Expectation, Perception and Reality

Big Day Out

In a post a couple of days ago (Rule 32: Don’t Take Unnecessary Photos), I briefly touched on the time we waste on photos that just aren’t worth it. I chalked it up, at least in part, to the fact that quite a few of us hate to head out with a camera, only to return with an empty memory card. I think there’s a bit more to it than that, though.

First, see your subject for what it is. We don’t always do this; sometimes we’re superimposing our expectations on the subject, thinking a few moves ahead to what it will look like once we’re done fiddling with it. Our expectations can color our perception to the point where they become the reality we see, although not reality as it is. We know what we want the photo to look like, which is fine, but not when you keep a photo that’s not worth it because you’re attached to the idea of it, or when you throw away a shot that’s good on its own merits because it doesn’t measure up to some nebulous ideal.

Second, pay close attention to what’s in your viewfinder. What’s just as counterproductive as a careless choice of subject is when we put more faith in “post” than we do in the fundamentals. So what if it’s blurry, or crooked, or the exposure’s off and the subject’s not all that interesting? We have an unsharp mask, a crop utility, and a clone tool, dammit! Only that’s not quite how it works. As I’ve mentioned before, you’re not only making more work for yourself by shooting carelessly, you’re also decreasing the odds of getting what you’re after. Postproduction takes what’s already there and enhances it… not just the good stuff, but also, sometimes, the glaring flaws we’d counted on it to fix.

Finally, be honest — brutally so, if necessary — about the end result. We often convince ourselves that our work is awful; sometimes we’re right. Sometimes, however, what we’re disappointed in isn’t the photograph itself. It’s the distance between what was in front of us when the photo was made, and the expectations we’ve placed on that photo. If you stop to think about it for a second, I’m sure you can think of photos that came out just as you envisioned them, as well as some that didn’t, and others still that you felt were better than you had any right to expect. None of these things present problems in and of themselves.

However, it’s entirely possible to be crippled by our own expectations. On the one hand, we may think a photo is worse than what it is because we had something else in mind. On the other, we may also think it’s better than it is — or think we can improve or “save” it — because what we expected, or wanted, has become ingrained in what’s on the screen or the print.

We can’t always set ourselves free of our own expectations, nor can we realistically sharpen our perception to a point that it’s going to be 100% reliable 100% of the time. What’s left is the reality — sometimes disappointing, often stranger, but also many times far beyond our expectations. If we want to save ourselves some serious headaches and wasted time, it starts with acknowledging that reality (even if it’s an artistic, and not more tangible) reality. That means setting your work free from your excuses, from what you meant to do or thought you ought to have done, and to acknowledge that this piece of work, at this point in time, is done. You owe it to what you’ve done, and to yourself, to let it stand or fall exactly as it is; get the hang of that, and you can begin to move closer to what you’d like it to be.