The Reason Your Photographs Will Always Be a Cheap Copy

The Reason Your Photographs Will Always Be a Cheap Copy

Your photographs will always be a copy. Unfortunately, a cheap one, too. There are two main reasons why you're quite limited in creating art.

I’m not writing this to point out that photography is useless, but to indeed proof that photography is necessary. It’s a complement to other media and probably underestimated by many. On the other hand, we have to admit that it’s not perfect. It’s only a very limited copy of reality – just like any other media.

Your Copy Lacks Quality

Reality probably is the most complex topic of all. Research in science as well as humanities try to create models and theories about our objective world and codify them into a common language. It’s always an abstraction, though; a copy of a certain aspect of our reality, squeezed into a medium which enables humans to share information; text, sound, graphs, or maths – they’re all media including only a part of reality.

In photography, we’re even more limited. A photograph can only capture what we perceived with one of our senses. On the other hand, different techniques allow photographers to capture a wide range of information in one image. Sometimes it’s less information than what our eyes could perceive at the time of taking the image; sometimes it’s more. Just imagine that we are able to take images of far away galaxies, which we will never see with our naked eye!

Also in macro photography, we can find detail that we won't recognize with the naked eye.

Yet, we never see everything. We only copy part of the information in a photograph. Due to different settings, filters, post processing, and other elementary decisions, we often try to push photographs to look like “the place felt when I was there.” This way, we also try to write a part of our perception from other senses as well as our subjective interpretation into the image.

A Copy of a Copy

When we write this information into an image, we create a copy of a copy. One copy has already been made by the human senses. You don’t capture reality completely. Your physical abilities are limited and your brain filters quite a lot. Our fellow writer Brent Daniel once wrote an elaborate article about the complex processes that happen when you look at something.

When you try to represent the copy that your brain already made, you create a copy of a copy. That’s your photograph. Does that sound too complex? It’s actually quite easy. Imagine you got a copier in your office. It can only copy a three-dimensional object into two-dimensional and onto piece of paper. If you want to copy your face (or butt), you know the copier will only take a certain amount of information. Hence, you alter reality by pressing your cheeks against the surface. That’s your interpretation – a subjective copy paired with the limited copying abilities of the copier. Still, a genuine piece of art.

By the way, the whole idea doesn’t originate in my mind. I copied it from Plato. Quite cheaply…

You Also Copy Your Predecessors

Okay, we’ve got it, reality is to complex to squeeze it into a photograph. Yet, we can try to maximize information by using a certain language in the image. That’s a copy, too. When you use a certain composition, lighting, and settings to influence the overall mood of an image, you follow rules.

Some might yell “rules are there to be broken!”, now. Even if you break a certain rule: Whenever you do it intentionally, you’re trying to communicate something. Communication only works when the receiver is ably to decode your message. In case of intentionally breaking the rules, this might result in an interpretation like this: “The photographer broke the rule of thirds, so I guess she wants to communicate XYZ.” That sounds like a rule for breaking a rule to me.

Breaking the rule of thirds to isolate the subjects at the corner of the frame is just another rule. Only a little more uncommon.

That being said, it’s not possible to communicate without using a code that’s commonly understood. Sometimes it’s only understood by a certain group of people (like fellow photographers); sometimes it’s only beating around the bush (like pretentious, arty people). Some rules are more common (oversaturated teal and orange for amazing Instagram-lifestyle) and some are hard to understand (abstract art).

You Can Still Create Original Work

Let’s jump over to language for a little while. Language is a copy, too. The words you use have been used a million times before. Maybe, every now and then, you combine them into a unique sentence. Congratulations, that was an original work. Its parts and the rules are not, though. As long as you want to be understood by others, you need to use words and rules which are commonly known. They are a copy.

Considering the active vocabulary of the average American (20,000 – 30,000 words,) your individual language has a high probability of being only a cheap copy of the possibilities (about 170,000 entries in the Oxford dictionary), too. For me, as a second language, it’s even worse (10,000 – 20,000 words). I won’t understand all the nuances and peculiarities when you use words that are only slightly different from each other. Whenever I'm searching for a word in the dictionary, I’m quite uncertain about the precisely accurate meaning. For example, did the word "uncertain" fit into the last sentence or should I rather use ‘unsure’? It’s hard to judge when you learned a language from the dictionary.

Still, most of the readers will get what I'm writing. The unique way in which we transport a message makes every work an original, besides being a copy of a copy. More importantly: It doesn’t always need to be perfect.

Maybe not the most original way to use the capabilities of photography. Still, I find the feeling of the image fitting.

An Unsatisfying Conclusion

Everyone uses his or her own language. We love to read great poems, listen to inspiring speeches, and dance to emotional songs. People appreciate different forms and styles of art. Some like to read Shakespeare; others listen to Ariana Grande (who probably uses only a fraction of the possibilities of language).

We often like artists, because of their own, unique style in which they communicate a message. Their artistic vocabulary and the way in which they combine it is everything that counts. Humans don’t only communicate with their voice, but also with almost every act in every second. Yet, no medium is able to transmit a message between two people in 100 percent accuracy. That’s okay, we’ve got to live with it. It’s what distinguishes us from robots.

Sometimes, your vocabulary adds up to a unique artwork: Composition, lighting, moment, and color narrate a story beyond visual information.

Coming back to photography, I guess it’s a quite unsatisfying conclusion: Your photographs need to reach the heart of the spectators. That’s all. While you certainly won’t find access to everyone, you can work on your photographic vocabulary and grammar. The more effort you put into finding a way to combine the limited tools of photography, the more unlimited you become to convey your message as a part of your reality. This original and authentic style can become your personal toolbox which will help you reach others.

Nils Heininger's picture

Nils Heininger is a photographer on the road. He loves long rides on motorbikes, camels and old trains. While discovering the world, he uses his camera to share stories from people across the globe. With a Micro-four thirds in his pocket and a full-frame in his bag, he's always ready for new adventures.

Log in or register to post comments

While it's an interesting perspective, it is overthinking the photographic process. I have one photograph that receives universal praise from photographers and non photographers alike. I don't know that it's art as much as the timing and the conditions were just right. And it may not be the best processed or best focused or best composed, but negative comments are very, very few.

So, is it a bad copy? I don't think so. Photography is fun. It doesn't need to become a part of a Philosophy 101 course.

And here's the picture. It would be difficult to find this copied by anyone else considering the fact that part of the doe's ear is missing. That fact and the 'peekaboo' look make it unique.

Another D750 with a missing eye piece.

I think that's an issue with Nikon in general. The one on my D5600 keeps coming off, but I manage to pay enough attention to find it and reattach it.

Put a small drop of crazy glue in 4 corners between eye piece and body/crack. Never came off in mine. Never had a reason to remove mine either

Just put some double side tape behind it. It keeps it in place by the stickiness and tightness. I did it the first time when I lost one. If you want to clean your camera or attach something else, you can still pull it off with no problem or residue. You can't do that when glued down.

Does the tape interfere with the ability to see out of the viewfinder?

How? You just put a small cut out of the tape between the camera body and the eye piece. It gets nowhere into the view of the finder. It's like putting some glue between it, but instead of glue, you use some cut out thin double side tape...

like this:

Alright. I was misunderstanding your idea. Thanks for helping.

yes but what needs to be cleaned behind.? aorund the edge is fine. theres no hidden roaches there.
seems more of hassle to deal with the tape. on off on off.

Wait, what? Cleaning is not mandatory. But I don't know about you, but I occasionally get some drinks, dirt or just plain water on my camera with my usage. I'm not the type of guy to enjoy the smell of dryed out beer around my nose area, so yeah, I would like to have the option to remove the eye piece and clean it. It happens maybe three times a year. If you glue it down, you're stuck with the smell or dirt.

you sound like youre a messy person hahaha

No my camera can't hold a beer after the third one, it's pathetic.

No really, I dodge people's drinks on a wedding dance floor, but sometimes it's just not meant to be.

"A photograph can only copy what you can perceive with one of your five senses"

Wrong. High speed photography and videography; x-ray; gamma; radio; UV and IR; microscopy - both optical and electron.

Save videography, we don't perceive our surroundings in these fashions.

By shutter speed alone my camera captures something that my eyes and mind cannot process.

Note to self ... don't waste anymore time reading crappy, babble blog posts from insecure pseudo intellectuals trying to impress everyone with how deep they think they are.

Such a positive support article. So maybe we should all just give up and stop shooting? A copy? Really? Well, maybe for digital capture, but certainly not for film/slide. Direct representation of that which is seen with the human eye. Of course manipulations can be made, ie...IR, filter use, etc.
But this is all MY fault. I chose to read this....and make comment. When will I learn!

Thanks, Nils! It is a good way do see it. Besides the ideas of “copy” and “reality” exist only within our shared understanding, but not by themselves alone. Although some might think that current digital age offers a better representation of reality then being a mere copy of a copy of a copy of ... d750.
PS I personally like an idea of S. Sontag that it is just a medium to communicate.

Yes...kind of. The idea of "reality" exists not only in our 'shared understanding'. It exists in the realm of reality itself. An apple is an apple is an apple. Doesn't matter what anyone's perception of it is and always will be an apple whether the mind perceives it as something else or not. Reality is that which is. As for a "copy". That is more in line with your description. As for some people thinking that our current digital age offers a better representation of's completely the opposite. Digital is nothing more than 0's and 1's. It's just air. It's a simulation of digits combined together via man's thoughts and technology to reproduce something. Now one and I mean no one can dispute the workings and purpose of film. Silver exposed on a sheet of film at the precise calculated timeframe and f value to capture a true image. I personally prefer the real thing to shooting with air, but I also do use digital. Thank you for your comment.

Not sure how this article got through the Fstoppers review process to make it to the website....It is full of spelling errors and offers nothing intelligent at all.

Hi, Phil. Interestingly, your comment supports Nils’s thesis.

Not sure that pointing our poor grammar does support it to be honest.

Thanks, mate. I see a proper grammar is important for you to accept something as being honest. I have to admit my grammar isn’t perfect either. Would you be willing to step out your comfort zone?

While the author explains the obvious, he makes no attempt to explain how we can overcome this. I honestly got nothing useful out of the article. I once read a book that discussed the philosophy of photography and creativity. It was a book by David Ward and Joe Cornish: Landscape Beyond: A Journey into Photography. I think this book would be far more useful than this piece. There is a YouTube video along this topic by Ted Forbes I believe is far more insightful:

One of the downsides of this site is that it's an aggregation of a ton of stuff. There is no vetting of submissions (that I know of) and most of the people posting articles are doing so to be known as social media creators. There is no editorial staff to (that I know of) to cultivate good content and demand a certain level of expertise and professionalism.

It is ironic that this site displays some outstanding photography work but only seems to care about the quantity of content (articles) more so than the quality.

My $.02

I'm exploring a few ideas to do something unique...

It's not so much a copy of an idea, but making art in a perspective people haven't seen much of before.

Yes, there will be copies once I'm done shooting the project, but it might be considered original... for a little while.

The one I can share is my plan to shoot the next solar eclipse in IR/UV for fun

The other is still a secret (shhh!)

I thought for a moment he was discussing Fitch's paradox of knowability. In a photography website??

Art is twice removed from reality..