Aesthetics: what makes a picture look “beautiful” or aesthetically pleasing to our eye, mind, and soul?
Okay, so I have experimented with many cameras, lenses, films, and formats over the years.
I remember being shocked, when I was curious of shooting medium format film. I dutifully shot many rolls of Kodak Portra 400 medium format film on a hasselblad, and compared it to shooting on a smartphone camera processed in VSCO with the A6 preset. In my article, Medium format film vs smartphone pictures my conclusion was that I preferred the phone pictures processed in VSCO above the medium format film color pictures.
Now this was strange to me… wasn’t film supposed to be more aesthetically beautiful and pleasing than phone pictures?
This has led me down a Alice in wonderland rabbit hole, trying to discover the secret of what makes a beautiful picture.
Okay some other observations:
- I prefer the look of black and white film over any digital black and white photos. I can get my digital black and white photos to look pretty good, and quite similar to my black and white film photos (using ERIC KIM MONOCHROME 1600 preset in RAW + Lightroom), but black and white film will always look better to me. Specifically, Kodak Tri-X film pushed to 1600.
- For color for muted, relaxing images, that feel “timeless”, I prefer Kodak Portra 400 35mm film. I cannot find any satisfactory comparisons in the realm of digital color pictures. I have also found I prefer the aesthetics of 35mm Kodak Portra 400 over the “look” of medium format Portra 400 (120 film).
So off the bat, for 35mm black and white and color, I have found no comparisons in the digital realm.
Therefore, if money and convenience was never an issue, I would always shoot black and white or color film, purely for the pleasing aesthetics.
Now the more interesting question, “Why do I prefer the aesthetics of film pictures over digital pictures?”
First, the randomness and gritty texture of film is more aesthetically beautiful than lifeless, RAW or Jpeg images, because everything in nature is rugged, raw, gritty, and textured.
For example, we prefer to look at the jagged edges of rocks, trees, and the texture of fur, grass, and other organic matter … instead of looking at lifeless, inorganic materials such as stainless steel, or plastic.
The inorganic textures which look “beautiful” to us in terms of aesthetics are worn down. For example, rust looks aesthetically beautiful for the shifting bronze and blood orange textures and colors, or the golden brass peeking out of a worn-down black paint Leica. Or we like the wear marks on a pair of “distressed” or worn-in RAW DENIM.
If you study nature and fractals, the coast lines of islands and land, or anything natural… there are no straight lines.
Therefore the proposition is this：
Human eyes and sensory perception prefers the aesthetics of the natural, rugged, textured, and imperfect.
My theory is that if humans did not love the aesthetics of nature (trees, water, greenery), we would have died. Why? Humans survive and thrive best where there is bountiful green land and trees and water for survival. Maybe this is why we like views of sweeping forests, flat plains, and bodies of water. Something in our DNA likes this.
Another thing：modern day photography tries to emulate the look of film. VSCO and other popular image processing software, filters, and algorithms try to ADD GRAIN, RANDOMNESS, and IMPERFECTIONS to our pictures. We like false colors, gritty grain, and irregular contrast.
We disdain the “lifeless” pictures of a color jpeg image from a CMOS sensor.
Thinking about this deeper:
Why do aesthetics matter?
For me, it is like judging pictures, art, and beauty like you do with your food… either with enthusiasm, good appetite, or the opposite— disgust and nausea.
Let me give you an example：HDR Photography.
Any picture with too much post processing or HDR is ugly. Why? It is like adding 1,000 spices to a nice piece of sirloin steak. It ruins the taste of the meat with too many flavors.
Or like dumping an entire container of salt on that nice steak. A little salt improves the taste, but too much salt ruins it.
Therefore with digital pictures, of course we must process them and add filters and presets. But my general rule is this:
When you’re processing your picture and it looks 80% “good enough”, stop processing it. Why? To prevent you from over-salting your steak.
And with nice food, once you over-salt it, it is hard to go back.
Obviously, everyone has different aesthetic tastes. Some of us like our meat more salty. Some of us like our food salty. Some of us like fatty cuts of steak, pork jowl, or beef tongue. The more ill-informed prefer skinless chicken breast and white meat, or even worse… Filet mignon.
Anyways, of course as an opinionated individual, I think my aesthetic tastes are “the best” and everyone should listen to me. But I am wrong.
Through photography, discover your own aesthetic taste, and just know it for yourself.
What does ERIC KIM like?
I like high contrast black and white pictures. I don’t like grey. I prefer to “crush the blacks” (process my photos with high contrast, until there is no detail in the shadows, or by sliding the ‘blacks’ slider to 100%). I prefer the gritty black and white work of Josef Koudelka.
For color, I like high saturation and flash. I like the earlier color work of Martin Parr.
Another tip with aesthetics and photography:
Make photos that put a smile on your own face, or which brings you joy.
I’ve been shooting a lot on phones recently, and when shot outdoors, I like the look of color phone pictures processed with VSCO A6 filter.
I know I like the aesthetic or look, when I apply the A6 preset, and it suddenly looks really good! And I smile. And I wonder, “Why do I prefer the aesthetics of color film over digital and phone pictures again?”
I shot some Cindy Project Pictures on Kodak Portra 400, and in terms of the aesthetics, it feels WARM, SOULFUL, NOSTALGIC. I know I will look back on these photos as an old man, and they will still bring a smile to me.
Why? Because the colors are softer, more muted, pink pastels and dusty blue. Also, seeing the irregularity of the film grain, the scratches on the scanned negatives, and the random flares of light bring me 100x more joy than any digital picture I have made of Cindy.
Why do we make pictures?
Okay, why do the aesthetic or “look” of pictures matter, judged against why we make pictures?
I make pictures to find more joy in everyday living, and LIFE.
Personally, I LOVE LIFE! To be alive and on earth fucking rocks.
The joy of wandering the streets, the joy of talking with strangers and loved ones, the joy of good tasting food (I love the pork broth of Japanese Ramen), and the aesthetic joy of looking at great art. And the challenge and fun of making art myself… via writing, poetry, videos, pictures, and drawings.
So for me, why should aesthetics matter in photography, if my primary purpose is to shoot to glorify life?
First of all, I want to make pictures that I like to look at.
I like to look at my own photos as if someone else shot them.
The only way to tell whether they are good or not.
Secondly, when I look back at my old pictures, I want to smile. But funny enough, a lot of my personal phone pictures also bring me joy. If anything, had I NOT shot those pictures on a phone, I probably wouldn’t have shot them at all. And I would have lost those precious memories.
Thirdly, I like making pictures to explore and APPRECIATE the world around me more. In that case, I can do that with any camera, or just a phone.
I know this essay is all over the place. My apologies. It is mostly my personal musings, still in-progress.
To sum up so far,
Make pictures that bring a smile on your face. And to do that, make sure to use the tool or the camera that creates a “look” or aesthetic that brings you joy.
Therefore experiment. Experiment with film (buy FILM NOTES), medium format and 35mm film, black and white vs color, jpeg vs raw (or jpeg+raw), phone photography (VSCO or Snapseed to process), or different digital cameras and sensors.
Find what brings you personal joy, and never forget to return to the eternal recurrence of the CREATIVE EVERYDAY.