The Photos Are Dead Myth


A pair of articles that appeared last week brought to the fore two competing thoughts that seem to be making the rounds: (1) photos are over saturated to the point where it isn’t worth taking them; and (2) find new ways to take photos.

Article 1: Everyone Has Seen Fireworks, No One Needs Your Photos

Article 2: Somebody Flew a Drone Into a Fireworks Display and This is What Happened

So which is it? You don’t need to take fireworks photos anymore or you need to take them differently?

Susan Sontag has the answer in her seminal book On Photography (affiliate link): it’s number 2. As images become well known and ubiquitous, you have to go a step beyond and do something better/different to stand out. That’s especially true these days, when we’re being pummeled by images everywhere. Indeed, it explains the rise (and eventual fall) of Instagram, too: when everyone else’s smartphone photos looked like they were  taken with a cheap compact camera with a fixed lens, you could run your image through some gimmicky filters and make them look different than everyone else’s. 

Ironically, most of those Instagram filters were mimicking past image trends, but that’s the thing about fads and trends: they tend to recycle from time to time. Techniques like cross processing get popular for a short period of time because they’re different than the mainstream, then they get popular enough to be sort of mainstream themselves, and they lose their uniqueness. The generation that was using cross processed type filters in Instagram probably was too young to remember the first time it was popular (with real chemistry changes that gave it its name). 

But that’s style, what about content?

Sports and event photography is about story. Can you capture the story in a single moment? Consider this image, for instance:

bythom US CA Oakland Baseball 6-20-2014 1Dx 06149.jpg

It’s the home plate celebration moments after Josh Donaldson hit a three-run home run to take the lead in the game against the Boston Red Sox. I also have the swing shot, but frankly, it doesn’t tell the story as well as this one (I especially like the photographer at the right chimping to see if he got the swing shot). After all, all the swing shot shows is a powerful swat hitting the ball, it doesn’t tell us that this was a decisive one. I also have shots from when Ortiz put the Sox ahead in the first place. But the Red Sox didn’t win the game, so neither that swing nor celebration shot tells the story of the game. Which shot would be used to illustrate a story on the game in the newspaper? Right. That’s the story shot.

Photos aren’t dead, and neither should photographers’ brains be dead. You need to seek out location, style, and story differences that stand out from the ubiquitous images all around you. This is one reason why I hate seeing people using tripods at eye level at a well-known landscape spot. Location? Same as previous photographers, and one chosen for convenience, as well (eye level). Style? These days likely the same HDR type or graduated filter type of shot taken by thousands of folk previously. Story? Same story as those before them: sky over rock and water usually. 

This is probably what has attracted me more and more to wildlife photography over the years: my location is never the same and the story is always unfolding differently in front of me. I don’t have to worry too much about style, though anyone that’s seen my Dark Dirty Africa series knows that I have a style of my own for those images. 

So what’s my point? 

How about this: stop spending so much time trying to figure out what others are doing and copying it. Spend more time thinking about how to find unique locations, generate your own compelling style, and telling stories. Do those three things, couple that with excellent technique, and your images will stand out. 

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