Saturday, March 5, 2011

Ignorant Experts .....

I am not an expert on any subject except of course making love to women but you knew that.  :-)
I would even say I am ignorant in a lot of areas.  Are you surprised at the word 'ignorant'? (Not me!  Ed.)   Like a lot of words these days it is misused and abused to the point that it has lost its meaning - a bit like the word 'decimate'.  How often have you heard "the earthquake has decimated the city"?  They believe the word to mean obliterated.  In fact the word means almost the opposite - "to reduce by one tenth".  Similarly 'ignorant' has come to mean uncouth, lower class, tasteless; whereas it actually means lacking in knowledge.  I used to often quote a sentence a teacher told me - "Ignorance is curable.  Stupidity, unfortunately, isn't".  Unfortunately nowadays ignorance and stupidity or maybe arrogance are all interchangeable.

So what has me off on a yet another rant?  Ignorant Experts, that's what!
In fact it has become so bad I am considering seriously not giving advice or opinions on any subject.
"How's your pint Paul?"  "Compared to what?"

My first recollection of Ignorant Experts was quite a few years ago.  I was always one to latch on to the new gadgets that popped up and the computer keyboards of one sort or another were never far away from my fingertips.  So it was not uncommon for someone to approach me with the sentence "You're an expert on computers  .........."  I always contradicted them but my protestations were dismissed - another pet peeve.  (You've got a few.  Ed.)  I remember one guy who said "I need to get more memory.  What one would you recommend?"  Yes, there will be one or two of you who will have spotted the quirky contradiction in that question.  I ignored it and asked why he needed more memory.  "Those picture files are big!"  Okay, I thought,  it's not an unreasonable reason.  "What size were you think of getting?"  "Oh, about 80 gigabytes" (This was the late 80s).  "80 gigabytes!  You can't fit that size memory into a PC!"  I said.  "Yes, you can." And he showed me a catalogue with hard drives.  "They are hard drives!"  I said naively.  "You said memory".  And then he said "They're the same thing".  So, he had come to me because I was an 'expert' and now the expert was being corrected by - - - -  an Ignorant Expert.  Anytime he came to me after that, I pleaded ignorance - ironic in a way.

I had a digital camera when people didn't even know what it was.  So I was ahead of the game when they started to become affordable and popular.  That made me a target for the people who couldn't be bothered to read their manuals and wanted a quick fix otherwise known as "the golden bullet".
But it also attracted the type of guy who had spent his money on the biggest, best, heaviest, smallest, most-loaded-with-stuff camera and wanted to show off how smart he was.  I have asked on a few occasions with this type of guy to cut through all the crap and just plonk our manhoods on the table and compare with a measuring tape.  It would be simpler - I would lose and everybody could go home.
I had a 6 megapixel camera - a Nikon (Aghhhh! Ed.) - and a guy was comparing cameras with me.  There were some features I had that he didn't and vice versa.  Both of us were using 500MB cards (I think) and I was able to store several hundred large quality jpegs on one card.  "Aha!" he exclaimed, "Gotcha!  I can store more than that!"  In fact he was right.  He had found the menu item that let him change the pixel count and the quality so he turned his 6 megapixel camera into a 1.3 megapixel one and reduced the quality from maximum to lowest.  Fine if he ever wanted a print no larger than a postage stamp but the main thing was he had a 'better camera' than the so-called expert - me.

And we stored our photos on cards.  Then USB flash drives appeared.  People came up with all sorts of names for them but when Sony brought out a different storage device for their cameras called a memory stick, the public latched onto that name like cold porridge in a bowl.  Now the common flash drive that resembled the memory stick is almost universally called a memory stick.

Photoshop has given painless birth to a plague of button pushers who can produce results that are very different to what a straight print off a file produced in your local camera shop will give.  'Different' was the carefully chosen word.  'Different' doesn't mean better.  Sometimes they are but more times than not they are the result of someone else's knowledge gathered into what is called an 'action' and is essentially the same as pushing a button.  Unfortunately, some of the actions come with adjustment sliders and I can almost see the user at his monitor moving the slider to an appropriate position and then thinking "nobody will see that change I made" and so push the slider that little bit further so that people will 'oooh' and 'aaah' that Molly's acne has gone and is replaced with the same stuff they make Wavin pipes from.  Whiter than white backgrounds with people standing suspended in mid air with faces that resemble plastic.  Hmmmm.  I'm kind of happy to leave them to their trickery but it's when they ask me for my opinion on the pros and cons of various editing programs and plugins and then dismiss my answers that I want to ask why they asked me in the first place.  The answer is they are Ignorant Experts.

"Can I ask your opinion on my photographs?"  This sentence along with "Would you like to judge a competition?" are probably the ones that I find create inner conflict.  I know there are some of you thinking that I am putting too much thought into this but I remember my first photos appraisal.  I remember my first masterpiece being torn to shreds by an insensitive judge.  So my initial reaction is one of pleasure that someone thinks I have enough knowledge and expertise to give an informed assessment of their work.  But two new thoughts quickly elbow their way into my cosy space and decimate (I use the word deliberately) the pleasure.  The first is what do I do if all the work is actually bad?  The second is what do I do if they put up photos that may be works of art but I can't see it?
The last thing I want to do is discourage a budding photographer from becoming a master.  (Sexist? Ed.)  I have had people come to me in the last 10 years (now that I've taken up the camera again) who tell me they have photos I took of them 20, 30 years ago, sitting on their mantlepieces.  They also tell me how pleased they are that I took those photos.  I would find it hard to live with myself if I destroyed a potential photographer who could carry on this wonderful pastime.  So I praise what is good and suggest ways that other areas, that are obviously bad, could be improved.  I concentrate on safe basic foundation-creating points involving exposure control, composition and ideas.  They will develop their own styles and break the rules later on!
"That's a good thing" I hear (metaphorically) you say.  Yes it is.  So what happens when in a couple of weeks or months, your advice is ignored and the advice-taking becomes a debate on whether you are right or wrong?  I wonder why I'm being asked and the answer is I'm talking to an Ignorant Expert.

A few years ago I joined a couple of forums where models and photographers could find each other and show off their talents.  The members/subscribers varied from girls who uploaded the worst phone self-portraits to the best professional photographers that made you drool.  A lot asked for constructive criticism and a lot had their egos shattered with flame wars being the result and interventions by the moderators.  Some photographers told us that they refrained from making comments other than those that praised good photographs because of the negative reactions they got.  I guess they thought it was a bit like those talent programs on TV like X-Factor and the like where if anything is said that isn't a positive superlative then booing and bad karma are the reactions.
Me?  I was stung once.  Only made comments on photos and portfolios I thought were good after that.  There is a natural attrition so these do disappear gradually.  Unfortunately there is a myriad of others just waiting to take their place.

And competition judging?  I have judged competitions in the past.  My engineering background probably influenced the analytical way I approached the task.  I divide the photo qualities into sections.  Does it solicit and emotional response from me?  I don't care (for the most part) if the emotion is joy, fear, hatred, disgust, amazement or 'whatevah'.  The level of emotion will determine the mark.  Is it technically good?  Is it correctly exposed, printed for the subject matter?  Has it got good composition?  Use of colour or post-processing?  The last section is how difficult was it to take the photo?  In my opinion, Joe McNally climbing the lightning conductor of the Empire State Building to photograph a guy change the aviation light bulb (skip to 6 mins if you're impatient) will always win this section over a perfectly taken photograph of a piece of rust!  But there are genres that I am definitely uncomfortable with.  These include panels of tree bark, rust, record shots of people standing somewhere, Indians bathing/with their cows/looking poor/begging, derelict Irish homes with 'imported' memorabilia, graffitti - you get the point.  I'm not saying that these don't have merit.  I don't know.  It could be ignorance (!) but it could be a case of the "King's new clothes" too!
I have been asked to judge an IPF competition.  I declined on the grounds that I felt I should prove my worth to do so at club level where I wouldn't do that much harm and certainly wouldn't affect my club's reputation.
The thing is .....  how many competitions have you been in and after discussed the merits (or not) of the judge's ability to give a fair assessment?  Have you joked about his comments?  Have you been angered by the fact you were in first place in the competition series until that final judging and argued with the club committee?  There will never be a perfect judge.  There will always be somebody who is genuinely better at judging a particular photo than the judge but there will be a lot more whose norm is to show how much better they are than the judge - Ignorant Experts.

My final bunch are the people who have made it as photographers and then put themselves forwards as experts.  Yes, I know this sounds like they are entitled to do so but bear me out.
I know one photographer who takes very good portraits but hasn't a clue how the shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings connect with each other and regularly takes studio shots using flash using shutter speeds anywhere from 1/15 sec to 1/250 sec.  If you see nothing wrong with this go find out.  His photographs look good on screen but don't print well above A4 and this is with a camera in the 15 megapixel range.
A lot of these people also give workshops.  I think this is a good thing as long as they teach what they know.  They have found a mode of working that produces results every (or most of the) time.  Their concentration is then the other aspects of getting a picture - setting up lights, talking to models, composition, etc.  If they tell me that the flip up mirror in the camera is actually the shutter I start to worry.
They point out that the cameras have aperture priority and shutter priority settings as well as manual but don't explain why I should use them and suggest that 'Auto' is perfectly acceptable to use.  Maximum flash sync is never mentioned or barely touched on.  ISO is 'something to avoid' if you don't want 'grainy' pictures.  Shooting portraits with a 24mm lens is perfectly acceptable without mention of what might produce a more pleasing result.  The list goes on.
The end line is "I am a successful professional photographer therefore I am an expert".  Well, I can fly a Jumbo jet in a simulator but I don't think you'd want me in the pilot's seat on your way to New York.

So what is this rant really all about?  It's the old adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing coupled with arrogance.  There is a group of people that are in the majority unfotunately who, because of the technology that exists, can produce photographs that are better than the straight point-shoot-print class and are on their way to being great.  Unfortunately they also assume that this ability and plucking snippets of information from knowledgable people gives them carte blanche to redefine the facts and the standards of what contributes to great photography.

Grumpy grunt?  Yeah, probably.  But the final points are:
  • I'm fed up being called an expert when I'm not.
  • I am ignorant in so many areas but am dismissed (grrrrr!) when I protest.
  • When I offer advice/information it is fact because I have done my homework.
  • If I offer an opinion I tell your first that it is an opinion.
  • I object to having advice I give being fragmented to suit the person's opinions.
  • I object to online courses, workshops, training where the material is wrong and I know more than the tutors.
So, because of the past few years of dealing with Ignorant Experts I will be filtering my responses to requests for advice and opinions.  I am hoping though that I can pass on some basics here in this blog and welcome corrections to my information where I may make mistakes or not relate the information in a clear way.  As long as you can back it up with something other than opinion and Wikipedia.  :-)  Also unfortunate is that I may alienate some people whose work I admire but who have asked  me for my advice or opinions in the past.

And no, most of the time I'm quite at peace with the world but I have a reputation for grumpiness I have to maintain.  Sorry!

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