Reality or imagination

2010, Photography

Reality or imagination, for me that is the question. I haven’t been rambling for a while, but some things kind of really struck my in the perception and execution of photography, in particular with amateur photography. So please remember that this is just merely my own thinking.

Often you hear and read how important reality is to people. Photographers say the camera (or film) should give accurate, neutral and realistic colors. Photographs must be tack sharp, because the lens should get sharp photographs. Shallow depth of field is fully overrated, hate bokeh, and who needs it anyway to make good pictures?

For instance last night I read at a forum: “Only real pros go to such dark places and like to blur their backgrounds to hide the surroundings . Us mere mortals like to see clearly what’s in the pictures. I know it’s crass…”. Well believe me, I find such remarks crass. I really do. Maybe huge depth of field, tack sharp fore- and background, and neutral colors records an accurate photograph of a moment (or basically a snapshot in my opinion). But in my opinion also only that, a record. Like a witness.

I believe the essence of good photography is to leave enough space for imagination. Photography is already so close to reality, unlike painting or drawing. With painting and drawing you can leave behind anything that forms a distraction and only paint or draw that what is necessary so the viewer will be forced to imagine the story, the setting, the reason of the art piece. And the viewer is likely affected by their own perception as well. We all have our own interpretation of reality so does the viewer recognize the subject or scene? Do the colors match the colors we remember and can relate to (stoplight is red, grass is green, etc.)?

Especially amateur photographers have so much more freedom in photography than professionals. Only we, and not the clients, set the requirements for our photography. We have more freedom to experiment, to challenge our creativity. It is however something most don’t do or hardly try. And when they actually do it, they hardly understand that they are doing it. Many don´t use the `rules` (hate that word) as freely interpretable guidances. They seem to treasure it as the law. Technical limitations like gear or knowledge set the borders for their photography and when they want to push further many will likely buy them self new gear.

Imagery is like depicting on a subject and leaving room for interpretations. Basically a form of isolating. The more we add, the harder that becomes. When the subject matters to you, photograph only the subject. When the subject and surroundings matter to you, than add some of the surroundings, but only just some what is needed. When you want the viewer to trigger their imagination, only photograph a particular detail of the subject (a photograph of a woman´s leg will likely trigger your imagination how the woman might actually look like, a photograph of a beautiful woman less).

There are several compositional and technical methods to work on that. You can play with the height of the horizon. Where to place the subject in your composition. Black and white photography, Wider angle for open spaces and layers, or longer focal lengths for compressing the scene. Getting close or keeping distance. And shallow depth of field to isolate the subject. Try to study photographs from people you admire or work that inspires you. See how much is needed to tell a story, to create an interesting photograph.

All photographs by Wouter Brandsma

22 thoughts on “Reality or imagination

  1. On the social internet it’s easy to talk in extremes and generally people who make these hyperbolic remarks don’t have the images to back them up, they’re just being provocative.

    The other problem with the social internet is that it’s become a popularity contest: who gets the move views, comments, favs, etc. People mistake social popularity for good photography. Or, just because something it popular doesn’t mean it’s good. Likewise for the opposite: much great photography is overlooked by the sheeplike masses.

    Keep up the good thinking and shooting Wouter.

    1. I do absolutely recognize that pattern of behavior where people think they’d become great photographers, because of the comments and favs.

      One other problem I have with commentary is that many people actually don’t express their comments as a personal view: “Us mere mortals like to see clearly what’s in the pictures.” instead of “I think, in my opinion, or I believe that us mere mortals like to see clearly what’s in the pictures.” Both remains a stupid remark in my opinion, but the latter one is a more personal expression.

      But to be really honest, I think often people say such stupid things to justify their own photography and the expenses they have had.

    1. I’ve become more and more disinterested in Flickr. Less and less it seems to have good, creative, interesting, and unique (!) photography work. It’s has become all about the social. One reason why I created my own photography blog and spend 99% of my daily photography study through blogs and not Flickr. But, it’s hard to completely let go of Flickr because of the social aspect. No one else really has that. I have a few contacts I follow, but that’s about it.

    2. Personally I think there is nothing wrong with being proud for an achievement like making it to flickr explore. For many amateur photographers it will kind of feel like being published in a magazine I think. A sort of recognition for your photograph. But there is a trap for such success. Many will likely try to repeat that first feeling of success and will than try something similar. I believe it happens everywhere. A new Bon Jovi record will sound like a Bon Jovi record from the Nineties. It brought success and money, so why change the formula. Always doing the same will probably kill your creativity and desire for experimentations.

      1. The remarkable thing about flickr is the huge number of views that one can get. Generally, however, I find that there is little correlation between the pictures that I like the best and the ones that are the most popular on my flickr site. On the other hand, once in a while, some people point out things in their comments that I hadn’t realized about a particular picture.

        My book project has had almost 27,000 views on flickr, which I suppose must mean that perhaps some 5,000-10,000 people may have looked at it. Clearly that is not at all the same as selling 5,000 books, because looking at a real book is a very different experience from watching a flickr slideshow of some 100 pictures.


  2. I think a lot of “amateur” photographers (probably a majority) are just focussed on recording stuff, not on creativity. People don’t think about DOF, contrast, the beauty of black-and-white or intentional blur. Because they don’t care. Their only goal is to show exactly what they saw, not an interpretation. If the picture is sharp, it’s a good picture (just note how many “Great picture, very sharp”-comments you find on Flickr).

    Is that a bad thing? If they really enjoy what they are doing, probably not. Who are we to judge. The only problem is that a lot of those people refuse to be as perceptive about photographers who choose to do things differently.

    1. Here we’re getting into how people look at, or what they see as, art. My last year at college I took a course called design in the visual arts, which was very good. Some time after the final exam I had dinner with the professor who told me that he had given the same final exam for fifteen years in which there was only one question: he projected slides of two abstract paintings, one an obviously good painting and the other an obviously execrable one — one could see this right away without thinking — and asked which was the better painting and why.

      He said the depressing thing was that some 80-90 percent of the students each year chose the obviously bad painting. He felt this was because of two factors: one was that the ability to “see art” is hard-wired in us and teaching can only improve appreciation a bit, and the other was that the execrable painting contained many of the “elements” of painting that he had been teaching, such as red jutting forward and blue receding in a picture, and students could articulately write about what he had taught. So what the majority of what people consider “good” on flckr should not be a cause for surprise. But the viewership of flickr is so large that real appreciation from even a very small proportion of people can be significant.


    1. Thank you all for contributing to this interesting subject.

      I personally don’t mind that not everyone sees or expresses themselves more subjectively. Art is often emotion in my opinion, but many try to understand and see art rationally. And since so many people do photograph we try to recognize the technique, camera, lens, etc. instead of the photographer’s intentions and personal emotional perception.

      1. So maybe it’s more about the encounter of two different viewpoints, then? If 80% of the people watching photos focus on the technical side, the 20% that focuses on the photographer’s intentions and emotional perception will often feel a little isolated.

        There will be multiple reasons for the technical viewpoint, but most certainly it has to do with the investments made and probably also with the desire to find the “perfect” tool. Mankind wants to exceed itself, even in things like cameras. The more perfect, the better, and the more money you invested, the more you will be looking for similar-minded people to reconfirm your decision.

        Interestingly, nowadays even unperfect photography becomes big business, just think of Lomography and the Lensbaby: Here, people will pay a lot of money to achieve a certain “unperfect” look that became popular because of some creative people that started with it. Now, it’s all about emulation, instead of being creative on your own way.

        1. I think the investment forms a major part. All the money spent to secure your technical improvement is really tough to sell, in particular for amateur photographers. And of course the fear to realize that there is always someone so much better than you with the oldest and uncoolest camera.

  3. I like how you describe the process of capturing an image as a form of isolating. By isolating a subject you can be surprised by what is actually there: the special qualities you missed because of all the other things that were competing for attention. You’re reducing the elements to the essential, much the same process I like to apply when designing a building.

  4. I have been reading your blog for months (your comments on the GX200 in part led me to buy that camera – a decision I don’t regret), but this is the first time that I have felt moved to comment on a post.

    I have been mulling this post since the day it went up and returned to it several times.

    I wonder if part of the problem is that so much of the discussion on photography at the moment centres on the technical specifications and performance of specific cameras and lenses. Perhaps the discussion about MP, DR and noise has led to an expectation that better performance in each leads to a ‘truer’ representation of the subject.

    But then doesn’t that make photography a rather expensive form of photocopying? There is nothing wrong in photocopying per se, but it implies a lack of engagement with the subject – or perhaps that you have nothing special to say (again there is nothing wrong with that).

    However, if you wish to take photographs as a form of art the photographer needs to engage with his/her subject. In other words, why was this photograph taken? What is the focus? If imperfection leads to emphasis surely this is acceptable?

    And, BTW, a camera is a tool. It helps if you understand its limitations and feel comfortable using it. But the rest is up to you. That’s why I will keep the GX200, despite its acknowledged issues. It is comfortable in the hand.


    1. Thank you Andrew and I am glad you like your GX200. I think it is just that so many photographers just don’t see, feel, create, or appreciate art. They want to record and spent (waste) sometimes a lot of money on just recording. Many can understand technology and it’s pros and cons, but creativity, inspiration, and art making goes beyond easiness of photocopying.

  5. It could be argued that press photographers simply record events and yet, over the years, they have produced some of the most powerful and dramatic images that live in our memories. A prime example being the naked girl running down the road in Vietnam after a napalm attack.

    Is it art? I don’t know. I do know that the impact of that image was, and still is, immense.

    1. And why is it so powerful? It still made you think. There was vision, a personal view. It takes more to be a press photographer than just simply recording an event. You need to make an impact.

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