Style, Meaning and Substance

25th August 2014
I’ve had some revelations with this photography thing for a few months now, though maybe that’s not the proper word. I’m making images I’d have been delighted with until relatively recently but I’m not sure a lot of them are photos I like much anymore. I’m becoming more and more aware of personal style and the need for meaning in photographs these days. It’s easy to present a scene that looks nice; it’s a much harder thing to produce a photograph with substance. Hardly revelatory but it’s something worth realising.

It takes a lot for a photograph to have impact. Other forms of expression are more dynamic. Music can involve multiple instruments, genres and artists, and enjoys the freedom of time, allowing the theme to evolve if so wished. Video also has the luxury of time and can include music to accompany its ever-changing visuals. Photographs, for the most part, are static. While it’s possible for a photo to represent something more than the surface suggests, those that do are rare. Of course an image’s impact is a very subjective thing, but even so, good photography is differentiated from average photography quite easily. Good photography, by which I mean really good, original and outstanding photography, is hard.

Loop Head. Looks nice but does it matter?

The earth is awash with photographs. Though most of these only exist digitally I imagine you could cover the planet many times over with passport-sized prints of all the world’s photographs (an idea I’ve not put much thought into so don’t quote me unless I’m right!). The photography world is saturated and it’s getting harder and harder to stand out.

Maybe trying to stand out is the problem. What’s the purpose of all these pixels? For me it’s to try and share the fascination of the world with others, in the hope of inspiring some kind of appreciation of where we are. That’s not to say I don’t get a personal satisfaction from coming away from somewhere with a photo I’m proud to say is mine. But such an image will make me want to share it even more. Few people with creative pursuits practice in isolation. It’s fun to swap ideas and images, to learn and grow from others and maybe motivate a few to get more from their own pursuits.

With good quality cameras being so affordable in the western world today everybody can be a photographer. Added to this is the freedom of expression the internet has given people in the past 10-20 years. There are now millions of webpages about photography, turning what was once the realm of professionals into a pursuit that the hobbyist can now fully take part in. Digital cameras made photography affordable and upped the standard of most punters who took up a camera. With the freedom to take as many photos as you want with no printing costs or waiting times it became very easy to see where mistakes were made and learn from them quickly. From a technical perspective, nearly everybody became better at making photographs.

But the technical side of things is only half the story. What good is a perfectly sharp, exposure-balanced image if it doesn’t grab your attention? Good photographs should reach out and grab you instantly. It’s a subjective thing but nonetheless, most people will recognise a striking image from an average one. With the advent of digital sensors photography became a computer scientist’s hobby; you need a computer to process photographs these days so all of a sudden a previously unrelated skill became a necessary part of image making. I don’t have a whole lot of interest in the post-production of photographs so I don’t look into it too much but it does seem that this technical side of things is getting more attention than it might deserve. There’s plenty of talk about 100% crops, edge to edge sharpness (does it really matter at the very edges of images?) and bringing out the detail in shadows and highlights (is that how your eyes see it?) but comparatively little is written about how to go out and make an image that matters, regardless of all the geeky stuff.

Gannet avoiding the swell at Loop Head. Its head isn't very sharp, which is a pity as the rest isn't too bad.

Perhaps the reason for all the attention given to post-production is because it’s much easier to explain than the intangible idea of what makes a good photograph good. Why are some better than others? A lot depends on the genre or context; an image of historical importance doesn’t need bells and whistles to have impact. In the case of landscape or adventure photography bells and whistles are needed, though the sound they make isn’t something that’s easily explained. Even seemingly perfect images of attractive scenes can lack something. As a friend of mine said recently about some photos hanging in a gallery we were in, “they look nice but they don’t mean anything.”

Rainbow Bridge connecting Clare and Kerry at the point where the Shannon opens out to sea. Definitely a special moment but not an amazingly striking photo. Is it?

This elusive magic that makes a photograph appealing may be hard to explain but collections of images that show off such ethereal appeal aren’t impossible to find. I recently bought a copy of Unexpected, a hefty collection of photographs showcasing 30 years of Patagonia catalogue images. The editors at Patagonia, through millions of submissions, practically invented the style of outdoor photography that still reigns king today. The images they use probably show better than anybody else’s the culture of outdoor enthusiasts from around the world. The book is an amazing assembly of pictures; over four decades of worldwide adventure and travel squeezed between two thick covers. For the most part the images aren’t staged, they’re real life moments. When they have been ‘set up’ (a loose term here) they’re funny, and still retain a sense of specialness. Images in a collection become more important for their relevance to the theme but the vast majority of these pictures are worthy in their own right. Get yourself a copy.

Such a book is a pleasure to browse through but it shook me up a bit. When I inevitably started comparing my own images to those on the pages of this neo-bible I came to the not-so-shocking-if-you-think-about-it realisation that most of the photos I’ve made in this style are crap. Not that I ever thought they were much good but the majority are certainly well out of reach of the standard set by the editors of a book like Unexpected. All that is fine really, since I’m more interested in the process of learning and enjoying my photography than in any end-goal, but in this case I’m not sure how to go about making the improvements I want to see. Time should tell. At least I have a rough idea in mind of the kind of thing I’d like to see more of now (though if I was to be truly original I’d be inventing my own, far-reaching style!).

So without any concrete methods for making meaningful photos close at hand it might seem easy to, consciously or not, over-compensate with technical mumbo-jumbo. Though I’m only just another of the modern day hobbyists who likes to think they’re doing something worthwhile I do like to think I stand out from some of the others by avoiding some more clichéd types of image. For the most part I like to avoid big stopper filters – blurring the movement of water does not make one a good photographer (though I do it the odd time). Nor does the overly heavy use of graduated filters (unless of course that’s a style you’re after). I also tend to try to avoid the now-classic beach/coast sunrise/sunset scene that revolves somewhere around a low point of view of a rock(s) with an incoming/outgoing rush of long exposure water below a sky of variable interestingness (HDR and overly-brightened shadows are optional). This is obviously a potentially attractive scene, and one I haven’t managed to totally abstain from, but with so many platforms for photo-viewing now available it’s one that’s getting old for me.

Ross, Co. Clare. A fairly typical seaside sunset style image but I think the sky is unusual enough for me to really like this one.

Of course none of this rambling matters. If somebody wants to go out and make photos of a certain type and gets enjoyment from it then power to them. It’s a personal pursuit for the most part and as long as somebody isn’t claiming something that isn’t true then people are rightly free to do whatever makes them happy.

But even non-wannabe photographer friends are taking photos on their phones that I wish I’d taken. Spur of the moment, often funny, shooting from the hip type images that forgo any attempt at technical exactitude and just show a scene worth seeing as it is. All images are just the photographer’s way of seeing and I’m starting to notice how my way has become confined to a fairly stale, predictable type of image. I’ve become too focused on focusing distance and ISOs and getting the less important things right. All the options available in a modern SLR offer a huge amount of power to the user but sometimes it’s easy to give these things too much time and be distracted from the really important bit. I’m not saying we should all abandon the technical details. Just that they’re secondary to the scene itself. Things like iPhones remove all the distracting options of a better camera and force you to make a content-based image (as opposed to a complicatedly technical one that might make you feel like you know something). The simplicity of a camera phone can be a positive constraint. I’m starting to use mine more and hopefully change my way of seeing as I do.

iPhone images I'd never have bothered to take out the SLR for.

I often arrive at a place (mostly at sunrise and sunset) with an idea in mind for a photograph I want to make. If the weather isn’t playing to the idea I had in mind I can often be found not bothering to work with the conditions I’m given because of the tunnel-vision for this one particular image. In my defense, those times often involve much greyer/duller/more boring conditions. But I much prefer the times I go out with a camera in hand and no plan. You can’t force a moment.

Wet Pavement. Still one of my favourite images, even if it was a rushed job to get something before the light went in. Totally unexpected and all the sweeter for it.

Sometimes it can be tempting to create it afterwards though. The thing about all the work you can do to an image on a computer afterwards is that you don’t even need a very good image to begin with; it’s quite easy to spruce things up to more than they were. While there’s unquestionable skill involved in the post-processing of images (and it’s important for the photographer to have control of the image they’re making) I think it’s much more important as a photographer to be able to do as much as possible in the field and not have to rely on the computer too much afterwards. It’s a grey area, and perhaps the definition of a photographer is changing with the changes in trends, but for me at least, the fun of photography is in being out using the camera, not sitting at a screen afterwards. Computer nerds may disagree but like I said earlier, each to their own.

So where’s all this going? I don’t really know. But in a field that seems to be serving the technology side of things I’d rather be somebody who takes photos that have some soul than a technical genius who produces images without depth. At the moment I’m not very close to either of those things. I’ve a long way to go. It’s gonna be fun.


Photo comment By John O`Sullivan: Interesting........, good luck!

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