Thursday, November 8, 2012

Processes and Meta-Processes

Processes are a funny thing.

1. Without learning basic processes, you don't have the fundamental building blocks with which to construct more complex processes.

2. However, if you limit yourself to simply learning processes, you might never learn to construct more complex processes.

3. I believe that with a strong "top-down view" you can learn how to create better processes.

So, what's a process and what the hell am I talking about?

Several months back, Model Mayhem started their EDU section designed to provide more educational material for their members. One of the admins found my blog and asked if he could reblog some of my existing material. I obliged.

Well lo and behold, some of the things I said got people worked up. Posts like Blondes do have more fun... in B&W and The Baggage of Film made people hysterical. And not in a haha kind of way. I mean they were upset.

What were they upset about? Pretty much everything. They said that the preference of blondes over brunettes (in photography mind you) made me racist and that film is still king among other ridiculous things.

In response to the feedback, Model Mayhem decided to be more specific about the kind of content that they reposted from my blog. They requested that I "rewrite" some of the posts to be more MM EDU-friendly. More bullet-proof arguments, less op-ed (opinion-editorial) writing. I obliged but still got backlash with the content that I was providing.

Eventually they asked me to do "how-to" posts. They picked a picture and ask me to write about how it was lit and how I did this and that...

That's when I stopped contributing.

The change to less "op-ed" content and more "how-to" content benefitted MM EDU greatly because for the most part, the amateur/beginner level photographers learned more and argued less. Basically a bunch of 101-level tutorials teaching fundamental principles that no one could dispute.

But I don't keep this blog to teach 101 or fundamentals. I keep this blog because it's a philosophical narrative of my journey. If you want me to teach you frequency separation skin retouching, we can do that via a private workshop. But what intrigues me more than learning any specific process, is having a better understanding of how to learn processes and how to integrate processes into your workflow.

It's meta-learning. Learning how to learn. And meta-processes. The process of processes

Which is why my group classes aren't geared towards beginner photographers. I don't teach photographers how to set up their wireless triggers or what an f-stop is. Honestly, I have nothing to offer a beginner photographer that he/she can't learn via Kelby, Lynda, YouTube, Google, etc.

What I do is more specific and at the same time encompasses much more breadth. In my private workshops I utilize specific problems and challenges that students have in their journey to illustrate broader fundamental ideas. Some call it theory. Some call it philosophy. I call it, "learning how to fish". Because what's the point of giving you a "how-to" on the frequency separation method if you don't know why you are even doing frequency separation???

To illustrate this point, I had a recent private workshop where the photographer insisted that having more skin detail in the image was always better. She was tired of the effects of gaussian blur skin retouching, which I completely understood. But she wanted to preserve 100% of the skin texture while removing blemishes and uneven skin tone. I told her that I'd been down this path and that the crusade for perfect skin detail led me down a rabbit hole so deep that I wound up with pictures that were too pore-sy. Case in point:

She took one look at this picture and said, "What's wrong with it?"

And while there's nothing overtly wrong with the image, I explained simply that it contained too much pore detail. That by preserving all that texture, I had ultimately lost sight of the goal. I had become so fixated on preserving pores that I had forgotten that people were turned off by too much detail. That even in the beauty and makeup ads it looks like the retouchers run a significant blur to lessen the harshness of 10,000 pores staring at the viewer. And with this newfound perspective, I backed off the hunt for perfectly preserved pore detail.

But without having a good overall grasp of processes you can wind up in the wrong rabbit holes.

And when all you know is just "frequency separation", then chances are you'll want to apply the technique 100% to everything.

Because it's easy to get lost in the processes themselves. It's easy to just see the trees and forget that you're actually in a forest. But if you know that your audience doesn't want to see that kind of skin detail, then you can make better decisions about your skin retouching.

From that image on, I have probably used frequency separation less than 10 times.

But this is exactly why I believe that the understanding of processes trumps the processes themselves. If you ask the right questions you'll never arrive at the wrong answers. It's also why I don't believe in spoonfeeding you a bowl of right answers. Because if you don't know the questions that they pertain to, they're just a set of instructions to achieve... nothing.

Here's the rant portion of the article: People put way too much emphasis on quick fixes, silver bullets and other panacea. They get too caught up in the application of frequency-separation. But if you think that the frequency separation or any other single technique is going to solve your skin retouching issues, think again. It's just a small part of the entire workflow. You need to clean up the uneven skin tonalities of the skin so that frequency-separation can work its magic. Helping it help you will yield much better results. Otherwise it's garbage in and garbage out. And understanding where this tool belongs in your arsenal, when to use it, where to use it, why to use it, in addition to how to use it... well that's the meta-processes portion of what I'm talking about.

Otherwise as I've said before: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Pretty soon you'll end up with results like the picture above.

So do yourselves a favor. Strengthen your ability to think critically. Understand the processes beyond just the processes themselves. Understand when, where, what, why, and how they apply. You'll be better at problem-solving. You'll have a stronger overall grasp of not just photography/retouching but also the world around you. In so doing, you'll realize that some parts of your current workflow are actually outdated, redundant, and/or useless in improving your images. You'll be smarter and faster. Which makes you more efficient with your time because you won't be looking for the right answers to the wrong questions.

Of course tutorials are still important. Once you've asked the correct questions then your job becomes figuring out the details. But never lose sight of your goal and understanding how the processes apply with respect to the big picture!

Oh and I got that photographer to come around to the idea that sometimes "less is more". With the image above, I quickly mocked up a slightly blurred version of it (applied only on the skin) and asked her to choose which was "easier on the eyes". Unequivocally she chose the one with less pore detail.

And if you haven't checked out my skin-retouching tutorial video, see below:

L U C I M A | Beauty Retouch Tutorial from Charles LUCIMA on Vimeo.

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