The Short Life of Visual Effects
“In chess, there are some extremely beautiful things in the domain of movement, but not in the visual domain. It’s the imagining of the movement or of the gesture that makes the beauty in this case.”
| Marcel Duchamp
Humans follow trends. There might be many reasons for why we do what we do. First of all, it is easier. It helps us to find a path in the information jungle. This information reduction helps us to cope with the ever increasing complex world around us. If we follow a trend, we can’t be wrong. And we don’t like to be wrong. The scientific principles behind this behaviour are manifold.
We avoid deviating too much from the social norm, or what is socially accepted. This induces a safety in numbers. If we follow the trend, we search for information that confirms our preconception (confirmation bias). And we avoid options for which a favorable outcome is unlikely (ambiguity effect). Through this behavior, we also avoid negative feedback, trolls or any conflict (conflict avoidance). Following a trend also ensures that we receive immediate payoffs relative to later payoffs. The choices we make today tend to prefer these immediate payoffs (hyperbolic discounting). All these effects are magnified by media influence and things we ought to see in our everyday lives (media influence). Through the selection of events, products or stories that are selected in mass media and through the way journalists report about them influenced by marketing, we seem to live in echo chambers. We are listening to the same stories again and again up until we accept them and adapt our behavior or adopt a product according to them. We further compare ourselves with others (social comparison) and express desirable characteristics, behaviors or possessions of others (social desirability bias). Sometimes we even do things just because a critical mass of others are doing it, regardless of our own beliefs (bandwagon effect).
In photography, we are also victims of trends. Over the years, we have seen many of those trends coming and going. In the following, I characterize them all as “visual effects“, whether they origin from the place, the artist, the object, hardware, software, or different processing techniques. Below, I list a few of those and give examples. With these examples, I’d like to postulate that by following visual effect trends our photographs might have a short lifetime. We are striving for the quick “like”, instead of creating something sustainable. This thought is backed by society, in which organizations as well as individuals need to deliver short-term results and neither have the time to reflect nor create something revolutionary new. In the end of the article, I’ll suggest an alternative way to photograph.
I’d like to point out that I am not judging any of the exemplary photographs I use in this post. Many of them are beautiful and are taken by some of the most well-known landscape photographers in the world. Rather, I’d just like to describe a development that I perceive.
As of the trends in photography:
1. The Place
People copy locations and certain perspectives, because they have learned that other images from that very same location were successful. Anselm Adams’ famous photograph Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park for example has been often copied. Similar to his photograph Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite Valley. We even hear stories of people putting their tripods in exactly the same tripod holes to copy an image. Some of those individuals just want to create “their” version of the place, but without giving credits to the original one. Others, may want to learn and understand how the original one was taken. But they all strive for confirmation of their preconception (confirmation bias). And we avoid locations, objects or moods that are unlikely to have a favorable outcome. This whole movement has led to a popularity of “InstaStar” places that are crowded with visitors. Often nature suffers and beautiful locations are being destroyed. This for example happened to Michael Kenna’s famous Philosopher Tree.
The result is that we often become tired of versioned photographs from the same place. For example, Iceland’s Kirkjufell with the waterfall, or the Wanaka Tree in New Zealand.
2. The Objects
Over the years, individuals have recognized that placing some objects into a place increases the likability of the image. Not only standing at Anselm Adam’s place in Yosemite Valley, correctly positioning the Bridal Veil Falls together with the majestic El Capitan and Half Dome, but doing it right after a thunderstorm with a lightning extending the waterfall to the sky and a rain bow curling over the valley will potentially make the image potentially very successful on social media. Media influence has told us that images with auroras, the milky way, fog, lightning or rainbows are more successful than others. As such individuals desire stacking these objects onto the main subject hankering after the sensation.
With time, these photographs may become implausible and non-authentic. Even if the scenery happened as photographed, the image may induce the perception of a fantasy movie rather than a special moment in a beautiful landscape.
3. The Visual Design
Photography is painting with light. As such, light is the cause and origin of us making photographs, not of subjects but from the light reflected by them. Through perceptional psychology we have however learned that light is not only a physical cause of what we see, but that it is one of the most important psychological experiences humans make (see for example Rudolf Arnheim’s classical book). Light therefore impacts our perception and is responsible for the emotion derived from a photograph. Light has certain characteristics, such as temperature, direction or intensity that influence tone and color in a photograph. With changing natural light, the tonal range and color palette also changes and influence the contrast and visual design of a scene.
Without going into the details of visual perception in here, over the years, photographers have realized that often high contrast images, with high saturation level surrounding popular subjects in dramatic light situations, have become the Instagram stars. These image received many likes and comments. Because of the confirmation bias, individuals tend to produce more of these images. This is of course also rooted and conditional on business strategies of individuals that want or need to become successful on social media.
Through the usage of points, lines, layers, or shapes we arrange the natural visual design. Once we see diagonals or leading lines, we might see them forever. And because they often work leading the eye of the viewer into a scene, these visual arrangement and successful composition are also following trends and are copied quite often.
The more we see these working compositions and arrangements, we may become used to them. We understand why they work and as such they work less strong than they have originally worked in the beginning with their surprising perspective.
4. The Hardware
Hardware innovations also often set trends and open up possibilities that haven’t been touched before. Not talking about the digitalization of photography, or the transition towards mirrorless cameras, also lenses have a dramatic influence. The usage of extreme wide-angle lenses down to 12mm (or even more such as the Nikon 6mm, f/2.8), extreme zoom lenses such as the Canon 1200mm f/5.6 (ok, this one is potentially not affordable for the masses), macro lenses or specialty lenses such as the Meyer Optik Trioplan 100mm, f/2.8 with its soap bubble bokeh, or the Lensbaby Composer Pro 50 f/2.5 with its sweet spot focus triggered many photographers to heavily use specific lenses.
Among landscape photographers, there definitely has been a period of heavy use of wide angle lenses. One can even find many tutorials on how to use these lenses correctly. As a result, a series of flower under mountain peak images have appeared in the market.
The consequence might be that the lifecycle of specific extreme lenses or extreme hardware is short, because we become tired to them quickly.
5. The Techniques
In this section I’d like to focus on the process of making the photograph and the recent trends we have seen in photography. For this, I distinguish between a.) in-camera techniques during the capture of the photograph, and b.) editing technique on the computer.
a.) In camera trends
Most of the in-camera techniques have been triggered by photographer’s needs. And creativity has been necessary to overcome these needs. Years ago for example cameras had much lower dynamical range and photographers felt forced to bracket images.
Bracketing creates different separated image files that later on are blended together in the editing process into one single image. In contrast to composites, bracketed images work with what is there in the field. Meanwhile, there are plenty of different applications of bracketed images that blend sources images together for different reasons.
Bracketed images can be created for:
- exposure blending to selectively control tones in high dynamic range scenarios (variable: different exposures); a special case of exposure blending is high-dynamic-range photography (HDR) in which several exposures are partly directly combined into one single output image in camera;
- focus blending (sometimes even with different lenses) combining different focal lengths in one image to overcome extreme distortions (“pancaking”) by wide-angle lenses (variable: focus lengths); a special type of focus blending is focus stacking in order to create tack-sharp images from front to back;
- perspective blending by stitching several images together into a panoramic or a vertoramic image (variable: the perspective or angle);
- time blending by capturing the same images at different points in time and combining them together (variable: time); a special type of time blending is capturing twilight blends of the land during the golden hour and the sky during twilight.
- multiple exposure blending to overlay images over others, give texture to them, to blur them with time and to offer certain interpretations to the meaning of the image.
Thanks to these trends we have received waves of tack-sharp landscape images, warped mountains, strange HDR effects, but also many very creative captures of our beautiful landscapes.
Example 16: Exposure blending (Jimmy McIntyre)
Example 17: Focus blending (Erin Babnik)
Example 18: Perspective blending (Mads Peter Iversen)
Example 19: Time blending (Fabio Antenore)
Example 20: Twilight blending (Michael Shainblum)
Example 21: Multiple exposures (Nel Talen)
b.) Editing trends
Similar to the development of hardware, also the development of software and its creative usage influenced certain ways to process image files. Some popular trends in recent years have been:
- Dodging and burning are quite old techniques already applied in the darkroom of the film era. The goal was to selectively brighten or darken certain parts of an image during the printing process. In the movie that I link in the references, we can see Anselm Adams’ son Michael explains how his father applied the techniques in the darkroom. Today, these techniques are often applied to through luminosity masks making use of brightening or darkening blend modes.
- Light painting is a similar process to dodging and burning with the difference that color is introduced to brighten or darken certain parts of an image, for example bringing colder tones to the shadows and warmer tones to the highlights. Ryan Dyar has been one of the forerunners of this movement and often applied the technique to the brightest highlights in an image to create a highlight glow or light bleed.
- Highlight glow or Orton effect was originally introduced by Michael Orton in the 80s, but made popular in the digital era by Marc Adamus. It mirrors the moment when bright light shines into a scene, with small particles in the air diffusing the light and decreasing the shadow contrasts. The objective is to create dreamy highlight glow effects to an image. The effect is mostly used by small opacity blur layers applied to the highlights in an image. There are however plenty of variations of this technique.
These techniques and many more have influenced many of today’s landscape photographers who publish their work on social media websites. As with all trends, with time we may become tired of too much Orton, too much dream and too many artificial colors introduced into natural scenes. Nevertheless, these techniques and the creativity with software usage have broadened up the possibilities in the landscape photography field and motivated many individuals to be more creative and experiment more rather than sticking to existing clichés.
Erin Babnik wrote an excellent article about these different techniques.
New Visual Effects Push Boundaries…
From all these different “visual effects” in photography that I described above, we might see that they pushed the boundaries of our field, broadened up possibilities for choice and enriched our creative lives. The also fueled the purses of many photographers who instruct followers on applying specific techniques. As such these trends are required by the economy and professionals have an interest to innovate and “coin” them.
…But Trends Have a Shorter Life
On the other hand, with increasing time and an intensified usage of a specific “visual effect” by many photographers, we become tired of it and often can no longer stand it. When do we realize that by following others all the time, by sitting in front of online tutorials, by consuming rather than creating, we will not become happier, nor more satisfied, nor will we create photographic work that lasts?
Focus on Who You Are Instead of What Others Do
A life cycle is a series of stages through which something passes during its lifetime. Everything follows a life cycle, such as we individuals through aging, cultures through development and adaptation, or products through the manufacturing and consumption process. As such, art also follows life cycles. Photographs as well. Some life cycles are shorter, others longer. Some are steeper with a high peak, others are steady without a peak. Some fall down quickly after reaching a peak. What can we learn from this life cycle theory for the art?
Which photograph do you put on your wall? Often, it is not the most scenic visual effects one, the one that received the most likes, the one with highest contrast or saturation, but the simple ones that tell a story or remind you on a specific moment of your life, the ones that induce strong emotions, or the ones in which you were present. Which photograph do we want to take?
Clearly, professionals have reasons to apply trendy techniques to receive the feedback they need to make money and survive. But don’t we all seek out to make photographs that survive and attract us for a long time? That accompany us like friends? The photograph through which our personality shines through?
The answer might be to create “expressive photography”. With expressive photography, we do not strive per se to create appealing images, but to create those who transmit emotions and or thoughts that are subjective in the mind of the photographer. An expressive photograph allows the personality of the photographer to shine through her or his work. It shows its uniqueness and as such couldn’t being made by another photographer in the same way. As such, expressive photographs contribute to the larger artistic world by a new perspective and have a stand-alone character. Whether they are appealing to a specific viewer or not, whether they induce emotions to that viewer or not, whether the viewer understands the expressed messaged or, doesn’t necessarily matter at first. At first, it is the act.
Can everyone create expressive photographs? In theory, we can. In practice, we need to find a connection to our inner personality, we may want to listen to our inner voice, ask questions and have the courage to transmit or allow that to flow into our work. It is important that we are inspired to search out for ideas worth expressing. What is your personal story behind the work, what are your thoughts behind it, which layers of signification did you put into your work, which of your experiences have been so meaningful that they influenced the way you work?
Don’t let your message being covered by visual effects. Let yourself being heard. And focus on who you are as a person.
The most interesting personal growth process in the arts is potentially the journey to ourself. With expressive photography we’ll discover important elements of our personality and potentially the one question we want to answer in our life.
In this post, I postulated that visual effects that create trends have a short life. With many examples, I distinguished between different kinds of visual effects conditional on the place, the objects surrounding the subject, the visual designs and compositions, the hardware or the techniques we apply in camera or during editing an image. While all these effects have a positive influence on creativity and open the field of possibilities, we quickly become saturated by specific effects. We all become saturated of it. As a consequence, images heavily applying these trendy visual effects may have a short lifespan.
If we want to create lasting photographs that are meaningful to us, tell stories and induce strong emotions, we may want to focus more on our own message and what we want to express with a photograph. Instead of following what others do. The photograph is our medium to be heard. If we focus on who we are as a person, we may shine through the work we create.
Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception. A Psychology of the Creative Eye, The New Version, University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 2004 (original from 1954).
Erin Babnik. A Lexicon of Post-Processing Terms in Landscape Photography Today, Photocascadia.com, 27.10.206.
Abigail Cain. The Story Behind the Photograph That Made Ansel Adams Famous, artsy.net, 17.2.2017.
N.N. Farmer fells Hokkaido ‘Philosophy Tree’ amid aging, tourist concerns, The Japan Times, 29.2.2016.
Carey Rose. Dodging, burning… microwaving? A look inside Anselm Adams’ darkroom, dpreview.com, 9.7.2016.
Guy Tal. The expressive photograph, GuyTal.blog, 13.5.2019.
The Anselm Adams Gallery, last visited: 22.04.2020.