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Photography is Inherently Subjective

There's no getting around it. It's impossible to take photographs without making choices. In photography, there's no such thing as objectivity. And that's a good thing.

The camera sees only what is within the frame. Everything else gets cropped out. Even the widest angle lens crops out a remarkable amount. Change that focal length by zooming or swapping lenses and things will still get cropped out — and doing so means you've taken direct control over how much cropping occurs. Point the camera this way or that and you determine what remains in view and what gets cut out. Altering the aperture or shutter speed directly influences how distance and motion are rendered. Together with ISO, both of these variables also influence exposure. The relative arrangement of objects in the frame depends directly on where you stand in relationship to those objects. Get close or move further away and you'll end up with a different image. No choice of lens can compensate. Take a step left or right and the background changes. Objects no longer line up with what was behind them quite the same.

Photography is all about choices and tradeoffs. Alter a variable in order to affect the outcome in some way will likely affect it in at least some unrelated way as well. Aperture affects exposure but also depth of field. Shutter speed likewise influences exposure, but increasing it could result in motion blur if your subject has time to move during the longer exposure. Use a faster shutter speed and you will end up with the opposite problem if you wanted to blur the motion of a waterfall or other subject.

It's up to you to make such selections and choose between these sort of tradeoffs. Being a photographer is all about such choices. Even if you intentionally avoid some choice by delegating exposure or focus to your camera, in whole or in part, still means you delegated it. Your ultimate role in the process is unavoidable. In the extreme, it may seem like you could avoid making choices by mounting your camera on a tripod and setting it to fire away on some given interval, but doing so is still up to you in the first place. And even if you do want to consider features such as autofocus and programmed exposure as ways of avoiding responsibility, there's no camera out there that can truly be set to auto-composition. You have to make choices as a photographer.

And every image you make is influenced by the choices you make when shooting it. Each of your images reflects your choices and point of view. Photojournalists strive to achieve objectivity in their news reporting. They're advised to avoid becoming part of the story, but that's only partially achievable. They too have to make choices in order to make photographs.

It's worth pointing out that looking at photography has a strong subjective element as well. No matter much you as a photographer attempt to put into an image, the viewer will bring their own subjectivity to the act of seeing it. It could easily remind them of something you had never thought of. That's up to them just as your choices were up to you. Everyone gets to make their own choices.

My advice is to embrace all this. The inherent subjectivity of photography is the means through which you express your creativity. One of my favorite quotes about photography is by Garry Winogrand, a New York street photographer primarily active during the first half of the last century. Winogrand said that "photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed." This quote sums things up nicely.

Obviously this depends in part on what type of photography you are engaged in, but true objectivity isn't completely possible in any case. Photography is full of choices, and it is the photographer who unavoidably makes the majority of them. If you worry about doing justice to your subject matter, this too depends in part on what you hope to achieve with your work. But if you are drawn to the creative side of photography, then you need to find ways to express yourself. As I say, embrace your own point of view and subjectivity.

Let each of your choices truly be choices. To the extent that you can, consciously consider each one and make the most of it. Once you find a subject to photograph, forget what it actually is and consider only what it looks like though the lens. If you see something you like, strive to accentuate it.

Think about it this way. If everyone did their level best to create the most objective version of their subject as they were capable of, then everyone's images would come out looking the same as everyone else's. How many copies of the same image does the world truly need? Your best shot at creating compelling images that stand out from the crowd is to make sure they are indeed your images, not copies of everyone else's.

Photography is inherently subjective. And that's a good thing.

Date posted: February 7, 2016


Copyright © 2016 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Related articles:
Wherever You Go, There You Are
Reality in the Eye and Camera of the Beholder
Where Does Creativity Come From?

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