Photography and the (Lost) Art of Seeing 2: Vignetting

I can’t trace the trajectory taken by Holgas from their invention in 1982 until they became available for sale at Urban Outfitters, but a quick browse through Flickr shows the indelible effect they and other “toy” cameras have had on (trend-driven) photographic sensibilities. Unfortunately, these sensibilities have spilled over the levees limiting the artistic use of crappy cameras to the realm of crappy cameras and into the unfortunately large underbelly of Photoshop. Yes, I have another gripe to add to my previous list, and that is the digital addition of vignetting to otherwise uninteresting photos, in order to give them the appearance of éclat.

A wise man at Photo.net, Steven Taylor, once opined that “the photos that capture the best ratings are almost exclusively over-saturated, over- sharpened, over-processed images that, no doubt, have little resemblance to the original file.” While this could be the talking point for any number of arguments that I’m not interested in pursuing here, one manifestation of over-processing that appears repeatedly in the top photos at Photo.net is fake vignetting. Browse through some of the top photos in the gallery and, once you get past all the nudes, you see a lot of photos like these:

fake-vignetting

Similarly, if you browse the “interesting” photos on Flickr, which are selected based on “where the clickthroughs are coming from; who comments on it and when; who marks it as a favorite; its tags and many more things which are constantly changing,” you get photos like these:

fake-vignettingflickr

They’re even on Facebook:

fake-vignettingfb

The problem with fake vignetting is that it is so ubiquitous among highly rated and highly lauded photos that people seem inclined to believe that vignetting is desirable or even necessary for a good photo. Some photographers on Flickr go so far as to add vignetting to every photo they upload, as if having a photo any other way would be embarrassingly pedestrian. I sifted through hundreds of photos to get my Desert Roads group off the ground, and I was amazed at the number of otherwise good photos that were ruined by heavy-handed overprocessing. Do these people remember when vignetting was a lens aberration, that thousands of dollars went into designing and building lenses that wouldn’t have this problem? Have these people noticed that the tool they use to add vignetting is located under “lens correction”?

I can understand, and even appreciate, that some photogaphers, every once in a while, want to use a Holga to add some pizzazz to a roll of film; that photos taken with a Holga have some nostalgic aesthetic that makes them curiously attractive in moderation. But what is the attraction of adding vignetting to all photos, even those taken with a great camera? Where is the creativity in making all photos uniform? What is the lesson learned in giving nascent photographers the impression that post-processing is the be-all and end-all of good photography? Because of the overuse of Photoshop in general, and the ubiquity of fake vignetting in particular, collections of top-rated photos have become increasingly banal, and finding genuinely good, original, artistic and creative photos on the internet is becoming increasingly difficult.

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One response to “Photography and the (Lost) Art of Seeing 2: Vignetting

  1. Expert tools (photoshop) tend to be overused by amateurs. This is especially obvious with the recent HDR hype, buy you could also argue that this is what the masses want (why the pictures rate so highly). Should we embrace the wishes of the masses (become whores of art when we create art for everyone) or hold on to our ideals (integrity)?

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