How a small edit changes a snapshot to fine art

How can one photo work as both a snapshot and as fine art with just one small edit?

When you look at a photograph, do you assess it on what’s in front of you? Or do you succumb to the temptation to judge it on what you wished was there? Of course both responses are valid ones but only one is useful for helping the photographer improve.

Recently I shared a picture on Facebook with friends, as you do, and one of the comments made me ponder upon the nature of such reactions. This was the picture:

Footprints across the sands at Scremerston Beach in Northumberland
Footprints at Scremerston

Normally on beaches in Northumberland, it can be impossible to find a clean set of footprints. Usually they get muddled up with dog paw prints, or someone else’s tracks, or even, as on this day, a set of pram wheel marks. In the distance you can just make out the castle on Lindisfarne and these tracks made me think of the traditional way across the sands on foot to Holy Island.

Responding to feedback

On Facebook, one of my friends, Neil McCoubrey, after liking the image left this comment:

Please crop the horizon off. It will make the image more enigmatic. At least that’s what I would do.

A suggestion, a justification and possibly an admission of guilt! I can imagine how Neil’s thoughts went: he saw the picture and in it there were elements that spoke to him, triggered his imagination. But I had included details in the distance that gave the footprints a context, and that context did not feature in Neil’s imagination. Even worse, it disrupted his musings and stopped the picture doing job he hoped it would.

There’s nothing wrong with his suggestion of course. I had briefly considered that crop but felt in the context of a picture for friends of a walk on the beach, the far distant horizon made a lot of sense. The implication being the prints went on forever across the Northumberland beach into the far distance.

More enigmatic

But Neil went one step further and expressed his view that the image would be more enigmatic with his suggested change. Undeniably! Neil knows what he is talking about when it comes to enigmatic images as his own work demonstrates. As it stands, the picture isn’t really an enigma: it’s clear what it is and what it depicts. It is exactly what I intended the picture to be – a landscape image with a leading feature taking you to a distant destination across a sandy beach. For once, my intention for the picture and the way it was to be viewed coincided.

But Neil had piqued my curiosity. So here is the version without the far horizon:

Footprints across a beach leading to an uncertain destination

A different image

And, to my suprise, it turns out to be a completely different image, far more universal in its impact. It’s probably less accessible too. Really, you have to spend a little time looking at it. You follow the footprints there and back. You take in the tones and textures of the sand and water as you go. You ponder the nature of that dark mass at the top right. Clearly the footprints lead somewhere, don’t they? But the precise destination is left to our imagination. And so, is it really more enigmatic? Well yes. The lack of clues leads us to fill in the details for ourselves. The who, why and where of the picture.

Giving too much away

Of course, I can see why Neil would have liked more of a role for his imagination while looking at the image. Just including the distant horizon closed down avenues that he might perhaps have preferred to explore for himself. Instead, he was offered an end point: I had given him too many clues to the meaning of the image.

My intention was a slightly edgy picture of a walk by the seaside to entertain friends on a social media platform. I felt that posting the cropped version just wouldn’t have worked in that context. But as a piece of, potentially, fine art photography the enigmatic version plays much better.

What did I learn?

So, have I learned anything about this picture from the comments? Well, I was somewhat surprised at how different the two versions are, just as a result of removing the distant land and sky. And I wouldn’t have gone looking but for Neil’s comment. Have I learnt something about the person making the comment? Well, yes although it’s more the confirmation that Neil knows an opportunity for an enigmatic photo when he sees one!

Try for yourself

Now try for yourself: switch between the two pictures below and think how differently you respond to each one. Observe which elements of each picture you concentrate on, and how your eyes take you on different routes in each. Do you feel hemmed in or liberated by the second photo? Much more importantly, which one would you post on your Facebook page?

Despite my misgivings about talking too much about camera settings and other configuration matters which aren’t too important, these are the bits of technical information about these pictures some folk find useful:

  • Camera: Fuji X Pro-2
  • Lens: Samyang 23mm f2
  • ISO: 800
  • Exposure: 1/2000 at f8.0 (handheld)
  • I use Lightroom and NIK software for sharpening and noise reduction.

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