Hacking Visual Consumption

Photo by: Federico Alegría

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Getting better in photography can be achieved in a reduced amount of time thanks to some useful practices. Some of these are engaging in critique with the photographic community, practicing daily, and a less well known one, consuming high quality visual content. Today, I want to focus on this lesser known practice that we can all do in a smart way in order to develop our photography further.

Deciding whether a photograph has a good quality level or not could be perceived as a very subjective endeavor, and I’m very much aware of that. At a singular level, one could use some visual reading methods to get a deeper aesthetic experience thanks to the benefits of slow paced contemplative reading. But that will be a topic for another day. Today, I’ll discuss with you some good practices that could help you out into getting more controlled visual consumption habits. By doing this, you’ll both nurture your visual culture and improve the meaning of your photographs.

All these ideas are centered around the idea that consuming visual content impacts in the way one takes photographs. Said that, the logical path to take is to consume more photos like the ones you are trying to achieve, right? Not so quick, remember to be true to yourselves, and avoid falling for the vanity promises of the trending lifestyles.

Get Physical

2020 pushed us deeper into the guts of the platform society, increasing the limits of our access to experiences away from the screens. Therefore, talking about physical consumption of visual content might sound a little counter productive, unless… What I’m inviting you to do is to invest in photo books, used or new, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is to get a physical experience of photographs while consuming them.

Earlier this year, I got access to a series of annual publications from the 70’s. These were themed around the best photos taken on each of those years which I don’t precisely remember right now. What surprised me the most about these books, was the amount of creative photographs that they had in them. A lot of simple shots that anyone could do with pretty much any camera. Therefore, their particular aesthetic had nothing to do with the camera with which they were made. I think that they felt innovative to me because I’ve been severely exposed to, let’s call it like this, the social media aesthetic.

I got lucky with those books, but what if the photos would have been pretty similar to the vast amount of photos one can see on Instagram nowadays? Well, even though that being the case, photo books have the power of showing us photographs in a different way. And I’m not only talking about the aesthetic experience of the printed photographs and the huge array of printing qualities and papers. I’m talking about a monastic way of consuming photographs which offers an intimate relationship with the image alone. No distractions, no notifications begging for your attention, no annoying ads telling you to buy this or that, no possibilities of infinite scrolling until your phone ends up falling down your face while chilling in bed.

Museums and galleries are another great way of getting a physical experience with photography, but nowadays that seems quite unreacheable in some countries. Slowly, some of these have started re-opening in a very controlled way, and some others are offering virtual tours of their facilities. This last one isn’t that attractive to me, but hey, at least there is something different available beyond the Zuckerbergian algorithms.

Build your Squad

From past masters to emerging talent, there are a lot of photographers out there from which we can delight our gaze with. And of course, learn a lot from. Several photographers don’t limit themselves to just taking photographs, and are known for going above and beyond when it comes to the craft. Some have written books, and some others (mainly the ones alive) have podcasts, workshops and many other great stuff of our hyper-connected times.

Building up your squad will take some time, and don’t expect it to be ever complete. Just enjoy the process of getting to know a more diverse array from photographers beyond today’s big thing on Social Media.

Picking up a series of favourite photographers is not an easy task, and your selection will be highly biased by the genres you feel the most interested in. While this is an understandable and even noble thing to do, don’t limit yourselves to the option of consuming photographs that goes beyond your genres. For example, I have rarely taken the proper time for making a landscape photograph as they are intended to be. But that doesn’t derive me from enjoying a beautiful landscape made by another photographer.

Split Out a Bit

A very healthy thing to do is to keep your stuff separated. If you spend a lot of time on social media, then keep two dedicated accounts for two specific purposes. One is for the daily social interactions, food, selfies and lovely cats. And the other, should be the photography specialized one.

This will guarantee you a constant feed of photography related content, and will give you a better experience along the way. Algorithms will recommend you more photographers based on your taste, resulting in a more inspiring way of using social media. But be strict, just follow photographers that you feel admiration or respect for.

You can also be more radical, and simply have a photography related account for your portfolio and for strict photography consumption (like me). Although, I don’t recommend you doing this because a lot of people will see you as a weird person.

Watch some Movies

Watching movies is fun and entertaining, but it can also teach you a lot of great stuff about photography too!

Movies are the result of titanic projects, and they are very well known for being expensive and highly crowded. I mean, just look at all the credits at the end of any movie. And within that huge amount of people that make these sort of projects happen, there is one fundamental persona, the director of photography (also known as cinematographer or director of cinematography). This person is the one in charge of everything related to what will come through the lenses of all the cameras recording a scene. And among that many things, there is a good place for light.

So, the next time that you’ll be watching a film, try to see it with learning eyes. And how could you know that you are about to watch a worthy production in cinematographic terms? Well, I do the following. Thanks to streaming services, going back and forth in any movie, series or even video is a very simple task. Therefore, I simply select random parts of the production, and if I stumble into beautifully composed photographs, then the movie is worth watching. Simple as that.

Photography and cinema have had a close relationship since forever, and offer a very good learning hack. Especially, because there are a lot of things done in movies that are still to be developed further in photography. Like practical lighting for example, which is the use of common everyday artificial light sources to illuminate scenes in a movie set rather than using studio lights. By doing this, cinematographers have more creative freedom, and are also able to recreate things as written in the scripts or the adapted pieces of writing from which directors are basing their films.

And if you don’t believe me about getting rid of professional studio lighting, perhaps you’ll take this man’s word.

Also a less common practice, is to watch movies and documentary films about your favorite photographers. You will be surprised to know how many films deal with photography as their main topic. These won’t teach you much about technique, especially if they are documentary films. But, they will definitely inspire you into becoming a better and more committed photographer. Getting to know more about the people behind the photographs that have so badly moved you in the past is always a joy.

Do Some Cleansing

After splitting yourselves in two, some housekeeping is needed for keeping your photography sources as pristine and unpolluted as possible. Start by unfollowing all the people that won’t construct in your pursuit of becoming a committed photographer, and keep a healthy standard for the future. Try using the bookmarks feature in Instagram to sort images too!

Alright, if this one seems like too much, you can always skip it, but try to be more methodical when following new photographers.

Beyond Instagram

I’ve centered a lot around Instagram since it is a very popular social media platform which was developed around the concept of sharing images. There are some newer ones, but aim more to ephemeral videos and other stuff. Try getting closer to other sources of photography like specialized websites, forums, and virtual galleries. This will take you beyond the dynamics of Social Media, and will allow you to get a slower photography consumption. Also it could allow you to interact with other photography enthusiasts from which you might learn one or two valuable things.

Oh, and try to avoid gear related content which will only aim to sell you stuff that you simply don’t need. Photography is about keeping your eyes open while life passes by next to you. The only camera you need is the one that will allow you to be concentrated about the stuff that goes around you, and nothing else. If a “phone” does the job for you, then you don’t need anything else. If a point and shoot camera allows you to achieve the things that you want, then let it be. And if your creative workflow demands a large 8×10 camera, then listen to your needs. The important thing is to have a tool with which your eyes will be able to see beyond their own capability.

Engage with Yourselves

Social Media pushes us to shoot and share, and I think that we are not spending enough time with our own photographs. Hence the idea of engaging with ourselves when it comes to photography. Try spending some quality time with your own photographs, and the best way for doing this is by printing some of them. Printing could be expensive, so take that in mind when picking up your shots for this matter. I recommend you focusing on your favourite photographs, and just printing them in a comfortable to handle size, like 4×6 or 8×10. Larger prints could be a hassle, and smaller ones simply won’t deliver the pursued experience.

Pro Tip: Printing is the best way for editing your work (and by this I mean selecting the best photographs from a batch) since it allows you to interact with your images with no intermediates in between.

If you simply don’t want to print your photographs, you can also spend some nice time with your own archive of digital photographs. Just make sure of turning the WiFi off for a while to reduce the latent distractions during that special time with your own photographs.

Final Thought

After several years of being close to photography, I started realizing that for some reason, there was something “standardized” about my photographs. More precisely, other fellow photographers noticed this sort of, hmmm, lets just call it “proto-style”, in my photographs. After that, I got very existential about that notice because before that, I’d given a lot of thought to the idea of having a unique or at least own style.

This led me to make a retrospection that allowed me to reckon several things that had influenced my photographs. And based on that idea, I came up with this set of ideas for you. These, of course, aren’t dogmas, and shouldn’t be understood as such. They are just things that have been useful to me; and based around that, I’m sure that they could help other people out. Especially in a time in which we are constantly bombarded with visual content in our lives.