Great expectations and communicating photographically

10 Feb

Kangaroo campground, Potato Point, Australia 2009

In conversations at conferences and over coffees with friends I often hear, “but I wanted my photograph to match what I saw at that moment.” We want our photograph to be a confident, intriguing story told by a clearly involved observer. Like Dickens’ tour de force of the same name, we have Great Expectations. But too often they are dashed.

There’s a reason why our photos often fail to live up to our expectations. Quite apart from our skills in the craft, the ‘moment of seeing’ to which photographers refer is overloaded with many tangible and intangible factors, not all of which can be recorded by our cameras.

Hidden animal

Hidden animal

The feeling of being awash in a heaven of golden sunset colours simply won’t translate to the small canvas of a photograph [4]. The beatific smile on the face of a child may become a sneeze in the space of time it takes to snap her photo.

What we are fixated on in the landscape may not be the most obvious element of your photograph even in macro photography. If you doubt me, have a look at the photo on the right; there is an (unintendedly hidden) animal in the image and it is looking right at you. But you probably looked at the dead leaves first, didn’t you?

But even if you have snapped that perfect photo, there is, as they say, “many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.”

From the observant eye of the photographer to the insight of the viewer, every photograph arises out of and exists within a nexus of forces that imbue it with both fixed and mutable meanings. These forces come together in the form of a complex labyrinth that a photographer’s concept must travel in order to remain true and communicate across space and time. And it is a challenging path.

A few fixed meanings

If we point our camera at an iconic bridge and release the shutter, it is concrete and irrevocable that the bridge will figure into our understanding of the resulting photograph. A blue sky or gray, pavement or roads, boats and waves will also clearly state fixed information about the vista being captured. Your accompanying metadata, such as “Yacht curves a foamy wake near the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge” further bolsters your photographic communication.


Yacht curves a foamy wake near the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge
From PG&E Building ( 2007)

These are elements in photography that anchor an image in reality and/or provide a context through which we can understand the photographer’s communicative intent. And they are few indeed.

But as few as they are, even these fixed elements are subject to the photographer’s perspective. The aforementioned bridge may be photographed from below to appear imposing, or we may wait to take the photo until the split second in which no planes or cars are in frame giving the illusion of serenity and calm.

Do we employ the flash to fill in the shadows, adjust the aperture to change the field depth, change the shutter speed?

But it is too late to consider anything else; the moment has arrived and with the press of a button a photograph comes into being and …

<bated breath>

A photograph is born!

Our photograph has now been born. It represents a record of all the light that was flying into our lens, through the aperture and onto our camera sensor while the shutter was open, perhaps for a millisecond, perhaps many seconds or more.  This is the closest connection to the unfiltered, real world that our photograph will experience.

The digital darkroom

We now enter the world of techno-wizardry and our imaginations.

" A zebra of a different colour" Photoart by Sabrina Caldwell

” A zebra of a different colour”
PhotoART by Sabrina Caldwell

If your photo was taken with a smart phone, as so many are these days, Instagram is there to encourage you to warp your image on the spot.  As they say on their site, we can “choose a filter to transform its look and feel, then post … it’s that easy.”[1]  Our smart phone has become a moving digital darkroom.

Or we can take our image home, download it to our desktop, open Photoshop or Gimp, and really go to town.  Colour, brightness, sharpness, cropping, filters, there is almost nothing we cannot do to our photo to change its meaning.

No, no,” I hear you say, “not change, enhance. not alter, restore it to what it should have been.”

Well, you may be right.  I’m only saying that anything you do to your image will transform the pixels of your photograph from what the camera recorded at your moment of seeing.  It is a step away from that moment even if it seems a step closer. Remember, at some point our photograph becomes photoART.

The medium affects the message

Our photo has now been post-processed and is ready to share.  But how? Will it be an email attachment, a Flickr upload, a WordPress blogpost or a Facebook post surrounded with ‘Likes,’ Comments and ads? Resized for online use? Annotated with a caption or description? Printed at Kinkos or Officeworks in large format, high resolution? Framed? Included in a photobook? Each of these sharing methods introduces a multiplicity of layers of context that influence our viewers’ perceptions of the image.[2]  And that’s not the only thing that will influence our viewers’ perceptions of the image.

The viewer: a whole ‘nother ball game

Regardless of what you are attempting to communicate with your photograph, you can rest assured that there will be more interpretations of it by viewers than you could have dreamed.

Tuross Head, NSW Australia

Potential viewer: Gene

Viewers interpret images they see through a surprisingly large number of mental and emotional filters, the which this article would never presume to attempt to posit.

If you are curious, try this: look at a photo that interests you and notice what mood you are in, what you know of the subject and how you feel about it. Now consider whether a different mood, more or less knowledge of the subject, and/or a differing opinion might change your interpretation of that image.

We humans are complex and volatile. We can have pre-conceived ideas and flighty moods, and our interest and attention wax and wane.  We can learn on-the-fly and change our mind about an image between the time we started viewing it to the time we stop.  In fact, a great photograph can give us insights we never had before, which by their very nature cause us to vary our interest in and understanding of a photo.

Potential Viewer - June

Potential (future) viewer: June

Let’s face it, our photograph could win ‘Best Photograph of 2014’ and still only some viewers will ‘get it,’ in fact some viewers won’t get anything from it.

So why bother trying to create and/or preserve photographic communication if no-one will understand it as we do?

Firstly, because as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we are our most important audience. We will get it if no one else does, and we too will be surprised at how we understand our own photographs differently as time passes.

Secondly, because if we are good at our craft and carefully safeguard the meaning in our images, we can affect others in ways no other medium can.  We can make a difference with our photographs.

Safeguarding your message

My initial musings on the principles of being photo credible fall into a few fairly straightforward ideas:

Have a clear intent.
What are you trying to communicate exactly? What do you want the viewer to experience or feel upon seeing your photograph?

Consider your integrity and the integrity of the photograph.
Will this photograph, as taken (hopefully) or as edited represent you and your intent well and with integrity?

Include your words.
Identify the people, places and things in your photograph with words either with or in your image file.

Be thoughtful and open about staging and/or post-processing.
Resist the urge to tinker with your original photo. And if you
a priori ‘‘staged’ or a posteriori ‘photoshopped’ your photograph, why not let your viewers know?

Decide whether you have a photograph or photoART.
At some point our photographs leave the arena of photographs and become photoART.  It is up to each of us to decide where that point rests. If you are sharing a processed image that you know in your heart does not bear enough resemblance to the real world subject you photographed in the first instance, label your image as photoART.[3]

Be realistic.
Viewers will interpret as they will, regardless of what you want or what they tell you. Just know that your message will often go wide of the mark.

Have fun, follow your passion and be your best self
… and everything else will work out in the end!

PHOTOGRAPHS: All photographs by Sabrina Caldwell, and other than resizing for web use, no alterations have been done to the photographs, with one exception: the photograph at the top of the post was cropped to letterbox size to fit this post.
PHOTOART: The coloured zebra is photoART, not a photograph.  It was altered by ‘colouring’ in the white areas of the zebra’s coat using translucent, pastel colours.
[1] Instagram’s promotional words at
[2] There’s also lots to be said about the text that accompanies our photos but that’s a subject for an entirely different blogpost.
[3] I think the capital ART is necessary. The word photo is culturally burned into our minds and it takes a capital ART to get enough attention to modify the first two syllables.  So, photoART is how I (try to remember to) write it.
[4] Though one can try; see my post Matched set – nature’s mellow, yellow-gold .


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