Monthly Archives: March 2015

Overthinking and Other Dangers in Photography

Tangled Tableau Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Tangled Tableau
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Some degree of self-awareness is a good thing in photography.  By this, I mean an awareness of who you are as a photographer, what it is you want to photograph, and why you pursue photography.  Taking some time to reflect on these points is a good thing, and revisiting them from time to time can help keep you focused and grounded as you pursue this discipline.

Unfortunately, photography is an area that seems to lend itself to overthinking.  Perhaps this extends from the technical nature of the subject, which certainly encourages research and study when one is looking to improve their technique.  Or it may be the manner in which photography fits into the larger world of fine art, where the traditions of art history and art philosophy provide a deep pool of study upon which to draw.

Whatever the cause, it seems to me that overthinking can be a dangerous and destructive tendency if not kept in check.

Overthinking can take many forms.  It can be an obsessive compulsion to learn and follow “rules” of composition, camera operation, printing, and the like.  It can be slavishly following and imitating the work of others, be they old masters or contemporary social media stars.  It can be adopting inflexible philosophical or procedural approaches, such as rigidly using specific alternative processes or producing only photographs that have methaphorical or other kinds of secondary meanings.

The end result when photographers succumb to overthinking – and I believe I have seen more than a few photographers affected by this – is that their work becomes stilted and straight-jacketed.  It’s not enough to produce a good image anymore, rather, all images must adhere to whatever mental agenda they carry around in their minds as a result of their overthinking.  Their work begins to suffer because of artificial obstacles they create for themselves – this image can’t be good because it is composed incorrectly, that image can’t be good because it’s not enough like the work of an admired photographer, another image can’t be good because it fails to carry a metaphorical message, and so forth. In the end, the photographs they produce indeed may meet all the compositional rules, or have all the elements of a sought-after style, or may communicate a metaphorical meaning, but they often lose the dynamism and vitality of simple and strong visual communication, which is hard enough to achieve as it is.

The simpler – and I daresay better – approach is to practice photography with a degree of spontaneity and open-mindedness.  There comes a point where it can be beneficial to throw caution to the wind, engage the process with feeling more than intellect, and proceed by doing rather than rationalizing.  It avoids the perils of overthinking, and is a lot more fun, too.

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Concept and Metaphor

Roadcut Near Thompson Springs, Utah, 2014

Road Cut
Near Thompson Springs, Utah, 2014

Here is a classic image of a road fading away to a point in the distance.  I say classic because it’s well-worn subject matter.  This particular road is one near Thompson Springs, Utah, but this kind of composition is an oft-repeated motif in the repertoire of many landscape photographers.

What is it about a road fading into the distance that’s so appealing?  I suspect there’s a strong aspect of concept and metaphor.  Roads are a simulacrum for journeys made, both physical and spiritual.  Depending on your philosophical bent, you can see it as moving forward into the future or looking backward into the past.  The open road can stand for many things, to be filled in by the mind of the viewer.

In contemporary photography, I think there’s a real emphasis on making photographs as concept or metaphor, at least in fine art circles.  Under this approach, the value of a fine art photograph is not the photograph itself, but rather a concept or metaphor that the photograph embodies.  The goal is not to make the viewer react to the photograph itself so much as to an idea that the photograph represents.  The photograph is not of a thing, but rather is conceptual or metaphorical for something else.  This is why (at least in my opinion) so much contemporary fine art photography is not particularly beautiful to look at.  Aesthetics takes a back seat to concept and metaphor in the hierarchy of artistic validation.

I’m not a particularly conceptual or metaphorical photographer.  What drew my eye to this scene was the way the road cut created a perfect little division through the line of hills in the distance.  To me, photography is an opportunity to play a visual game, arranging compositional elements until they fit together in a way that is just right, and the road cut in this image is the linchpin that holds the composition together.  The image is about a particular place at a particular moment, and I think there’s real value to photographs that approach the discipline of fine art from this perspective.  While concept and metaphor are not lost on me, and I enjoy a philosophical contemplation of these topics as much as the next person, they tend to be incidental byproducts of why I practice photography, not the principal focus of it.

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The Bar

Tree Line, Fence Line. Summit County, Colorado, 2015.

Tree Line, Fence Line
Summit County, Colorado, 2015

As an independent photographer, I’m responsible for curating my own images.  That is to say, of the many photographs I shoot, I’m responsible for selecting which ones to work on and, ultimately, which ones to send out into the world.

How do I make those choices?  It’s one part subjectivity and one part objectivity.

On the subjective side, I edit myself pretty ruthlessly.  In the field, I’m pretty selective about what I point my camera at.  If something catches my eye, I’ll study it out for awhile, maybe move around a bit and study it from different angles.  I don’t pull my camera out of my bag unless I think the composition is really interesting or compelling.  And once I’m set up and viewing the subject through the viewfinder, I don’t hesitate to pull the plug and abandon the shot if things aren’t coming together like I thought they would.

The ruthless editing continues after I’ve downloaded the images to my computer.  Naturally, I’m choosy about which ones to work on.  But even after work has started, again, I don’t hesitate to pull the plug if the image isn’t coming together, even if I’ve spent a long time on it.

In short, I have a subjective opinion, personal to me, about what it takes for an image to be good.  If the image isn’t living up to my own (hopefully) high standards, I toss it.  As I believe a well-known photographer once said (I forget who), a photographer’s most important piece of equipment is a large trash can.

When I finish working on an image, however, I switch gears and try to apply an objective standard before I send it out into the world.  The objective standard works differently, and is intended to go a bit easier on myself.  Basically, I ask myself if I think the image meets a basic level of quality such that it is comparable to the work being done by other photographers whose work I admire.  The question is not whether I like the image personally, but rather simply if it lives up to the quality standard being set by the photographers I look up to.  It’s designed to have enough flexibility to recognize that not every image I produce will necessarily be the best image I’ve ever done (I think that standard is unrealistic and unattainable for anyone), but to allow images that meet a basic level of quality (again, hopefully pretty high) to make it out into the world.

That’s the bar I set for myself.  By adhering to it, I honestly can say that I’m pretty happy with the work I produce and feel good about all the images I share.

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Longs Peak, Advancing Clouds and Shadows Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Longs Peak, Advancing Clouds and Shadows
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Sometimes I feel like being a photographer is like leaving footprints in snow.

Most of my work ends up on my website or shared via social media.  Sometimes it is exhibited in galleries, and occasionally it gets published.

Who are the people who see it?  Are they young or old, men or women, inspired or dissatisfied?  Did they see it because they came looking for art, or did they see it by random chance?  Did they give it a quick glance and move on, or did they pause to let it sink in for a moment?  Did they remember it later, or did the impression fade away like snow on warm day?

Mostly I photograph for myself and my own reasons, and I don’t generally let the opinions of others sway the how or why of my doing it.  But I can’t help sometimes wondering about what kind of connection my work makes with others, if any – I think that’s only natural for anyone who chooses to put their work in front of an audience.

When I see footprints in snow, I sometimes wonder about the person who made them.  I wonder if that person also wonders about who might see the tracks they’ve made.

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Sentinel Trees. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014.

Sentinel Trees
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

– Albert Einstein


This is one of my favorite quotes about photography, along with “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are” (Minor White) and “Anything more than 500 yards from the car just isn’t photogenic” (either Brett or Edward Weston, depending on who you ask).  Okay, the Einstein quote probably wasn’t about photography specifically, but I find it highly applicable to this discipline.

In previous posts, I talked a bit about my takes on Formalism and Minimalism.  Simplicity, to me, is a broader, more ambiguous concept.  The best description I’ve been able to come up with is that it is the absence of unnecessary complexity.  In this sense, works that are formal or minimal probably would be considered simple, but not necessarily vice versa.  The image in this post, for example, has formal elements, but to me the overall arrangement of the elements is just a little too imprecise for it to be truly formal.  Similarly, the image has an element of minimalism, but there’s just a little too much detail in the background for me to call it truly minimal.  On the other hand, to say that the image embodies simplicity sounds about right to me.  It’s about striking just the right balance between too much and too little – being made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

There’s many ways to achieve simplicity in a photograph.  Here, the very foggy conditions I encountered one day last summer on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park did much of the work for me at the point of capture.  I built on that by adding, with judicious application, white gradients around the edges of the frame.  To me, this heightened the effect of the fog and created the illusion of added sharpness and contrast in the trees, the illusion resulting from the juxtaposition of the trees (which were not covered by the gradient) against the soft and high-key background (which was subject to the gradient).  The white gradients at the frame edges also serve to reinforce direction of the viewer’s attention to the trees centering the composition, kind of a nifty flip of the old photographer’s trick of darkening the edges of the frame.

Simplicity is a virtue.  While I appreciate and try my hand at more specialized approaches to photography, such as formalism and minimalism, simplicity still is the benchmark I keep in mind as the basis that underlies my fundamental approach to making images.

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