Dean M. Chriss

Visual Interpretation in Artistic Photography
Conveying Your Unique Perceptions of the World to Others
November 17, 2015

Immature Bald Eagle, On the Hunt
Immature Bald Eagle, On the Hunt
Different people see the world differently. One person may be impressed by the intricate structural detail in a leaf while another may ignore the structure and be wowed by its colors. If these two people are photographers, the first person may take great pains to capture a tack sharp image of the leaf and may then render it in black and white to eliminate the distraction of color. The second may use a soft focus filter to eliminate the distraction of the intricate structure, and may then add saturation to the colors to give them more punch. These two photographers create radically different visual interpretations of the same leaf. Each interpretation conveys to the viewer qualities of the leaf that were important to the photographer.

All artistic photographers are visual interpreters and realizing this can make you a better one. The key to good visual interpretation is recognizing the characteristics of a scene that compel you to photograph it. Making careful choices throughout the entire image making process to emphasize those characteristics and deemphasize things that detract from them is what conveys your personal vision to others. Camera position, lens focal length and aperture, shutter speed, when to trip the shutter, countless post-processing adjustments, print size, aspect ratio, and the media used to print the image are examples of choices that affect what others see as your visual interpretation of a scene. Every choice is important and each deserves careful deliberation. Reflect on each choice to be sure it is really yours and not just a default adjustment, canned software effect, processing fad, or media fad that has nothing to do with what you are trying to convey. If you are successful the resulting photograph will allow viewers to perceive the scene as you did. I believe that is the heart of artistic photography.

Technology tends to obscure personal vision in photography more than it does in any other art form. That is perhaps because photography involves such extensive use of technology and many photographers have technical backgrounds, myself included. We often obsess over new technology and expect it to solve our problems, but most problems have more to do with art than science. It is important for photographers to realize that others judge their work based only on how the image affects them emotionally. The technical aspects of a photograph are usually recognized only if they are bad enough to call attention to themselves.

History shows the qualities that draw us to great photographs are timeless. Good photographs produced long ago with equipment that is crude by today's standards are as wonderful, desirable, and appreciated now as they ever were. In fact, some of today's artistic photographers revive old photographic processes for use in their work. There is nothing wrong with the pursuit of modern technical excellence, but switching from old or mediocre camera equipment to the best and most modern equipment on earth will not in itself make your photographs more appealing. Conversely, learning how to use camera settings, composition, color, and post-processing techniques in ways that convey your vision to others will get you a long way toward creating more appealing and more distinctive photographs.

The next time you practice the art of photography try putting more of yourself into the results. Think about why you are taking the photo and how you can visually show those reasons to others through the photograph. Think about your vision for the finished photograph before taking the picture and follow through accordingly. This is harder than it sounds, but you may find it makes your photography more satisfying.

Happy interpreting!