Certain beliefs dominate photography, leading to a monotonous resemblance of images. Breaking free from peer pressure can revolutionize your images. But don’t expect those lost in the fog of mediocrity and limited imaginations to appreciate this.
In photography, there are expectations that images from certain genres will look a certain way. Subject may vary, but there are limited approaches to photographing them that the establishment finds acceptable.
For example, photographers often strive to make the subject dominant within the frame. The typical approach is that the topic is more important than anything else. Then we light it to make it noticeable and use depth of field and other separation techniques to separate the subject from the background.
But what if we take a different approach? Rather than making the main subject dominant, reduce it until it’s barely noticeable and only seen when the image is adequately studied.
For example, take the following image. Click on it to fit your screen.
How did your gaze go through the frame? For most people, it starts at the lighthouse on the island. Next it moves to the moon at the top of the frame. Then the eye lingers for a moment on the dawn light illuminating the clouds. Eventually the viewer notices the distraction on the rocks below. Only then do they realize that it is a bird, a curlew.
Before you yell that you saw the bird first, that’s fine. Not everyone will follow the picture in the same way.
This doesn’t work with the absurdly fast way people view photos on Instagram — scrolling and liking on a small screen without studying the image. The bird is not even noticed. But when shown in a high quality gallery where viewers pause and study images, applying a delay is a perfectly acceptable approach.
Usually we guide the viewer’s eyes around the photo using guide lines. The curlew photo works differently. It uses distracting points that move the eye from place to place: the lighthouse, the moon, the illuminated clouds, and the bird.
In photo contests, such images are unlikely to be appreciated by judges as they are. You might see the bird as nothing more than an unwanted distraction in a landscape shot, rather than how the photographer intended the photo to be viewed. Is that the fault of the photographer or the judge? I would say it’s a limitation of the latter.
The following photo has an introductory line. A series of footprints draws the eye to the main subject: the woman in the pink coat. She is walking along a wide, lonely beach. If you think about the picture, you can deduce a story from the photo. First, the path she walked is meandering and she walks around the clump of algae rather than stepping over it. That suggests it’s a light-hearted stroll, not a determined march. Then the path she takes intersects with what appears to be another set of footprints. Isn’t this beach quite as deserted as we first thought?
On closer inspection, however, it turns out that we were wrong. These are not footprints, but a trail of algae left by the receding tide.
Here, too, judges can devalue the picture as an unwanted distraction because of this trace of algae. Consequently, during editing, the photographer could remove both it and the clump in the middle of the foreground. That would simplify the photo, which is what I usually prefer, but that secondary, misleading story would be lost. It also makes the composition unbalanced.
So there’s a dilemma: do we bow to the idea that images should be easy to understand, or do we sacrifice simplicity and even beauty to create something that requires more thought to properly understand? In other words, should we make the viewer understand the image? We often discuss the relationship between the subject and the photographer, especially a human subject. However, this relationship between the photographer and the viewer is more complex.
We probably have the viewer in mind, especially when shooting commercially. The image not only has to please the client, but also their customers. For example, if the client is photographing catalog images for a clothing company, they want photos that will sell their products. Unless expressly requested, the photographer opens his creative toolbox and applies unusual and exciting artistic techniques.
This limitation is a compromise many photographers make, whether they’re shooting products, portraits, or pets. Forgive the constant alliteration, but even social media, sports, and street photographers take pictures that live up to viewers’ expectations.
What if you’re just shooting for art? This relationship is becoming more strained. First, artists express themselves in their photographs and shouldn’t give a damn about what other people think. But when they don’t live up to establishment expectations, they get less noticed, let alone celebrated. The exception, of course, is the academic art world, where progressive creativity and eschewing norms are rightly celebrated.
If this is the case, if true creativity is confined to science, then most of us are bound by peer pressure. We limit ourselves by striving to achieve what others have done before us, held back by so-called truths, which are nothing more than subjective popular opinions.
Let’s take the argument for 35mm sensors as an example. They lend a distinctive look to an image heralded as the gold standard by the marketing departments of major camera manufacturers. Because of this pressure, the full-frame look has become an expectation of many, if not all, commercial photographers. That expectation spilled over into the non-commercial world and creative photography. Consequently, there is no small amount of snobbery with full-frame cameras, leading to a closed-off attitude that limits diversity and creativity.
Do not get me wrong; There’s nothing wrong with a 35mm sensor. But developers should realize that there is nothing better or worse about it or any other sensor format. You are just different. Everyone has their advantages, just as everyone has to make compromises. If a full-frame camera gives you a look you like, that’s fine; I don’t dispute that. However, if we take photographs to create art, perhaps we should ask ourselves why we like it. Is it just a matter of following conventions – we want it because that’s what we’re supposed to like? If so, then we should contest that.
The same goes for camera brands, depth of field, lens sharpness, development techniques, focal length, composition and exposure expectations, black and white conversions, etc. Are we using these in a certain way solely based on the subjective expectations of others?
Avoiding popular fads takes courage. Many believe that the popular approach is the best, and powerful camera brands support them because it benefits their sales. In addition, if you free yourself from the norms, there will be those who do not understand, and they will criticize you for being too attached to public opinion. But this problem is with their understanding, not with your photos.