#1294. Living at the (system) limits

By pascaljappy | Art & Creativity

Jun 16

In most areas of life and tech, it’s best to stay in the center of a specification range. But maybe we can stray a little in our creative endeavours?


On your daily commute, you probably wouldn’t want to drift your car through intense traffic, nor would you tolerate your rush-hour neighbour doing so. Or the tram driver.

You want to use your car, and hope that the train driver is using his equipment, smack in the middle of the specification range it was designed for.

If you’re a rallying enthusiast, however … In the right safety conditions, you’ll want to spend time at the limit of the chassis’ capabilities. And you’ll systematically exceed them if you are a Ken Block fan (loud), like Joey.


Andres Segovia and Pepe Romero stay(ed) away from Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face pedals. The sound of their guitar is as pure and unadulterated as they come.

But Jimi relied on that pedal’s tortured germanium transistors to take the sound of his Strat as far from spec as possible, and create his own signature tone.

And even classical musicians have a crush on centuries-old instruments with sound characteristics that their makers could not have specified in any possible way.


Amateur photography sees a similar split, occasionally with some entertaining schizophrenia.

On the one hand, specification has become the Numero Uno driver of sales. Pity the fool trying to peddle a camera that cannot shoot 20 frames per second, each at least 50 million pixels, in pitch black conditions, with zero noise. Or cannot manage 8k footage at 120 fps for 7 hours without seeing more than a 4 degree temperature rise. Or a lens costing more than 300 dollars, weighing more than 289 grams and with MTF curves lower than a Zeiss Otus.

On the other hand, the craving for old glass with plentiful character is everywhere to be seen, even with owners of said high-spec cameras. Hilarious, right? And look who’s talking: I’m plenty guilty of this, having very much enjoyed shooting Mandler-ear Leica-R lenses and a Zeiss C-Sonnar designed 80 years ago, on a Hassy X1D.


Still, we photographers see very little actual distortion of performance in the sense of what pedals and saturated tube amps offer electric guitars and extreme aging brings to cellos. Our exotic looking lenses were designed that way, we are not actively making them misbehave.

I suppose presets somewhat bridge the gap for us.

Through the use of lenses with nice drawing, consistent lighting conditions that appeal to us and PP (via preset/profile or hand baked), we can create a personal look in a similar way to Hendrix’s choice of playing / guitar / amp / pedal.


But I still wonder what other creative levers we can rely on to create a personal style. This, above, is my default colour style. Squeeky clean, but as organic as my system will allow. Compare it to Adam Bonn’s wonderful image below, with its very present grain and different colour profile. It certainly feels more like a personal creation than my more generic look above.

So what creative variables can we rely on to create our signature look?

There’s the sensor. The film community is very much into this, using filmstock that is decades past its sell-by date, or pushing / pulling film in extreme ways, using “inadequate” chemistry, or even exposing the rear of some filmstocks, rather than the front, to let the base substrate act as a colour/diffusion filter!

(c) Adam Bonn

For us digi-normies, life is tougher because modern sensors don’t much like to leave their comfort zone. Digital noise is not always pretty and neither are clipped highlights.

But extreme cropping, as above, is an interesting option if your camera does happen to exhibit nice looking noise, in moderate doses. If you do not try to lift deep and underexposed shadows, you should be fine with most cameras, with some looking nicer than others. And you can use colour filters that do not blend happily with the sensor’s Bayer matrix, for a personal and noisy touch.

So sensor noise is one “off-spec” creative parameter we can leverage to build a personal aesthetic.


Then, there’s the lenses. We’ve already covered the use case for older designs that depart from the more clinical look of modern ones, but we can also add our personal touch in multiple ways.

Filters are one option for that. Though, technically, every filter is working within its specified operating conditions, it’s probably fair to think of them as tampering with the lens’ official specs, much like what the pedal does to the guitar. For instance, the diffusion (pro-mist) filters used by many film photographers to take the edge off sharp lenses, will lower the MTF of whatever they are mounted to.


Or you can add extension rings to a lens to use it in macro mode, taking it out of its normal focus range. The first two images on this page are examples of this, in that they were made with a sharp Otus 85, but from very close up, using a 20mm extension ring well outside the lens’ design parameters. The degradation in sharpness is visible, but the Otus degrades very beautifully, so the result is silky and appealing. The photo above is similarly made.

Flare and glare also come to mind. Though they are, strictly speaking, part of the spec, both are often considered unappealing and undesirable. So getting to know how your lenses react to direct sunlight in order to predict interesting uses is also (in my view) a creative departure from spec.


I won’t speak of post processing because nothing non-developers can do will escape the specs of the software being used, and because that software offers such unlimited options today that it is pointless to try to explore all of them. But my quick view on this topic is that a line must be drawn between image manipulation (compositing, or adding exotics skies to a scene, for example) and “extreme” image processing (that would include solarization, for instance). Both are valid, but only the latter is a product of taking a process to the limit of its capacity range.


This leaves printing. So many options are available to us today: inkjet printing, silver printing, alternative processes (cyanotypes, collotype, platinum/palladium, carbon, …).

There’s an argument to be made that piezography is twisting inkjet printing in creative directions. But, as beautiful as it is, piezo is very precisely specified and doesn’t belong here. To me, “alternative processes” allow the widest experimentation area to take the usual recipes close to their limit of failure and find the conditions in which this looks interesting. Andy Warhol famously peed (and worse) on his paintings, so maybe something simular is possible in darkroom printing …? Do let me know if you attempt something like this πŸ˜‰


My point here is not to denigrate well established practices. I’m just interested in finding where those practices degrade in interesting ways (and where they don’t) when taken outside of the usual parameters for their use.

If you’ve ever broken the system rules in creative ways, I’d love to hear from you.


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Have I ever broken the system rules in creative ways? Well as my mother would have told you, I was always an impossible child, and I’ve only gotten worse with age. Telling me what NOT to do is simply inviting the opposite!

    Whether or not I choose to does depend on subject matter though. Much of my MACRO stuff depends on technical quality, for outcome – you don’t get much out of photo of a bee’s face, if it’s all blurry!

    One “poster boy” shot I took years ago – and I must get round to scanning it, for publication here, sometime – is one I told you about ages ago. From when I was chasing around with steam train fans, and I decided to take a shot of a train from what they later told me was “the wrong end”. They were all horrified when they saw my shot – of the rear of the train, with the front (the locomotive) practically disappearing from view, at the other end. Apart from that, it was nothing startling – satisfied all the bog standard “rules of composition”, otherwise.

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    Hi Pascal,

    I don’t know what you are on about. You will never find an example of me ever breaking the rules here.

  • philberphoto says:

    haha…. what about Alexander Fleming? That would be my way of breaking the rules. Lack of knowledge of said rules, lack of effort and/or technique. And sometimes, not often, fool’s luck….
    Still, your article raises a chicken-and-egge question. Should technique and gear lead to images, or vice-versa? Thanks for letting the genie out of the bottle…
    In my case, I strive to solidify a vision -a lifelong, wildly unreasonable ambition-, and that is hard enough that, should I let “creative ways of breaking the rules” into the equation, it will only set me even further back from my goal….

  • John Wilson says:

    In my photographic universe, there are only two rules:

    1. Make images that please YOU! How you do that is entirely up to you. The most interesting things
    happen when you use your tools (gear) in ways they were never intended to be used.

    2. See rule 1.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hence the interesting nuance between system cameras (Hassy, Leica) and platform cameras (Sony) The latter make it easier to think outside the specs, I think!

  • paulB says:

    I think art happens at the limits of what is accepted (or expected) and what is possible. At least until the limits become accepted.


    • pascaljappy says:

      How dare you push the boundaries of the accepted definition of art?! πŸ˜€
      Totally agree with you. Which is why one guy who paints everything blue is interesting, but the next 20 are not.

      • PaulB says:

        I agree with you too. I feel the same way about images (paintings, photos, etc.) of Crows and Ravens. They are over done, and I am over them.


  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    ( Broken system rules?
    No, not really.)

    Framing unconventionally.
    My (teenage) first cameras’ viewfinders didn’t allow for precise framing, so I learned to compose under the enlarger – and to *all* kinds of proportions.
    ( Slow 120 film allowed for cropping generously.)
    I occasionally ended up projecting on the floor and pulling 20×50 cm sheets through the chemicals with clothe hangers (the type with 2 clips).

    Later, sadly, I had no room for a darkroom … until now with digital PP – once ending up with a round photo.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah, experimentation and surprise, the two greatest victims of digital photography.
      That’s one area where generative AI is superior: you know what you’re asking the machine, you don’t know what you’ll get! Experimentation and surprise!

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Ask a human – and you often don’t know either.

        Discuss its answer with the AI – it will in the end give you the answers you want!

        Fiction is at least as strange as AI.
        Reality is stranger than fiction.
        Reality is stranger than AI.


        AI superior?

        Btw., experimentation and surprise were victims long before – remember Instamatic?

        • pascaljappy says:

          Nice proof πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€
          Love it.

          Yup, Instamatic, Polaroid, definitely as full of surprises as Frodo Baggins!

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Hmm, Instamatic I’d rather compare to the Ring’s power to take hold of one.

            Yes, capable of surprises.

            At the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg we had some that were adapted to photograph ‘scopes.

            My friend and I used them to make (very!) close-up portraits, with good results – it was his idea.

            • pascaljappy says:

              You were a telescope man???? That has been a passion of mine all my life!

              • Kristian Wannebo says:

                No, sorry to disappoint you, it was the M.P.I. of nuclear physics.

                ( Although there was , if I remember rightly, a small telescope on the roof.)

                Remember the telescope man who became King of France?
                ( Only for a short time, though.)

              • Kristian Wannebo says:

                Sorry, Pascal, it was mean to make a riddle of it.

                The Short Reign of Pippin IV,
                by John Steinbeck.

                Have you read it?

                ( It’s a lovely political satire – and, I suppose, not only of France.
                The main characters are a fairly advanced amateur astronomer, his more conventional wife and a somewhat eccentric daughter, a young American sent on an educational tour (son of the Chicken King) and – of course – the French parliament!!)

              • pascaljappy says:

                Phew, I was struggling there, though it is said Louis XIV was a fan of astronomy πŸ˜‰
                No, I haven’t read that one, sorry! But it sounds funny.

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Singeing sun
    over the country,
    short is
    every shadow.

    Woe to him
    who finds his way
    only bye
    his own shadow.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Signed Anna Lemma πŸ˜‰

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Sorry, please educate an old man.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Sorry, Kristian, that was rather silly and cryptic of me πŸ˜‰
          An analemma is the “figure 8” shape of the position of the sun at noon throughout the year. Since the sun is sometimes low, sometimes high, sometimes East, sometimes West, it would make someone finding one’s way (following one’s shadow) turn around a 8 pattern, all year long πŸ˜‰

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            No, Pascal,
            not at all silly and no more cryptic than I deserve!

            I should have read what I found about the sun … but I doubt I’d guessed your riddle.

            A good one!
            πŸ˜‰ !

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Btw. Pascal,
            In the middle of the Heidelberg Max Planck Institute stood a sundial that gave precise time – to the minute – if you knew at what edge of the shadow you should read it.

  • Jens says:

    A local photographer named Kristian Schuller has an interesting shooting style that strays a bit from the norm – he often holds one (or more) pane of glass a few centimeters in front of the actual lens, but attaches all sorts of usually semi translucent pieces on the glass and keeps it in motion – as such they become part of the foreground bokeh. This adds colors and all sorts of imperfections to his pictures that make them rather unique in style.


    Just searched online – he was part of the Z9 launch event and there is a youtube video featuring him and you see glimpses of this process. It’s not my personal taste, but this might be a starting point for experimentation. And while this might not be using gear at its limits it’s good to see a very high-end digital product with according modern lenses used in a way that doesn’t produce particular sharp pictures. And moving things into the picture taking process instead of relying on digital post production.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Jens. Not my style either, but definitely very interesting photography and photographer.
      As you say, there’s a real debate about “in camera” vs “in PP” that needs to be talked about. I’m of the second camp, but feel more and more that it is the lazy way, and that artists probably prefer to create (in camera) the shot rather than edit it (in PP)!

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Pascal, you can shoot outside the limits anytime because I’m loving the results! That pink flower – absolute yum! Your first and last images are divine too. Makes me want to go out and smush my cellphone into more flowers…..or something.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you Nancee πŸ™‚ Go smush, go smush (and send us the results). Your sakura smushing was enchanting and brought a much desired dose of escapism πŸ™‚

  • Paul J. van Os says:

    Hi Pascal,

    Why use a camera at all? as long as your subject is flat, you can use a scanner.
    The sharpest photo’s I’ve ever made was with a USB-powered flatbed scanner and a laptop. I could go into the field and throw(!) the scanner into the flowers, if moved when scanning we get a impression of wat flowers on another planet could look like …….

    Sometimes art is free, ever had a crashed memorycard? often they are filled with; Piet Mondriaan goes Andy Warhol or the other way around .

    And the last thing to share; systemlimits; A friend of mine came home with unintended ”arty” pictures when he had made photographs around the antenna of a 10 kilowatts radiotransmitter.
    Should have brought an analog camera, keep yours around!

    • pascaljappy says:

      So true, Paul. I’d love to see those flatbed images, and the 10kW ones as well πŸ˜‰ Some people reported “interesting results” when their rolls went through gates in airport, as well. Not sure I’d wnt to try on purpose, but some photos must have been unexpectedly fun! Cheers

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