No Skill Is Required (to turn your portrait into a personality-free mannequin)

A lot of film photographers (read: old timers) give the practitioners of digital photography grief for becoming more computer technicians than camera craftsmen (much less, Artistes).  There is, of course, a certain weight of truth that for a digital photographer to create anything more than SOOC (Straight-Out-Of-Camera) snapshots, he or she must become reasonably facile in (at the least) Photoshop.  Add to this Lightroom, a plethora of presets, plugins, actions, and special purpose ancillary applications, and you can see the tip of the old timers complaint iceberg.  Of course those of us who work in electrons as well as photons, also rightly claim that technical skill and artistic inclinations, leavened with judicious restraint, can come together to create wonderful digital photographs.  But, while we strive to capture the light and master the digital darkroom, there are those out there who are fighting mightily to prove the old timers right.

Enter the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX78/77 with Cosmetic Mode and Beauty Retouch Mode. These camera modes will allow you to change skin tone (Want to be suntanned in the middle of an Alaskan winter while avoiding those pricey, skin-cancer producing tanning booths? No problem, there is a mode for that with the push of a button.), whiten your teeth (No need for those pesky yearly visits to the dentist!), remove your laugh lines and wrinkles (Why mar your face while smiling or aging!), enhance your lip color (Desirable for the teenage vampyre in all of us.), and numerous other facial “improvements” that I’m sure we all wish could be applied in-camera with the push of a button and a minimal of nuance.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am no luddite. And, while I usually am not an early adopter of new technology (I’ll let others pay premium to hang out on the bleeding edge), I am a staunch advocate of process and technology improvement.  But do a Google search for “panasonic beauty retouch” and look at some of the “retouched” examples. If your idea of improving upon the looks of the human race is to turn them into an army of plastic mannequins, well then this really is the camera for you!

Now I fully understand that cameras like this Panasonic (Casio has one as well, the EXILIM) are not targeted for pros but rather snapshooters (and perhaps insecure ones at that).  So while you might see an advert for this camera in a teen magazine (or the websites that have seemed to replace most magazines), you would not expect to see it advertised in a photography magazine targeting professionals.  Therefore, imagine my surprise — and dismay — to see in a magazine whose byline is “The Magazine for Professional Photographers” a product that claims to be the “fastest, easiest portrait touch-up software“ that can produce “magazine quality yet natural looking touch-up in minutes.” Sounds good as many of us find that we need speed and ease to help trim or streamline our digital workflows. And, the product may well be very good (though the ‘after’ image in the ad still looks over-processed to my eyes). No, my objection is not to the idea of expediting our processing time, but rather to the last line of the ad copy: “No skill is required.” We take the time and apply our well-earned skills to compose and light our subjects and yet in the end, no skill is required to produce wonderful images. This is progress? Something is not quite right with that concept.

There are two issues here for me. First, is the idea that we can — and apparently some need to — define beauty as over-smoothed plasticized skin, an absence of wrinkles and blemishes, and glowing-white teeth that belong in an Ultrabrite toothpaste commercial. I have no problem with touching up the acne of a teenager or the bruises of a some scrappy boy (or, tomboy). I also understand that brides want to look their best on their special day. And, I have myself slightly whitened the teeth of a client or two. But that is a far cry from the homogeneity I see in a number of portraits being posted/printed. Much of this I suspect comes from aspiring shooters who believe that if a little skin smoothing is good, then a lot is better. But that doesn’t explain the professional portrait shot I saw in a magazine recently. Leading off a bio-piece on some actor (didn’t recognize his face nor his name, and it doesn’t matter), the photographer (or Photoshop editor) chose to turn his face into a dark (he is an African-American) porcelain visage of banality while his gently folded hands remained untouched and expressive. It was an immediate and jarring juxtaposition. There was more character and personality in his creased hands than in his artificially created mask-like face. Be creative, browse the galleries at Flickrista for inspiration or ideas and remember that often, less is more.

Of course, my second issue is the notion that we — whether via software or hardware — would desire to create something with no skill involved. It almost seems oxymoronic, if not sacrilegious to our artistic sensibilities. Most of us are on a life-long struggle to improve and refine our skill set (among other attributes). Handing a camera to chimp and turning him loose may produce an interesting and serendipitous image or two (out of thousands), but that is likely not the path most of us are on.  So yes, hardware and software developers, look for ways to augment and even streamline our workflows. But leave us the requirement to exercise skill and judgment, discretion and nuance in our work. Otherwise, the old timers are finally quite right.

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