Technical Quality vs. Art and Story Telling

I recently realised that with digital two problems have creeped up on us: most of us have got a little lazy, so we take a ton of pictures, we shoot rapidly, we bracket, etc, and we just plan on discarding it or fixing it later on the computer. Since digital shots don’t cost anything we often do not take the time to carefully select our subjects and composition and I think the artistic side of photography suffers from it.

Also, in this age of digital photography it seems to me that we have become obsessed with gear, megapixels and the technical qualities of our images. We pixel-peep and spend a lot of money, time and effort looking for the ultimate in sharpness, detail, contrast and low noise levels. There is nothing wrong with this per se and I enjoy detailed, sharp and clean images as much as the next guy, but again, it seems to me that the art has been largely left behind in favour of the technical. This also makes many photographers (myself included) fall for the “if only I had the latest body or lens my photography would be much better” fallacy.

iwo-jimaI had an epiphany a few years ago when I visited MoMA in New York while they had a large contemporary photography exhibit on. It struck me that at least 90% of the photographs had strong technical “deficiencies”. Out of focus, motion blur, lack of detail, graininess, overexposure, underexposure, you name it, most of these photos suffered from one or more of these bwfa1problems. But it didn’t really matter because the photos were either great at telling a story, capturing a moment, or they had great artistic and esthetic qualities. If you look at some of the most iconic images in the history of photography, or the ones that fetch the highest price at auctions, you will find that many if not most of them are nothing special from a technical standpoint.

I like to divide photography into three broad categories. Note that the lines are blurred and there is a lot of overlap, but it is still a useful categorization in my mind:

  1. Storytelling: photojournalism, street photography, environmental portraits and some wildlife and sports photography.
  2. Fine Art: nude, abstract, minimalism, some architectural, some landscape, some portrait, some fashion, etc.
  3. Technical: some macro, wildlife, sports, architectural, product photography, fashion, portrait, some landscape.

When it comes to category 1, Storytelling, the story or moment being captured is overwhelmingly important and the technical aspects of the photo clearly take a backseat.

For category 2, Fine Art photography, it’s a little less clear. Of course the composition, artfulness, the emotional response and the esthetics are whats most important most of the time.

For category 3, Technical photography, the technical qualities of the photo are more often than not more important than the artistic qualities.

iceland_01So what type of photography you like to do should have a big impact on whether or not you need to have super high-ISO capabilities and a gazillion pixels with the sharpest available lens. I contend that for storytelling and most of fine-art, it’s really not required. Having a camera that is compact and fast and gets out of your way is more important than having the utmost in image quality. In this digital age, we often concentrate too much on gear and pixels and not enough on art and storytelling.