Saturday, September 1, 2007

Learn How to Spot Cheap Tricks

Many photographers, often inexperienced ones, will apply one-click automated "actions" or "presets" in Photoshop in an attempt to make their pictures look more "professional" than they really are. From my point of view, these mass market tricks perpetuate the disease of sameness in the world of photography. Most of my clients intuitively sense our common disdain for the sameness and state it as a reason for hiring me. But I've seen so much of it in recent weeks that I thought it would be fun to blog it. So today I'm going to teach you how to spot the most obvious and hackneyed cheap trick that's in use today. Once you know, it's very easy to spot!

And before we get carried away, remember this: visual effects, even cheap ones, can be a good thing when applied judiciously. So this is not a blanket tirade against cheap tricks and their purveyors. To me, it's a major red flag when I see a photographer's entire portfolio, or large chunks of it, obviously churned through the same exact action. I would personally never hire someone whose entire portfolio was done in the same action or preset. Yech.

So to the point, here's the demo image we're about to discuss:

So what's going on here?

Right now we're suffering an ongoing revival of a 19th-century effect known as vignetting, which is the practice of progressively darkening an image from the center to the corners, as in the right-hand example above. The left-hand image is the original, unaltered image. A strong vignette helps sloppy photographers by hiding what's in the corners, thus requiring less attention to composition. Personally, I like to see interesting things in the corners, not a blob of artificial shadows.

One reason the vignette has exploded this year is that a certain well-known California meta-photographer (a term I've coined to denote a photographer who dedicates a significant portion of his/her professional efforts to selling things to other photographers) has been seen, in one of his own sales videos, adding a strong vignette to the presets which he sells for $49. Because this meta-photographer is a marketing genius, he has legions of followers who will do whatever he does. And he's not alone. Other meta-photographers sell similar presets and actions.

Vignetting often appears in conjunction with an effect known as "diffused glow," which you can see on the dress in the right-hand example above. Followers of another meta-photographer may refer to "Tasty Glows" (really, I'm not kidding). To make the demo above, I spent about one minute creating an action which will subsequently repeat that effect in a single click, any time I'd like. In my opinion, nobody should ever get tricked into hiring a photographer based on this particular look, as you could learn to do it yourself in five minutes flat. And if you buy digital negatives, you got the rest of your life to apply special effects yourself.

In short: It takes talent to create a good photo, but it only takes one click to apply hackneyed wedding effects. Some photographers use visual effects as a tool, while others use them as a crutch for lack of experience or laziness, or maybe just bad taste. You gotta be careful out there!


Jake Holt Photography said...

That's a "tasty" post Lil' Davey!

You forgot to tilt it and add a blue hue, but I'll forgive you.

Mary said...

I responded to your post on my blog. Hope you don't mind that I used your sample images.

Allen Doberenz said...

Hey David! Nice to meet you the other day... Though I have to agree with your friend Mary about the 50mm 1.2. It does give a vignette-y look to your (my) images and I hardly think that is a cheap lens!! I agree on crappy images, vingnettes are bad... I think I've seen what you're talking about and I think it may be an attempt to cover poor exposure...

David Hill said...

Hey Allen - Nice meeting you, too. I responded about the 50/1.2 on Mary's blog. I have a number of RAW files taken with that lens, and my opinion is that its natural vignette is both better looking and less apparent, under most circumstances, than the artificial vignette so commonly applied in Photoshop. Also, being as nice a lens as it is, vignetting is practically eliminated by the time you get to f/2.0, to the point that it should no longer be visible except on test targets. That's my theory anyway!