When We've Lost Sight of the Image

When We've Lost Sight of the Image

Lenses, bodies, lighting, software, film, digital. Photographers can be a technical bunch. We must not forget what lies beneath the tangible, first-order details, though.

I've been having a similar experience quite often lately. A photographer will post an image in an online group and the vast majority of the comments and questions revolve around the gear that was used. My eyes quickly glaze over as the comments turn an image into the sum of its technical components, as they suck its very essence out and replace it with relevant, but ultimately empty minutiae.

"I don't hear the math!"

I recently finished a Master of Music Composition degree. One particularly formative experience that sticks in my memory came during a guest symposium. A composer presenting his music spent 45 minutes explaining the extremely intricate and rather advanced mathematics he used to choose the notes for a piece. It was utterly fascinating to learn. The patterns were complex, the formulas methodical, the procedures uniquely peculiar. And then, he played the piece.

"Do you hear the groups!?," he excitedly yelled. I did not. A quick glance around the room revealed that no one else did either. My opinion on the music aside, I realized that in a certain sense, I had been had. I had allowed myself to be so caught up in the method, so enthralled by the interesting procedures that I forgot to forgo forming an opinion until I had heard the music. I had marveled at the ingredients before tasting the meal. 

In a sense, this is what I see happening in so many photo discussions. EXIF data and gear have replaced discussions of posing, of intention, of what makes an image compelling. In that symposium, all the math in the world didn't change the fact that I heard music, not formulas. No one looks at an image and "sees" your gear. They see an image. Sure, an astute photographer might be able to infer the general range of your settings or perhaps the gear you used, but these are conclusions based on rational analysis of technical variables. At the basal, instinctual level, no one has an impulse of humanity that yells, "Canon 6D!"

Film vs. Digital or "Can we please just not?"

Perhaps one of the most persistent topics emblematic of this phenomenon is the eternally rehashed debate of the merits and drawbacks of film and digital. Don't get me wrong; there is certainly a discussion to be had here. However, I believe we run off the rails in the proportion of energy we put toward that discussion as opposed to the end product. It's a red herring at this level. Gear didn't make the image. A photographer did.

This sort of thinking fosters a gear-centric attitude that encourages the unconscious (or sometimes conscious) belief that better gear creates better images. That's not true. At best, better gear enables the opportunity to create better images and really, as good as camera equipment has become, with good technique, the difference is often only marked at the extremes of technical requirements. Sure, it's fun to discuss gear and marvel at the rapidly developing technology, but none of that is a replacement for the creative process.

Film? Digital? I just don't care.

It's All in Your Head

This is why (given the relative proportion of topics I see critiques center on) I posit that we are asking the wrong questions. All too often, someone will buy the latest and greatest camera or lens, expecting a drastic change in their output, only to settle into the same routine with the same general level of quality. Buying a Ferrari does not make someone a professional driver; it makes them a normal driver with a Ferrari.

When we focus so exclusively on the tools of the trade rather than the trade itself, we are encouraging a mindset devoid of creative curiosity and of thinking outside the box and instead replacing it with a formulaic process that is a mere superficiality without the requisite innovation to accompany it. This goes beyond just fixating on equipment, though. Can we talk about how your dodge and burn technique was a little heavy-handed or how the color grading was a bit off? Absolutely, but even these aren't components of creativity; rather, they are manifestations of said creativity. How often do we get to the core of an image, to its very essence that dictates our initial reaction to it in that instant before the rational mind kicks in and begins to analyze it? Often, we do see a brief glimpse of that in statements such as: "I really love this shot!"

But why? Why do you love that shot? Why is it compelling? What aspect of it resonated with your shared humanity? If you weren't a photographer, how would you describe the draw of this image? We should tap into our non-photographer a bit more to find that visceral reaction. Being a photographer merely gives us the language to be more precise in describing that reaction and attributing aspects of it to its different manifestations.


Hitchcock often spoke of the MacGuffin: "the thing that the characters on the screen worry about but the audience don't care. [sic]" Gear and technique are the MacGuffins of photography. We, the photographers, are the characters on the screen. We concern ourselves with gear and technique and rightfully so; in our world, the world of photography, the analog of the on-screen world, it matters. But in the world off the screen, "the audience don't care." That's the world we need to reside in a bit more if we want to see our images on a deeper level.

I would love to see critique communities in which posting any EXIF data or gear information was banned. As I've said, that's not to say it's not without its place, but too often, we use it as a replacement for articulating deeper properties of an image. Of course, the true master has a command of creativity, technique and equipment, but it seems we pay heed to a disproportionate amount of equipment and technique at times. If we want to grow creatively and develop strong, independent voices, we have to ask the right questions. Why is an image compelling? What elements dictate our gut reaction to it and why? What intangibles affect us the most?

​Process is important, of course. All the creativity in the world means nothing without the requisite technique and equipment to bring it to fruition. However, we often overestimate the need for equipment and devalue the need to investigate the creative process and mindset. There's no shortage of information on gear out there; let's start investigating the place from which the image itself emanates.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Alex, I love this article!! As a new photog who's just learning the ropes and doing so mostly on my own, I found myself thinking that I was the only person who wasn't gear obsessed. I have a simple Digital Rebel, 2 lenses and a flimsy tripod. This bottom shelf gear has given me awesome images that i shot in jpg and edited on free software. I don't mean to toot my own horn by saying that-- just simply agree. I've felt a little on the spot when a more seasoned photographer comes at me insisting that the images I've taken are inferior because they weren't done in Lightroom or aren't perfectly white balanced or aren't on film. When did photography get so scientific and less about expression and art? Thank you so much for sharing this! I can't wait to link this article whenever someone tries to tell me I HAVE to upgrade my gear.

I have been envious of images taken with very inexpensive gear. What bothers me is when someone shows up to shoot a wedding with their single Rebel body and kit lens. When you start charging people for events like that, you need good glass, and backups.

so true. or pretty much any event that they are being paid to do.

I partially agree. When charging for an event you need to make sure to deliver a quality product every time and conduct yourself as a professional. And not having a backup camera is very unprofessional.

That sounds a guy in serious need of a tape measure.

The tools of photography are just that, tools. In any industry, a quality tool makes your job easier to get the same end result and it's usually built to last longer. That doesn't mean that the job can't be done with a less expensive and less fancy tool. In photography, the more expensive cameras and lenses shorten the amount of time you spend taking each frame, the overall time on the shoot, and/or the amount of time you spend in post. It's about efficiency.

There are always exceptions. Some types of photography would be impossible with my mirrorless or it would actually deliver an inferior end result because of the technical limitations while at the same time I'd consider it superior for some things than the worshipped 5DmkIII.

These discussions have been going on as long as photography has existed. It hasn't always been film vs digital, censor types, editing software. But 15 years ago, I was debating the sharpness of lenses, film types, paper types, and chemicals.

jen, whoever that was is a tool. it's been done more than once that a pro photog can get better images from a point n shoot camera than a newbie can with a pro camera. i hate to say it but from an iPhone too. use the gear you have and learn it. a fancy camera will not make you a better person, just one with a fancy camera.
i started out shooting film 30 years ago shooting manual because that is what it was then. you had to get it right the first time (and did not a lot of the time) and had to wait to see how you did after it was developed. if you missed it then your out of luck. i love digital and how much better it has made photography (my opinion). i will never shoot film again for many reasons.
i also think that way too many people get caught up in EXIF. if a pic is good, it's good. i don't care what your settings were, it's a nice pic.

Great article! Personally, I'm saddened that there are so many photographers out there who would not be able to produce a decent photo without a computer. If you need tons of gear and hours of post, I suggest you get a Holga, and learn how to create a strong image with film first.

Personally...I wouldn't deride anyone for using digital manipulation as their primary tool to express art. One of the main points of this article was not to get caught up in the ingredients and simply judge an image based on its outcome. But at least your username is consistent with your opinion.

I've seen images on this site where the model had a horrible expression, or a pose as natural as a mannequin, and the comments were something along the lines of "Great color grading. What kind of lighting did you use?"

There are plenty of people on this site that share highly retouched, technically perfect images that simply fail to stir any emotion at all. And then there is Dani Diamond. ;)

[Edit] It's not that I prefer to shoot film over digital. I just wish everyone else had to learn that way first. They'd work harder to get more right in-camera, if they did.

Personally, I think that photoshop and its ilk simply made the type of manipulation that was going on before its arrival much easier and cheaper. Recovery of shadows and highlights, dodging and burning, even composting has been part of photography from the very beginning. It's just more accessible and cheaper now. Of course the advancement of the algorithms have also made it all look so much different than it used to.

I believe that Adams, Bresson or Newton would've have spent days (or years) on single images in PS.

That being said, great article.

I'm new to the world of professional photography, only about a year in, but even throughout college I always thought the same thing. Technology has become the most integral part in almost every business all across the world. Technology, efficiency, and proficiency are the key to growth and success in some businesses but in photography that just isn't the case. It's not about having the best gadgets, widgets, and doohickies. It's about a person and their camera capturing 250th of a second that would otherwise drown in the ocean of decades that is a person's life. It's about stopping time and remembering who we are. Or you could be just trying to sell some beer... you know, whatever. :)

What you say is all true enough, or at least I agree with you. What you missed though is the why this is happening? The gear-heads the techies, the pixel-pickers. They didn't exist in any significant numbers in pre digital/internat age because they had no way of joining in easily. It required work, some oney yes, but mostly work and limited exposure until you were really proficient. All that has changed, now all it takes is money to produce technically good pictures, but they lack the 'eye', the art, and the sweat. So the artistry has fallen to the smelly masses and must sink back into the catacombs and wait.

I hope my eyes can withstand the onslaught of the garish, over-saturated, over-sharpened cartoons that are being passed off as art and praised by the ignorant and blind. Their flag has the motto ' Composition? I don't need no composition!'.

Film vs Digital:
I shoot digital and film. Even though I bought a DSLR in December 2013, I continue to shoot film with my 35 year old SLR. Why? Because it still works and film is still available. When I bought the Canon A-1, I thought it would be the last camera that I bought. In 2011, I talked my wife out of buying me a DSLR when I found her budget was a T3i; I didn't think that would be my last camera. Instead, she bought me a used Canon FD 28mm f2.8 which became my favorite lens. Prior to that I had been restricted from 50mm to 400mm.
July 2013, I found a great deal at a used camera reseller and mentioned it to my wife on a drive back home. "That's their flagship?" I answered "Yes, for the 1980's." She said "Buy it." So I bought a used Canon F-1N with AE Finder FN and AE Motor Drive FN; each provide aperture priority and shutter priority capabilities of the A-1. The respective motor drives for the A-1 and F-1N are 6 fps.
Plus I can share lenses between the two cameras!

I encountered what I call "Analysis Paralysis" comparing different models. The 7D was affordable, but it was the APS sized sensor and coming from 35mm film, I just didn't think so. I would like getting a full frame sensor that was the same size as 35mm film. And then there were the different features, such as frames per rate, ISO, shutter speed. Basically, it is an "Arms Race" with the majors trying to out-feature the other on a 3-6 month basis. Back then, major cameras had a 10 year cycle.

December 2013, my wife showed me a web page for a package deal for a Canon 5D Mk III. She asked what I thought about it. I said "Seriously? Go for it!" Actually, the 5D was bought from a NYC store instead of an online retailer.

I would love to have a darkroom where I could develop my films and print. But I have concerns about harm to the septic tank.

Books! That's how I learned photography. I bought a few books from John Hedgcoe, Ansel Adams and others. There was no internet back then.

Great article Alex.Some of the images I've taken at weddings were most popular with my customers not because of technical perfection but because of the memory and emotion captured.Images that some photographers would never show their clients but I always showed them the duds also for that very reason.I do also get very weary of smooth flowing waterfalls. That's not how we see them.

I remember seeing this a lot a while back, so I took out my Holga, shot for a month, and posted all the settings, from Single person to three person, mountain, lightning bolt. I thought it was hilarious.

Finaly someone wrote the truth! Great article. Gear jus helps, but 95% is in our mind.
First you should know how it all works, and then just create images in your mind. After that try to make them come true. Absolutely nobody cares how did you made picture. Most importaint thing is whtat did you had on mind. Photography is art, and art is language. That's all that matters.
Best proof for this statement is when you look at some very old albums of some finest photographers. They did not had such a great gear that now we can buy. Mostly they did't even used computer or photoshop.

Would love to read an article about what makes good art in the photography genre. What elements do you need to think about. Do you need to tell a story, express a feeling, make lines interfere in a certain way? Why is Ansel Adams considered such an amazing artist?? etc.

Well spoken.
I actually think, that one thing that feeds this abnormal focus on gear, is that many people are attracted to photography because it allows them to buy expensive things. It may sound odd, but think about it. Many people have the money, and they need fun ways to spend it. It is such a rush to get convinced that you absolutely need that new camera X or lens Y.

In art school, we had to critique on the vision of the image completely separate from the craft of the image. Often our creative minds got ahead of our technical knowledge. Part of this is when you sit a bunch of people in a room that create images with the same tools they are very inclined to talk more about the technical aspect than the creative vision. While you may learn something from this, you aren't challenged.

I'm not a gear head, I really don't care about gear beyond the ability of my stuff to produce the types of images I want. I have no desire to spend hours at a computer playing with software (switching to primarily Lightroom was a painful change that happened only because it's faster). I'm even guilty of shooting in auto mode when I run into a situation I'd rather capture an image than fool with my camera.

But I think any time you get a bunch of like minds together, they more or less accept whatever the creative vision might have been and go straight for the technical aspects. I also think this is in part because "how did you do XYZ" can be translated to "I have a few frames I want to use this same technique". It's almost a compliment... almost. Photographers aren't really the type to actually give praise LOL.

In the end the only thing will matter is the impact of the image on the viewer. Does it really matter what lens Ansel Adam used on his 8x10? For the technical people it might but will it change the printed image, no. When I look at a photograph i want to see the "wow" factor and execution of what was being visualized. Will the image and visualization of the artist make me want to take a 2nd look or closer inspection. That is all that matters.

I come down exactly opposed to this kind of thinking. All I care about is the math and the gear when it comes to sharing technique. I take for granted that I will never be the other photographer. I just need to know what you did with your hands on the machine to get the shot so I know what the options are. The big idea stuff belongs to you and mine belongs to me. That's the cool part! I've done a number of shoots with other photographers and it's always amazing to see what we all do given the same circumstances.

Nobody can tell you when to press the button or how you should be breathing. Nobody knows what moment you're looking for. How could I tell anyone what is going through my head when working with one model or another, it's always different because I actually pay attention to the person I'm shooting. Part of what we all get in the shot is our personality. I can't give you mine and I don't want yours!

Taste and style are also ours alone. My sense of space, geometry, art history knowledge, personal interests and leanings, can not be imparted. Those are exactly the things at play in a great photo.

All I could ever learn or teach in a literal sense is the technical. The other stuff gets pretty subjective and even ethereal. The best parts of what is going on between our ears is hopefully going to end up in the frame.