“Sometimes photographers mistake emotion for what makes a great street photograph.”
– Garry Winogrand
Imagine this situation: it is a cold and rainy day. You are out shooting on the streets, and you are feeling miserable. You haven’t got any good shots all day, despite the fact that you left your warm (and dry) house to take some street photos. You are about to give up and go home when you see a little girl with a red umbrella about to jump over a puddle.
You think of the famous photograph of Henri Cartier-Bresson (man jumping over puddle), and get excited. You hold up your camera, and wait patiently. The girl then jumps, and you click. You quickly look at your LCD screen and you realize: “voila!” You just captured the “decisive moment.” You are excited.
You then rush home, quickly download your photos to your computer, post-process the photo, and then upload the photograph to your social media website of choice. You cross your arms, and think that it is one of the finest photographs you have ever taken. You are excited that perhaps, finally, you will get over 100+ favorites/likes on this image.
A day or so passes, and you only got 10-15 favorites/likes. You throw up your hands in rage and think to yourself: “These people on the internet wouldn’t know a great image if it hit them in the face!” You then continue about your day.
A week or two go by, and you revisit the image. You then look at the image and tell yourself: “Hey, this image isn’t quite as good as I remembered it to be.”
What just happened? You became emotionally attached to the backstory of how difficult it was to get that image (and the emotion you felt of being excited). This confused you into thinking that this was actually an “objectively” good shot.
This happens to the best of us. We get too emotionally attached to our shots, because we were there. We experienced it. It feels alive and vivid inside our memories.
But the problem is that our viewers have no idea what the backstory of the image is (unless you write a long caption, which I generally advise against).
So what is the solution? Try to emotionally detach yourself from your photos.
When editing (selecting) which images to “keep” and “ditch,” ask your peers to be “brutally honest” with your work.
Another tip: don’t refer to the photos you take as “my photos.” Refer to them as “the photos.” The difference? Calling them “the photos” detaches you emotionally from them, so you can be more critical and objective when editing your shots.
Stories don’t exist outside of the frame
In photography, the entire story of the image must exist inside the frame. If you want to tell a better story, include context in your photos (like this environmental portrait I shot of a man in San Diego).
I have this vivid story in my head of how I got the image: I saw this well-dressed man in a hotel lobby, and asked if I could make a few photos. He said, “No problem,” and I started to take a bunch of images. Afterwards, I asked him what he did and what he was up to. He told me, “I own this hotel!”
Now I have this vivid backstory, but the viewer has no idea about that story or information in this photograph. But regardless, viewers find this photograph interesting because the outfit of the man looks like he’s from the 1950s — a relic of the past. The viewer then makes up their own story about the man, based on the TV shows (Madmen) or any other films they have seen in the past.
Morale of the story? If you have a photograph which is weak without having a compelling story, ditch the shot. When you have to “explain” the back-story of a street photograph, it is like explaining a joke. The funniest jokes don’t need to be “explained” (or else it isn’t a good joke). A good photograph shouldn’t need an intricate backstory or explanation in the caption.