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!
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 😉
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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