The Secret Life of a Photographer - William Toti

February 26, 2017

I apologize if this comes across as a bit of a rant. My more established photographer friends will roll their eyes when they read this. For them it will be “been there, heard that.” But I’m new to the gallery scene, so this statement last night from a painter/exhibiter came to me as a bit of a surprise.

Let me start by saying my wife and I both love painted art. We have spent many, many hours in galleries such as the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, the Louvre in Paris, and countless galleries in Rome, Florence, Seoul, not to mention here at home in the States. My sister-in-law Carrie Patterson is a gifted abstract artist, one of her pieces hangs in our home, along with several other pieces of painted art. And I hope it shows that painted art has inspired much of my photography.

So, imagine my surprise when this painter approached me last night to say “You photographers are so lucky. All you have to do is snap the picture. I spend weeks laboring over one of my pieces.” I looked at her to try to gauge whether she was being serious, and by all indications she was. Of course, this lady absolutely had the wrong concept of what it takes to make a good photograph. Trying my best to avoid looking offended, I pondered the “secret life of a photographer.”

For those of you who aren’t photographers, here is the truth about what it really takes to make a good image:

1. Planning. First, prior to a trip, I spend months researching locations, lighting conditions, the best time of year to go, and special equipment I might need to capture the image. I may seek out somebody familiar with the location to help me get to the spot more efficiently rather than wasting precious hours poking around looking for the spot I had in mind. Marc Muench, Andy Williams, and others have been instrumental over the years passing on their wisdom about timing, technique, and location, and for this I am very grateful. But more than half of my trips I have made on my own.

Next, I always, or nearly always, have in mind exactly what image I am hunting for before I depart on the trip. Yes, as a "student" of Ansel Adams (at least figuratively, I'm not that old), I had already envisioned my “Serpentine Vapors at Yosemite” before I ever set foot on that airplane, without any knowledge of whether in situ conditions would favor capturing it. Same for “Sunrise at Manarola.” I planned that sunrise shot, even discussing it with a local guide, months before leaving for Italy. Do you think it was coincidence that I was able to capture the gibbous moon over Stonehenge exactly as the sun was coming up? It wasn’t. I used the Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan exactly what day I needed to be there to get those factors to line up.

Nearly all of my shots are planned out like this. (Or at least my good ones are.) I carry a “future shot list” on my iPhone, essentially a bucket list I’ve created for images I covet. I use it to prioritize and plan future excursions. I’m regularly adding to it, deleting from it, and racking and stacking the order based on changing opportunities.

Of course, there are exceptions to the “I planned it all out” rule. I could not have counted on a giraffe walking across the Amboseli plain right at sunset (“Giraffe in Silhouette at Sunset”). Or a lion climbing onto a rock in the Serengeti in “The Lion King.” Or the couple taking the selfie in Korea in “Lovers by a Pond.” Or the pony running past the pyramids in “Arabian Colt Fleeing Dust Storm.” Sometimes serendipity is certainly involved. It’s almost always involved in wildlife shots.

But “luck” is enabled by:

2. Preparation. I’ve spent thousands of hours learning the techniques of this craft. Understanding my equipment to the point where I can operate it in the dark. Mastering the technical aspects of capturing a perfect exposure.

To those of you who believe “today’s cameras can achieve a perfect exposure without the help of a photographer,” you don’t understand how fine art photographs are made.

First, the statement itself is not true. Even the best of today’s cameras do not possess anywhere near the dynamic range of the human eye, so compromises have to be made to render an image that comes close to what your eye can see. If you allow the camera to decide, you are rolling the dice on what comes out. Einstein said "God doesn't play dice," and neither does a good photographer. These compromises require judgment, and that judgment is a function of the artistic vision you have in mind when you attempt to create an image.

What is your intended focal point (composition)? Where do you want the eye to be drawn (composition)? Do you want a shallow depth of field (wide aperture) or deep (narrow aperture)? How much digital noise are you willing to tolerate? How “creamy” do you want that water to appear (shutter speed)? Do you want the motion frozen, or do you want to capture some motion blur (shutter speed)? Do you want to properly expose the land, and risk the sky being over-exposed (the “exposure triangle”), or do you want to expose for the sky, hoping the land will not be too dark to draw out details (the mid-point in your equipment’s dynamic range)?

These decisions are driven by the photographer’s intended balance between artistic and technical factors.

And of course, this discussion brings to mind the old photographer’s joke: at a dinner party one evening, the host says to a photographer, “that’s a fantastic image, you must have a great camera!” to which the photographer replies, “that was a great meal, you must have a really nice stove!”

But all of this is limited by:

3. Cost. I resisted the temptation to ask the painter who instigated this narrative how much her last canvas cost her. Maybe fifty dollars? (As of this morning I note that Amazon sells a 24 x 24 stretched canvas for $24.20.) I don’t want to list the exact value of the gear that I carry on my back when I go out on one of my excursions, but if you assumed I was carrying the cost of a new Kia, you wouldn’t be far off.

Add to that the cost of the expedition itself. And when I do create a good, portfolio-worthy image, printing the image in my chosen medium will cost me hundreds. If it sells I’m lucky to make a few hundred dollars in profit. How many of those do I need to sell before I break even? Do the math.

That’s why so many landscape photographers are dying to work for poverty wages at National Geographic. Breaking even beats our regular profit margin by a long shot!

But as important a factor the cost is, there is the final element:

4. Time. As you can see, even when everything goes perfectly, it takes months to make a good image. (The artist lady complained about laboring over one of her paintings for weeks.) But even after the image is in the camera, all you have is a bunch of digital data, ones and zeroes, on that memory card. No camera sees the way people see.

In my case, a group of Japanese engineers at Nikon did their best to write code to translate those ones and zeroes into something they hope looks like what I saw when I took the image.

However, (a) even the best software engineer isn't good enough to get inside my head and see what I was thinking when I captured the image, (b) because a digital sensor reacts to different light temperatures (sun, shade, cloudy, night) differently, not the way the human eye reacts to those changing conditions, digital sensors can’t even render a literal interpretation of the scene correctly with their magic software, let alone an artistic interpretation, and (c) even the best of today's 100-megapixel sensors don't come close to the number of "pixels" God placed at the back of your eye.

Hence, the only way to render those ones and zeroes into the image you had in mind when you captured it is to do so manually with software like Photoshop.

I know the word “Photoshopped” has a bad connotation these days, but what I’m talking about isn’t putting things into the picture that weren’t there when you took it (or making the mountain look “skinnier”), I’m talking about overcoming the limitations of a the digital sensor to create something close to what your eye saw (or, at least, what your “mind’s eye” saw) when you were standing there capturing the image.

That takes hours upon hours on the computer, doing pesky little things like calibrating your monitor’s color gamut for the viewing conditions the print will be exposed to, color balancing the image, restoring the dynamic range, eliminating digital noise, sharpening, sizing, rendering, exporting, uploading, etc etc etc. And then doing it all over again when the print comes back and you find something was lost in the translation between your computer and the printer’s computer.

And of course, doing this requires thousands more hours learning how to use the software to get the effect you were looking for. And at the risk of sounding un-humble, not everyone who tries to do this is capable of getting it right.

I own a piano. Despite having spent thousands of hours in my youth trying to learn to play, I suck at the piano. Others, who spent the same amount of time I did trying to learn, play well. I suck at many things, including painting. I’m happy I don’t suck at this.

So, last night when I heard the lady say, “You photographers are so lucky. All you have to do is snap the picture. I spend weeks laboring over one of my pieces,” this is what went through my head.

I thought about how I might respond. I thought about how I could explain all of this to her.

But it was noisy, I was tired, so I just smiled and said, “You’re right. We are lucky. We get to do what we love.”

And I left it at that.


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