What makes art (or life) beautiful or ugly? It all comes down to aesthetics.
Aesthetics are all subjective.
I believe all aesthetics are subjective. There is no ultimate standard for what “beautiful” or “ugly” is.
I forget which pre-socratic philosopher who said:
The most beautiful ape is ugly to a human being.
The most beautiful human being is ugly to a donkey.
I generally think that aesthetics are probably rooted in some sort of sexual desire. For example, to a man, a “beautiful” woman is a woman he thinks he can procreate strong children with. And to a woman, a strong man (physically or economically) is a “beautiful” or attractive partner for her future offspring.
Much of fashion is about increasing your sex appeal. For example a fashionable watch for men = sex appeal. Purses for women = sex appeal. Fancy cars = sex appeal. I consider almost everything fashion, from clothes, to lifestyle, to homes, to devices, accessories, and generally anything material (besides food).
Ignore the theories
Anyways let us not get too much into theory; theory is overrated.
Instead, let us look at our own photographs and ask ourselves:
Which of my own photos do I consider beautiful, and why?
For myself I consider a “beautiful” photo of mine as a photo that I like to look at, over and over again, for reasons I’m not sure.
For myself, I like photos that are simple and elegant. That is the aesthetic I like.
And this is what it is all about in photography aesthetics:
If you like how your photos look, they are aesthetically beautiful.
Your tastes will change and evolve.
It took me a while to get accustomed to to the taste of black coffee, then later light roast ‘bright’ espresso. Now I’ve gone black, I can’t go back.
In college it took me a while to enjoy the taste of beer. Before I built the taste for beer, it tasted like piss. Now I enjoy the taste of beer, although I abstain mostly for aesthetic reasons (I don’t want to gain excess body fat, and I have a weak alcohol tolerance anyways).
But anyways I encourage you to always experiment with your aesthetic. Rappers went from baggy clothes to wearing tailored suits (JAY Z). The aesthetics of sports cars are always changing.
Don’t impose self-tyranny on yourself (like Henri Cartier-Bresson)
I think in your photography, you should allow yourself to change and evolve. If your aesthetic tastes evolve, go with the flow!
This is the tip:
If the aesthetic look of your photos no longer pleases you, switch it up!
This can mean processing your photos with different presets or a different aesthetic style.
You can also try shooting film (35mm, medium format, large format), shoot with different phones (Google Pixel 3, Huawei P20 Pro in Vivid mode), shoot with different digital sensors (digital medium format, RICOH GR II, Fujifilm).
There is no perfect aesthetic
I’ve pretty much shot with all the cameras and sensors and films out there, and to be honest, there isn’t a perfect aesthetic.
However here are some of my honest appraisals off the top of my head:
- Monochrome on RICOH GR II, shot on RAW, and with ERIC KIM MONOCHROME 1600 looks phenomenal. Even better with a flash.
- Huawei P20 Pro has the best color aesthetic on a phone camera, when shot in “Vivid” mode.
- Google Pixel 3 has best monochrome look, with “Vista” Google Photos preset.
- For iPhone and Samsung devices, VSCO A6 preset is the best color filter.
- Digital medium format looks epic in color. I love the look of the Pentax 645z film JPEG preset.
- The positive film color jpeg on RICOH GR II (with contrast and saturation on maximum) looks fantastic. Especially good with flash.
- Color film simulations (Classic Chrome) look fantastic on Fujifilm X-series cameras (like X100F).
- No matter what, aesthetics of film will always look better than digital, because of the random and organic nature of film. I prefer Kodak Portra 400 for color and Kodak Trix 400 pushed to 1600 for monochrome. But digital will always be more convenient. I think the monochrome Ricoh GR II looks 90% good enough when compared to black and white film. And RICOH GR II in color JPEG looks 85% good enough when compared to Kodak Portra 400 film. Thus for now I’m probably sticking (mostly) to digital. But I will always keep shooting film, for fun, and for the fun of the randomness of film!
Below are some aesthetic looks I like:
Samsung Galaxy x Vsco A6 filter
Ricoh gr II COLOR FILM JPEG preset
Ricoh gr ii raw + ERIC KIM MONOCHROME 1600 PRESET
Lumix G9 jpeg processed with ERIC KIM CHROMA preset
Lumix G9 Dynamic Monochrome JPEG preset (with additional contrast)
Play around with your in-camera JPEG presets
Honestly there is too much of a bias towards RAW in photography. I’m the JPEG advocate.
Experiment more with your JPEG settings so you don’t need to process your photos once you import them into your computer. My ideal is this:
Only shoot jpeg, and I won’t need to adjust or process any of my photos after the fact.
This is simply a way to speed up your photographic workflow. Also to simplify your photographic life.
Simpler is better.
But with aesthetics, generally what I believe is this:
Once you discover an aesthetic you consider 80-90% “good enough”, just stick with it, and focus on making photos.
Now go forth and make beautiful photos!