Are You Better Technically or Aesthetically?

(commentary)

As I browse around the Internet looking at what others are doing with their cameras, I’m struck time and again that I can group most collections of images I see from someone into “better technically” or “better aesthetically.” 

The technically good folk nail things like focus and exposure, and seem to know how to remove noise, linear distortion, and chromatic aberration, but their composition and timing skills tend to need work, or they just need to stop just copying what others have already done. The aesthetically good folk often have very compelling and unique images to look at, at least until you notice all the little flaws in technique. Focus might be slightly off from where it should be, noise is crippling edge acuity, color is slightly off or too exaggerated, or maybe even something like the horizon isn’t quite straight. 

So your homework assignment today is simple: are your photos better technically or aesthetically? 

If you’re the Ansel Adams type who gets every last technical detail nailed down, are you missing the big picture? If you’re creating images that get an initial “wow” from others but then they start picking apart things that don’t support that wow, did you fail to control technique? Almost certainly, you’re going to fall more into one or the other camp.

Personally, I bounce back and forth, and sometimes intentionally so. I can and do nail things down technically when I want to and take the time to do it. But I also find that if I go too far down the path of being technically perfect, I start to lose my creative and artistic instincts. And vice versa. As many of you know, I spend a lot of time practicing my craft, and I spend a lot of that time experimenting to improve the aesthetic nature of my imagery.

Ultimately, the best photographers find a way to balance those two things and not deep end into one or the other. Why do I say “don’t deep end”? Well, on the technical side you’ll create photos that have all the right pixels in them, but the photo won’t all add up to more than the sum of the pixels: no artistic and creative impact. On the creative side the risk is higher: any new, interesting style of photography is almost immediately mimicked and copied, so you’ll likely have people who are more technically proficient doing the same thing very quickly, and their results might be more useful to those that still buy images and worry about “quality.” 

The funny thing is that we’re now in the same morass that HiFi got into at one point: people are overreacting to small differences in test numbers between equipment, mostly ignoring setup and placement differences, and there’s so much emphasis on the technical that the aesthetic just gets ignored. I remember in the early 1980’s one audio store sales person trying to get me to buy the gear that had “all the best numbers,” and his audition music for that was some folk singer. “Hear the squeaks of the guitar? Hear his fingers sliding on the frets? Hear how the rosewood of the guitar makes for a nice deep, hollow and distinct set of overtones? Here him clear his throat?” 

Uh, yeah. Do you hear how unemotional and un-involving the singer and guitar player and thus the music is? ;~)

The funny thing was that all these HiFi sales people tended to be promoting speakers other than Bose at the time. Bose speakers tested poorly in the HiFi labs: too much distortion and coloration, not enough "natural sound". And yet, most people who stood in front of a properly placed set of Bose speakers liked them, partly because that old design was artificially spreading the sound in a pleasing way and not just front firing it at the listener. Most people I talked to at the time thought the Bose sounded “warmer.” It produced sound in a way that people found friendlier and more enveloping than the numeric champions at the time. 

That said, there were absolutely better speakers than the Bose, for sure. Ones that did both the technical (revealed by numeric testing of attributes) and the aesthetic (revealed by just listening to them) quite well. Still, a lot of folk found the Bose “sound” compelling, despite it not being technically the best choice.

I’m sure you see where I’m going here: we have photographers arguing over dynamic range of sensors and ignoring the photos that are printed in the newspapers, magazines, Web, and in various other forms. I’ve seen (and taken, I believe) compelling photos with cameras that don’t “test the best.” Actually, I’ve seen more compelling photos with minor technical weak aspects to them than technically perfect photos with even a hint of compelling to them. 

Put another way, I’m not immediately struck by the “lack of noise” or “the extremely long tonal ramp” or the “micro contrast of the fine mid-tone edges” or anything else you might call technical when I see a photo. First: does it strike my visual and emotional response in any way? Second: is it a moment I didn’t see or haven’t seen before? Third: do I want to keep looking at it? 

Indeed, it’s that last thing that will send me to look at the technical side eventually. If I keep looking at image long enough I can and will find its weaknesses and faults. But I still might find the image compelling ;~). 

One of the reasons why I enjoy and continue to do sports photography is that it’s a real-time contest between nailing the technical and the aesthetic. Can you take a photo during a game that tells a story, tells that story in your unique style, and isn’t fraught with technical issues that degrade it? High School football at night will certainly have you fighting the good fight ;~). I’m not sure I’ve quite mastered that, which is why I keep working at it.

Something that disturbs me a bit is this: back when I was doing photography in college for various publications, the most common comment I got was “you have a great eye.” People were being drawn to how I saw the world in front of me and captured it in composition and timing. More often than not today the most common comment I get tends to be more on the technical side: “you really nail focus and exposure, etc.” Now it may be that I get more of those comments because I write about those technical things more than the aesthetic, but still, the balance of comments changed over 40 years, and that’s something I need to think about and perhaps address. 

So one thing I’ll be looking at doing for my own personal photography this year is to try to get the excitement back in someone’s first impression of a shot I take. I want them to say “wow” because of the aesthetics, not the technical (sure, they can say “wow” to the technical, too, but only after their initial aesthetic impression generated that first “wow”). I want viewers of my best work to wish they had been there, that they had seen what I saw, that they get something emotional and impactful from looking at that work. 

I gave you a homework assignment up above. Do you know where you fall on the spectrum? Try this: rate yourself from 1 to 10 (low to high) both aesthetically and technically. Then ask a significant other to rate you for those two things on the same scale. Ask a few good friends (hopefully they’ll stay friends even when they contradict you ;~). 

Now take that data and make a goal. Pick the thing you’re weakest at and make a goal to try to get better technically or aesthetically in 2016. Hell with the cameras and lenses and everything else and how it tests. Given what I know about the gear you already have, I really doubt your equipment is keeping you from either of these two fundamental things: getting better aesthetically or technically. 

Buying new gear is the age-old cop out for saying you’ll improve technically. It’s the gear that’s holding you back, right? Wrong. If you had to take photos all year with your iPhone, you could still get better technically, so stop blaming the equipment. It’s you that needs to get better aesthetically or technically. You and only you. 

Don’t fall for the marketing lines that say it isn’t your fault. Of course it is. You pressed the button. Why? When? How? Where? 

Sure, go ahead and reward yourself with some new gear (and I’d appreciate it if you’d use the Amazon or B&H links on this site if you do). I know you lust after new gear. But don’t believe for a minute that your equipment is your biggest problem. 

Do the homework I assigned. Think about what you decided about where you currently stand. Figure out a plan for tackling the goal of getting better at your worst attribute. Put the burden on your shoulders, not Nikon’s (or Canon’s or Sony’s or whomever’s).

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