April 1

11 comments

Photographers: Don’t Reproduce a Subject, Abbreviate It

By Dan

April 1, 2013


While on vacation this past weekend, I popped into a little art gallery and treated myself to some wonderfully inspiring eye candy. Some of the paintings I saw were geared around rich, bold colors and simple subject matter, while others were focused more on shapes and textures. I really liked the set of really cool duotone ink drawings that were made up of large areas of either white or black. Very minimalist, yet you could still clearly see what the subject was supposed to be.

Perhaps my favorite was the collection of sketches that were made by one of the painters as she planned out the ideas for her paintings. Even though I can’t draw very well, there’s something that’s always fascinated me about sketches, because in my mind, it’s about the simplest art form there is. Pencil, paper, a few lines, scribbles, maybe some shading and you’re done.

Then I saw the photographs. All landscapes. And they all sucked.

Ok, maybe I’m being a little harsh here, which is why I won’t tell you the name of this gallery. I’ll just say that the photos I saw were all bland, boring and totally uninspiring in any way. Cluttered snapshots printed on big paper and framed to look stunning. Only they weren’t stunning, they were boring. Ho hum. Back to the paintings.

As a pro photographer, am I just too jaded to appreciate these kinds of art photos? No, I’ve thought about this kind of thing a lot, and that’s not it. Here’s what it is:

You see, artists “get it.” Art is not about reproducing your subject, it’s about representing your subject. Abbreviating and showing a small part of the world in your own creative way. They’re forced to get it, because the simple fact is that painting and drawing will never look exactly like real life. Artists don’t set out to create real life, they strive to create visual representations of real life, while imparting a specific and unique flavor to their work.

As photographers, we’re not forced to “get it.” We can take our cameras and capture real life and show everything in our frames down to the last detail, which is what many beginning and struggling photographers tend to do.

However, that doesn’t cut it. As viewers, we just don’t care. We see real life every single day and so just seeing it all again just doesn’t excite us. What excites us is seeing part of it it in a way that we hadn’t thought of before; seeing it in a way that accentuates specific details that we might not have noticed as we sped through life.

Or the way that two subjects interact and relate with each other. Or the way light plays off of a certain subject at a certain time of day that only certain people ever get to see. Or a fleeting expression that communicates emotion. Or part of a subject that makes our brains imagine the rest. This a big one and one that I stress to my students all the time: Any time you can invoke the viewer’s imagination, you’ve gone a long way towards creating a successful image.

Want to be a better photographer? Go look at some art. Spend some time checking out some paintings and drawings and pay attention to how little the good ones actually show and HOW they show it. Better yet, pick up a pencil and try to draw something using as few strokes as possible, just to get a feel for how abbreviating a subject will engage your mind to fill in the rest. This helps you see more creatively.

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About the author

Hi, I'm Dan Bailey, a 20+ year pro outdoor and adventure photographer, and official FUJIFILM X-Photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.


As a top rated blogger and author my goal is to help you become a better, more confident and competent photographer, so that you can have as much fun and creative enjoyment as I do.

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  • Excellent post and excellent advice, Dan. I think it’s SO easy to fall into the cliche of doing the same old landscape styles with the same old comp, so much so that beautiful spots begin to look generic. The moment your photography becomes formulaic, you are no longer an artist (and likely not a very good photographer).

  • Dan, thanks for reminder. I`ve always been impressed with artists who can put very little detail of the subject matter, yet the viewer has no trouble identifying the subject. One of the ones that comes to mind is a landscape with cattle on it in Nevada. When I first looked at a distance I immediately knew they were cows. But upon going closer, they were just little blobs so to speak with very little detail. I guess my mind filled in the details and I was satisfied.
    Thanks, Bob

  • This is some outstanding advice here, Dan! I especially liked ” Artists don’t set out to create real life, they strive to create visual representations of real life, while imparting a specific and unique flavor to their work.” – well said!

  • So very true Dan. There are a lot of images out there in the landscape photography world that look extremely similar. Far too often photographers set out to emulate the work of someone else instead of taking the time to discover the world through their own eyes. There are images waiting to be found everywhere, it just takes time to find them.

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