Why and When You Should Abandon Beauty in Photography in Favor of Something Sublime

Why and When You Should Abandon Beauty in Photography in Favor of Something Sublime

If you look through the galleries here at Fstoppers, trending images on social media, or those on the pages of magazines, they usually depict beauty. Beauty is easy to like and is, understandably, popular. But there is something far harder to capture that is sublime.

Thinking back to my youth, I remember a girlfriend of mine decrying that the actors in TV programs were all good-looking. She was right. Characters had symmetrical features, their bodies were shapely, and they had winning smiles revealing perfectly set teeth. I was an awkward teenager and never great at quick compliments. Consequently, there was too long a pause before I told her that she could be an actress. She came back and said I had a good face for the radio and then added that didn’t have the voice for it. She was right, of course. But that was the end of my dreams of being a movie star or a radio DJ, and it heralded the end of that teenage romance.

I was never going to win a beauty contest or be the next Robert Redford.

Things haven’t changed much on TV or in the movies. Those industries are still dominated by beautiful women and ruggedly handsome men. They, of course, have talent too. Modern audiences are more discerning than film studios give them credit for, and wooden performances can still make a production flop.

The same applies to photography. Our audiences often seek out beauty in our photographs. Whatever genre you shoot, your photos will have popular appeal if they have an element of beauty. However, just like poor-quality acting by a handsome hunk can ruin a film, beauty alone in a photo isn’t enough. A photo must be well executed, because a poorly conceived image, no matter how beautiful the subject, won’t be compelling.

Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

Beauty is a difficult thing to describe. Despite it being said it is in the eye of the beholder, most people appreciate the same beautiful things. Who doesn’t love a glorious sunrise, a perfectly formed rose, or moonlight reflected off the sea, Brad Pitt, or Halle Berry?

Unsurprisingly, that appreciation of beauty can be skewed by fear and learned prejudices. I knew a man who was terrified of butterflies and birds – quite a handicap, as he was a gardener – and the most ignorant won’t see beauty but get hung up on people’s skin color. But those exceptions aside, an understanding of what is beautiful is universal. Consequently, beautiful photos are easy to like.

Most people see beauty in a sunrise.

Soft Focus and the Slow Death of Natural Beauty

I joke with my wife that the deterioration of our eyes with age is an evolutionary adaptation. As we get older, we look at each other through soft-focus lenses that hide the wrinkles and blemishes brought on through time and the interesting and adventurous lives we've led so far.

Soft focus is a technique of old that photographers and filmmakers employ to supposedly enhance beauty. Look at older movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood up until the late 1990s and you will see the filter applied to, especially, women actors. Check the following trailer for the film Casablanca and note the increasing softness when Ingrid Bergman is in the frame.

Over time, models were airbrushed and then “Photoshopped” to give them supposedly perfect complexions. Now, Instagram applies automated filters that supposedly make people more beautiful. It’s now widely recognized that this idealization of what the human skin should look like to be beautiful is hugely damaging.

Cultural norms, these days driven by commercialization, try to dictate what is beautiful. Western ideals have led those standards globally. However, when I lived in Africa, the advertising posters for soft drinks featured far healthier-looking people than the stick figures you would see in their ads here in the West. It is a fake belief that is being peddled. In reality, the result of guzzling these chemical-filled acidic drinks just leads to obesity, heart disease, and rotten teeth.

Thanks to digital manipulation, what was considered by society to be beautiful has become inaccessible. Men’s chiseled features and most desirable female body shapes can often only be achieved through supposed enhancements on a computer. Photographs of people become harmful lies that destroy the esteem of those whose bodies don’t comply with an impossible set of rules. Thankfully, this imitation of beauty is being exposed as false and the idea that it is okay not to fit with it is more widely accepted. Still, it’s a brave portrait or boudoir photographer who will show their subjects, warts and all.

What Ever Happened to the Beautiful Things?

There was a period in history when human-made products were made to be beautiful. Ming Dynasty vases, sailing ships, furniture, clocks, printing presses, book covers, steam trains, and even cameras were things of beauty. I’ve long believed that creative people should surround themselves with items of beauty. The Industrial Revolution brought forward huge leaps in technology, but the designs were always aesthetically pleasing.

Yet, with the digital age, most cameras became solely utilitarian, bland lumps of plastic. Let’s face it, the mass-produced cameras from the biggest brands – Nikon, Sony, and Canon – are boring and uninspiring to look at. There have always been exceptions, especially from the smaller brands, such as Fujifilm and OM, that manage to produce great-looking gear. Happily, last year Nikon brought out a better-looking camera with the Z fc. Those big camera manufacturers should take a leaf out of the smaller brands’ books and create technology that looks great on top of being functional.

Along with the OM System, Fujifilm, and Leica cameras, the Nikon Z fc is a more inspiring camera than many soulless plastic blobs.
After all, other functional creative products that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars look fabulous. Montblanc fountain pens, Apple MacBooks, Da Vinci paint brush sets, and Aga Range cookers all look beautiful and therefore inspirational. But most cameras from the biggest brands are shapeless, characterless blobs.

That may seem controversial, as beauty seems to fly in the face of the utilitarian design ideals of Bauhaus that suggested form follows function. But, if inspiration through beauty is seen as a function because it can inspire, then beauty becomes an important factor of design too.

Life Beyond Beauty Is Sublime

On the other hand, it doesn’t follow that the only thing we are attracted to is beauty. Sometimes, we photograph things that are awe-inspiring and not necessarily beautiful. In the aesthetics branch of philosophy, this is the sublime. Sublime is the quality of greatness beyond all measure. It is not limited to artistic, physical, and aesthetic greatness, but it can refer to moral, intellectual, and metaphysical greatness too.

If you have ever walked in a mountainous landscape, heard a lion roar in the wide-open savannahs of Africa, or listened to and been moved by a speech by a great orator, that is sublime. The essayist, poet, and playwright Joseph Addison summed it up when he said of the Alps that they “filled the mind with an agreeable kind of horror.”

The experience of a raging sea when we are awed by its power is sublime.

The Philosopher Edmund Burke argued that sublimity and beauty were mutually exclusive.

Emmanual Kant said that the sublime could not be held in an object. A raging sea, a thunderstorm, and the night sky are not sublime themselves. However, the apprehension we experience when we observe those things is what makes them sublime. Kant considered this as a priori knowledge: something universally valid but independent of previous experience.

So, if you stood in front of an awe-inspiring landscape, or within a thunderstorm, or were staring up at the stars, or watching a raging sea, or saw a bird diving into the sea for fish, if you were in front of an orchestra playing a Beethoven symphony, or moved by a long-experienced actor reciting a Shakespearean sonnet, that response you feel to that incomprehensible power over which you had no control is sublime.

The moment a sandwich tern touches the water as it dives into the sea to catch fish is sublime.

Just like when confronted with beauty, meeting the sublime brings about physical reactions: pupils dilate, heartbeat quickens, hair stands on end, and shivers run down the spine.

The works of Ansel Adams can be considered sublime because one can be filled with awe by the staggering landscapes of Yosemite. His careful compositions and precise exposures were designed to show the power of the American landscape.

 Horrifying images of warfare, oppression, and destitution; portraits of charismatic people both good and evil; the photos of the R101 airship exploding; the images of the detonations of atomic bombs on the Bikini Atoll; small figures dwarfed by the landscape around them; and deep space images showing countless galaxies each comprising billions of stars are examples of photos that could be considered sublime.

Beautiful or sublime, what do you think?

Creating sublime images is so much harder to capture in a photograph than beauty. Furthermore, it is becoming ever more difficult still because of the sheer number of photos that are taken every year, and some photos that would have awed us are now commonplace. Overexposure to subject matter reduces the impact and we become numb to what should fill us with wonderment.

Moreover, sublimity is something we lose when we display photographs on a phone screen. How can we be in awe of a picture that is a two-inch square?

The difference between beauty and sublime can be quite hard to grasp. This is only the briefest of introductions to the concept, and there are plenty of resources online to read up on the topic.  

Do you pursue beauty or sublime in your photography? Is it something you had not considered before? It will be great to hear your thoughts in the comments about this topic.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Earning a living as a photographer, website developer, and writer and Based in the North East of England, much of Ivor's work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being through photography. In 2023 he became a brand ambassador for the OM System

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Great article ! If I may add few thoughts :
- I think beauty is immediate, and sublime takes time to be considered. The beauty of a handsome girl or guy can be perceived quickly. But the sublime needs to be studied. I'm thinking about Botticelli's Venus, for example.
- It's true about the actors/actresses of past time, but (sorry for my French references, but I guess they are famous enough to be talked about) Jean-Paul Belmondo was not handsome, and often opposed to the dazzling Alain Delon. But these actors had a sublime charisma. And Delon said himself that being handsome wouldn't have been enough for him to last a long career.
- Finally, before the digital era, the stars and models were the exception, some demi-gods. Now, with Instagram, everybody wants to be a star. And, to that end, they copy the popular ones, not the meaningful ones, in a never-ending sisyphian movement.

All very true, Stephan. Thanks for the great comment.

I had to think of Tim Minchin's song "Beauty is a Harlot", which is quite different from his other songs and which is, with deliberate irony, one of his most beautiful songs. (It can easily be found on youtube.)
This is part of the lyrics:

Beauty is a harlot
She will dance with any bastard
She′s undiscerning in her choice of partner
I could have her of course, if I wished
But I object to her promiscuousness
Beauty just doesn't suit me, for


Beauty is a harlot
A spotlight hogging superficial starlet
She will toy with your defenceless heart and leave you
Tear streaked when the lights come on
You look around to find her gone
And despite your size, you've not a clue
That as you fell for her, she stole from you, for

Beauty is harlot
She will lie with any two bit artist
And for all those other bloody bastards
She seems to come so easily
But she comes so hard to me

Very true, John. I think it is sad that you feel that you cannot share your photos as there is an audience that appreciates the sublime.

Perhaps you are underestimating those who would view your work if you shared it more often.

Ivor recently published an article here that goes on about how nobody cares about the photos that anybody posts to Instagram. Yet I spend a good deal of time each day looking at photos on Instagram in an in-depth way. I have 15 "collections" of Instagram images that I curate for research and inspiration, and they are sorted by subject matter.

I not only write comments about the posts that people make, but I also share those posts privately with others ... friends of mine and I have conversations about photos that we see posted on Instagram. I also send messages to the person who took the photo, with questions that I have about it. I get a lot of great responses to my messages and learn even more about the photo because I took the time to ask the photographer about it.

I know there are more people like me, people who really care about the photos they see and who look at them in depth, even if they are being viewed on a 2 inch screen. I suggest that you give people a chance to show that they are not as shallow as you assume they are.

I have no problem with any of the things you said in your original comment (before the edit). I didn't write my response to you to be critical of anything you said, but rather as a suggestion that you may find some insightful and appreciative viewers of your photos amongst the broader online community.

My goodness - that would be amazing! But I don't even have a passport, and have never traveled overseas, so it would take a good deal of planning and preparation. But I am open to the idea and welcome such an opportunity.

Hi Tom, that is a slight misrepresentation of what I wrote. I said "hardly anybody" not nobody. Any superb photographer will have a handful of people who will follow their work closely, especially if they are your friends with a similar specialist interest. However, the vast majority of people will scroll past and maybe click the like button. If you produce high-quality, attractive images, you will get more likes.

If you think about a few of the thousand people or so that you follow on Instagram, how many of those create images that have a lasting impact on you?

Here's an experiment (and I assume you aren't one of the few people with perfect recall), but think about the last time you scrolled through your IG feed. How many images you can recall? My point is that around the same number will view your pictures, fabulous though they are, and forget them too.

I've spent some time on Instagram this past week. These are the images I remember off the top of my head, without going back to Instagram to look:

I remember Ray Hennesy's small-in-the-frame Warbler photo that inspires me to look for different "wider" opportunities when I work with Warblers. I also recall two of Ray's stories in which he shows the Canadian habitat he has been shooting in. I messaged Ray about the boreal forest habitat and he messaged back to discuss nesting bird opportunities there.

I also remember Brad James' unbelievable Ruffed Grouse image. My goodness what a shot! I have spent many years photographing Ruffed Grouse, and it is such a difficult proposition that I am gobsmacked when I see an image that is so beautiful and inspiring. I wrote an insightful comment to Brad and he wrote a response to me.

I also remember Jon Timmer's reel of a family of Mountain Lions walking down a slope in wooded habitat. It impacts me because it shows me what happens in the areas I shoot in when nobody is around (he uses remote cameras for such work).

Matt Hansen's Wild Turkey image impacts me because it shows just how important it is to align a key part of the subject up with the most advantageous part of the background, so that it stands out better. I made a comment to that effect and Matt responded to me.

I remember Robin King's dramatic action photo of a Ruddy Duck. The drake is in absolutely full breeding plumage and his bill is a shockingly brilliant shade of blue! I suspect that Robin photographed that drake in a small private pond that she has shown me, and that reinforces the need to look for good wildlife opportunities close to home.

There are many more Instagram posts and stories that I recall from this week, and that are important to me, but I seriously gotta leave because I am now late to get to work because I wrote all of this!

That sort of proves my point. I could probably recall a similar number, but there are many, many more that I don't.

The fact that I could write on and on for hours about photos I saw on Instagram proves your point that hardly anybody cares about the photos that people post there? That doesn't make sense.

Ivor, it is ok, at some point in your life, to admit that something you wrote was wrong and that you should have through it thru better before you wrote it. You write a lot of really interesting, insightful stuff here, but you are human and there are times when what you write just isn't correct and shows things in a false light. It's okay to admit you were wrong about something once in a while instead of always, always, always doubling down and defending what you wrote.

Tom, There are always exceptions, and in this case, you are clearly one of those who can remember every one of the photos of the hundreds of photos that appear in your feed. Lucky you, I think. You gave five examples, around as many as I can remember from the day before. Most people can't remember that many, nor what they heard on the news the day before yesterday, nor even their commute to work.

Most people scroll through their social media feed and it becomes mundane, and they don't remember what has happened. Sure, if you sit and closely examine every photo, it will embed in your memory, but most people don't behave or have a memory that works that way. They scroll, click the like button and scroll on. The posts become forgettable and worthless.

It's quite different behavior from when people visit a gallery and study the work closely.

For example, I scrolled though your Instagram feed yesterday and can remember there were a couple of snake pictures, a memorable picture of jumping goat, and some bird portraits, and I think there was a silhouette of something. There might have been a picture of a lion, but perhaps that was someone else's feed. I only remember that much because I paid a bit more attention to it.

For most people, it is the same unless they have a special interest in a particular photographer or subject, the pictures become a blur.

The problem is not that my article is false, but nothing anyone writes is universal, and likewise, your personal experiences are not universal either. What I wrote doesn't apply to you, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't apply to others, or me.

There is actually a lot of research into not only this phenomenon but how documenting events on social media adversely affects your memory of experiences. If your personal experience is different then that is fine. Denying that it happens to you doesn't make it untrue for the majority. If you can back up your opinion with peer-reviewed empirical evidence, then I will gladly write about it. Just because you disagree with what I write doesn't make your opinion correct either.

I actually welcome people disagreeing with me because it gives me the opportunity to discuss the points. Plus, it generates more readers.

What a great response! It is so well thought out and carefully articulated.
Thank you for that, Ivor.

I think that you are right in saying that I am an exception. I do spend a LOT of time looking at other people's photos that are posted online. And I approach that viewing time as a student would - with an expectation of learning and intentionally seeking inspiration. That is why I save images to specific collections that I have made and actively curate. And it is also why I send messages to so many photographers, asking for details about the photos that they have posted.

Instagram posts are actually one of the main sources of material that I use to conduct research about wildlife. When I want to know more about a specific species, I go to Instagram, search for that species name by hashtag, and then see the images with that hashtag. I then find the best of those images and send a message to each of the photographers who took those images, asking detailed questions about their experiences with that species.

Viewing photos is a very important and intentional part of my life, and I do deeply care about the photos that other people post.

Basically, the same way that I plunge headlong into my time spent here on Fstoppers, often writing as much or more than the authors write in their articles, is the way that I approach looking thru photos on Instagram. Anything worth doing is worth doing right and putting a lot of time and effort into.

I don't have much to add, but I do appreciate your article. I find getting the sublime image is much for fun than getting the beautiful (as in very pretty) one.

Thank you, Ted.

"Heard a lion road" ?

That's supposed to be "roar". "r" and "d" aren't that far away from each other on the keyboard.
PS: Usually, those who find typos are allowed to keep them. ;-)

Yes, it's a typo. Well spotted! I proofread this a dozen times and still missed it. It'll get corrected later.