November 26, 2012

Less Is More, And Then Some

After consuming great quantities of turkey, I thought perhaps its time to ruffle a few feathers and take a walk down a very lonely road. You see, I feel if you look hard and true, most times a photograph is extremely revealing, not only of the subject but also more importantly of the person who took the picture. Alternatively, photography at a certain level is also a place where many people can get very comfortable, lie a little or a lot, and reveal absolutely nothing. This too is very telling. It is a medium much like fashion that can portend a great deal but ultimately can signify nothing.

For me one of the problems with photography started with the strobe and the use of artificial light. With the use of artificial light, primarily strobes for still photography; one could create great amounts of instantaneous light anywhere, and remove themselves from the quirkiness and variety of natural light, which by its very nature has enormous limitations. Instead of working within these limitations photographers chose a constant light source that is true from minute to minute or perhaps even from year to year.

No longer did one have to deal with the lack of light or learn how to use these limitations to their advantage, or even have to wait for the right moment. Over the years photographers have chosen to move away from a natural light source in order to control the light. One could simply override these limitations by avoiding them altogether. Move away from a natural light source, control the light with something artificial and avoid dealing with a real world that has feelings, moods, and even rain.

Instead of becoming sensitive to the world you know, photographers in droves, like sheep abandoned their interplay with life and how it is revealed by the natural light at that particular moment for consistency, ease, and in many cases boredom.

Many photographers will choose this control and a modicum of success over the risk of failure, but they also have lost the promise of great reward.

In the end a photographer may feel they have achieved freedom by having the use of artificial light and its ability to cast its shadow on even the most mundane and darkest of corners. But have you gained more than you have lost? There is something wonderful about seeing a room or an interior place that is lit or unlit by natural light. One can only know the true spirit of a place by how it is illuminated naturally. This is a gift of God.  A picture is a revelatory moment, which helps reveal a unique and sometimes special place at a particular moment in history.

Next came the seamless background to go along with the strobe. This is an enormous piece of paper or canvas, which helps avoid having to place a subject in context. It is a way of avoiding composition and dealing with the environment. I can hear all the arguments now. People have used backdrops forever; they have helped with long exposures, etc. Look at the work of Edward Weston or Irving Penn. They regularly used backdrops in their photographs.  In the hands of a truly talented photographer perhaps this is fine. There is a particular reason or choice in their decision-making. It is not a default setting. For the mass of photographers the use of a backdrop is a shortcut. It is a way of looking good without too much risk. Take out your strobe and your seamless; use them in your pictures, and out pops a consistently good, professional picture that is utterly banal and many times boring. It generally reveals nothing.

On occasion if the subject being photographed is special, wonderful things can happen, but for the most part the use of artificial light and the seamless help the photographer hide behind a veneer of professionalism. But in this process nothing has been risked, nothing has been revealed and your mask is in tact, exposed only to those who care to look deeper.

And lastly, now comes Photoshop, which is changing photography from an interchange with life into a studio experience in one form or another. If you don’t like the background, change it. If you don’t like the expression, change it. Change everything. Change the colors, the light, the clothes, etc., until photography is on its merry mechanical way of being a form of illustration.

So photographers have slowly lost control under the guise of getting more. They have slowly given up the great gift of a meaningful and spiritual interchange with this glorious world, for consistency, ease, control, and most importantly a fear of failure.

All those appurtenances you have added to your toolbox so you would not fail have in fact failed you in the end. What has been lost is a way to succeed naturally. I am fearful some photographers have lost their way.

If you risk a great deal and you expose your hidden self by your experiences and your reaction to the world you encounter, you will be telling all those who care to look and listen the small truths that are hidden inside you.



  1. a great way of looking at things, thank you

    Comment by Annie — November 26, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

  2. As much as I agree with you (Amen!, and Hallelujah!), and as much as your title, final sentence and general sentiment resonates with me, your suggestion that “some photographers have lost their way” – because “their way” doesn’t coincide with yours, i.e. the one that serves your purposes and personality – is problematical.

    The fact that nearly every discussion of our medium continues to raise hackles (and/or ruffle feathers) is a sign of it’s complex and complicated nature; this despite it’s purported, and (today) actual, simplicity. Add to this the fact that there are photographers who are threatened by the way others choose to practice — and we’re left with more of what we’ve had since the very beginning: that being, photography taken seriously by some, a different shade of seriously by others, and not so seriously (derisively, even) by others. And never—ever ever—the twain (thrain?) shall meet.

    For those of us who aren’t quite sensitive and/or experienced (read: old) enough to appreciate and occasionally reap straight photography’s subtle, deeply personal rewards, less profound rewards are readily available. They’re arguably superficial, etherial and risk-free by comparison…but to each his/her own pleasures, no?

    As you started out saying, ours is a lonely road, today especially. But to those of us who know where it leads—and who long to get there—it remains the truest, surest route there is by far. And, dare I say, then some.

    Thanks for another rich and beautifully written dispatch.

    Comment by David Simonton — November 26, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

  3. brilliant!

    Comment by Gabe — November 26, 2012 @ 11:45 pm

  4. Thank you Mr Smith, the air is fresh again and the light is real.

    Comment by Terry — November 27, 2012 @ 2:45 am

  5. Funny. I read this last night and this morning this video crosses my path:

    Turn down the sound as there is a rather obnoxious Irish song blaring along with the action.

    Comment by hlinton — November 27, 2012 @ 5:28 am

  6. I guess one might say today’s photography has fallen into a neo-pictoralism of sorts.

    Comment by Safi — November 27, 2012 @ 6:25 pm

  7. There is no other person/artist that moves me so deeply and speaks right out of my soul when it comes to the love of my life.
    photography for me – was always about people,environment & light.
    The magic flow- i and in the best cases my “subjects” as well can discover when the light and surrounding comes perfectly together – the person in front of me opens up and all i can feel is the NOW and the beauty of life is something i could hardly archive in a studio or with the use of strobes/photoshop ….

    For me – it is all about the process.the spirit&energy of it.
    and that is something i will never trade for something that feels unreal to me.

    i leave it to others – to use the tools they enjoy. i choose mine.

    Thank you ! for making my path clearer once again!

    Comment by anna — December 1, 2012 @ 11:43 am

  8. So well written. Love this. Thank you

    Comment by Daniel Stark Photography — December 1, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

  9. Thank you, Mr Smith. I felt some similar words somethere inside me. But now when I had read your words, I started to understand myself better.

    Comment by Konstantin Melnikov — December 2, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

  10. Where is this nice swimming pool?

    Comment by Bernard — December 3, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

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  12. [...] Rodney Smith kritisiert den Gebrauch von Blitzen, Hintergründen und Photoshop. Und zeigt auf, was wir [...]

    Pingback by browserFruits Dezember #2 - kwerfeldein - Fotografie Magazin — December 9, 2012 @ 2:30 am

  13. Back to the roots it is…
    You’re right of course. Some of us use to much of everything. The wish to control our environment is deeply ingrained into the human DNA-Code and why should it stop with art? Keeping the illusion of control makes us feel save. Be it by installing satilites to see what the weather is like or will be in the next thirty days. Or be it the aritficial lighting and photoshop. Creating pictures like that is similar to Brush-and-Pencilart where the creator has everything under his very own control. The girl has a way to big nose? I don’t like it, not problem. I draw it matching my own ideas…
    That is what it is.
    I for myself (still somewhat a novice in this fine art) am still struggeling with techniques and limitations. I am using my program to make pictures “better”, mostly minor things but still…
    But the ones I make “good” this very moment of creating them I like the most. The ones called lucky shots. The ones giving me a feeling of “YES, I AM SOOOOOO GOOD!” I strive to make most of my pictures like that. I try to make them good the very moment. Hoping for the right light and the right place. No trickbox-picture will ever hold the same feeling for me. So yeah. I’m with you. One who is used to take alle tricks out of the box to create his perfect photo will probably get a whole lot less of those feelgood-photos, the lucky shots and I-was-there-the-rightest-of-moments-posible-shots. Because he may never have learned to use what he (or she) has this very moment without having time to setup perfect conditions.
    Trickbox-Photography and Back-to-the-roots-Photography are one and the same in the very end. The Artists own special way to look at the world. Neither picture will ever be reality not matter which methods (or not) had been used to create them.
    On that note. Thanks for making me think. I found this link within a german (my homeland) online-magazine for photography ( but I am going to follow your blog on my own know.

    Comment by Shy — December 10, 2012 @ 4:38 am

  14. Thank you. This is a great post, as most are. Thank you for staying true.

    Comment by Nick — December 12, 2012 @ 1:15 am

  15. I have been struggling with these very ideas lately. Although I use photoshop to help make an image less cluttered and clean, I often lose the emotional attachment I have to an image by means of artificial process. I couldn’t agree with you more. The reward is much less when I use shortcuts. This article really struck me because I originally learned photography on a 4X5 camera. I am now shooting with a 35mm digital and the rewards are much less. Thanks Rodney.

    Comment by Matthew Smith — December 31, 2012 @ 5:12 pm

  16. [...] Many photographers will choose this control and a modicum of success over the risk of failure, but they also have lost the promise of great reward. via [...]

    Pingback by Rodney Smith on natural light, strobes and what was lost… and hopefully found again | Wizwow's World — January 1, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

  17. Oh my.

    I love this piece. While I may not agree with all of it, I certainly agree with most of it.

    Digital has changed photography. And the changes are still going on. I imagine we old timers will not recognize the medium in another ten years. We are still in the infancy of this thing. And the changes coming will all but remove the vestiges of what we knew as photography.

    Not a doomsday prediction for us, but a recognition that the changes are happening so fast and with such momentum that it is inevitable.

    However, that will also create a place for ‘traditional’ if you will, photographers to find a revitalized commitment and a fresh audience.

    Wonderfully written and very thought provoking for sure, Mr. Smith.


    Comment by don giannatti — January 1, 2013 @ 12:35 pm

  18. so true, so strongly opposed!
    when i did my very first studio shoot (by luck) i chanced upon Irving Penn shot in Vogue. I saw the corner of his backdrop! Voila, not knowing about actual paper backgrounds, i taped the classified sections of the evening newspaper.
    The client thought i was most creative..
    Studio lights of course. 3 Smith-Victor floods on stands.
    Later when i became dis-enchanted with the frivolity of the fashion shoots, while the country began to burn, i quietly moved to reality. Actual light, simple equipment and being witness to a New South Africa.i became a photojournalist.
    Later i returned to fashion, but never in a strobe or artificial light studio. Like the country that had gained a new freedom, i was now on a different path.

    Comment by jason gold — January 16, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

  19. thank you thank you thank you
    and thank you
    did I thank you?

    I have been photographing people for 27 years. I was at your workshop the BW Spiritual Portrait in 1991 as I started out. Best thing I ever did! Fit me like a glove. And carried me forth.

    Thank You!

    Comment by mary grace long — July 20, 2015 @ 6:22 pm

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