When the Picture Fails

Solen er på vei ned over Mohave-ørkenen

I think we have all experienced it. The frustration. Of coming home and looking at the pictures we have just captured, and then find out they don’t look what we wanted them to or they don’t look how we experienced whatever we were shooting. The pictures don’t show the majestic landscape as I saw it – the pictures don’t convey the joy I thought I was capturing between two people – they don’t express what I felt in a very intense moment for myself.

Why is it so? Why don’t our pictures show the world as it occurred to us at the moment of capturing? Why is it so disappointing?

For the most part I think there are three reasons. One is related to our focus on technique, the second to our focus on subject matter and how we have been taught to see the world, and finally we haven’t quite learned the visual language and how to express visually our vision.

When it comes to technique, we have been so seduced by technology and technique – by ads, by photo magazines, by our peers, by the technological development itself – that we have forgotten the creative part – our vision and our intent. We have forgotten that the art of photography lies in the cross line where craft and vision converge. Too often we get so caught up in the maddening learning curve of the craft that we neglect the vision, or we are so spellbound by technological possibilities. Or just think a technically perfect pictures is all what matters. In the mad rush to learn all the buttons and dials; we forget that photography is not a technical pursuit. Photography, as an art, is an aesthetic, creative, and expressive pursuit. Yet that pursuit is achieved by technical means, but the moment we leave vision out of the equation and make it merely about technique, our photograph won’t be able to convey what we felt and what we saw at the moment of shooting.

Then the focus of the «right» subject matter – what we have been taught to think as the «right» subject matter – is also getting in our way when we are shooting. This emphasis is all about finding the right landscapes, catching the right emotions, revealing the right sociological conditions. The conventional photographer who goes after the «right» subject matter is a bit like a big game hunter searching for prey or a butterfly collector looking for another specimen to add to his or her collection. Through our society, magazine we read, pictures that surrounds us, what we pick up from other photographers and experts on photography, we form concepts about what subject matter is attractive, what is artistic, what is worthwhile. These concepts are like filters or templates that shade our experience. The same goes for rules of composition, the «right» light or tried and true techniques. Bound by these concepts of what is beautiful or «right» or dramatic or unusual, we search for scenes that fit the concept – a dramatic sunset, a beautiful waterfall – snap! What happens is that these concepts of conventional subject matter become obstacles to clear seeing.

Finally if you intend to show that majestic landscape and make the viewer feel it just as you did when you saw it, it’s not enough to just put your camera to your eye, press the shutter button and think you have gotten it. If we really want to express the majestically nature of the landscape, we need to understand how to express it. That a wideangel view might actually lesson the majestic feeling, that without a foreground and something to show the scale the viewer will not see the grandness of the landscape. We need to understand how to direct the eye of the viewer around in the picture so that she or he will experience somewhat the same as you as the photographer did when you captured the scenery – or what you intended to express. The visual language is not a concise science, but we still need to understand how it works in its subtle way, again not as a «right» way, but by conscious choices to emphasize what we intend to express.

I know; it’s not easy to get everything «right», but by practise and by willingness to learn we can all improve our photographic skills and eventually be able to express our intent and vision as we had in mind when capturing a photo. These and other factors I will address in more depth in my upcoming eWorkshop.

95 thoughts on “When the Picture Fails

  1. I agree. It is so easy to take the same photographs as everyone else. As a creative skill, photography is no different from any other art form. It is about how the artist conveys his or her message, not copying someone else. Great article.

    1. You are right, Michael. We need to be grounded in our own vision in order not to copy others or what is considered «right». Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. This is important point and as you said we are all living this experience. For your three items, I did took note, maybe I am not a professional photographer but (as you know) I almost live with my camera 🙂 Every day, every time I learn something new… even about my camera too. As always your sharing with us and your experiences, and knowledge is great. Thank you dear Otto. On the other hand I should add this too, for them, (I am one of them) how playing on photoshop with their pictures especially when they fail 🙂 Of course, what you want to take a picture has been almost gone or changed with this digital play…. In this complicated results we can discuss the all points, this may bring so many titles of subjects… Anyway, Thank you again, love, nia

    1. It doesn’t matter whether you are professional or. What matters is that you live with you camera – as you say – and keep a willingness to always learn more and improve yourself. Thank you for your always valuable thoughts, Nia!

      1. Thank you so much dear Otto, you are so nice. I try to learn and to improve myself. You are one of great photographers for me and you share with us your knowledge and your own experience. I feel lucky to be in this amazing world connection. You are welcome and million Thanks again, Have a nice day and weekend, love, nia

    1. Thanks for the tips about the book by Vilem Flusser. No, I haven’t read it, but it’s on m list of books to order. Thank you, Vassilis!

  3. Excellent post yet again Otto, and learning from mistakes. “That a wideangle view might actually lesson the majestic feeling” was one of the first lessons I learned in landscape photography. There are always moments when something else may work, and this posts gives us another reminder of how to express our work and what we see.

  4. Great post, Otto. I especially like your point about ‘Learning the visual language, and expressing our vision visually’…. Something I’m still grappling with. People tell me I have a good ‘eye’, and I think I do have an eye for composition, but there’s more I want to be able to do, to create images with more atmosphere, or mystery. On with the learning curve!

    1. You eagerness to learn more says it all. And I do agree. Judging from your blog you do indeed have a good eye. Thanks for your comment, Susan!

  5. I think another factor is being authentic, being who you are when taking photos of what you like and see as beauty, and presenting it in your own creative way. I agree with Nia, in that sometimes we try too hard, and use photoshop to make it what we think other people want to see.
    I am excited to hear about the eWorkshop you mention!!!

    1. You are absolutely right. Authentic comes before anything else. If you want to create strong images they have to come from you – not what you believe the rest of the world would like. Photoshop can’t change that, if a picture lacks you in it, but certainly can lessen your vision. The eWorkshop is coming nicely together and I will post more info about not too long in the future. Thanks for commenting, Angeline!

  6. The shot in this post is lovely. It captures me on many levels.
    For me, photography will always be a learning experience. I believe we can learn something from every shot we take. Not just technically but about ourselves as well. This is an excellent post with some great insight. Please, Otto, tell us more about your eWorkshop?

    1. I totally agree with you; photography is a learning experience, and if we are open to it we can indeed learn more about ourselves in the process. As for the eWorkshop and as I just wrote to Angeline, I am working on it in these days and will soon have more info about it.

  7. It’s so liberating to read your post / that a picture master like you had the same feelings 😉 / on the other hand I still believe that 80% of perfect pictures become alive in the darkroom … by capturing this magic moment / not talking about this photo shock liers and HDR freaks killing the soul of each shoot with technical effects … thank you for sharing it and good luck with your eWorkshop / sammy

    1. I am really glad you enjoyed this post. When does a picture become alive? I think it varies from one photographer to another. For me the actually capturing is the most important part, but I see for others the post-processing is where they put their creativity in play. One is not necessarily better than the other, although I totally agree with you that technical effects more often kill the soul of an image than not. Thanks for you thoughtful comment, Sammy!

  8. Chastening and enlightening at the same time: “We have forgotten that the art of photography lies in the cross line where craft and vision converge.”

    Thank you for the beautiful post.

  9. I think there are times when we have to play in a media long enough to learn to enjoy it, then there’s the time we need to acquire that technical ability, then we need to learn to play again while using all those skills we’ve worked on — and keep learning new skills. That’s why creativity stays interesting, there’s always more we can get better at doing.

    1. I am fully with you in this. As long as we are willing to learn and develop, creativity never cease to inspire. And yes, it certainly shifts between different modes and in intensity. We can always get better! Thank you, Linda!

  10. There is definitely something to be considered here. I need to take my camera with me and have an adventure! Simply play with shots and see what I like. I’m always entirely too focused on not missing something, and the photos do become formula-driven. I’ll have to see what I can come up with by being a lot more free with my eye and attention! Thank you!

    1. I like it that you are open to different approaches. Having fun with the camera is half the fun, so to speak. We all ought play around more. I look forward to seeing those playful images, Debra. Thanks for your input!

  11. This is how the brain works. Seeing means thinking about the neuronal signal pattern that our brain receives from the retina. Seeing means putting all our experience and associations into play and those don’t translate into a picture without the photographer being aware of them and being able to translate actively into a language others have a chance to interpret in a similar way. I think there’s so much we can learn from studying “failed” photographs…

    1. You are so right, but unfortunately at school we don’t learn to translate those images we see in our brain into a visual language that is decipherable by others. As photographers we have to learn it, though. Thanks for the comment, Roland!

  12. Pictures, like words, always fail in one sense or another. No camera can capture an image (especially a landscape) as fully or intensely as the eye can see, no matter how good the photographer… But the photo in this post is a big WIN!!!

    1. Since our eyes work differently than a camera and images are registered differently there will always be a discrepancy between the two. As photographers we need to learn how to translate what we see into a similar photographic image. Thank you for the positive feedback, Jessica!

  13. Well written Otto. It’s so easy to take images these days that sometimes we can forget to think before we press the shutter button. But without ‘thought’ our images will just end up like everyone else’s. One of the difficulties we face in the digital era is that of being ‘distinctive’. As always your writing helps us all.

    1. I am not sure if the digital imagery makes it more difficult to have a distinctive voice. It’s just easier to take pictures without being conscious about what you want to say. As you say, it’s too easy to easy to forget to think. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Andy!

  14. Think about it…you’re standing, camera in hand, in the midst of beautiful countryside and you can…

    Smell the blossom…
    Taste the ozone…
    Feel the gentle warm breeze…
    Hear the skylarks..
    See a huge landscape with eyes that can move and focus on many different elements.

    And we have to put all that into a simple two dimensional image. Why should anyone be surprised that it doesn’t always work?

    1. You are right. Any experience in the real life is so much richer than whatever we can translate into an image. But there are still «tools» to evoke some emotional effect in a viewer – as you well know. But it does take experience and some craftsmanship to make it happen. Thank you for your insightful comment, George!

  15. I have learned that I can’t try: if I try, I’ll have an expectation, and, most likely, I will be disappointed. To quell this, I have become a “from the hip” shooter. I rarely look through my viewfinder, I just make sure that my camera’s dials are on a workable setting for whatever environment I am shooting in. I have always been a good shot — in archery, or target shooting — and I have learned that the talent translates nicely to snapping photos from the hip.
    I can use the reach of my arm to get higher or lower on the subject in a split second. I can “sneak attack” scenes on the street without giving a clue to the subjects that they are being photographed. I found that the split second between holding my camera up to my eye and adjusting for framing can destroy the moment I may be trying to capture.
    It took a little practice, but shooting from the hip has actually taught me a lot about perspective.
    When I don’t “try,” I end up with spur-of-the-moment images. Sometimes the horizon is crooked, and sometimes I’m a little out-of focus, but the moment is always captured.

    You’re doing some pretty awesome things on this blog: you’re supportive and very helpful to newbies like me!

    1. We all have different ways to make the magic happen for us. And I think whatever works for you is great. By «trying» I guess you mean «trying consciously», and although I very often shoot instinctively I do frame and put the camera to my eye. I still from time to time shoot from the hip like you, exactly because nobody notice, as you point out. Just keep doing it your way – and improve it. Thanks for the very nice feedback, Lee-Ann!

  16. This is such a good article, Otto, always reminds me to stop and think of my intent after the first emotional reaction to something that puts me in that state of awe. Still learning to capture photographic art rather than a snapshot. Thanks for this.

  17. Thanks for these insights Otto. There have been many occasions where we return from a trip and I look at the photos I have taken, only to be disappointed with the images I have taken. They all looked so blah. There was none of the splendor I witnessed with my eyes in any of the images. And so, disappointed, I would delete them and resolve to try again. I will keep in mind your advice.

    1. It’s maybe the least tangible of the three and thus takes more work to get under the skin. Your experience with painting I believe helps you a lot. Thanks for the comment, Alli!

  18. Tusen takk for denne! Vi vanlige entusiaster har lett for å bli opphengt i den siste teknologien, de siste motene i bildekomposisjon og “rette” måter å se ting på, at vi glemmer å være oss selv og at det er mannen bak kamera som teller. Han (meg” trenger noen slike spark – ofte.

    1. Vi trenger alle noe spark fra tid til annen, men jeg synes du er litt hard med deg selv. Skal jeg dømmer etter bildene på bloggen din, er du veldig bra istand til å legge igjen noe av deg selv. Takk for at du deler dine tanker, Rune!

  19. so true your post today – hoping to get effects we want does take (great) effort, thought and study. good teachers like yourself give light on problem areas and go further by offering sensible solutions. thanks, Otto. ☺

  20. Great post Otto. Sometimes it disappointing when my pictures didn’t turn out the way I had envisioned. However, I have also had times when I was able to make lemon aid out of those lemons too!

  21. Well the technical stuff never got in my way before as I have never read a book or taken a class, just few things picked up in seeing other peoples photos that I liked. However now with my new camera and trying to learn all the button and different changes that can be made, I am loosing touch with my subject. So there has to be learning days and then days just to go out and click. I don’t try and mix them anymore..

    1. Don’t be too frustrated! Yes while learning the technical parts you are inevitably slowed down, but keep at it and soon it will become more instinctively and you won’t loose touch with your subject. The thing is the more we learn the more we understand we don’t know… Thanks for sharing your experience, Carrie, and good luck with the learning curve!

  22. You have shed light on a common problem that we, as photographers, encounter frequently. Sometimes it is necessary to take a few extra moments of thought before we press the shutter. Great write-up.

  23. Hej Otto, vill tacka dig för dina fina ord på min blogg, vilket lett till att jag nu har kunnat ta del av så många intressanta inlägg och underbara foton här på din. Jag ser fram emot att få veta mer om din eworkshop och följa dina kommande inlägg. Har lagt till din blogg i min blogglista så fler kan ta del av dina foton och kunskaper inom så många intressanta områden. Hoppas det är OK.

    1. Takk for at du har lagt meg til din blogglsite. Klart det er OK! Og ikke minst takk for en fantastisk tilbakemelding. Når det gjelder eworkshopen jobber jeg fortsatt med å få alt helt ferdig. Det er ganske mye som skal forberedes og ikke minst produseres av små instruksjonshefter for at dette skal kunne fungere. Men jeg skal selvsagt holde deg oppdatert.

  24. Another wonderful article Otto and I cannot wait for your e-workshop. I know for myself it can be so easy to get caught up in the technique and the technology-I remember an instructor telling me once that it did not matter what the camera was-if I could not take the time to *see,* in the end it would make no difference at all–

    1. That’s exactly what I tell my students at my workshops: Camera doesn’t really matter, at least most of the time. Thanks for the nice words, Meg, and thank you for the interest in my eWorkshop. I will soon post more info about it.

  25. Yes, it can be disappointing when what we visualized and hope create doesn’t produce the right pics. Sometimes it could be fate sending a different meaning and story just like your photo is this post. Looks like heaven opened up, beamed a light and answered the person/persons prayers or the reader needing to feel that way. To hope. To be touched by faith.

  26. A very intriguing post Otto! I look forward to your follow-up posts on this subject. Thank you so much for your visit on my blog and your excellent description!

  27. Thanks for visiting my blog today and thanks for this post. You have actually put into words many things I have been thinking about photography. What you take is more important than how you take it, the technique is used to enhance the subject. Also, what we see in everyday photography and video life has in no small way given us our norms as to what is beautiful. That’s why I like to take pictures of dead things.

    1. I agree with you. What we take is more important than how we take it – as long as what we take is important to ourselves. Thank you for your insightful thoughts, Virginia!

  28. I must start off, Otto, by saying what a stunning image you have here. As for not getting it right, when it happens to me, it’s generally because I just didn’t catch the moment I wanted to, or I was perhaps overenthusiastic when the scene didn’t have that extra something to make it memorable.

  29. 100% true.

    I’ll also add that patience is a virtue. Our technologically advancing civilization is making people to impatient and lazy with the expectation that the tech will get them easy results with minimal effort and time.

    Landscape photography is an excellent example. Don’t rush into position to snap the golden sunlight on the top of the mountain, and then take off. Emotionally connect with that vista. If it has a personal impact on you, then you will take the time to think more about how to convey that intimacy in your shot.

    1. You have a good point! We should learn to not rush in – and out again. Instead seek a deeper connection. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Allan!

  30. You have very clear insight and an ability to express it in words! I think when I tried hard to get it right the result goes the opposite way. When I forget about it and just let the impression or vision come first before technique the results seem to be better. I have read one of the photog that I admire his work said when you go out to take picture – unlock yourself first.

  31. “We have forgotten that the art of photography lies in the cross line where craft and vision converge.” Wonderful! This is the perfect post for me to read right now, Otto. Thank you so much. I received the gift of a new camera, and have been so intent on learning the technical aspects that it’s easy to lose sight of the artistic side of photography. And oh, how I know what it’s like to come back from a trip to Far Away, and be disappointed in my photos. I will keep all this in mind as I learn and go on other adventures in life.

    1. I am glad the post made sense for. It’s always fun we you feel you are able to boost some inspiration. Thank you for the nice words, Robin, and have fun with your new camera.

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