Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Refine: le mieux est l'ennemi du bien

A quote usually attributed to Voltaire (which he attributes to "a wise Italian")—Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien—has always disturbed the perfectionist in me. A few of the English translations are:
  • Better is the enemy of good
  • Better is the enemy of good enough
  • The perfect is the enemy of the good
When I was living with my dad and his artist friend in France, I heard them throw the phrase around, often in reference to her work in ceramics. If you've ever worked at a potter's wheel, you know how quickly a perfect vase can suddenly turn into a muddy heap just because you thought you could make it a little thinner, a little taller. In that context, "better" destroys "good." In other contexts, the enemy line is not so clear. In fact, I often have trouble deciding which side I'm on. Why should I fight for good when I can be a martyr for better? Besides, if I learned anything from watching Six Million Dollar Man episodes as a child it is that "better, stronger, faster" is always right.

In Voltaire's moral tale, La Bégueule, a foolish woman who likes pretty, shiny things learns the perils of always trying to trade up. Improving talents, knowledge, and moral character is always desirable, notes Voltaire, but the rest can lead to a life of illusion. In Photoshop, where, let's face it, we are often creating illusion, the quest for pretty, shiny pictures can quickly go too far. I won't moralize, but I will say a few words about refinement in retouching.

In my dodge and burn tutorial, I try to show how very subtle skin retouching is always better fake, plastic-looking skin. The shortcut skin smoothing methods are useful as well, but the problem is that when you see Barbie-doll skin, it can be hard to dial things back down to "good enough." For example, I have seen a lot of people do something like this...

when this is plenty good enough:
Self-restraint is hard when you have just learned how to make people look perfect. I look back in horror at some of the work I did in my first year or two of retouching. But since then, I have developed a rule:
Do the correction and then dial it down.
It's the Photoshop equivalent of Coco Chanel's advice, "When accessorizing, always take off the last thing you put on." How do you edit accessories in Photoshop?
  1. Do your adjustments on separate layers
  2. When you're happy with an adjustment layer, go to the "opacity" box in the layers palette and lower it from 100 to 80 or below. Look at step 3 of my "fix dark photos" tutorial and you'll see what I mean.
That's it. That's probably my top rule of refining photos. I always do it. The only possible exception to the rule is when you are looking for an extremely stylized effect. Otherwise, always turn it down. This applies to just about everything:
  • sharpening
  • contrast
  • saturation
  • etc.
One of my pet peeves with tutorials is that they almost always encourage excess just to make sure you can see the before/after difference. In my dodge and burn tutorial, I was worried that people wouldn't even notice the before/after difference, but I didn't exaggerate the "after" because I wanted to reinforce my preference for moderation and at least a modicum of verisimilitude.

It's OK to fight for good even though better might be brighter, sharper, more colorful, and more dramatic. Trust me, your photos will end up looking more refined.


Unknown said...

I agree. Too much is never good.
Thanks for reminding me.
You are the best reminder : )

Curtis said...

I'm fairly new to photography and am a Photoshop beginner. Once I learned several of the things you can do in Photoshop, I went wild — way too much of a good thing. Now when I'm retouching, I'll remember your advice to dial it down. Thanks for the helpful post.

Mark said...

That's very helpful, thank you.
And now I feel that I should remove my tiara as well. It may be overkill.
Thanks Marc, m.

Mark said...

Fred installed Photoshop on my new computer today. I was so happy and excited to go see what it was all about. I opened it and now my excitement has been replaced by terror. Just thought you'd like to know. Your overwhelmed friend, m.

marc said...

@Mark—I don't know if this will worsen the terror or help get rid of it, but one thing that helps me is remembering that any given user of Photoshop only uses a small fraction of its potential. In other words, take comfort in the fact that there are so many tools you will never have to learn to use. Then again, it can also be like getting a piece of furniture from IKEA with 10,000 parts and no instructions...
You might just be inspiring my next post.

Mark said...

Good Point! Thank you. And you brought it home with your Ikea example because; been there, done that.
And I'm proud to have inspired your next post. Unless of course, you title it, "So, you're idiot".
Thanks Marc. m.