You shoot perfect pictures. But are they the photographic equivalent of fast food? Maybe it’s time to consider changing the way you shoot and reject sausage machine images.
Piers thrust themselves into dead-still water, birds perch on rocks, beautiful women show off their perfect bodies, the interiors of decaying buildings crumble, distant snow-topped mountains reflect in lakes, and light shines off polished Porsches. If you look at any photo community website, there are thousands of technically flawless images like these. Each is a well-executed, flawlessly sharp representation of the subject. They are well lit, and their compositions, colors, contrasts, and exposure fit with everything we know about photography. They look great.
But after browsing your way through a few pages in any genre, doesn’t each successive photograph make you gradually lose interest?
However technically perfect they are, they no longer surprise us. I would go as far as to say that most are clichés, unoriginal imitations of similar photos that came before them. Occasionally, one does jump out and grab your attention because it is unique, but most fall into the category of what I call sausage machine photography.
Similarly, we appeal to our audiences by adding continuity between a string of images, as I mentioned in my previous article about photographic essays. This usually means sticking to one type of photography. Most great photographers are known for doing just that, concentrating on one genre, or, at least, one genre at a time.
Sausage Machine Commercial Photography
Of course, there is a commercial need for these kinds of shots: car advertisers want to see those flashy fenders, and bird identification books need shots of separate species of a sparrow sitting on a stick, or indeed, a puffin on a rock. Unhappily, fashion magazines still require perfect images of unhealthily skinny young women with plastic-looking skin.
There is nothing wrong with trying to achieve perfection in our images. It means that with each shot, we have studied our art, learned from our mistakes, and honed our techniques. We have studied other photographers’ works, and then emulated or even improved on them. Indeed, I would encourage everyone to seek the ability to achieve pristine photographs. However, commercial interests aside, we should then strive to be challenging in our photography, attempt to create something different.
Barriers to Being Different
It’s a tall order. Firstly, the photographic establishment expects images to cohere with its norms. Anyone who rejects the recognized standards will get pilloried for doing so. History has shown that this is true of any art form. Nevertheless, photography often seems to be stuck in the mud because a vocal conservative minority will deride anyone who suggests approaching it differently. For example, if one dares to suggest that great photographs can be shot with crop sensor cameras, the full frame fascists leap to attack.
Secondly, with around 1.5 trillion photos taken this year, shooting something unique becomes harder. Admittedly, only around 7% of those will be shot with digital cameras, with most being mobile phone snaps, but that’s still around 105 billion DSLR, mirrorless, and compact camera photos per year. In other words, 3,330 images are snapped every second by photographers like you. With that proliferation, it’s difficult to find a way of showing our viewers something new, because someone else is probably shooting something similar at the same time.
Nevertheless, there are still good reasons for breaking away from repetitive perfection and achieving compelling images that don’t comply with the accepted norms of the photographic establishment. Not least is the need to thrill our audience with surprises that keep them engaged with our work.
Lessons From the Other Arts
So, how can we surprise our viewers? There are lessons to be learned from other art forms, including cinema, television, books, and paintings.
Great photographers take things further than just shooting a single genre. Like some movie directors and cinematographers stick to using one focal length, some top photographers restrict themselves to just one too. Fixed apertures and shutter values, subject distances, and other compositional variables are kept the same within their collections. In this way, they make their portfolios more coherent and, consequently, more appealing to the viewer, especially if they reject the most widely used settings for that subject.
Then, there’s the image content. That’s where the big surprises sit.
Jump Scares, Big Reveals, and Plot Twists
The hand reaches out from under the bed and grabs the hero’s ankle (The Sixth Sense). The journalist looks at a photo and spots a vital clue that helps solve the mystery (The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo). A murder is revealed when an image from a hidden camera is developed (Enemy of the State). We are left wondering what was real and what was not (Total Recall).
They could easily become something of a cliché in movies, but the jump-scare, the climactic plot twist, and the big reveal still work. M. Night Shyamalan is a master of cinematic surprises, as was Alfred Hitchcock before him. In his written stories that were later televised, Roald Dahl added a twist to the end of his Tales of the Unexpected. They shock us and are often the turning point or climax of the story. Can we incorporate those sorts of surprises into photography?
It isn’t as easy as it is in stories. In books and films, the revelation happens at a point along a timeline and, individually, our pictures are a fixed point in time.
Nevertheless, we can surprise. For example, hiding a twist somewhere within the photograph, something we don’t immediately spot can make an image more compelling, assuming the viewer takes the time to see it. Alternatively, it can be a surprise image at the end of a sequence of photos that brings the whole series together. Adding a title to a photograph can also make the viewer see the image differently.
Things That Don't Sit Comfortably Together
Another approach is fitting disparate subjects together. Photographing things that are out of place with their environment can work too. Surrealist artists, such as René Magritte and Salvador Dalí, perfected this approach in their art. I am not suggesting you should have melting clocks on the beach or castles floating in the sky, but mundane objects out of place can have an impact and make the viewer think.
Hiding the Main Subject
Then again, the main subject of the image may be less obvious than the secondary subjects. For example, in the above photo, the leading line of the mast’s reflection draws the eye to the nearest boat. One is then taken further into the image to the larger hull, top right. It’s only then that one realizes that the real subject is relatively small and is not the boat at all.
I must reiterate that I am differentiating between creative and observational photographic art and commercial photography here. Commercial markets cry out for sausage machine images. My clients have specific expectations that fit into the norms of commercial photography, and it would be foolish of me not to meet their needs. Photographers making a living from their work know their photos must cohere with the expectations of the broader public; most people buy bland, mass-produced images from Ikea to hang on their walls.
The appeal of extraordinary photography that takes an effort to appreciate isn’t as big. But it has far greater value. There is space for more challenging, less usual photography too.
What Do You Think?
Do you shoot images that break free from the clichés? It would be fantastic to see them in the comments. Or are you solely shooting standard images with mass appeal? If so, do you disagree with my premise that we should shun the expectations of the photographic establishment? It would be great to hear your thoughts on this topic, even if you disagree with me.