Viewer

Most of the recent posts are about making photos. The craft of creating a compelling image is a fascinating subject, as it touches both a technical side,  pure craft, and a creative, imaginative side, which tends more towards the black arts of art.

There is also the side of being a viewer. Watch a photo, look at it carefully. Let your imagination, rational thoughts run with it. Find a superficiality or depth. Try to understand its maker and the message (if any).

It’s the side of the art critic more than the side of the creator. Without the need of it being art, or the need to be a critic. Fundamentally, it comes down to appreciating a work for what it is.

For most people, no issue. For creators – a bit less so. Quite an issue actually.

Now I have zero expectation that this is something unique to photographers. Probably it’s the same for painters, composers, sculpturers and so on. But photographers, I have experience with. And there are a lot more of them, so the diversity is ample too.

The viewer a creator

So what is the issue of a photographer being a viewer of photos? They won’t stop being photographers.

I’m severly generalizing here, so nobody should take this personal. It’s something to reflect on – and I’m not claiming my own innocence either.

A photographer watching a photo is more trained to look at the potential of the scene, and how well the execution of that potential was done. Sharing such feedback – photographer to photographer – surely has its educational value. But that value is also limited. Each of us has a different vision, so the ‘correctness’ of execution is already a point for debate.
For example, If you believe everything in a photo should be sharp, then you’ll always have difficulty seeing eye to eye with those who like selective sharpness. One approach is not more correct or right than the other, they’re just choices.

Seeing the potential of a scene, and defining what that potential is, is also highly personal. Do you want to capture the solemn beauty of that ancient church, or the disturbing scene of the beggars on its stairs? Same scene, different stories. Most will make clear choices in the framing – get the entire church in, the beggars become a footnote, so the overall message is clear. Get the beggars in, the church becomes background, the overall message is again clear. Make the ambiguous choice, and now the viewer is confronted with a choice, or forced to acknowledge the complexity in the story. Confusion.

Most photographers I know will make the clear choice, the image will transmit their idea clearly. Avoid the question, skip to the answer.
But it’s those ambiguous images where the viewer can be more engaged, and ultimately get more satisfaction from diving into the image. The photo poses a question, the viewer gets to answer.
The image will evoke more discussion about its content and meaning, not the way that content is presented. At that point, a photographer saying “I would have used different settings” will not add much. You really have to step back and become a viewer only. Discuss what is there, not what you feel it could have been.

The creator a viewer

The reverse can be equally problematic. As photographer, usually you remember what triggered you to make a photo. Where you were, the weather, how you felt. An image can be incredibly special to you because of the moment it was made, the mood in which you made it or a special affection to the subject of the photo.

Others may or may not see that. Once you put out an image, you have to let go of those special feelings and accept that others will just see the image.

It may succeed at transmitting that special-ness, which typically will make people get a similar warm glow about it. It may not, which may give you feedback that feels caustic and harsh.

Disconnecting from your own photos can be hard. You make them for a reason. They have a meaning to you, and possibly evoke emotions. Letting that go feels almost like betraying them.

But that perfect portrait of your kid is just a portrait to me. The subject is just another juvenile to me. I’d judge it as any portrait.

Yes, it’s true when people say you need to grow a thick skin when sharing photos for critiques. You have to disconnect and become a viewer of your own photos. And what I find at least as useful, be picky about which photos to share. Some photos are dear and precious on a personal level – leave them personal and refrain from throwing those out to the lions.

Hard rules

There is one level worse to all the above. Some photographers believe in hard rules. For composition, for correct exposure, for how different types of photography must be done.

There are no hard rules. Sorry. None. None whatsoever.

Sure you may prefer that deep shadows always keep a level of detail in them. But if that detail doesn’t add anything to the image, why bother?

Landscapes should be sharp front to back, many will repeat this. But what if the intent of the image is that one particular detail, and the rest needs to fall in place as context? Then sharpness all over will actually damage the message.

The rule of thirds is a mighty useful guideline to have in mind. A rule that will improve your composition more often than not. Except of course when it’s completely inapproriate.

No hard rules. Any discussion about photos where people start throwing around hard rules of how things must be done, is a useless discussion. Techniques used should be correct for the content, and aid the message. If transmitting the message requires sloppy technique, then a technically perfect image according to the rulebook will be missing the point.

Warning

To repeat myself: I’m severly generalizing here, so nobody should take this personal. It’s something to reflect on – and I’m not claiming my own innocence.

When I look at photos, I do try to nurture my first instinct impression – not the rational study of elements, technical excellence or smart use of light. But the raw first reaction whether it appeals to me or not. Whether it makes me want to watch it more, or whether I think “Nice, beautiful, next“.

But if I stumble across a technical issue, it may just completely ruin the joy. And others may say “Come on, it’s a detail!“. And I’m probably dead wrong indeed, and too fuzzy on details. But I can’t un-see it.

Likewise, some critiques on my own photos can hurt. It can take time to admit that a photo indeed doesn’t transmit what I thought it should. And that’s not always fun. My skin isn’t as thick as it should be.

What? No photos?

Too much text, images speak louder than words, bla bla bla….. Well, this piece is more a personal reflection on how we – photographers and photography afficionados – talk about photos, think about photos and discuss photos.

The unmentioned keyword is empathy. Try to see what the other saw, and judge it from there. And simultaneously, see it for yourself, and share the experience of seeing the photo. Not the photo you would have made or how you’d improve it, but what was your initial reaction, what emotion came up when seeing it.

 

OK. Two photos.

First one is a photo I’d never share for critique, and that is very dear to me for a very simple reason. Seeing goslings (or ducklings, but in this case it’s the Canadian goose) waggle around in spring just makes me happy. Seeing photos of it still makes me happy.

Veghel, 2021

There is nothing special about this image, nothing I’d want to say beyond me just enjoying seeing these little creatures discover their surrounding. It has compositional and technical flaws. I would be OK discussing those – photographer to photographer. But deep down, I don’t care. Little fluffy yellow gosling – me happy.

 

Second one is one I would share for critique, and I have done so. I got very different reactions to it. Mainly about it being depressing, confusing or being hard and uncomfortable.

Siracusa, 2014

In all honesty, I cannot tell you what the message is here. I vaguely recall why I made it, but as a viewer, I’m not sure that is the message that comes across. Yet, as a viewer, this photo draws me in and makes me think about it.
Again it has compositional flaws, but I stand by the choices made – unlike the gosling image, I do care.
If the feedback would be along the lines of me not observing the rules of thirds, or the rear part of the boat not being sharp… well, that would be the point of this post, and missing the point of this post too.

 

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments too.

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