#735. Monday Post (11 June 2018) – Presets Vs. Resets and Wilson Vs. Otus

By philberphoto | Monday Post

Jun 11

In my previous post, “confessions of a repentant slut”, I write that, if I have already done a certain subject a certain way, I now have little interest if any in being stuck repeating that same picture/shoot over and over again. And having to deal with “lesser gear”, and no longer being “committed” to any sort of rhythmic production both frees me and forces me to rethink how I shoot, and, hence, also what I shoot, or not.

That amounts to a (forced) photographic reset.

Interestingly, and though we didn’t communicate, collude or conspire on that topic, Pascal posted his remarkable piece about emulating Moriyama. He spends a lot of time studying the masters, and laments the fact that he, unlike them, does not have a ” photographic signature” that would give coherence and meaning to his work. His emulating one master or other often leads to some of his finest work, showing not only his technical mastery, but also his grasp of photographic Gestalt.

Now, if a photographer’s work exhibits a “signature”, meaning some kind of identifiable visual identity, a “vision”, then it is what I call a preset. A result, a look, a vision, a technique, a method, a purpose that pre-exist before subject and photographer meet.

Presets are all over the photographic world. From the explicit ones, such as with Instagram or those included in post processing software, presets are supposed to give you the look without the headache, time, work, mindset, and required competence. Think of a JPEG as being a preset, Vs. a RAW file. Gear can also incorporate what works like presets. Lenses, for example, that have a “signature” (very few have little or none at all) imbue your shots with preset looks.

In my prior photography life, I had presets. Typically, for flower shots. Set aperture to f:2.0 or f:2.8. Choose a composition that would suit a square image, with some background faintly visible. If that doesn’t suit, chose by default a 4/3 ratio. Adjust so that subjects fills at least 50% of the frame, but not more than 75%. Set the aperture compensation to -1 stop, to avoid sensor saturation and have more headroom in PP. Choose the point of focus as one offering high contrast, in principle the heart of the flower, or, by default, the part of the flower closest  to the camera. Then Boom! Shoot. And the result would definitely have a certain “look”.

Then comes the reset. Forget the past. The lessons, good or bad. The rules. The quest for results. Shut off the outside world. Become a one-minute hermit, like Chuck Noland desperately alone on his island in the -excellent- movie Cast Away. The only “person” he can “talk to” is a sports ball branded “Wilson”, which he calls by this name. Let your subject be your “Wilson”. Nobody watching, no ubiquitous cellphone to record your dubious moments. Nobody to criticize or to please. The gnawing solitude, but also the freedom from everything and the liberation, and hence the authenticity and truth that come with it. Just you and “Wilson”. Then Boom! Shoot.

That does not mean that a reset erases everything you have acquired in one way or another, like the special pen in the movie “Men in Black”. It is pretty hard to unlearn what one has learned, and why should we? The key issue here is to keep – and in fact honor and succour – everything that is our self, and throw by the wayside whatever is a method, a strategy, a shortcut, a goal-seeking process, an influence that we like but that is not us. In a word, a preset.

Does that mean that I no longer shoot flowers as per my preset, that I “have to” forsake whatever I did, even if it worked? Of course not, just like coming back from being a bokeh slut doesn’t mean I forsake bokeh. The difference, is, and I exaggerate deliberately, I try to avoid being any kind of method photographer, at the expense of any coherence to my work, and concentrate on any “Wilson” moments that may happen. But I still do broken bikes and flowers… as and when Wilson shows up. Unlike with presets, when you know where you are going, with resets, by definition you don’t, so results may be elusive.

Every shot should, as far as I am concerned, be executed as though preceded by a reset. Yes, it takes time, and, even more, discipline. Like a form of meditation, all in the eye, before the camera is even out of the bag. And then again in front of the post-processing computer. Results can be surprising, even to me, as I begin to explore subjects, situations and treatments that I would never had considered before. Shooting dirty sneakers, or my kettle…

Am I coming to the point of uttering the unutterable, that is that the bloke who stole my camera bag actually did me a favor? Well, right now it could sort of look that way, money and pain aside. Question is, though, can I remain a hermit with my Wilsons, or will the strings of “effectiveness” pull me back to my old ways? Especially if I ever get a “good system” back together. Honestly, that is what is stopping me from pulling the trigger on one. Looking at Otus pictures, reading the Otus story, and the craving is still there, still powerful. The safety and certainty I felt in shooting the greatest gear there was, Vs the nakedness and vulnerability of my Wilson moments. That is of course where the Internet helps, because I am posting under a nickname, and if you think Wilson and I are off our rocker, so what?

Does that mean that Wilson pics are the only “valid “ones? The only noteworthy ones? The only beautiful ones? The only worthwhile ones? Not in my opinion. People buy tons of postcards, and you can’t get more un-Wilsonian than a postcard. Just as preset-type shots rule on Instagram. I have made qui a few beautiful pictures that are not Wilsons, and I don’t renounce them. Neither do pictures “need” to be quirky or original to be Wilson-worthy. The issue is not the look, or the result, it is the process, the mindset and the toolkit. And the resonance within me. Does this post also mean that I didn’t shoot Wilsons before my “episode”? Looking back at my files does reveal Wilsons there as well. But not enough, and often not recognized for what they are. In some cases, I didn’t even post them, choosing instead images that were “safe”…

For this reason, this post has only what I hope are “Wilson” shots. Not one that I would have taken “before” just because I knew it would be a cracking shot, or shown just because it looked good. This is also why there aren’t that many pics. ‘Cause I haven’t that many Wilson moments. I think I may need another reset…

Wilson, my best friend, my soul mate, my double.


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  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Very nice Wilsonian photos!

    I don’t like presets either, and try to avoid them.
    Your Reset Pre Photo is a good way of putting it!

    ( I’m afraid I’ll think of Wilson a lot behind my VF, I’ll have to think of some other name…)

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Kristian! Though, if you insist, I might accept a modest royalty on every Wilson shot. I know you haven’t offered it, but I know you meant it! 🙂

  • Cliff Whittaker says:

    Love this article. It exemplifies exactly why I thank goodness that I never took a photography class at the local university.
    Our gallery curates a juried regional photography exhibit every year and I can usually pick out the university photography students’ images without ever looking at the entry forms. Exact same style as the professors’ and boring as hell, but good for an “A”.

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Cliff! That said, it is not the learning process that is at fault per se, it is the notion that you “need to shoot it like the professor”. Many photo workshops work that way as well. The issue is that in such classes, teachings are geared towards results rather than aimed at self-expression.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Love your photos, Philippe – they are a bit of a distraction in your article, though – instead of reading, I found myself stopping and staring all the time, and then having to pick up my thoughts and recollect what I was reading. Never mind – that’s not a complaint – and I’m finally here, posting a comment.

    You speak to the maverick in me, Philippe – the eternal loner, who only wants to photograph what I want, and I don’t care WHAT anyone else thinks of the results. Forrtunately, being an “amateur” photographer, I have the luxury of not needing “acceptance”, because I don’t have to appease a market or a client.

    As against a recent article on Fstoppers site, bewailing the fact that it was becoming increasingly difficult for a photographer to make money out there, because so many people on Instagram would immediately plagiarise anything published there. That kind of stuff makes my head hurt – was it meant to suggest that professional photographers only make a living by selling photos on Instagram? How awful !!! Maybe he should try Pinterest !!! Or set up a stall at his local “brocante”, where he’s free from plagiarists !!

    Photography should be no different than art. We all should learn from the masters – everyone needs to know what a camera is, what it does, how it functions, what are all these knobs and buttons for, and so on – in short, how to put it all together, pick it up, and use it. But then what? How and where to use it. At that point, cut the umbilical cord. As Cliff suggests, leave “school” behind. Be like Van Gogh – who reputedly never sold a painting in his life, and whose paintings are now the costliest art on the market, selling for nearly USD$100 million. Dare to be different – to be yourself !!!! Picasso did, and it didn’t hurt him, financially !!!

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Pete! Though I would respectfully disagree with you. Both van Gogh and Picasso produced enormous quantities. Van Gogh managed one painting a day in his last days at the Auberge Ravoux, while Picasso left many thousands of works of different kinds. Living long does help in that respect. That makes them both “preset” artists IMHO. If you want to look for reset artists, look to Leonardo da Vinci, who wanted each piece of art to be a breakthrough. Not without some success… But also spectacular failures, like his huge bronze statue of Lodovico Sforza, or his mural of the “battaglia di Anghiari”. Oh well, let’s be broad-minded here. I’ll accept his failures, if I can have his successes. An artist after my own (modest, oh so modest!) heart. I wonder if Leonardo ever heard of Wilson…

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I see what you mean, Philippe, about Leonardo – you never knew what he’d get up to, next.

        What I had in mind with Picasso was a film I once saw, about him – in the middle of it, they asked him if he had ever done any traditional pictures. He threw a temper tantrum and during the following 10 minutes, without the camera ever stopping to roll, Picasso painted (wet on wet) an “impressionist” oil painting masterpiece, measuring about 1m by 1.5m – and in the film, it was blown up to fill the entire screen, so if there’d been any defects in it whatsoever, they would have stood out like dogs’ balls** [** Aussie vernacular]

        And both he and Van Gogh showed no interest in or regard to what other people did – they did their own thing.

        Both are qualities I often find missing in the photographs I see on Pinterest or Instagram – originality isn’t where it should stop, but it would certainly be a great start – and as your Wilson seems to me to suggest, not merely “daring to be different” – but continuing to be different not only from others, but also from your own previous work.

        You might find this interesting – I found it, pursuing your comments:

        In defining painting as a science, Leonardo also emphasizes its mathematical basis. In the notebooks he explains that the 10 optical functions of the eye (“darkness, light, body and colour, shape and location, distance and closeness, motion and rest”) are all essential components of painting. He addresses these functions through detailed discourses on perspective that include explanations of perspectival systems based on geometry, proportion, and the modulation of light and shade. He differentiates between types of perspective, including the conventional form based on a single vanishing point, the use of multiple vanishing points, and aerial perspective. In addition to these orthodox systems, he explores—via words and geometric and analytic drawings—the concepts of wide-angle vision, lateral recession, and atmospheric perspective, through which the blurring of clarity and progressive lightening of tone is used to create the illusion of deep spatial recession. He further offers practical advice—again through words and sketches—about how to paint optical effects such as light, shadow, distance, atmosphere, smoke, and water, as well as how to portray aspects of human anatomy, such as human proportion and facial expressions.

        While it adds “formality” to the process of seeing, and perhaps to the underlying concepts of art, it serves a purpose. And yet . . . Having spent almost my entire life, devoted to “classical” [read “good”**] music, I found it offensive to be informed that some Conservatoriums are now trying to teach students that music is just a mathematical expression.
        [** the “young” people seem to think that the oldies prefer classical music, while they prefer modern – pop – reggae – whatever. I don’t have those boundaries – I long ago divided it into “good” or “bad” music, and refuse to be dictated to by fashion or opinion]

        • pascaljappy says:

          Great info on Leonardo, Pete, thanks !

          Presets apply just as much to music as they do to photography or painting (although I stongly disagree that Van Gogh or Picasso were preset painters). And that’s where the good/bad music concept loses some of it’s subjectivity. Preset music is most of what we hear today (but not all). It can be entertaining for a few weeks but is ultimately very forgetable and, indeed, quickly forgotten. I’m pretty sure there was plenty of preset music in the good ol’ days, we’ve just … forgotten all about it.

        • philberphoto says:

          There are 2 separate factors at play here, Pete. One is, as per your description of Picasso and Van Gogh, “dare to be different”. The other one is the one I tried to describe: be true to yourself and keep each shot fresh, Do not resort to any form of “systematic or habitual production”. It is true that shots that dare to be different are more likely to be Wilsons, but not necessarily so, since experimenting can also be a formula, as modern and contemporaray art show. Conversely, some Wilsons can appear quite traditional, and only the author will be aware of its true resonance and import. In my case, some flower shots have a painterly-old-masters look which pleases me no end, and I rejoice in having produced this look, though I am never sure exactly how. I did shoot shoot one such shot last week, decidedly a Wilson in my judgement, but decided not to post it, because it is sort of a counterintuitive Wilson and might have confused the reader more than anything.

        • Kristian Wannebo says:

          Not quite off topic…
          Also :

          Have fun!

      • pascaljappy says:

        Philippe, why would intense production be a sign of preset art ? I find it really hard to think of Van Gogh or Picasso as preset artists !! How they painted came from within and wasn’t dictated by a search for commercial success or simplicity of process. Intense production could have come from intense passion (in its original sense of suffering) deep inside. I’m pretty sure both these guys saw every one of their painting as a breakthrough and never painted anyting “just like the previous one ’cause that looked cool”. Van Gogh could barely afford the canvas and paint. My guess is that he was out of control and painted for therapeutic reasons, kind of the opposite to the cynicism of preset art, isn’t it?

        • philberphoto says:

          First let me state that there is nothing wrong with presets. Nothing negative. Presets can be art in its highest, purest form IMHO. I find Annie Leibowitz’ portraits of Queen Elisabeth visually stunning, and they qualify as great photography in my book. But they are totally un-Wilsonian presets.
          My point was that “lesser artists” (meaning me, the hobby photographer version of Antonio Salieri, and some readers maybe) can lose their soul amid the methods, processes, gear, cultivated looks and also teachings (copyright Pete Guaron) that end up as abrries between them and their subject.
          As to Picasso being a largely preset genius, there is little doubt in my mind. Many of his thousands of works were mass-produced, ceramics being one example, drawings another. But this does not mean that he didn’t have his Wilsons too. Guernica could stand out as a likely candidate.
          If you insist on calling the daily works feverishly produced by Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise resets rather than presets, then we will have to agree to disagree…:-)
          Just to be a nuisance and stir the pot, do you know tha there is partial, not-yet-conclusive-but-already-substantial evidence that Mozart, arguably the most talented composer of “classical music” that ever lived, was using presets to a very large dedgree? Very much unlike Beethoven, who had to rework his only opera, Fidelio, over and over again, because he just couldn’t get it done?

          • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

            Once, when I was stuck in bed with flu for several days, I picked up my boxed set of ALL of Haydn’s symphonies. I still have it somewhere, but I can’t be bothered checking – I think it was 104 of them! And I started playing the set with No. 1, and didn’t stop till I got to the very end.

            It was an exercise in sheer stubborn tenacity. How that man stayed in business was a complete mystery to me, after listening to them all. There are several, towards the end, that “dare to be different”. For the rest of it – as far as I’m concerned, all except the very first one were “pre-sets” and nothing more than that. Playing any one of them over & over would have produced much the same effect as playing the whole lot of them.

            Bach got a bit like that in places. Mozart perhaps less so, although I accept there was an element of “pre-sets” in his work, he did in fact break right out of that on a fairly regular basis – I’ve often wondered what he might have done if he hadn’t died so young – I rather think he would have completely dominated the musical world, and eclipsed Beethoven. In evaluating Mozart, we have to allow for the fact that pretty much half his works were written before he even became an adult – and I wish I was even half as clever as HE was! 🙂

            Philippe – I do get your drift. This isn’t really what you’re talking about, is it? Your Wilsons are on a different turf, aren’t they? Or am I still missing something?

          • Kristian Wannebo says:


            but Mozart could fill even his “presets” with a life you seldom find in Haydn’s music!

  • Very thought provoking article Philippe. It makes me ponder what type of photographer am I? Lovely images.

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