My Little Photo Essay: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Photography
Here are two questions to ask yourself:
- What’s my role as a photographer?
- How do I define success in that role?
For the first question, there are a probably a small number of common answers. There are numerous possible answers, of course (life is complicated!), but I wager that most people who practice photography would categorize themselves into one or more of the following roles:
- “I am a photo hobbyist, and I like to take pictures in order to share the experiences and visions that I have experienced with others”
- “I am an archivist, and I like to take photographs of certain things for myself so that I can capture details that I don’t want to forget”
- “I am a professional, and I make images that are compelling or valuable enough to others so that they are willing to pay me to capture them”
- “I am just a regular human, and I take pictures in order to capture moments of my personal or family life that I think are special enough to remember”
These roles might typically define success like this:
- Photo hobbyist: Do people connect with my work in a way that causes them to have an emotional reaction?
- Archivist: Have I captured sufficient detail to help me remember what I might have otherwise forgotten?
- Professional: Do my photographs provide a compelling enough value or response to make people feel like the money they have paid me for them was worthwhile?
- Regular human: Do my pictures elicit an emotional response to my family or friends in such a manner that they feel glad that I took them?
If you look carefully and critically at the factors that define photographic success for these roles, the common element of success seems to be: Have I captured an image that satisfies my goal to elicit the desired response from my intended audience?
The notion of audience is a key one, because for most photographers in the most common roles, photographs are typically created to share information with other people in one way or another – even if the audience for the photograph is the photographer himself. For example, the archivist who takes photographs for personal reference is likely to use the details of those photographs to directly or indirectly communicate information to other people about a topic relating to those photos.
In other words, photography is generally used to capture information that is meant to be shared with others, whether for artistic purposes, or something else that is more, say, practical.
Think for a moment about this: if you do not have a desire to share something with other people, then why would you take a picture of it? After all, nothing can be as beautiful, accurate, and high resolution as the original view that fleetingly sits before you. Unless you think there is some reason to record it, why not just live the moment and take it in for yourself? We do that all the time – even most of the time – of course. Photos are typically taken only during moments that are driven by our roles and their related success factors.
To this end, photographers of all sorts seek tools that help ensure their success (since, after all, tools are required for photography). Whether that means tools that are portable . . . tools that provide superior color, contrast, resolution, speed, or responsiveness . . . tools that are easy to use . . . or tools that are affordable . . . photographers of all sorts have a long history of trying to choose tools that lead to success.
For photographers whose success factors depend upon presenting their work to other people (which is generally the case for all but the archivist), there some pertinent questions whose answers significantly guide the tool selection process:
How do I anticipate my photos will be presented?
Will they be printed?
If so, what size will they be?
How far away will people view them from?
What is the printing method? (Standard print, newspaper , etc.)
Will they be projected?
If so, how big will the screen be, and how far away will my audience be?
Will they be viewed on a computer screen?
If so, will people need to zoom in to see more details?
Photographers assemble their arsenal of tools based, in no small part, on the answers to these questions. And attempting to arrive at these answers is almost a fool’s errand, because, after all, how can we possibly anticipate everything we might want to shoot and present?
From these answers that are arrived at with no small amount of angst, photographers generally try to select and transport the least amount of equipment possible in order to achieve their ends. Equipment is not only cumbersome and/or expensive to ship or carry; a photographer can only use so much equipment at one time!
It is this last point that drives much of the passionate decision-making that underlies the hobby and profession of photography. While many photographers would love to have a field camera . . . a medium format body . . . a quiet and portable Leica rangefinder . . . and a stealthy Minox at their disposal at all times, a single camera that could all of these things would be a dream come true. So photographers learn to compromise.
What’s quite remarkable about photography today is that we are closer to that nirvana than people thought possible not too long ago. This means that today, one person with one camera and a relatively few lenses can usually achieve success with the following:
- Action photography where a camera can help focus, expose, and shoot a burst of photos in a way that increases the likelihood of capturing something that conveys the feeling of the moment
- Documentary photography where a camera captures the reality of a situation in unpredictable light
- Large format, high resolution archival or art photography: (This would include architecture and landscape photography) Rather than conveying a “decisive moment” (with the exception of decisive light), such capabilities are more accessible than ever due to the ability for a computer to stitch together multiple photographs into a large composite even from cameras with relatively low megapixel counts
One fortunate thing for photographers is that documentary and action photography that seeks to capture a “decisive moment” generally need not benefit from extremely high resolution that is required for archival or art photography. Think about this:
How many “decisive moments” that have achieved fame have not been enjoyable for people within the confines of a magazine page? A page of Look or Life magazine used to be 11x14 inches. At 300 dots per inch, that’s a 13.8 megapixel image from one of today’s digital cameras. And as has been discovered in recent years, 13.8 megapixels typically contain a greater amount of clear photographic information than the film that was used when Life was that size. Yet that amount of information was used to successfully convey – to millions of people – many of the most important images of the photographic era.
Think about that for a minute – and then think about the fact that countless other magazines conveyed countless other decisive moments in far smaller formats. National Geographic . . . Time . . . Sports Illustrated . . . the list goes on.
In other words, to regular human beings who view photos, a good picture is a good picture, no matter what the size. Success? You bet!
Are there photos that cannot be enjoyed or appreciated at small sizes? Absolutely. Typically, these are photos that contain myriad details in a way that invites long, involved inspection: Large-format, high resolution archival or art photographs. With very rare exceptions, though, there is no Venn diagram-type overlap between “decisive moments” and these kinds of images, because decisive moments generally involve only a handful of noticeable details captured in a somewhat serendipitous manner.
Yet today it’s possible with computers to take all of these kinds of pictures with one camera, from single-frame decisive moments to multiple-frame high resolution composites.
That said, how many successful photographs can you think of that were successful primarily because of their incredible resolution? Maybe think about it this way: how many pictures have you seen where every pixel has mattered?
The recent “gigapixel” projects that have been made possible through the use of computers to assemble and present immersive details are probably the closest thing to that kind of success. The irony of gigapixel photography, though, is that just about any digital camera is capable of doing it, so long as the photographer has a little (or a lot, in some cases) of time, forethought, and patience.
But in most cases for most people, not every pixel matters.
If you want proof of this, take a careful look at the incredibly popular magazines from the American magazine publisher, Reiman Media Group. Many of these magazines (Reminisce, Birds & Blooms, Country, Farm & Ranch, Taste of Home) include one or more photographs in each issue that have a simple (typically black) image hidden in them. Readers scour the pages to find these images and report their findings to be eligible for a monthly drawing.
The operative word here is scour. It often takes several complete examinations of every page of the magazine for people to find these images. The photographs in which these images are found are typically beautiful ones – some commissioned for the magazines, and some purchased from stock agencies – all good enough to provide a compelling publication that people are willing to pay to view each month.
A typical issue of one of these magazines has 60-70 pages. Let’s assume that there are an average of 3 photos per page; this means that there might be 180-210 photos per magazine. Now, we photographers are pretty picky about aberrations, aren’t we? Well, imagine that one out of every 200 of your best, publication-quality photographs has a random black shape placed somewhere in within. Ask yourself: why would you care?
You can be sure that the millions of people who read Reiman’s magazines each month don’t complain to the publisher about how these “hidden” images have interfered with their ability to enjoy the photographs. Why? Because great images of this type are great images, whether they are partially obscured by a graphic or not. Success in these cases is determined here not by lack of aberrations, but rather by what is essentially conveyed.
So why do we obsess so much over resolution and aberrations when it’s likely that our intended audience won’t ever notice these things in the places in which our photographs are most likely to be seen?
It’s all too easy for photographers to miss this point. In our never-ending quest to find the most perfect tools for our work, the tools we dream of are the tools we probably already have. Success – no matter what your role – is mostly governed by how you use the tools that you have.
Most of the greatest photographers – Adams, Avedon, Cartier-Bresson, you name them – all achieved their success by creating images that could be appreciated in a lowly book or magazine, printed using offset techniques. Yes, their work looks even better when properly printed, displayed, and viewed in person. But they achieved success without requiring such a syzygy of perfect conditions.
What is your role? Have you achieved success? I am betting that you have. But if not, given the tools that are available to the average photographer today, what’s your excuse?
All of this said, I thought it would be useful to share my role, and how I define success:
Although I get paid occasionally to take and make pictures, I am predominately a regular human: I take pictures in order to capture moments of my personal or family life that I think are special enough to remember. I measure my success by how well my pictures elicit an emotional response to my family or friends in such a manner that they feel glad that I took them.
When I spend time pondering my toolset, I remind myself of some of the images that have evoked the most intense responses from my family and friends. One that often comes to mind is this photograph of my brother’s late Boston Terrier:
|A simple image that strikes a chord. Although I love the photo, other people generally think more highly of it than I do, even in its original, uncropped form (seen here).|
Does resolution matter in this shot? Not particularly.
What’s quite interesting to me is not only that this image continues to evoke emotion in new people who see it; it’s that other photographs from this series – which was really just an exercise in capturing some fun with my brother’s dog – were deemed compelling enough to become the basis for a work in Laura Wilder’s official dog portrait series for the Roycroft Renaissance community.
To me, that’s success beyond my wildest imagination. How do you define yours?
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