4 Challenging Aspects of Digital Photography for Artists

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For an artist, digital photography has several highly challenging aspects, only 2 of which may improve over time. 


1. Lack of Constraints. Digital photography offers an extremely broad range of possibilities for creating images. That may sound great, but the downside is that the medium has very few limitations: you can shoot all you want, make the photographs look any way you want, present them printed or projected on anything.

Artists value their constraints (the dimensions of the canvas, the drying time of their paint, the range of brushes and colors available). Constraints define a medium. Often, the tighter the constraints the better -- it's easier for the creative mind to work within a smaller range of possibilities.

By way of illustration, a thought experiment:
Suppose you are hired to draw on the moon with lasers. How do you go about that? The first thing you need to know are the limits: what are my colors, thicknesses of line -- can I show a photo, or video? Does the system automatically compensate for variations in the reflectivity of the moon's features, or do I have to get around that myself? What resolution do I have to work with (will this be viewed through a telescope, binoculars, or just naked eye?) Am I limited to nights when there's a new moon, or will the brightness of a half moon swamp out the brightness of my laser image?

In short, you could not even begin without knowing the constraints.

A digital photographer has too many cameras, lenses, computers, software packages, plugins, accessories, approaches, output options to choose from -- too many possibilities. With all this, where do you start?

I think the only answer to that is to create your own set of artificial constraints. Some commonly offered constraints:

  • Shoot with only one lens.

  • Define a project, like "reflections" and shoot everything you find that fits.

  • Take only 10 frames, with the objective of having 5 good photographs.

I like to be guided by my own eyes. If something looks visually interesting without a camera, maybe it will make an interesting photograph. Take enough of these, and perhaps patterns emerge, revealing a subject area you didn't know you were interested in. Shoot further along those lines and maybe you have enough for an interesting series of photographs.


2. Technical Complexity. Many artists tend to think visually and intuitively, rather than precisely and mathematically. Unfortunately, digital photography is a highly technical endeavor, requiring far more detail-oriented thinking than artists normally want to do.

The relationships between aperture, shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation; the tradeoffs among lens characteristics; the zillion tools and palettes in image-processing software are all far more complicated than a set of paints, brush and canvas.

Sorting thorough it all to find a path that gets to the image you want is a daunting prospect, and its not for everyone.

The digital photographer must accept that a certain amount of self-training will be necessary to get the best results. Many tens of thousands do just that, despite the difficulties.


3. Color Management. Perhaps the area of digital photography with the trickiest pitfalls is color management. For consistent results you must understand the differences between color spaces, the ins and outs of calibration and profiling, soft proofing and much more.

Blame the situation on a lack of standards. Imagine high-definition TV with a choice of color ranges vs. bit rates, a dozen different inputs to match with signal sources, channels with varying aspect ratios and color standards. No one could figure it out.

That's much like what we have with digital photography. The color spaces themselves are standardized, but we have at least 3 to pick from for most tasks. Accurate color between camera, software and printer cannot be obtained without little software patches called profiles, which detail the differences and purport to get all the colors straight in the end. A skilled technician can achieve great color, but the process is not for anyone lacking patience.

If you're used to selecting a color from a box, applying it to paper and having it look the way you expected, digital color management will seem like a Rube Goldberg contraption. In some ways, it is (as of 2011).


4. Billions of Snapshots. The ubiquity of cameras that take high technical-quality snapshots, and the ease of distributing them worldwide has resulted in a flood of photographic images.

For artists, this may mean all photographs are devalued. If your viewer can take a shot of anything anytime with his camera phone, why should he pay any attention to the one hanging in a gallery (much less purchase it)?

Of course, the confusion arises from equating a casual snapshot with a photograph that means something and is meant to be the trigger of an art experience. Many viewers have always missed the point of art, and always will.

But the medium itself can get in the way of recognizing a unique style and point of view in an art photograph. The same would not happen with a watercolor, as so few people have the skill to execute one.

Very few people can create a gallery-quality photographic print either, but the public doesn't realize it. They equate that print with the 4x6 that pops out of the machine at the drugstore, showing their dog with a bubble on his nose (a recognizably accurate reproduction, but not archival quality, high resolution, or part of a body of work that communicates an artistic vision).

In other words, fewer people may appreciate photographic art than art done in other media, purely because making a snapshot is now easier than making a phone call.

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