A Philosophy of Photography
April 3, 2021 · A 17 minute read.
I’m somewhat frequently asked by less experienced photographers how they can grow in said craft. I have another whole post forthcoming that outlines a variety of exercises one can do toward that end, but before that post comes, we need to discuss what is actually meant by “better.”
I don’t mean to go full Bahnsen (never go full Bahnsen), but when people ask me how they can get better as a photographer, I’m almost always inclined to reply “BY WHAT STANDARD?” I apologize for the all-capital letters. Whenever I see all-capital letters, I read the text thus set in a shouting Cookie Monster voice, which is how I intended you to read that question in quotes. If you didn’t read it like that, please do so, and then we can move along to what I mean by it.
Different kinds of photographers have different goals for their pictures, sometimes vastly different goals. Journalists often wish to capture precisely what was happening at a fixed point in time; their goal is the transfer of a great deal of highly accurate information. Product photographers want to make a product look as appealing as possible; they wish to make people want to purchase whatever they’re photographing. I’m sure you can imagine that these goals can be, and often are, at odds with each other. Photojournalists tend to make poor product photographers (at least initially) because their photos highlight the flaws of a product just as much as they do the, ahem, highlights. Likewise, a product photographer trying to photograph a particularly ugly car accident in exacting detail for the local news would have a hard time with it.
But most people who ask me this question are not professional photographers. They’re moms, dads, uncles, aunts, people who like to travel, people who like to take photos of their friends, and occasionally they’re wedding photographers or portrait photographers. What these all share in common is that they generally are not trying to photograph products or news stories. They’re trying to photograph memories. This is a pretty different skillset from the above two. Of course, you often want to capture the best of whatever it is your photographing—so it they share something in common with product photographers. And they are often trying to capture something that happened. They want to get the timing right and fire the shutter just as their nephew is blowing out the candles. In this regard, they share something in common with photojournalists. But they are different from both of these, because memories are funny things.
Memories are not simply facts. They are facts, to be sure, but they are also the way we felt about those facts—at least they often are. If a photojournalist used his professional skillset to photograph your nephew’s birthday party, you would be able to count how many root beers Uncle Phil had, and you’d know how many candles Timmy blew out with each breath. Heck, if he’s good at what he does, you might even know how many spit particles landed on the cake. But it’s very likely that most of these photos would not fill you with the same kind of excitement that you had when the gift you labored long and hard on Amazon to pick out was opened.
Sadly, though, many aspiring photographers fall into the trap of shooting like a product photographer, or shooting like a photojournalist. In this post, we’ll talk about each of these problems, then we’ll discuss the correct way to think about and achieve memories-as-photographs.
Timmy’s Party as the Product
How would a product photographer shoot a seven-year-old’s birthday party? I’ve only got limited experience in this field, but I’ll attempt to answer this. First he would find some great light, or he might have brought it with him. He’d then take each gift, in its wrapped state, and photograph it from a flattering angel—making sure the rectilinear solid boxes look as rectilinear and solid as they can. Of course, he’d turn them so that the as few seams in the wrapping paper show as possible, maybe even adjusting the wrapping when he can’t find a good angle. He would do something similar for a cake, but the cakes would get different lighting because the lighting he had for the packages was too blue, and food looks honestly quite nauseating under the wrong color light.
He’d find Timmy, the birthday boy, and take him to some great light, too. He’d photograph him smiling. He’d do this for each of the parents and, if time permits, for each of the guests. Then of course there are the group shots, and we need to get aunt Phylis on some kind of crate to stand on because she’s only four-and-an-half feet tall, and she only comes up to uncle Allen’s navel.
When it comes time for in-party photographs, if he had his way, he’d have a some sort of fan or large-lunged adult out of frame and ready to blow on the cake at the same time as Timmy. That way all the candles would go out at once and everyone would have the best impression possible of little Timmy’s respiratory system. Needless to say, during the opening of presents, the messy wrapping paper all over the floor would send him into convulsions and he would leave in an ambulance foaming at the mouth shouting unintelligible things about staging and gestalt.
Alright, obviously it wouldn’t go precisely like this. Most humans have the capacity to read a situation and adapt to at lest some degree. But the point here is that the correct way to capture memories is not to simply make everything look as good, as idealized as possible. Sometimes the flaws are what make the memory good. When Timmy finished blowing out the candles and dove into the as-yet unsliced cake with both hands—utensil free, like a bear—that’s not a moment to stay your shutter button and wait for things to get back to some semblance of sanity. That’s the moment to fire as quickly as possible. We’ll all laugh at these photos later when you post them on social media, and they’ll be valuable later, if he ever tries to date a girl who wants to become a mime for a living.
Someone with a product photography mindset needs to understand that life isn’t perfect. He needs to think less in terms of hiding flaws, and less in terms of highlighting the best things (although there is some elements of this to a good photograph). He needs to think in terms of how he’d (or those who will receive the photographs) would like to remember the event. What things will they remember fondly and how can he capture those things in a way that will facilitate reliving that memory in a pleasant way?
Timmy’s Party as the News Story
At the risk of stretching this metaphor so hard I wear out the elastic and have to buy a new one, I’d like to take the same approach to the errors of the photojournalist that I did with the product photographer. How would a photojournalist capture little Timmy’s birthday.
There are actually two fundamental errors here: capturing the wrong kinds of photos, and capturing the right kinds of photos wrongly. These are important to distinguish because an inexperienced photographer of memories can easily look at his own work and determine “I shouldn’t have taken this shot,” when really he should have taken that shot—just somewhat differently.
Capturing the Wrong Things
This is similar to the product photographer, and I mentioned it in passing above. This is when we have managed to chronicle every single little thing that happens at the party, no matter how forgettable it was. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for taking a lot of pictures and getting rid of the ones that weren’t worth taking. I probably take something on the order of ten times more pictures than I actually end up keeping, publishing to social media, and/or giving to my client.
The limit on how many photographs you can take during a two-hour birthday party is practically non-existent, given enough batteries and a big enough storage card. But the limit on how many photographs you can take at once is exactly one (unless you dual-wield, but this works poorly and results in poorly composed, blurry photos; trust me). If you’re photographing Timmy’s dad giving some kind of speech thanking everyone for coming, you can’t be photographing little Timmy making it look like he’s pulled a Twizzler's out of his nose. Likewise, if you incessantly document Timmy’s movements, no matter how boring, you’ll miss his parents playfully throwing balloons at each other while Timmy pokes some dirt with a stick. In each case, one of these is a memory worth preserving and the other is less so.
You need to try to develop an ability to have at least an ambient awareness of as much of what’s going on at a given event as possible. Obviously you will miss things. We’re not omnipresent or omniscient. But you can, for example, follow the laughter. You can realize that if a three-legged race and a card game are going on simultaneously, one of these presents itself with a lot more potential for funny memories than the other. You can even ask questions about what sorts of activities will be happening and when in advance (this is obviously quite crucial for wedding photographers). Just being aware of this distinction when nothing is happening and asking yourself if you can see anything happening in your peripheral vision or hear anyone laughing and shouting “how did you get that on your head to begin with?” That’s usually a clear winner.
Photojournalists have an expression: “ƒ/8 and be there.” This refers to the kind of lens and lens-configuration they want to use, as well as to the importance that they be, well, present. Photojournalists typically use a fairly wide angle lens, something like the 28mm lens in everyone’s iPhone (although I believe they most often use a 35mm, which is not that much more zoomed in). They do this because they want to capture everything. It’s important to them. They don’t want to think long and hard about composition. When the mayor’s shitzu makes use of the governor’s shoe as an improvised fire hydrant, they just want to throw the camera in front of their face so fast they get a black eye, slam the shutter button, and know they got the shot. They can potentially crop it a bit later.
Honestly, they don’t even want to have to worry about focus. That’s what the “ƒ/8” part of the expression refers to. They set their lens up in such a way that virtually everything is in focus. It really would be a shame if the photo of the aforementioned canine faux pa were unusable because it was too blurry. Or maybe it wouldn’t, actually. But you can imagine other cases with fewer bodily functions being photographed where it would be a shame.
You might be thinking, “What’s wrong with this method for capturing memories? It seems great! You have a much higher probability of capturing memories this way.” And you’re right in one sense, but this is where what I said about memories being funny comes in. Our brain does something odd with memories. Actually, it does a lot of odd things with them. But the thing it does that’s related to our current topic is that it forgets pretty much everything. Think about it. You’ve probably spent dozens of hours even just at your own birthday parties. What do you remember about them? Probably mostly strongly positive or strongly negative things. Could you list all the gifts you’ve ever got? Probably not. Probably you could only list the top three or four best, and maybe the worst as well.
You might remember the first time your parents gave you those trick candles, the ones that relight themselves right after you blow them out. But do you remember what kind of ice cream you had with your cake that year? What color shirt were you wearing? Who all was there at the party? Do you even remember how old you were? Quick! What’s your name?
Alright, you get the idea. One of the main things that makes our best memories so good is that we forgot pretty much everything else going on at the time. If we remembered everything, it would be hard to sift through the mundane memories to get to the good ones. You remember the best gift ever you got because you forgot all the countless pairs of socks you’ve received (unless you really like socks).
Photographs need to work the same way as memories in order to be truly excellent. But often they contain a lot more detail than we can recall. Because still photos are frozen moments, elements that didn’t distract us in the moment (like that large purple minivan that drove by) can be incredibly distracting in print. It is the job of the photographer to remove or diminish these distractions so that the photo tells the story the way everyone remembers it. If you didn’t notice the power lines when you took in that sunrise, your photograph should do its best to minimize them as well. This can be done through changing your composition, adjusting your angle, shifting the lens’ focus, tweaking exposure, and even using the clone brush in Photoshop. The goal is not to provide an accurate visual representation. The goal isn’t to capture as much in the photo as you can. The goal to tell a good story.
Timmy’s Birthday as a Story
I’ll be totally honest with you, when people who call themselves “creators” talk about the importance of “storytelling,” I want to gag a little. Maybe it’s just me. I feel, though, that the word is used a little too much and has become something of a buzz-word. But there is some truth to it. Telling a story means communicating that a series of events, typically involving one or more people, has occurred. This can be done by showing what’s about to happen, what’s currently happening in the shot, or by showing the results of something that has happened.
Honestly, this is a great way to think about photography. You’re not simply communicating a boring fact: “Gifts were at the party.” Truth be told, you’re not even communicating the story, “Timmy opened this gift, then this gift, then that one over there.” That’s a boring story. That’s like telling a story about a guy who once made a sandwich. That’s the story. He just made a sandwich. Alright, it was ham and cheese. Would you read a novella about a man who made a sandwich? Maybe, if you really like sandwiches, I guess.
The key here is using storytelling to tell the story of a memory that we want to remember fondly. When we tell a story, we don’t simply list events. We unfold the story in a way that makes it as interesting as possible. We do this in two ways, breaking the photo and pointing to stuff.
Breaking the Photograph
The simple fact is that there are always distracting elements in the scene you are trying to photograph. And you can’t just zoom in or get close enough to where all you can see is the subject. There needs to be enough context for people to see what’s going on. One of photography’s answers to this is basically to lie about the image and pretend the distracting element wasn’t there, or wasn’t as distracting as it was.
Some of the methods we do include adjusting our composition. This might mean shooting from above, or beneath. It might mean moving to the side, or to the uh… other side. It might mean zooming in and backing up (this results in a sort of tunnel vision that crops background out of the shot), or perhaps moving closer and zooming out (this results in more background being shown, but in each thing in the background being smaller). It might mean opening your aperture wide up so that everything in front of or behind your subject is just pretty balls of bokeh. It might mean putting something between you and the subject (the foreground) to hide something distracting in the background. Or it might mean politely asking people to move so that they’re not in the shot.
And if you can’t quite get the shot quite correct in the moment, there’s always the darkroom (or Lightroom). Here you can reduce just how orange Timmy’s cousin Caleb’s shirt is. [Stu Maschwitz] has said that he likes to make sure everything in his photos is either dull teal, or skin-colored (for people). It sounds extreme, and maybe it is for some shots, but it really does draw your eye to the people in the shot. You can also obviously crop your image. You can add a bit of vignette so that the brightest thing in your image is the subject. With iPhones an Portrait mode, the app [Focos] lets you adjust the depth of field in your shot after you took the photo, sometimes getting stunning results.
I know I’m leaving things out, but the idea here is to break the image. If you just took the photo, you would have a perfect image of exactly what you saw. You’re trying to destroy data. You’re trying to blur things, fade things, push them out of the shot, change their color, whatever you have to do to make sure nothing outshines the subject of your image. As an aside, this is one reason why, for the kinds of photos we’re trying to achieve, the megapixel and sharpness wars frequently fought by bloggers and Youtubers just are not that important.
Pointing to Stuff
The other method is using the things in your photograph that are not your subject to highlight your subject. We don’t want to be such minimalists that our subject is only ever standing against a black or white wall (although you can do that for some things). We need to use our environment to help tell the story, and ultimately to help people realize what’s happening in the story.
Perhaps there’s a spot in the room where the sun is peaking through the curtains. Can you put your subject in such a place so that the sunlight is cast across their face? Perhaps you can move to a different angle, so that the telephone lines that were ruining your sunset shot can actually be used to guide the eye to the setting sun.
Elements besides your subject can be used to draw the viewer’s eye to the subject, or to inform the viewer of some context about the subject. Your subject might be Timmy, but his sister looming in the background with a water balloon causes the viewer to perceive the story differently.
A lot of people struggle with their landscape photographs not being nearly as majestic as the scene felt in real life. I believe this is often because the photo is merely of the canyon, lake, sunset (or what have you) they were looking at, and that the photo doesn’t contain enough context to make the viewer see just how large the scene was. Having a small person in the photo can help with this, so can raising your camera up, so that the ground in the foreground of the photo takes up more of the shot. Ansel Adams used to keep a tripod in his trunk that he could put on top of his car to take landscape photos if something struck his fancy while he was driving, and I think they was at least part of the reason for that.
In any case, the summary of the idea here is not just to hide or diminish elements in your photo, but to use them to guide your viewer’s eye, or to inform them of some context. You only need to hide or diminish an element if it’s going to distract from the subject and the story being told.
One other thing worth noting, though, is that something about what makes a thing beautiful is a complexity and diversity that serves some purpose. While a single violinist can play something quite beautiful, an entire orchestra can be beautiful in a way that one instrument cannot. Further, an orchestra where instruments play different parts and harmonies is much more beautiful than one where each instrument plays the same notes in its own respective octave. All of this is to say, you can achieve a kind of unique beauty with a wide diversity of elements in your photo, all serving to tell the story and point to the subject. This is a kind of beauty that minimalistic definitionally photography cannot achieve.
But bear in mind that it is harder to conduct a full orchestra than to coordinate one or two violinists. If you’re new to photography, it can be easier to keep things simple. Artists should generally understand their limitations and shoot at a level of complexity that produces good results—at least for production work. There’s a lot of room for experimentation and stretching yourself; in fact, I insist on it. But stretching yourself when Timmy is blowing out the candles, or while the bride and groom are kissing after their vows at a wedding you’re getting paid to shot—that’s really not the time to try to orchestrate three times more elements in the photo than you’ve ever tried to orchestrate at once. Know your limits and stretch yourself when the consequences of messing up are acceptable.
The end of the matter is this: understand the purpose of your photographs and learn the various elements (both artistic and practical) of photography. Develop a copiousness with the language of photography, and always be thinking about what your story is and how you can use these elements to tell it. Think about the memory you want to preserve, and what the best way to do that is.
If you do your job well, you and your viewers will look back on your photos and remember the blessings that God has given them. This will afford them an opportunity to [be thankful] in a way they otherwise might not have had. This, I believe, is the highest purpose a photograph can achieve.