Why Detail is Overrated in Photography

My thought:

The best photos are simple, direct, and don’t need much detail.

What’s important? A compositional gesture and movement, strong subject, and strong contrast.

1. No need to obsess over gear

One of the principal innovations of William Klein and Daido Moriyama was to create extremely contrary photos as a middle-finger to all the photo nerds who cared for sharpness, tones, and resolution. To me I love this, because anyone with any old camera can make stark and compelling images.

The rich often try to differentiate themselves with their gear. If you don’t care for detail in photos, any camera will do (democratic photography).

2. Gaussian impressions of photos

Eventually all photos and visual images can be analyzed from a Gaussian perspective (Gaussian blur as being our compositional tool for perception).

Even some of Josef Koudelkas early work:

Or Koudelka’s later works — his best images are very minimal and simple in composition, yet powerful in emotion and soul:

3. Everyone looks at your photos on a phone

The truth: the vast majority of people will only ever look at your photos on a phone. Thus they will never see the minute details in your photo.

Therefore your photos must look powerful on a small screen. How do we achieve this? Less reliance on resolution, sharpness, and detail. More focus on simplicity of shape and form, and an impactful image and substance.

4. Gesture/blur

In praise of blurry, unclear, and out of focus photos: you get more of a “visual gist”of the feeling and sensation of an image.

How to determine this: Gaussian blur your photo, and also inverse your photos.

5. Gaussian bumps/blur/rhythm/beats

Gaussian light fields

Take a photo, add contrast, and Gaussian blur it. By seeing all these “Gaussian Bumps”, you can feel more action and rhythm in the photo.

They are like topographical bumps (think of a bumpy map, or heat maps).

Gaussian bumps:

Perhaps as visual artists, we should also study cartography (carto+graphy, just like photo+graphy):

Think about how they try to depict elevation in a topographic map:

As photographers, we can also analyze our photos as a topographic map (mapping intensity of light and bumps in a photo):

6. Aesthetics of writing

I consider the Iliad of Homer to be one of the greatest works of literature ever known to mankind. What fascinates me— Homer’s extreme simplicity and minimalism in his word choices, which paint an extremely vivid picture. For example:

  • Hateful death
  • Black ships
  • Winged words
  • Wine-colored sea

As a poet or writer, you don’t need extreme detail to paint a vivid image. Even study the zen haiku poetry of Basho (An empty pond. a frog jumps in. Splash. The sound of water). How sublime is that?

Conclusion: Complexity in simplicity

Keep your art and photos extremely simple. Insanely simple. Know that there is a beauty, elegance, and strength of being able to employ a powerful effect with less. Economy of shapes, forms, and visual elements will INCREASE the visual impact potential of your photos.

I also encourage you to think and shoot monochrome, in our quest of elegant simplicity.

Keep it (insanely) simple!


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