Thursday, May 12, 2005

Why people look at pictures pt1

Well, yesterday’s critical post about cats went down a storm.

… almost too easy.

Blog postings from the same series currently in the pipeline include:

  • Urban cyclists? Worse than cats?
  • iPod ownership and the demise of individuality (Part 37)
  • Are you daft enough to believe in Fair Trade coffee?
  • Glaciers? Who needs them?
  • Why everyone should vote Conservative / Republican

And then there’s the one about people who frequent photography forums, pontificate about the superiority of their £3,000 lens collection and then fill the forums up with pictures of their pets taken in their back gardens.

That’s more of a speciality post, admittedly.

But then I get to pondering upon the broader subject of what kind of photos do I, and others, actually enjoy looking at.

The short answer to that question is easy. People generally only enjoy looking at pictures they’ve taken themselves or pictures of themselves...

I may have mentioned this story before but a friend visited me once, shortly after returning from a driving trip along the West Coast of America (you know who you are). He popped a cassette of his travels in my VCR. The high point of the tape consisted of a long clip of film of the view through the windshield as he drove, slowly, from one end of the Golden Gate Bridge to the other. My friend was clearly thrilled to relive this classic footage in my company whilst, at the same time, I was soundlessly mouthing the words ’Why are you doing this to me? Why?’

The full, non generalised, answer to the question as to why people look at other people's imagery is a tad more involved and best broken down into chunks:

Why do amateur photographers take pictures?

  • As a record
  • As a means of artistic expression
  • Because they’re perverts

Why do amateur photographers display pictures?

  • Because they think they’re great, want to be discovered and pack in their day job
  • Because after spending thousands on equipment and processing they can’t think of anything else to do with them
  • As a form of artistic expression
  • Because they’re perverts

In this respect, sites like Flickr are a fantastic alternative to the pre Internet destination of 99.5% of all photographs – an old shoebox in a cupboard somewhere. On the subject of Flickr, there is clearly some motivational overlap between photo sharing and personal blogs. Though, I’d say there’s a wider range of impulses behind personal blogs; cries for help, the search for kindred spirits, voices in heads, late night insomnia attacks, and all the rest. Even if the intention is there, only a very skilled photographer would be able to communicate a personal blog style message purely through imagery. Having said that, community style photosharing sites like Flickr and their interactive commenting systems might change that. Mmmm, I wonder what a Cry for Help Photosharing site would look like? Maybe I should give one a try.

Why do people look at amateur pictures?

  • Out of a sense of politeness because you asked them to
  • To see images of themselves
  • Out of a sense of curiosity or wonder
  • Because they’re perverts

Because I’m a photo nut I DO look at other people’s pictures, out of a sense of curiosity and wonder. When I am looking at those pictures I am constantly, and subconsciously, asking myself 'why did that person take this picture and why are they showing it to me?'

Motive counts for a lot and comes through in a photograph. A technically poor photograph that reflects the sense of humour or humanity of the photographer or the subject will always be intrinsically more interesting than technically better images captured by, or of, tossers.

To be continued - when I’m feeling more erudite than that last sentence.


zenyenta said...

I look at photos for a few different reasons. Pictures of places - cities and towns in particular, interest me most these days, although that's subject to change at any time. I don't get around much. I like pictures that might give me an idea of what it's like to be somewhere.

Then, I like to look at pictures of places I've been to. So, to recap, I like pictures of two kinds of places - places I've been and place I haven't been.

Since our recent red/blue state troubles here in the US, I've developed an addiction to photos of my native New York City. I only live about 50 miles away from it, so it's not like it's an old home that I haven't seen in years, but all that concrete and steel grayness that I hated living amongst as a child looks so reassuringly non-red state now that I'm constantly attracted to it.

I also have to confess I like pictures of dogs. Dog photos make me smile. Corny, but true. BTW, I'm very fond of cats. They're just not as expressive in photos.

Stef said...

So do. I'd class that as 'curiousity and wonder'. It all depends on what you would understand when I pair those two words together.

I understand entirely what you mean about looking at photos of places you haven't been to and also places you HAVE been to, after some time has passed.

And, without getting too profound, those places you haven't been to might also include images of familiar places but taken in the distant past.

(I wrote this entry and will write the follow-up entry in response to meeting a guy here in London who's researching a thesis on photography and collective memory.)

Re. Red/ Blue issues. We, of course, have a similiar separation here in the UK. Though I think the colours are the other way round, plus we have a few splodges of orange as well to confuse the issue. And I'm not sure whether or not that would ever make me pine for Inner City London should I ever flee to somewhere cleaner and greener ...

Re. pet photography.

Cats for indoors.
Dogs for outdoors.

It's a Universal Law.

Re. cat expressions

It all depends on the voltage you apply

No, no, I'm kidding ...

zenyenta said...

About the memory thing..that's interesting. When I see pictures of Vermont mountain streams, they resonate a lot more than they did before I'd seen one in real life. OTOH, I other than the beauty, I got a huge kick out of seeing them in real life because I'd seen so many photos of them.

Kind of the mind/photo connection? Well, I might just be overtired..

Sparkling said...

Your Cat post was much better!

Looking fwd to the rest of the series... Fair Trade Coffee? As in people believe everything they recycle actually get's recycled, people also believe in Fair Trade Coffee??

Ian Howells said...

re: using photos as a memory tool, I agree. I was in Vietnam for three days once and for the life of me cannot remember anything I did there, or where I was. I must have done something there. One of my only memories is eating Chicken with Chilli and Lemongrass in my Hotel room, which has now become my favorite dish of all time.
A camera would have helped me out here.
I also went to South America for three weeks without a camera, that was a mistake, I bought a disposable one out there eventually and now have selected memories based on the photos I have.
I must stop drinking so much.

Stef said...


Overtired? Real Bloggers do it at a 4am in the Morning



Yes, the cat post was better. That's a limitation of my current blog format. I could very easily generate a stream of Devil's Advocate posts without breaking sweat. It's my curse. However, I sometimes post other material for different reasons. This post and the next one I'll write are a specific response to the researcher I mentioned in my earlier comment. As a photographer and blogger I'm just jotting down a few thoughts as to why I blog and take photos. But yes, it is more specialist than, say, the cat post. The problem is it all comes out in a straight line in the same place. Maybe I should get round to some kind of grading or classification system?

I. / Z.

The power of pictures to aid and enhance memory is hugely underrated. My memories of my own past are extremely 'lumpy' and only thicken up when there are some photos at hand. And memories are a important factor is defining who you are. Conclusions:
- take more pictures and not just of holidays
- take pictures of daily life in addition to landmark events
- what applies to individuals also applies to groups. Maybe the rise of digital cameras and photosharing will improve society's collective memory and self-awareness

Anonymous said...

Why do I look at your photos?, because there's a very high percentage that are excellent, no BS. Don't get me wrong there are some where I think 'what was Stef thinking of?'...but there's a million times more of them on my site, with quite a few that i should hang my head in shame. Having said that it never ceases to amaze me that other people on Flickr favourite photos I think are terrible, where I've been scrapping the bottom of my hard drive for just one last photo of London (the ultimate recycling?).
Speaking personally I'm trying to take photos 'I' like first. Whilst I'm always interested in other peoples 1270 photos of their pet cat or photos of a once in a life time holiday where they've taken 12.5 out of focus photos, I'm usually clenching everything to stop myself saying 'what the hell were you thinking of?, you're a complete arsehole!!!!'...or worse :)

Btw Dogs make us feel good (photographically speaking because they usually look like they're smiling), whilst cats are dismissive and are probably thinking 'Twat, he's underexposed that shot and ruined it with camera shake' best.


Stef said...

Thanks, as you know the sentiments are reciprocated

The main reasons for the dross on my Flickr account is that I'm using it as an archive of pictures that mean something to me.

The secondary reason is that I have been known to take sh*te photos.

I've been thinking about the subject of why people take, display and view pictures lately because someone recently asked me why I thought people do these things. I decided that it was worth thinking about it properly because the answers might help me take better pictures and be a better critic of other people's pictures ...

and isn't funny how bad pictures have the capacity to annoy. In that respect they're no different to any other bad art, whatever the medium.

Totally agree with you about the dog/ cat thing and the strange thing is that some people adore cats specifically because they're aloof and dismissive.

Mind you, some people like being dressed up in nappies and spanked. It takes all sorts ...

Anonymous said...

Cheers mate, quick tech question. How does the whole RAW/Jpeg thing work, I take it I can choose between the two formats (or write both). I'm guessing I need to use the RAW software to convert images back to jpeg (hopefully i can then save and open them in Adobe photoshop elements?). How do you do things with your 300d? any tips?

Stef said...

Ah, the path of image post-processing is a long one ...

First tip - you only have to put in as much effort you want to. Rather like choosing a DSLR over a compact.

Obvious enough, but people do get put off and start thinking 'sod it, I'll go back to my point and shoot and minlab'


Two main reasons to use raw

1. It is a semi-lossless format. Jpg files are smaller but can contain ugly artifacts, that get worse the more the file is compressed

2. With raw you can adjust colour balance and other stuff on your PC. You also can rescue images that are over or under exposed by a stop or two. If you save JPGs on your camera there's a lot less scope for rescue when you load them on the PC.

So, RAW is lossless and enables more tweaking compared to JPG

Downside is that RAW takes up more space and converting and editing them takes a lot more time.

Me, I use fine JPGs most of the time. The loss levels aren't high and I make sure I get the exposure right in the first place. I also keep the in-camera sharpening, saturation and contrast settings low - that renders the resulting jpgs more amenable to playing with

Many people swear by working in RAW but they are either perfectionists or have lots of time on their hands.

Freebie (currently) raw workflow software here ...

Two other bits of freebie software worth looking at for special situations

PTLens/ Radcor - for correcting lens distortion

Noiseware community edition for cleaning up noise when you;ve used high ISOs

Google should tell you where they are

Time for tiffin' now ...

Anonymous said...

Cheers mate, VERY useful info (as usual)...I'll check these out when I have some time.


David said...

As usual I don't march with the crowd. One of my favourite pastimes is looking through friend's photo albums. The only criterion is I know some of the people in them. It's an extension of my own world, so just as interesting. Especially seeing them before I knew them.