Certain beliefs dominate photography, leading to a monotonous similarity in images. Breaking free from peer-pressure-imposed restrictions can revolutionize your pictures. But don’t expect those lost in the fog of mediocrity and with limited imagination to appreciate it.
There are expectations within photography that images from particular genres will look a certain way. The subject may vary, but there are limited approaches to shooting them that the establishment finds acceptable.
For example, photographers often strive to make the subject dominant within the frame. The typical approach is that the subject is more prominent than anything else. Then, we light it to make it noticeable and use depth of field and other separation techniques to make that subject stand out from the background.
But what if we choose a different approach to that. Instead of making the main subject dominant, reduce it until it’s barely noticeable and only seen if the picture is adequately studied.
Take, for example, the below image. Click on it to fit it to your screen.
How did your eye track through the frame? For most people, it starts at the lighthouse on the island. Next, it moves up to the moon at the top of the frame. Then, the eye lingers momentarily on the pre-dawn light illuminating the clouds. Finally, the viewer notices the distraction on the rocks below. Only then do they realize it is a bird, a curlew.
Before you shout that you saw the bird first, that’s fine. Not everyone’s eye will follow the image in the same way.
This won’t work with the absurdly rapid way that people view photographs on Instagram – scrolling and clicking “Like” on a small screen without studying the image. The bird won't even get noticed. But if displayed in a quality gallery, where viewers stop and study images, applying a delay is a perfectly acceptable approach.
We usually draw the viewers’ eyes around the photo by utilizing leading lines. That photo of the curlew works differently. It uses distracting points that move the eye from place to place: the lighthouse, the moon, the lit clouds, and the bird.
Presented at photo competitions, judges may be unlikely to appreciate images like that for what they are. They might see the bird as nothing more than an unwelcome distraction in a landscape shot, instead of how the photographer intended the photo to be viewed. Is this the fault of the photographer or the judge? I would say it is a limitation of the latter.
The following photo has a lead-in line. A row of footprints leads the eye to the main subject: the woman in the pink coat. She is walking on a wide-open, deserted beach. Pondering the image, one can deduce a story from the photo. Firstly, the path she has taken meanders, and she walks around the clump of seaweed and does not step over it. That suggests it is a carefree stroll and not a determined march. Then, the path she is taking is about to intersect with what looks like another set of footprints. Is this beach not quite as deserted as we first thought?
However, a closer inspection reveals we were misled. Those are not footprints, but a trail of seaweed left by the receding tide.
Again, judges may mark the image down because of that trail of seaweed as an unwanted distraction. Consequently, the photographer might remove both it and the clump in the mid-foreground during editing. That would simplify the photo, something I usually favor, but that secondary, misleading story would be lost. It also makes the composition unbalanced.
So, there is a dilemma: do we bow to the idea that images should be easy to understand or sacrifice simplicity and even beauty to create something that requires more thought to understand correctly? In other words, should we make the viewer work to understand the image? We often discuss the relationship between the subject and the photographer, especially a human subject. However, that relationship between the photographer and the viewer is more complex.
We probably have the viewer in mind, especially when shooting commercially. The picture not only has to please the client, but also their customers. For example, if shooting catalog images for a clothing company, the client wants photos that make their products sell. Unless specifically requested, the photographer isn’t going to open their creative toolbox and apply unusual and exciting artistic techniques.
This restriction is a compromise that many photographers make whether shooting products, portraits, or pets. Forgive the continuing alliteration, but even social media, sports, and street photographers take images cohering with the viewers' expectations.
What if you are shooting purely for the sake of art? This relationship becomes more strained. Firstly, artists express themselves in their photographs, and in doing so, they should not give a twopenny fudge cake what others think. But if they don’t comply with the expectations of the establishment, then they are less likely to be noticed, let alone celebrated. The exception, of course, is in the academic art world, where progressive creativity and the shunning of the norms are — quite rightly — acclaimed.
If this is the case, if true creativity is limited to academia, then most of us are shackled by the restraints put on us by peer pressure. We are limiting ourselves by striving to achieve what others have done before us, held back by so-called truths that are nothing more than subjective popular opinions.
Let’s take the argument for 35mm sensors as an example. They give a distinct look to an image that the marketing departments of the big camera companies hail as a gold standard. Because of that pressure, the full frame look has grown to be an expectation of many, though not all commercial photographers. That expectation bled over into the non-commercial world and creative photography. Consequently, there is no small amount of snobbery about full-frame cameras that results in an insular attitude that restricts variety and creativity.
Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with a 35mm sensor. But creators should recognize that there is neither anything superior nor inferior about it or any other sensor format. They are just different. Each has its advantages, just as each make compromises. If a full frame camera gives you a look you like, that is fine; I’m not arguing with that. However, if we shoot to create art, perhaps we should question why we like it. Is it solely down to compliance with convention — we want it because it is what we are expected to like? If so, then we should challenge that.
The same can be said of camera brands, depth of field, lens sharpness, developing techniques, focal length, composition and exposure expectations, black and white conversions, etc. Are we using those in a certain way just because of others’ subjective expectations?
Shunning popular fashions takes bravery. Many believe that the popular approach is the best, and powerful camera brands back them up because it helps their sales figures. Moreover, when you break free from the norms, there will be those who don’t understand it, and they'll criticize you because they are too tied to popular opinion. But that issue is with their understanding, not with your photos.