Irreversible Photography (And Why I’m Embracing It)

A trend I’m noticing in my own picture taking is a continual shift towards Irreversible Photography.

I’d define Irreversible Photography as making photographs that, once made, can’t be altered by any post processing or after effects.

My recent explorations into zero processing, and a move away from LightRoom to Hipstamatic have been significant steps, and I’m only just coming to realise how they’ve been pieces of a larger puzzle, which has also included my attraction towards a simpler and more consistent photographic arsenal.

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When any of us release the shutter – whichever camera is in our hands – there are certain aspects that cannot be altered. 

The composition of the scene – how all the elements are arranged, and their relationship with each other.

The point of focus – where we chose (or the camera’s auto focus chooses) to make most sharp in the scene.

The depth of field – how much of the image (and which parts) are in and out of focus, dictated by the chosen lens and aperture. Yes this can to some extent be artificially manipulated by sharpening and blurring tools, but largely it’s fixed at the point of capture.

The amount (or absence) of motion blur – decided by the shutter speed we chose, how fast any moving objects were moving, and how steady our hand was.

Colour or black and white – whilst if you’ve made a colour image, you can fairly easily make it b/w, it’s not easy the other way around.

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Beyond these fixed aspects, all other aesthetic features of an image can be digitally enhanced or altered.

But I’ve been trying to reduce, if not entirely eliminate these variables, so my approach is simpler and more direct.

So the image I make when I release the shutter is Irreversible Photography.

Why would I want to relinquish this freedom to further alter or “improve” the images?

Firstly, because I love walking and exploring with cameras, but don’t much like processing.

Call this laziness, or call it knowing what I like, and intelligently optimising my overall photography time so it’s as full as possible with the parts I enjoy most.

Second, because it reduces, even eliminates what you might called the Triple Fs – Fiddling and Faffing about in the Field.

If your camera is already set up how you it like before you leave home, you can then focus on the essentials – composition, light, texture…

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Third, it helps me get to know my equipment better, and faster.

Shoot 1000 photos at the same focal length with the same lens, and you soon get to know what works, and how that lens “sees” a scene, before you even raise your camera.

If we’re constantly zooming in and out or switching between multiple lenses, it takes far longer to figure this out, which leads to missed shots and a general frustration at our lack of focus and familiarity with our kit.

Fourth, it enables us to develop a consistent look and feel and style.

Without every image being shot with a different camera/lens/film/subject/colour/preset etc, and looking completely unlike the last one.

Fifth, it’s cheaper.

Sticking with one or two cameras and lenses rather than keeping buying more to see if they might finally be the perfect camera/lens you’ve been looking for (but doesn’t actually exist), is much easier on the finances.

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How do I get closer to Irreversible Photography? 

The last few months I’ve been using a couple of Ricoh digital compacts almost exclusively, the GRD III and GX100. I have them set up pretty much the same, so in reality the main difference between them is the GRD has a very sharp 28/1.9 prime lens, and the GX100 has a 24-72mm zoom, which I use mostly at 24mm.

I’ve also shifted to shooting JPEGs entirely, thought both cameras can shoot RAW. 

With the GRD this means the images out of camera can be used with almost zero processing.

With the GX100 the in-camera control over contrast and saturation is slightly less, so they need a fraction more processing, but still only a matter of seconds with the iPad/Hipstamatic combo.

Both cameras I use at their widest aperture by default, f/1.9 for the GRD III and f/2.5 for the GX100.

I only change this if the AE! warning flashes because the shutter speed has maxed out, and then I’ll go down a stop or two.

Again, using the widest aperture a choice to limit things further, and get to know the cameras better.

I know that at most distances because of the small sensors and wide angle of the lenses, I’ll get quite considerable depth of field. I also know that if I force the camera to focus close up (both focus down to 1cm!) I can get a shallow depth of field, for when I want that kind of look.

The only decisions I really make, aside from those key ones I mentioned such as which composition, light and texture to capture, are which camera to take (24mm or 28mm, essentially) and whether to shoot b/w or colour.

Two decisions.

The opposite of irreversible photography I guess is using a digital camera with an epic zoom lens, auto bracketing everything from ISO to exposure to focus, and continuous shooting 100 variations of every composition machine gun style.

Then taking the images to LightRoom or similar and tweaking 97 different variables and using two dozen different presets until you get something you love. About three weeks later.

But then change your mind over and go back to the look you first came up with in the first five minutes.

Two thousand decisions, probably more. Even five variables, each with five different settings gives 5x5x5x5x5 = 3125 combinations. Scary.

So for me, for the foreseeable future, Irreversible Photography is where I’m at.

I expect I’ll also be looking at ways of making it even more irreversible than it is now.

How about you, do you practice Irreversible Photography?

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

27 thoughts on “Irreversible Photography (And Why I’m Embracing It)”

  1. Great Article Dan. And I can totally relate to it. From my end, I also love walking and shooting. I’ve been doing this exclusively with a Leica Q, for the past year and a half.

    Forced into thinking about pics from 28mm, and using the cameras WiFi to send directly to my phone. Then, without any filter – just the jpeg profile from The camera, I apply a 5:4 crop, an Instasize border, and upload to its own instagram (@slippystreet if you’re interested).

    I have found this a really therapeutic exercise. Almost quite pure. Almost immediately gratification. And it has made a stand-alone portfolio of images that I’m proud of. Whenever I go anywhere now I think in those terms, and it has allowed for a series of mini projects/stories from this point of view.

    Cheers, keep up the great work
    Simon

    1. Hi Simon, many thanks for your comments and experiences. I like that you’ve bypassed using a computer entirely and kept the post processing to a minimum. I agree it does make for a pure kind of experience and workflow.

      For me, just getting the images as close as I can to how I want them in camera, then making a minor tweak in Hipstamatic has been such a relief compared the LightRoom experience.

      5:4 is an interesting aspect ratio. What aspect do you use with the Leica Q when actually shooting? And why do you change to 5:4? Just thinking this is an extra layer of thinking (how will a 3:2 shot for example look once cropped to 5:4) and processing (even though a click of a button), that could be removed/bypassed to make the experience even simpler and more irreversible in camera?

  2. That answers very neatly the question I get about “why shoot digital in B&W rather than post process a colour image”. I am all for limited choices and less faffing. I think it makes you a better photographer rather than a master image processor.

    1. Richard, I really like what you’ve said here – “a better photographer rather than a master image processor.” That is exactly what I’m striving for.

  3. I think the ultimate in irreversible photography might be instant cameras. No way to change the result apart from choosing color or black and white film. Of course cropping should be banned by law anyways (but I have to admit that I always seem achieve crooked horizons I have to straighten a bit..).

    Since I switched from scanning my negatives from Vuescan to Silverfast (a contraption I hated with a passion at first) I tend to set the specific film stock in the program and just scan… the results are often very near the way I like them. Silverfast really gets the output quite right corresponding to the film you use.

    I just need basic and very fast adjustments in Photos or Luminar

    1. It’s a tough one. At the end of the day the only thing that stops you fiddling with your images after you have pressed the shutter is self discipline, because it’s so easy to fiddle. It takes a genuinely great image straight out of the box to say that nothing you could do to it might improve it, and that is perhaps something to strive for … but on the other hand this is a creative art and the images are artificial, so working on them could equally be considered part of the creative process.

      There is an argument that back when many an amateur or professional used their own darkroom, that this was where a lot of the magic and craft happened. I guess the ease with which changes can be made digitally makes it feel less like craft than old school dark room work, but is it a creative null because of that? Not disagreeing, but definitely playing Devil’s advocate.

      1. Of course a photo is ‘finalized’ in the dark- or Lightroom. But I think that the most possible work should already be done when the shutter is pressed… in an ideal world

      2. Tony, thanks for your devilish thoughts!

        I think there’s a huge spectrum these days of how people do “digital” photography. I’m pretty far towards the irreversible end, and don’t really feel the temptation to fiddle loads, as I don’t enjoy it that much. The pleasure of photography for me is 90% in the experience of going out and shooting.

        Others are completely the other end, and might have the approach that as long as they shoot RAW and get the exposure roughly ok, and the subject all within the frame, they can edit and tweak and crop to their heart’s delight afterwards to extract a photograph they like from the raw (RAW!) material.

        It’s a bit like, say, hunting for a piece of wood to make a walking stick. I’d rather find a stick that’s already the right sort of length and shape and I can use right away, rather than take a whole tree home and carve a walking stick out of it later… The carving is indeed a great skill, but just not something many of us enjoy or are much interested in.

      3. Frank yes I agree.

        I think another reason I try to do it all in camera is the wealth of options we’re faced with if we don’t. As I said above, even five variables with five options gives us 3125 possible outcomes – just too much choice for my brain to comprehend!

    2. Frank, yes good point about instant cameras, in all their forms. This is how I see my iPhone really, with Hipstamatic, like a digital instant camera.

      I have to agree about cropping – not something I can ever remember doing much of, and not for years! I tend to use 3:2 95% of the time, with the occasional 1:1 shot, and the purist in me doesn’t like changing it by cropping just one edge.

        1. When I used my Nikon Coolpix exclusively for about seven months in 2011/12, it was 4:3 and I never even though about it, because I didn’t know anything else.

          After shooting film from 2012-2017 at 3:2 (as well as my DSLRs and Ricohs) it’s become very embedded in how I see the world!

          Going back to the Coolpix now does seem a bit strange, there’s too much image at top and bottom!

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