Musings on professional photography

For an odd set of reasons, I was reading some material on David Ziser’s excellent blog a while ago. I was looking to cross-reference some material I’d seen there a while back for someone looking for information on on-camera flash on Nikonians web site. In the course of doing this search, I came across a heading there for Ziser’s top 10 posts of 2010. At the head of the list was one with nearly 100 comments and titled “How much of a professional are you?” Apparently, Ziser had provoked a significant backlash by calling out would-be professional photographers who, for example, might be found shooting weddings for money with amateur-grade gear like a Canon Rebel with some kit lens. You can read him yourself here.

Rather late in my career (I’m 60 now) I’ve been working with my wife as she turns pro photographer. I myself have been a registered professional engineer for about 30 years now. I’m also a member of the PPA and am seeking my CPP accreditation. Because it might be of interest in this context, here’s a link to the NSPE Code of Ethics which is worth at least a minute or two of reading. I believe that there are many many common points between that statement and Ziser’s points, since both deal with the notion of professionalism as such.

That notion is covered by the five main canons listed right at the top there. I quote them here for reference:

1. Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
2. Perform services only in areas of their competence.
3. Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
4. Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
5. Avoid deceptive acts.
6. Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.

My impression is that Ziser criticized the lack of professionalism of the original photographer on that reality TV show, and some of the similar amateurs on points 1, 2, and 5; that is, they were not acting in the best welfare of their clients and their interested parties, they were not acting in their area of competence, and they were being deceptive. Likewise, by misrepresenting their skills, they were supplanting true professionals from delivering adequate services.

Now, I’ll admit than when engineers, doctors, or lawyers fail, bridges collapse onto you, or you die from a curable disease, or you go to prison for a crime you didn’t commit. These are probably worse results in anyone’s book than having a bad set of wedding photos; but engineers, doctors, and lawyers often deal with much more mundane applications of their skills as well. And, I’m not at all certain that the occasional misdiagnosed strep throat or grammatical mistake in a contract isn’t less significant to the sufferers than a completely blown set of wedding photographs.

In a similar vein, as amazing as the engineering of Roman aqueducts might have been, or Roman medicine, or Roman law, what has lasted are the portraits and sculpture. The same could be said for Medieval or Renaissance engineering, medicine and law: compared to the portraiture, they are as nothing. (I’m purposely leaving out architecture. I’m referring to how the blocks were hoisted into place as opposed to the design of, say, Notre Dame Cathedral.) By and large, that portraiture was commissioned art, either of the subjects themselves (like some king or Medici or whomever), or composites with models portraying Venus, or Madonna and Child, or Saint Whatever.

We already have iconic images of the 20th century in the form of photographs; for example, Yousuf Karsh’s portrait of Winston Chuchill, or Ansel Adams’ portrait of Georgia O’Keefe and Orville Cox. Of course, that list goes on and on. What will last for hundreds of years out of this body of work is anybody’s guess. Karsh and Adams and Weston are well on their way. But why not also, say, Joe McNally or even, David Ziser? Will it be the guy or gal shooting weddings on the weekend with the Rebel who prints at Walgreens? Maybe. I can’t say that there isn’t a struggling Van Gogh out there shooting with a Canon Rebel. Van Gogh was never appreciated in his own time either; but then, he was an extraordinary technician well within his scope of competence. Having a Nikon D80 or D90 or D7100 doesn’t make you a professional photographer, nor would going out and buying a Hasselblad or Phase One. Could a professional photographer deliver quality photos with a D80? Probably, under the right circumstances. Would they take just that camera and a kit lens to a pro photo shoot? Not likely.

I mention the D80 specifically because that’s what I started out with as a first DSLR. Go back to the first posts on this blog and you’ll see me writing about my trusty D80. Going pro meant, to me anyway, getting professional grade gear, among other things. That was the camera body, lenses, studio lighting equipment, backdrops, and so on; but also the software to run process the images and optimize an effective business workflow. It also meant learning how to use it all; how to get a properly exposed 2:1 lighting ratio in a portrait for example. That kind of thing is not in the manual for any camera, whether a Nikon D80 or a Phase One 645DF with an IQ 180 digital back.

So, would I call myself a professional photographer now? I think yes. I certainly earn money at it; it is my main source of income for the past year. But that’s not the main point. Mainly, I try to stick within what I now understand to be my own area of competence; what I know and what I know that I know; what I can do repeatably with camera and lens and lighting and processing and printing over and over again with quality results. I am not your wedding photographer or your product photographer or your fashion model photographer. I can do families and children. I can do sports, especially martial arts. I can do landscapes. There are some folks for whom setting up the photograph is their primary goal, for whom getting the image “right in the camera” is the holy grail.

I would not say that I am one of those. For me, the image from the camera is just a starting point for other explorations. Those explorations of the raw image may take me to HDR, to a panorama, to black and white, to Corel Painter for an oil or acrylic or water-color version, to a print on matte, luster, or canvas, to whatever some wild hare takes me.

For many, perhaps most, photographers, earning a decent living means getting a decent return on their investments of personal time and equipment. One can always acquire more equipment but one can never acquire more time. In fact, in many photographic situations, time is not only “of the essence,” it is fleeting. The bride and groom will never have their first kiss as a married couple again. The child will never be born again, have a first birthday again, graduate again. Even in the world of landscape photography, iconic places like Yosemite, the Garden of the Gods, the Grand Tetons, are always changing. The light, the clouds, the landscape is never quite the same.

I have read material on professional portrait photography that states that it’s all about control of light and exposure. I’ve passed the CPP exam, and of course, it’s more complex than this; but the fundamental notion is not just getting it “right in the camera” but getting it right quickly and effectively without mistakes or experiments or playing around. In thinking further about this concept, that is, the blend of technology behind light and exposure, and the visual appeal of the image, I was lead to considering what I thought was a similar kind of profession, at least in terms of these “nuts and bolts”; that is, technology and visual appeal. That profession is architecture. Like engineers, architects don’t want to design buildings that fall down. Perhaps unlike engineers, architects are equally concerned with the visual appeal of their work.

But here I had, shall we say, an epiphany. I have been an architect myself albeit a software architect. In the course of learning that practice, I studied design. Since the 1960’s, a “rational” project model for the development of software products evolved that included disciplines called structured analysis, structured design, and structured coding. More recently, software development models that were based on criticisms of the rational approach have come into favor; for example, agile development. For anyone interested in following this stuff up (and I’m not recommending that you do), just go and google those terms. The primary point that I want to bring up here is this notion of design, and these two points of view, rational and not.

Now, if you google “photography design” or “lighting design”, you’ll currently get a bunch of sites on designs for web sites for photography, or folks who are both photographers and graphic designers, or folks who do lighting for buildings or the stage or film, or programs to work on lighting for buildings or the stage or film. It seems that nowhere is there a commonly accepted notion about the design of a photographic image.

With the recent passing of Steve Jobs, the notion of design is in the air. The Wikipedia article on design makes specific reference to Jonathan Ive’s work at Apple, as well it might. It therefore struck me as extremely odd that this notion of design seems absent in the literature on photography, yet in so many related fields in the visual arts, design is central and even appears in the name; as in “graphic design”.

It’s not, I think, that design doesn’t exist in photography. Rules of composition, recipes for high key or low key images, broad side and short side lighting, 2:1 or 3:1 lighting ratios, all these aspects of photography speak to a conscious intent of achieving a particular end goal. This concept of a plan to achieve specific end goals is of the essence in design. We may speak achieving something “by design” as opposed to “by accident” to capture this idea. In any discipline where the concept of professionalism has meaning, it would be natural to assume that a competent practitioner would be able to achieve an end goal by design, as opposed to by random repetition and lucky accident. The latter is more along the lines of the millions of chimpanzees typing endlessly and sooner or later producing the works of Shakespeare.

To the extent that design is not a concept much thought about in the context of photography, then differences of opinion about suitable approaches to design are also not present. In my humble opinion, this represents a stumbling block to establishing a meaningful concept of professionalism in the field. For example, a professional engineer, considering the construction of a bridge on behalf of a client, will take into account any number of complex and interrelated factors in completing a design, and ultimately, in the actual construction, testing, and commissioning of the bridge. It is not feasible to build the bridge, run some traffic over it to see if it collapses, and then fine tune the design, rebuild the bridge, and so on. In such a project, the bridge is quite likely to be “over-designed” in some specification areas to provide enhanced protection against collapse over what may be hundreds of years of expected use. The engineer must use a rational approach to many aspects of the design process to achieve this goal.

This is not to say that computer aided design (CAD) methods haven’t allowed engineers significant opportunities to iterate design alternatives that never existed before. But ultimately, the engineer has to deliver a design to build, and the engineer must also assume professional responsibility for the result. There is a discipline in this.

In sharp contrast, there is a growing model of a non-rational design process that focusses on the actions taken during design. In many applications, whether in the graphic arts, software development, product development, application development, et cetera, design is highly iterative. The designer will frame the problem in terms of goals and constraints, will make a tentative move towards a solution, test that move, and then iterate the process towards achieving an desirable end result. The language of this model of design is rife with similar terms to those used in artificial intelligence (AI) problem solving. Over-simplifying to a significant degree, AI considers two broad approaches to problem solving: forward chaining and backward chaining. In the former approach, a set of rules is employed that can be used in specific situations. If the situation exists, then the rule can be applied. If the rule is applied, then some steps are taken that lead towards the solution. This changes the situation, and now the body of rules can be checked again to see if there is now a good rule to apply to bring the solution yet closer. In this way, each rules execution leads step by step to a solution of the problem without any mis-steps or back tracking. When this works, it’s great. Of course, that’s not always the way of the real world. Enter backward chaining. In this model, one imagines that the goal has been achieved. Then one imagines what step led to the goal, and what the conditions were to take the final step. Naturally, this position can then be taken as an intermediate goal, and the step that led to it can be imagined, and the conditions necessary for that second-but-one step are set down. In this way, one works backwards from the goal to the current starting condition, hopefully without any mis-steps. Naturally, this doesn’t always work out either.

Now, I don’t want to run too far down this rabbit hole of AI problem solving and it’s role in design science. I do want to point out that between forward chaining and backward chaining concepts, some of the best methods are hybrids that involve a good deal of trial and error in tackling complex problems from both directions and attempting to get the forward path and the reverse path to meet in the middle somewhere. An example might be taken from chess play. If one could see an end position of checkmate in which one’s queen is on some square and one’s knight on another, then one could imagine a move along a rank or file or diagonal to get the queen into position. Noting where the queen is now, one can then imagine the forward moves that could use bring the queen into a position to get to that rank or file or diagonal.

To return to photography, assume one wants a low key portrait with extreme short-side and rim lighting for a subject in profile. You can then imagine the position of the subject and lights that could achieve that look, along with the camera position and exposure settings. Then, given the lighting setup in your studio now, you can begin to reposition the lights to the assumed positions, set the camera correctly, get the subject into the intended pose, and begin to work out the settings on the lights, test with a light meter, and adjust as you think necessary. You can then begin taking shots and checking the results, assuming you’re a digital shooter, and that you may be shooting tethered. Assuming that the end-goal is a print of this low key portrait, you’ll be accounting for shadow and highlight detail in your exposure knowing that you’ll have to avoid blocked shadows and blown highlights for the ultimate print.

This is design, in a word.

Note that my scenario doesn’t say why you want a low key portrait with extreme short-side and rim lighting for your subject in profile. Maybe you were told to do that by the subject. Maybe it’s your style. Maybe an art director wants it for a magazine. Who knows? For now, it’s the given specification of the end-goal. Given that goal, design is what you do as a photographer to deliver the asked-for print. To call this design is just a valid, I’d say, as it would be to design a new logo, or to design a new laptop, or to design a new lamp, or to design a new video game, or ….

So, here is my humble offering to the world of professional photography:

Professional photographers design photographs. Amateur photographers take photographs.

Having said that, I do not mean to cast aspersions at those many amateurs who also understand and employ a design process in their photography. Likewise, a professional photographer can take out their smartphone and grab a snapshot of their own kids at play. I understand that I’ve authored a generalization here, but it’s a valid one, I think.

Anyway, back, back, back, all the way to my beginning point for this post, David Ziser’s comments on professional photography, in addition to the implicit reference to a code of conduct or ethics, I would like to add this concept of design. To the amateur or budding professional photographer, it may appear that the work is as simple as getting a really good camera, pointing it at your subject, and clicking the shutter release. Cameras are so good these days, after all, they should do most of the work for you, right? Now, there’s no question that a D700 in P-mode (program mode) is going to deliver some pretty good images. However, they will not be designed images; they will be images that you took with the camera.

To me, this is the central point; that is, design of the image, or better yet, a design-intent that is reflected in the final image. For example, I recently did a photo session with a new-born infant where I used a macro lens to capture shots of the baby’s eye, hands, and feet. That entailed a certain set up of studio lights to get the desired exposure on the in-focus and out-of-focus fields. When I looked at the images full-sized on the computer later, none of them really met up with my design concept, so I never delivered those. That was perfectly OK since I went through a variety of image designs, and the client was perfectly pleased with what she was shown. Knowing what I wanted to achieve and now having an idea of why I missed it, I’ll iterate that image design later, and hopefully get closer to my desired result.

I believe that design applies to even captures of even the most evanescent of images. I offer Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico by Ansel Adams. Adams had only moments to set up camera, tripod, lens, film, and get the exposure. Nonetheless, I’d argue that the image was designed and not merely taken. Which of the two stories one credits as to how Adams decided on the exposure (with or without his exposure meter) he designed the capture to retain detail in the moon and clouds. The moon is also at one of the Bakker saddle points. That Adams could achieve this image with his cumbersome equipment and under time pressure is not atypical of any great artist at the peak of their game. I still hold it to be design and professional work.

So there I am, done.

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