It’s time to stop taking pictures of sausage machines
You take perfect photos. But are they the photographic equivalent of fast food? Maybe it’s time to consider changing the way you shoot and reject images of sausage machines.
Jetties sink into calm waters, birds perch on rocks, beautiful women show off their perfect bodies, the interiors of decaying buildings crumble, snow-capped mountains in the distance are reflected in lakes and light shines on polished Porsches. If you look at any photo community website, there are thousands of technically flawless images like these. Each is a well-executed and perfectly crisp representation of the subject. They are well lit and their compositions, colors, contrasts and exposure match everything we know about photography. They have a great look.
But after going through a few pages in any genre, doesn’t each successive photograph gradually make you lose interest?
As perfect as they are technically, they no longer surprise us. I would go so far as to say that most of them are clichés, unoriginal imitations of similar photos that came before them. Every now and then one jumps out and catches your eye because it’s unique, but most fall under the category of what I call sausage machine photography.
Likewise, we appeal to our audiences by adding continuity between a chain of images, as I mentioned in my previous article on photographic essays. This usually means sticking to one type of photograph. Most great photographers are known to do just that, focusing on one genre, or at least one genre at a time.
Commercial photography of sausage machine
Of course, there is a business need for these kinds of shots: auto advertisers want to see those flashy wings, and bird identification books need distinct species shots of a sparrow sitting on a stick, or even of a puffin on a rock. Unfortunately, fashion magazines still demand perfect images of unhealthy, skinny young women with plastic-looking skin.
There is nothing wrong with trying to achieve perfection in our images. This means that with each shot, we have studied our art, learned from our mistakes and perfected our techniques. We studied the work of other photographers, then we imitated or even improved it. Indeed, I encourage everyone to seek the ability to achieve flawless photographs. However, apart from commercial interests, then we should strive to challenge our photography, try to create something different.
Obstacles to difference
It is a tall order. First, the photographic establishment expects images to be consistent with their standards. Anyone who rejects accepted standards will be pilloried for doing so. History has shown this to be true of any art form. Still, photography often seems to be stuck in the mud because a vocal conservative minority laughs at anyone who suggests approaching it differently. For example, if one dares to suggest that great photographs can be taken with crop sensor cameras, full frame fascists rush to attack.
Second, with around 1.5 trillion photos taken this year, photographing something unique becomes more difficult. Granted, only around 7% of these will be taken with digital cameras, most of which are cell phone shots, but that still represents around 105 billion photos with a DSLR, mirrorless and compact camera per year. In other words, 3,330 images are taken every second by photographers like you. With this proliferation, it’s hard to find a way to show our viewers something new as someone else is probably filming something similar at the same time.
Nonetheless, there are still good reasons to break away from repetitive perfection and obtain compelling images that fall outside the accepted standards of the photographic establishment. Not the least is the need to delight our audiences with surprises that keep them engaged in our work.
Lessons from other arts
So how do we surprise our viewers? There are lessons to be learned from other art forms, including film, television, books, and paintings.
Great photographers go further than just photographing a single genre. As some directors and cinematographers stick to a single focal length, some great photographers also limit themselves to just one. Fixed aperture and shutter values, subject distances, and other compositional variables are kept the same in their collections. In this way, they make their portfolios more coherent and, therefore, more appealing to the viewer, especially if they reject the settings most used for this topic.
Then there is the content of the image. This is where the big surprises lie.
Jump Scares, Big Reveals and Plot Twists
The hand reaches out under the bed and grabs the hero’s ankle (The Sixth Sense). The reporter looks at a photo and spots a key clue that helps solve the mystery (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). A murder is revealed when an image from a hidden camera is developed (Enemy of the State). We wonder what was real and what was not (Total Recall).
They could easily become a cliché in the movies, but the fear of the jump, the plot twist, and the big reveal still work. M. Night Shyamalan is a master of cinematic surprises, just like Alfred Hitchcock before him. In his written stories which were subsequently televised, Roald Dahl added a touch to the end of his Tales of the Unexpected. They shock us and are often the turning point or the climax of history. Can we incorporate these kinds of surprises into photography?
It’s not as easy as in the stories. In books and movies, revelation occurs at a point along a timeline, and individually our images are a fixed point in time.
Nevertheless, one can surprise. For example, hiding a twist somewhere in the photograph, something that we don’t immediately notice, can make an image more compelling, assuming the viewer takes the time to see it. Alternatively, it can be a surprise image at the end of a photo sequence that brings the whole series together. Adding a title to a photo can also allow the viewer to see the image differently.
Things that don’t sit comfortably together
Another approach is to put disparate subjects together. Photographing things that are out of place in their surroundings can also work. Surrealist artists, such as René Magritte and Salvador Dalí, perfected this approach in their art. I’m not suggesting that you should have melting clocks on the beach or castles floating in the sky, but mundane objects out of place can have an impact and make the viewer think.
Hide main topic
Again, the main subject of the image may be less obvious than the secondary subjects. For example, in the photo above, the mast reflection headline draws the eye to the nearest boat. We are then taken further in the image to the largest hull, top right. Only then do we realize that the real subject is relatively small and is not the boat at all.
I must reiterate that I am here distinguishing between creative and observational photographic art and commercial photography. Commercial markets demand images of sausage machines. My clients have specific expectations that meet the standards of commercial photography, and it would be foolish of me not to meet their needs. Photographers who make a living from their work know that their photos must be consistent with the expectations of the general public; most people buy bland, mass-produced pictures from Ikea to hang on their walls.
The appeal of extraordinary photography that takes effort to appreciate is not so great. But it has a much greater value. There is also room for more difficult and less usual photographs.
What do you think?
Do you take pictures that break free from clichés? It would be great to see them in the comments. Or do you only shoot standard images with mass appeal? If so, do you disagree with my premise that we should avoid the expectations of the photographic establishment? It would be great to hear your thoughts on this, even if you don’t agree with me.