Experience and Premise can be Misleading

First-hand experience and first premise. I keep finding that these two things are ones I have to break through to explain the nuances of photography these days. 

Let’s start with “first-hand experience.” First-hand experience is basically someone counting on their own sensory inputs to form conclusive proof. The color produced by your camera is what you see. 

Of course, you may have some form of color blindness, you might not have any training in distinguishing and evaluating color, and you’re probably using the default camera settings because “the camera maker knows best.” Even if you claim to use raw files, you’re still relying upon the demosaic, color model, white balance adjustments, and tonal placements of your raw converter, and many of you double down by using presets (“the raw converter maker knows best”). 

One of the things that strikes me at workshops is this: in the one-on-one post processing sessions, virtually everyone I sit down with is not correctly recognizing something they should have seen. They don’t distinguish, for instance, between slight differences in where the focus plane has been placed. They miss something in the background that’s important because they only see the subject. They can’t see small color or tonal errors until I pull them up side by side and show them what changed.

We all believe that our own "observed reality” is correct. It took many years of studying with some superb instructors before I saw some very small things and started challenging what I was seeing. 

Don’t let your first-hand observations be lazy. Don’t always assume that what you think you see is the only thing that can be seen. When someone challenges your observations, have an open mind and make sure you haven’t jumped to conclusions that you alone developed, without any rigid discipline behind that. 

Tip: Here’s a trick I pull in post processing sessions. Grab a white card large enough to block out the entire screen. Now, slowly reveal the photo from each edge. Look carefully at what you see before you get to the subject, which most of you are putting in the center or perhaps at the cherished one-third points. Is there anything near those edges that should be in your photo? Anything distracting? What are the colors looking like? Tonalities? Is this edge area in focus, and if so, is that really what you wanted? Do that same thing from every edge. Bonus: have a card with a rectangular hole in it that you can use to block out all but the subject. Same tests: focus, color, tonality, distractions.

Generally we need to be trained to see things. The better your trainer, the more you’ll see ;~). 

If you haven’t been well trained and are saying “I don’t see any issues with my image,”  expect to be challenged, ignored, or even mocked. And then when you’re mocked, you’ll get all upset and go ballastic on the mocker, and then we have another forum post war about to happen. Blasting the mocker with a pithy response won’t make your image any better. Only education will make you recognize the issue and the way to address it.

Which brings me to first premise. 

One of the Aha! moments in my PhD program was when I took a Business Ethics class from a brilliant professor at the Kelley School of Business (Indiana University). You’d think that we’d have spent the entire semester (and subsequent followup class semester) arguing about actual business practices and cases. Nope. We spent most of the first semester understanding first premises and how they influence our decision making. Ethics and morality are constructs generally built on first premises. 

Much of that first semester was used to identify every student’s first premises and blow them up. Why? Because when you believe something for which there is no evidence, your sole answer becomes “because my premise says so.” The clash comes when you try to do societal things (e.g. regulate what businesses can do) if everyone is acting solely as narcisstic individuals who won’t allow challenges to their impossible-to-prove premises. It’s easy to hide behind a first premise.

Yes, I’m bordering on a political discussion here, but it’s also something that has spilled over into disciplines such as photography. Some variations I’ve seen in the digital world: CCD sensors are better than CMOS; Canon’s “color" is better than Nikon’s; Sony Semiconductor is the best sensor maker. 

Any time the word “best” or “better” is used, your radar should go off. Is the person actually measuring something that can be remeasured and verified by others, and do they have the background and discipline to accurately make and completely understand that measurement? 

But this gets us into the Granddaddy of all First Premises: that measurements are the truth. 

Let me remind you of the Scientific Method: hypothesize, test, analyze, allow others to verify, repeat. That has proven to give us our best, most accurate understanding of the world around us (including such things as lens sharpness ;~). But we very well may discover that there’s more to be known, and we might benefit from knowing it. In other words, theories change with time. Knowledge changes with time.

I’ll step away from photography for just a moment to give an example. Bohr provided us the definition of an atom that most still cling to (and it came from a long list of work that preceded Bohr and upon which he relied). But the notion of a positive nucleus around which negative electrons circle and change orbits is now considered primitive and outdated. The thing that blows my mind these days is that scientists now say that one of the components of the proton weighs more than the whole proton, which shows you just how exceedingly complex (and quantum) the thing we consider a basic particle really is. By the way, that actually does have photographic implications, but that’s a topic for another day.

The challenge for you is to recognize a First Premise when it is offered. Arguing with someone who will only operate from a First Premise won’t get you anywhere. You have to break them out of the First Premise, which isn’t easy, and frankly, can destabilize that person even more when if you manage to shatter their illusions. 

People constantly using First Premises as arguments who do so compellingly basically establish cults. If you don’t believe we have cults within the photographic community, you’re not paying attention. Try asking someone “who makes the best lenses?” and see what happens. As a broad question, that can’t be answered, yet I see many trying to claim they have the answer.

Disclosure: I have to be careful about the words I use in trying to make more generalized statements. I don’t always get that perfectly correct. For instance, from my testing of a wide range of lenses I believe that both Nikon and Sony have in recent years really upped the optical quality standards for the lenses they make. A new Nikkor S or Sony G or GM lens tends to be outstanding for its specifications, and better than its predecessors. The devil’s in the details, though. People want generalizations because it makes their buying decision making easier, so I have to make some. But I try to be careful in avoiding saying “Nikon makes the best lenses” or “Sony makes the best lenses.” I try to explain my generalizations with some additional detail that tells you how I formed that conclusion. I don’t always get the words right, though. I am my own worst copy editor. 

One thing about artists—yes, I think great photographers are not just craftspeople, but also artists—is that they often look at breaking away from the commonly held experiences and premises, to find things in the margins that are interesting and unique. 

So today I have questions (not answers) for you:

  • Are your first-hand observations actually accurate? Are you seeing correctly? Or are you just going along with what the herd says?
  • Have you established a bias due to a first premise? Are you challenging assumptions or are you just regurgitating what your cult first premise leader says?

A simpler question if you're stuck on those: are you open-minded or closed-minded about photography and photographic topics?

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