The Black Triangle

This interesting passage came up recently in my google reader, via Merlin Mann:

Afterwards, we came to refer to certain types of accomplishments as “black triangles.” These are important accomplishments that take a lot of effort to achieve, but upon completion you don’t have much to show for it – only that more work can now proceed. It takes someone who really knows the guts of what you are doing to appreciate a black triangle.

There’s some cute backstory to that term relating to game development, but I think the concept applies very nicely to some aspects of photography. I’m thinking of types of photography or photographic techniques where technical fluency is not easily achieved but is absolutely necessary before going on to intuitive practical application with consistent results. Some examples I’ve been wrestling with over the last few months include controlled lighting, infrared, and black and white processing.

With each of these areas, I’ve experienced a moment that oscillates perfectly between, “Oh my god, I can’t believe that just worked,” and “Oh my god, I’m such a tool, why am I excited that that worked.” I’m not talking about Minor White infrared landscapes or Ansel Adams prints here, I’m talking about, “Oh, wow, I managed to focus and expose that correctly.”

It’s different for things like manual focus technique or even composition, where I tend to improve steadily with practice. Instead, I have to engage in this carefully planned, supplied, and fought battle with my own ignorance, and when I achieve victory, I don’t really have anything to show for it, except some bullshit shot or print that demonstrates that yes, I have the technical capability to use this technique — but that has no other virtue. And I don’t even have anyone handy to issue me a fucking gold star.

But at the same time, even though the result may be worthless in itself, there is this intense sense of both accomplishment and of the scary/exciting prospect of what is to be done next.

So next time you see an aesthetically pointless but technically correct image in someone’s flickr stream, just think of it as a photographer leveling up. : )

2 Responses to “The Black Triangle”

  1. earthtopus Says:


    Let me know when/if there are any photos.

  2. I Can See it For You Wholesale » Blog Archive » Infrared Flash Says:

    […] the last few weeks, I’ve mostly been chasing black triangles related to infrared flash photography and darkroom printing. It’s been a pretty tough slog, […]