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<   No. 3379   2015-04-12   >

Comic #3379

1 {photo of bridal veil and jewellery on white satin chair}
1 Caption: Photo feelings

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I keep up with news and developments in the realm of photography, both because I'm interested in it as a hobby and because it is part of my paying job to be up with the latest in photo technology. This doesn't just include the technology behind making photos, but also developments in sharing photos and the use of photos as social media and in the news media. So I read a fair few photography news and blog sites and forums.

Amongst all of this there are many differences of opinion on the merits of various developments, both in technology and in the more social side of photography.[1] Beginning on the photo capture side, the serious equipment blogs which track new product releases and advances in camera technology invariably end up with comment threads covering a range of views from people who think the thing being discussed is cool and can't wait to use it to increase their photographic capabilities, to those who think it's worse than useless and will actually make you a worse photographer. Basically, for anything there are fans and there are haters (which kind of sums up pretty much any topic you see discussed on the net these days, actually). There are also a few middle ground people with reasonable opinions like: "This is interesting and maybe someone will do something cool with it, but I don't think it's for me." They can get a bit lost in the noise though.

Old timey Coke sign
Old timey Coke sign.

And things get even more polarised if anything on the side of recent developments in photography such as the rise of social media sharing and related ideas. Naturally many of the photo sites I read are populated by photography enthusiasts, which skews the representation towards people who are "serious" about photography as a hobby, and so who - generalising - tend to be somewhat disparaging to more populist forms of photography such as Instagram, sharing photos on Facebook, shooting selfies, and other things that "non-serious" photographers do.

So it seems that in the opinions of many photo enthusiasts that everything to do with photography is either wonderful, or terrible. The (in my opinion) more sensible approach that everything has the potential to be good or bad depending on how you use it doesn't get stated very much. Anyway, one of these supposed dichotomies in particular struck me today, so much that I decided to write something about it.

Sunrise, from the office
Sunrise, from the office.

It is one of the perennial arguments about photography, which I have seen many times before, and this time it occurred in a discussion about photos taken with iPhones. A site had run a competition for iPhone photography and posted some winners and commended photos. I thought they were pretty good photos which I would have been proud to have taken myself.

The comments though were mostly scathing, and based mostly on the argument that because the photos weren't taken with a "real" camera, they weren't serious photos and were simply rubbish. On the other hand, a significant minority of the comments took another direction. They argued that photography is not about the equipment, but about the artistic composition - the ability and skill required to see something worth capturing in a scene. The camera is just a tool, and good photographs can be made with any tool you care to use.

Music in the bar
Music in the bar.

The two sides of this argument have been expressed many times in many places, and I have seen it many times before. On one hand there are people who say that while yes, you need to be an artist, you also need the right tools and the work should be technically impeccable, so you need a top quality camera and something as crappy as a phone camera simply doesn't cut the mustard, so any photo taken with a phone is inherently inferior to what would otherwise be the same photo taken with a fancier camera. On the other hand there are people who say that the best camera is the one you have with you when something happens that will make a great photo, and if that's just your phone, so be it - a great photo is what's captured in the image, not how many megapixels or colours or how little noise or distortion it has.

Me, I do photography on both sides of this fence. I like my expensive DSLR camera and heavy lenses, and I take them with me when I travel because I like to have the ability to make technically superior photos, as measured by parameters such as focus, depth of field, noise, distortion, colour reproduction, contrast, flare, and so on. I often take a tripod for capturing photos at night or dusk. I try to capture what I see and feel when in different places, both to have a record and to hopefully create some photos which have a degree of artistry to them, which I would like to print large and hang on my walls. (I have a dozen or so of my photos printed large and hanging on walls at home.)

Spooky house
Spooky house.

But since acquiring a smartphone with a camera last year, I have also begun taking photos nearly every day with that. I just snap whatever takes my fancy, and I share some of my photos on Instagram and with my Facebook friends. I even use the Instagram filters. I find it a lot of fun. Many of the photos are mediocre, but I've also taken some photos which I like a lot, and which I never would have taken otherwise because I don't lug around a camera bag full of heavy lenses every day.

I find the best photos are ones that evoke an emotional response. Whether that be "Wow, what a beautiful landscape" which may be faithfully and technically captured to perfection, or "I feel this person's anguish" which may occur with a photo shot on anything and with lots of colour shift and distortion. Conversely you can capture a technically impeccable photo of a boring subject, but if it doesn't move the viewer in some way then it's not a great photo.

After the rain
After the rain.

As I've done more photography, and particularly within the limitations of a phone camera[2], I've learnt that reproducing a scene exactly, as faithfully as possible, with a minimum of noise and distortion, is not the path to a great photo. It might be one point along the way, but it's not the only point and definitely not the end point. What you want to create is something emotional, not necessarily something faithful. And this was brought home to me consciously by a quotation I saw for the first time just recently (and which inspired this essay):

Don't shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like. — David Alan Harvey.
David Alan Harvey is a photographer who has worked extensively for National Geographic and has won many awards. Probably on the back of this philosophy.

I realise now that the best photos I've taken haven't merely captured what a scene looks like - they have captured what I was feeling at the time when I saw it. Exhilaration at a beautiful landscape or sunrise. Triumph at having reached some expeditionary goal. Exhaustion. Relaxation. Romance. Ugliness and revulsion. Wistfulness.

Iris field
Iris field.

I am going to make a conscious effort from now on to try to photograph what a scene makes me feel. If it's not making me feel something, then a photo can only be so many pixels of colour. If the scene in front of me makes me feel something, then I will try to capture that feeling, using whatever tools I have available, be they a DSLR and selection of lenses, or a camera phone and Instagram filters. I'm not sure how to articulate the process of doing this - or what I think the process might be. Maybe that's something I still have to learn about photography. But I'm going to give it a try.

If I can be so bold as to suggest a photo project for you, the reader of this ramble, then I ask you to spend some time trying to capture photos of feelings, rather than scenes. However you interpret that idea and put it into practice - because I suspect we'll all do it differently. It's not obvious what one should do, but at least put some positive thought into it and give it a try. Let's see what we come up with. And if you feel inclined to share your results, let me know, and I'll post a gallery here in the future.


[1] It's inevitable, really. If you want an opinion, ask someone. If you want two different opinions, ask two people.

[2] There definitely are serious technical limitations with a phone camera. Many times recently I've seen something interesting and wanted to take a photo of it, and pulled out my phone, only to be thwarted by the fact that I can't make it behave like a DSLR camera. There are technical things I know I can do with a DSLR to achieve a certain look for my photo, which simply can't be done with a phone camera. If anyone ever tells you that a phone camera is technically "just as good" as a DSLR, they are either lying or don't know much about photography. (On the other hand, if they say it's still good enough for capturing many great photos, then they're on to something.)

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