Shunning Popular Opinions to Elevate your Photographs

Shunning Popular Opinions to Elevate your Photographs

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.  

Lost in the Fog

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.

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16 Comments
Tom Reichner's picture

I think it would be prudent to be careful when judging someone for how they see or interpret or appreciate a photograph. There is a fine line between suggesting that people try new things and putting people down for how they currently do things.

Also, telling someone how they are "supposed" to assess a photo, or what they should think when they view a photo, could come across as a bit pretentious to some readers.

When we tell someone what they are supposed to appreciate about a photo, and think of them as "limited" if they see it differently, then we are stifling the very creativity and open-mindedness that you seem to be encouraging.

Perhaps we can encourage people to think beyond the conventional aesthetics without putting those conventions down. Negativity and judgment against a way of seeing and appreciating things probably isn't going to win anyone over to a different way of thinking and seeing.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hi Tom, I don't think I've said that anyone must do it this way, just that they "can". It's trying a different approach from the norm that I am suggesting, not dictating. I think you are actually agreeing with what I said, as I am pointing out that the common approach, that is dictated to us by - amongst others - competition judges who say we must interpret an image in a certain way might not be the best approach, and that stifles creativity.

Tom Reichner's picture

Yes, I do agree with you. In fact, I usually agree with almost everything that you write here on Fstoppers.

I just think that when these topics about aesthetics and personal tastes are concerned, we need to be very careful, so that we don't come across as if we think that we are more enlightened that other people when it comes to art and aesthetics. That can lead us to think that our opinions / tastes are "more viable" than those of the common layperson, or even than that of the competition judge.

You are not more enlightened or more insightful than anyone else when it comes to art and aesthetics. I am not, either. No one is. Everyone's tastes and preferences in these areas are just as viable as anyone else's. It's not like some people just have a better understanding than others. They don't. Why? Because art is so personal that everything that we are as a human goes into the styles and tastes that we have when it comes to art and aesthetics. And no one's humanity is any more valid than anyone else's.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Nothing I disagree with there. I think that putting across an argument that challenges common beliefs has its merits. I could have written an article extolling the virtues of all the things that people usually agree make a good photo, but that's been done a thousand times before and would have been boring. I could have also balanced what I said here by stating the merits of shooting popular photos, and it does have its merits. However, a little bit of controversy that generates discussion has its merits too.

Stuart C's picture

Great article Ivor and definitely a message that should be considered by photographers.

One recent example I looked at is this view that Landscape photos can only be taken at the book ends of the day, with blue or golden light. I just returned from a break in Scotland and most of my shots were taken during daylight, I was worried at first because I too have fallen into the golden hour trap, but I found I actually came away with a couple of nice shots, just to counter that there were also some awful and boring ones too:)

This one below was taken around 3pm with bright, harsh sunshine, which also led me to go against another trend which is the trend of reducing highlights and not blowing out the histogram... I actually did the opposite and upped the exposure to blow out the right side of the shot, because in my mind its the sun and in this instance it needed to be shown as bright.

I guess I could also add another into there and that is the obsession with removing people or distractions like cars etc from the shot, again I felt like they should stay there and I was fighting my own obsession with having a 'clean' image.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks, Stuart. Pursuing our own goals and finding our own styles is certainly a great way of expanding our artistic skills. I like the double delay in that image with the late surprise.

David Pavlich's picture

Play to your intended audience. If you're taking shots for you, then you're the only critic that matters. If you have a client that wants shots that are out of the norm, you do what the client wants. If you're shooting to sell prints, know your customer and shoot what they want. If you're entering a competition and wish to do well, you go by the rules.

In all of this, the great thing we now have is digital cameras. Instant results! You can shoot for your client, but during the shoot, go off script a bit and something may just hit a home run. And, of course, this applies to all of my above examples. Moving out of one's comfort zone can be unnerving for some, but it is a good way to perhaps find something that may be even more fun than what you're already doing.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Exactly!

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Adding some made up meaning to snapshots does not equate to elevating your photographs. Nor does trying way to hard be eccentric and a rebel in going against the so called "establishment".

People are going to like what they are going to like. Case in point, just in this site alone, it's pretty telling what people like:

- Photo of the Day: https://fstoppers.com/potd
- Editors Picks: https://fstoppers.com/editors-picks/photos
- Popular: https://fstoppers.com/popular/photos

If you enjoy pondering the meaning of life in the style of photos that you are most drawn to, more power to you. Knock yourself out. But don’t judge; lest ye be judged.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I'm not judging, just suggesting those that do get judged shouldn't always listen to what the judges tell them. Just choosing to shoot and share what is popular isn't necessarily challenging the artistic boundaries. There's a problem with people deciding that an image is just a "snapshot" often says much about the limitations of the judge not being able to see past the obvious.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

When you describe images or people as "monotonous", "fog of mediocrity", and "limited imagination", yeah, you were judging. And, I'm not the only one that noticed it.

--- "Just choosing to shoot and share what is popular isn't necessarily challenging the artistic boundaries."

You're assuming too much. Maybe one's interest just happens to be also popular. What are they supposed to do, force themselves to lose interest so they can act like a wannabe rebelling artist? "Challenging the artistic boundaries?" Lol, see what I mean, who are you to judge and preach?

Ivor Rackham's picture

Now you are just making stuff up and misquoting what I said. I didn't call anyone monotonous, although when I look through your entire comment history...

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Refer to your first paragraph.

--- "although when I look through your entire comment history..."

You should consider reading what I was replying to so you'd get the full picture before you judge to conclusions.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Ho hum. It's only photography, it's not as if I'm invading Ukraine.

Timothy Gasper's picture

It's always refreshing to see people choosing an unexpected or unusual perspective.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Indeed. , thanks for taking the time to comment Timothy,