“What is the use of a newborn baby?”
Benjamin Franklin was highly interested in scientific experiments. In 1783 he watched the first manned balloon flight in history. Most people who watched the event were amazed, but like always, there were also some sceptics and one of them asked Franklin: “What is the use of flying in the air?”. Franklin replied: “What is the use of a newborn baby?”.
When it comes to fundamental research and scientific experiments, it is often not clear beforehand what the added value of it might be. And some people that don’t immediately see the added value right away, might be sceptic and might dismiss great discoveries as nonsense. But one thing is clear: without this kind of research, there would have been no planes, no cameras and no computers to post-process our photos.
I have spent my professional life on research and development. Doing research means that you take ingredients of previous work and combine these ingredients to create something new, that you build upon what others have created and improve the current state of art. It is a creative process in which you try to do better than what already exists or find a way to solve what doesn’t work. And this way of working is actually the only way to really make steps forward in the scientific world. Without building upon what others have already created, everybody would have to re-invent the wheel themselves and the pace of innovation would be utterly slow.
Innovation and photography
So what does this have to do with photography? For me everything. Some photographers claim they are original. However, no artist is a true source of original work. No one. Every artist takes ideas from others, uses them, mixes them and then creates his own art, his own style. Some might not admit this, but this is how it works. Or as Ansal Adams once said: “You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
Once you realize that this is how creating arts works, you probably also realize that you can’t sit back and relax too long when you have created successful pieces of art. After consciously or unconsciously borrowing ideas from others and mixing them into something new, you might have created a kind of photography that becomes highly popular and that might become the new baseline. But then others consciously or unconsciously borrow your ideas and try to improve upon it, combine them with other ideas to create something new. They INNOVATE. If you just sit back and don’t innovate yourself and if you don’t improve your work yourself, somebody else will do so. Look at a company like Polaroid. Their instant film and cameras where great successes. But Polaroid did not innovate and was declared bankrupt in 2001.
My way of innovating my photography
So how does this all apply to how I deal with photography? I got involved in photography as a kid. Only in 2011 I started sharing my photos online and in 2013 I became more serious about photography. First I concentrated on improving my compositions. It was my esteemed colleague and fellow photographer Perry Verveld who told me I could improve on my compositions. And he was right. In that same period I got to know the workflow of Trey Ratcliff and through him I learned about HDR processing and software like Nik Collection. That gave a tremendous boost to the quality of my photos. I took the elements of the workflow of Trey Ratcliff that I liked best, refined them to my taste and applied my own mixture of workflow elements to my own kind of photos. Later I replaced the use of HDR software by luminosity masks and that gave another boost to especially the creative part.
When I started sharing my photos in 2011, I uploaded them to Panoramio. The popularity of photos on Panoramio was highly dependent on the location of them. But Panoramio was also a great way to scout online for locations. Online scouting for locations means per definition that your location is not original. But then I try to mix ideas of others (locations) with my own and create a photo that in the end is a unique piece of art. An example of this if my award-winning photo of the ‘Rietdiephaven’ in Groningen. ‘Rietdiephaven’ is a location that has been photographed by many others. The composition that I have chosen is similar to others, but not the same. And for a reason. The processing is probably also rather unique for this location: I combined 32 separate images into 1. Some might say it is a copy of another photo. But in my opinion it is not. It is my combination of elements and this combination makes it unique.
Oldies from the year 2011, some of the first photos I uploaded to the internet
Rietdiephaven - Trierenberg Super Circuit Gold Medal
When it comes to innovation, there is also something interesting called ‘multiple discovery’, meaning that the same invention is being done simultaneously and independently by different inventors. This happens quite often as multiple inventors try to improve on the state of the art that is known to all of them. In photography, the same happens. You go to a place and you might think that you are the only one going there and you might even think that the idea of going there is your ORIGINAL idea. But when you live in the same area, share the same interest and have similar experiences, you should not be surprised to see that others have the same idea. To me that happened more than once. And that can be quite frustrating. In May I went out shooting the Milky Way with fellow photographer Niels Barto. I thought and hoped we would have pretty unique photos but it turned out that many photographers had the same idea that day… This also happened to me on January 18, a very beautiful day with hoarfrost. I went to a tree lane close to my home and found out later that another photographer made almost exactly the same photo with almost the same composition.
Is there a way to prevent multiple discovery? Probably not. You can reduce chances by thinking out the box, trying to be more innovative than others. But that might not be so easy. My ‘innovations’ in 2017 so far are: using a drone for new perspectives, making animations using Plotagraph, and using deep neural networks for post processing. And although all of them are new to me, they are not new to the photography community. Still, not innovating is not an option. If you don’t take your own ideas and improve upon them, somebody will do so and you will end up in a situation similar to that of Polaroid.
So, don’t sit back, relax and enjoy too long from your current success, but keep innovating! And don’t be afraid of experimenting. Because you never know what will become of a newborn baby. It might just as well become a Nobel Prize winner…