I think I need to get that topic covered once and for all because I’m tired of repeating.
About learning an art
First of all, let’s be done with the so-called subjectivity of art (provided that, if everything was a subjective matter of taste or opinions, we wouldn’t even be able to communicate at all – so we need absolute definitions, even only arbitrary and locally valid ones).
Art is what happens when you stack personal expression on top of craftsmanship. Craftsmanship is the practical ability to manipulate some medium to shape it into something that matches a design. Then, personal expression is about creating that design to express something that seemed important to the artist at the time (whether it’s formulated at a conscious level or at an intuitive level, whatever).
Whether art should be original or innovative is not the topic of the current discussion, and doesn’t seem very important to me (how original is it possible to be anyway ?). Also bad art is still art, as bad/good is a property of the thing, and not its nature. And I don’t write art with a capital A as some people do, because it’s not a sacred or superior thing. It’s just stuff that people produce. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s too expansive, whatever.
Learning art is therefore the combination of 2 things : mastering the medium, and learning how to open your creativity channel (which, given the current state of public education, is something you need to actively re-learn at adult age because that gets lost somewhere between 7 and 13 for the sake of conformation and academic success).
As it happens in this digital era, many arts have now converged to a digital practice involving a computer and, inevitably, some kind of software to interact with the medium. Computer science was mostly designed to handle data automatically, using it for artistic purposes is rather new and weird. But once you have created a digital representation of a physical medium, it’s only a matter of transporting the physical interactions you are used to in the physical world to a virtual space. (And here, you see why getting physically-accurate image processing matters to me : light should behave the same inside or outside the computer, and the craftsmanship is in how you shape it, not in how it behaves, so the artistic thing is no license to mess-up with light transport).
But don’t get mistaken, digital or analog, the craftsmanship is still about shaping a medium, being it a material or a virtual one. Any software you are using is merely a control panel over this medium that exists in the matrix. Photographers shape light, painters shape paint, etc.
How I learned art
The good thing about being a kid is you get sent to school to learn and you get no saying in that, so you shut the f*ck up and do your homework, or else… When people grow up, they get all kinds of grown-up excuses to avoid learning ever again (kids, taxes, overtime, old age, bad eyesight, etc.), but somehow they always manage to find time for the TV (explain that to me…).
Between 6 and 18, I had music lessons. When I was at the conservatory, we had 30 min of piano each week, but 45 min mandatory of choir practice (or orchestra for non-soloist instruments) and 2 h of solfeggio per week. At the end, at the conservatory, I was doing a solid 2h/day of piano (I was still in regular school on the day), which was a bit crazy since the music teachers kept asking for more while I was already at school 7h/day. I was 14, I got high scores in physics and piano, I wanted to pursue both but apparently, in this sad world, living a balanced life is a luxury reserved for Instagram, so it was a 3-way choice between music, regular academics or keep working more than 10h/day + transportation (until you forget why you are here and probably rage-quit anyway). Long story short, I continued music but out of this crazy place, with a teacher who happened to be burnt out from international half-rigged piano competitions.
Music started to be fun after 8 years. That’s many thousands hours of pain before it starts to pay off. Beside patience, it taught me something that would be very important in photography : the sense of nuance. Nuances are indications written on the score that tell you how loud (to simplify) you should play. But still, those “mezzo-forte” or “sforzando” are pretty much up to your own interpretation (and up to the health status of your piano), and the important thing is not in the absolute loudness but rather in the contrast you create between the loudest and less loud part, to bring life and spirit to a score. Contrast… Doesn’t that ring a bell ?
This is all very nice, except it’s perfectly useless if you don’t train everyday to force muscle memory to become reflexes in order to make very unnatural gestures feel intuitive, until you don’t even think about how you should put your fingers on the keyboard. As it happens, the only natural thing in one’s life is death and disease. Pretty much everything else needs to be learned and practiced, in a perpetual fight against your own mediocrity (and I’m only a musician, but ask dancers…). “Nature” is a misplaced feeling of easiness and obviousness, the proof beeing you will always find someone completely disabled at anything you find natural (not saying here that disability is a permanent state and should be the end of trying).
But that nuance thing is, I think, all what art is about. You have a message to convey, you need to make it clear enough to be understood or felt, but also avoid making it caricatural, otherwise people will start to only see the effects and stop caring about the content and its meaning. It’s not something you can learn from only pushing sliders in a GUI, you have too feel it. How many times have I heard “that musician is so good, such a virtuoso” while true virtuosity is the one you can’t hear (if you hear it, it means the guy is actually suffering). Letting the effect take precedence over the content is the issue I have with many artists, and also the side effect of a lot of image processing algorithms.
Art vs. software
Manipulating a non-digital medium makes it pretty obvious that you need skills and training to bend the matter to your wish. A piano, although enabled by a complex machinery, is nothing more than some felt hammers hitting a couple of strings. And yet, depending on how fast, deep and heavily you weigh on the key, the same string won’t sound the same at all. In fact, with some training, you can even identify pianists just by the way they sound. What is so great about acoustic instruments is they have a very large expressive palette, with a lot of nuances available.
Yamaha and Roland have very complex ways to try to recreate that palette in synthesizers, Yamaha using real-life sampling recorded on analog pianos, and Roland using a purely mathematical approach to create sound from scratch, with physical models. Their business is basically to give to the players the same level of richness and complexity they would expect from the real thing, by recreating them in digital. If you think about a digital piano, it’s pretty much a keyboard full of sensors which creates a lot of inputs (position, speed and acceleration of the keys) that will be treated by a software to match that inputs to a plausible sound. And even if your keyboard is not full of options, there are lots of ways to play it that should all be accounted for in the software.
Imaging software are different in the way they don’t have many sensors to record an user interaction, but only simple switches (mouse + dumb keyboard). But still, the medium they control is very complex, and there are also lots of ways to “play” it that should be accounted for. So, using more simple keys, they simply need more keys to allow the same amount of control.
When I look at current commercial photo editors, they don’t look like instruments to me, but rather like these auto-synthesizers that take a MIDI-encoded score in input and “play” it automatically and mechanically at the end. So you are not the musician in there, you are the listener of some arrangements the beat-box is doing on the score you feed it. And even if the interpretation is improved, and sounds more organic, that’s still not you who is playing.
Software vs. art
A digital medium is buried so deep under a graphical interface that you could forget it’s even there, and be mislead into thinking that the computer is doing most, if not all, the job for you. Plus, with Kodak having worked since the Bull’s eye (1895) to make photography accessible to the mass market (I insist on market, it had nothing to do with democratizing art), people kind of expect photography in general to be a simple button-pushing experience followed with immediate reward.
And I fear that 20+ years of GUIs and personal computers have made people computer-dumb, in the sense that they don’t know and don’t even care about what lives beneath the GUI, and what data they are actually manipulating. Then comes the silly analogy with driving a car without having to be a mechanic (or an engineer), as an excuse for not caring about what happens and how it’s made, as if having a sense of what is done was the same as knowing how to build it from scratch…
But remember… the medium we are manipulating, although virtual, is still only a medium, consistent with some analog reality, and the virtual medium is just as complex as the analog reality it represents (at least because you expect it to behave the same, and also because you don’t want to lose some bits). So the need for craftsmanship in the digital era hasn’t changed one inch since the analog era. Your image pixels represent a light emission. Playing with pixels should be the same as playing directly with light. Developing a raw should be the same as printing a film on paper. All that falls-back to exposure settings, either global or selective. The fun is, with digital, you get to build your own film stock from scratch, not being limited to film vendors aesthetics anymore. And you, my artistic friend, deserve to control your art, hence your medium, not to be cast away of your own work by an “intelligent” software that gives you instant gratification, because you are the artist here and not the spectator of a juke-box.
But how do you bring nuance into the control of something complex ? There are not many solutions, aren’t they ? There is a catch somewhere if your software looks simple while the medium you are working on is not : you either get a control reduced to dumb stuff, or some things are done behind your GUI without asking for your permission.
Simplicity vs. simplicity
A simple software interface doesn’t imply automatically that it will be simple to get a good result. Actually, it’s often the opposite. 2 years ago, I got the chance to “pilot” an Airbus A320 in a full-featured flight simulator (the kind used for pilots training, suspended on actuators, and tilted accordingly to simulate acceleration), for fun, since I was working for the manufacturer of that simulator. A commercial aircraft dashboard is… intimidating, to say the least. But the beauty is everything is directly under the tips of your fingers, directly accessible with dials, knobs and screens.
Setting up the autopilot (altitude, target airport and radio frequency) was much easier and faster on an Airbus A320 dash than setting up a destination in a Tomtom car GPS, where you have to navigate through several menus, wait for the laggy screen to respond each time, miss the confirmation button on the touch screen, retry, and such. But that autopilot was surrounded by dozens of brothers and sisters, and I sure needed guidance to find it.
So the relationship between the number of controls in an interface, and the easiness of getting a good and fast result is a very counter-intuitive thing. Sure, you need to learn what all these options mean and do. But once you learned, it’s quite difficult to live without them. Nobody ever complained that there are 104 keys on a keyboard, didn’t they ? On the contrary, having to choose between key combinations and more native keys to get things done, the choice is pretty easy (until your keyboard takes all your desktop, but that’s another issue). Therefore, simplifying is not always making things more simple. Quite often, it makes them more awful, since a GUI is merely a control for something underneath, and controls are there for a reason. Simplifying the GUI would actually suppose to simplify the underlying algorithms first, which is not always possible and quite often not desirable. But people always focus on the tip of the iceberg, don’t they ?
The sensible thing to do is rather to make the complexity more understandable, and more logical, instead of denying and hiding it. But again, “logical” is assuming some background from the user. And that’s where the concept of intuitivity crashes. Intuitive is the property of something you don’t know to resembles something you already know, so you can reapply the same paradigm and spare the learning. Hitting the Escape key to end something is quite intuitive to me, because every OS I have ever used since Windows 95 worked like that. But intuitivity is deeply grounded into your cognitive referential, which depends on your culture, education, experience, OS of choice, and such.
In image processing, “obvious” things can be very unintuitive. For example people complain a lot about filmic desaturating the highlights near white (Y = 100%), making them lose their blue skies, because they just don’t realize white is supposed to be… achromatic, hence have no saturation, although that’s the very definition of white. So that thing that every other software lets you do, where you end-up with highly saturated highlights that will produce gamut clipping later (whatever colour space you are using, by the way), is just a nasty stabbing in the back that degenerated into bad habits for a whole generation of photographers.
One could object there is a distinction between complex and complicated, but let’s avoid word play here : no software will ever be complicated enough to represent accurately the medium it manipulates in a way that allows as much nuance as the physical world allows. This has nothing to do with willingly obfuscating things for the fun of it (it’s really not fun, by the way), it has to do with acknowledging the complexity of the reality in which we leave, embracing it, and giving options to users to control it so artists can actually be the masters of their own work.
Will it be difficult to master digital arts ? Not as much as it is to master analog arts. Remember the analog world doesn’t have Ctrl+Z. It took me 2 months to learn the C programming language to start hacking darktable, almost 5 years to learn photography from theory to practice, but it took me bloody 12 years to learn how to play the piano. There are shortcuts in C, but not in art. You have to suffer through all the necessary bits to learn your trade, there is no other way around. But anyway, what’s the rush ? Some things just take time, and you need to accept that.
So, if you are not up to the task, there are still iPhones and OOC JPEG. No choice is wrong, you just have to live up to your ambitions. I just don’t want to read people complaining about having to go though 12h of darktable video tutorials before being able to use it, because that 12h are bloody worth 5 years of my life, so you actually saved 14588 hours instead (full disclosure : I learned darktable with Lightroom tutorials, around 2012).
EDIT: about beginner-friendly software
In the photography hobbyists world, there is this belief and expectation that everything should be built for and around beginners. Many websites, Youtube channels and publications are just about that : teaching beginners.
While everyone was a beginner at some point, the fact is “beginner” is, by definition, a transient state that is meant to be overcome. So, the fundamental fallacy of this is we can’t design a software as a tutorial to get you started during your first 6-12 months, when this is supposed to be a full-fledged work horse for actual use. Designing something for beginners is a nonsense, how do you deal with users as soon as they are not beginners anymore ?
As it happens, if you search the internet for “advanced photographers” education or even “expert” level one (yes, continuous education is a thing even for experts), there is zero ressource. Isn’t it a clue ?
EDIT 2: about photo-software for geeks
Geeks are a valid audience too, who deserves to have his needs fulfilled too. Disregarding a software because it’s “made for geeks” is just as stupid as disregarding a software because it’s “made for common folks” (whatever “common folks” even mean). Ansel Adams was a huge geek, who trained as a pianist (another one), and later invented a very clever method to handle HDR scenes with film. His work now sits in the MoMA. So… Geek is not the opposite of artist, it’s just another flavor thereof.
As a matter of fact, Adams compared the film negative to a music sheet, and the print as the interpretation, which is very much how I see the digital RAW development, and why I compare darktable to a music instrument and Lightroom as a juke-box.