On October 2, 1950, the first Peanuts comic strip appeared in a daily newspaper. As a lifelong Peanuts fan and Snoopy collector it’s fitting that this month’s column is my 2100th published magazine article and I’d like to thank the best editorial team I’ve ever worked with—Shutterbug’s Editorial Director George Schaub and Managing Editor Andrea Keister—without whom none of this would be possible. I would also like to thank all of those readers who have hung in there with me for all these years. You are the reason I do this.
As I write this controversy is swirling over Adobe Systems abandoning Creative Suite to focus on Creative Cloud. Even if this is solved by the time you read this, there will come a time when you’ll have to face a decision about whether or not to upgrade your software. There are two different schools of thought on software upgrades: one approach suggests that if a program is working, why spend money to upgrade? The reason behind this philosophy is that sometimes upgrades create more problems than they solve. A second viewpoint is to always upgrade to the latest version—no matter what. The thinking is that since change is inevitable that you should upgrade to the newer version to minimize or eliminate future problems. How Adobe has handled Camera Raw over the past few Photoshop upgrades is a testament to that theory. Over the years I’ve changed from an upgrade-regardless person to a more cautious approach. I may prefer to have the latest version of everything being used on a daily basis but now will wait weeks (months, years?) all the while listening to the drumbeat of grumbles from early adopters. That’s why I’m waiting to see what happens with Adobe’s new policy.
Alien Skin Software’s Exposure 5 is powerful monochrome conversion software that lets you produce accurate film simulations while adding a range of creative effects. Wrapped up in a redesigned and easy-to-use interface, Exposure 5 can also be launched as a stand-alone application, which can be useful in a workflow that doesn’t support plug-ins. This latest version includes controls for emulating color or black and white so you don’t have to switch between modes or, as in previous versions, separate plug-ins. It’s all one happy family.
All You really need to take a picture is a camera and a lens, but if you decide what you really want to do is make a photograph, a few extra tools come in handy. Any one of the imaging tools in this month’s column will make creating a photograph or making a portrait easier and, in some cases, better than they would be otherwise. For the pro or aspiring professional anything that increases productivity by streamlining workflow while improving the quality of the product delivered to the client translates into making money too, not just photographs.
“Where ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1.5 tons.”—Popular Mechanics, March 1949
The above quotation makes you wonder about the nature of predictions because a common fallacy is in believing that technology is always going to move in a straight line and not branch out to form a paradigm shift. Or sometimes people, as in the quoted magazine, just didn’t know what was going on in the rest of the world. Bell Labs’ John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for research on semiconductors and discovery of the transistor effect in 1947. Yet even today vacuum tubes are not dead and there is a booming if small market in analog audio components. And in our neck of the woods, witness Harman’s announcement of building a factory to make 35mm film cassettes. It might just be too soon to start chiseling film’s tombstone—or not.
While it may not be nice to fool Mother Nature, photographers have been doing just that since Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths photographed the “Cottingley Fairies” in 1917, but a lot has changed since then and we’re now more skeptical of images that appear “shopped.” (Portrait photographers engaged in retouching even before Mathew Brady opened his New York studio in 1844.) To me, part of the fun of photography is enhancing reality, creating images that could be true or might be true in a parallel Fringe-like universe. That’s one of the reasons I like shooting digital infrared images because photography, for me, is all about having fun and if you happen to play a harmless—emphasis on harmless—photographic April Fool’s prank on someone, let’s hope it’s accepted in the spirit of the day.
While some people believe the proverb below is really a curse, what’s often overlooked is that it’s part of three such phrases that includes “May you come to the attention of those in authority” and concludes with “May you find what you are looking for.” There is no doubt that we’re living in interesting times, photographically speaking. The paradigm shift that replaced film with silicon continues while spiraling off in different directions with SLRs delivering more megapixels and image quality than the Honda Accord-priced medium format digital backs of a few years ago and small chip interchangeable-lens mirrorless cameras that are more powerful than early digital SLRs. As the point-and-shoot market implodes, being replaced by ever-more competent smartphones, the paradigm shift doesn’t show any signs of abating, but as I’ve said here before, it’s not the tool that makes the image, it’s the photographer.
Plug-In Of The Month
Want to add an arty touch to your photographs? Simplify 4 from Topaz Labs is the easiest as well as most fun way of creating digital artwork from your images. This latest version costs $39.99 and includes more than 100 presets collected into five categories—plus your own customized presets and favorites—to produce more or less instant artistic transformations. I say “more or less” because Simplify 4 offers sliders that you can use to tweak for adding depth and localized contrast, for example. There’s also a set of edge-aware and selective brushes that can be used to dodge, burn, smooth, or brush out effects.
Wherein I hereby submit your Secret Santa’s A-list of gizmos, gadgets, and gear for the digitally minded who may have thought they had everything but didn’t know that they needed more stuff to produce that ultimate image. This month’s column can be used as a shopping list for your favorite photographer or you could grab a Sharpie and circle all of the goodies you like and leave it near where your spouse eats their Wheat Chex. It’s worked for me.
While my silver 10-speed bike is a far cry from the silver Audi R8 I recently piloted around Sonoma Raceway they both have one thing in common: they are essentially transportation devices that allow a person to get from one point to another. And while the R8 gets you there lots faster than a bicycle, the journey is part of the experience. The one thing that the imaging tools featured this month have in common is they help you make images; they do so in different ways, based on the kind of photographer you are and what you like to photograph.
October is my favorite time of year: not only is it Mary’s birthday month, but the mornings are brisk and the aspens are turning gold. Winter is around the corner, so there’s still time to get outside and make photographs before the snow gets too deep and the temperatures get too chilly for my old bones. Shutterbug’s editorial offices are in Florida and sometimes when it’s cold and snowy I envy those lucky sun worshippers, and yet I still love October in Colorado. The crisp air gets me anxious to make new images and to capture infrared photographs before the leaves are gone with the wind. Just remember, as always, to have fun with your photography no matter what the weather is like.
At this time of year some Shutterbug readers are getting ready to go back to school while others, like me, feel they’ve already put in enough classroom seat time, but that doesn’t mean we should stop learning. One of the best ways to improve your photography is the self-assignment. Many people think they need to travel to exotic locations to do this, when chances are there are great photo ops just around the corner. For the past 30 years my personal self-assignment has been making images near my home. How close? I prefer making photographs I can easily walk to from my front door. This self-assignment wasn’t done for any commercial purpose and it’s personal projects like this that help us stretch our talents, skills, and imagination. What’s your self-assignment?
For the past 10 years, my personal photography has enjoyed a burst of creativity that Mary alternately credits to a change in camera brands and a change in my home office environment. Certainly living and working on Daisy Hill has renewed my interest in personal assignments, but I think improvements in imaging technology are another catalyst. How can hardware and software increase or help a person’s pursuit of creativity?
When I was studying photography at the Maryland Institute College of Art, one of my instructors commented that some of the best photographs were made in the break room. Not real photographs, mind you, but chitchat among my erstwhile colleagues about the great photographs they were going to make—someday. While some of those images may have eventually gotten made, I’ll bet only a few of my fellow students actually produced the photographs they talked about so excitedly. And that’s because it’s easy to get wrapped up in what you have been successfully doing for so long that you forget to explore what attracted you to photography in the first place. You can be so mesmerized by the pixels on your monitor that you forget to create new photographs, something that’s different from the last batch of images captured. That’s why I think it’s a good idea to not only take time to smell the roses but to photograph them as well.
One of the guiding philosophies for my personal work is to “have fun with photography” and that involves using image manipulation software to create either an idealized version, as in a portrait of a subject, or an interpretation of a previously captured photograph. Retouching portraits goes back to the hand-tinting Mathew Brady added to daguerreotypes delivered to his customers but in more recent times photojournalists have been fired from newspapers for applying a bit too much Photoshop on their images. The whole question of what is “too much” is fraught with contradictions: since we see the world in color, is a black-and-white photograph manipulated? Is burning and dodging or changing an image’s contrast a manipulation? Trying to find answers that everyone will agree on is enough to make you crazy so I don’t let it bother me because all I want to do is have fun with my photography. If you agree, here are some useful tools to help you do just that.