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Making “Sense” Of Photography

The blue cast, fog, snow and water convey "cold" in this photo of Icy Straits, Alaska

As photographers, we often try to “depict” or illustrate nature as we see it. Sometimes this yields very dramatic images. Other times, the images just don’t seem to justify what we saw and experienced when on site. I believe each of our senses influence what we experience as a photographer when we are at the scene. How do we effectively re-create some of these sensory observations in a digital image, or on film? The viewer cannot actually experience the sounds, smells, and physical feelings we experience at the scene, so our challenge is using elements in our images that imply those sensory experiences.

Hazy sun and warm orange and yellow color conveys a humid, warm feeling in this Atlantic Ocean image.

Sight is obviously the sense we can easily re-create (even manipulate) photographically. We use colors and contrast to please the eye and exposure techniques to suggest motion. We use perspective and objects strategically placed in the frame to give a sense of size and place. We use familiar objects to create visual or emotional perspective. These are all tools that deal with photography’s primary sense – vision or sight. And, they are commonly the discussion of photographic texts.

But what about the other senses? Can we photographically depict them? It probably requires a prior sensory experience the viewer had from which she can either directly relate or extrapolate. However, I don’t think is has to be an identical experience. We can all think of familiar scenes which can conjure some of the other senses. Photographs of a carnival or a fair, especially if it includes elements we relate to familiar sounds, or foods may trigger our sense of hearing or smell. When photographing those types of scenes, will it benefit the photographer’s photographic “vision” to consider those elements? I know that if I see a steaming cup of coffee, my mind can image the smell of fresh hot coffee. Likewise, a steaming bowl of soup, or a hot dog or burger on a flaming grill, can suggest a sense of smell and taste.

It is easy to image motion and sound, and possible to "experience" both moisture smell from this image of Bartlett Falls, in Vermont

We use texture and color in our photographs to depict senses. Rough and smooth textures can certainly create an illusion or memory of touch. And we routinely refer to colors as “warm” (yellows and oranges) and “cool” (blues). As we use those colors and textures, it is possible to consider how they work together to convey these “senses” to the viewer. We may also use weather and atmospheric conditions to convey senses. Wind, dust, fog and waves all convey senses of smell, touch and sound. Salty air, or dust created by certain activities may also recall the sense of taste.

The dusty condition created by "chaff" in this Fall harvest image conjures both the feeling of dust in the eyes and nose, and a familiar smell (for those who have experienced agricultural production).


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3 Responses

  1. Two things that I have learned over the years. All art is autobiographical. And, the viewer makes his/her own meaning of the image based on his/her life experiences.

  2. Thanks, Ray. I always gain insight from our discussions, your comments and your images. I have been thinking a lot lately about understanding my own style and approach to imagery. This helps.

  3. Makes perfect “sense” to me Andy! 🙂 Again, you have given me something to think about here….a very good thing, as you know I am all about learning and improving. I must say……I have really enjoyed your past few blogs and have taken a little something away from each of them. Thanks for that.

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