Blog / The wheat and the chaff.

Peter Cairns
Tuesday, January 24, 2017
The wheat and the chaff.


What’s your favourite picture? We’ve all been asked this question by friends, relatives, work colleagues. So what is your favourite picture? My guess is that if pushed, most photographers would tend towards images they’ve taken recently implying that ‘freshness’ equates to ‘quality’. It’s inevitable that when we acquire a new image, especially from a location we’ve never before photographed, there is an emotional attachment to that image: we can still sense being there, we can re-live the moment through what we see on the screen in front of us. Moreover, if it was hard won, perhaps through hours of waiting or days of travelling or even thousands of pounds of expenditure, we are easily tricked into imagining that the image has mass appeal. But of course our audience is dispassionate, cynical even. For them, the image is what it is, irrespective of the back-story.

There’s a bit of the trophy hunter in all photographers and there’s nothing better than showing off a newly acquired, brand new shiny trophy. But in an age of intense competition for our attention, I’ve noticed a trend of late, a trend that I succumb to myself, but one which does little to further a wider and deeper appreciation of the art of nature photography. Social media - in all its myriad platforms - allows us to shout from the rooftops about our new trophies. But are our trophies really as impressive as we think? Are we mistaking image freshness for image quality? Are we kidding ourselves that just because we got up at daft o’clock, our sunrise pictures are somehow more awe-inspiring? And are we falling into an even more self-destructive trap – that of bludgeoning our audience with ‘more’ rather than ‘better’? I think so. It’s entirely understandable but it means that it’s becoming ever more difficult to ‘surprise’ the viewer.

We need to think differently. We need to view our own images dispassionately, objectively, through the eyes of our audience rather than through our own. It’s not easy. I recently completed a book and although an emotional attachment to the images was in fact, an integral part of the narrative, I nevertheless found it very difficult to judge whether an individual image ‘worked’ or whether I just felt it worked. The newer the image, the more I deliberated. I hesitantly turned to an external barometer: the opinion of a fellow photographer who had not previously seen the images. I didn’t want ‘freshness’ to blinker my objectivity. After a few hours, around 30% of the original images had been replaced. My pride was dented but my confidence in the product was renewed.

When my son was young, I couldn’t imagine asking him to wait until July before opening his Christmas presents. And yet, that is the painful discipline I now impose on myself. Conscious of the temptation to show the world my new pictures in the near-certainty that they, like me, will adore them, I’ve adopted a simple approach to avoid confusing freshness with fodder. I take the image and do nothing with it for 6 months. Then, without the immediacy of the experience screaming in my head, without the desperation of me willing it to be good, I can judge my images free of emotion, with almost complete objectivity. As a result, far, far fewer get past the editing knife and fewer still find their way onto Facebook.

There’s another, more insidious threat developing from our hard won pictures being exposed too willingly, too rashly; a threat that is already eroding the livelihoods of working professionals but more significantly, is propagating indifference in our audience: overexposure. The proliferation of imagery – some of it superb but much of it mediocre – within the wider media, is starting to numb our senses: we see too many images and we’re getting bored. Even as an avid consumer of nature photography, even as a strong advocate for the power and influence of visual imagery, I find myself much less easily impressed today than just a few years ago. Material that used to make my jaw drop now barely merits a second glance. It’s not because standards have dropped – quite the opposite – but because I see so much; I’m punch drunk. I find it much more difficult these days to enthuse about the work of others and if I feel that way about other photographers’ material, the chances are they feel the same about mine. The result is a spiralling devaluation of the work, which means so much to the photographer who captured it.

Last winter during a photo tour, one of our guests was showing the group some of his favourite pictures after dinner. At night, after a hard day in the field, starter, main and dessert, washed down with a few glasses of Chardonnay, I recommend to guests showing no more than 20 images if they want to avoid the sound of snoring accompanying their commentary. The first image came up – a beautifully lit and perfectly composed kingfisher. There was an audible intake of breath and the group fired questions at the photographer: Where? How? When? The picture was top class and was verbally applauded. The next image was the same kingfisher but in slightly different light. The following image showed the kingfisher with a different fish in its bill. After a dozen very similar shots – and don’t get me wrong, I like a good kingfisher – the group were getting not only bored but visibly irritated. The good work done by the first image was undone by the photographer’s insistence on bludgeoning the group’s visual senses to death.

There’s nothing wrong with specialising in kingfishers, or mountains, or seascapes, or whatever subject floats your boat, but to get away with what might be perceived as a lack of variety, you need to shoot…variety. If my guest had told a compelling story about the lives of his local kingfishers with a suitably varied portfolio, my guess is that the group would have been enthralled rather than dismissive.

It’s not for me to dictate how other photographers choose their subjects or display their work; it should go without saying that we shoot for ourselves first and foremost. Neither am I suggesting that we stop sharing images or that photography should be bereft of emotion. Both are counter intuitive and counter productive; both would detract from the enormous pleasure that nature photography provides. But – and I believe this is a significant ‘but’ - if we as a community continue to treat our work as a throwaway commodity, we shouldn’t be surprised if our audience does the same and becomes increasingly indifferent to our endeavours. Worse still for me, is that apathy sets in and our images no longer motivate and inspire people about the natural world in the way they once did. If I can fall victim to such a malaise then anyone can.

Every now and then we all create pictures that really work. Their impact is immediate and you just know that after months or even years, they will endure and will invariably elicit a reaction. But sadly, that doesn’t happen too often and for the most part, our images fall short of what we aspire to. That doesn’t mean they have no role to play or that they shouldn’t be displayed, but perhaps we should be more selective, more discerning in the images we create and retain and the platforms through which they are shown.

It’s so easy to get carried away with our own pictures, our own trophies, especially the most recently acquired from that place you’ve been dying to get to forever; I do it all the time. But please believe me when I tell you that one kingfisher picture – the very best one – is enough. Less is more as they say.

This article was first published in Landscape Photography Magazine, June '15.

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