The Crucial Photography Lesson Coming from Popular Music

The Crucial Photography Lesson Coming from Popular Music

Popular music is getting worse, isn’t it? The reason why has an impact on your photography too.

I remember when I was young, people in my parents’ generation complained that a lot of pop music was worse than it had been in their youth. It all sounded the same. Much of our musical tastes are indeed set in stone before we reach the age of 30. Consequently, their musical tastes were surely limited by that. I also accept that’s why I lack enthusiasm for much of what is produced today.

Although musical tastes are subjective, research has shown that newer music lacks both dynamic and melodic range, as well as having less varied timbre. Dynamic range is the difference between the loudness and softness of a track. Much modern music is mixed so everything is turned up loud. Those punchy orchestral hits once stood out above the quieter rhythms and the subtle harmonies that floated in the background behind the tune, Meanwhile an explosive drum burst to the fore.  Now, there are rarely significant differences in their loudness.

The melodic range has shrunk too. That is the distance between the highest and lowest notes in a melody. Melodies today are far simpler and often restricted to less than one octave.

The timbre of the music is harder to explain. It’s the quality of music that sets it apart from other sounds. For example, a C chord played on a piano will sound very different from one played by a guitar or sung by a choir. Popular music today is far more limited in timbre than it would have been when I was a child.

Consequently, songs today really do sound more alike than they did a few decades ago.

The Committee of Sound

Why is this? It is music made by a committee, and that committee is motivated by money. Record companies don’t want to make better popular music; they want to make as big a profit as possible. They see that an artist with a particular style sells well and will push out more of the same to make more money. Consequently, young people especially will have their musical tastes influenced by sausage machine pop that lacks range and individuality. Bland, forgettable songs dominate the pop scene as a result.

When you look back at any of the great names in popular music, whatever the genre, those musicians were influenced less by the record companies. They did not set out to earn the highest possible revenue. Instead, their popularity and subsequent financial success manifested from their hard-earned creativity and not copying what was already popular.

They were all trailblazers who spawned musical trends, rejecting pressure for them to be like everyone else. Of course, they were all copied many times by those who rode in their wake, and those clones never achieved the same level of greatness.

There is and always has been an enormous difference between sausage-machine music produced for money and popular success and those who embrace creativity, ignore opinion, and write superb, unique songs. Thankfully, there are still great, original artists creating original work who don't seek mass appeal but make it big. However, they are the exception.

Photography by Committee

How does this relate to photography? If you look at any of the greatest names in our art, they didn’t pursue financial success as their primary aim. Instead, when financial success and good reputation happened, it was the result of their hard work and creativity. They intended to be great at what they did, and the money was a byproduct because they were different from the rest and dedicated to their work. I think that is true of all successful businesses when they first start.

Those photographers went out and did their own thing, challenging the norms of the day. Yes, they learned their art from others, but they broke free from the limitations placed on them by the expectations of others. They usually broke the constraints of style and the choices they made when composing their photos. Sometimes, the technological choices were different, perhaps choosing a film format or lens that wasn’t the same as everyone else's.

Although we photographers are not controlled in the way that musicians are by the need to produce share dividends, there is the danger that we are entrapped by the desire for popularity. People chase instant gratification from pointless social media likes by posting generic pictures that are pretty but equally forgettable; photographic muzak!

It’s very easy in photography to listen to other’s opinions of your work and try to comply with what they think and not what you feel. However, the story you tell with your photograph, the exposure settings, the point of focus, the composition, and even the camera brand you use are all personal choices you make. If you do your own thing and push against peer pressure, you are far more likely to achieve your unique style than if you try to please the committee of Insta-followers.

Beware the Naysayers and Imposters

Moreover, you’ll find those who comment negatively on your creative work will lack the insight to understand what it is about. If you are one of those who routinely disparage other’s work, then it is most probable that you haven’t yet learned to see what they are expressing.

That behavior is down to the Dunning-Kruger effect. That is where someone’s self-perceived ability is inversely proportional to their actual ability. You will find that most of those with the highest opinion of themselves will also be most vociferous about their perceived abilities. There are innumerable supposed quotes by wise people throughout the ages that express the truth that the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know.

The flipside of that is imposter syndrome where experienced people have a relatively high level of ability but perceive their ability to be low. There are, of course, imposter syndrome imposters who pretend to have imposter syndrome to make themselves look good.

Judging Your Photographic Competence

Considering all that, is it impossible to judge your level of competence? The answer is not to try, but to accept that there will always be more you don’t know, and things that you are not yet even aware of. Surround yourself with good people of varying levels of skill and respect them for where they are on their photographic journey. The best way to improve your skills is by helping others.

To prove my point, take any of the popular music greats and listen to how they grew over time. There was an enormous difference between the early and late songs by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Carole King, Nina Simone, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchel, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Christine McVie, Kate Bush, Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Elton John, Peter Gabriel, and so many more who constantly progressed over their careers. They didn’t kowtow to the pressures of repeating what had come before but blazed their unique trails. Furthermore, all of them were respected for their generosity in helping others in the industry.

The same is true of so many of the great names in photography. Almost everyone from Ansel Adams to Patrick Zachmann made their own mark on photography and encouraged their fellow photographers along the way.

So, the most important thing you can do, in the words of another popular song, is go your own way. But be encouraging of others while you are at it.

Do you find yourself trying to take photos similar to those shot by others? Or are you a photographer who likes to do your own thing? Do you help others? Or, are your energies spent demeaning them in an attempt to make yourself look good? It would be great to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Ivor Rackham's picture

A professional photographer, website developer, and writer, Ivor lives in the North East of England. His main work is training others in photography. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being. In 2023 he accepted becoming a brand ambassador for the OM System.

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Ivor, you are beginning to sound like a grumpy old white man….

“…[R]esearch has shown that newer music lacks both dynamic and melodic range, as well as having less varied timbre.” Could you share the links to those studies?

“Record companies don’t want to make better popular music; they want to make as big a profit as possible.” I’d argue that hasn’t changed since the very first record company opened its doors. Any commercial concern wants to make a profit.

“Much modern music is mixed so everything is turned up loud.” While I disagree with this point I would argue that music is mixed differently today than in years past simply because we listen to music much differently than we did 50 years ago.

“Photography by Committee” I’d submit that most commercial and editorial photography has always been influenced if not controlled by a committee of sorts. Back in the days of print, an editorial photographers work was viewed by photo editors and managing editors before being included in a publication. In general, a publishing a magazine or paper was done by committee. In my day of shooting commercially (nearly 25 years ago), I recall having both the client, Art Director, and sometime legal office present during the shoots. A committee of sorts if you will.

“Surround yourself with good people….” Great advice and not just for photography. Thanks for the insightful articles. I appreciate the effort.

Ha ha, thanks. I'm definitely not grumpy although there is much in the world to be grumpy about. Plus, I am still middle-aged. As for white, there's not much I can do about that.

I was going to post a similar video to the excellent one Andy Barss has posted below. I would very much encourage you to watch that regarding the dynamic range.

You are right about commercial photography being made by committee. Fortunately, most photographers are free to shoot what and how they like.

With respect to Ivan Rackham’s discussion of dynamic range, he’s absolutely correct. Music in the last 20 years has often been mixed with heavy dynamic range compression — loud sounds are lowered in volume, soft sounds are made louder (so the difference between the loudest and softest part of the song is lessened, i.e. the dynamic range is compressed), and then the whole track is made louder,often maximally so. Here is a good, short illustration:

Many more videos on youtube show this, including how a number of albums have been remastered several times, each time getting louder and more fatiguing.

Thank you, Andy.

“…this is how the so-called loudness war is damaging the sound quality of modern CDs.”

CDs? Who listens to music on CD’s these days. Given the 17+ years since this video was published, I would imagine that in the same way advances in technology (both hardware and software) has improved digital imaging, it has done the same with audio technology, mitigating much of this problem. Apple’s Lossless Audio Codec has improved the quality of sound on Apple Music. Other streaming services have similar solutions.

It's about how the music is mixed and not the media type. (I still listen to CDs and have an extensive collection. I stream music too. In modern mixes.) Just to clarify, it's the difference between the loudness of different instruments. On modern mixes, it is narrow so they are all turned up to the same volume within the track. Historically, there would be big differences between the instruments, giving the loudest ones more punch, and the quieter ones more subtlety.

Also bear in mind that nowadays you hear only the best pieces of “old” music. So, you compare the best vs average.

Same with the cars “They made cars that could last 50 years!”. Oh, yes. But only some cars and with a lot of love and money sprinkled by the owner.

That's very true. Thanks.

Modern music, just give a listen to Born in Winter by Gojira , music from Riverside, Dream theater with lots of dynamic changes in time signature , tempo and volume. Or for the more delicate ears Elbow. Don’t put all modern music in the same category as the mainstream over produced over compressed pulp you hear. You do make some good points regarding to photography though. Just don’t agree on the music

I think we’ve already went through absolute lows in music in 90’s and were on steady growth path since then.

I think good music is made in every era, the difference is the music we are fed by commerce isn’t always the best. In the 90 Stock Aitkin and Waterman dominated the charts with there overproduced everything sounds the same music. And music remains a question of taste. But it is frustrating that there are a lot of talented musicians out there that struggle , while other mediocre artists are hyped and earn millions.

That's the point I was making, Ruud. We are force-fed what the music companies want us to listen to because it makes money and they hype mediocrity. Thanks!