Chasing trends in a losing battle

Recently I’ve been reminded about a topic that is a sore spot for some, a distant memory for some and part of a much larger debate for others. That is the idea of chasing trends in photography.

This can be in reference to a number of different aspects of photography, from the trend of making portraits on railroad tracks (most of us have done it but many haven’t seen how incredibly irresponsible it is and stopped doing it) to trends in post processing techniques. I want to talk today primarily about the latter subject, chasing post processing or editing trends.

A few disclaimers for you. First, I’m not writing this in an effort to point to myself and say “Look at me, Listen to what I say because I am an expert. I have all the right answers and you need to do things my way otherwise you are just wrong!”. I’m writing this because I think it’s something that, too often, photographers of all skill levels get sucked into and lost in.  I’m hoping this will serve as a reminder to all of us to trust our instincts and stay true to our own personal vision. Second, this may be considered a total piece of crap article because I’ve dug back in my archives and will be posting a bunch of my own horrible photographs from my earliest days as a photographer as examples. These photos are going to be smaller in size because I’m pulling them from my old Flickr account AND many of them will have some variety or another of my old watermarks on them. It’s what I did back then. Make no mistake, this is GOING to be embarrassing for me. It also goes against the normal advice, which is to only share your best work. The thing is, while I look at this work now and truly cringe at most of it, it WAS at one point my best work that I was most proud of. We all grow and learn, right?

So let’s go back in time a bit shall we? Early on I became obsessed with trying to use and learn the Orton technique. In it’s simplest form it’s a process by which you layer an overexposed and Gaussian blurred copy of the photo over the regular photo in Photoshop. It’s supposed to give an ethereal feeling to the photograph and yes, I still see this in use today. Not by me and honestly I never could quite get the hang of it. But that didn’t stop me from using it all the time. Take a look for yourself and when you are done laughing, scroll down and we’ll see what fad I jumped into next!

Wait, this last photo doesn’t seem quite like the others does it? No crazy glowing burred effects here. A bit over saturated, but otherwise a pretty clean edit. Especially given my skill level back in these days. Remember this as we move forward.

So with the Orton effect leaving me feeling unsatisfied, I decided to try out another popular technique from that time period and that was selective color…ugh…this one really embarrasses me. But you know what, I was young and eager and trying to fit in with photos that were “cool” like the other ones I was seeing in those days. I told you I’d share these cringe worthy images, lets get it over with.

But you know what, selective color was just another gimmick and again I grew sick of it really quickly. When it came down to my editing process the problem was simple, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was seeing all of these people on the internet talk about how it’s great to learn the rules of photography and once you learn them they are all meant to be broken. They were all saying that photographers shouldn’t be limited to the rules from the old film photography days because digital had so many advantages, like the ability to really manipulate your images and make them true artwork. Pixels were made to be punished after all! So I started to really push my pixels and really thought highly of myself as a photographer that was somehow now more than a photographer, I was an artist.

Really, I was an idiot. An idiot creating terrible work that burned the retinas of anyone looking at them. I had fooled myself into the idea that just because I had read about the rule of thirds or shallow depth of field, just because I had seen the terms and seen them mentioned by the professionals, I thought that meant I actually UNDERSTOOD those rules. Sure the work stood out from other photos that were not using the trendy photo editing techniques,  they actually got a lot of likes and faves over on Flickr(remember, that was THE place to share photos back in those days as there was no Instagram, Facebook or Twitter as we know them today). But while it got a lot of people to click that like or fave button, it also was quickly scrolled by and forgotten, as it should have been. It’s BAD and there is nothing good or artistic about it. See for yourself.

I told you it was bad. But don’t fear…after a short stretch of a lot of photos like this I found myself once again bored with my “artwork” and so I went back to focusing on the subject. No fancy editing tricks and no trying to be trendy. I was absolutely frustrated because I was positive that by breaking the rules and doing my own thing that I was on the track to breaking through and finally getting noticed for my photography art. Which is why when I was contacted by a local magazine to have this next photo published on their cover I found myself really confused and kind of frustrated because why would they want this boring photo and not my amazing rule breaking artwork that was using the cutting edge of technology at the time.

Yep, that photo of a long exposure of a river in autumn was my first published work. Also my one and only cover of a magazine. And while I was excited to have my work published I was also confused as to why they wanted this image since it really had just some minor edits done to adjust for exposure and contrast and a little sharpening. It was a basic and simple edit and I really didn’t punish these pixels much at all. I couldn’t see what they were seeing in it but was still proud of myself that I had just landed my first magazine cover. The problem was that I was still frustrated I hadn’t found that one editing style that would be MY look, so I kept shooting and using some basic simple edits for a bit as I tried to find inspiration from the next big trend. Here’s some more from my “boring” edits back then.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t hate these photos. I was fairly proud of them and was just starting to almost realize something about my work when all of a sudden I started seeing a lot about HDR and more specifically Tone Mapping. Suddenly the breakthrough I was about to have was lost in the whirlwind of HDR/ToneMapped activity. This was probably about 8 years ago still and people like Trey Radcliff and Thomas Hawke were showing up all over Flickr and some of the newer social media services that were starting. They had these incredible images that just seemed to jump off the screen, hyper saturated colors and there was something very surreal about the images. So I had to attempt to learn this because this new editing technique is what would make my photography great. So off I went…

Now these examples aren’t great, they don’t even push the HDR as far as most of the nasty HDR/Tone Mapped work out there. In all honesty these are fairly tame. There was something about HDR that just never sat well with me. Partly the over saturated colors and partly the fact that there really are no actual shadows and highlights in the image. That surreal look that drew me in early on quickly turned to a feeling of the image being boring because there was no interest coming from the subject, the lighting, the shadows. It was all a retina burning hyper saturation of color and a completely flattened cartoonish look that seemed to draw so much attention only because of the post processing that was being done. The actual subject, story and feeling from the photographic subject was completely absent. I soon found myself drawn to the basic edits on my work again because once again I thought I had just struck out and failed as I continued my chase of the latest trends. I continued to shoot and share work like this next photo and I remember thinking that “It’s a pretty decent photo”, I liked it but couldn’t see it as anything real special because pixels weren’t punished at all. It was just nature’s beauty in a sunset doing it’s thing. I wasn’t ready to see the simple beauty of that just yet.

Ahh, but then the whole vintage style showed up. VSCO had landed and everyone was trying to recreate their own version of that faded film look because it was such a classic feel. Yep, I jumped on that bandwagon also.

Here’s where things get a little interesting. While really trying to figure out this fad of the completely crushed blacks and faded muted colors I learned something. It all finally clicked for me. And while the change wasn’t immediate, I finally was finding the look and feel with my post processing that would eventually open my eyes to post processing forever. I started to understand the concepts of what was drawing me to some of my favorite photographs. Because even though I went too far with the faded vintage processing, I learned that the color and mood, the light and shadows, were what drew me into my work. So I started to refine.

Over time I learned the importance of understanding color and the way it impacts the mood and feel of your image. Understanding light and, most importantly, shadow are another key ingredient. But ultimately how effectively I can translate my vision of the scene in front of me to the viewers of my work, creating an emotional response to the photograph is what is MOST important. It’s not about the editing style and the trends. I spent the better part of 10 years chasing these trends, from Orton Effect and HDR/Tonemapping, selective color, faded vintage and everything in between. I was NEVER really satisfied with my work. As you saw in this post, the work was very forgettable except for how bad it really was. But the one thread running through all of it is that the subject of my photographs became what editing process I was using in Photoshop. That’s the problem. People viewing that work only see the editing technique and even if they don’t know what HDR or Orton Effect are, they just see it as something shiny and different…because they are seeing the edits and not the subject matter in your photograph.

It’s like with a good movie, the best special effects are the ones you never notice. They never take you away from the plot or story of the movie. When you notice the special effects you start watching the effects and you lose the story which means that your entire message has been overshadowed by the special effects. The same holds true with your photographs. It took me a long time to learn and understand this. Yeah, rules are made to be broken. I get it. No one wants to feel like they are stuck in a box. But the thing is, if you focus on your subject and your story. If you focus on creating that emotional connection to your image and forget about gimmicky editing tricks. If you make sure that your edits serve to gently enhance the subject matter in your photographs in a way that the edits do not become the subject in your photographs.  If you can keep your edits invisible, a clean, consistent and gentle massaging of your image, you’ll never be painted into a box because only you have the ability to tell the story of what you see. By not giving in to the chasing of trends, you’ll find you’ve got a catalog of imagery that has a deeper personal connection, imagery that will stand the test of time. Now, before I get angry messages accusing me of being a “straight out of camera” “no edits allowed” photography purist, let me clarify. I believe that ALL photographs need a little help with some post processing. A straight out of camera jpeg is just as bad in most cases as a Tone Mapped disaster. What I’m saying is simply to step back and look at your post processing. Pay attention to when you reach the point that you start to notice your edits and figure out when you can tell that your post processing is becoming the subject of your photo. At that point it’s time to dial things back a few notches and typically that is where you’ll find that clean edit, no matter what your favorite style is. I’ve seen HDR/ToneMapping done beautifully, same goes for the Orton Effect and even the faded VSCO vintage look. But the one thing examples of beautiful work in those styles have in common is that they are not pushed past that point where the editing style becomes the subject. They maintain a light touch with the edits that serve to only enhance the original subject in a completely invisible way, never taking center stage.

If you look back through the history of all photography, what are the images that hold up and stand the test of time. It’s not a photograph that was over-processed with the latest editing styles, it’s the multitude of photographs in which the editing just disappears and all that remains is an image that has a story to tell. So why do we chase the trends when it comes to our photography? There are many answers to that but I think one of the most common is because it’s easier to do that than to be honest with ourselves and realize we have a lot of learning to do from the masters that came before us. It’s easier to say all the right terms and phrases and sound like you know what you are talking about than it is to actually put in the countless hours of study and practice required to finally START to understand those basics that we thought we learned years ago. It’s because sometimes being honest with ourselves hurts when we realize our work just isn’t that compelling and it’s easier to just want to take that shortcut that hides our own flaws and short comings.

Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t hide and don’t steal from yourself the ability to truly learn this amazing craft and art of photography. Never stop learning and never stop being honest with yourself. But please, I beg you, stop chasing these silly trends. It truly is a losing battle.

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