Does reality matter?

A valuable bit of advice I read ages ago about creativity, was how important it is to seek inspiration from outside your chosen field. And through a series of coincidences, which in hindsight appear quite logical, I stumbled across some valuable insights that I thought I’d share…

It all started with a photo. While wandering around flickr I came across a group dedicated to long exposure photos – the photos are what caught my eye & my imagination, so I started to research the techniques involved. A few weeks later I order a 10 stop B+W neutral density filter (it is so dark you can hardly see daylight through it) and went for a walk to test it out, taking a dozen photos along the way – the best was this one:


Shooting this way reminds me of recording ambiences: set up the camera & tripod, frame the shot and hit record – with the ND10 filter in place this exposure was about a minute in duration, and while I didn’t have to be quiet, something about the process made me quiet.
And (some of) the results are magic – I’m still learning, but that photo above has a feel to it that is mysterious, like time is being smeared. It could almost be mistaken for a frozen lake, even though it was actually quite a sunny day. Below is the photo before I converted it to black & white:


Anyway I’ve continued to research and learn about long exposure photography as I plan to explore it a lot on my next trip to Japan, so me & my searchbots have been keeping an eye out for anything related and yesterday I came across the beautiful photos of Polish artist Mac Oller and of course did a search to see if there were any interviews with him online. This led me to an online magazine by the name of Neutral Density magazine which features such beautiful work, accompanied by very insightful interviews with the artists. One question that is asked of each artist is this:

Could you tell our readers how to reach such excellent results in photography?

And I really appreciate the answer given by Stefano Orazzini: “The most important thing to achieve excellent results in photography, is to never be satisfied and always trying to improve. There isn’t a secret, it takes humility and desire to learn. Do many experiments and choose the best methods. Read many books, visit exhibitions and art fairs to find out what has already been created and what to do. Knowing the history of photography is essential. Otherwise the risk is to make copies of what has already been done.”

Swap out the word photography for sound design and there is some of the best advice you might ever hear. It is all relevant, but his last words really resonate: “the risk is to make copies of what has already been done” Transformers 9 anyone?

Which reminds me of my favourite sound advice:


The magazine also has some interesting philosophical articles, and one of them was what prompted this entire post: Reality in Photography
Its worth reading the entire article but I will quote a few interesting points as they relate to field recording and sound design:

“A camera doesn’t see the world in the same way our eyes do. Our eyes don’t see the world wide angle with sharpness front to back in the same way that a 17mm lens at f16 will record it. Neither do they compress landscapes, bringing distant and near objects closer together in the same way that a telephoto lens does…”

The same is so very true of microphones

“If we were to follow this philosophy of recording the world as authentically as possible, then what would be the difference between the images of two photographers standing in the same place at the same time…… what is there of “them” in the image?”

This is where it gets interesting. Along similar lines there is an excellent article in the latest issue of FIELD NOTES – Traces by Scott Sherk, titled Phonography: Art or Documentation?

Inevitably every recording and photo is an interpretation. Whether it occurs consciously or subconsciously, the mere fact that a person is on location and chooses what it is that they focus on with lens or microphone, means that they interpret and prioritise certain aspects of the reality that is present.

But the image/sound philosophical parallel also intrigues me when it comes to post production and processing, for example imagine a statement like: “that image/sound is so photoshopped/processed it hardly even matters what the source sound was!”

Does reality matter?

There is only one answer: it depends on the context in which it is used or applied.

But one thing is sure: it is very difficult to unprocess an image or sound. That un-instagram app is amusing, but there is nothing more frustrating than trying to retrieve the life from an overly processed sound, whether its a CD track which has had its dynamics compressed to hell but is now being used in a far more dynamic context such as a feature film sound mix… or an otherwise interesting sound effect where the designer does not provide access to the unprocessed source and thereby strictly limits the contexts that it can be used in….

10 thoughts on “Does reality matter?

  1. hanklepstein

    cool post! i’ve been thinking about this a lot lately since i’ve just gotten into photography pretty recently. been into sound most of my life though.
    for some reason i can’t enjoy (most) hdr photography, but i do like long exposure… timelapses, black and white, etc.. it’s interesting to see the world in a way our eyes can’t capture
    here’s a (somewhat similar) shot i got recently with a super cheap 12 dollar fader nd

    1. tim Post author

      nice! and I agree re HDR – unless it is very subtle….. & for some reason people rarely seem to be restrained with it…

  2. ErikG

    Brilliant post tim!

    Its nice to be reminded at times that what we do IS art if we choose it to be. And thus as important as any other art.
    The only one that can say what art is is the “beholder”. and that is me, you, all sound folks, and any audience that hears our work in whichever context.

    If what I do is art, then its important!
    If what I do is important, it will make me feel proud of what I do.
    If I feel proud of what I do I will strive to imporove at it, in every possible way.

  3. Felix

    I love this post… there is so much overlap between phonography and photography, and I especially like your reminders here that microphones and cameras are not the same as ears and eyes.

    You are right that the act of recording a place – either visually or sonically – will always be an interpretation. However for me the relationship between reality and post-production is extremely important. The main issue around post-production as I see it concerns the WHY of any post-production. Are source sounds merely being tinkered with “because it sounds cool” or because there is some practical or aesthetic reason for then to be processed? To go back to the photography analogy, if you decided to make all your photos green or solarized, I think there would need to be some rationale for that. For me, it’s exactly the same re: sound-recording projects. The context for a project completely determines whether or not post-production is desirable or necessary.

    …I did use some post-production effects on a project I worked on recently, because I didn’t have another way of making a 2012 digital sound recording sound like an old, warped record, and I felt the project I was working on genuinely demanded that sort of texture. However before I applied any post-production, I spent a long time listening to records from precisely that era, in order that my produced effect bear some relationship to reality.

    Reality does matter – or maybe it’s the relationship between what we make and the reality which our creations describe that matters.

    I am always annoyed when sounds have been processed in ways which seem gratuitous, and my personal bias is towards using as little post-production as possible on my own sound recordings. However I think that we should never forget that recordings are like drawings or paintings or photographs, and that however documentary your approach is, there will always be an element of fiction at work…

  4. JD Lopez

    A really great post which was generous with the references to your own influences and encouragement to others. I especially like what you have to say about every recording being an interpretation, a fact that a lot of “purists” often fail to grasp. And … you can’t go wrong with Basho!

  5. sirenka

    I really enjoyed Tortured Piano contest last year..It was then when I made my first audio material..Any competition this year?

  6. Pingback: GANG Newsletter: August 2012

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