“What about filters, plug-ins, and stuff like Nik or Topaz?” one of my Vision beyond Documentation workshop members asked. “How do they fit into the fine art workflow or should we not use them?’
“Why wouldn’t you use them?” I queried.
“I dunno,” he said. “Somehow it feels like I’m cheating or not using my own skills.”
It’s a good question, and that ‘cheating’ feeling can be real. There is a sense that if we employ off the shelf plug-ins such as Nik Creative Suite, Topaz, or any of the dozen others that are available that we have somehow cheated the creative process. It seems we are no longer creating a fine art image; it is now the handiwork of a cold computer and complex algorithms. With a click of a mouse, a computer has created an image better than we sometimes achieve after hours of work in Photoshop.
This kind of thinking is goofier then a wooden watch. I mean would you mix cement in a bucket if you had a power mixer available. Would you build a fire to cook your meals each day when there is an electric range at your fingertips? Of course not.
Look, Photoshop with its powerful filters, defaults, sliders, and actions automates all kinds of corrections and outputs. Nik, Topaz, Pixel Genius and other plug in programs are tools too with their own sets of adjustment controls. Out of the box and off the shelf, Photoshop defaults and commercial plug-ins can sometimes turn the good photo into a great image, so can the auto defaults in Lightroom and Camera Raw, but none of them can create a body of work. None of these tools chooses subjects, angles, time of day, light, and emotional range. That is the job of the artist and these choices are more critical now that we have instant image conversion and instant feedback at the camera.
That ‘cheating feeling’ that artists sometimes feel is the temptation to use automation in place of creative application. The later approach demands mastery and rigor of pre-visualization, image capture, Photoshop tools and workflow, and then the command of the commercial plug-ins you choose.
Photoshop and the world of plug-ins are tools that give you more choices, more possible ways of reaching the artistic goals that you set for your project and can often provide you with a means to reach those goals faster. But if you come to rely on these tools, which I call stylizing tools, as your ‘go to’ default process for your images, you will not cheat the process, you will cheat yourself by eliminating opportunities to develop your own visual voice. We need to recognize that all users of these programs have access to the same sets of algorithms, the same default actions, and as a result, we often see the same ‘paint by the numbers’ results across a broad range of images by various photographers.
I call this the commoditization of art and one only needs to look at wedding and retail portraiture photography to see that image style is often the same across a wide line of photographers. Does this mean that these photographers are not creative? No, what it means is that in the wedding/portraiture industry customers often demand certain ‘looks’ that are in-style, and plug-in tools and actions can speed up the process with a positive effect on the bottom line. Automation tools are critical to the cost/creative curve in this industry and free the photographer to shoot more weddings, to concentrate on expression capture, design in the field, and to solve many thorny problems such as low light in a church or zit removal from a teenage portrait.
It is also important to recognize that while each of the plug-ins has its own sets of sliders, control point technology and other proprietary doo dads all of them rely on the same fundamentals of hue, saturation, and luminosity. However, the better suites of stylizing tools such as Nik’s Silver EFEX Pro for black and white conversions, Tiffen’s wide array of photo and light filters, and Pixel Genius’s software for creative sharpening all have unique HSL interpretive approaches. Each of these stylizing tools can provide an artist with new visual paths.
Automation is useful for it can relive the artist of many production tasks and repetitive corrections. But if you are pursing images that expand your audiences emotional range then as a Fine Art Photographer use of all of these tools demand conscious choices from capture to print. Failure to do so will produce that paint by numbers, commoditized ‘look,’ and yes, you will have cheated yourself and us, the audience, of an opportunity to experience your visual voice.