Photographer of the Month – Harold Davis
Darwin: You have left a record of your work as digital photographer on the net showing your progression and evolution from your first posts on your blog in 2005. Many photographers want to leave an impression that they only ever created amazing stuff. Showing some early misses takes courage in my opinion and shows someone secure in who they are. But do you ever feel ‘exposed’ at times when people see your earlier work, work that may not meet your standards of today?
Harold: I have made a conscious decision to leave my original photos and stories up on the Internet from the time I began as a digital photographer in 2005 (by the way, this was a return to photography for me). As your question suggests, this was not entirely an easy decision because some of my early digital work is definitely not up to my current standards. Here’s my thinking about why I have left this work up.
First, in my role as an educator—both as a writer and workshop leader—it is important to me to give aspiring photographers a sense of hope. It serves a great educational role to let people know that some of my earliest digital work wasn’t as good as it might have been, and that I’ve managed to get a great deal better. If I can improve, so then can they.
Actually, when I look back at the early work in my blog I see a lot to like. Even with the pieces that don’t stand the test of time so well, I can see what I was trying to achieve, and I understand why I was trying to achieve it. Generally, I fall in and out of love with my own work. You can’t make a photo unless you are infatuated with your pre-visualization of it, otherwise why bother? But looking at the image later, I’ll find myself not so happy with it. A while later again, I reach a synthesis—and can begin to evaluate my work more objectively.
The truth is that no one is good all the time, this goes for the great masters of photography as well as anyone else. No matter how good a photographer is, if you look at some of their early or minor work, it may not be as great as some more mature work, so I am in good company.
The minute I start believing that everything I do is great is the minute I’ll lose it as an artist—because that is an expectation that is impossible, makes one not want to experiment, and is grandiose. If I see a large body of consistent work from a photographer without any examples that are wild and wacky and don’t quite work, then I think that this is someone who is talented but who hasn’t experimented or played enough. Some of my best and most innovative work comes from failed experiments.
I’m not concerned with always doing great work every time, as much as learning how to get better.
I think of my blog stories—and I have written several a week every week since 2005—as my artistic journal, or Daybook in the sense that Edward Weston kept a Daybook but updated for the electronic era. Not everything in a journal is going to be great art, but it will show my progress and thinking.
I believe that digital photography is an entirely new art form, perhaps as different from film photography as film photography was from realistic painting. We are only at the very beginning of this new medium, and only beginning to grapple with the questions, techniques, methodologies, philosophic issues, and image-making possibilities that this new medium brings to the table. The images in my blog, along with the broader spectrum of images in my Flickr photostream, are a record of my coming to terms with these issues—and even if my attitude has changed, and my technical astuteness has improved since my first attempts to grapple with them, I don’t want to delete the account of my journey to where I am now.
At the end of the day, my work, like all visual art, must speak for itself. If someone “gets” what my work is about, then I don’t think the fact that I’ve included shots of my family, out-takes from assignments, and early experiments on my blog will detract from it. My model of professionalism is to include some of my personal story, and not to pretend that the two are entirely separate.
Darwin: You have developed a technique you call ‘HDR by Hand’ where you process a single RAW file with various settings and combine the resulting images into a single finished image. The results are unique and impressive. Can you give us a quick overview of your workflow for HDR by Hand? Do you have a book or eBook people can go to to learn more details?
Harold: Another great question, but there is some confusion in the way it is put. Let me try to clarify things. I use the term multi-RAW processing to describe processing a single RAW file multiple times with various different exposure settings to effectively expand the dynamic, or exposure, range of the final processed image. Some people consider this technique a form of HDR—or High Dynamic Range—photography, because it certainly produces an expanded dynamic range compared to the JPEG that your camera makes. However, I believe that true HDR begins when you combine multiple captures of the same subject that have been bracketed for exposure.
With automated HDR software such as Photomatix, Photoshop’s Merge to HDR Pro, or the new Nik HDR tool, these bracketed exposures are blended together, and a tone curve is applied. In contrast, what I do is to manually inspect the captures made at different exposures, and then choose the parts of each one that I want, and combine the “good bits” in Photoshop. For example, I might want the dark part of an image from the capture shot at 1/10 of a second (to lighten dark areas) and the light part of an image from the capture shot at 1/200 of a second (to darken the light areas), assuming all other settings were the same.
With both techniques—multi-RAW and hand-HDR—I put together the different versions as layers in Photoshop using layer masks, the Gradient Tool, and the Brush Tool to combine the different capture and/or RAW conversions. Sometimes I’ll use different blending modes to emphasize the impact of a particular exposure shift.
As with all HDR shots, it does tend to work better if your camera and subject don’t move between the different captures.
As a practical matter, many of my final images are created using a combination of the multi-RAW and hand-HDR techniques. I might make two or three different interpretations of a single RAW file, then blend these versions with interpretations from one or more other RAW files.
For me, learning that I could multi-RAW process a file, and then extending these techniques to bracketed HDR files, was a huge revelation. If you look on my blog, you’ll find that I began experimenting with multi-RAW in mid 2006. By August 2007, I’d come “to the conclusion that combining images and image variants is something that humans do better than software (at least for the time being),” and around the same time I began experimenting with hand-HDR to move beyond natural-looking landscapes with an extended tonal range to special hand-HDR effects such as creating a transparent, high-key effect.
My discovery of multi-RAW and hand-HDR caused a real shift in the way I think about shooting, because very often each shot becomes a piece of the final image rather than the image itself. It’s also powerful to realize that you can change other things besides exposure—such as White Balance and Saturation—when you process separate versions. I don’t think I could go back to single-shot photography, and I really don’t want to rely on software to make the decisions for me about how to process and blend the pixels.
My two Photoshop books, The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Processing and The Photoshop Darkroom 2: Creative Digital Transformations (both from Focal Press) detail both multi-RAW and hand-HDR techniques. Since this process is so integral to my photography, you’ll find it explained at some level in almost all my recent books. The forthcoming Creative Lighting: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley) explains how to apply multi-RAW and hand-HDR to change the apparent lighting in a photo, and my Creative Landscapes (also from Wiley, due out in June 2011) will explain these techniques in the context of landscape photography.
Darwin: You are an author of numerous books on photography. What was your first book and how did you manage to get the book contract? Your books have great reviews on Amazon. What does it take to make a book that resonates with photographers?
Harold: When people I don’t know ask me what I do for a living, I tell them that I am a professional photographer and a writer. I have written books on many diverse topics other than photography, and had a good reputation as a writer long before I took up digital photography in 2005. The first photography book I wrote came about because of my reputation as a writer about technology, not as a photographer. In fact, I had to overcome a certain suspicion in the publishing industry about whether I could really be a good professional photographer in addition to my skills as a technologist.
A good book agent is an invaluable ally in the publishing industry, and Matt Wagner has played that role for me. We’ve worked together for many years. Another secret weapon is my wife, Phyllis Davis. She is an excellent professional book designer, and we work together on most projects, so we deliver finished InDesign files to the publisher rather than going through a normal edit and design workflow and production process.
I listen with a great deal of respect to my readers, and have an affirmative commitment to responding to every email that is about photography. I greatly appreciate questions from readers because they are a signal to me that I may not have been clear enough about something, or that there is additional subject matter that should be included in one of my books.
Ultimately, my photography books are valuable to an audience if readers can learn from them and apply what they learn to their own work. I am dedicated to the idea that my books primarily play an educational role. I also believe that one largely learns about photography and image making by looking at images and analyzing how and why they were made. So this is the thought process that I try to encourage in my books, and I try to provide imagery that is inspirational so that people actually want to take the steps that are involved in making comparable photos.
Darwin: Given the rise of eBooks on the internet, do you think that traditional photo books will slowly disappear? Given that photographers can make 100% profit on eBooks why should a photographer deal with a publisher to create a hard copy book and get maybe only 10% royalties?
Harold: I think eBooks are a great development. I’ve been experimenting with reading books on the Kindle and the iPad, and will be releasing some electronic publications in 2011 and beyond. However, I do not believe that printed and published photography books will disappear, nor do I think the economics and business issues are as cut-and-dried as the 100% profit versus 10% royalties in your question would seem to make it. Let me elaborate.
It doesn’t make much sense to me to read a color photography book on black-and-white Kindle reader. There are also formatting issues, mostly having to do with eBook photo and caption placement. This kind of thing will get ironed out eventually, particularly if readers start insisting on decent design in their e-Books. But personally, I still prefer a printed book, particularly if images are involved. Image placement is exactly the way the author intended, I can take it anywhere, and I don’t have to worry about connectivity. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean one should do it, and I don’t think it really makes sense to view photos on small screens. The iPad is the first device that really comes close for me, but there really aren’t authoring tools available that let me translate my vision easily to this medium. The bottom line: books that are like manuals and just there to provide information will gravitate to electronic form. There has to be an added value to be worth making a physical book, but for the foreseeable future I expect there to be a viable place for visually-oriented books that are about more than which menu item one should click.
The profit from an eBook is not 100% if you sell it through Amazon, iTunes, or an eBook publisher. For that matter, there is cost involved in setting up one’s own shopping cart and distribution mechanism. On the other side, the royalty on a printed book can be substantially greater than 10%.
But the point remains valid that electronic publishing can disintermediate the entire chain of book agents, publishers, printers, book distribution companies, and brick-and-mortar bookstores—with a greater percentage of the proceeds going to the individuals who created the product. However, my books are distributed in a way that eBooks are not—for example, to Barnes & Nobles—and translated into languages all over the world. In other words, there’s a much bigger pie to split.
There’s nothing like the aesthetic pleasure of holding a book one has created—and there is considerable professional validation in publication through traditional trade houses.
Darwin: You seem to be able to photograph any subject and do it extremely creatively. You have your own vision and style which comes through in your photos. Any tips on ‘developing a personal style’ that you learned over the years?
Harold: Inspiration is not a “tame lion.” There’s no single magic bullet that will change someone into being a creative photographer. In fact, working too hard at being creative can be a good way to thwart one’s own creative drives. After all, photography is wonderfully fun—and it is important not to lose your sense of fun about it.
It’s good to sneak up on the creative process—I often find that my best work is not in the direction that I expected when I started a project, and part of being creative is learning to be open to serendipity and unexpected directions.
Experiment! Experiment! It is a big mistake to take oneself too seriously. Not everything you do has to be worthy of museum placement.
Specialization is overrated. Having a good eye, some interesting things to say, and understanding the craft of photography are the most important aspects of any kind of photography. These kinds of traits carry across subject matter. After all, no one would complain that Edward Weston was spreading himself too thin because he photographed still life subjects as well as nudes.
I appreciate assignments and projects that stretch my limits. A number of times I’ve accepted assignments, and there was a fear factor, meaning I wondered for a while whether I could really complete the creative work because it was something I hadn’t done before. A little fear is good, and helps stimulate my creative juices. Each of these projects turned out to point me in a new direction, and helped me add to my skill set. So if you don’t have the outside stimulus that comes from commissioned work, then I suggest that you self-assign. These self assignments should stretch your boundaries and make you work in areas and directions that are new to you.