Our 18% World

Degree of Difficulty 8.0

The image you see was posted recently and I’ve blogged about it, but today I want to use it to illustrate what I am about to talk about. Never mind that Apple has my desktop computer that I use for image editing, and until I get it back I can’t really access any of my images. Hence today’s basis for discourse.

I will ask you to get through the next 2 paragraphs without eyes glazing over. Bare with me.

18% grey reflectance is the calibration for light meters. On the Zone System scale it is dead in the middle, Zone 5. “Average grey” is another term I’ve heard to describe it. So if you point your camera at something and use its internal meter, the value it uses to determine exposure is reflected light calibrated to Zone 5. Depending on your metering (spot, wide area, whatever), what gets read back is an “average” reading based on what exposure would be for an 18% grey card.

The reading your light meter (or camera) gives you may be the correct exposure. Or it may not be. It depends. The exposure will certainly be “average,” at least by the camera’s standards.

Before I put you to sleep I’m not really talking about light meters or exposure here. I’m using it as a metaphor to illustrate the difference between professional photography and, well, less than professional photography. Professional anything – photography or otherwise – lives closer to the edge than “average”. On the bell curve, it’s not that hump in the middle.

I was asked by a friend recently about recommendations for photography for her daughter’s wedding. This, and the tiresome, ongoing blathering on photography blogs about the state of photography today, including the inevitable¬† “death of professional photography” (it’s been dying for, like, ever, you know) got me thinking. Always a dangerous thing, but here you go.

The “death” of professional photography has always been linked to technology. First it was any type of consumer camera, then miniaturization (roll film), then digital, now Instagram, yada, yada, yada. Tomorrow it will be something else. You the consumer, have great tools available to you to take really nice pictures. Or Uncle Fred can take really nice pictures at the wedding. After all, he may have a D4 or a 1DS, or whatever. Damn nice camera. Takes great pictures. May have “better” equipment than the pro you hired.

But you are not, nor ever will, be buying the camera. You are buying that matter between the ears of the guy using that camera.

Why photography is singled out I don’t know – you or Uncle Fred or Aunt Sally or the kid down the street can go to Home Depot or Lowes and get the materials to do what a professional contractor would do, you can work on your car, you can cut your own hair or do your own nails. The decision process is the same. You make a decision on what you are willing to do, and, perhaps more importantly, what effort you want to put into it and what results you expect out of it. And then you decide if the differential between what you are willing to do and what price you are willing to pay for it is worth any perceived differences.

Therein lies the point.

Take a look at the featured image for this post. I don’t care how good Uncle Fred is or how good his camera is, Uncle Fred will not produce the above image by pointing his camera and pressing the shutter button. Not unless he also understands and uses supplemental lighting (and not stuck on his camera), makes exposure and composition choices, and finishes the image by spending some time in Photoshop. If he does then he certainly qualifies as knowing what he’s doing and can produce professional imagery, even though he may not be a “professional” (one who makes his living at it) photographer.

And I’m only talking technique here. There is also posing. And expression, And composition (OK, I already mentioned that). And, perhaps most important of all, the vision (or style) of the photographer. That’s the secret sauce.

It’s that simple.

Now, whether professional photography is worth it to you depends on if and how much you value the difference between what a snapshot can give you (Instagram’d or not) and what a crafted image can give you. There are subtleties here. The difference between something of professional quality and something not of professional quality (furniture, clothing, a repair job – you name it) are the details. If you are happy with an 18% image, then having a professional produce it probably isn’t worth it to you.

I also hear a lot about how “kids” (defined as anyone younger than me) don’t want prints anymore. Although a topic that can be explored more deeply later on, the situation is the same. A professionally produced print (hopefully of a professionally taken image) is not the same as one done at a one hour photo. It has its place, but it’s not the same. Nor is the print the same as seeing it on your computer monitor or iPhone.

There has never been more photography, nor more access to great photographic tools, nor more photographs, then there is now. Of course, that statement could have been made at any time between the invention of photography and now. And also this statement: as access and numbers grow, so too does the quantity of 18% images in the world. The signal to noise ratio remains, only there is a lot more noise.

No tool can think. No tool manipulates itself. If you buy the same saw that the master craftsman uses, it will no doubt cut that same line in the wood. Or at least it has the potential to.

The bottom line is, as always, getting what you want. 25 years from now, when tastes – and you – change, would it be worth it to you to have that professionally crafted image – hopefully in print and framed – or a “nice” picture? On your iPhone. You know, “nice.” Average. 18% grey. Without the subtleties. Will the processing done in Instagram still be to your taste? Or will the trend have moved on by then?

If you are in the business of selling something (your service, a product, whatever), how it is presented means everything. You know this. Your consumer will make value judgements like if he doesn’t give a crap about what’s on his site/brochure/ad, certainly he doesn’t give a crap about what he does for me. If he goes low road with snapshots, certainly he’ll go low road with me. Which is fine if that’s how you want to be paid.

As a consumer, not every image is that important.  There are, however, certainly some images that are. You know that, too.

There are times when an 18% world is fine. There are others – often fleeting – when it is not. Don’t make the mistake of staying in one all of the time.

This entry was posted in Philosophy.