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The Only Secret Behind Good B&W Photography


Recently, while writing and finishing this article on quality in visual arts, I came across one of Seth Godin’s blog posts about raising the bar. Very appropriate timing and I decided to start my article with his statement that most innovations are not made to raise the bar, but to raise the average. 

As an example, he refers to Mcdonald’s which wasn’t there to raise the bar for the best food, but to make roadside dining faster, cheaper, and more reliable. This is what happens these days with AI, software, and other innovations in the creative world (and outside of it of course): they have raised the average. That good is good enough. 

Also in photography now the trend is that ‘good is good enough’, amplified by social media likes. Social media, their algorithms, and technical innovations raised the average in photography. I rarely see anything raising the bar these days in social media and technical and artistic innovations in photography. If anything, with new AI technologies they are lowering the bar we once had in photography. It has become mediocre. 

To me, when I create, good has never been good enough. I only want to improve myself and my work. It is my duty when I say that I am an artist, to never cease exploring the farthest and unknown reaches of that which gives rise to, and IS what I create: my consciousness. Never superficially but with full intent and fully aware during my introspections. I aim for quality. Only the best quality I can produce. I aim to raise at least my own bar with a relentless pursuit of quality. And unless you’re satisfied with getting social media likes only, and want to be the McDonald’s of photography, I think you should aim for the same through the pursuit of quality.

The Elusive Nature of Quality

Quality is an elusive concept. What is it? I won’t come up with a definition because it is nearly impossible. Having said that, I think that by referring to my own experience, and explaining what I do and how I approach my work and everything that I do, that is consistently being perceived as having quality by my peers, my clients, the gallery curators, and the competition judges, then we still don’t know how to define it, but maybe, at least, we will know what it takes to create work that is being perceived as having quality. So instead of a definition of quality, I will suggest a best practice, a way of thinking to consistently achieve quality based on my own experience.

To paraphrase Robert Pirsig who wrote about quality in the classic novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: you cannot define quality but you know it when you see quality. No explanation is needed.

And I believe there’s truth in that statement. 

Having served as a judge for various photography competitions I have come across images that even in a thumbnail size scream ‘quality’ while I even haven’t intellectualized it and measured it against my own rules and requirements. I’m just aware of it, pre-intellectualization, and I just see timeless beauty and quality in that instance. That feeling of quality doesn’t go away upon closer inspection when I try to approach it intellectually. I can’t pinpoint or articulate what that exact thing is that has quality, but I know it is there. It is as if quality is a temporary glimpse into the real world beyond the world we experience and identify as matter.

For your convenience I have asked ChatGPT for a summary of Robert Pirsig’s book and more specifically on quality.

A Brief Philosophical Digression

I’m certainly not a philosopher but I’ve always been very interested in the philosophy of mind. I have long thought that consciousness is a material construct generated by the brain and I always felt that was wrong without being able to articulate why it was wrong. The materialistic and physicalist view has long been and still is, the dominant view.

Then I came across the philosophical theory of metaphysical idealism with Bernardo Kastrup as one of the very outspoken protagonists of this theory. And conscious realism with Donald Hoffman as one of the main thinkers. Both theories basically say that consciousness is the fundament of everything and our minds are like whirlpools in a river of universal consciousness. The mind is localized consciousness or dissociated consciousness. And the world of matter that we see is not the real world. It’s more or less a symbolical representation, a world that we can measure and can understand through our sensory system. You could compare it with a (VR) headset to use Hoffman’s terminology to make sense of the real world.

This real world, consciousness, something that is indivisible and cannot be described, is beyond this visible material world and we can’t see it. We can’t comprehend it. 

Obviously, the way I explain it doesn’t do any justice to what idealism in philosophy truly is but it is very compelling once you dive into it. For that, you really need to look up analytical idealism. There are many recent books on this topic and if you prefer podcasts: there are plenty of them as well. In any case, it is very convincing to me, very intuitive and it is very much in line with the thoughts of the philosopher of artists as he’s often referred to: Arthur Schopenhauer

It is also in line with my own line of thinking about art when I state that art is consciousness manifested. And that AI can never have consciousness. Artists, I believe, and great art in particular, show us a world that transcends the material world as if they show the world beyond it. A world we can’t describe or see but is the real world out there. The phenomenal world. 

Why am I digressing into philosophical ideas and concepts now? Because I believe that by experiencing quality it is like the closest we can get to catching a glimpse of the actual world that lies behind the material world that we know. A world that is incomprehensible and immaterial but gives away some of its properties through great art. Quality is that what we don’t know what it is but we know when we see or experience it. 

Now that quality is elusive, undefined, indescribable, just like the world beyond the material world, then how can we infuse all we create with quality? 

Social Media’s destructive influence on Quality

As stated earlier, I think that one of the ways to do that practically is by adopting a way of working that has been proven to have consistent quality, as a best practice. Mine for example, or another best practice from artists who have proven themselves in photography (or other art forms) and are valued for the art they create. 

And with value, I don’t mean making money with ads on social media. That’s the very antithesis of art and those people are just content creators for the sake of social media attention that generates ads. I have nothing against content creators but I cannot close my eyes for the fact that they lower the bar in photography and devaluate how fine art photography is perceived by the masses. We, the serious fine art photographers, shouldn’t give them any authority based only on their popularity, only on the quality that their work has or lacks. Use quality as your guide to discern art from content.

Social media has done a lot for me and other photographers in the past, but now I feel it’s increasingly degrading art and quality in favor of content creators and influencers who generate ads. They are making you believe, often without even knowing it, that quality and art are correlated to the number of likes and views content produces. No, they are not. And to make it worse: with the emergence of AI, they let us believe they can replace us. No, they cannot. I’m making a personal effort to reclaim the art of photography and bring it back to where it belongs: the artists. Let’s put quality first again.

Best Practice For Consistent Quality

Let’s start with two important disclaimers.

  1. It’s my firm belief that there can’t be quality without spending lots of time and effort in what it is you’re doing to the smallest detail. This may sound obvious, but it isn’t. You can’t learn my way of working, or anyone else’s way of working that also produces quality, overnight. It’s the effort that is the fuel of quality. And it is that same effort that scares off many people. Thinking that quality doesn’t matter as long as it can be done faster and looks similar. Good, is good enough. But that’s not the rule you should live by in the world of art if you want to make a living with your art. It’s the very rule that will determine your future in the arts in a negative way.
  2. Do not mistake technical proficiency for the ability to really SEE and FEEL. You can be so proficient technically, you can be a software engineer at Adobe, but technical proficiency only doesn’t result in quality in art. Michelangelo only had a hammer and chisel, but he created sculptures that no one, not in this day and age with all the technical innovations, can create. It’s about being able to really see dimensions, depth, spatial arrangements, light, proportions, subtleties, etc. More specifically for photography: knowing how much contrast is too much, is nothing technical, it’s seeing and feeling it. You know it when you see it. Knowing what sort of tonal distribution your photo needs to amplify your intention, is not technical, it is about seeing and feeling it. It’s an aesthetic and artistic decision. You know it when you see it. In the end, it is all in the details, in subtleties where quality can be found. And that is something you can only get by practicing, by looking and looking again. With time and effort.

Good is not good enough in art

I’ve been teaching my processing workflows and techniques for the past 12 years. And it is my experience that many students don’t want to spend all the time and effort that is required to create quality images. They start off well and enthusiastically but then they start looking for shortcuts and then for some magical software and tricks, and then finally they abandon my methods entirely because it is time consuming. That’s fine of course because I don’t have the illusion that my methods and techniques are the only methods that are useful in B&W photography. What is problematic though is that they think that there are faster ways to create quality in art. Seduced by the tons of likes of content creators. Art and craftsmanship have their foundation in experience, you can’t replace the human experience with anything. And you won’t be able to see subtleties without taking the time to see them.

What they create then only looks like the style I or other good artists have been teaching them, but in a very superficial way with very serious flaws, especially in the details. Good is good enough. Not in art though.

But the people who put in a lot of time and effort to learn good methods and techniques, who adopt a good attitude towards their art and know that practice is the key to quality, they know that there is no substitute for time, effort and continuous practice to hone your craft. They see the flaws that no one else sees.

Passion and attention to detail on a micro level

So I strongly believe that putting a lot of time and effort, and passion in what you’re doing up to the smallest details, will bring you closer to perfection in your work. And perfection in even the details is a strong indicator of quality.

Even more important is subtlety. The beginner, even the intermediate, is overdoing, while the expert always goes for subtlety. Subtlety is a hallmark of quality and experience in any discipline. When working on the micro level of details, then subtlety is key: subtle contrasts, subtle transitions, subtle presence, and depth. It is the subtlety that largely decides the quality level. And it’s the hardest to get right because it takes so much time to learn to see the subtleties and to apply the right adjustments that result in subtlety.

I always put a lot of time into all my work, sometimes excessively. I put a lot of time into the details and the finetuning of a specific photo. I put a lot of time into learning and reading to know more, to get better. Just for the obsessive urge to achieve a level of perfection. But it’s not only that. A lot of time will also be spent on creating unity and consistency on a macro level. What do I mean by that?

Attention to unity and coherence on a macro level

Working in series or themes is the clearest indicator you’re mastering your art. It requires insight, it demands an eye for patterns and uniformity. And you show with it, that your work is not just a lucky one-off shot. 

There’s a theme that you have defined and supports the message you want to convey. And you have decided on a visual style that will support the theme. A visual style that is the result of an analysis of the tonal composition and distribution you have decided to use and that will be applied throughout the entire series so there will be coherence and unity. If one photo is predominantly low-key with let’s say 50% of the photo in zones 1 and 2, then the rest of the series should have a similar distribution, or else you will lose the unity in the series and they might as well be singular images. It requires so much more than just making one photo look good.

I spent considerable time creating this unity. What use is there if you create a visual concept and a theme with specific rules and requirements, and you don’t abide by the rules you’ve set for yourself and don’t meet your self-imposed requirements? 

Quality is more likely to be perceived if there is unity in look and feel over an entire set of photos instead of arbitrary styles. Quality is more likely to be perceived if you abide by the rules and requirements you’ve laid out for yourself in your work. It indicates that there is an eye for the macro view as well, besides having an eye for the smallest details.

So for now I can conclude that if you strive for perfection on a micro level, by continuously honing your skills on even the smallest details, it will be a strong indicator of quality. But subtlety is everything and it requires insight, continuous evaluation of the photo at hand, and experience to be subtle. If you do the same for the macro level and have an eye for unity and uniformity between the images in a series or a bigger body of work, then that’s another strong indicator of quality. Mastering the micro and macro levels. Continuous evaluation and testing of your results against the concepts, rules, and requirements you’ve set for yourself at the start. All that takes time and effort. 

Use proven principles

But the rules and principles you set for yourself cannot just be random rules and principles. They should preferably be based on existing principles that have been proven. 

To start with a universal rule: any object or person that is your figure should have clearly outlined shapes. E.g. if you create an architectural series for an architectural firm, then what this firm most likely wants is a series of photos that shows the beauty and design of their architectural structures. Clear shapes that celebrate the architectural design are then important. Your visual concept is then designed to emphasize those shapes and not obscure them. 

Furthermore, many experts in the recent history of art and visual design and neuroscience (think Margaret Livingstone’s The Biology of Seeing, Greg Albert’s The Simple Secret to Better Painting, Mark Getlein’s Living with Art, or Josef Alber’s Interaction of Color) have already demonstrated that there are certain rules in design and visual perception that are universal and useful in art. E.g. the human eye is always drawn to the area with the highest contrast or darker tones have more visual weight, complimentary colors are a way of drawing attention, etc. 

So once you know about that, and as a visual artist you should know about those basic rules, and you ignore those universal rules in design and visual perception by setting up principles and rules for your project that go against those proven principles, then they’re just random and ignorant rules. Note that I don’t use the word ignorant in a pejorative way, I use it to indicate that you lack that specific knowledge. Your work will then lack consistency and a level of basic knowledge. Having that consistency and that knowledge that shines through your work is another strong indicator of quality. But again, that takes time and effort to even learn those basic rules.

So there we are. Time and passionate effort are needed to achieve perfection in the smallest details, to see and create subtleties, to create unity and uniformity throughout your work, and achieve consistency and logic from the conceptual phase to the end result. They all should be interconnected and organically linked together to be perceived as quality.

Authenticity – create what you have experienced yourself

But let’s not forget the perhaps most important part: your work needs to feel authentic. It’s a mistake to think that it’s the same as originality. It is not. Nothing is truly original. We always stand on the shoulders of the ones before us. Don’t hesitate to take elements from your inspirations and then blend them together in your own unique way. That’s how art evolved throughout the centuries, that’s how the great artists worked. But it must feel authentic. It must feel as if you, the creator, have experienced it yourself. Authenticity will trump everything else that is a strong indicator of quality. Authenticity is something I wrote about earlier on my website, here and here where I discuss the rivalry between Matisse and Picasso for example.

Art is consciousness manifested

When one individual expresses one’s human experience with integrity, honesty, unfiltered, and with compassion, the individual shares a truth about oneself that is a truth and a mystery we all recognize: that we are conscious. In that ‘pure’ truth lies quality. That is art.

Art is consciousness manifested.

Webinar on Best Practices and raising the bar

If you want to know what I do to create quality in my work and want to learn more about my best practices and especially what to look for and avoid to create subtle nuances, then I also just announced a 2-part practical webinar: Next Level B&W Best Practices webinar. The 1st session is a demonstration session while the 2nd session is a review and feedback session. You can follow 1 or both classes. More information here.

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11 Responses

  1. well, you’re work has certainly inspired me in my photographic journey. as a dentist, specializing in complex dental needs, i’ve, as resident here in los angeles, been exposed to some the greatest dentist as mentors and was taken back by their meticulous attention to detail and their incredible devotion on time needed to attain this either with patient treatment or in the laboratory while fabricating patient prostheses. as a newly fresh’d dentist from school you felt like you knew everything and then when hatched (residency specialty programs) into the realm of great dentist’s in l.a. you realized you really only knew the basics. the one premise that stuck with from one the most prominent dentist at that time was: “inch by inch it is a cinch, while yard by yard it is hard.” one other: “there is no such thing as failure, only relatively degrees of success.” these apply to one’s photography journey.

  2. Joel,
    I am very excited to be part of the new webinar. I will definitely signup for the first one but I am currently out on the road and hope I will be in a location to be able to receive internet for the zoom meeting on August 13th. You mentioned that a copy of the meeting will be provide to those that signed up. Seeing I have your panels I wouldn’t think I would need the luminosity downloads, any other details you can provide would be helpful. Thanks as alway Joel

  3. Joel,

    You and I have discussed this very content in detail over the last year. We are always trying to find our highest quality. When I mentored under you almost a decade ago I never accomplished my best quality back then and today as well. Why is that? If I felt I did, then I would never feel I could ever create better. When I look at what was created 10 years ago I wouldn’t think of creating in that style today and consider it as my best quality. This premise was paramount during my professional life and resonates with me in photography art today. My favorite uncle always told me. “You are required to learn something every day, if you don’t then you’re cheating your soul in whatever you try to do.” You have always impressed upon me to create for myself from within your soul and no-one else. Thank you…