As it is with any craft, if you truly seek to become a master you will no doubt adopt a mentor, or several, along your path as you strive to learn, grow and develop your own voice. Whether this is through an actual physical relationship or simply through learning from ones work you admire, learning from those who have more experience is the way all species develop and grow as individuals. Fortunately for those of us who are passionate about the craft of photography, there are many masters to learn from! While becoming a master in the craft of photography may be your initial goal as you set out, I think you will find that this title is more of a concept that an actual stature one acquires. As it is with enlightenment, it is not a destination we finally reach but a constant and ongoing journey that progresses as long as we continue to walk the path.
When we are first starting out we seek to soak up as much knowledge as we can from those we admire, those who seem to have all the answers. We tend to take what is prescribed as gospel and implement it in our process, however as we begin to develop I think it is particularly important to learn to trust our own voice and lean less heavily on those who we admire. For those who choose to take on the role of teacher in the form of workshops, e-books and the like, I believe it is truly done so out of pure love of the craft and as a way of communing with and guiding others who share this passion. There is often much to learn from these teachers but again I strongly suggest you don’t ignore your own voice or fail to question the teachings when engaged in the apprenticeship of any mentor.
Photography is an art and as such it is a personal expression that is unique to the artist. Be that as it may it is also a trade and as it is with all trades there are guidelines, rules and tools in place to be used in aiding the creator. More often than not these rules, tools and guidelines will improve the outcome of ones work and the understanding of the process involved, you wouldn’t want to neglect the rules and guidelines of a proper foundation when building a house! That said if you find a better means to an end than what is prescribed by your mentor I say go for it. Take musical composition for example. Learning to play the guitar takes great effort, practice and understanding, however it is possible to create the same musical phrases, tones and compositions through the use of a digital compositional program such as cuebase. As long as you understand the concepts and have a clear vision for how and what you want your final composition to sound like, the guitar and cuebase are both just tools. The argument could be made that to truly learn and understand the concepts behind a particular discipline, one should not adapt to using any form of shortcuts to achieve the same outcome. Fearing that the use of an accelerated, alternate route will result in not truly understanding the process at work. Certainly I think this can be true for instance when relying on your camera to determine exposure through selecting an Aperture or Shutter Priority auto exposure setting. If we rely on the camera we never truly grasp the process of determining the correct exposure for ourselves. It is much more advantageous to take the time to truly understand and determine exposure manually and only after doing so apply AP or Tv when it suits a select situation. This is often the case with many automated actions and tools we have available to us in our tool bag as photographers. A few good examples would be HDR software, Lightroom Presets, and image manipulating software such as Nik Software and the like. To often all that is achieved is over processed, over the top, loud imagery that confuses the eye and disrupts the mind. However there are tool sets that although may appear as automated quick fix solutions on the surface, are actually very complex and precise tools that when truly understood and used correctly can not only vastly improve your images, but also provide extremely precise control over your edit workflow which will result in a more refined and well tuned product.
One particular tool set I have in mind is the TK Action Panel and when it comes to the subject of tonal adjustment in the digital darkroom, this tool set is not only a very fine complement to the standard tools provided within Photoshop, it is the most precise way to make fine tuned and localized tonal adjustments I have encountered. You may be wondering what this has to do with the headline “On a matter of opinion” or with seeking the knowledge of a well respected mentor, well I am about to get to that. I have always been one to research to death a topic or subject I am interested in. When it came to the subject of tonal adjustments I stumbled upon a tool set that revolved around non destructive editing techniques derived from the use of luminosity masks. Through my searching I learned the benefits of making adjustments to my images in Photoshop on luminosity mask layers for localized control and applications. When one applies an adjustment to a luminosity layer such as a curves, levels, hue, saturation, or sharpening adjustment, it is applied over the top of and completely separate from the original raw image. Hench none destructive and reversible image editing. This of course is huge but it gets even better. I learned that Luminosity masks map the luminance of each pixel as a grayscale value in the mask. Because they are based on pixel-level data, their tones perfectly match the image beneath and, as a result, are completely self-feathering. Any adjustment through these masks blends seamlessly into the image with no visible edges or borders. Here was a way to apply none destructive adjustments to my images but more importantly apply precise and localized tonal adjustments to further refine my work and achieve the look and feel I desired.
What the TK Action panel provides is a set of masks or targeted selection areas that allow for precise manipulation of targeting specific tones in the image. Once the editor selects a specific tone in their work they would like to adjust a mask that only targets that particular tonal range say “highlights” is created. This can be done in several ways by choosing to create either a curves adjustment layer mask, a levels layer adjustment mask or a selection channel of a specific tone that can then be altered via a burn and dodge adjustment layer. Furthermore once the luminance mask for a specific tonal range has been created you are able to further localize the adjustment as you see fit to specific areas of the selected tonal range within the image, as again it is a mask you are working with on a luminance channel. So lets say I have an image of a cherry orchard in winter. In this image there are dark trees in a line along the top of my image accompanied by dark trees in my foreground all nested in a field covered in white snow and I wish to make a tonal adjustment to only a certain section of the trees. All of the trees are of the same tonal value so when I select a standard curves adjustment layer in Photoshop a luminosity mask is created and I am able to make a curves adjustment to the darks tonal range in my image, the trouble is this adjustment will also effect the foreground trees as they are again of the same darks tonal value. Of course this is a masked layers so I am able to then paint out the adjustment I made globally to the darks tone on my foreground trees, bringing their values back to a light darks tone. The eye now travels through the image to the area of the greatest amount of contrast and since my image is comprised mostly of very light tones, the snow, the very dark area of trees in the top 3rd of my image is where the eye will tent to go, mission accomplished! This works great however my mask painting is somewhat sloppy as it is generalized to the area of the foreground and not localized to a specific tonal mask that matches my foreground trees exactly so there will be areas of the edit that will stand out as the brush tool is circular and not so precise when compared to a perfectly applied luminance mask of a specific tonal range.
If I apply the same edit principals but incorporate the TK action set, I am able to create a precise mask, mapped specifically to a desired tonal range, make my tonal adjustment via curves, levels or burn and dodge and then precisely paint the specific pixels on the luminosity mask so as to mask the darkening of the foreground trees in such a way where there is no bleed over on any other tonal area of the image. A sloppy mask becomes absolutely precise! This is the true power and genius of the TK Luminosity Mask Actions. The mask is created precisely to the tonal range in witch you wish to work and there is no sloppy spill over in any other tonal areas whatsoever.
Back to the topic and point of this post. I recently reached out to a fellow photographer of whom I highly respect and admire for his work and the passion he has for the art of photography and for the passion he instills in me. He not only produces great work but is also a workshop leader and teacher and has produced several e-books on various photography related topics. I have purchased several and have looked to him for advice and as a mentor along my journey on the path of an image-maker. I hold him in high regard and have seldom thought to question his advice and experience. Recently I have re-learned that no one person is all knowing or omnipotent. In a brief email to this photographer which was really directed at inquiring about the hand full of 6x6 square format system options available to the film photographer and what prompted his choice to go with the system he chose. I briefly mentioned his new e-book which I had purchased, which was on the topic of the levels adjustment tool for tonal adjustments in Photoshop and that I was enjoying the read. I then mentioned the TK actions toolset and how I have been using it for several years and that I thought it worked very well and applied the same principals he outlines in his new book. I suggested that he have a look at it as he may find it of interest. I then moved on to ask my real question which was again related to a 6x6 square format system hoping for an answer as to why he went with the system he did. He has always gotten back to with within at least a week but this time I received no response.
Well about three weeks later I was perusing his blog and I came upon a recent article titled “Don’t Automate It”. He does in fact preface this post with a disclaimer that all his posts are based on his point of view alone “I don't for one minute assume that I am right all the time, and any views I express here are simply my own”. I am OK with that; it takes courage to admit that although you strongly believe you are correct you may in fact not be looking at the picture from all angles. In this article he basically states that he recently released a new e-book on the topic of Photoshop curves and how to really get to know them,. This is the very book I purchased, read and complemented him on. He then goes on to state that “I'm not a big fan of automated tools and I tend to keep this side of my photo editing to a minimum”. Fair enough! But then he goes on to target the TK Actions panel I suggested he look up in my email several weeks prior to this blog post which is when I began to think to myself “awful coincidental considering I just suggested he have a look at the tool set”. In a nutshell he goes on to say “while I think it's a great thing - it's only a great thing in the right hands. If you are still learning about how to adjust tones in a picture and specifically where you want to adjust them, then I would be very careful in adopting automated tool kits like this”. Fair enough again, however based on my experience with the TK Actions tool set, the only automation this tool set preforms is when creating a tonal specific selection to be applied to a luminosity mask and that’s it! Again that is a extremely precise selection based on a user determined tonal range in witch one wishes to effect. The actual curves, levels or dodge and burn tonal adjustments are made completely manually. So again the power of this tool set is for creating very specific and precise selections based on desired tonal range for the purposes of precise, localized tonal adjustments, which leads me to believe he didn’t actually examine the tool set fully and arrived at his point of view without the full grasp of what the tool set actual is.
You may be able to tell that I was a bit chapped by this post and even arrived at the conclusion that he was discounting this tool set to protect his interests in his own e-book. Perhaps this is true and perhaps not. Perhaps its all coincidental and perhaps I misinterpreted his intentions for the post altogether. However to circle back around to the true point of this long-winded post, trust in your own voice. Do not value the words and thoughts of those you hold in high esteem as gospel. Seek the truth on your own. Do your research well. Take the teachings of your mentors into consideration but find and value your own results and conclusions. Walk your own path and keep an open mind as there are many ways to reach the same destination. And as I said before its really not about the destination but about the journey.