Friday, January 29, 2010

Which Comes First? Art or Science?

Photography is art and science. Few other visual mediums require as much attention to both these seemingly disparate sets of skills and knowledge requirements.

More than a few photographers are drawn to the science side of things. We see this in the many technical discussions on forums. (I wonder how much time painters spend discussing the technical merits of one brush over another?) I suppose it's the tech stuff that draws many people to photography, i.e., those who have technical and science related day-jobs. For those folks, it's a great creative outlet that also revolves around technical and scientific understanding. Unfortunately, science alone does not make great photos. To be fair, neither does art.

There's no best way to approach this Which comes first? The chicken or the egg? aspect of learning photography. That is, in terms of which one a new photographer should focus on first. Thanks to technology, the science side of photography can be employed with less technical knowledge than ever before. But who wants to regularly allow a bunch of programmed algorithms decide the technical aspects of one's photographs?

So what does this all mean?

Should new photographers spend more time developing their "eye" than developing their technical skills? Or, should they first focus on all things technical?

I don't know.

But here's what I do know. Leastwise, when it comes to photographing people.

To free yourself from paralysis-through-analysis, i.e., spending far too much time worrying about the technical side of things, you should develop your understanding and use of the technical or science aspects of photography to the point where that part becomes nearly automatic, second nature, transparent.

When you're fretting or stressing over lighting ratios, camera controls, exposure considerations, and other tech stuff that is grabbing too much of your attention, your ability to capture images with style, emotion, and story becomes impaired. Worse, the people you're capturing will feel secondary and merely adjunct to the process.

As you might guess, that's not a good thing.

As a pretty girl shooter, your attention needs should be mostly focused on the model. The more comfortable and automatic you are with the technical stuff, the more your focus remains on the model and, consequently, the more your creative juices are able to flow. The model's creative juices too. The juicier the better! This, more often than not, creates better pretty girl pics.

If you're just starting out, still developing your technical skills while searching for your style--and a long way from having the tech considerations automatic--reduce the strain on your brain. Try going with a single light instead of two or three. When one-light shooting becomes automatic, add a light or two to your setups and learn how to better modify and control the lighting. Or, focus on natural light shooting. Learn to find the ideal light, to "see" the light. Add a reflector and see how that works for you. Then, when you're comfortable with that, add another reflector or a scrim or start playing with your ability to manipulate depth of focus and other things that add value to your photos.

Learning is a step-by-step process. Don't come into the game thinking you need to quickly match the work of people who have been honing their skills for years. Take your time. Enjoy the journey. Be open to criticism but only adopt suggestions that seem like they'll work well for you.

Most importantly, have fun.

The freckle-faced pretty girl at the top is Faye, shot a couple of years ago outside her crib. It was night-time and I shot Faye in the courtyard of her apartment building. I used two lights: A main, modified with a large, white umbrella, and a monobloc from behind, controlled with a 30° honeycomb grid.


WillT said...

Great advice for those starting out and pearls of wisdom for those who think they've arrived.

Ed Verosky said...

Great advice. I've often thought that lots of "strobist" types kind of get caught up in the methodology and gear of lighting to the point where it becomes THE object, and as you say, the subject is rather secondary.

I can understand that. Because some people are wired that way. And that's ok. There's plenty of room to play in one or more of photography's sandboxes.

But most of the time, we're more interested in the capturing something special about the subject than we are about highlighting the medium or technique. At least I am. I want the technique to work for me, but not draw attention to itself.

I TOTALLY agree with your advice about learning in stages, over time. It's the best way to master something to the point of it being a tool you use intuitively.

Orcatek said...

I agree with what you are saying. Art can be created when you don't think about the technical, but just the vision. Knowing the technical will allow you to create your vision, but focusing on the technical squashes the creative process.

Bill Giles said...

Science comes first, because it gives the artists the tools to create. Regardless of the medium, good artists know their tools. Having said that, science does not outweigh art. Without a creative vision, we just repeat what we have already done.

Anonymous said...

Actaully painters talk about stretcher bars, canvas, sizing, easels, pallets, paint and paint recipes.

Pretty much the same as photographers, just different tool in a different media.

jimmyd said...

RE Painters: I stand corrected! :-)

Body Lines Images said...

I was just thinking about this last night, thanks for putting it in to more perspective for me.