14 July 2008

I Can't...It's Too Hard

Too hard to use, or too many formula options to choose from that you don't know what to do?

Personally, I believe the latter is really the challenge with Ultra Fractal 5. When I first tried UF 2, 10 years ago, it was so simple to use compared to Fractint that I've never gone back to Fractint. Subsequent versions of UF have only made it easier to use. The UI is the best of any fractal program that I've tried.

Where things get complex, is with all of the formula choices (also true with Fractint) and the vast number of parameters that can be changed with some of the formulas. Some of them have 100s of parameters. It is easier to make choices for manipulating a particular formula when the options are few. Flexibility can lead to complexity.

Powerful programs can be intimidating and take time to master. Take Photoshop for example. It is considered the premier image editing program by many. Is it ridiculed because it is too hard to use? Is it ridiculed because it has too many features and is only for a certain specialized group of users? No, at least not that I've seen. There is Photoshop Elements which does feature a somewhat more limited feature set and packages some things in a manner that are easier for the average person to use.

Well, this is really what UF 5 has done. All of the older formulas, both simple and complex can still be used. I'd say this is roughly analogous to Photoshop Elements. The new object-oriented formula language features that allow classes to be selected by users is more analogous to Photoshop.

But, you know what is really ironic? You can use simple fractal formulas and simple coloring formulas to create your images. You don't have to use the complex formula with 100s of parameters. You can use a single layer, or multiple layers. What UF doesn't do for you is let you easily crank out images like some other programs. But, it does have a nifty explore tool to let you easily see what varying different formula parameters will do to your image.

You don't need to be a rocket scientist or engineer to use UF and the new class-based formulas. You do have to be willing to experiment and learn and be persistent. But, isn't that what you have always had to do with UF? Isn't that what you've always had to do with any program?

I think some people just can't decide what they want. On the one hand, complaints are levied that UF is too complex and has too many options and has too much of a learning curve. They prefer programs that generate the images for you with little interaction. But, it is the myriad options that give artists the control they need to remove the fingerprint of the "machine". I'd say that less options and less control give the "machine" more of a lasting fingerprint on an image. Of course, post-processing can easily destroy the fingerprint of the "machine".

But, what is the fingerprint of the "machine" anyway? Is it a particular look? Is it the fractal structures in an image? Is it the banding or flatness you have with limited colors? Is it when layering is obvious? How do you detect the "machine" being apparent from one program or image to the next?

Judging from the number of users and the constant popularity of UF over the last 10 years, it seems clear to me that most don't share this view. Toby's formulas, with their plethora of options, are very popular. So, users seem to like the choices, flexibility, and complexity. I'll admit that some people just don't like this, or have never seemed to grasp UF to learn how to make it work for them. The same thing is true with Apophysis, XenoDream, PhotoShop, etc.

Given this criticism of UF, which is perhaps valid for a minority of artists, wouldn't you think then that courses to learn how to use UF to get more out of it and learn to use it more effectively would be praised? One would think so, but the same folks complaining about how "hard" UF is to use ridicule the existence of such courses. Seems like the modus operandi is to complain about UF regardless of consistency or sensibility.

Let's look at a couple of questions posed,

But does the complexity of Ultra Fractal just simply reflect the inherent complexity of Fractal Art? Perhaps Fractal Art really is Rocket Science after all? and maybe good fractal art is like a golden castle high up on a mountain and if you can't do the math, you can't walk the path? (ha, ha, funny eh?)
I don't know if fractal art is complex or not. Images have certainly evolved, and improved, to my eye over the years with the capabilities offered to artists by UF and other programs. Fractint images stick out like a sore thumb these days to me. I find most of the images done by the "fractalbookers" more attractive than most Fractint images. The sheer quantity of images almost dictates that many or even most are going to appear mundane over time. You just don't crank out great images day after day. But, you can crank out okay images day after day when you learn your tools sufficiently. I think this is a result of the capabilities programs offer artists.

I don't think fractal art is rocket science at all. The sheer number of people doing forms of fractal art renders that implication false, IMO.

By no means do you need to understand the math to "walk the path". But, it is true that UF does not lend itself easily to the click, click, click, look at my image work flow. You do have to spend the time to learn your tools. If you don't have that level of patience and/or persistence, then there are likely better tools for you. You can generate random batches of hundreds or thousands of images using Apophysis. But if you want unique, attractive art from them, you are going to have to spend time manipulating the image.
Hmmn... these are big questions. I'll just say that your answer to how much technical (i.e. math and programming) skill is necessary to make fractal art will probably predict whether you're going to like using Ultra Fractal 5 or whether you're going to find it a ball and chain that slows you down and requires you to do excessive, detailed configuration when you'd rather be experimenting and exploring fractals.
Well, no, I don't really think they are big questions. I'm not even sure they are relevant questions. And, I don't think the answer depends on your programming skills. You don't have to have any programming skills to use the class features of UF5. You do if you want to create new classes or extend existing classes. But, that has always been the case to a degree if you want to experiment with formulas. You can even learn to do that if you have no programming experience. Granted, it will be harder with classes.

Contrary to the implication above, I contend that the class enhancements to UF 5 allow you to experiment and explore to a degree never before possible. This has been true since UF 2 with it's advance formula programming language. Why be limited to a simple language to explore fractals when a more advanced language gives you more ability to experiment? That has never made sense to me.

The reference pages are intended primarily for those who want to write or extend classes. The information there will be expanded over time to include tutorials and other information that is intended for the non-programming user.

I would agree that UF 5 is the "fractal programmer's fractal program". I think it has been since version 2. I don't see anything at wrong with that. I'd also contend, given the user base and popularity of UF, that it is also the fractal artist's fractal program. The end all, no. But, clearly the most capable and advanced tool in the toolbox. Use it or any other tool you wish.

But, what really strikes me as rather odd is all the complaints and criticisms and ridicule of a program that is not even used by the people raising the complaints. Classes to learn how to use UF more effectively are ridiculed. By their own admission, the vocal critics of UF have never learned how to use the program effectively. There's no real problem in that. But, it does help to know what you are talking about when you decide to offer critiques about features of a new release of the program.


kymarto said...

I believe that Ezra Pound had it right when he said that technique is the gauge of an artist's sincerity. Every serious artist that I know, in whatever discipline, is intent on mastering the tools of the craft, in order to have full command of what is available to fully realize her/his vision. And none that I know, be it in music or photography or fractal art, laments having expanded possibilities.

As a writer of some quite "large" formulae, I am well aware, however, of the trade-off between complexity and usability. The secret, I believe, lies in attention to hierarchy. It is important that the basic and most-used features be readily accessible, with less-used features grouped logically in submenus or in inferior positions. This allows a program or formula to be used effectively on a variety of levels.

It will always take time and effort, though, to familiarize oneself with all the features of any program or formula, no matter how well designed. It all depends on commitment and desire. Tools for professionals always separate the men from the boys, no matter how much the boys might lament that fact.


"Criticism is prejudice made plausible" --H.L. Mencken

Ken said...

Some tools are harder to use than others, and some people find some tools easier or harder to use than someone else.

I could complain about how hard XenoDream is to use. But, that is silly because many people are creating some unique and complex images from that program. So, some have figured it out. I have learned more, but still have a long way to go. There are other, more valid, complaints one can levy against XD.

Do you ever see photographers complaining about how hard the new DSLRs are to use because they have so many features? They aren't lobbying for a point-and-shoot version, they want more features and more control. The key is learning your tools. You can make great photographs with a point-and-shoot camera, but it is easier if you master a more flexible and complex tool.

I think your last sentence sums things up perfectly.