Art? Oh, no! Understand maths? Oh, no!

Dear all,

Since I do not want to spoil another thread, here are some very personal ponderings:

The other thread takes for granted that every piece of photography is meant to be a Piece of Art. Oh, no. Far from it. I’d say that most images are intended to document something.

The other thread also advocates that you have to understand maths to be able to use darktable to its full extent. Oh, no. Not at all. You don’t have to be able to quote the square root of three with five decimals to be able to use darktable properly. That has nothing to do with it.

Umpteen years ago, I was responsible for introducing computers in the ad agency world. The AD and his minions were eager to learn; but we approached the tasks in different ways. When the AD wanted to place a headline, he squinted with his eyes, and immediately dragged it into the correct position. When I did it, I brought out my calculator, and then typed in x = -2.5px, y = +6px. Both results were correct, but the AD neither needed any Maths, nor a calculator.

He also swiftly learned that if he dragged a certain slider to the left, the image became darker.
And dragged to the left, the image became lighter. And so on. No maths called for.

Have fun!
Claes in Lund, Sweden
– practising to become a skilled craftsman –


You talkin’ 'bout me, man! Three university degrees in technical subjects, four math courses. Total. It probably shows…

I too believe there’s a “mechanic’s understanding” that is useful in photography. But it has to be rooted in the basic physics of the thing, light as an energetic phenomenon. And then, color as mainly a psychological phenomenon. The rest are just ingenious mechanisms, whose goezintas and comesoutas, and something of the transforms within, that await our “playin’ withem”…

I wrote the Color Management article with this perspective. I’m thinking of a few others.

1 Like

Looking for more words of endearment are we? :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

For the majority, photography is a novelty or an heirloom. People take and make photos because it is fun and has good vibes. Look at me in this frame—the hair! Worse than my doge!

1 Like

A similar comment was made in the other thread. It suggests, when I read it, a contradiction between documenting and art. Contrarily my experience is that most most photography classified as art is about documenting something. I don’t have statistical proof this is the case but I’m reasonably familiar with the art world. The idea that photography is more art when it diverges from the snapshot doesn’t add up.

Generally speaking it’s the seeing or the documenting than makes a photograph art.

Back to the actual ‘sensmoral’ of your post… I agree completely!

Personally, I straddle the art/engineering divide by considering aesthetic qualities, through a series of questions. What emotions does the work evoke? How does it do this? What is the distribution of mass and space and “negative space”? How are tones and colours used? What are the textures, and how do they generate subjective feeling? And so on and so on.

Some of these questions are applicable to any work; some are specific to 2D images, some only to photographs.

Questions may sound reductive. Can’t we simply and instinctively say, “That’s a good photo of a dog”, and be done with it? Yes we can, but analysing a work helps us to understand how aesthetics work, and this understanding feeds back to our own efforts. Formal analysis educates our own synthesis.


You didn’t have to be a chemist to produce great prints in the darkroom. (Although some master darkroom printers could mix a custom developer themselves, most photographers who printed their own pictures didn’t.)

For many photographers, making pictures is a craft skill, not a technological one. And if artistry comes into it, too, then other people may enjoy looking at the photographs! :wink:


@Claes, you are probably right. The market segmentation for amateur camera ownership in the link below shows that the majority is made up of ‘casual’ photographers and ‘memory keepers’. While there is not necessarily any direct correlation between the type of camera and the use it is put to it would probably be safe to assume that the vast majority of photographic activity in the ‘casual’ and ‘memory keeper’ segments would fall into what you call ‘documentation’ .

1 Like

If you think maths is just about using a calculator, it’s like just focusing on individual pixels and missing the overall big picture :slight_smile: When we say it is helpful to know maths when processing images, we are talking about operating at a much higher level of abstraction than that. It is about matricies and vector spaces, transfer functions, transforms linear and non-linear, frequency domain analysis, filtering techniques. Of course, you don’t need to understand these terms to randomly tweak sliders and see what happens, but if you understand the theory of what these sliders are doing, it can help you to make better decisions about which sliders to tweak. Maths is so much more than just grinding out calculations. It involves a lot of intuition to identify patterns and relationships, and when needed we can apply some rigour to confirm why those intuitions are correct (or just plain wrong :slight_smile: ). I feel it can help you gain a much deeper appreciation of the final product, rather than only being able to say, “gee, that looks pretty!”. Just my take on it anyway :slight_smile:


There is no need to understand maths to use dt. It probably helps to understand it’s about light, and that more is brighter and less is darker and that those values can be shifted about.

Otoh, if you are going to propose changes to dt, it probably helps to understand some of the conceptual basis: what does it mean for a function to be linear, for example. Not just the definition, but what it means in terms of putting A before B or B before A (and so it would also be useful to understand scalar vs matrix operators). Mathematics is a language, it’s not about knowing the square root of 3, it’s about being able to express ideas precisely, with the ability to check which ideas are mutually exclusive. If you don’t speak that language, you can be perceived as the person who bursts into a room of Russians and speaks English very loudly.

An understanding of the relevant mathematical concepts would avoid arguments of the form “I used to use it this way, and I liked it, and now it has changed, and I want the old version back!” Those might be valid sentiments, but it’s hard to argue for the advantages of separating operations in scene-linear vs non-linear vs display-linear with a person who doesn’t understand those terms or what they mean. Or worse, someone who thinks they understand the concept because they read a vulgarisation that basically said “non-linearity is super-cool!”

There is a need for humility: “I don’t like what you’re doing and it should be different, but I don’t know how that could be done” isn’t super-persuasive… kind of like all the physically impossible product proposals on Kickstarter.

In the end, the program will reflect the principles and prejudices of the developers, because no one is paying them to make something they don’t like. Part of the choice of an open-source program is finding one that is steered by people whose understanding is similar to your own. You might than enter into a conversation to persuade them that a new direction would be cool. Or, you can fork the program and keep using an old version. There is logically little chance of finding people who don’t understand maths and who are developing technical software. Otherwise, there is LR and Affinity and Capture One and…


I agree! There’s no need to understand maths to use almost any software focused on photography.

From my point of view, that is not a good example. Of course you don’t need any maths to play with some sliders and get by chance a good result! But you also don’t need any maths if somebody takes the time to clearly explain what those sliders do, and what you have to expect when using them. I’ve done it: as a plain user I have explained how to use a complex tool in RT, and I didn’t need any math to do that. Hopefully the documentation is good enough so anybody reading it could use that tool without math-thinking. And if not, I just need to improve the documentation, not ask people to have any degree on physics, maths or computers.

Again, I agree. But it works both ways: even though the programmer is doing all the hard work without getting paid, that doesn’t give him/her the right to despise the most plain users. And when a user finds out something that doesn’t work or doesn’t like, he/she doesn’t have any right to demand anything. With humility and good manners on both sides, a solution to a problem is easier to reach.

As I see it, most of the time is just a matter of good communication between both, the developer and the user. And good, simple, full documentation is essential for that (not necessarily maths).

1 Like