Conventions and Creativity

Opinion vs Critique

Do you want opinions or critiques? Do you know the difference? Here's how the dictionary defines the two words:

Opinion - a belief not based on absolute certainty or positive knowledge but on what seems true, valid, or probable to one's own mind; judgment.

Criticism - the act of making judgments; analysis of qualities and evaluation of comparative worth; especially the critical consideration and judgment of literary or artistic work.

By definition, Webster's not mine, opinion is based entirely on personal experience and feelings. Criticism involves analysis and evaluation in comparison with a basic foundation of proven or generally accepted practices. Both involve judgment, so what is judgment exactly?

Judgment - the act of judging; deciding; an opinion or estimate; criticism or censure; the ability to come to opinion about things; power of comparing and deciding; understanding; good sense; logic - the assertion of a belief or proposition.

So opinion and criticism both involve judgment, but by definition judgment is based on opinion and comparison. That a bit like a dog chasing its tail isn't it? Yes, but beyond opinion or criticism judgment, by definition, requires comparison, logic, understanding, good sense and a willingness to assert what one believes to be true based on that logic and good sense. All analytical thinking rather than feeling traits.

Everyone can have an opinion. It only requires that one state what they personally believe to be true; whether it can stand the tests of logic or scientific proof is irrelevant. You believe it, so therefore it must be true for you; but your judgment is based entirely on your feelings and personal experience. If you perceive the earth is flat it is, at least in your opinion. Like minded individuals with an identical set of personal beliefs may feel the same and accept your opinion as valid and good on its face value, without questioning it or how you formed your judgment. But you will have difficulty explaining to others who do question how your judgment and opinion was formed because you will lack a common vocabulary.

Criticism differs from opinion in that it requires comparison and analysis to reach a judgment of whether something works or not or is better or worse than some alternative approach. Comparison requires some baseline of generally accepted set of facts or practices on which a logical argument supporting the judgment can be made. When a criticism is based on accepted facts and practices the judgment which results from it can be examined and understood by nearly anyone, with the possible exception of those who completely reject the baseline of accepted fact or practice due to personal belief or prejudice, such as a belief there are no rules which are valid.

From opinions one learns only if someone else likes a photograph or not. Criticism tells the photographer that, plus the underlying reason why the photograph works or not for the critic in comparison to accepted practice or convention. The fact that a photograph does not utilize an accepted convention such as the rule of thirds (ROT) may be intentional on the part of the photographer or the photographer may not even be aware of that rule-of-thumb. Not following the ROT does not automatically make it a bad or unsuccessful photograph, because the ROT is not effective in all situations. But regardless of the intent if it can be shown by direct comparison that using the ROT could deliver the intended message more clearly a criticism that the ROT convention wasn't followed is a valid one; well grounded on principles and evidence. Such a rule-based criticism may be rejected by anyone who rejects the convention underlying it, but it doesn't invalidate the convention or criticism.

Conventions vs Chaos

Conventions are a baseline of photographic knowledge. They codify and simplify the underlying physics and psychology which govern how a camera records an image and how the human visual system perceives it in person and when it is reproduced photographically.

Conventions make constructive criticism possible because they create a vocabulary which allows effective communication possible. Without a common language and vocabulary it is impossible to communicate. Photography is a visual communication medium where images speak for themselves but the goals and strategies behind them must be explained verbally to be understood by many who seek to understand why they are visually effective. The baseline for constructive criticism can be whatever set of facts and practices the critic and the author of the photograph can agree on. It becomes the foundation for a constructive dialogue.

The foundation of most of my critiques is the fact, established by psychological testing, that contrast attracts the eye of the viewer in a photograph. it is the keystone for developing an understanding of how to effectively select clothing and lighting on light and dark backgrounds and spotting and eliminating distractions. To establish a baseline for dialogues about clothing and lighting I created and posted this non-photographic perception exercise.

After viewing those abstract examples of tone leading the eye a person will understand how tone and color leads the eye, and why I tell them a white shirt and broad lighting will work better on a white background than a dark one with short lighting, except if the subject has long dark hair and a big black hat. They will know its not just my opinion, but rather a judgment based on scientific testing which they can personally validate.

My purpose for writing tutorials is to expand the baseline for understanding the type of detailed critiques I offer. Nothing in my tutorials is significantly different from information which can be found in dozens of photography books on basic lighting techniques. If there is anything that is unique in my tutorials and critiques it it the effort I make go beyond telling the read how do something like a short lighting pattern to explain why it works conceptually from a physical and physiological standpoint.

I don't tell just tell you where to put the light stand, I explain where to put the light on the face, why you want to put there, and why you don't want to put it in the same place on a white and dark background. Maybe its more than you want to know, or more than you can digest initially, but its a resource of knowledge which I hope will appeal to many levels of expertise from beginner on up.

If you don't like a conventional approach because it doesn't work for you then you shouldn't waste your time reading my critiques or tutorials because without a baseline we can agree to it will be impossible to communicate.

Creativity vs Craftsmanship

Creativity and genius cannot be taught. Either you are born with the gift or you aren't. I wasn't. So, if you think you are a creative genius who am I to disagree?

What makes a photographer a creative genius? Usually it is by cutting across convention and expected perceptions formed by cultural conditioning in a way which strikes an emotional chord and makes the viewer rethink the conventions or societal norms the photo challenges. Technique is not a roadblock or threat to creativity. A true creative genius never lets technique stand in the way of their vision, nor do they see much value in understanding a common baseline of technique. That's a good thing because it helps expand everyone's creative horizons.

Who declares someone a creative genius? A photograph which is technically perfect and boldly creative will please everyone, but what makes a photo which is poorly executed technically make the transcendental leap from mediocre snapshot to brilliant creative statement? The tipping point for creative genius seems to be when a critical mass of people are moved enough emotionally by the message of a photograph to overlook any technical flaws. If enough people are moved in the same way by the new and different creative insight genius is acknowledged by universal acclaim. Some brilliant but revolutionary ideas or techniques are so universally lauded and imitated that they get incorporated into the fabric of the culture and by the next generation may themselves be itself be perceived as an old, dull boring rules that needs to be broken to make a bold creative statement. Ironic, isn't it?

The true mark of genius is a message that transcends the technical flaws and the need for any formal training in the conventions of the craft. But that doesn't mean the work of a creative genius doesn't have technical flaws. That confuses a lot of people. They see creative genius which breaks the rules and conclude that breaking the rules is the path to creative genius. It is a fool's journey leading to self-delusion.

If you don't have the gift of creative genius the best you can aspire to is to be a competent journeyman; defined as someone who is a sound, experienced, not brilliant craftsman or performer. A journeyman is someone who knows his tools and why they work. A journeyman is capable of critiquing how well the tools of the craft are used in the work of others, and in fact far better equipped to do it than the creative genius.

People who create the most brilliant, convention busting creative statements rarely can verbalize the reasons why their message it works technically. Some can't explain how to do what they do because their creative process is one of sensing and reacting. Another reason is that people whose genius is recognized early in their careers skip the apprentice and journeyman phases entirely and thus never learn the vocabulary everyone else uses. That's not a bad thing, because it works for them. But it creates a dilemma; they can do it, but lack the vocabulary to teach it. When asked the answer is usually something like, "It's what I saw and felt; anyone can do it if they only try." But most don't think creativity and genius can be taught either, so they don't view their inability to teach others as a shortcoming.

The tipping point for genius is universal acclaim, but for the non-geniuses which make up the rest of the photographic community the journey from clueless to journeyman competency and personal creativity pivots on technique, something which is easily taught and critiqued against a baseline of accepted norms. Technique will never stand in the way of true creative genius, but lack of technique will create roadblocks to creativity to some degree for those who do not posses that gift.

The photography as craft vs. art debate has been going on since the first photograph was exhibited to the universal distain of the oil-on-canvas crowd. It's a part of a larger, longer debate that likely started when man first scratched a picture on a cave wall. There will never be a winner. The artist will always distain the journeyman craftsperson and the journeyman will never be able to see the world though the lens of creative genius. The two travel on parallel paths through the same universe. The only winning strategy is to accept who you are and follow whichever path works best for you.

If you think yourself a creative genius and are looking for universal acclaim to validate your option ask for the opinions of others and wait to be lifted by the thunderous wave of praise. If you don't think you are a genius and just want to learn, understand and grow in the craft of photography ask for a critique. If you are a creative genius and get a negative critique when you wanted a review, don't worry; the roar of the crowd will drown out the voice of the critics.

Holistic Concepts for Lighting
and Digital Photography

This tutorial is copyrighted by © Charles E. Gardner.
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You can contact me at: Chuck Gardner

For other tutorials see the Tutorial Table of Contents