Turning Down The Volume

Originally published at: https://naturephotographers.network/articles/turning-down-the-volume/

Is yelling the only way to be heard?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Heavy Metal was my favorite genre of music to listen to. Growing up as a teenager, my friends and I would push the poor stereo to its limits, blasting Slayer as loud as we could while driving around in my dad’s car, headbanging, yelling, and blowing out the speakers. Whether we were going skating, getting food, or just on our way home, it would get us pumped and make us feel alive. There were bands out there that understood us, what it felt like to be an outsider, to be angry at the world, and so we listened. Any metalhead knows there is only one acceptable volume for rocking out, and that’s cranked up all the way!

LightStripWEB“Ripple Effect” Death Valley, CA

What separates Metal from other musical genres is that right off with the first chord, instead of slowly building, most songs start at 100% speed and volume (if you want to see what that sounds like listen to “A Corpse Without Soul” by Mercyful Fate). From there, the volume and fast tempo are maintained as loud as it goes all the way until the end of the song where it usually ends abruptly like running into a brick wall. Play as hard and loud as you can from the very start to the very end. Even bands like Metallica tried to record the ‘loudest’ albums ever, by using equipment that could record the instruments plugged into powerful amplifiers at their highest levels. For a long time, Metal followed this trend while in this sort of ‘noise war’ to see who could punch it up the loudest.

By now, you’re probably saying, “Wait? Wasn’t this supposed to be an article about photography? Where am I?” I know, I know, I’m three paragraphs in, and you’re scared this is going to have nothing to do with how you can take prettier pictures. Or maybe this is sounding all too familiar, and you are already making the connection on your own. Just stick with me here, I am about to make a face-melting point! While the photography medium doesn’t have a ‘volume’ slider, it has its own kind of noise, especially when thrown into the fast-paced world of social media, where thousands and thousands of visuals are trying to steal our attention every minute. 

GlowingCottonwoodsWEB“Golden Rain” GSENM, UT

Because of this, I see a lot of photographers falling into the same kind of ‘noise war’ where they crank up the color, saturation, light, and subject matter, all in a desperate attempt to say “Wait, don’t look over there! Look at me!” Trying to demand someone’s attention by yelling at them can be effective, but is it the best way to keep them listening? Just like nowadays when I will occasionally break out the old records (really meaning just searching on Spotify) and rock out to some ol’ Heavy Metal classics, my ears can only last through a few songs, like most normal people, before they get fatigued. In the same way, I can only be on Instagram, 500px, and Facebook, for a few minutes before my eyes become tired from visual fatigue.

YellowPurpleWEB1500px“Deep Purple” Ouray, CO

When you think of a quieter photo, what comes to mind? Probably a photo of simpler subject matter, maybe more abstract, without an obvious composition. It’s probably not as colorful or even black and white, doesn’t include as many objects, and requires more time and attention to understand and digest. Now, I’m not saying that you should not crank up the volume and shoot crazy light over big scenes that call for including more objects and being a bit more liberal with those photoshop adjustments. No, not by any means. I am trying to point out that if you continually play one note, at one volume, always portraying the world in the same way, eventually you are going to tire your audience, and most likely burn yourself out as well, rubbing the senses raw. 

SanRafaelBestWEB“Solace” Colorado Plateau, UT

When I look through a photographer’s portfolio, the thing that makes me decide on following them or not, keeps me coming back for more, and impresses me the most, is that they have a wide variety of images in their gallery — ranging from very loud and powerful to very quiet and subtle. Looking through a gallery of images all cranked up to the same volume gets tiring, boring, and monotonous. After a while, it just feels like the same image, taken over and over again in a different place. This is why I feel that creating a tasteful portfolio takes some skill. For a body of work to be compelling, visually pleasing, and continually interesting from the first image to the last, there needs to be a lot of variety from each image to the next in scenes, lighting, processing, simplicity, mood, and color. This demands much more from the artist rather than letting them play the same note time and time again, merely repeating what they know best. 

CompressedPinesWEB“Observers” NSW, Australia

It’s true, the crazier, louder, and more ‘epic’ scenes will probably grab more attention on social media. But is that all there is to creating art? Is it just all about getting others’ attention by any means necessary? Well, have you ever thought about what you want to tell them once you have their attention? This is why today it is even more important than ever to know what your purpose is with sharing your images. If you are caught in the ‘noise race’ of trying to grab attention wherever you can, you will find yourself always looking for the same kind of crazy scenes and cranking the sliders to +100. You can only go so high, and so you will eventually plateau there, with nowhere else to go.

LeavesIceWEB1500px“Frozen Over” Uinta National Forest, UT

If you have found yourself stuck with your head at the ceiling, not seeing any more ways to outdo yourself, I have good news! You always have somewhere else to go! Back down. Take some time to explore areas you are less comfortable in, thinking about scenes you have never tried to shoot before, lighting that you usually write off as ‘bad,’ using lenses you have yet to experiment with, techniques you haven’t yet mastered. There is nothing more exciting, like trying something new! Don’t let yourself get caught in the ‘one-trick pony’ mindset, find your limits, and go past them. It’s the only way to expand your artistic abilities. It’s also the only way that doing the same thing for years and years can remain interesting. So many photographers fail to do this, which is why so many drop off after just a couple of years. They’re burned out from trying to keep up in the wrong way. 

AgaveIntimateWEB“Agave Dreams” Anza Borrego, CA

From my experience, the smaller, simpler scenes are what have caused me to grow the most as an artist, and better understand principles like composition, lighting, and color. Making something compelling within a smaller area or with fewer objects to combine is naturally more difficult, and you have fewer crutches to lean on. It is harder to hide imperfections when you are zoomed in on the details. Your mistakes become more noticeable both to yourself and your viewers. Because of this, you will probably fail more often than when shooting the big, more iconic scenes with epic sunset skies. The quieter scenes have nothing else to rely on besides your creativity and skills. But with each failure, we learn something new, and over time, with enough determination, you will begin to figure it out and see the world differently. Like anything, the increased difficulty also causes increased satisfaction when you do succeed.

LightBarsWEB“Art Bars” Colorado Plateau, UT

Quiet photography, instead of yelling at people to look, sits, and waits. It patiently stays hidden until those who are truly seeking something different, something more profound, come and find it. This is where the artist’s personality can stand out and be felt by the viewer. Not by what you do like everyone else, but by what you do differently, (“Your art is not to be found in the things you do like other people, but in the things you do differently than other people.” – Guy Tal) and that will create a special connection with all those that understand your imagery. These kinds of deep connections with peers and fans are much more rewarding to me than the superficial, shallow imagery that tries to appeal to everyone.

So how are you supposed to know when it is more appropriate to let the image be loud and intense or quiet and subtle? It all depends on the scene in front of you and how it speaks to you. An image that comes to mind from my portfolio is a photo from my first trip to Patagonia, Argentina, back in 2017. It was an extremely windy morning and waves, some a meter high, were continuously breaking near the shore on a big, glacial lagoon. The waves were causing pieces of ice that had calved off the glacier to rock around as they violently crashed against them. There was also intense light hitting the peak and surrounding clouds. Initially, I pulled out my telephoto and was trying to shoot more intimate scenes concentrating on the breaking waves and icebergs, but this wasn’t allowing for enough context. It could have been a picture of waves on the ocean, in somewhat ordinary lighting. What was making this moment extraordinary was the fact that there were big, powerful waves breaking, not in the ocean, but in a glacial lake, high up in the mountains, something we rarely see, even in Patagonia. The only way I could portray this to the viewer was by including the rest of the scene.

TorreLagoonWEB“Wake” Patagonia, Argentina

Sometimes you will find details that are better appreciated by themselves, removing all of the context of where the photo was taken, time of day, lighting, and even scale. This allows the viewer to dive deeper into the details and causes their imagination to run wild, wondering what else could be around the scene, or if it continues on forever. Including any other objects would only dilute the image and distract the viewer from focusing on the small details that you have decided are most important. The best choice is to amplify them, put them right in the viewer’s face, and not allow them to look elsewhere. Some images that come to mind are my pictures of leaves in puddles covered with biofilm. They give no suggestions to the size of the puddle, where it was shot, or during what time of day. It is also difficult to tell what focal length they were shot at, which allows the viewer to go deeper into the scene, not distracted by thoughts of a photographer taking the photo. There are certain scenarios, as a photographer, where it is of paramount importance to not betray your presence.

MudandOilsWEB“Cosmic Space” GSENM, UT

Ironically, if you think about it, the people who we usually listen to are not those that scream the loudest or that demand attention, that’s childish. The ones that talk the most are most likely to be ignored and avoided, while the ones that rarely speak and choose their words carefully are those who we are more anxious to hear from. What kind of artist do you want to be? The one that has to shout and shout, until they lose their voice? Or the one that is sought out by true admirers that are willing to devote more of their time to appreciate their work?

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Eric, this is a really great article and so appropriate for our time. I also love the images you chose to include with the article! Cosmic Space is probably my favorite. Thanks for offering insightful food for thought, and a reminder for all of us to keep experimenting and trying to grow as photographers.

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Eric, a terrific collection of photos that I could look at over and over. My comment on the “must grab eyeballs” approach is that I don’t believe that many people would hang eyeball grabbers on the wall and look at them over and over and over. For me, a wall hanger has subtleties that require multiple views to find and appreciate. I especially like Golden Rain and Solace.

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I want to echo Alan Kreyger’s comments. This is a wonderful article. It is something that is certainly on my mind and a focus in my own photography of late. I just returned from a month paddling in the wilderness of Northeastern Manitoba and I was very much attuned to exactly what you are talking about in this wonderful article. I can’t say whether I was as successful in my efforts as the work you have included with the article, but I found it made making the photographs so much more fulfilling and, dare I say it, fun. At the outset, I thought I would avoid the “grand landscapes” altogether because making them has become rather stale for me over the past year or so. But it isn’t really the grand landscapes that have become stale, rather it has been my approach. In the end, I did take my share of the “epics,” but making choices - turning it up and turning it down, as you might say - changed my whole experience and I ended up feeling far more fulfilled, not only as an artist but as a person. As a side note, we loaded our canoe, gear and selves on the train out of Winnipeg to get back to Toronto and it happened to be the same evening as an Iron Maiden concert. The head bangers were everywhere and it was a delight to see so many people, across such a broad age demographic, excited and ready to get down. Clearly, there is a time for volume!

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Well said and timely!
ML

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Enjoyed reading the first 6 paragraphs. You’re right, less is more.

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This article comes at a very good time for me personally as I’m in the process of evaluating Fuji’s cameras simulating their old Provia’s colors and tones. I find them very appealing.

I really like the comparison between music and photography in terms of the direction of Western culture.

Unless you’re very good. The Beatles was a more artistically gifted band but the Rolling Stones were so good at playing their “one note” that they had an enormous following.

There are a few of us here that consciously try to turn down the volume. I’m thinking of @Adhika_Lie, @Ian_Cameron and usually @Harley_Goldman, but there are others I can’t remember . The problem is that next to the loud images they seem so bland. They usually just don’t get the same number of views. And perhaps that’s why high toned images are so rare.

I don’t want to be contentious but I do want to comment on this:

I used to think this as well, and it’s often true. But psychologist have studied and published papers on this matter which showed that in a group environment the loud one, not the smart one, is listened to and leads the group. We actually saw this in the last presidential primaries leading to the election. The candidate who won the primary did was the least qualified and won by being loud and pugnacious. But perhaps the greatest example of this is the greatest orator of the 20th century, the greatest symbol of evil we now have - Adolf Hitler. I’ve been listening to his speeches recently. It’s not the nationalistic message that was so influential as his delivery. It was a crescendo. He would start calmly, almost matter of factly, and build it up to the point where he was screaming at you. It drove the audiences wild. The intelligent ones merely sneered. Perhaps just like we are doing with those loud, flamboyant images.

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Thanks as always for sharing your insight Eric, great read. You are able to articulate really well what I think a lot of people feel to be an ‘instinctual’ guiding in which they go by feel rather than enlightened purpose. I think the more aware we are and the closer we can get to the bottom of this instinctual guiding, the more intentional and effective we can be in our decisions in shooting and processing.

Trying to demand someone’s attention by yelling at them can be effective, but is it the best way to keep them listening?

Loved this line in particular, set the tone for the whole article I think!

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Great article, my man. I managed to make it through all 13 paragraphs, by the way. It was super easy because I had 10 minutes to spare!

I think it’s all relative what’s considered loud. For example, I feel my images are generally pretty quiet and intimate compared to the aggressively-composed, wide-angle, dramatic-weather-event, in-your-face scenes you’re probably referring to. But as was discussed in the comments of my article a few months ago with @Igor_Doncov, they may seem loud and grand to someone else. Of course, all this art business is subjective and there are no hard and fast rules. (Your second-to-last paragraph pretty much encapsulates what I was after in that article, by the way!)

Perhaps one reason we all have different thresholds is because of what we’re exposed to, what kinds of images we take in on a regular basis. I’m reminded of habituation and sensory adaptation, like how people who live in New York City become used to the cacophony of sounds and sleep soundly. In our case, it’s not necessarily regarding physical stimuli, but rather artistic stimuli for our minds. Those who are making loud work may not even know it’s loud. Those who are viewing it may see it as normal.

I think it’s helped me a lot over the past few years to follow quieter work from artists who specialize in subtlety. Even if I’m not thinking of them specifically when I make my own photos, it probably helps to change my overall subconscious feeling of what’s too much and what’s not.

At any rate, I think we can agree that making loud work solely for the purpose of grabbing attention on social media is a shame—a waste of a potential unique artist. If it’s because of specific artistic intent, then I respect it a lot more. But it seems that’s rare, and these loud images are usually driven by a “me-too” attitude of desiring the same social media success that images from others have had before.

You and I talk quite a bit about intimate work in private, and I’ll put some of those ideas here for others to read. We talk about how we can see the most epic, incredible shot from the most remote and insane locations we’ve ever seen, with colorful light and/or a rare weather event, and a perfectly bold and balanced composition… and it will fade from memory after the initial impact. And yet we can look at, for example, a photo of some water ripples—or a tiny brush—or a single tree in a canyon—from someone like @Guy_Tal, and it will move us deeply and stay in our minds forever. That speaks to the lasting impact of quiet work, at least for you and I.

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This was a great read, Eric. I don’t have much to add since it very much reflects my own practice. I’m just stopping by to let you know I appreciate your thoughts and the perfect photos to illustrate each of your points.

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SLAAAAYEEEEEERRRRRR!!! I feel like I was targeted with this article :laughing:

But seriously, I really enjoyed this article and you articulate a lot of great points. I agree with them all.

I’ve noticed some photographers I follow actually do take a lot of both “quiet” and “loud” shots, but still just post the “loud” ones to social media. I wish they would post the quiet ones too even if they don’t get as much attention. I do my best to visit their websites and look through their galleries - listening to the whole album, so to speak.

Preach.

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Perfectly stated and thoughtful article that more people really need to hear and I personally needed a good reminder on. It’s all too easy to get caught up in sharing only the images you think will gather the most attention, regardless if they speak to you as the artist or not.

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Excellent and well thought out article Eric! I have reached the same conclusions.

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The shot of the glacial lake with the waves breaking is off the charts dramatic! Wonderful!!

Jamie

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Great article Eric. Metallica is my favorite band and and I still listen to Slayer sometimes despite being more than 20 years out of high school. :grinning::metal:t3: but I know what you mean. Not that I’ll ever be interested in classical music but I enjoy more subtle compositions these days and could look at that all day.

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A beautiful read, food for thought! I try to play different notes, but some ‘songs’ you know by head, it’s easy to play them again… I have to push myself more and try.
And thanks for putting a word on an illness I’ve been feeling: visual fatigue on social media!

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Can one have tinnitis of the eyes? Over the past year or so I’ve shied away from browsing images on social media after I realized the ‘noise war’ was influencing the way I was processing my own images. The ringing in my eyes eventually became so loud that I didn’t notice my images becoming louder as well. I decided I needed a reset and took a short break from photography, which seems to have helped.

Thanks for the wonderful article. I absolutely love your “Observers” image.

One last question-what is the metal equivalent of dropping in a moon?

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Thanks so much, Alan! So glad you were inspired by the article and you found it useful. I just try to help get those creative juices flowing in all of us. Take care buddy!

So glad you enjoyed the images as well as the article, Mark! I agree with you, all of the scenes hanging in my house are subtle ones, those are also the ones I sell, not implying that I shoot them because I think they will sell, but by fortunate coincidence, what I enjoy shooting the most is what people would like to hang in their homes. Take care man!

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Glad to hear that you ‘get it’, Kerry! It definitely makes photography a lot more fun. Sounds like we are on the same page with this. Thanks for your thoughtful comment! Take care.

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