Posted by: kerryl29 | January 22, 2013

No Substitute

I’ve been reading Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise:  Why so Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t, recently.  As someone with a deep formal background in disciplinary statistics and research methods, the subject matter is naturally of interest to me.  While the book dips into many specific examples—without ever burying readers deeply in the minutiae of formulas and statistical nomenclature—its points are conceptual in nature.  Among these precepts, though by no means the most important, is the notion that the trappings of the modeling so widely used for making predictions—data, algorithms, advancing technology, and so forth—are no substitute for human thought.

Jacob Fork, South Mountains State Park, North Carolina

Jacob Fork, South Mountains State Park, North Carolina

When I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, I had the good fortune to be given the opportunity to assist in the design of my degree program.  It was a generous mix of standard classes in statistics as well as some less formulaic offerings in the underpinnings of research methodology, including some independent study that focused on some of the limitations of quantitative and qualitative research in the social sciences.  (I’m sure this all sounds like a thrill a minute to most of you, but take my word for it—it was some pretty intriguing stuff.)

Among the more conventional coursework was a two-semester offering in multivariate statistics that was taught by a statistician in the Department of Education.  Roughly ¾ of the students were doctoral students in education.  The remainder consisted of some grad students in the economics department (and me).  The ed students were required to take the courses, and most of them weren’t particularly happy about it.  I can’t say that I blamed them, since most were headed for careers in education academe or in secondary school administration and thus regarded statistics as superfluous to their future endeavors.  The university required that grad students in ed take statistics because of the huge output in educational research in the United States.  Tens of billions of dollars are devoted to research in the field of education every year and the Department of Education felt its students ought to know more than a thing or two about it.

In any event, when we reached the point of the itinerary where we began dealing with tests of statistical significance, a lot of the education students felt that perhaps the effort had been worth it after all.  Here was something akin to a magic silver bullet.  A test of significance, a lot of these folks decided, was a sure fire way of determining whether effects were “real” or not.  Just run the appropriate test on your data and you had a hard and fast answer; your hypothesis could be accepted or rejected and that was that.

Would that it were so.

Battleship Rock, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

Battleship Rock, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico

I’d been around the block with statistics before and I knew better and the professor, of course, cautioned against the sort of attitude that a lot of the students had developed by explaining (stop me if this sounds familiar) that the tests were just a tool and were no substitute for keen thought on the part of the investigator.

I’m sure many of you are asking a pointed question right now:  what the hell has any of this got to do with photography?  Strictly speaking, the answer is nothing, but humor me for a moment and perhaps you’ll see the analogy.

Many photographers fall into the habit of turning image-making into little more than a rote exercise.  This shows up in the form of letting their camera make decisions for them (exposure, picture modes, focus, etc.) as well as falling into the trap of habitual perspectives and other repetitive aesthetic considerations.  The very term “point-and-shoot” more or less encourages this kind of behavior.  Just whip out your camera and hit the button; no muss, no fuss.  The camera is so sophisticated, it saves you the trouble of making all these extraneous decisions.

Trees in Dancing Light panorama, Acadia National Park, Maine

Trees in Dancing Light panorama, Acadia National Park, Maine

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this: the decisions aren’t extraneous; in fact, they’re what the art of photography is all about.  Of course, there are types of shots that lend themselves very nicely to this approach—candid pictures of kids and pets, for instance.  But for the kind of images that I normally discuss on this blog—nature—using this snapshot approach is selling yourself short.

No matter how advanced the feature set, the camera is still just a tool—a means to an end.  A camera’s advanced feature set is no substitute for taking the time to think about what you want to achieve and using the camera to make it happen—even if the best way to achieve what you’re after is to use most or all of those advanced features.  And make no mistake—it’s not about the style of camera.  You can use the most expensive cameras on the market as glorified point-and-shoots and you can use the least expensive digicams in thoughtful, creative, expressive ways.

Regardless, there’s no shortcut, no technological substitute, for self-application.  The art of photography, in the end, is about using cameras, lenses and accessories as a means to express yourself, and self-expression requires self-application.  In the end, there’s no substitute for you.

The Remains of the Day, Baker Beach Recreation Area, Oregon

The Remains of the Day, Baker Beach Recreation Area, Oregon



  1. Great post—with respect to both statistics and photography!

  2. Thank you again for another very thoughtful post, and some outstanding photos!

    Whether it be photography or statistics, it usually boils down to one thing, most humans are lazy and will take the easiest path presented to them.

    Having said that, most of the time I use the point and shoot capabilities of my camera, because of the subjects I normally shoot, birds and other wildlife, which seldom allow me the time to make any adjustments to my camera. However some of the shots I am most proud of are ones when I was presented the opportunity to make adjustments. One time that comes to mind is catching a young chickadee so intent on eating seeds from a pine cone that I had time to adjust the level of fill in flash and was able to get a more natural look than using the camera’s settings.

    But, I do remember the good old days of totally manual cameras, and even selecting what film to load into the camera based on what your intended subject was, and what the conditions were. Thanks to your excellent advice (along with a few other people) once I upgrade my equipment, I do hope to return to more creative photography, especially landscapes.

    • Thanks for commenting and for the kind words.

      I understand what you’re saying (re: laziness), but I’m disinclined to make that inferential leap. A lot of people just don’t know any better and–let’s face it–we’re bombarded with messages about how wonderful auto-everything is. And, of course, sometimes it is wonderful. But not always, and the landscape genre is one of those cases where, in my view, taking greater manual control can pay off.

  3. I admit my eyes glazed over as soon as I read the word “statistics”.I was thinking the same as the statement from the comment above (lazy thinker) and other bloggers have talked about combining thought and spontaneity. I met a photographer the other day that does fine art photography that is exquisite and he talked about how he approaches his subjects and the scenes-there is a lot of thought before he takes the photo: depth of field that he wants, the amount of light and how to wok with it and the point of view that he will take and I swear he attracts those moments such as someone walking through the scene that actually makes the photo come alive rather than be a hindrance..All these photos of yours have taken thought (I can see that) and they are effective in their appeal.Thank you for the lesson but I will pass on taking a course in statistics-I am struggling enough with evaluative range at present.The struggle is making me appreciate the value of knowing about how it works.

    • Thanks, Jane. Yes, the basic issues of desired shutter speed, depth of field and exposure quality (and a number of others, like perspective and field of view) are all things that you need to consider before every shot…it aids the decision-making process with regard to a lot of things (lens choice, tripod height, filter selection (if any), exposure settings, etc.).

  4. Nice analogy – thanks for the thought provoking essay. I love the way you make learning something interesting. Your beautiful images are certainly proof of what you say.

    • Thanks very much, Kathy.

  5. I get it Kerry. Insightful post and the Jacob Fork image is exquisite.

    • Thanks, John.

  6. WOW – Great Captures – love the beach! Have a Great One:)

    • Thanks very much!

  7. As a retired industrial statistician, I found both the story and the photographs a thrill a minute.

    • Nice to “meet” a fellow statistician. 🙂 Thanks for the kind words!

  8. thank you for the reminder that we are the artist, and the camera is just the tool to create our art. I’m impressed with your intellectual background. Fantastic!

    • Thanks very much.

  9. I am constantly struggling to slow myself down and be more considerate before just snapping away at anything (or everything!). I have to consciously tell myself to look, think, before composing a shot. They’re usually much better and much bigger visual impact if I do. What a great post!

    • Thanks. Yes, when possible, it’s highly recommended to slow down and give some serious thought to what you’re doing–both in technical and aesthetic terms. Sounds to me as though you’re on the right track.

  10. Great thoughts & great photos. I especially like the first one, how you gave us a generous view of the environment around the waterfall.

    • Thanks very much, Frank–I really appreciate it.

  11. Wonderful shots!!!

  12. Well done!

    • Thanks, Tina!

  13. Nice photos and I totally agree with the last line! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Angela.

  14. […] of the things that led me to post this was a recent post from Kerry at the Lightscapes Photography Blog. Another is the huge number of really bad photos being passed off as great examples of the art of […]

  15. Sure was wondering where you going…. so glad I kept up with the post. Very thoughtful and true. I see many of your examples in my photo club members.

    • Thanks very much, Mike.

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