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The Pen and Your Signature
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The Pen and Your Signature

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July 2010     More Nikon Reviews   Canon   Leica   Pentax



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My wife and I were signing some papers. We handed the pen back and forth, and our signatures remained our own.

It doesn't matter if I sign in blue or black; it's still my signature. It doesn't matter if it's in red or green, pencil or pen, crayon or ink, grease pencil or spray paint; it's still mine and mine alone.

If I gave you my pen, would you have my signature? Of course not.

So if I gave you my camera, would you take pictures that look like mine? Of course not.

Why would anyone think otherwise? Mostly because camera companies fuel this easy-to-believe nonsense. If you think a LEICA will make pictures like Cartier-Bresson, a Hasselblad or 4x5" like Ansel Adams, or a Nikon will shoot pictures like Galen Rowell, you're more likely to buy that camera.

Camera makers don't want you to know is that it's you that makes a picture, not the camera. A picture is as unique to the taker of that picture as is his signature.

A camera has less to do with the look of your pictures than a pen has to do with the look of your signature.

Cameras pretty much do the same thing. Unless you deliberately use filters, camera lenses are clear. Pens come in every color: blue, black, blue-black, green, purple, sparkly purple, red, gray, yellow, orange, and even in white paint!

Unless you prefer a toy camera like a Holga, which isn't supposed to be sharp (but isn't all that bad either), all cameras are sharp when used properly. Contrast this with pens, some of which are fine-point, some ultra-fine-point, some medium, some bold, some extra-bold, and others with huge, inch-wide felt tips. Some have small, hard tips, and others have big, fat, soft brush-like tips.

There are pens, and there are pencils. There are markers, and there are Prismacolor pencils. There are grease pencils, and let's not forget paint brushes, either. Whoa, let's not forget fountain pens and olde-fashioned hand-cut quills. Are you using a broad-nib, or a round one? India ink, or washable ink?

Pens have far more variation in the kinds of lines they draw than the kinds of pictures taken by different cameras.

Unlike your choice of camera, your choice of pen will have a huge effect on the look of your signature. However, no matter what pen you use, your signature is still obviously your signature. If John Hancock signed with a ball-point, it would look different, but still be immediately recognizable as his unique signature.

Remember where I mentioned that shooting a 4x5" or a Hasselblad wouldn't let us make pictures that look like they were taken by Ansel Adams any more than loaning you my pen would make your signature look like mine? Ansel used large format, typically 8x10," in the 1930s through 1950s when he did his most memorable work, but as he got older and lazier, usually settled for 2 1/4" (Hasselblad) after the 1950s. Did it make his pictures look any less like his own images? Of course not! They still look like Ansel Adams' work, and 2 1/4" and view cameras are as different from one another as any two kinds of cameras can be. One allows full swing, tilt and shift of both film and lens for perspective manipulation and focus modification, while the Hasselblad offers none of these movements. One shoots single sheets of film one-by-one, and the other shoots only complete rolls of film, and so on.

Two completely different kinds of camera, and yet his images remain his own! Wow!

All images are reflections of the photographer who created them. Good photographers are artists who have their own style. Crappy photographers are crappy precisely because they show no style of their own, or spend their time trying to copy the style of others, or simply shoot away without thinking, or even so much as FARTing. Purchasing the world's finest camera and carefully leveling it on the world's most stable tripod and carefully color profiling everything and working everything over in raw in Photoshop for six hours afterwards is the best way to make completely forgettable images. Being yourself and showing us your own way of seeing things is the way to make remarkable images.

People who worry about how well cameras test are like those who would worry themselves sick about how well a pen can draw a straight line. Sure, we could see how sharp is the edge of a line (sharpness), how dark is the line (contrast), what color is the line (color accuracy), how straight is the line (freedom from distortion) and so on, but none of this has anything to do with the ability of the pen to sign your name, or your camera's ability to take a great picture.

Either your pen, or your camera, works, or it doesn't. If your pen has ink, or your camera has film or a memory card, you've got all you need.

Why are most pictures boring? Precisely because they lack a unique style. They're all the same.

A good image screams the name of its creator. When I see a bird shot by Frans Lanting, it's always obvious that he shot it. That's why National Geographic hires him to go shoot their bird stories, and not someone else.

How do you develop photographic style, so your images will scream your name everytime someone sees them? First you have to have style. You can't buy style (clothes makers are even worse with this than camera makers). Style isn't what you buy or don't buy. Style is how you express yourself, and how you see the world.

A great way to have no style is to shoot everything from eye-level or tripod level. Most photos are shot there, so it's much more difficult to make a photo stand out if we do this.

Style isn't simply being different. Different is different from being unique. Look at all the people with tattoos, all trying to look different, but they all wind up looking the same.

Simply trying for shock value doesn't work. Showing pictures of gross stuff, like dead people, may make people say "oh my!," but doesn't leave your name on it unless you show it in a way no one else has.

To have a style that is uniquely yours, you need to see things differently from everyone else. You can't buy that in a store.

We admire the work of those we admire precisely because they showed us who they are. No one else can be them, and likewise, only you can be you. No one else can be as good at being you as you are. Show us.

You need to enjoy seeing things your own way. Never try to duplicate or imitate anyone else's work; it only makes you worse. Ignore what you read about how you are supposed to do things; it only sets you up for making more of the same as everyone else.

So what is uniquely yours? What is your signature? It's whatever and however you see things, entirely on your own.

When people start in photography, they try to learn "rules" and technique. These are never more than easy crutches, or training wheels, to help you start making some sort of pictures on your first day. These can be helpful for the first month or two when you're starting out, but ultimately these technical concepts like "exposure" are only guidelines to get you started on the much longer path to expressing your own unique way of seeing things.

Too many people spend decades trying to learn more rules and technique, confusing these easy to learn "rules" and obvious technical facts with photography itself. Photography is the expression of imagination, not the duplication of reality. The only reason for basic technical competance is so that you can show others what you're seeing, but other than that, technique — and especially the brand of camera — is irrelevant. Photo technique is like learning a language; it's just a medium through which we communicate, but it's not the message.

There is a "rule of thirds," but it's not a rule. Using crutches like these ensure your work will stay bland. The "rule of thirds" is just a first-day teaching tool to help students learn how to balance an image for the first time; it's not an actual rule.

You need to know how to set exposure compensation and white balance, and after that, you've got all the tools you need to show the world things as you see them. The best way to take the worst pictures is to waste your time worrying about buying a new camera or lens, or worrying about rules, technique or workflow.

All you need to do is learn the basic settings of whatever camera you have, and go out and show the world the way you, and you alone, see it.

No one else sees with your eyes. Vision is not a team sport. You have to see for yourself, and show us yourself in your images.


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