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The Straight Story

June 5, 2008

One thing that I repeatedly hear from customers, shortly after they view my prints is “Why don’t my pictures and prints look like yours?” In today’s photo-world, where the television commercials make you believe that you can just buy the camera and get amazing images, it is easy to forget how much work is involved in making great pictures.

A friend of mine explained it like this, “If I gave you a Formula One car, do you think you could get on the track and race?”
Of course not, but Formula One cars are slightly pricey and not available at your local drug store, but cameras are, so we tend to take some things for granted that we need to reexamine.

First of all, I’ve been shooting for fifteen years. You can learn technical issues all day long, but until you spend time in the field, learning light, timing, composition, and learning to find your vision, all the tech solutions mean nothing, nor do megapixels, lenses or transfer rates.

Even though some people are born with an inner vision, you have to LEARN to be a photographer. Anyone can make snapshots, but not many people are GREAT photographers. I’m not saying I am either, just making a point. As one GREAT photographer said to me recently, “There are a lot of people running around with cameras but not many of them are photographers.”

However, we have also seen a tremendous shift in the quality bar since the arrival of digital imaging. Today, when we can shoot unlimited images and see them immediately, we sometimes get lazy when it comes to quality. “Good Enough,” the phrase, was ushered in during the early days of digital and still applies today. Even though, in many ways, the quality of digital files can far surpass film, in many cases they don’t.

Does this sound familiar? Flat prints? Embalmed skin tone? Red images? Plastic skin? Blown hightlights? Shall I go on?
Look at any major magazine and these flaws are front and center, often times on the COVER! I’ve also seen these flaws on plenty of self-promotion pieces in recent years.

What I’m saying is that people are now, regardless of improvements in technology, accustomed to accepting lesser quality pictures. Plain and simple.

This also translates to the print. I think we have become so used to looking at images online that our standard for prints has also slipped. You can go to many locations and get 8×10 prints for less than $3, which seems incredible, but in most cases those prints are straight machine prints.

What’s the difference?

The difference is, just as the photographer made decisions in the field to optimize the image making, so does the photographer make decisions in optimizing images for print. If I had to guess, I would say I make at least seven to ten adjustments, minimum, to an image before I print. And, all these adjustments will vary depending on what type of print I am making, and what type of paper I am using. And, this is a FILM image, digital files take far more adjustments to get them right.

Plus, I’m a history buff, whether it comes to America’s involvement in Vietnam or your family’s history. So, when I make a print, I made a GOOD print, and a print that will be around in ten years, or fifty years.

All of this thought and process goes into each image, and sometimes this gets lost in the shuffle of our frenetic lives. I wanted to share a little bit of this with you to give a better understanding of what it means to be a photographer in the age of “good enough.”

I have also included a before and after image. The first picture is a “straight” scan and the second is the same file “optimized” for print, in this case for a 11×14, pigment print on an uncoated, matte paper.

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