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Thursday, 28 October 2010


Fireworks are another example for me. There is some skill to the timing, but mostly it's set the camera, spray and pray.

It works well for teaching too. I work with small groups of middle schoolers, and "spray and pray" is normal. I've become quite good at scanning the 200 plus photos each kid can take in an hour and picking the 4 or 5 good ones we can talk about.

This is interesting, especially remembering your previous post on assignments. I originally saw an image that led to a working series on water reflections, and there are indeed some amazing images hidden in the world around us. And on the same note, it does take A LOT of failures to come up with some successes (maybe one of these days I will find one...)

But please - tell us - were you having fun?

One of my best photos is of out of focus, colored post-it notepads on my desktop, probably taken to check the camera was working. All I really know is it was on my memory card and taken with my camera!

Embrace the random and experimental and you'll feel much better :)

Is it any coincidence that your efforts in stochastic photography favour images which tend towards the fractal in nature - where 'zooming in' to a section gives a result (subject to the limitations of resolution) similar to the original... a timely reminder, you may say, that the great Benoit Mandelbrot recently passed away.

I went to Ctein's show in Minneapolis. The fascinating thing about his photos is that they allow you to see things that *you can't see.* I spent quite a bit of time looking at a photo of water flowing over a dam, maybe because I'm a river guy who has spent a lot of time in canoes, looking at water. Flowing water is easy to look at but hard to really see. I'm still curious about that one show photo...what in the heck were those lumps under the water? Or were they just more water? Made me want to go down there with a stick...


Very interesting Ctein. I've never considered the rapid fire approach as a viable option. I'm very deliberate as you always were before your epiphany. I've spent entire days out photographing where I only came home with three or four pictures, and this was with digital cameras. I used to think that this deliberate style was a throwback to shooting with film, but I eventually accepted that it's simply the way I like to work. I guess that machine gunning might lend itself to happy accidents (a concept I find disturbing) but then again no one has to know :).

Brooks Jensen has similar comments in his podcast 'How many is enough', if there's interest. Windy is another component of a subject that might work.

WOW!! Us "spray and pray" folks actually taught you something. Actually if you apply the concept of "stochastic" (non-deterministic) to photography, all subjects are stochastic since they will change from moment over time. Photographers are deterministic.

You can do "spray and pray" in a slow considered way too. Set up the camera on the tripod, carefully compose a picture of moving water, then take 10 or 20 or however many shots. Each will be different from the others, and you will only find out which ones are good when you get home.

I have to admit my introduction to Stochastic photography was admitting to myself that I am likely to start pressing the shutter button while I'm still framing, and pull up a little when I think I've got the shot. A three-shot burst almost always leads to an excellent middle frame, and occasionally, an alternate interpretation of a scene. It is, of course, mandatory* when photographing small children. :)

Ctein, I am fascinated by what your photographs reveal. That is really, really, cool.


*for me, not for you.

from Player- "Very interesting Ctein. I've never considered the rapid fire approach as a viable option." Well, after seeing this I still don't. Except for experimental purposes with a purpose or some kind of general overall aim, I cannot see why I would engage in this kind of method. Even the "teaching" aspect is itself within a context and for certain purposes. My eyes hurt enough after an intensive but fulfilling day of shooting and I don't want to make them worse by pixel peeping. I do enough of that post processing because of those hated ubiquitous dust spots!

In 'Examples', Ansel Adams described how he exposed the negative for 'Monolith, the face of Half Dome' on the last of the 12 glass plate negatives he had packed with him. By comparison, digital capture provides effectively unlimited exposures. But to my way of thinking, this just shifts the 'rate limiting step' downstream, from capture to editing. All of us have (at the very most) 24 hours per day to spend on photography. Lots less when you subtract time for sleeping, family, that annoying day job...you get the picture.

You can take a relatively small number of carefully considered and composed photographs, spending your precious time on the capture phase. Editing will be quite simple. Or, you can shoot thousands of frames...and instead spend lots more time slogging through countless failures and near-misses to winnow out the rare success. I can see how this can encourage fruitful experimentation, but it just doesn't work at all for me. The more exposures I come home with, the fewer worthwhile photographs I seem to get.

Ian Loveday's comment about the fractal aspect of Ctein's 'stochastic" pictures reminds me of a favourite photo book: 'Nature's Chaos' by Eliot Porter, with text by scientific journalist James Gleick (of 'Chaos' fame).
However, being a statistician at heart, I must point out that 'stochastic' photography does not necessarily lead to fractal images. Far from it. The fractality, if and where recognised, depends very much on the eye of the photographer. It is hardly a coincidence that Ctein has a masterful eye for the beauty of non-deterministic scale-independent self-similarity.
Whether a photograph is fractal or not is also predicated on the time structure of the pattern-forming process recorded. Hence, on the Decisive Moment. Here, Benoît Mandelbrot (and Poincaré and Lévy) trumps Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Dear Alan,

I always have fun when I make a great photograph!


Dear David,

Oh yes, frequently a tripod. There are few things more irritating than getting a composition exactly the way I want and then having it wander from frame to frame. Choosing and composing the subject is a very deliberate process.


Dear JMR,

So, I've managed to make a photograph (figure 1) that winds up as a gorgeous print. Showing it to my usual circle of audience, they all agree it is simply brill. It's a fabulous addition to my portfolio and it's a photograph I could not have made without this approach.

And you don't see the point?!


Dear Geoff,

You're absolutely right. Editing down “stochastic photography” is truly tedious. Not that thousands of frames are involved; for me, “lots” means something like, oh maybe, six. If I haven't gotten something worthwhile in a half dozen photographs, I'm not likely to get it in the next half dozen. Still, peering intently at six extremely similar photographs, trying to discern which one is just right (assuming any of them work) is truly an exercise in contemplating visual minutiae. Not happy-making times.

But then, neither is spending days-to-weeks making a single dye transfer print. On the tedium scale, this is far less painful.

It's the results that make it worthwhile.

As you may recall from my previous columns on transitioning from film to digital, my biggest goal is to keep cutting back the number of digital photographs I make. While I'll never get it down to the level of film photography (it is simply too tempting to make that extra photograph), the closer I can get to that the happier I am.

This is an exception to the general rule, and rest assured I wouldn't indulge it for a moment were it not for the art that comes out of it.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

I like surprises. Ctien's example photographs cannot be composed, in detail, slowly and deliberately. Sure, we know we're going to come away with abstract patterns in colorful reflections but when those patterns are changing by the millisecond how do we know *when* to shoot "The One"? I don't, so I'll take a few shots, maybe several, maybe a bunch. I'll keep the surprise, or surprises, that please me the most. Slow and deliberate is the initial choice of subject matter, lighting conditions, and imagination behind what *might* result.
1/1600th of a second! I can't see that fast; but, a camera can, and a photograph will hold still long enough for me to see the "un-seeable".

Eventually, the resolution of Google Street View will improve enough that we won't even have to leave the house, just selecting images and Photoshopping them to fit our fancies.

What I like about Ctein's posts is his tendency to say things along the lines of:
"I do [x] and it really works for me. Of course, you can do [y - the diametric opposite of x] and look, that really works too!"
Its such a refreshing change from the sort of
"do [x], its the only way"
posts the net is full of.

On reading all of this, fishing comes to mind.

One could get down among the fish to use a spear gun and seek out a target, catching one fish at a time, but no doubt, a big one each time.

Or one can stand on the shore, casting a hook and line into the water not knowing what lay underneath, but hoping for some good luck and random surprises.

Or one can use a big net to trawl through the waters catching anything and everything larger than the holes in the net.

We surely all hold a different opinion of each method. If we find a particular method to be fun, even for just a while, all good and well.

I like the unpredictable aspect of the results of images that include water... and a lot of mine do, though usually with a human subject trying to stir their course through it:


I generally avoid machine gun mode.

Well, a pretty graphic illustration of the concept "if you want different results, you have to change the way you do things."

Sometimes the change up is what you need to open up a new way of seeing.

writ,ing Too wor:ks It/ in klh(i f$ev dh-@


I'm sorry, but having read how Ctein recently gave up film for good, and started shooting only digital, I can't quite decide which of this list of decision-making and behavioral biases he is currently suffering from:


Anyone help me out?

I've done mostly very considered photography, some spray and pray, and a bunch in between the two extremes.

Spray and pray can be very appropriate when the subject keeps changing a lot, e.g. kids or flowing water. And more so at certain exposure times.

I've taken many pictures of flowing water, first composing carefully through the view finder to get the overal balance of shapes and colours, then taking many pictures, a few at each of a wide range of exposure times. Needless to say the eye cannot predict what you will see at 1/4000 sec or at 1/500 sec etc. Similarly some of the fortuitious blendings at the longer exposures can only be gotten with multiple attempts.

With photographing people it is best to have years of experience and the eye of Henry Cartier-Bresson, but not all of us do. Which is where blending the old considered film approach with the impunity of taking more digital exposures can help.
There are hard limits to how fast and how our mind can perceive (certainly not patterns in the 1/4000sec domain) what it's looking at.

In addition, there is a brief delay between the moment you decide to press the button and the moment the neural signal has travelled to your finger's muscles and the finger finally presses the button: 1/4 of second perhaps? And more substantially, the mind lies to us for good purpose: it synchronizes the information it has received from all its senses. Meaning: since it takes almost 1/2 second for neural signals to travel from your toes (the farthest part of your body from your brain) these signals physically arrive almost 1/2 second later at your brain that auditory signals and visual signals that travel a much shorter distance, so the brain delays your perception of these latter signals until it has had a chance to also process those from all other parts of the body that are further away. So yes, you can practice the art of anticipation like HCB did or as e.g. baseball players do when batting... but your perception of reality is always 1/2 second after the physical events you are perceiving. By the time you press that shutter button the world out there has moved on for a bit more than 1/2 second. While anticipation can buy you a whole lot, it cannot buy you everything you might have liked. Starting to press the shutter a little earlier than what you expect to be the defining moment and having your camera on burts shots may thus be very appropriate in certain situations.

If HCB himself had a digital camera, would he have taken substantially more exposures in a single outing in the streets? I bet he too would have, at least some of the time, depending on the subject.

"But the lacework water, again unexpected and invisible to the unaided eye, entrances me; when I get it printed the way I want I shall be a most happy camper."

I can understand why. Fascinating shot.

Good point about fireworks photos falling in this class. That's a nice example because it isn't fast, and the initial impulse is to guess this is necessary for fast things. But fireworks exposures will be multiple seconds, rather than the 1/1600 or whatever we end up with for fast-moving water. (It is still fast-changing; we'll miss the beginning of any burst if the shutter isn't already open, we can't react fast enough to catch it.)

Sports photographers (good ones; not me) shoot by anticipation based on huge experience, and a few of them have done experiments demonstrating that they hit the peak moment that way significantly better than shooting at 10 frames per second does. But that won't work if you can't even see what you're shooting, and can't predict how it's changing.

Not for me. I'm not a fan of the accidental artist. Heck, just trash the dslr and get a movie camera. Keep it rolling. You're bound to find a frame you can keep.

I find this kind of funny. Because becaise it's a "'round to the begining" kind of thing. That's what most people do when they first grab a camera. Then, a lot of them get lost into technique. Start to call themselves "photographers". But the truth is the conjunction of an open mind, an good autoeverything camera and a good artistic eye can produce awesome results, even in hands that never held a camera before.
Despising the improvised can be just pure snobbery (even sprinkled with envy sometimes).

Lightning is another good example of something that can only be photographed this way. Again, it happens unpredictably, and events develop faster than human reactions can fully cope with.

This post reminds me of Alec Soth and the photos his daughter took because Soth couldn't get a work visa. Have a 7 year old girl shoot up a mem card or two and then edit away! How much more stochastic can you get?

Which gives me an even better idea: Ctein, maybe you could rent an actual chimp next outing and have it do the shooting! On a tripod, of course, to give the "stochastic" process an element of predictability. All you have to do is pick the winners when you get home (and give the chimp a banana). You'd probably get as many keepers as Soth's daughter did or at least as many as this group of "moving water!" photos contains.

It's just odd, watching, in these pages, while a recognized master of printing like Ctein learns obvious digi techniques most digi photographers learned (and many discarded) in the early 2000's: pixels are free! spray and pray! chimp like mad! I know, I know, it works for you. But it's rather like watching an accomplished woodcarver discover the intricacies of legos at retirement age.

Assigning a fancy word to a 10 cent concept does not necessarily add anything. Monkey photography is stochastic!

Adding to my previous comment, I think my photography has evolved much more in the direction of recognizing a possible beautiful outcome on paper on images that are not so different from others I paid no attention to a long time ago. Printing, especially printing big, really shows yourself what you did, what you felt at the time of clicking away.
A lot of people will never understand the potential of the pictures they shot just because they didn't choose one and took it through hours of digital correction and finally a good print. When they do, that original spontaneous way of photography comes back to life VERY strong. Shoot anything interesting in the street, blow it up to 30 inches and it will show something new, something you saw before but didn't know could really be caught in the shot. May be not a work of art to the big audience, but surely a gleam of your own inner shape.

OK this is awesome! I now have a new word I can use to describe the images in my "from the hip" street photography project, in which I shot almost blindly (from the hip) looking for interesting patterns of human interaction in the urban environment (hey, I'm getting good at this). I had the added complication of needing to avoid recognizable faces (long story).

But hey, if I call it "Stochastic Street Photography" it justifies the (apparent) randomness. Thanks!

Blork's Stochastic Street Photography

The salient point here, I think (and one we would all benefit from practicing now and again), is:

(with all due respect to Ctein)

Old dog, new tricks.....

My estimation of Ctein goes up.
Best wishes

"Editing down “stochastic photography” is truly tedious. Not that thousands of frames are involved; for me, “lots” means something like, oh maybe, six."

SIX?!? You're saying your "spray and pray" method means taking SIX frames of the same subject?

I take six shots of the subject when I'm just taking one shot of the subject! [lol!]


Seriously, to me "spray and pray" means when people set the frame rate to the highest frequency, point the camera, and hold the button down. You do realize there are people who come back from half-day shoots with several THOUSAND exposures, right?

Note that some cognitive biases are indicators of mental health.


Have you tried the one where you attach the camera to a piece of string and whirl it round your head? I believe there might even be a Flickr group...

Lightning? Somebody mentioned lightning?

Here's a lightning photography story:

A few years ago, my sweetie and I were driving home through a lightning storm. The lightning was so intense we pulled over to try to get a photo of it, each with our terrible phone cameras. (My phone, a Motorola v710, is notorious for having the worst camera in the history of phones.)

Anyway, we beat the odds and got some photos. Better yet, we each got a shot of the same lightning bolt!

These were both hand-held, from inside the car, mine on the left, hers on the right.

Dear Dennis,

So you're saying that if the photograph cannot be fully previsualized, it shouldn't be made?

If that's not what you're saying, then propose an alternate, deliberate way, that I could have made these two photographs.

Personally, if someone gets photographs as good as these by running a movie camera all day and selecting frames, I say more power to them!


Dear Jeff,

Find me a chimpanzee who can select an interesting subject, compose an interesting overall composition around that subject, and make the technical and equipment choices to interestingly record that subject and I'll rent them!

Otherwise, they're just pushing a button. Not worth even a banana to me.

I've been "chimping" since day one, and I simply do not understand the attitude of folks who think it's improper technique. Whydahell shouldn't I confirm I got a good photograph on the spot, if I can? I don't plan to EVER stop doing that.

But, as for free snaps, I've written in previous columns that they're anything but free for me. Excessive photography eats up time and money I'd rather spend on the good ones. Sometimes, though, there's no better alternative.

DDB and I are amused by fancy words. Calling it what we did was not an act of pretension but one of humor.


Dear Mike,

Well, ummm, YEAH! Seeing as usually one photo is all I need and want.

Understand that my 40 years of film photography fits into about 1.5 cubic feet of space... and that includes the individual mylar sleeves for every strip of film.

There are situation when I will make dozens, even hundreds of photographs of a 'subject' -- photographing a musical performance, for example. But that's because each and every photograph is very different.

pax / Ctein
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

"If that's not what you're saying, then propose an alternate, deliberate way, that I could have made these two photographs."

Gosh Ctein, I'm not sure what to say. I think a high shutter speed and a zoomed frame of a waterfall can easily be predicted. In much the same way a slow shutter speed will give a silky smooth result.
The alternate method I would propose is to be deliberate.

For those doubting the validity of "stochastic photography" the answer is provided in Ctein's own words - "photographs as good as these"

Dear Dennis,


I cannot imagine you've ever tried this.

Alternately, you've done it so many tens of thousands of times that you already intuitively know what the structure of the water will look like on a submillisecond scale.

In which case you'd have predicted exactly the patterns that showed up in figures 1 and 3 and how they would be positioned in the scene and developed the ultra-fast shutter-finger reflexes to record said structures when they reached exactly the right position in the frame to make a successful composition.

Sure, if you say so.

pax / Ctein

P.S. technical aside for the general readership-- Dennis is pulling my leg a bit, and I'm doing the same in return.

In fact, water breaking up like this is a chaotic process. A supercomputer model would be able to predict that this waterfall, figure 3, would break into a lacework pattern over this particular flow -- most don't -- but it's physically impossible to predict exactly what the breakup will look like more than fraction of a second in advance. Same way it's impossible to predict right now the exact weather conditions for New Year's Day.

The lacework pattern was, of course, invisible to the naked eye; it moved too fast to be seen. But even if I'd known it was there, it wouldn't be possible to predict just what it would look like by the time the nerve impulses got from my brain to my finger.

pax / computationally-intense Ctein

I don't understand negative responses to the method. It seems to me that the only valid judgment of art is the work of art itself. It's not as if HCB used only one frame of film on the photoshoot where he captured the guy jumping over the puddle. He shot (was it 12? I think it was 12) several frames of different people jumping the puddle. He had a concept in mind and set up as much of the shoot as he could, and then shot a variety of people until he had a frame that captured the decisive moment he had hoped for. How is that different than setting up the camera on the tripod, framing the stretch of water that looks best to the artist's eye, calculating and inputting the desired exposure values with the desired DOF, and then shooting multiple shots to get the most idealized decisive moment?

Would a gallery turn away a Jeff Wall piece because they had some secret knowledge that he shot 5 frames in quick succession and then selected the one where the subject's facial expression was ideal for his vision? No. At the end of the day they will accept or reject his work based on the work itself and not on their knowledge or assumptions about his process.

A process is a tool. A student - one who is studying the craft of their preferred artistic medium - should learn about their tools and while they are doing so their teacher has a right (and an obligation) to critique their use of tools. But once the student has moved out of formal education and into the field of creating art using the tools they have learned, it doesn't make sense to tell them "Your chosen tools are bad tools." That's gibberish. The tools are irrelevant and the creation is everything.

We're all students (I hope!) even as we work on our own to create our arts. We try new tools sometimes (a different way of holding the paintbrush, or a new paint medium, or what have you) and we assess the potential value to our future artwork as we become familiar with a new (to us) tool. If we do not change on occasion, if we do not grow, then I think that's a sad reality.

I just don't understand criticizing a method, or any tool as being without value.

For portraits, I've found it helpful to take several of each sitting and lighting. Sometimes, they are all OK, in which case it was a waste. Often, some are bad -- bad expression or a blink -- in which case it was good to have alternatives. Sometimes, one of the frames is exceptional.

While you can find hidden treasures in perfectly chosen moments of moving water, the hidden moments in facial expressions usually look unnatural.

It's interesting that two seemingly opposite types of subjects benefit from multiple takes.

I think the lower two are beautiful - Hiroshige and Hokusai come to mind.

Christian says, "He (HCB)had a concept in mind and set up as much of the shoot as he could..."

Isn't that the point, he had a concept in mind. Is it random and spray shooting? Hardly. It's not the method (many shots of any area or subject) I take issue with or the resulting "art" but rather the idea that one should point and spray without some semblance of an idea and then pixel peep afterwards. All this has context and meaning even if we are not aware of it at any given time and is hardly "pray and spray" except within a very narrow meaning. Like shooting rapids.

Will I try it? Been doing it for quite some time, always with a concept in mind. And one leads to another, just as Christian says.

If this is what is meant by spray shooting, then I guess I missed the original point, and we are in agreement and it is all semantics.

@David: yep, definitely Hokusai's wave. The way the wave crest spreads against a strong wind. Very japanese ink drawing pattern.

Dear JMR,

You have focused on one single word in a second-hand, throwaway quote, as if it were the point and purpose of my article.

Please observe the forest, not the single tree.

pax / Ctein

Ctein: truly an exercise in contemplating visual minutiae. Not happy-making times.

I beg to suggest that there is actually a learning process to be had here. Several times this past few months I've done this `stochastic' thing; you might say it's results-priority mode with bracketing. Those minutiae can be eye-openers in discovering not only the "best" photograph, but the very criteria by which it might be the "best". Raindrops fall in a puddle; the ripples expand; some photos will show just one set of ripple rings, others multiple in varying stages of overlap. That overlap becomes a criterion for measuring the photo, for that particular scene, which you might go on to use elsewhere too.

I'd go as far as to say there's stochastic method behind your previous deliberate approach, it's just that you didn't see it because you pack up and go after the one frame. There are limits of predictability; if you have two separate shutter exposures whose images have the same MD5-sum at a presentable resolution... take the lens-cap off. ;)

Dear Tim,

You could very well be right. One of the things I'm having to learn is how to “let go” at some point. When I have, say, a half dozen of these photographs, and they're all technically okay, I can usually throw out two, maybe three of them immediately because the compositions obviously don't work as well as the other ones do.

At that point I can start to make myself crazy trying to figure out which one is the very best. If I haven't made up my mind after a minute or so, I'm starting to decide that it probably doesn't matter! Just pick one of them arbitrarily and go with it. Either trust my instinct knows which one is the best one, or that there truly aren't any differences that matter.

That's what I wound up doing with Figure 1.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

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