Accepting Failure

Today I’ve been going thru some of unfinished prints trying to get organized and prepared for the next year of art fairs.

Several prints have never been finished. They are odds and misses. Something is wrong with them. Maybe size does not match the frame, maybe there is a specle of dust caught in the coating. And yet I keep them.

I’ve asked myself why I keep them. The answer was not immediate and not obvious. What I came to realize was that it was hard to accept failure. I had failed those prints but I could not face it.

Instead of accepting the failure I was cheating myself into believing that I can still salvage them. A lot of effort went into making those prints. Even when I saw it not going well I would still push forward with it.

As I realized that something else dawn on me. The same thing often happens during postprocessing. Sometimes I come back from a trip and bring a lot of not so good images. It might happen for many different reasons: my mind was somewhere else, I did not feel emotional connection to the place, weather did not cooperate, I had gotten “out of shape” not photographing for a while.

Rather than saying – “oh, well, things did not work out” – I spend countless hours trying to make something of it, treaking myself with thinking that there must be something in those images. What I end up with is overprocessed images that I look at a few month later and think “what was I thinking”.

It is something I should watch for in the future. Be brutal if you wish in editing images.


This is a series of posts with translation of my interview published in Russian at The question from the interview: “Could you describe in a few words how you do post-processing of your photographs? What software do you use, what workflow?”

I use Adobe Photoshop for editing and post-processing of photographs. I start with reviewing photographs in Bridge in slideshow mode. I stop slideshow on photographs that catch my attention, open them in Photoshop, touch up slightly (to bring them all to some common denominator) and save them off to a different folder. After that I continue with the slideshow. At the end I may have 10 images selected out of 500 taken.

Then I start rating selected photographs. Rating 5 is given to photographs that I think is some of my best work (not just on that particular trip but in general). Rating 4 is for good photographs, 3 – good quality but static, boring, does not move me. 2 – not good, 1 – can be deleted. (Jumping a bit ahead – in the end I show to others only photos which I rated 4 or 5 stars.)

Then I do accurate post-processing of the photographs with 4 and 5 star rating (and some with 3 stars). This can take a few days. I try not to rush thru this process.

Next step: leave photographs a side for a while – a month or two – to let immediate feelings about the trip to wear off. I always want to show them immediately but every time I do so I regret about it later.

Here is why I regret showing photographs immediately. After a while i go back and look at photographs with a fresh perspective and many of them look differently to me. Rating of some of them may change. Some need more detailed processing. I realize that some might look better in black-and-while others may look better in color. Some might benefit from a slightly different angle and I go back to originals and see if I took that photograph from that different angle.

Only after going thru this strict editing process I, finally, start showing photographs to friends, observe their reaction and listen to their comments. I rarely re-adjust photographs at this point, I do changes a rating though. For example, if I see that a particular photograph does not evoke any emotion, people just pass thru it, I might lower its rating even if I love it.

The last step I started doing only recently. In a set of photographs I look for a common theme. It might be a place where they are taken, common subject, color palette, or something else. When I have enough photographs around common theme, they become a basis for a folio. The idea is to tell a story with a series of photographs.

I do the final pass of adjustments in photographs selected for a folio, to make sure they have saturation, contrast, etc that make them look better together. I add titles, description. And then publish them on my website.

What is Reality?

The cornerstone question of modern photography: Is it ok to use Photoshop for photography or just how much is it ok to use? The actual question though is whether photography supposed to document reality or it is an art and just any art it is free to express whatever artist wants to express?

That is quite broad question. If we accept that photography is documenting reality then we need to define what reality is.

From my childhood I remember a popular science program with one of episodes fully dedicated to human vision. One of the interesting aspects of human vision is chromatic adaptation, where human brain tries to “color balance” what it sees. Except it does not color balance based on average color, it color balances based on familiar objects. If it sees an object of the known color it will “color balance” scene to show that color correctly. If there is no familiar objects, all bets are off. In a room lit with red, a human can say that an object of white color (under sunlight) is red or white depending on whether there are familiar objects in the room or not. Now if two people visit such room and one sees the object as white and the other sees it as red, who is right? What is reality?

Human vision consists of many layers of processing. There are many illusions to trick various layers. (You can read about it here for example: My point though is that different people see differently and not necessarily the same way the camera does. When we get into memory of something, things get even trickier. Our memory tends to keep images scenes, events, people differently from the way we see it first time. Which brings us back to the question: What is real?

Let’s try to approach this differently. Let’s say that camera is an ultimate tool to capture reality. Let me ask what camera settings the reality is at? Should saturation be at +2, 0 or –2? Which value the contrast should be at? How come one camera at saturation level –2 produces more saturated images than another camera at +2? Does that mean that camera manufacture have an opportunity to decide what reality is? Or do they just pick the closest image to people’s perception within a given market segment? I recently learnt that modern cameras have a database of scenes and they adjust settings based on whether scene looks like sunset or a portrait, with backlight or front line, full body shot or a face only. In some sense cameras try to get closer to human perception.

Let’s not fool ourselves thinking that the problem is introduced with digital photography. I still cannot get with digital such deeply saturated blue and green as Velvia film was producing. And what about black and white photography? For most people black and white is not the way we see the world around us. The amount of post-processing that film photographers do, can easily rival that with digital photography.

There is one question that keeps bugging me as I think about this. With all the sophisticated tools we have why are we so desperate to capture the world around us the way those tools see rather than the way we see it? I don’t what camera to decide for me how I see the world around. For me camera is a tool which can create a basis – all settings on neutral. Later during post-processing I try to make a photograph look the way I saw it. Cameras are not just that smart to replace a human yet.

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