Vision & Technique

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Southside Johnny getting lost in it
Fuji X-E2 – 35mm at f 1/4, ISO3200

In his most recent blog post, Cole Thompson suggested how something is better accomplished by personal vision than technical expertise. This reminded me of a friend, who, when asked if her image was captured with digital or film, would reply, “do you like it?” Inevitably, the person would answer, “I love it.” She would then say, “great!” and never answer the question at all. Essentially she was saying: Does it matter? 

I think there is a difference.  My friend’s point was valid, film or digital?  Who cares? I agree. However, with Cole’s point, I agree in part.  Vision is indeed important and we should relentlessly pursue ours. But I feel the more we understand technique, be it in-camera or in post processing, the better equipped we are to be able to achieve our vision.  

Let me illustrate, if I did not understand the techniques needed for image overlay and texture work, I would never have been able to achieve my vision for the Disney picture I created a few posts back. 

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For me, vision and technique are intertwined.  In fact, I would suggest we need to understand technique so well that we are freed from its constraints and liberated to pursue our vision. Otherwise, we might be frustrated in not being able to fulfill our vision.  Another illustration. You see an image like the one below but don’t know how you might create something similar.  Frustration sets in and you move on to something else.  

However, if someone shares the technique, you now have the knowledge and can use it to achieve your vision.  The trick is: How do you take this new knowledge and create a vision of your own?

This is where your vision becomes so important.  Your objective is to take this knowledge and create something new.  Something like the Disney creation above. 

20131004_New Hampshire_0075Texture

When I’m asked, how did you do that?  I’m prone to share. I understand where Cole is coming from.  He is serious about encouraging folks to chase their vision without influence from others, and I am on board with that. However, I think people are at different places along the creative path.  Without a clear understanding of technique, I think it might be harder for some to achieve their vision.

“Develop an infallible technique, then put yourself at the mercy of inspiration.”   Zen maxim

“One is not really a photographer until preoccupation with learning has been outgrown and the camera in his hands is an extension of himself.  There is where creativity begins.” 

Carl Mydans (1907-2004) American photojournalist

“I see no reason for recording the obvious.” Edward Weston, photographer 

Your thoughts?

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Fuji X-E2 – 35mm f/1.4, ISO 2000

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26 Comments

  1. Stephen McCullough December 30, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

    Hi John

    First, I love that first shot. Fantastic timing to grab a shot that carries the emotion. The composition is so good too, with the band in the background, the shadows. Good one.

    I’ll admit that I am a bit irked when someone looks at a photograph and dives right into the technique or gear used. This isn’t really fair on my part; they are often interested because they love it. They have just omitted to say so directly…
    Of course that doesn’t excuse the classic ” I love it, you must have a great camera”.

    The things is that knowledge of technique (light, composition, gear, post, printing etc) is fundamental. I have come to believe that the balance you mention is correct. The more we are comfortable with those things, to the extent that they are almost second nature, the more we can focus on using those skills to make our vision come true.

    • john8276 December 30, 2013 at 2:16 pm #

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment Stephen. I see Southside each year and love trying to make good images in an environment that is outside of my comfort zone.

  2. Bruce Sorrell December 30, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

    You’ve offered us a good bone to chew on, John! FWIW I’ve found vision and technique to be two sides of the same coin. And for the two to work harmoniously they must be in perfect balance with neither one dominating the other. I write music from time to time. I get a song in my head but unless my piano technique is spot on, I’m in no position to share what I created. The same goes for painting, writing, dance, and all the arts. Vision is what we have to say about the world, and technique enables us to speak. Lastly, as modern photographers practicing in a field filled with constant improvements, we’ve a need for constant learning. So I’d respectfully disagree with the Mydans quote. I’m just thankful we’ve a good teacher like you who makes that constant learning a very enjoyable task. And a very Happy New Year to you and yours! Slainte!

    • john8276 December 30, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

      This is a great quote Bruce. I’m gonna use it. “Vision is what we have to say about the world, and technique enables us to speak.” With regard to Mydans, I think he is still right… I don’t think he is saying we stop learning, only stop being pre-occupied with it. I’ve seem many who are so focused on learning technique they don’t spend anytime creating… Just my 2 cents.

      • Stephen McCullough December 30, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

        That is a good quote.

        I suppose it is about balance. My starting point with most things is to kind of figure out where or what I want the end point to be. Sometimes it’s specific, sometimes it’s general. To achieve it I do need technique. I love it when my search for that blend of light, shadow and subject catch my eye – and the camera just rolls up and I change setting to get what I desire as it comes to my eye. I can only do this when I have technique down, but that’s not the key for me. The key is the driver, the ‘why’. So I love to learn and explore technique, but honestly I don’t think it is equal to the creative drive. If I dive too much into constant learning I won’t capture based on what I have learned. Learning is crucial, but preoccupation with it can smother creativity. My 1.5 (Canadian) cents.

  3. Scott O December 30, 2013 at 5:05 pm #

    Very important post John. Back in the film days (particularly color) vision pretty much ended with the shutter press. But the process is extended considerably with digital as there is so much that can be done after exposure. To me, your great strength has always been a tremendous knowledge of a variety of post-processing techniques, with the ability to plan what you might want to do when you take the picture. The exposure and composition is just the first part of an extended process. Ansel Adams gained fame with his ability to pre-visualize an image. You are discussing the digital equivalent.

    • john8276 December 30, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

      And, Ansel also saw the negative as the score and the final print as the performance….

  4. Alice Olive December 30, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

    I can’t speak on behalf of anyone else, but for me, technical knowledge is necessary/helpful to develop (pun intended) the image I see before I click the shutter. I like knowing how I can manipulate before, during and after.

    Does that mean a great image taken ‘incidentally’ isn’t a great image? No.

    I’m just referring to my own personal satisfaction. PS – Photography is my therapy.

    • john8276 December 30, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

      Photography feeds my soul. :)

  5. marty golin December 30, 2013 at 5:15 pm #

    Pretty much my version of the comments above, but you asked for thoughts….
    It seems to me that the type & degree of one’s vision will push an individual to find a suitable level of technique & technology. For example, photographers pursuing their visions during photography’s beginnings faced technological hurdles that would be unbearable to most of us today; these people had a LOT of vision to accomplish what they did. On the opposite hand, a significant percentage of the population now carrying photographic devices with them at all times have been exposed to an accessible technology that even 20 – 30 years ago was such that they would not have even considered it.
    At whatever degree of technological simplicity/complexity that one bases one’s techniques, mastery (or at least comfort), as you noted, frees the mind to explore the vision. As one moves along, sometimes a new technology will allow a new vision to evolve, or sometimes one’s vision will drive one to find or master a new technique. For some this may be technology making it easier to make a good snapshot; for others it is software allowing complex composite images based on multiple layers. Most of us fall between these two points.
    As photographic/post-processing technology progresses, making photography both simpler & more complicated at the same time, I believe we intuitively gravitate to a personal “sweet spot” dictated both by our inner vision & the external options available. On some level, each drives the other, though ultimately vision is the driver & technique is only the vehicle.
    (Ps. Excellent Weston quote – What is obvious, & to whom?)

    • john8276 December 30, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

      There ya go again Marty, making great comments. Thanks bud. Vision is the driver and maybe that is what Cole was ultimately saying in his post huh?

  6. robyn December 30, 2013 at 11:22 pm #

    I couldn’t agree with you more John! Thanks for the excellent post and happy new year to you and yours! Blessings, Robyn

  7. jeff December 31, 2013 at 1:58 am #

    great pics with that fuji!!

  8. Paul December 31, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

    Many people think Ansel found great pictures to capture, when in reality he worked with great dark room technique ( masking, dodging, burning, etc) to develop ok images into great images. Don’t underestate post processing, even Ansel relied on it. For those of you younger folks, a dark room is a place where…. Oh forget it, go google it.

    • john8276 December 31, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

      Darkroom? Isn’t it hard to see in there?

    • Stephen McCullough December 31, 2013 at 3:05 pm #

      Yep. A dark place. Brought to life by creativity :)

      I certainly never underestimate the importance or power of any technique, including post. For me, these things service what I want to accomplish. I enjoy knowing how to expose for the feel that I want, and how to edit and process for that feel. Knowing these things gives me the freedom to create.

      • john8276 December 31, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

        Yes, yes, yes! And thus they go hand in hand. What I’ve gotten out of this excellent discussion is, VISION trumps all. Vision is what gave us the multiple exposure technique. Vision is what gave us montages… Vision drove the development of the technique. It was the VISION of putting a man on the moon that created the technology to do so… Thus by me telling you how to do multiple exposures and you then going out and doing the same thing on a stand of trees is not vision… it is copying. Taking the concept of multiple exposures and creating something unique and new, something that you are visualizing? That might be VISION!

    • Scott Oberle December 31, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

      I really agree Paul. Doubt if Ansel (or any of the other photographic pioneers) ever made a straight print. I believe that all relied on the post processing tools which were available at that time. I referenced Ansel as he is perhaps the most obvious example. He was a darn fine photographer, but was a darkroom genius. His co-development of the Zone System led to his pre-visualization technique which led to his camera settings which allowed him to know exactly what he intended to do in post before he clicked the shutter. He was always on the cutting edge of his craft. He would have wildly embraced “our” photography. Digital today is little different from his days, except that we don’t have to mess with smelly chemicals and we have more methods available to us. The ultimate goal still is to express our individual vision.

  9. Daniel Ruf December 31, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

    I totally agree with the the statement that everyone is at a different place on their respective paths. I’m 66, but picked up photography when I was in my 20′s. The need for an income led me away from the creative toward the necessary. I was a farmer for almost 30 years, picked up photography again during the late 90′s and have been trying to catch the train since. It’s because of workshop instruction, books, websites, commentaries that I’ve gotten to where I am, but I also realize I’m on the short side of the aging process. I need all the input I can get and will trust MY creative vision will follow.

    Thanks for sharing your insights and beautiful work.

    • john8276 December 31, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

      You are doing amazingly well Dan! Your work has a feel of its own which suggests you are indeed following your vision.

  10. Diana December 31, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    Wow, what great food for thought, but I have come to expect that from you and your posts and the responses.
    With respect from my own journey I am somewhat on the same page as Bruce. I moved from a very urban city, Houston, and moved to a very open spaced and beautiful natural world in North Dakota. Don’t get me wrong Houston is beautiful in it’s own way but it did not inspire me to capture it’s beauty, at that time. When I moved to ND I wanted to capture the sunsets (and sunrises!) and the wild natural beauty of flora and fauna. I turned in my point and shoot and went digital. Not knowing anything about cameras and or processing I concentrated on trying to capture what I saw by trial and error. I took a class or two and took pictures of everything I saw. As I learned more about my camera and as my skills began to blossom, I wanted more challenges and joined a group of enthusiasts who shared pictures on a web site one of my teachers began. The wonderful thing about this was everyone was on different plains with a vast variety of “visions” and an an amazing willingness to share techniques and insights. Suddenly, or maybe gradually, my vision changed as well.
    The internet is a wonderful tool and inspiration as well. Enter your blog. It may have been just a matter of timing and luck but your pictures, conversations and generosity in sharing sparked a fire in my inventiveness this year and it has been awe-inspiring to me. Not only did I love what I saw but I envisioned my own attempts at interpreting the world “as eye see it” growing and expanding as a flowering plant blossoming. I expect the teacher analogy someone used is true as I am sure that teachers feel blessed to see the germs, maybe seeds, come to life in their students! The two pictures you used to illustrate your thoughts were especially inspiring to me this year. Ok, blah, blah, blah….I ramble.
    Just know that you are a beacon!
    Diana
    PS I had not thought of Southside Johnny in years, a friend introduced them to me in the 80′s!

    • john8276 December 31, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

      Hey Diana, thanks for chiming in. So happy to know you are finding your stride and vision. Enjoy the endless journey! Southside ROCKS! I’m a huge fan.

  11. Stephan Dietrich January 1, 2014 at 5:15 am #

    Happy New Year 2014!

    Great post, topic and feedback… Awesome images JB! The artist being captured by the artist!

    As like musicians, even if we play the same instrument or harmonize amongst the band, we all add something… The same applies to photography and life…

    Personal vision(s), technique, experience and artistic ability are like finger-prints… no two alike – yet in similarity, there can be inspired visions and styles that we incorporate as we evolve.

    I believe many are attempting to reinvent the wheels of art (and other things) and then others are merely changing the tires (so to speak) – using modern materials to allow the flow and creative process to run that much smoother. Some tires are better than others, but all do the same thing… turn and transport us… We all have our equipment, lenses, attachments, filters and post-process programs to choose from… Endless possibilities…

    As to photography and processing images: What we are able to do today compared to yesteryears is amazing – no limits other than to our imaginations, talents and experience. We are still able to use what we learned in the past with film, obtain a similar look or go beyond… the choices are endless. As to the chemical darkroom and the incorporate digital darkroom, we are able to incorporate the past and go beyond – especially in artistic ways.

    As DR mentions, sometimes the necessity of business, our clients and earning an income with our gifts as being photographers requires us to do whatever is needed to survive – becoming service oriented for others rather than for ourself. While doing weddings for 25 years, I had little time to do landscape images, artistic work or travel.

    As for our personal visions, it is always rewarding to do what we are passionate about, not worry about outside influence, be free, focus on our inner drives and stay true to what we believe in.

    Imagine if Ansel Adams were still alive… As he was not only master photographer, he was also a master in the darkroom… No one has ever been able to duplicate his negatives and print them as he did.

    There is definitely the process of taking the image… There is definitely the process to post-process images… And, as for the print, there is definitely the process to get to the final print and then the infinite choice on what to print upon and print accordingly.

    Many choices! Many options! Enough room and infinite possibilities to keep our work, art and visions different – even if we are standing amongst each other and photographing at the same location… As like a band, we all bring something different and perform accordingly! Here’s yo our performances, sharing our experiences and adventures!

    Happy New Year to you, yours and all!!

  12. Dore' January 2, 2014 at 9:11 pm #

    Great discussion John.

    When I’m shooting I’m not thinking about post-processing, I’m thinking how do I capture the essence of the scene before me so I have an image to work with when I get home. Because without it, no amount of software will make a bad picture good. I would agree post-processing causes me a great deal of frustration, but not for lack of technical expertise though I am lacking but learning. Rather the plethora of products and new techniques is overwhelming. By keeping it simple, I’ve found a process that produces the image I envisioned.

    Back to the question “Does it matter whether it was accomplished by personal vision or technical expertise?” In my mind it’s no different then the film or digital question. To both I say it doesn’t matter.

    • john8276 January 2, 2014 at 11:28 pm #

      Thanks for chiming in Dore’! I just re-read what I said in my post and I think we agree. I said, the more we understand technique be it in camera or in post processing… so for you, technique happens to be in-camera with little post. That works for you! I still stand my my comment, you still have to understand the technique of using the camera and the little processing you do to create the vision that is yours. So, they go hand in hand… you need both.

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