#1302. Objective vs Subjective photography. Is there a middle ground ?

By pascaljappy | How-To

Aug 05

Many heated debates (megapixel races, film vs digital, lens sharpness, lens drawing) boil down to the simple question above.

Let there be puzzle

The plan was simple enough. Photograph 5 locations, produce 5 short posts for fun and easy summer reading.

But it appears this lightness of being proved unbearable to me. And when grainydays released the video below, it sent me spiraling into another of my pet mental struggles.

Still, it’s summer and I will keep this vaguely short, and well illustrated.

“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Jason is the sun.”

Grainydays is one of my very favourite Youtube channels. It is the work of Jason Kummerfeldt, my photographic man crush. How could he not be, looking like the love child of a young Ansel Adams and Ryan Gosling? More to the point, Jason is a very good photographer and deeply enough immersed into serious filmmaking (The Batman, Loki, Grey’s Anatomy …) to be listened to for more than the dry humour and contagious self-loathing.

In the above video, he addresses the old film vs digital debate, making the usual arguments, including one key point: digital photography is more objective. It allows a more realistic reproduction of reality. Film is more subjective and better suited to craft subjective recollections of personal memories.

This may sound obvious once stated, but goes a long way towards settling a good number of forum and pub arguments.

Transport status: It’s complicated.

The sports photographs illustrating the video drive the point home perfectly.

Some are perfectly sharp and beautifully saturated, obviously shot by super experienced pros using the latest high-resolution, high-frame rate, uberfast AF bodies and sharpest teles in the catalogue. Others, of the 2012 olympics, are made using a large format view camera, a lens barely sharp enough to cut butter and old B&W film.

The former bring insight into a specific phase of a spectacular action. The latter seem to capture momentous events in time. The difference in impact between the two sets is profound and probably mirrors the range of photographic ambitions of most amateur togs.

Sailor and Tuba

Of course, the medium alone is not responsible for this difference in psychological impact.

I’ve often written that photography is a layer cake of technical choices (exposure, lighting, composition, post processing, lens …) and that great photographers are those who master the layers that matter to their style and are able to align them in a consistent direction. But defining how to align is the hard part in this analogy.

Well, I believe Jason’s subjectivity – objectivity axis is a great place to start. Where do you want to be? Is your photography about revealing the intricacies of a dog catching a ball in all its realistic detail, or are you more interested in sharing the feeling of tranquility that a hotel’s beach-side terrace in Sorrento imparted on you during a magical evening?

Print city

And I wonder whether the two can mix, with a hunch that they can’t, that they are like water and oil and that even vigorous shaking will rarely produce anything tasteful.

The modern trend of pairing a brand-new lens designed to look vintage with a high resolution camera always leaves me with an uneasy feeling of artificialness. The same goes with presets destined to look like filmstock. They don’t often achieve their goal. It’s as if, once you sell your soul to Nyquist, no amount of analog seasoning can quite reunite you with it.

Now, some people do make it work. Kyle McDougall, for one, can make a Fuji GFX sing with an old film-era lens (or a more recent Mitakon) and well judged post processing. But for most mortals, this is difficult to achieve.

Analog living

I love an Otus for its blend of quantity (sharpness …) and quality (looks, pop). It is representative of Zeiss’ unparalleled mastery at blending objectivity and subjectivity. And the cine world largely agrees, since Zeiss (and ARRI by Zeiss) lenses dominate the market.

My beef with the new generation of 100Mp cameras is that they bring me too far in the objective direction, their default look being more clinical, and my PP skills might not be good enough to counter this baked-in curse.

When forum brawls oppose clans about a lens, some will claim it rubbish because of its lowly MTF curves (particularly curves measured by some dude in a basements, those are the best MTFs to argue about) while others will revel in its drawing (lens drawing being an unmeasurable vacuous term to the first camp, of course). Plotting both camps along the objective – subjective axis helps us reconcile the two. Both can be “right” from their relative point of view.

Objectively reflected subject.

So, let’s set the film vs digital divide aside for a moment. It’s fair to say some photographers are using film for the lifestyle statement, and that film imposes a processing workflow that’s not easy for everyone to live with (like some blogger dude living in a French backwater village, for instance). And I don’t think film is inherently better than digital (or vice versa), only that film manufacturers used to spend an enormous amount of time and R&D budgets honing the overall aesthetics of their filmstock, with all its technical limitations, whereas sensor manufacturers have tried to get rid of those limitations, sometimes introducing others such as highlight clipping, and letting aesthetics fall where they might without giving them a second thought. Subjective vs Objective.

A good starting point for anyone to analyse their desires and gear needs, is probably to ponder on the position they want to occupy on the objective – subjective axis (keeping in mind that, as with most positioning efforts, the middle of the road is often the weakest place to be).

Pete Guaron’s comment on my last post illustrates haw firmly he wants to be in the realistic camp. His choice of gear (sharp lenses, fast AF, good lighting) and subject (bees in flight, for instance) work well together. And Nancee Rostad’s recent posts illustrate how confidently she dives into subjective experience pool, using screen grabs of a phone video of a car wash to produce abstracts that have a strong impact on viewers.


Both options are perfectly valid. The only bad one would be to mix and match, not knowing where we stand and what we strive for.

Thanks Jason.


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    “Heated debates” boil down to one simple truth. While each of us is entitled to think whatever we want to think, none of us is entitled to dictate to anyone else what THEY should think. Apart from that, all we CAN do, is to exchange our views with each other, and learn from that.

    Once that exchange turns into a “heated debate”, all hope of a sensible outcome is engulfed in flames & incinerated.

    If we keep to “discussion” and discard “debate” (AKA argument), we might reach consensus – or agree to disagree, and go our own separate ways. No harm done.

    What I particularly dislike is people who have an “opinion”, and supercharge it with some delusional kind of belief that they are the only personal entitled to have one – that anyone else, who doesn’t agree with them, is ipso facto & automatically “wrong”. Never in my entire life have I ever wanted to be the same as someone else! Nor would I feel comfortable if somebody else tried to be “just like me”.

    Given that we now share this planet with 8 billion other people, there’s not much scope for rugged individuality. But regardless, I’ve never found comfort in some kind of “tribal” experience, where everyone is expected to be “the same”. How could that ever have given us Michelangelo? – Monet or Van Gogh? – Dante Alighieri? – Mahatma Gandhi? – Madame Curie? – Mendelssohn?

    Let there be puzzle? A very elaborate and attractive chandelier – in a church.

    “I wonder whether the two can mix, with a hunch that they can’t, that they are like water and oil and that even vigorous shaking will rarely produce anything tasteful.” You have to explain this. Regardless of which side you are on, in the “argument” that Jason postulates. If the “two” you are referring to are film & digi, I have a very simple answer – “yes”. Because the outcome he ascribes to digi is the outcome we must expect, from people exploiting this new digital medium to ACHIEVE that outcome. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it HAS to be like that – what if we turn around 180 degrees and use digi as no more than a way of avoiding the negative handling aspects of film, and try to shoot film-like shots with digital cameras? I know that’s “possible” – one of my all-time favourite shots of the Indian Ocean coastline, several kilometres north of here, looking back towards Fremantle Port, is EXACTLY that. And that’s the reason why I like that shot so much. Another is that photo of the resto across the street from my front door – which by the way is rapidly heading towards a million “hits”, something that’s never happened to me before, and certainly nothing vaguely like that has ever happened to any of my photos that actually LOOKS “digital”. Conclusion – it isn’t happening because nobody’s trying to, we’ve all headed off to do what we think digi does best. Which doesn’t convince me that digi CAN’T do the other style of photography!

    “But for most mortals, this is difficult to achieve.” Yes – I’ll happily agree with that. And you’re quite correct – for the most part, the kind of photography I’ve chosen to do since I ditched film for digi IS “realistic”. But because my photography is also eclectic, that’s not all that I do. Certainly it’s the vast majority. But like a lot of (most) other ‘togs, I experiment, and shoot all sorts of different images. It’s part of learning, and for the most part, my learning is self-taught, so inevitably I experiment! Just as Nancee just showed us that she does!

    • pascaljappy says:

      I agree, but it helps when their is a logical principle behind the opinions, rather than just stating uninformed opinions. I think that understanding whether we want to create impressions (subjective) or recreate a realistic (objective) slice of life helps us ground our opinions in something meaningful.

      Most people have no clue about what they are trying to achieve through their photography, so follow the opinions of only gurus, which leads them to blindly believing nonesense that doesn’t relate to what would really matter for them.

      No, by “the two can’t mix”, I’m referring to objective and subjective. You have to decide whether your work is similar to an impressionist’s or whether you are trying to be as realistic as possible. The two do not mix.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Ha Ha – well I try to do both- just not on the same sheet of printing paper. But I guess it’s in the nature of the medium that most photos will be objective/realistic.

        I wish I had some means of showing you the works of “the two Christophers” that I told you about earlier. Except for one oddity in one corner of one of their twelve photos, they were entirely subjective and not even remotely “realistic”. Yet I found myself absolutely overwhelmed by them – left, telling the director of firm that was exhibiting them that if I had to judge them, I’d have to give at least half of them an equal first prize – and after that, went home, to find myself haunted by the memory of those images for months and months afterwards.

        I can’t honestly say that any “realistic” image has ever had that effect on me! Maybe I need to try harder?

        • pascaljappy says:

          Well, I think realistic pictures tell a complete story and leave little room for the imagination. Whereas subjective photos evoke all sorts of interpretations and feelings and can have a lot more impact.

  • Robert Kruger says:

    I recall the early days of HD television. Previously we had been used to reality reduced to 480 lines of analog data (US standard) and all of a sudden we were given an additional 600 lines of detail. One of the first things people noticed was that the TV personalities were not as “perfect” as we had been led to believe. All of a sudden their blemishes could be seen and reduced them to the realm of the mere ordinary. Enter the make-up artist whose job it was to hide those facial blemishes from the unforgiving new digital TV standard. Their job was to restore the look of 480 lines of analog data. Their job was to thwart digital progress.

    • pascaljappy says:

      That’s an excellent poin, Bob! I hadn’t thought about it, but it’s painfully true when you view older films on modern TV sets rather than the devices they were designed for. I remember being horrified when viewing a Star Wars movie (one form the prequel era with Obi Wan and Anakin) on my son’s big high definition TV. It became terribly obvious that the background was painted. Who could possibly think that is a better experience than the lower resolution one???

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Long live the new AI photography…
    You feed an objective photo into your AI.
    You write a song describing the kind of print you want.
    You sing it to your AI with a melody expressing the desired feeling.
    You say “Print!”
    You let your AI follow your eye movements and facial expression while you study the print.
    (… there is a learning curve for your AI.)
    You say “Print!”
    You start over!
    (… there is a learning curve – for you!)
    – * –
    – and it is, of course – although tempting, meaningless to share those songs!
    – – * – –

    Inspired by Descartes’ – to my mind fallacious – statement “Cogito, ergo sum.”

    Me, I prefer the philosophical bee:
    “Sum, ergo sum!”

  • Mer says:

    Great post – and link.

    I agree, that trying to imbue digital photography with some of that filmic goodness often ends up looking wrong. Film’s baked-in advantage is a cohesive mix of attributes that can render things in a pleasing slightly non-realistic way. That subtle sense of elsewhere.

    For most amateur digital photographers, I don’t think there’s a defined point on the objective-subjective line, that we move position depending on subject and whim. One shot aims for a realistic view of fishermen, the next is a quite abstract image of waves and rocks because one day there will finally be the perfect wave-rock composition because it’s out there somewhere, goddammit. Ahem.

    Abstracts lend themselves to subjective and seem to tolerate heavier processing abuse. By ditching colour, b&w has already taken a step away from objective. It’s just that digital subjective will usually be disappointing if what you’re reaching for is film subjective, especially if you’re after dreamy highlights. Sigh.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m firmly in the digital camp. Convenience and expense have seen to that. I’ve been enjoying a bunch of photo books recently and have come to the conclusion that although I adore many of the images(Saul Leiter etc.), they contain an aesthetic that would be a fool’s errand for me to chase. Better I should experiment until I find something that gels with my digital workflow. Composition is another matter, there’s plenty in those books that I hope has sunk into my subconscious.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you, Mer, and apologies about the late reply. Not sure how I lost track of this 😉

      I agree with you, we amateurs tend to hesitate about making hard choices about positioning. We don’t need to, mind you. It’s far more useful for a professional artist. I think one way we could stay free but bring a sense of deliberate choice to our production is through series. All the photos in a series could have the same position on the axis, without this forcing us into a lifetime choice.

      My second-best approach, film not being an option right now, has been to underexpose quite severely to maintain highlights as much as possible, to avoid full aperture images that shout “modern” and to add just a hint of grain and local contrast to images, to take the edge off the clinical sharpness of digital. It’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing 😉


      • Mer says:

        Lateness no problem. Replies are a bonus.

        I’m happy to experiment while trying to nail down the mood I’d like to bring to my images and that usually means I’ll struggle to stay on task when trying to shoot a series based around a central subject or theme. At least that’s the case when it’s in a narrow timeframe.
        I frequently revisit the river mouth and have many images, but the processing is all over the place and that doesn’t play nicely with a series.

        Speaking of processing, thanks for the grain tip – I just applied a small amount to an image and it could be one of the missing ingredients. I’m catching up on processing, making an effort to nail down a method that gets more of the look I’m after. Yep, underexposure is often my correct exposure, rein back the sharpness because CO defaults are a bit aggressive and tread lightly with contrast. Making a couple of files with different colour balances and then blending them in PS seems to give a bit of that ‘not quite real’ look that I like. If I can settle on a method, I’ll reprocess a bunch of old images and see if they cosy up.


        • pascaljappy says:

          I’m not the one to follow for this, my work on series is really not good 😉
          But my hunch is that:
          (1) Finding a theme will guide shooting and homogenise photographs somewhat.
          (2) Findin a PP that suits your fvourite images will probably force you to shoot the following ones in a way that suits the PP recipe.
          But, again, I really am not the best person to hand out this sort of advise. However, I’m hoping to start work on a long-term series this autumn. Fingers crossed 😉

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Interesting, Mer.

      I chose to jump on board the digi era, because all my life the idea of doing my own colour printing had been an impossible dream. And farming it out was – let’s just say “unsatisfactory”, because unlike my B&W work, I had no control over it.

      I wonder what has motivated all the others in our group. I suspect at least one is currently motivated by restrictions thrust on him by the advancing years, forcing him to shoot closer to home – certainly not to climb the mountain ranges in central Asia, to shoot landscapes studded with yetis! I’m beginning to think that’s a reality I’ll be facing from here to the end, so there’s little point in me lashing out to by super tele lenses to photograph birds and other wild life, hundreds of metres away.

      Nancee really does find subjective and creative images.

      Paul is often an enigma – often he shoots a form of realism which is in itself an abstraction.

      Maybe we need to set Pascal onto this one, to sort all of us (himself included) by category – LOL. Could be even more interesting, if uber-realistic shots we put to one side, while more imaginative shots we used to make the final cut.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    I guess it always boils down to the old “what’s in front of me” vs “what I feel about it”…
    In medieval times, mainstream paintings were totally subjective… a big knight in front of a small castle, as an example; “flat” and with pure perceptions; I always felt these art as very dreamlike…
    I once read that when the perspective was re-introduced in painting during the Quattrocento, the term “objective” was “created”… by “ejecting” the viewer, the very notion of “objective observation” was created (might explain the choice of “objectif” in French for lenses, who knows…). All this for Europeans, of course… perspective was never abandoned in Asia; some scholars feel that for Europeans, a “schism” was then created between observation and perception, leading to the explosion of objective science, but at a cost: the lost of connection between it and inner feelings, or even spirituality.

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    I see absolutely nothing wrong with striving for a filmic look using a modern vintage design lens on a digital camera – long live fuji – long live – long live low cost chinese primes – long live. Perfectly subjective objective.

    A true friend of the crown – dilly dilly.

    • Pascal Ravach says:

      I agree with you, Ian, since I do the same since a few years: putting my old Olympus Zuiko lenses on a Sony digital camera, and I really like the resulting mood; but I also agree with Pascal, that it is not “the same thing”… and my images still have a strange “in-between” look to me; I guess specific choices like yours may produce more satisfying results, depending on our expectations…

      • Ian Varkevisser says:

        Of course it will not be “the same thing” – chemicals electrons – I name thee “filmital” go forth and multiply.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah, absolutely nothing wrong. It’s entirely a matter of taste. And Fuji seems to be one of the few companies to offer something credible in that area. Still, though, it feels a bit artificial to me, except in expert hands.

      Lavender green!

  • philberphoto says:

    It seems to me there is a missing component here. The knowledge that prior artists made do with what they had at the time. For them, it was not a matter of choice, but one of necessity. So they worked around the limitations of their gear, and shot “what would look and feel right” rather than what they might have liked to shoot had they had more “performance” at their disposal. Which will remain pure conjecture of course. I will liken this to the invention of the “modern piano” as opposed to the fortepiano. The modern instrument, mechanically more robust, could handle strings with higher tension than the older fortepiano. It therefore had a higher dynamic range, could be heard even amid a larger, louder orchestra, and in larger halls. It thus opened a world of new possibilities. So now trying to go back to the sound of a fortepiano is achievable of course, except that the mindset of those composers cannot be accessed, because we cannot replicate the psychological/artistic limitations of the past. In other words, what they did then was out of constraint, whereas a modern take on it would be by choice. And the difference is instantly audible/visible. Sorry. Just my $0.02.

    • pascaljappy says:

      What do you mean? That the limited range of filmstock forced artists of the time work in the subjective realm all the time? It’s an interesting idea, and I hadn’t given it much thought. Still, today, we have a choice, and possibly too much choice for our own good. And I do think that asking ourselves whether we want to depict reality in all its detail or evoke feelings would go a long way to helping us channel GAS and become more immune to the very uninformed online debate.

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