The advent of digital photography has brought with it an abundance of creative tools to correct and enhance the photographs we make. Once the infatuation with the camera wears off, inevitably the photographer will start to look at their work and ask, “Is this the best I can do?”
Our evaluation of our work is influenced by how we compare it to the flood of graphics we see every day in all types of media. The internet has democratized photographic standards and taken much of the influential power away from magazine editors, placing it more into the hands of the viewers and fans of Flickr or other social media sites. Some photographers have become the rock stars of our medium due to the outstanding examples of their work that they have published on web.
It is the weight of these kinds of influential images that cause us to look at our work with a disappointment that can verge on despair. “How can I get my images to look that good?” is the question that rings out and our quest begins…
Usually the first purchase after a digital camera is computer software of some kind. Software is needed in order to view our digital images and, just perhaps, improve them a little bit. Basic adjustments of exposure, white balance and contrast begin to improve our work. Then we learn that there are ways to give our images more latitude for exposure error or additional enhancement and so we begin to photograph in RAW format and experiment with levels and curves.
HDR may next capture our imagination. This may push us into territory that calls for more than basic adjustments. Perhaps we discover that someone whose work we admire is processed in Photoshop using layers, brushes and actions. Perhaps we begin to look at fine art paintings and discover the magical qualities of converting our work into watercolours or oil paintings using products like Painter.
We end up looking for the next processing action that will give us images that we can favourably compare to all the other images that are published on the internet by the millions each and every day! We have the capability of taking mediocre images and through incredible imaginative usage of software, turn them all into unique work of which we can sit back and be proud.
My point is, once bitten by this particular kind of photography bug, we end up stumbling around the internet looking for some kind of affirmation of our value as a photographer, and hence in our minds, worthwhile persons. It is just like high school all over again: the coolest kids have the most followers on flicker or twitter and publish the best images processed with the most exotic workflows.
For one brief moment, let us stop this mad carousel and ask ourselves the key question: “Why do I make photographs?”
If the scenario I have painted above sounds familiar to your experience, you may be a victim of over processing your photographs. By this I do not mean (necessarily) over processing using software (though this can be a symptom). I mean that we are placing too much of an emphasis on the process of getting our photographs socially accepted by others. The manipulation of images and the subsequent praise we receive can be like a drug. Once the adulations wear off and the crowds leave our website for another one we begin the entire process again in order to get the notice of the world.
This can be a lonely, empty road because it ultimately gives others the power to determine our worth.
Every carefully composed image we make, no matter how simple or unspectacular, is an expression of our experience at the moment of its capture. It is, by definition, unique and incomparable to any other image that exists. In this simplicity lies the true purpose of photography in our lives. This understanding can free us of having to please anyone with our images. Instead, we can allow them to become an expression, not so much of who we are as what we experienced in the universe at that particular moment. A person who views our images will have the privilege of enjoying their own unique experience at the moment of its viewing. Their experience as viewer will be different than ours as photographer, yet somehow linked to that same moment in time.
Software now becomes a craftsman’s tool to refine our vision and give it clearer expression. Indeed, often we do not even understand what it is that we experienced when making an image and must learn that by looking at it during the processing phase of our work. It is in this phase that we interpret our own vision using the tools at hand. This is the process that artists have used for thousands of years in all media. All of the great masters of photography were able to accomplish this goal using tools that were far more simple and primitive than currently available to us today.
Ultimately, our photography is a process of self discovery. It is a journey that we agree to make with ourself. It is a simple process. If we seek to draw in the approval of others, we end up over-processing our work and losing its meaning for us. Yes, we may become wealthy and popular because of all the attention our photographs can garner, but I think it would be better if that were a side benefit of the process we undertake.
Have you ever fallen victim to the trap of public approval with your photography?