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Art Theory: Idea workshop. Warning, not the truth here, just a venture. Examining what makes an image worthy of saving and what it does for us.

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  #1  
Old November 23rd, 2010, 11:36 AM
Asher Kelman Asher Kelman is offline
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Default Composition: How do we proceed?

What do we mean when we say a picture is well composed/

Well to my mind, a work of art has to stand in it's given space and command attention and interest and seem to have a character and even perhaps, a life to it where we can converse. This work then has some "unity of being" as if it is an individual we love meet again! That unity in art requires that whatever arms and legs there are to it, that they seem to be in the right place!

So what guide might we have? Let me put out this one thought:

The artist has to have some guiding idea and then try iterations of his or her viewpoints.

Is this true and how would you proceed from this point in let's say "street photography". How do we construct a composition, even on the fly. Or let me ask it another way, how have great photographers done this? Is it gestalt, "born-with" characteristic of naturally "talented" people, or are there sets of rules we can harvest from their work?

So, what can be articulated? We're on the street. There's a lot to see and so much happening!

Asher
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  #2  
Old November 23rd, 2010, 12:51 PM
Mark Hampton Mark Hampton is offline
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Asher,

Ill have a stab at this.





Robert Frank picture called political rally taken at the democratic convention in 1956.

In my reading, as you have suggested the composition supports facilities and allows reading the flag from the head of the tuba player the world upside down in the refection people separate yet together in the frame, a divided frame both horizontally and vertical. No line is on the horizon the image seems flat in depth but reading it we find its depth is beyond an initial stark graphic image.

Curves and circles sweep angles grate... and I cant hear the sound but can feel the tone of the tuba.

Was frank born with this ability or did he learn - I would guess both.

cheers
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Old November 23rd, 2010, 09:01 PM
Tom Robbins Tom Robbins is offline
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Asher, you've posed some interesting questions.

I thought the most interesting was, "Or let me ask it another way, how have great photographers done this? Is it gestalt, "born-with" characteristic of naturally "talented" people, or are there sets of rules we can harvest from their work?"

I suspect no great photographer was naturally gifted with a sense of composition. More likely the ability was gained with experience; nothing else is possible, really. Some photographers may "get it" more quickly than others, in which case their output may be greater than others who understood the notions of composition later in life.

The idea of harvesting "sets of rules" from the work of others troubles me some. Rules are rules; opinions are opinions.
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Old November 23rd, 2010, 09:17 PM
Ken Tanaka Ken Tanaka is offline
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Originally Posted by Tom Robbins View Post
....
The idea of harvesting "sets of rules" from the work of others troubles me some. Rules are rules; opinions are opinions.
Yup.

Rule 1: Stop "composing" and start unselfconsciously seeing.

Rule 2: There is no Rule 2.
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Old November 23rd, 2010, 09:38 PM
Alain Briot Alain Briot is offline
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The challenge is to be unselfconscious.
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Old November 23rd, 2010, 09:46 PM
Rachel Foster Rachel Foster is offline
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How does one do that? (Stop composing and start unselfconsciously seeing.)
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  #7  
Old November 23rd, 2010, 10:23 PM
Asher Kelman Asher Kelman is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rachel Foster View Post
How does one do that? (Stop composing and start unselfconsciously seeing.)
It may be something like running with a large vault pole to jump over a bar. In order to succeed, one's senses all but take over on a very basic level. That comes from repetitive training. It's likely that each time we move around and takes bad pictures and then find better ones, our body gets tuned to be more efficient at making our choices. If we're fortunate, the experience of making selections becomes 2cd nature. For the experienced eye, 99% of the options are then excluded instantly. That's what may be going on.

I do believe it's likely a matter of training one's body to make images until it is natural, like breathing. Then, Ken's one stipulation might hold true.

However, I'd argue that in all likelihood there's still an overly of conscious choice on the smooth unconscious capability of selection of the scene.

Asher
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Old November 23rd, 2010, 10:28 PM
Rachel Foster Rachel Foster is offline
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Ah, ok. I take only a fraction of the number of photos that I used to take. I reject more and more out of hand. In fact, there are times when I go out and don't take a single exposure.
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Old November 23rd, 2010, 10:54 PM
Maris Rusis Maris Rusis is offline
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Composition? Easy steps:

1. Learn and use the rules of composition. People naturally find some picture arrangements more attractive or persuasive than others. The "rules" are the ploys we picture makers use to make our audiences fall in love with our pictures. They don't know why they embrace some pictures and not others, but we do.

2. Have something in mind before you start. Random scouting for masterpieces rarely delivers. A good half-hour think is more productive than a day in the darkroom (or in front of a computer) trying to spin straw into gold.

3. Go and get the subject matter you need so that the photograph says what you need it to say. This often involves effort.

4. Place the camera in the subject space so all the things in it have the right relationship front to back and side to side. That's composition finished. What's right? See items 2 and 3 above.

5. After composition comes framing. Framing is not composition. Don't move the camera. Either change lenses, zoom or crop to include only those things that support items 2, 3 and 4 above.

6. Complete the picture making process faithfully and without hurtful error.

The resulting picture features good composition. The goodness comes not from the physical arrangement of pictorial details but because a sentient photographer in full possession of their faculties and skills chose those details, that arrangement. The picture is a mind-map of the photographer; Art in a nutshell.
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Old November 24th, 2010, 01:24 AM
Asher Kelman Asher Kelman is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Maris Rusis View Post
The resulting picture features good composition. The goodness comes not from the physical arrangement of pictorial details but because a sentient photographer in full possession of their faculties and skills chose those details, that arrangement. The picture is a mind-map of the photographer; Art in a nutshell.
Maris,

That's helpful but not sufficient. For example, there's no universal rule that says we cannot change our minds when we get into the darkroom or combine several images in the process. So composition does not necessarily end with taking the shot. The film could be in color or IR but printed in B&W. One could also map the colors to different gray scale choices using various filters in the enlarger or in photoshop. These alterations would be changing composition too! In the extreme, a line of pure red could be shown as bright white, or if you wish, jet black. So that also changes the composition. Various elements can be burnt in or blurred or the contrast increased, emphasized or diminished.

For these many reasons, we must accept that ending the composition with the release of the shutter and the exposure is likely the exception to what we really do in making the best prints. The wedding photographer and the product photographer for efficiency sake might perhaps "end" composition with the snap of the shutter and then send the work off for routine processing.

Finally, it can be argued that the physicality of the forms we arrange is indeed the composition. It's not necessarily nor likely conscious, sentient magic that makes the composition. Rather it's a learned set of unconscious rules and also conscious refinement and preferences that makes for the composition. At the best, the image is "sort of in the mind" of the photographer and things are altered until the satisfaction evoked maximizes for each parameter that can be tweaked.

If not, why on earth did masters like Edward Weston and Ansel Adams spend so long in the darkroom! For sure they did not have the maid in there too!

Asher
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  #11  
Old November 24th, 2010, 06:22 AM
Rachel Foster Rachel Foster is offline
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Maris, those are good guidelines. I've been studying the rules of composition, though, and there is something "more" that I often miss. To repeat Asher's word, the gestalt is often missing. I think maybe it's that undefinable something that separates the artist from the snapshot shooter or even the average photographer.

Even so, those are helpful guidelines.
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Old November 24th, 2010, 09:31 AM
Alain Briot Alain Briot is offline
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"How does one do that? (Stop composing and start unselfconsciously seeing.)"

Practice, practice, practice ;-)
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Old November 24th, 2010, 09:56 AM
Alain Briot Alain Briot is offline
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"composition does not necessarily end with taking the shot."

True. Most of my compositions are continued in Photoshop.
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Old November 24th, 2010, 10:57 AM
Alain Briot Alain Briot is offline
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Here's an example:



Light Bends
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Old November 24th, 2010, 11:29 AM
Ken Tanaka Ken Tanaka is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rachel Foster View Post
How does one do that? (Stop composing and start unselfconsciously seeing.)
Indeed, as Alain suggested, practice.

But practice what?

By "unselfconscious" I meant stop thinking too hard about following "rules of composition". Just forget about the rest of the universe for a second. All that exists lies in that viewfinder. How does that scene look to you? Is it interesting? Does it contain enough information? Too much? Move, shift, drop to the ground if need be.

Remember, painting is an inclusive act. Drawing is an inclusive act. But photography is an exclusive act. That is, you must decide what to exclude from the scene by positioning of the camera. 'Scape photographers have it relatively easy. Their subjects change but never walk away ... or instantly disappear. Their greatest challenge is getting the camera into a position to record something remotely interesting. (Still, most fail anyway. <g>) Studio photographers have it the easiest. They create what the lens sees. Both of these styles of photographers have the luxury of theorizing about compositional rules before they open the shutter.

Candid snappers don't. There's no damn time to rub your chin and consider the aesthetic possibilities. It is arguably the toughest genre, requiring an extremely short circuit between the eye, the fingers, the feet, and the brain. Ideally, the brain is little more than a pass-through offering no resistance in this process. The more you think the worse your shots get. You have to immediately see it and do it. Think later. Enlist all of your other faculties to help get that image but tell you brain to just keep its opinions to itself for a while.

(BTW, the more crap you carry the worse your photos will get, too. But that's the subject for a different lecture.)

Finally, here's something to consider. Mark pointed out Robert Frank's tuba player image from Frank's (in)famous body of work, "The Americans" It is unarguably a very clever image. Sarah Greenough's wonderful book "Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans - Expanded Edition" presents Robert Frank's full set of contact sheets for The Americans. (Makes an outstanding Xmas gift.) From this we can see that Frank shot only two frames for that tuba player (at a political rally here in Chicago, I think). Here they are, along with Frank's selection and cropping marks. What your you have chosen? Would you have cropped as he did?


Robert Frank's tuba player

Yes, all photography takes practice --and often some formal training-- to do well. Yes, practice is fundamental. But "practice" is more than just blasting thousands of frames off with that new model dslr. That will produce no improvement whatsoever. "Practice" requires careful review of your results. What may have taken you 1/125th of a second to (technically) create may precipitate countless hours of review for months or years later.
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Old November 24th, 2010, 11:52 AM
Alain Briot Alain Briot is offline
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"BTW, the more crap you carry the worse your photos will get, too. But that's the subject for a different lecture."

Indeed. But most photographers like to carry a lot of "crap"! Getting then to take less is challenging, to say the least. They feel "naked" without a pile of gear. They believe they might lack this lens or that body or this other format, not realizing that the more they think of their gear the less they think of their images.
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Old November 24th, 2010, 12:03 PM
Ken Tanaka Ken Tanaka is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Alain Briot View Post
...not realizing that the more they think of their gear the less they think of their images.
Bronze that!
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Old November 24th, 2010, 12:08 PM
Mike Shimwell Mike Shimwell is offline
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Indeed, I think that photographers miss out on more by carrying too much than by keeping it simple. Particularly if you are interested in photographing people or things that move!

Picking up on a theme in Ken's reply - there is no point in taking pictures that you don't have time to review (sooner or later). Also, I have started making 'contact' sheets even from digital images as I find that review process to be more useful (both for selection and learning) than using the computer.

Also to echo Ken - practice so that you are not self conscious. Not just of the camera or making technical choices, but about what you are taking a picture of - if you find it interesting then make a picture and look at it later. Don't chimp!

A useful and interesting book is 'On Being A Photographer' by David Hurn and Bill Jay - available for a very little consideration from LuLu Mike
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Old November 24th, 2010, 12:14 PM
Asher Kelman Asher Kelman is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Alain Briot View Post
"BTW, the more crap you carry the worse your photos will get, too. But that's the subject for a different lecture."

Indeed. But most photographers like to carry a lot of "crap"! Getting then to take less is challenging, to say the least. They feel "naked" without a pile of gear. They believe they might lack this lens or that body or this other format, not realizing that the more they think of their gear the less they think of their images.
When I can, I go for an afternoon without my camera and just a framing card and look. When I come back at sunset, I know where I'll schlepp my big tripod, bring the right camera and lens, setup and then wait. It might be the Vespas, Lamboretta's and even a Ducati coming over a bridge like a swarm of buzzing bees, or it could be the folk playing guitar with the Ponte Vecchhio in blurred in the b.g.

Asher
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Old November 24th, 2010, 12:15 PM
Asher Kelman Asher Kelman is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Alain Briot View Post
"BTW, the more crap you carry the worse your photos will get, too. But that's the subject for a different lecture."

Indeed. But most photographers like to carry a lot of "crap"! Getting then to take less is challenging, to say the least. They feel "naked" without a pile of gear. They believe they might lack this lens or that body or this other format, not realizing that the more they think of their gear the less they think of their images.
I agree about gear. For street shooting minimalist is best. There's also another way. Find a nice place with possibilities.

When I can, I go for an afternoon without my camera and just a framing card and scout for a location and people. When I come back later, I know the what and where. I'll schlepp my big tripod, bring the right camera and lens, setup and then wait. It might be the Vespas, Lamboretta's and even a Ducati coming over a bridge like a swarm of buzzing bees, or it could be the folk playing guitar with the Ponte Vecchhio in blurred in the b.g. Some will be fast grab shots others might be composed waiting for folk to come into the picture.

Asher
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  #21  
Old November 24th, 2010, 12:55 PM
Rachel Foster Rachel Foster is offline
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This is a very helpful thread. I'm going to print this one.
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Old November 24th, 2010, 01:50 PM
Ken Tanaka Ken Tanaka is offline
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Two addiional points should be noted on this subject.

First, "well-composed" is a judgement largely left to the VIEWER, not the maker/taker. In this regard the general public's standards of "good photography" lie along a pretty thin plane. This is not nearly as narrow a taste alley as it was, say, 40 years ago. But it's still far too narrow to give a damn about your "bokeh". The public mainly wants "pretty". Failing that, they want "interesting".

Second, who's your intended audience? If it's other amateur photographers, fine, knock your bokeh out. But if you're looking to impress the "art world", or even the image-weary general public, you should probably consider taking up painting or, better, sculpture.

Of course all of this is moot if you just snap baby pictures and personal travel memos (both of which should be kept in your family/friends circles anyway <g>).
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Old November 24th, 2010, 02:22 PM
Mark Hampton Mark Hampton is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ken Tanaka View Post

Would you have cropped as he did?


Robert Frank's tuba player

.
Ken, its clear he didn't - the shot is wider than the crop marks - including more than he initially excluded on right...

thanks for the info on the book btw - i feel a Christmas request coming on !

cheers
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Old November 24th, 2010, 02:34 PM
Rachel Foster Rachel Foster is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ken Tanaka View Post

Second, who's your intended audience? If it's other amateur photographers, fine, knock your bokeh out. But if you're looking to impress the "art world", or even the image-weary general public, you should probably consider taking up painting or, better, sculpture.
My intended audience is a far tougher critic than either the art world or the image-weary general public. The audience I'm trying to impress is me.
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Old November 24th, 2010, 03:22 PM
Doug Kerr Doug Kerr is offline
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Famous timelines:

Alpha to omega
Birth to death
Cradle to grave
Conception to resurrection
Inception to termination
Composition to decomposition

Best regards,

Doug
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Old November 24th, 2010, 04:49 PM
Alain Briot Alain Briot is offline
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"The audience I'm trying to impress is me."

Then an important question is "who are you" or rather "who am I"? There's really no difference from considering who is your audience, except that since your audience is yourself, you have to consider who "yourself" is...
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Old November 24th, 2010, 05:51 PM
Ken Tanaka Ken Tanaka is offline
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Quote:
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My intended audience is a far tougher critic than either the art world or the image-weary general public. The audience I'm trying to impress is me.
That sounds good, feels good. As it's probable that you are the most dedicated viewer of your own photographic output you've little choice but to be your toughest critic.

But the notion that the photographer can ever be a genuinely "tough critic" of his/her own work is false. At best we mourn with the private contextual knowledge of how we performed in a given situation. But most viewers have no idea, or care, about the fish that got away or how hard it was to catch anything at all. They look only at the one we show them and they see it through an entirely impersonal filter. They may reach the same conclusion as you, but arrive there from an entirely different path.

Proclaiming a tougher stance on your product is largely phony and self-serving. It also has the collateral effect of diminishing and insulting the opinions of those who might actually like your stuff. The best stance to take is to keep your opinions of your own work to yourself --good or bad--, or simple don't show work you feel is wretchingly bad.
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Old November 24th, 2010, 05:59 PM
Alain Briot Alain Briot is offline
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"Proclaiming a tougher stance on your product is largely phony and self-serving."

I agree. Many people who say they are their "toughest critic" produce mediocre work. Either they are not that critical or they do not know how to critique their work.


Eventually who cares whether you are your toughest critique, or if someone else is. The only thing that matters is whether or not your work is interesting. If it sucks, being your own toughest critique isn't doing you a bit of good!
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Old November 24th, 2010, 06:12 PM
Maris Rusis Maris Rusis is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Asher Kelman View Post
Maris,

That's helpful but not sufficient. For example, there's no universal rule that says we cannot change our minds when we get into the darkroom or combine several images in the process.
A change of mind can be as rewarding as having a new door of perception open. Or it can be an aleatory process, a rolling of the mental dice, lazily embraced by beginners, dabblers, or dilettantes. I reckon creative integrity from original concept to final object trumps both.

Quote:
So composition does not necessarily end with taking the shot. The film could be in color or IR but printed in B&W. One could also map the colors to different gray scale choices using various filters in the enlarger or in photoshop. These alterations would be changing composition too! In the extreme, a line of pure red could be shown as bright white, or if you wish, jet black. So that also changes the composition. Various elements can be burnt in or blurred or the contrast increased, emphasized or diminished.
True! In a literal sense the photographic negative and indeed the electronic file (for digital picture making) are the subject matter for what happens next. And as subject matter these things are just as amenable to the powers of composition as the material originally in front of the camera.

Quote:
For these many reasons, we must accept that ending the composition with the release of the shutter and the exposure is likely the exception to what we really do in making the best prints. The wedding photographer and the product photographer for efficiency sake might perhaps "end" composition with the snap of the shutter and then send the work off for routine processing.
In this scenario I think it the "wedding photographer" and "product photographer" are actually camera-workers. Calling them photographers is too generous notwithstanding convention. The final photographs, if made in the kind of pro labs I used to haunt, will have many extra creative finger-prints on them by the time they are delivered.

Quote:
Finally, it can be argued that the physicality of the forms we arrange is indeed the composition. It's not necessarily nor likely conscious, sentient magic that makes the composition. Rather it's a learned set of unconscious rules and also conscious refinement and preferences that makes for the composition. At the best, the image is "sort of in the mind" of the photographer and things are altered until the satisfaction evoked maximizes for each parameter that can be tweaked.
Yes, the physical form is the composition but it is the sentience behind it that makes it worth looking at.

Quote:
If not, why on earth did masters like Edward Weston and Ansel Adams spend so long in the darkroom! For sure they did not have the maid in there too!
I can't answer for Edward or Ansel but my longest darkroom sessions come about because I insist on a particular previsualised outcome. There are many variables and it takes time to get the formula right. A quick 'n dirty result can be had in minutes. No one else would know it wasn't what I intended. But conscience baulks.
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Old November 24th, 2010, 06:53 PM
Rachel Foster Rachel Foster is offline
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Actually, the problem with being my toughest critic is that I'm unable to spot which of my images are the best. I'm so busy tearing it to pieces I lose sight of the overall (can't see the forest for the trees). I didn't say it in order to sound good or feel good. It's clearly a failing. (Decades of research supports the notion that perfectionism is self-defeating.) It's probably the major obstacle preventing me from improving. The best I've been able to come up with is to come back to images months later and evaluate them with a fresh eye.

A better way to say it might be that I don't feel compelled to impress friends, family, or other people interested in photography. I show images in order to get feedback that might give me insight in how to improve. Photography is for me a selfish endeavor in that my only goal is to create something that pleases me.
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