When We've Lost Sight of the Image

Lenses, bodies, lighting, software, film, digital. Photographers can be a technical bunch. We must not forget what lies beneath the tangible, first-order details, though.

I’ve been having a similar experience quite often lately. A photographer will post an image in an online group and the vast majority of the comments and questions revolve around the gear that was used. My eyes quickly glaze over as the comments turn an image into the sum of its technical components, as they suck its very essence out and replace it with relevant, but ultimately empty minutiae.

“I don’t hear the math!”

I recently finished a Master of Music Composition degree. One particularly formative experience that sticks in my memory came during a guest symposium. A composer presenting his music spent 45 minutes explaining the extremely intricate and rather advanced mathematics he used to choose the notes for a piece. It was utterly fascinating to learn. The patterns were complex, the formulas methodical, the procedures uniquely peculiar. And then, he played the piece.

“Do you hear the groups!?,” he excitedly yelled. I did not. A quick glance around the room revealed that no one else did either. My opinion on the music aside, I realized that in a certain sense, I had been had. I had allowed myself to be so caught up in the method, so enthralled by the interesting procedures that I forgot to forgo forming an opinion until I had heard the music. I had marveled at the ingredients before tasting the meal.

In a sense, this is what I see happening in so many photo discussions. EXIF data and gear have replaced discussions of posing, of intention, of what makes an image compelling. In that symposium, all the math in the world didn’t change the fact that I heard music, not formulas. No one looks at an image and “sees” your gear. They see an image. Sure, an astute photographer might be able to infer the general range of your settings or perhaps the gear you used, but these are conclusions based on rational analysis of technical variables. At the basal, instinctual level, no one has an impulse of humanity that yells, “Canon 6D!”

Film vs. Digital or “Can we please just not?”

Perhaps one of the most persistent topics emblematic of this phenomenon is the eternally rehashed debate of the merits and drawbacks of film and digital. Don’t get me wrong; there is certainly a discussion to be had here. However, I believe we run off the rails in the proportion of energy we put toward that discussion as opposed to the end product. It’s a red herring at this level. Gear didn’t make the image. A photographer did.

This sort of thinking fosters a gear-centric attitude that encourages the unconscious (or sometimes conscious) belief that better gear creates better images. That’s not true. At best, better gear enables the opportunity to create better images and really, as good as camera equipment has become, with good technique, the difference is often only marked at the extremes of technical requirements. Sure, it’s fun to discuss gear and marvel at the rapidly developing technology, but none of that is a replacement for the creative process.

It’s All in Your Head

This is why (given the relative proportion of topics I see critiques center on) I posit that we are asking the wrong questions. All too often, someone will buy the latest and greatest camera or lens, expecting a drastic change in their output, only to settle into the same routine with the same general level of quality. Buying a Ferrari does not make someone a professional driver; it makes them a normal driver with a Ferrari.

When we focus so exclusively on the tools of the trade rather than the trade itself, we are encouraging a mindset devoid of creative curiosity and of thinking outside the box and instead replacing it with a formulaic process that is a mere superficiality without the requisite innovation to accompany it. This goes beyond just fixating on equipment, though. Can we talk about how your dodge and burn technique was a little heavy-handed or how the color grading was a bit off? Absolutely, but even these aren’t components of creativity; rather, they are manifestations of said creativity. How often do we get to the core of an image, to its very essence that dictates our initial reaction to it in that instant before the rational mind kicks in and begins to analyze it? Often, we do see a brief glimpse of that in statements such as: “I really love this shot!”

But why? Why do you love that shot? Why is it compelling? What aspect of it resonated with your shared humanity? If you weren’t a photographer, how would you describe the draw of this image? We should tap into our non-photographer a bit more to find that visceral reaction. Being a photographer merely gives us the language to be more precise in describing that reaction and attributing aspects of it to its different manifestations.

MacGuffins

Hitchcock often spoke of the MacGuffin: “the thing that the characters on the screen worry about but the audience don’t care. [sic]” Gear and technique are the MacGuffins of photography. We, the photographers, are the characters on the screen. We concern ourselves with gear and technique and rightfully so; in our world, the world of photography, the analog of the on-screen world, it matters. But in the world off the screen, “the audience don’t care.” That’s the world we need to reside in a bit more if we want to see our images on a deeper level.

I would love to see critique communities in which posting any EXIF data or gear information was banned. As I’ve said, that’s not to say it’s not without its place, but too often, we use it as a replacement for articulating deeper properties of an image. Of course, the true master has a command of creativity, technique and equipment, but it seems we pay heed to a disproportionate amount of equipment and technique at times. If we want to grow creatively and develop strong, independent voices, we have to ask the right questions. Why is an image compelling? What elements dictate our gut reaction to it and why? What intangibles affect us the most?

​Process is important, of course. All the creativity in the world means nothing without the requisite technique and equipment to bring it to fruition. However, we often overestimate the need for equipment and devalue the need to investigate the creative process and mindset. There’s no shortage of information on gear out there; let’s start investigating the place from which the image itself emanates.