Sunday, November 15, 2009

Difference Between the Subject and the Photograph

I figured something out today, based on a couple of inputs, and thought to share it here in a blog post.

There's a big difference between a subject and a photograph. Sounds simple right, but it can be a problem when reviewing ones own work, and it can reveal itself maybe more when reviewing someone else's work.

I will give two quick examples based on my own work. Both will be eagles, but to me the difference will be context and location, etc.

First is a beautiful wild bald eagle and a decent image:

Soaring, got around 10 comments.
Bald Eagle @ Conowingo Dam 9/15/2007 w/ animation

Captive, nicer light, very close.
Bald Eagle

The captive one got more responses, and is a "better" image.

read on for more.

The problem with comparing the two images is that they are both of an awesome subject. One could also argue that a WILD and FREE eagle is a BETTER subject than a captive one. The captive eagle was easier to photograph in that it was closer and couldn't fly away, etc.

Can you see the difference between subject and photograph?

Ok, well maybe this would be a better example, one I heard from someone else who was unhappy with a contest and the results:

A friend was telling me he doesn't participate in contests on this particular online site because he was in a contest and lost. He was upset because he lost to a much inferior subject. I hadn't seen either photograph, but his reaction sums up the reason for this post.

He was upset because his awesome wildlife photo (of something, I forget) lost to a macro of colored pencils! Woah! There's no way that PENCILS are more interesting subjects THAN for example an EAGLE! Right?! Can't be!

And there's the thing. Photographs are not usually judged on subject, they're judged on photographic qualities, the results of the photographic process - the 'print' or 'digital print'. In my mind I CAN SEE how a large group of people might like a pencil macro better than an eagle photo (not the best eagle photo, but many eagle photos)...


The thing to remember as an image maker, a thing I know now, is that part of the photographic process is considering the VIEWER. There will be some 'artists' that say 'ha, I don't need no stinkin' viewers! I do my ART for MYSELF!' Ok, that's great. I'd argue then you might not even need a camera, you can just remember being there, ponder, enjoy, and ahhhhh.... It's all for you alone!

But usually artist want to make something, and share it. And part of sharing things is getting viewers, and if they view, keeping them interested, and making them want to come back again. (kind of like what is to some people)

(*Although, it is possible your artistic vision is to make viewers uncomfortable, like with poverty or war images, and that's much different than fine-art photography. So I concede that point/example.)

So when reviewing images, editing images, deciding what images to share, think about this: You will judge and appreciate images differently than your viewers. You will likely consider the context of being there, the process and effort involved in the image making and then savor the resulting image with that context. Most or maybe many viewers however will see the image as just that - THE IMAGE. The don't have the same context, the same investment or the same love of results as the image maker would. So they are judging images with fewer things to consider. An awesome macro photo of some pencils may and can be preferred to a good photo of an awesome subject like an eagle.

And that might be one of the challenges that aspiring nature photographers struggle with. They're out there enjoying nature, in all its glory, living life to its fullest. Woohoo! Then images of that same thing, it is STILL AWESOME (darn it!!) are not praised for showing off that same emotion or scene. Realize the subject is STILL AWESOME.

An awesome subject isn't always going to result in an awesome photograph. I've personally driven hundreds of miles, stayed in hotels, and then taken a trip to a local pond and liked an image from there better than most from the long trip.

Green Heron

And finally I'd show off this very flawed Eagle photo, it is not sharp, it is not super in focus, and it small/cropped, but woah, that's something right?! This might almost prove the opposite of what I was getting at above, here the subject trumps the technical photo... But it is about the 'image'....

Happy Valentine's Day (w/ animation)  :D

Happy shooting,



Kim Hosey said...

"So when reviewing images, editing images, deciding what images to share, think about this: You will judge and appreciate images differently than your viewers."

Very good point -- I find that in my photos and writing. Something I'll be especially pleased with will get a lukewarm reception, while an also-ran gets all the attention.

Nice points overall on subjects and photos. And it's funny; I just yesterday told my husband about that last photo of yours. I remembered having seen it on Flickr. What an awesome sight that must have been.

MRNot said...

It's a concept I've definitely had to come to grips with, even in my embarrassingly short background of shooting. I've realized quickly I should simply forget about the whole concept of contests for some decades of dedication to the art of it. But it's certainly fine to be proud of what you've accomplished. There will definitely be others (esp. at places like FlickR), who WILL share your enthusiasm, but you just can't hang your full hopes on what others will think, to be sure.. Good blog.

mondaine said...

Very good. I shot a squirrel the other day and it is a good example of point you made here.

any thoughts?

Your work is very inspiring. It's really nice to know how seriously take your work and how your thought process is. Keep up the great work.

MidWest Mike said...

Your pictures are very moving.

Matt said...

That's a very true and valid dialogue. Especially in the realm of wildlife, people can spend hours upon hours in the wild tracking a subject to get a semi-decent shot. That same person could go to a zoo and get a better shot in less than 3 minutes.

That's where integrity comes in. I'm fine with people zoo photographing as long as they say 'captive' subject...or 'taken at ..... zoo'. It's when I spend 6 hours hunting down a subject and someone else spends 2 minutes at a cage and tries to pawn it off as 'real'.

Anywho, this was my first visit to your blog. I'll be making it a more frequent thing from now on : )