Ikkyū and Sōgi discuss creativity and the infinite: a koan

“Output is finite,” says Sōgi. “Input is eternal.”


Sōgi sits at a small table. Before him are several papers covered in numbers, formulas, scraps of text, and … well, doodles.

“What’s all this?” asks Ikkyū.

“A meditation on creativity and the infinite,” Sōgi replied.

Ikkyū spends a moment looking over the materials before his young friend. “You’ll pardon me for saying so, I hope, but this doesn’t look very meditative.”

“I’m trying to make it meditative.”

“Ah, I see,” says Ikkyū. “What is it?”

“I’ve been thinking about my photography processing. As you know, when I take a shot I dump it into Lightroom. There I do some basic initial adjustments and then I output it to Photoshop. Photoshop has many resident processing functions, and I also have a few plug-in packages, each with many functions. And each option has many more settings. The Detail Extractor filter in the Nik Suite has five sliders, with each ranging from 1-100%. And Nik alone has dozens of filters like this.”

Ikkyū reflects for a few seconds. “When I was young we had pencils and watercolors.”

“Yes,” replies Sōgi. “You’ve mentioned that. Anyway, I came to wonder – when you consider all these different programs and filters, how many individual possibilities are there for any particular picture?”

Ikkyū’s brow wrinkles. He tilts his head up, as though calculating. “Carry the one…” he mumbles….

Sōgi continues. “For all practical purposes the number is infinite, I thought.”

“Did you visit the Master of Numbers?” asks Ikkyū.

“I did. I thought his abacus would catch fire.”

“What did he conclude?”

“The path to wisdom is a winding one.”

The Numbers Master said “The path to wisdom is a winding one”?

“Oh, no. Sorry,” says Sōgi. “That’s what I’m saying after watching his deliberation on the question. At first he said, “Photoshop is effectively infinite because you can keep adding layers and each layer adds modifiers. I suspect there must be some absolute limit to the number of layers addable, but I expect it is quite large. Not 8 bits but 16 or 32 bits.

“Wait, back up. The Numbers Master said effectively infinite?”

“At first,” says Sōgi. “But then he set at the abacus again. It was the sound a squadron of woodpeckers makes when laying siege to a tin shed.”

“When I was young,” says Ikkyū, “we didn’t have abacuses…”

“I know, I know. You pawed the ground like trained horses. And you were grateful for it. Anyway, he clicked away for a few minutes. Then his fingers fell silent.

“In the develop module,” he said, “excluding Lens Corrections, Transform, Effects, and Calibration, there are 51 sliders. Most of them have a range of -100 to 100, but there are exceptions. There is also the Tone Curve, which has 1000 possible points on the horizontal axis, each of which can have 1000 possible values on the vertical axis (for a total of … 1 MILLION possibilities). Multiplying all the possible ranges together, Excel comes up with 3.34×10^120 possibilities. That excludes the Black & White options, which would be quite a bit smaller, as it would exclude 24 HSL sliders and the Vibrance and Saturation sliders in favor of 8 Black & White Mix sliders. It also excludes any use of crop tools, heal or redeye tools, gradient tools, or brushing in effects over a localized portion of the image.”

“Ah,” says Ikkyū. “Glad to have that cleared up.”

“Oh, no. He was just getting started. I’m noodling with an idea for how to deal with Photoshop,” he said. “I have a possible answer, but it is dependent upon your resolution. “Fundamentally, Photoshop allows you to individually set the color value of each pixel in your image, so for an image of dimensions H x W pixels of D color depth, there are (H x W) pixels each of which has 2^D possible values, meaning that Photoshop has HW2^D possible outcomes. For a 32 bpc RGB image in Photoshop (taken with a Nikon D850) that means (8256 * 5504) * 2^96 or 3.6 * 10^36 possibilities. In CMYK there would be more possibilities, like 1.55 * 10^46, because there are four inks instead of three phosphors.”

“Wait,” says Ikkyū. “Are you saying that after all the speculation and math it boils down to how many pixels there are?”

I’m not saying that,” says Sōgi. The Master of Numbers did. To me it seems counterintuitive. But he explained resolution and pixels per inch don’t matter. The image has exactly the same pixels at 100dpi as 300dpi. The physical dimensions change, the pixels don’t.”

Ikkyū throws back his head and laughs so hard he nearly wets himself. When he’s again able to speak, he says, “So after all is said and done, the grandeur of your processing workflow amounts not only to a finite number, but a comparatively small one?” His laughter resumes and he falls over sideways onto the dirt floor.

As Sōgi watches Ikkyū display of irreverence, a small smile grows on his face. “You mock me, Master. Why?”

“The arrogance of code presumes upon the humility of a photon.”

“Ah,” says Sōgi. “But this is the beginning of the wisdom, not the end. You assume I walk a straight path through the workflow and do not return to a river already crossed. But what if, after I desaturate the golds in the cottonwood, I then return to Nik and add a subtle Bleach Bypass to the water? I can theoretically wander back and forth between modules until the end of days without ever pressing Save.”

Ikkyū fears he has wandered into a trap.

“Output is finite,” says Sōgi. “Input is eternal.”

“The headwaters and the sea are infinite,” says Ikkyū. “In the middle, the river is a mile wide.”


Many thanks to Masters Robinson, Magalee and Pecaut, whose wisdom informed this meditation.

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