Content Trumps the Technical – But Don’t Let it be an Excuse

Several years ago, I picked up the seminal work by swiss-Born photographer Robert Frank, The Americans.

Photos in the book are hailed for being raw, grainy and at times blurred, out of focus, off-kilter, and so on.

But the real value of the book is in the content, the subjects of the photos and the world they’re framed in. Some called it a celebration of a country in its post-WWII glory, but most found it a critical piece. Not all of America was pretty. Some was still rough, some had grown rough and for all the post-war fanfare, the USA was not a perfect place.

The technique used was a bit revolutionary for the time, Popular Photography magazine chided the poor technical quality of the photos, but most critics felt that the uneasiness caused by the technical quality was more than offset, and in fact complemented the less-than complimentary message.

photo2Of course, the famous D-Day photo (left) by the great Robert Capa was victim (allegedly) to a poorly handled film in the dryer and the blur in the photo was purely a result of this. Regardless of who caused the technical error, it is perhaps the single most recognizable image of World War II, with the possible exception Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the flag raising at Iwo Jima.

But you nor I are likely in progress to shoot an iconic work of photography. However, we have been challenged by technical limitations: poor light, a subject that won’t sit still, mistaken settings on the camera, degradation or out-and-out loss of the original file, etc.

My advice to people is to just push the button anyway. It may not be perfect, but if you are so tempted to push the shutter to wish for better circumstances,  you should push the button before the moment is gone. There is a good possibility that you will get what you want. As Wayne Gretzky said, ‘you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Below is a photo of my brother-in-law with his toddler son. It was shot with a Canon Rebel XT and a 85/1.4 Pentax Manual Focus lens with an adapter. I was playing with the combination and took it to my father’s house for a family gathering.

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When I saw that image coming together I had to take the shot. I thought the image was in focus, the exposure was close. I opened it in…umm…Picasa? Or maybe it was the old Corel something-or-other. Regardless, it was just a scoche out of focus. Do you think I cared? Hell no. Did my sister care? No. The content trumped the technical, and the CONTEXT (my family) trumped it as well.

BUT. One thing I’ve seen from budding photographers is claiming the moment has overcome their poor technique, when if they were to show the image to another person, that person will see nothing but a very poorly executed photo. I see photographers (this seems to happen with sports) blow off criticism by citing the intent or the attempted goal of the picture. “This car is moving/crashing, etc” But the fact it, there are lots of pictures of cars moving that are technically sound, to boot. We can’t let the moment, or the event be a crutch for bad technique, because in most cases context and audience will determine whether or not content trumps technique.

As with my photo of my nephew, the family viewed it as special. But, it is subject to criticism. Was the background perfect, should I have waited for this or that, or…well, you can nitpick it to death.

I can live with the imperfections, but I know they’re there. If you can’t acknowledge the imperfections, you’re going down a path of shoddiness, and in the end it will affect content and context as well as you’re attitudes toward the craft will seep from the technical to the contextual.

I also have another theory, that time trumps technique too. I’ll get into that another time.