it is about the vision, the eye, the art. Given all the excessively processed photos that I’ve seen lately, I just really appreciate more simple, realistic photos … I have no idea if that makes sense or not, but thank you for this post and for your encouragement of my efforts. I do love your photography!

    • You are welcome Laurie! I’m glad you liked the post. You are doing so well on your journey. I’ve seen such growth in your photography over the past six months. Keep up the good work! Robyn

  9. Reblogged this on Licht Years and commented:
    Many of you probably follow Robyn Graham and have enjoyed her phenomenal work but just in case you missed this insightful post, I’m re-blogging it here. I happen to share in her thoughts here.

  10. To each his own. It is a bit like the Nikon v Canon arguments. Photoshop (there are also alternatives) has its place in creative art
    and how and when to use should be down to the individual…there is no right or wrong, just an alternative.

    • So true David – to each his own. My emphasis here was not that one is right and the other wrong. Art is truly subjective and an individual preference and artists should create what they are intended to create using whatever medium they choose. My goal in this post was to encourage people to find their vision not chase someone else’s and more importantly, learn how to capture their vision effectively using a camera before jumping straight to the processing programs. I hope that clarifies a little more. Best, Robyn

  11. Very interesting post, I totally agree re: vision, but even after 30 plus years, not sure if I know what mine is! But working on it…and I’m doing a course soon to make me think a bit more. Oh, and many thanks for pointing me to Cole Tompson…what stunning images. I’m going for a wander…

  12. I do both–photography and digital art. But even with digital art, it is much easier to get the result you want if you get it right IN CAMERA. Getting it right in camera is not just about being technically sophisticated, or one of the cool kids, it’s about workflow and achieving your vision! Photoshop can be fun or it can be a chore. When I get it right in camera, it’s fun, creative and it makes a good image even better. I don’t like having to correct things I should have gotten right in camera. And to be honest, the process is such a synthesis that if the overall exposure if off, the composition is probably off too. Great post!

    • Thanks so much Jennifer! Your comment reminds me of a comment made by one of my instructors…”garbage in, garbage out”. To your point, if it isn’t right in camera, how much work will it take to make it right in post processing. Enjoy the day!

  13. I am with you in spirit, but with a caveat – I think that when one tries to define what “is” and “isn’t” photography; what “is” or “isn’t” digital art, etc., one walks a very fine line and can easily fall off. Rules are made to be broken – even yours, which, as I said, I am in agreement with. E.g. “…knowing your vision, knowing how to use your camera to capture your vision through manual settings, and following your heart to further develop your vision through post processing.” Here, I can’t help but wonder, what if someone uses an automatic setting? Then it’s not successful photography?
    But then again, I appreciate your passion and willingness to make these statements and I like the image very much (BTW, I found you through Sonnie). And now I’ll wander around here a bit!

    • Thanks for taking time to comment. I appreciate your thoughts. “Here I can’t help but wonder, what if someone uses an automatic setting? Then it’s not successful photography?” – My thoughts on that are: Automatic settings are made to create average – using 18% gray as the exposure. The camera adjusts aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to create the exposure it thinks is appropriate based on the average gray calculation it is programmed to use. If you have a vision, for example my vision of the daisies in my post “Joy and Cheer” to make the petals look like butter, will a camera successfully do that on it’s own? No, it won’t. Especially if on autofocus. I hope that makes sense. I like to have complete control of what I am creating in order to successfully create the image through my vision. Others may certainly be able to find success in using automatic settings, that just isn’t how my vision is accomplished. I hope that clarifies my statement for you a bit.

  14. It does! Thank you! I appreciate all the thought – and effort – you have put into this post and the comments. I’m not one to use automatic settings either, but sometimes I just have to play evil’s advocate I guess!

    • Great! It’s always good to play devil’s advocate, especially to gain more information and potentially help others. I took a look around your blog and found it lovely! I’ll be following you going forward! So glad you stopped by and appreciated the post! Enjoy the night! Robyn

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