A Tool, A Crutch or a Gimmick?

How many of you black and white photographers out there remember filing out your negative carrier in order to produce a somewhat ragged black frame around your image? Some people claimed to do it in order to expose 100% of their image, because a negative carrier was guilty of cutting off a millimeter all around the frame. Others, who were perhaps more honest, did it because they thought it looked cool. Which it did.
I had an instructor at Parsons, Lenny Eiger, who’s work I admired and opinion I respected, call filing out a negative carrier, for whatever reason, a crutch. It served to distract you from an inferior image, or, when you highlights were blown out, the ragged black frame completed the edge of the image. DSC_0095-Edit

If you are active in following certain websites like Google+ or Flickr, you begin to notice trends. For instance, it seems to be very much in vogue to use neutral density filters when shooting seascapes, especially among black and white photographers. By reducing your shutter speed to anywhere from 20 seconds to several minutes, a body of water gets an ethereal, mystic quality, as if a block of dry ice had been dropped into the water and was creating a heavy layer of dense fog. If you do a YouTube search on the subject, you will find hundreds of videos of varying quality showing how this effect can be achieved through the use of ND filters.

I must admit, I found it fascinating and wanted to experiment with this technique. After picking myself up off the floor after seeing the price of quality neutral density filters, I hopped over to Ebay and found a complete set of filters from China for $18 including shipping! Sure, how good could they be for that price, but for some informal experimentation, they would definitely serve the purpose. When they arrived from China about 10 days later, I was pleasantly surprised to find the purchase well worth the money. My first objective was to run some preliminary tests, just to get the feel of things before heading out to Tybee Island.

In the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep, YouTube is my best friend. I can watch hours of videos on a wide range of subjects. One night I ran across what promised to be a quality production showing post production of black and white images using NIK Software, which is accessed through either Light Room or Photoshop. The company has been around a good many years, because I can recall using some of their plugin filters for Photoshop 15 – 20 years ago. As I watched this photographer work on her images, I could really relate to her style of teaching. She kept referring to shapes, gradations, forms and perspective. All of the qualities needed to produce a fine image, especially if it happens to be in black and white. After the 58 minute tutorial was over, I thought it might be interesting to play around with NIK Software again. The YouTube video had completed its mission. The next day I found the NIK website and downloaded the 660 mb, 30 day free demo.

It has been 3 weeks since receiving the filter set from China, and I have yet to make my way out into the field to give it a serious test.

After “playing” with the NIK software for a couple of hours, and printing out just one image, I freed up 660mb of hard drive space my deleting the program from my computer. I showed the print to my wife and in doing so, knew that what I had “created” was nothing more than a byproduct of a gimmick.

As I look at images on a daily basis uploaded to a variety of forums from around the world, I become more and more conscious of the “tools” being used to create images. ND filters, NIK Software enhanced shots and HDR images, with their surrealistic almost cartoon-like quality, have had their 15 minutes of fame, and will fade into the the dark corners of our creative attics only to be resurrected by the next crop of curious budding photographers.

I think it is an important exercise to experiment and play with these techniques and tools. For only then can you have a real appreciation for “pure images”. I can already hear the uproar starting out there. Sure, Ansel Adams was a master print maker and his darkroom skills and manipulations of his prints are both well documented and even legendary. But here’s the difference. When you look at an Ansel Adams print, what you see is an amazing image. Then you begin to analyze just how that image came to be. If you look at a photograph and notice the technique first, and the image second, I think you are looking at something that was produced using a gimmick or a crutch.

Of course it goes without saying that the content of this blog post is only my opinion and you know what they say about opinions. I’m sure there are many of you out there that disagree with what I have written, and I respect that.

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