Archive for the Rants Category

HDR – Follow Up

Posted in Artistic Development, Controversy, Image Processing and Software, Rants with tags , , , , on June 20, 2009 by Darwin

Thanks to all for so many thoughtful responses to my HDR rant.  The concesus, I believe, is that any technique is acceptable as long as the technique does not overpower the content. Seems logical and simple, yet there are some photographers who simply can not get past technique and see the photo for its content. For example, I know one photographer who hates square format images. No matter what the image content, if it is a square image, he rejects it.

I think as photographers we can spend far too much time trying to find little nitpick details about an image; little things that 99% of people would not notice or care about. But these little imperfections can sour a photo for us. If we are only looking for technical perfection in a photo (often self-defined), then we often miss the bigger point of the image–the message, the feeling, and the story. If we can only accept technically perfect photos, then most of the greatest photographic images of all times would have to be rejected!

I find that on many photo forums, people yap about the little details that don’t matter; the silly “I see some barrel distortion in this image”, or “the highlights are too bright”, or “the stone in the left corner could be a little darker”. Really this stuff shouldn’t be science; photography is art. Art is not about precision and technical perfection, it is about expression. Either the photo works on an emotional level or it does not. The more anal one gets about the technical aspects of an image, the less one actually sees what the image is about and in turn the less emotion is shown in one’s own work. I find that the most technically proficient photographers often have the most stale work. If we can get past the technical craft of our art, often the photo has much more to say to us.

Neil Young as a musician is technically not precise, but the emotion in his music shines through. I would rather listen to the ‘rough’ work of an emotional musician than the tight work of a technically perfect one (robots being the most precise). Give me mood and feeling over technical perfection anyday. Anyway, I think some photographers can’t get past their little hang-ups about technique. If HDR is not a tool you use, for reasons that are valid to you, then carry on. Art is personal, there is no right or wrong. But if you can diss an image because you “think’ you can detect HDR remnants, then you are missing the point of the art of photography. 

For those of you wanting to know which images were tonemapped and which ones were not of the nine (not ten) images I posted, here are the answers:

Image 1 – HDR4 – tonemapped

Image 2 – HDR5 – tonemapped

Image 3 – HDR6 – tonemapped

Image 4 – HDR7 – tonemapped

Image 5 – HDR8 – not

Image 6 – HDR10 – not

Image 7 – HDR11 – not

Image 8  – HDR12 – tonemapped

Image 9 – HDR13 – tonemapped 

And the ‘Expert’, that said he could pick out a tonemapped image a mile away only got 50% of them right (with a half bonus point from me for one image he was sitting on the fence about). Which proves my point, people think they know how an image was created and have a bias for or against that image when in fact they may be making a false assumption. Judge an image based on the photo and not on your biases. For instance, the image below has technical problems but this image sells and sells and so has some kind of resonance in spite of its flaws. Are we, as photographers, too techy for our own good?? I think we are.

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett


Rant – HDR

Posted in Controversy, Image Processing and Software, Rants with tags , , , on June 15, 2009 by Darwin

Anytime there is a new technique out there, photographers buzz to it like flies to manure. At first everyone tries it and the technique becomes all the rage. We’ve seen this happen with Lens Babies, the Orton Effect, The Dragan Effect, and now with HDR. After a technique becomes popular, it is fashionable to reject it outright:  no matter how evocative the result is, especially if the viewer thinks they can detect the technique used, the photo is trashed.

On photography forums I constantly see the anti-HDR bias, with comments like ” this looks HDRish so it doesn’t work for me” or “too bad about the HDR look, because otherwise it is a nice shot” or “if it was not an HDR it might be a good photo”.

Why the backlash? I think the reasons are three-fold:  first, anytime anything gets popular it then becomes ‘clever’ to take a minority position and rant against the masses. Second, the results of much HDR processing, especially early attempts, really were ‘strange’ and the process itself overpowered the content of the photo. And finally, many photographers, especially nature photographers, feel the result of HDR looks unreal.

This last accusation, that HDR looks unreal and therefore should be rejected, floors me. The same nature photographers who reject HDR as unreal use Velvia when they shoot film.  They supersaturate their colours in Photoshop or Lightroom, convert images to B+W, vignette edges, blend and massage multiple layers to create ‘Lord of the Rings’ fantasy-world imagery and yet call HDR fakes? Hmmm. C’mon!  Photography is not a replication of what the human eye sees. And my view of the world is different than yours–all of photography is subjective. What is real? And by whose standards? The sooner we accept that photography is an interpretation, the easier it will be to accept interpretative techniques.

If anything I think HDR creates images closer to what the human eye sees. As humans we can see into dark shadows and bright highlights at the same time but a digital sensor can not. HDR produces images with details across a wide tonal range the same as our eyes do. If anything, HDR is more ‘real’ than a single-frame capture. The detractors of HDR use grad filters to even out their exposures, and they manually blend several different exposures using layers and masks to make a photo with more detail. In effect they are doing HDR but in an ‘acceptable’ way. It is like a tipsy social drinker ranting on about the drunk at the next table.

HDR simply takes a scene with a wide tonal range and compresses the tones into reproducable forms on a monitor or print. I can get the same result in-camera with filters as I can using HDR software. For example, look at the two photos below:  one was a straight in-camera capture but I used a soft-edge grad to even out the exposure so that the sensor could record detail across the scene. The other was a three exposure capture using Photomatix software to create a tonemapped HDR image. Is one image more ‘legitimate’ than the other? Can you tell which image was captured by with method? And if you can, does technique somehow make one image ‘better’ than the other?

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett


©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

I often will take two or three different exposures of a scene and handblend parts from each photo to create a finished image that captures a wider tonal range than possible with a single capture. This is just like making an HDR image but without using HDR software and the tonemapping process (see the image below). Somehow, doing it by hand is ‘acceptable’, yet running it through Photomatix is not. I don’t get the difference.

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

One of the anti-HDR nature photographers I know says the reason he dislikes HDR is because the tone mapping process creates muddy looking mid-tones and these flat midtones kill the life in the photo. With hand-blends and grad filters the mid-tones still live. At default settings software like Photomatix can give flat midtones, but a few simple tweaks in processing can easily remedy this problem. He says he can spot a tone-mapped image a mile away. We’ll see.

Personally, I use a variety of methods to produce my images. Sometimes a grad filter is enough, sometimes I do a hand-blend and sometimes I use HDR software. More often than not I use a combination of all three.  I have had non-HDR images critiqued as looking too ‘HDR’ and HDR images applauded for being so real the viewer felt he could walk into the scene. I have stopped stating how I process my images when posting on the web because I want the photos judged for the content and not judged based on the process. In the end the image either resonates or it does not.

In the end if you dislike HDR as a process that is a personal preference. But if your dislike an image purely for the technique used that is narrow-minded. I think a lot of people don”t like HDR because there are a lot of bad examples out of it out there. I remember the first montaged images that people made in Photoshop, most were horrid. And first time users of grad filters make obvious mistakes with grad lines showing up where they shouldn’t. If the process detracts from the photo, then it is hard to appreciate the content. I understand how HDR has gotten a bad rap.

But now photographers are becoming very sophisticated using software and I see many HDR photos that don’t look HDRish and other photos that are straight in-camera captures that have been manipulated to look HDRish for effect. Frankly, I can’t even tell in my own work if I did tone-mapped HDR work or a hand blend on an image or some combo of techniques. Either the image succeeds or it fails independent of technique.

Below are ten images processed in a variety of ways. If you remain unconvinced that ‘how’ is not as important as ‘what’, then I have a challenge for you.  The first person who can correctly guess which of the images below are tone-mapped HDR images wins a copy of ‘Dances With Light’ (a book which contains no HDR images).  The question really becomes does the process work to enhance your message  or does the process garner detract? In any case, I invite your thoughts and comments on this topic! Note, the mouseovers all have HDR in the title of the images but do not let the titles sway you, there is a mixture of filtered, hand blended and tone-mapped images below.

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett
©Darwin Wiggett
©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett

©Darwin Wiggett


Rant – Free Stock Photos

Posted in Controversy, Rants, Stock Photography with tags , , on May 23, 2009 by Darwin

One of the big pieces of news this week in the stock photography industry is the announcement by Fotolia, a micropayment stock photo site, of free downloadable stock photography. They have branded their free stock site as PhotoXpress where registered users can download as many as 10 free images a day. Fotolia hopes to bait new users into using stock photography by offering free photos. The move will likely also drive traffic from competing microstock sites. More and more web users expect to be able to download free music, videos, and pictures. Many companies are meeting this expectation and are now offering free stuff to drive traffic to their sites where they hope they might hook customers to buy ‘higher end’ products, in this one, two or three dollar images.

Now you might suspect that as a stock photographer myself I would be outraged by this business practice. I am not. I can totally understand the Cocaine Tactics used here (give em free photos, get ’em hooked’ on the idea of using photos and hopefully they will become addicted and start paying for their habit). Is this idea good for photographers? Probably not. But neither is access to free music downloads or file sharing and most photographers I know are happy to take free music and other goodies off the web (legally and illegally) yet complain that agencies are giving away their photos for free! I guess musicians don’t deserve royalties but photographers do?

When this story broke on PDN the comments from photographers were predictable – see here. Almost all the photographers were outraged, but guess where they directed their outrage – to wanna be’s. Most pro stock photographers blame amateur, part-time, newbie photographers for all the ills of the industry. The pros curse these ‘low life scums’ for taking money out of their pockets. The solution according to many pros is to ‘educate’ the wanna be’s so these newbie’s don’t give away their photos for free. What a Utopian and naive notion! That somehow human behaviour can be regulated, that in a free market you can get everybody to agree on a minimum price, or that there won’t be somebody willing to sell their stuff for less than the next person. C’mon, really?

The old school of stock pros long for the days of film, large license fees per image, and a healthy monthly royalty payment (totally understandable, I wanna go back myself!). The fact is the world has changed. The good old boys are looking for someone to blame for their dropping stock sales and the easy target is the weekend warrior. The old business models in stock are forever gone, either you change, adapt and innovate yourself or you watch your income die each month. Lamenting the old model and blaming the wanna-be’s is a waste of time IMO. There is still money to be made in photography, you just gotta be open to new ideas, new revenue streams and creative innovation.

As far as microstock goes, most small business owners I know regularly buy images from places like Fotolia and iStockphoto. Hell, if I did not make my own photos, I would get stuff from these sources as well! Offering up free photos likely will get customers who never bought stock before to test out the market. As a business move, I think value added services like a line of free photos is a move more and more stock agencies will adopt. As a photographer, you can decide if you want to be part of this movement, or go off on your own tangent. The wanna be’s are not responsible for either your success or your failure, you are. So stop moaning and move on, rethink your business!

Image supplied free from PhotoXpress

Image supplied free from PhotoXpress

Alberta’s 25 Million Dollar Lie?

Posted in Controversy, Rants with tags on April 23, 2009 by Darwin

Alberta is spending 25 million dollars on rebranding the province to the world in an attempt to make up for all the negative publicity associated with the oil sands. Alberta is the Texas of the North, full of red necks, right-wing wackos and environmental rapists or so this is how Alberta is often portrayed. And so… the Alberta government decides it needs to sell the world the real and true version of the Alberta. How does it do this? It buys a stock image of two children playing on a beach near Bamburgh in Northumberland UK and tries to sell this image to the world as the real Alberta. Shame, shame, shame!

See the complete story in the Edmonton Journal. I say fire off an email to just to let the branding folks know how much you like Alberta’s true image. Glad the government is setting the record straight!

Off to the beach!  😉

©Darwin Wiggett - "A Real Alberta Beach"

©Darwin Wiggett - "A Real Alberta Beach"

Update April 24th –  An apology and expanation of the ‘screw-up’ from the Province of Alberta is offered here

Pretty Nature Photos and Art Galleries

Posted in Marketing, Rants with tags , , , , on March 5, 2009 by Darwin

I started shooting in 1986 and turned pro in 1991 but I have never had a print exhibition. Why not? Well, through most of my career I just took photos, turned them over to my stock agencies and collected cheques. Pretty simple  eh?

Frankly I am not a ‘fine art’ photographer, I make celebratory photos of nature and it seems like the gatekeepers of galleries want edgy, gritty images of strife and despair, they want social context and message. They want B+W and traditional processes, they want grain and soft-focus, in short they want emotion. Pretty, colourful  nature images are just so pedestrian, just so devoid of feeling. I guess the only emotions curators recognize are negative ones. For me, someone who pursues life like a lab chasing a stick, life is too short to look for wilted roses.

Curators accuse nature photographers of producing work that is formulaic, yet a quick  look through galleries that feature ‘fine art’ photography show the same old themes; the dead and dying, street people, Holga-esque landscapes, disaster coverage, essays on cigarette butts in an astray, the wilted flower still life, Siamese twins, circus freaks, toenail clippings, and abstract nudes.

Photographers I have talked with that shoot drama and beauty in nature have reported repeated rejection in fine art galleries. Curators tell them that “no one will be interested in this work”. Yet, these same photographers maintain on-line galleries on their websites and the general public eats up their work. I guess the general public do not count in the eyes of curators. The everyday disconnect of urban life leave many people longer for a connection with nature and pretty landscape and wildlife photos seems to be an offer a soothing antidote.

I am presenting my first print show this month, not in a fine-art gallery, but at the local public library (Nan Boothby Memorial Library) in Cochrane, Alberta. So far, the feedback to my ‘happy’ photos is very positive. Weird how positive photos bring positive emotions! What kind of photo would I want to grace the wall of my living room–a legless beggar in India, or a colourful meadow of alpine flowers set against a dramatic backdrop of mountain scenery? Hmmm… let me think about this for a moment?  Darwin


Don’t call me Darren!

Posted in Rants on February 18, 2009 by Darwin

What is it about the name DARWIN that is soooooo hard to grasp? It is a fairly simple name; six letters, phonetically easy to pronounce, and the name of a very famous scientist! What’s the problem?

But everyday without fail someone calls me Darren. The phone rings; “Is Darren there”? “Nope, no Darren at this number!”, I respond.

I give a seminar and a hand shoots up; “Darren, what filter did you use on that shot?” “I dunno, I will have to ask him!”

I spend 16 hours a day shooting with workshop participants and even on day 5 they still call me Darren!

Hell, if you don’t believe me just look at the comments on this blog, there it is again, Darren !

Now here is the weird thing, I have only ever been mistakenly called Darren by one female (no, not during sex), but 75% of males call me Darren in daily conversation! Are males just stupid? A rhetorical question, I know.  But really… do males pay no attention to simple social conventions (like remembering names)? What is going on in the male brain? All I know is they can’t get my name right, but they sure as hell can remember what kind of camera I use and the specs of every lens I own. Hmmmmm… definitely something worth studying, the ‘Evolution of the Human Male Brain’ by Charles Darren.

Seller Beware

Posted in Marketing, Rants with tags , , , , on February 4, 2009 by Darwin

Photographers who sell their work to magazines, calendars and books as stock photography know all too well the idiosyncracies of the publishing industry. Photographers have a product to sell, namely photos. But who sets the prices for these photos, the seller or the buyer? In almost every other transaction on the planet, the seller sets the price of his goods. Makes sense eh? But in photography it is often the buyer that tells the photographer what the usage fees will be! Strange but true. It’s like going to the supermarket and telling the cashier that you only pay 50 cents a pound for coffee.

Even worse, after the publisher tells you his going rate for buying your pictures, then he sets the timeline for payment! Most publishers pay after publication. That means that although they order your picture now, they will not pay for it until after they use it. Imagine going into a grocery store and getting food but not having to pay anything until you eat the stuff! 

And then, to add further insult, many publishers have ‘terms’ that  payment will be made within three months of publication. So If I ‘sell’ a photo to a magazine in January, it often takes until 3 months to go to press, and then three more months until I get paid. Six months! Imagine not having to pay for your groceries for six months after you ‘bought’ them?

Ok, the scenario above is ‘standard’ and in my mind pretty darn unacceptable, but this is how the industry runs. Collectively we might be able to change things but photographers are fiercely independant and there is always someone willing to sell photos for crappy terms. Chances of things changing are slim if we all just go on accepting the publishers terms. More and more, I am weaning myself off of publishers who I think are not worth dealing with.

On several occasions I have dealt with Firefly Books in Canada. This company buys a lot of photos from freelance photographers and stock photo agencies especially for their line of calendars. If you plan to deal with Firefly be warned that getting paid may be more difficult than anticipated. In my experience, not only is Firefly extremely tardy in making payments (way beyond that described above), I could only get paid after threatening legal action (on more than one occasion). Other photographers I have talked to have had similar experiences so I am not alone on this one.

Maybe someone out there has had great experiences with Firefly and would love to present another view. But for me, this is one company I will no longer sell photos to. The hassles of dealing with any company that is truant is just not worth including in my business model. Firefly has been banned from my list of potential clients. I now only deal with ‘reliable’ publishers and though I make less sales, I am happier and less stressed, and running my business by my rules, not someone else’s.

Update – Feb 9 – Here is a note from a photographer who shall remain anonymous about working with Browntrout, one of the major calendar publishing companies:

“I submitted 2010 images to Browntrout in July 08; calendars on stand on June 09 for Tourist season; re-printed and out with a vengeance for Christmas season in Nov 09. Contract states “will commence payment in March of year following publication (March 2010). Typically I start screaming at them in Sept of payment year and usually see cheque in early Dec (2010 in this case). So, what’s that … 2.5 years! 

To add insult to injury three years ago they said digital files only (no increase in fees for saving them scan costs); two years ago the files had to be profiled CMYK to their colour space, and this year they had to be keyworded to their specs. Oh ya, they also wanted contributors to agree to a 20% decrease citing global economic difficulties.  Mmm – I guess we photographers are immune!”

Canon, Where is your Edge??

Posted in Rants with tags , , , , on January 22, 2009 by Darwin

When I bought my first camera in 1985, I chose a Canon AE-1P. At the time, Nikon was the camera for serious photographers. I was a starving university student and I could not afford a Nikon. I went with the cheaper Canon even while I dreamed of one day owning a Nikon! 

Soon after I bought the AE-1P, Canon introduced a revolutionary camera, the T90.  It became a landmark manual-focus camera that was leading edge.  I got one as soon as I could and loved that camera! Canon introduced auto-focus in 1987; they weren’t the first, but they soon became the best with the EOS-1 series of cameras being the penultimate performers. Many wildlife and sports shooters switched from Nikon to Canon for the huge advantages that Canon offered to action shooters. Speciality sports cameras such as the Canon RT with a pellicle mirror and 0.008 second shutter lag were developed to further entice action shooters to adopt Canon as the camera system of choice. Soon the sidelines of sports events were filled with white lenses and Canon camera-bodies. As a follow-up, Canon introduced Image Stabilization into their lens line-up (Canon was the first), and more specialty cameras like the EOS-1RS and EOS-1V were introduced to keep Canon ahead of the competition.

And then came digital. Canon shook the digital photography world to the core with the introduction in 2002 of the trendsetting, 11 MP, full-frame digital camera, the Canon EOS-1ds. If Nikon shooters had not already switched systems, this camera gave them every reason to do so! Canon became the undisputed world leader in camera design. The EOS-1ds Mark II, a 16 MP digital camera, continued this tradition of cutting-edge camera design. Canon was at the top of its game.

And then….

In May 2007, the introduction of the Canon EOS-1d Mark III, a 10 MP camera designed for sports, wildlife, and photojournalist photographers, hits the wall plagued with serious auto-focus problems that leaves the majority of buyers of this camera with a really bad taste in their mouths. The worst thing was the silence (some say denial) from Canon that a problem actually existed. Canon’s follow-up with the 21 MP EOS-1ds Mark III suffered similar problems as its 10MP cousin–not a good thing when you spend nearly $8000 on a camera body! Meanwhile, Nikon was producing revolutionary cameras such as the D300 and D700 that were cost-effective and high-performance (i.e they delivered as promised).

And recently? Canon introduces an affordable full-frame, high megapixel camera, the 5D MArk II, to keep up with Nikon (D700) and Sony ( A900) and right away there is a problem with black dots. Three top-of-the line camera releases, each with major problems, has really put a dent in Canon’s reputation.  And, to add insult to injury, Canon still has not made a decent wide-angle zoom lens for professional use. Nikon’s 14-24 has already become legendary and Sony’s Leica 16-35 for the Sony A900 promises great things. 

The old trend is reversing.  Canon is losing photographers’ alliances. I am seeing high-end, pro-Canon shooters jumping ship to Nikon and Sony.

Will I switch systems?? Who knows? For me, I end up with the same kinds of photos no matter what brand of camera I use. What does matter is trust. I simply have lost my trust that Canon will deliver what they advertise. I am hesitant to buy a new camera model from Canon until it has been tested in the market for a reasonable time. Don’t get me wrong, Canon makes some amazing cameras that are great value for the dollar and that are stunning performers (like the Rebel Xsi or the G10). I will proceed with caution when investing in Canon cameras in the future. In the past, everything that Canon produced was cutting edge. Now that edge seems a bit dull.