December 27, 2013

Wow, How Did You Do That? (or why technique is not the key to a great image)

Lone Man No. 20 Before and After


When I show people my “before and after” images, their reaction tends to be: Wow, how did you do that?

This also tends to be my first reaction when I see an image that I love. Recently a friend showed me his latest creation that was both beautiful and unique, and I wanted to ask him: Benoit, how did you do that?

But I didn’t ask him.

Why not?

Because the miracle of the image was not the technique he used, but the imagination that created the image. Anyone can learn a technique, but not everyone will learn to find and follow their vision.  

If I had asked and he had told me his technique…then what? Copy what he had already imagined and created?  There is no joy in copying and yet I see technique after technique become the fad of the season and be copied to death.

I also see many who operate under the false belief that technique must be mastered before Vision can be executed. I emphatically reject that theory!

I believe that a great image starts with Vision and then you work hard to develop the required technique. Remember the old saying “necessity is the mother of invention?” It’s true! Once you have a vision of what you want, then you’ll be energized and driven, and you’ll learn whatever is needed to create the image.

However when I see people focusing on technique first, I find they usually never get around to putting that same energy into finding their Vision, and as a result their work is technically perfect and masterfully imitative. Technique alone misses the mark.

So instead of focusing on Photoshop and its hundreds of features or following the latest fad technique, put most of your time and energy into your Vision.  I promise you that this approach will yield better images and much more satisfying results.

Technique is not the key to a great image.  Vision is.


30 thoughts on “Wow, How Did You Do That? (or why technique is not the key to a great image)

  1. Very WELL said!!!!!
    We both know how important the artist’s vision is! Without it no technique will save the image from the standard repeated done and saw it before cliché!

  2. In concept I agree however both routes can be viable. But like you said personal vision is required to be invested in the image. Vision wo technique = nothing. Technique wo vision, ditto.

  3. I do think understanding technique be it in camera or photoshop is important and gives us more options to exercise our vision. I totally agree, technique without vision is oft times drab. However, technique WITH vision can yield magic! For instance, I love multiple exposures, however, until I understood the technique I could not complete my vision. Once I understood, I could then explore even more…

  4. I can fully appreciate what you are communicating here Cole. To use your rule of thirds, if I may, I see there are bridges between each of those thirds. And unless you know the way across, you may find yourself just gazing across those gaps not knowing how to get there. I sometimes find myself at these very junctions, having a vision and just not being able to realize it. The example you show here is perfect for showing how much that last third counts.

  5. Another good observation Cole. I agree with you totally on the fad issue, I enjoy looking at the work generated by some of the cool photoshop techniques, but I’m starting to see images that look very similar and I wonder how much of it is their personal vision vs someone else’s , if that makes sense.

  6. I do agree, Cole Thompson. But what if Vision is not supported by technique? Frustration will come quickly. It may be the reason why you have to learn technique, not for itself but to be able to translate your Vision, your mind, thru a technical device (also true with drawing, painting, playing music, etc…)

  7. I understand what you are saying, but the idea of having vision first and then learning a technique doesn’t apply to everyone. For me, learning a technique is a way to expand my vision. The goal isn’t to copy, but to learn to see things in a new way. I liken this to a musician who hears a ‘lick’ or style of playing and then studies the way an artist accomplishes that sound. Initially that musician might imitate the style, but eventually the go on to use that lick or style in an entirely new way, possibly developing new techniques along the way.

  8. Cole,
    Ansel Adams discribed a photograph with good technique with no vision as “A sharp image of a fuzzy concept” Learning technique is as important as developing a vision in the early stages of learning photography. Once it is mastered, your personal vision is free to create. When I started with photography I was given a tip by a fellow photographer to carry a rectangle viewing card in my pocket to learn composition, something I still carry with me today. It helps me to interpert the subject and helps me visiualize the final the image. Switching to digital a couple of years ago required that I start the process of learning a new technique for taking and processing my images. My vision and approach to photography was the same but the equipment to produce the final image was all new. When faced with this new technology I paniced, but I came to realize to simply used the same work flow and thought process as I used in my darkroom. It was my years of developing a vision that allowed me make the transition to PS as my darkroom and keep the look of my personal style of photography.

  9. Important thoughts, Cole. I recently did a small series of images that was relatively well received. One person complemented them (via email)and asked me if I used a particular lens. I said yes but then felt a little cheapened, not because I revealed any great secret but because I felt there was a bit more to the process than just my lens of choice. I’m sure that person knows that but I guess it just touched on one of my insecurities. In these days of gadgets, quickly advancing technologies, and marketing that leads one to question if the $3000 DSLR they bought six months ago is still up to snuff, it’s easy to lose sight of one’s vision at times.

  10. If forced to rank such things, I would argue Michelangelo’s “David” is the finest object of art that has ever been produced. Hopefully most of us have seen in in Florence.

    Michelangelo was the third sculptor, (by memory) to be retained to create a “David” from this massive block of marble. The first two, famous in their day, started, but gave up as it was too difficult-deemed impossible.

    The legend is that Michelangelo, then a relatively unknown but promising artist, studied the massive, partially carved block, and had a vision of what the finished work should look like. He later said it was then simply a matter of carving away the marble that wasn’t needed to didn’t fulfill his vision.

    From years of apprenticeship, he also had the technique-the technical skills- to realize his vision. For those of us lucky enough to be in it’s presence,it has a near mystical,powerful energy. Centuries later, we line up daily just to view it for a few moments.

    For me, the point is that vision and and technique are Siamese twins, linked at the hip. You can’t have one without the other. I’d say it’s really not even relevant which one is more important. I think they are equal partners. A yin yang thing.

    The first two famous sculptors who failed to complete a “David” probably lacked one or the other. To me, “David” is an example of what can happen when you are sufficiently accomplished to have both. With the marriage of Vision and Technique as equal partners, the highest form of art is possible.

  11. I have Photoshop and use it sparingly as you can find yourself getting bogged down with the technical aspects. The key to good photography in my humble opinion is to capture as much of the image in the camera focusing on the narrative you are trying to share. Clever photoshop techniques will follow and should be applied if needed.

    “Capture every moment as if it were your last”

  12. I agree in principal with what you are saying, concentrate on the visual aspect of photography more than the technical side, and eventually you will learn the techniques.
    The truth is you never stop learning as each photographic situation is never the same. Photography is about imagination, Observation, a little luck and some technical knowledge. Use your observation to see the image, use your imagination to compose the image ( based on experience through experimentation ) use the little bit of luck to be in the position to be able to take the shot and the small bit of skill to know when and when not to use filters and which settings to apply.
    Just get out there and take pictures but learn from the mistakes, read magazines for information but enjoy it …

  13. Very well said! I agree strongly. I shoot large format film, and take just one exposure. I also teach digital photographers. I see people shooting many many images and trying to make something of them later. Seeing a scene, being moved by it and composing an image with the final print in mind is where the art happens. There are many “engineers” out there producing a volume of mediocre computer produced work. You did a fantastic job of sharing this idea with us.
    Thank you.

  14. Cole-
    Just got caught up on your recent postings.

    I certainly admire your “vision” and approach. Independent, artistic, creative style. Kudos.
    And, Happy New Year!

  15. This is truly insightful. I field a lot of questions from other photographers about technique and now I can refer them to this post. Develop you own vision and work on techniques later should be the take home message. I think that newer but ambitions photographers want immediate results, just like most people who are part of the digital age. They think that mastery of technique is the most direct avenue to greatness, rather than truly developing a vision which is somewhat less defined and arguably more elusive. Thanks again for this bit of photographic philosophy.

  16. “However when I see people focusing on technique first, I find they usually never get around to putting that same energy into finding their Vision, and as a result their work is technically perfect and masterfully imitative. Technique alone misses the mark.

    So instead of focusing on Photoshop and its hundreds of features or following the latest fad technique, put most of your time and energy into your Vision. I promise you that this approach will yield better images and much more satisfying results.

    Technique is not the key to a great image. Vision is.”

    I am so thankful for your words of wisdom! I have had so many conversations recently through which I have been told that I need to master Photoshop and manipulating images because that is the way to go. I have always held to my belief that shooting to capture my vision is the best way to work – I suppose I am a purist, but I want to capture what I see, what I feel, and what is inspiring me. I want to use the light to make my images, not have to go back at the end of the day to try to make what I thought I saw by using a technique that someone else is using. I’ve been told by photographers that they shoot with the purpose of using the image for an idea they have in PS, or other editing software. To me, that is digital art vs. photography. To call it photography don’t you have to be using the camera to capture light and use your artistic vision to compose the image and manipulate the light to successfully create your vision? I am not opposed to post processing a digital image, after all, isn’t the software for digital imaging like the darkroom to film photography? I just think that your insight is accurate as far as differentiating artistic vision using photography vs. the art of digital manipulation and creation.

    I love your philosophy and am so refreshed to know that there are still some with a similar philosophy as mine. Blessings, Robyn

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