How some technology takes creativity out of the creative process

In March of 2018, the Lytro company, the makers of the first light field camera in the world, closed its doors. A large number of its employees were said to have been taken over by Google – who else? – but the company’s demise also was the end of the Lytro cameras. But why did few people buy one?

For starters, the Lytro wasn’t exactly cheap and its unique selling point wasn’t really convincing. Yes, you could be amazed at what scientific progress and technological evolution were capable of producing, but why would you want to buy a camera that takes the creativity out of the picture-taking process? We were told that the creative process was still very much there, only later in the “workflow”. You could now focus on details after shooting everything that was in the frame. How little attention did the developers have for the average photographer’s reason to shoot photos in the first place…

Why do we shoot images? To show the world on a flat surface, or to put a soul into what we see? Cartier-Bresson knew and so do today’s photographers – pros or amateurs. I think that even fashion and commercials photographers will agree that it is the creative process that makes them passionate about their craft. That process starts with the first glance through the camera’s viewfinder. It’s knowing on the spot what needs to be in focus and what doesn’t that makes the creative genius stand apart from the average amateur. Photos should be made in the mind, just as paintings or drawings should, long before the shutter release has been touched.

The Lytro camera made it into an afterthought. Nevertheless, we were enthused at first. The reason that we were so attracted to it when it came out was the uniqueness and the quirkiness of the concept, and then there also were – as there always will be – the people who just want to be the first to have a new gadget.

New technology products still exert a strong attraction to most of us. Take, for example, GoPro’s new Hero 7 action camera. Except for the new features of the product that are really useful and blow your mind (you’ll see a review appear very soon on this site), there is a novelty which I think is a waste of brainpower: the in-camera made HDR image.

I can see why an action camera would support it the way the Hero 7 does for action shooting, but if you’re going to use it for HDR images that need to communicate an atmosphere, you’ll be disappointed.

For starters, we have some excellent HDR software that allows us to enjoy creating truly stunning HDR images. On the Mac, it’s Aurora HDR 2019 that I’m thinking of. Although Aurora HDR can create an HDR look-alike from one shot, its true strength lies in creating it from a bracketed series of RAW photos.

It’s entirely possible the Hero 7 takes several bracketed shots and “assembles” them internally, but the resulting photos only look good if the dynamic range isn’t too large and they come without the ability to fine-tune them afterwards or literally compose them into a different atmosphere.

What is really creative about making an HDR image is that you compose the picture in post-production, carefully manipulating the controls until you get the results you are after and changing them if you want to create the same scene with a different “feel”.

That, unfortunately, isn’t possible with in-camera made HDR imagery. And that’s what we are increasingly seeing with anything from cameras to smartphones. It used to be that technology stimulated creative processes, but technology has evolved in such dramatic ways, it is now actually capable of killing it. We shouldn’t let that happen.

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