Sunday, October 10, 2010

Good Enough is Good Enough

Duke City Street

It may come as some surprise to hear me admit it, but we've finally entered the Era of Good Enough. I'm talking, of course, about some of the new photographic technologies now available, micro-four-thirds cameras and print-on-demand publishing, to be specific. They're good enough, now, to satisfy one's technical needs as a photographer; good enough to permit taking images derived from such devices and publishing them via the "vanity press" of print-on-demand, the internet-based publishing house for the 21st century; good enough that any person with the requisite talent and desire can express their photographic voice unhindered by what used to be the intrinsic limitations of a closed publishing world.

It was but a few years ago when a person of some creative bent could only fantasize about being "published," having a book of their images adorning their (or someone else's) coffee table. One had to break into the publishing business as a recognized author and photographer in order for that to happen. Or, go through the lengthy and uncertain apprenticeship of the traditional darkroom aficionado, learning the dark chemical crafts of printing to gelatin silver, perhaps also earning a degree in fine art, and hoping one's skill and vision were worthy of notice by a discriminating audience as they marketed their reputation as "artist." Now, all of that has dramatically and suddenly changed. Print-on-demand publishing has become a valid alternative to the cottage industries of computer or darkroom-derived printing of fine art photographs. Instead of printing photographs via a small-scale piecework process, large industrial-scale commercial printing technology has been combined with the convenience of a user-friendly website to bring commercial-quality printing to the masses.

Whether this new found access to the unlimited world of commercial printing technology makes an "artist" of the common man is another question entirely; neither does access to these new methods by the masses obviate the importance of, or need for, an educated art elite. But it is now an established fact that trained and educated professionals can and are now taking advantage of these new methods alongside the enthusiast amateurs, whose cost of access is so ridiculously low that virtually anyone can afford to "pay to play."

Not only is printing technology changing, but now we are seeing a sea-change in camera technology itself. New camera formats, like the micro-four-thirds, offered by both Panasonic and Olympus, promise "good enough" image quality, with the convenience of high-quality interchangeable lenses, obviating the need for the high-end gear of the paid professional, in a package much smaller, lighter and less expensive.

To be sure, the paid and equipped professional photographer will still be called upon to ply their necessary trade; but for many of the rest of us, who otherwise have the creative intent and desire, but lack the resources, the new tools of photography are a heaven-sent blessing.

If one were called upon to create mural-sized fine art prints, a professional-grade DSLR and printing setup, along with the skill and experience required to squeeze out the last drop of quality, would be required. But for coffee table books printed via the commercial CMYK offset press method (like what you would find in any bookstore's photography section), cameras like the micro-four-thirds are plenty sufficient, given the understanding that skill, experience and vision are still absolutely necessary ingredients to the successful photographer.

The thesis of my argument isn't based on mere speculation or uninformed opinion, for I have personally witnessed the power of these new photographic tools to offer fresh possibilities for the presentation, marketing and dissemination of one's work. My first book, "Duke City Street," has been published via Blurb, the well known online print-on-demand press. I was worried, between the time I had uploaded and ordered a trial copy of the book and when I received it in the mail, that there would be some fundamental flaw in the concept, like the paper or bookbinding quality would be inadequate, or the image quality would suffer in the translation process from my computer screen to some unknown printing press in who-knows-where. But my fears were easily put aside when the book arrived. I was more than pleasantly surprised at the quality, rather more like overwhelmed. It's not that I'm some master at Photoshopping image files, but that my adequate skill and vision at crafting images that look great on my computer screen translated with near effortless ease onto paper, a collaboration between my existing photographic skills and the ease of the new technology to create an end product more than adequate for the purpose. The new photography technology is good enough.

I'm obviously not the only one who feels this way; just look at the online pages of Blurb, or any of the numerous other print-on-demand publishers, for example. Wedding photographers by the church-full are abandoning the piecework of finagling high-quality wedding portraits from inkjet printers, and instead are having high quality wedding books commercially produced via print-on-demand. I have a personal friend whose spouse is a wedding photographer, who used to spend hours and hours fine tuning her image files so that she could output adequate inkjet prints for her clients, but not so any more. Now, she creates and uploads a wedding book, which the wedding party, family and friends can preview online and order as many copies as they desire.

Photography and mass reproduction printing are two distinct and different crafts, requiring skill and experience at sometimes considerable financial cost, that only comes from dedication to either the one or the other; that is the new reality in the 21st century. We are entering an era of specialization, when the paradigm of the do-everything home computer is inadequate for our new demands and standards. Witness the new trend toward "cloud computing," the farming out to remote server farms the storage needs and computing power we used to keep in-house. Now, self-publishing is heading to the Cloud, too.

My thinking along these lines goes like this: why should a person have to wear the two hats of both printer and photographer? In the heyday of film photography, many professionals left it up to their dedicated custom photo labs to do the bulk of their printing. And it has been recognized time and again that the skills required of the adept darkroom craftsman are not necessarily the skills of the photographic craftsman. Very few widely recognized fashion and documentary photographers, for example, did their own printing, except by absolute necessity. They employed their own skilled and dedicated printers, with whom they collaborated to produce their finished work.

I have come to recognize the period of the last decade as a transitional one, when the high-quality custom photo labs that we once took for granted in the past had by and large went by the wayside, and many small-time photographers (those who weren't blessed by the resources of an ad agency, publishing house or news organization) had to learn to print for themselves, adapting computerized printing technologies and methods that weren't originally designed or optimized for the job, in a piecemeal fashion. That era, it would seem, is finally coming to a close. Print-on-demand is better than ever, more affordable than ever, it would seem, due to competition and the continued demand of a high-quality product at a reasonable price.

There are those who will continue to pursue the fine art inkjet print, just as there are those who will continue to pursue the fine art gelatin silver print. But for many of the rest of us, who recognize that our limited resources and talents are best spent as photographers, rather than makeshift printers, we live in a Golden Age when we can self-publish our photographic work with a quality every bit as good as any other commercially-printed medium.

Along with this renaissance in printing and publishing, the new camera technology is also changing how photographers compose and capture their work. This became evident to me recently as I was sifting through the bulk of my image files during the creation of my first book: my Lumix G1 camera had changed the way in which I composed and created photographs. I began to notice that many of my stronger images were composed with the purposeful intent of manipulating the depth-of-focus as a creative tool. This is nothing new, of course; as long as there have been adjustable apertures on lenses, photographers have manipulated depth-of-focus. But the electronic live-view system of the new micro-four-thirds cameras offers 100% full time depth-of-focus preview and control, something that was only of secondary concern in the optical-only viewfinder systems of the older camera technologies like SLRs and rangefinders, whose depth-of-field preview was either limited under dim lighting, or impossible. Full-time control of depth-of-focus as a creative tool, every bit as valid or important as are exposure and composition, is now possible in the hands of the micro-four-thirds equipped photographer.

Going forward, we will be seeing new camera formats arise to compete with micro-four-thirds, offering similar large image sensors, interchangeable lenses and electronic viewfinders in smaller, lighter packages. This is indeed a new Golden Age in photography, because we have arrived at the point where good enough is Good Enough, and instead of obsessing over the minutiae of equipment specifications - being gear-centric - the photographer can once again return to what should have been his primary focus all along, that of the creative art of image-making.


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