1 – Introduction
This essay focuses on my approach to fine art photography. In order to explain how I do what I do I thought it was important to describe my philosophy in regards to art and photography. As such this essay describes the aspects of art and landscape photography that are essential to my work and therefore particularly important to me.
2 – Gear
I like great gear but I am aware that improving gear means getting better gear, not creating better art. Quite simply better gear equals better resolution, sharpness, dynamic range, stability, functions and other technical qualities. Better gear does not equal better art or more interesting photographs. Better knowledge of art and photography equals better art and more interesting photographs.
My artistic skills are not defined by my gear any more than a painter’s skills are defined by the brushes, the paint or the canvas that he uses. Interestingly enough, unlike photographers painters don’t sit around talking about the quality of their gear, be it paint, brushes, canvas, easels or other. Neither is there a DxO Mark equivalent for the various dynamic range combination of paint, brushes and canvas. In fact there is no such thing as paint dynamic range, paint clipping or out of gamut color palette. Painters simply do not have to worry about color balance or any of the other technical concerns that many photographers seem obsessed with. Rather, they are concerned with expressing their vision and their emotional response to the subject, something they arrive at rather quickly not being bothered by the countless technical considerations that photographers concern themselves with.
Neither does there seem to be a hierarchy among painters based on the gear they use, at least not the way photographers approach the relationship between gear and skill level or even self worth. To return to DxO mark, this time from a photographer’s point of view, for most of us visiting this site is a humbling experience because we seek to find how high we are on the sensor-rating scale, from rock bottom to top of the line. However, what seems lost on most photographers is that this evaluation is based not on their skill level but on their ownership of a specific camera. While on the one hand having a low rating camera can generate low self esteem, having the top-ranked camera can generates insecurity for no one knows for sure how long it will be until a bigger, better and unfortunately often more expensive camera will supersede the current ‘champ.’ For those in between the highest and the lowest ranked camera, the level of self esteem drops proportionally to the relative ranking of one’s camera. This is often accompanied with the feeling that we are has-beens if our camera is anything past a year or two old, or 5 to 6 cameras below the top ranked model of the day, if that much.
3 – Field photography
Creating images in the field is where everything starts. There is simply no substitute for being inspired by nature itself. While there can be inspiration before field work, regarding where to go, what to do, how to approach the subject and so on, it is when I witness the beauty of nature in all its grandeur and glory that my heart and soul become filled with the desire to create a work of art.
I like to take a lot of captures when I work in the field. I don’t subscribe to the idea that a photograph has to be captured with a single frame. I find no glory in getting the shot in a single exposure. For me this a film based concept that is no longer relevant today. This concept was based on the fact that film and processing were expensive and that we could only carry a limited quantity of film. This was particularly true with large format, say 4×5 and larger, but it was also true with smaller formats. With digital capture there is no cost after the first $20,000 (adjust to fit your budget), and I have no limit as to how much storage I can carry because even if I fill all the storage cards I can carry I can always download them to a computer and start again. Therefore, limiting how much I shoot means bypassing one of the most advantageous aspects of digital photography which is that the number of captures I can make is unlimited and that capturing images carries no real cost due to the ridiculously low price of storage devices. It is therefore to my advantage to put the numbers on my side and to return home with as much data as I can, knowing that the cost of returning to the location is what is expensive, both in terms of travel expenses and in terms of time.
Les Sentinelles Eternelles
One of my most recent images as of the writing of this essay.
The creation of this image follows the approach outlined in this essay.
I also do not make a call in the field in regards to what are my best captures. I can do that at my leisure in my studio when I return home. The purpose of field work is to gather data, of the finest quality I can and in as large a quantity as I feel. From this data the final images will emerge and no one needs to know how many images led to the final ones unless I decide to share this information.
In the field I also shoot wide and later crop as needed because high resolution cameras free me from having to figure out the perfect crop in the field. The difference in resolution is unnoticeable because the lack of image data is insignificant. However the final cropping is far more accurate than I could ever do it on location.
I also like to shoot both horizontal and verticals, try different compositions of the same scene, and intentionally capture wider views than I intend to use. Approximately 50 % of my work is composed of collages done not for the purpose of increasing pixel density but instead to increase field of view beyond what my widest lenses can capture. I also like the look of collaged images better than the look of wide angle photographs, even if they show the same field of view.
Once back in the studio I look at the different images I captured and progressively narrow the number of keepers based on technical and aesthetic considerations. I make a pre-selection in Lightroom then a second and narrower selection in Photoshop. I make the third selection after the images have been optimized to the technical layers stage, and the fourth selection after the image has been optimized all the way to the artistic layers stage (see below). The fifth and final selection is made after all the images have been optimized to their final state, and after I have had time to study them and reflect upon them.
4 – Image processing
It is in the studio that the second part of my work takes place. Inspired by my emotional response to the scenes I photographed, I enhance and manipulate my photographs at my heart’s content to express what I truly saw and felt. In Lightroom and Photoshop I do what I like to call ‘unspeakable things’ to my photographs and if you ask me, yes sir, I manipulate my work and I am proud of it. In fact, let me add that it feels great, carries not risk of heart disease, and some even say that it enhances life longevity through stress reduction induced by the liberation of all concerns for what others might think.
I don’t see anything that can be done with digital processing as being inappropriate when creating art. If I was doing forensic or documentation photography I certainly would rule many things as inappropriate. However, art is the domain of imagination and personal expression and digital processing opens the doors to possibilities that film photography never offered. This to me is a dream come true and I embrace all the possibilities that the medium offers. Nothing is out of bounds, taboo, illegal, or whatever term you may want to use to tell me that I should not do it.
In other words I do not limit myself to darkroom processes enhanced by digital imaging. Rather than restrict myself to dodging, burning, density, color adjustments and cropping, all done with more control and perfect repeatability from print to print that I could ever have in the darkroom, I use all the functions available in Lightroom and Photoshop to enhance and optimize my photographs and make them conform to my vision. I warp, collage, HDR, reformat, clone, stretch and otherwise manipulate my images at will. Instead of feeling guilty about doing this I embrace the possibilities offered by digital photography and I welcome whatever functions will become available next. These functions make life easier for me by alleviating many of the unnecessarily tough aspects of film photography and by bringing possibilities I could only dream of before.
5 – Fine art printing
The outcome of all this work is a fine art print. Not an image on screen, regardless of impressive the quality of today’s monitors might be, but a fine art print on paper (or other substrate), because paper requires no technology to be seen. I don’t need electricity, I don’t have to plug-in hard drives, connect USB cards to monitors, download and update software, or worry about forward and backward compatibility. I also don’t have to wonder if my descendants will be able to make sense of my file structure, or if later software and hardware will be able to read my files, or if someone will be kind enough to continue updating my entire computer storage and display system to guarantee access to my work ‘forever’. While they may not last ‘forever,’ my prints are accessible to all, requiring only eyes and the desire to look at them to be seen.
6 – Print quality
Print quality is of the upmost importance to me. Fine art landscape photography it a low drama medium. While I may depict a dramatic sunset, rainbow or storm, not much happens in the way of action, unlike in reportage, street, or sports photography for example. Therefore, while in reportage photography the content creates the interest and print quality is secondary, in fine art landscape photography the print quality is just as important as the content. In fact, it is often more important than the content. This is because natural locations being accessible to all, the same locations are photographed by many photographers. In this situation the difference between a good photograph and a stunning one of the same location is often the difference in print quality. In a head to head contest it is the print quality that separates a good photograph from an outstanding one.
I spare no efforts in creating the finest prints I can create. In doing so it is the processing of the image that matters most because it is during processing that print quality takes place, or not, as the case might be. While printer, ink, paper, printer profile and system calibration are important, they are variables that can be controlled through technique and experience. They can also be purchased with anyone with the necessary funds. In many ways printers are default devices. What varies is the image file.
File preparation therefore is just as much an art form as a technical exercise. In fact, once the technique has been learned to the point of becoming second nature, it is all art. So much so that my image optimization workflow is separated in two primary parts: technical and artistic. I work in Lightroom and Photoshop, doing basic file preparation in Lightroom then continuing the optimization in Photoshop using adjustment layers. I start by creating a set of technical layers whose goal is to create the technical foundation of the image. If I was doing documentation I could stop there because at that stage the image is perfect in regards to being a documentary record of the scene. However, it has no artistic qualities besides the composition of the image in the field, the choice of subject and light, and the decisions I made regarding lens and angle of view. It is the second set of layers, the artistic layers, that give the image the artistic qualities I seek to share with my audience. This second set of artistic layers include all sort of manipulations, from color changes to contrast adjustment, to cloning, to transformation of the image geometry using warp, distort or other transform functions, to reformatting of the image, for example making a vertical image an horizontal through stretching either the entire image or part of it, and more. As I said earlier on I enjoy doing ‘unspeakable’ things to my images and this is where this part of the process takes place.
While the set of technical layers usually takes me only minutes to complete, the set of artistic layers takes me much longer, anywhere from several hours to several weeks or months. Of course I do not remain chained to my desk for weeks on end, but it does takes me that long to work on the image on and off as inspiration strikes, trying to find the correct combination of colors and contrast needed to make a specific image work.
7 – Instruction
Teaching is important to me because I want to pass the torch so to speak and share my knowledge and my passion for fine art photography with other like-minded artists and photographers. To this end I teach a small number of workshops per year. I keep the number small because by limiting the number of workshops I can focus on the needs of my students 100% instead of being pulled in every directions by an overwhelmingly busy schedule. In practice I teach only six workshops per year on average, interspaced with one on one work with dedicated students who want to go beyond what can be learned in a group setting. My workshops are small, consisting of 12 students in my regular field workshops and 6 in my little known workshops series. I offer one on one mentoring because when studying fine art there comes a time when specific challenges can only be met one on one. Creating a personal style for example, or expressing a personal vision throughout a body of work, or working on a focused project, or again putting together a successful marketing plan are aspects of fine art that require a one on one environment.
I separate my courses in three categories: field work, studio work and marketing instruction. While there is no substitute for field work, as I explained in section one above, studio and marketing courses are offered both as live events and as Mastery Workshops on DVD/USB. I offer these two options to meet the needs of students who like to study in person and by themselves. While there is a value in studying in person, there is also a value in studying by yourself with a master tutorial that you can carry everywhere, refer to at will, and study at your leisure instead of having to learn and remember everything in 2 days. My mastery tutorials also saves time and travel expenses, and they remove the risk of not remembering essential information because note-taking failed you.
Afternoon in Canyon de Chelly
8 – Art
Art is my goal. In working towards this goal I am fully aware of the distinction between fine art photography and commercial photography. Doing commercial photography means being hired by a client on the basis that I can successfully create the photographs that this client wants. I am paid if I fulfill this contract. Fine art photography means creating images that please me, images that express my vision of the world in my personal style. People buy my work if they like my style and can relate to my vision of the world.
I also know that art is a matter of personal taste. What people like depends on people’s taste. Plus, when it comes to art opinions are polarized. Therefore, creating art means that some will love my work while others will dislike it. As such I am not surprised to have both fans and foes. In fact I consider this normal. The fact that I do means that I am creating art and not just documenting the world.
9 – Exhibiting
Showing my work starts with finding an audience who likes my work. While there is a difference between fine art and commercial photography, as I explained above, I still have to somehow manage to communicate successfully with my audience.
There are limits however to how far one can communicate successfully when it comes to exhibiting art. I learned a long time ago not to try to convince the inconvincible. Too many photographers waste valuable time trying to change the mind of people who don’t like their work. This is futile. My time is better spent looking for an audience who likes me and my work and helping this audience like my work even more.
It took me a long time to understand this but doing so saved me a lot of time and worries and helped me live a happier and longer life. Today I seek an audience who likes me and my work and I refuse to waste my time on those who don’t like what I do. I never lose sight of the fact that my goal is to create images that allow me to successfully share my vision and my emotional response to the subject with people who share my vision of the world, not with those who despise it.
10 – Conclusion
My goal is to to create images that expresses and share beauty. In doing so I am often amazed at how many people have misconceived ideas about art. Certainly I understand that art is not a mainstream concept. We live in a technically oriented society in which art and art instruction have taken a backseat. However this is not a reason for art to be dismissed altogether. We need it as much as we need technology. As Picasso said, art washes away the dust of everyday life, and we certainly have a lot of dust to wash away, wherever this dust may come from.
In thinking about this I consider several things in no particular order. First, art does not have to be perfect. As Dali put it: do not seek perfection for you will never reach it. Art is different from engineering in that respect because it does not need to be functional. Art only needs to look good. It does not have to perform a mechanical function, or any function for that matter, except aesthetic. Art does not have to work the way a machine works for example. If you design a machine and it does not work, you are fired at best and sued at worse. With art, if you create an unsatisfying work of art there is no penalty. At worse no one likes it. You won’t get fired over it and you won’t go to jail or be sued for having failed to express your vision successfully. I find this aspect of art freeing, refreshing and stress reducing and it is one of the reasons why art is an activity I enjoy.
I am always surprised by people who find that in order to be ‘good’ art must be hard to create. For me the quality of a work of art is not measured by how long it took to create it any more than good food it defined by how long it took to cook it. Good is good, that’s all. I pay attention to how much beauty, enjoyment and insights the work brings to me, not to how long it took to make it. For me a sketch by Picasso that took only a minute to complete is just as valuable and enjoyable as a painting by Picasso that took weeks or months to complete.
I am equally surprised by people who want to impose their view of what is ‘good’ art onto me. Surprised because I made the decisions that led to the the work I exhibit deliberately and with complete awareness of what I was doing. Therefore when someone tells me, for example, that the noise in the image bothers them, or that the colors are not to their liking, I always answer by saying that these do not bother me one bit, and that in fact I like them otherwise I would have made different aesthetic choices. They, as well as everyone else, have a choice when it comes to art and that is to not look at art that they do not like. I personally love my work and I have no desire to change it because someone does not like this or that. It is after all the nature of art that someone will dislike it, therefore by saying so those who do confirm that this aspect of art is alive and well.
Art is measured by how much emotion and pleasure it brings to us and to the viewer. I often say that if I do photography seriously and I am not having fun, something is wrong. I mean it. What is the point of doing something for fun if I am not having fun doing it? After all, no one forces me to do this. I do it because I want to, not because I have to. I do it because creating and sharing beautiful art makes life richer and more enjoyable.
About Alain Briot
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops and offer DVD tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style and Marketing Fine Art Photography. All 3 books are available as printed books on Amazon.com and as eBooks on my website.
You can find more information about my work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to my Free Monthly Newsletter on my website. To subscribe simply go to http://www.beautiful-landscape.com and click on the Subscribe link at the top of the page. You will receive 40 free essays in eBook format immediately after subscribing.
I welcome your comments on this essay as well as on my other essays. You can reach me directly by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.