The magic of the ‘plain and ordinary’ photograph

20 Jan

When I was learning to sing, my voice coach, Harry Martin, would often say to me: “plain and ordinary Sabrina, that’s what we want.” I thought he was crazy. I didn’t want to have a plain and ordinary voice, I wanted an awesome, stellar voice! I wanted to show Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston a thing or two. It took many years for me to understand Harry’s wisdom. The greatness of singers like Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston is that their voices originate from a place inside them, which for them, feels plain and ordinary. When Harry enjoined me to use my ‘plain and ordinary’ voice, he was really getting me to use my authentic voice, the one that can carry conviction, passion, love, and all the honest emotions to which we as listeners respond.

PMA 2010 Conference Participant leaving the Anaheim Convention Center

PMA 2010 Conference Participant [1]
Evening, Anaheim Convention Center

Photographers are like singers.  Instead of a song, we offer our audiences a photograph, and that photograph has the power to evoke an emotional response in the viewer with just as much force as a song can touch the heart of a listener. If you can do that with your photographs, then you are a great photographer.

A memorable moment in photography is exactly what a photographer wants to offer, and exactly what a viewer wants to experience.  But it doesn’t happen very often.  Why is that?

Like my own misguided ideas of glamour and greatness, many photographers undervalue the importance of the ‘plain and ordinary.’

They reach for greatness with technical brilliance and an armory of editing tools. They tinker with their photograph until it looks like a magazine photo in all its vacant perfection. They strain all bounds of credibility with contrast and colourisation. They airbrush out the ‘flaws’ that actually provided the character. They crop their image until the surrounds are unrecognisable. At the end, what they are left with is a photo that is all that they think the photo should be, with little left of who they are to shine through.

Online, photographers undermine the moment of one photo by throwing another one at their viewers without time for reflection. They mistake quantity for quality.

Despite the many ways available to us to annotate our photos, we often fail to offer any information to allow the viewer to understand the photograph, such as where it was taken and when, and why it is special. This issue is contentious, I know. Many photographers feel their photo should tell a story without needing their viewers’ eyes to stray beyond the boundaries of the picture frame. Unfortunately, in a global society where we are increasingly communicating with each other using images, there is a lot of redundancy and uncertainty about the meaning in the images we view. We need to use our words too.

Our most important audience

Importantly, we often forget the reflexivity of our craft. Who is it that will view our photographs more than any other person? It is us.


Karen relaxing at Mollymook park
2010, NSW, Australia

For every time someone else looks at our photographs, we look at them many times. Photographs key us in to our memories, and they become ever more important as time goes on. When victims of major disasters are interviewed, what is one of the first non-living things they mourn? Their photographs.

Photos allow us to bring back the feeling of precious times, homes, adventures, people and creatures that the years have lost to us or changed.

Each time we manipulate our photos, we introduce a tiny separation in which the photographic evidence of our lives is slightly less real than our actual life.

Do you want the story of your life told in ‘plain and ordinary’ photographs that recall how it actually unfolded, or do you want a lot of glamourous images that conflict with your memories?

There is another reason why we should think before tinkering with our photos.  According to Dr Ira Hyman, Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University, “our photographs can actually change and modify our memories over time.”  He makes a telling point in asking “How many of your childhood memories resemble the pictures that your parents took? Is it your memory or their picture?”[2]  If our memories are swayed by our photographs, the stakes are much higher. When we alter our photos, we also alter our memories.

Imperial Hairstreak Butterfly Deua National Forest, NSW

Imperial Hairstreak Butterfly  [3]
Deua National Forest, NSW, Australia

The magic of a photograph is not in the illusory image you created that other people will view and say “ooh, how beautiful!” but rather a missive of meaning that you and other people will view and say, “wow, I get you now. I can see what you mean.”

Isn’t it already magical that our photographs can instantly communicate ideas and emotions in ourselves and others, that they can chronicle our world in a way the painters of the Lascaux Cave could only dream about, and that they can trigger our memories to resurface and fill our hearts and heads with the emotions of days long gone?

So the next time you are tempted to ‘improve’ your photograph through the heavy application of software filters and brushes, consider whether instead you can trust in yourself and your own authenticity, your ‘plain and ordinary’ self.

Your own personal greatness is quite enough for you to take and share photos that speak truly and eloquently of our amazing world and your valuable place in it. In fact, it is the only thing that can.


All photographs by Sabrina Caldwell. They have not been manipulated in any way other than to be resized for web use.
[1] PMA stands for The Worldwide Community of Imaging Associations (previously Photo Marketing Association)
[2] Photographs and Memories by Ira Hyman, PhD,, Accessed January 2014
[3] Queensland Museum, Common Imperial Blue Butterfly or Imperial Hairstreak Butterfly, <em>Jalmenus evagoras, Accessed January 2014



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12 responses to “The magic of the ‘plain and ordinary’ photograph

  1. Barbara Bleecker

    January 20, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    Hi Sabrina, Just want you to know that your blogs are informative and compelling while offering us reasons to view ourselves and our world through more honest eyes. As you point out, who doesn’t wonder if that image we carry in our head was a real moment in time or the viewed photo that keeps the memory going. Turning the pages of our life in an album, it’s nice to think a moment was authentically captured.

    Goodonya, MOM

    Sent from Barbara’s iPad

    • sabrinacaldwell

      January 20, 2014 at 5:15 pm

      Hi Mom, Thanks for your thoughts! I’m glad you appreciate my perspectives on photography. As time goes on, I think more and more people will come to treasure the images that truly capture the times of our lives more than the slick photos that have been jazzed up (for whose benefit?). It reminds me of Harry’s comments about singers who turn into an 8 x 10 glossy of themselves; it’s dangerously easy to lose the authentic voice. Love, Sabrina

  2. theshutterjournal

    January 22, 2014 at 9:40 am

    Well written and I have to agree. The best photo is the one that captures the moment and can tell the real story as you see it.

    • sabrinacaldwell

      January 22, 2014 at 10:21 am

      Thanks Jason,
      It always surprises me how few people even consider this question let alone agree! So good to hear from another believer in reality.
      Cheers, Sabrina

  3. Capt Jill

    January 23, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    I liked your thoughts on photography, I never thought of it that way before. I always tried to fix my photos the way I saw things in my mind. My photos never really seem to come out as beautiful as I remembered seeing things in reality. (I mostly take a lot of photos when I travel)
    I saw your comments on the zero to hero and trying to figure out what you were asking about. I like your blog. 🙂

    • sabrinacaldwell

      January 23, 2014 at 6:21 pm

      Hi Capt Jill, Thanks for your comments, they made me think. Do you suppose that the problem is our over-expectations? I don’t think a photo can ever match our experiences of the moment. (Just thinking aloud here…) I can think of two elements of an experience that can’t be replicated in photograph. One is the additive effect of all the other senses – when we take that beach shot we can’t also capture the soft warm breeze against our skin or the faint tang of salt spray or the half-heard call of a gull in the distance. The other unrepeatable element is the immersive effect. We can’t be inside a photo like we can be inside and surrounded by the subject of our photo. Unless we can start having personal photo shows inside an IMAX theatre (sounds like a really great idea to me).

      • Capt Jill

        January 24, 2014 at 2:19 pm

        Maybe, I bet that has a lot to do with it. I was thinking too that our eyes see things differently then our camera does. I know I always have a problem with lighting and my photos rarely turn out like the things I was looking at when I took the picture. I’m only an amature and just barely off my point and shoot, that’s usually what I use since I always have it with me.
        I like your idea of the personal IMAX, something like the holodeck on the Starship Enterprise? That would be really fantastic!! 🙂

      • sabrinacaldwell

        January 24, 2014 at 2:39 pm

        Hmmm, yes we do see the scene differently in real life don’t we? BTW, shortly after I replied to you I saw an ad on TV for a television with a curved screen and thought, “here we go…”

      • Capt Jill

        January 24, 2014 at 2:57 pm

        I’d like to be able to take more photos that look like what I really saw. I know you can manipulate them on the computer to make them look like anything you want (which I think is fantastic for people with the time and inclination for that kind of thing) but I haven’t learned how to do anything with my computer programs but simple cropping and adjusting the exposure, small things like that.
        My friend at work spent a couple weeks at work with photoshop and he can make his photos do amazing things. You wouldn’t even recognize the original!

  4. Marius Luther

    January 23, 2014 at 9:44 pm

    Hi Sabrina, used a quote of your second paragraph in my blog. Hope that’s allright.

    • sabrinacaldwell

      January 23, 2014 at 10:39 pm

      Hi Luther, It is lovely to be quoted. Danke.


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