What photography can teach us in the digital age

To create something new requires making a series of decisions. When you’re creating, all you are doing is deciding what to leave in or leave out. And it takes discipline to leave the right stuff out.

That’s why I love photography. There is no purer constraint than a photo frame.

Recently I met someone on vacation in Tokyo. Our last day was his first. He had a film camera and two rolls of film for the whole trip. He could only take 24 photos to document an entire country.

For those of us who love analog photography, these are the types of tough decisions we have to make.

In the digital world, however, we can prolong making those decisions, snapping thousands of vacation photos and uploading them to endless online storage. There is no limit.

If we want to, we can even decide to upload our thousands of vacation snapshots to Facebook (although I wouldn’t recommend it.)
When it comes to the digital world, all too often we suffer from what psychologists call the “paradox of choice”—that is, so many choices we simply can’t make any decision at all. Rather than carefully curate our vacation photos and (gasp!) even delete a few, it’s often easier to drag them into a folder or upload them to the cloud, likely to never be sorted again. (If you’re interested in whether this concept extends outside the digital world, take a look at the TED talk by Barry Schwartz that began this debate, and then some questions over whether it really is as pervasive as it seems.)

Yet to create something worthy of time and attention, we must make hard choices. And this is even more true in the digital world, where we are often tempted to add every bell and every whistle and call it a day.

Take, for example, parallax scroll. Launched into the web consciousness by the New York Times’ Snow Fall project, it was the biggest trend in web design for years. From visually stunning storytelling at sites like Pitchfork to fun visual marketing campaigns, parallax was everywhere.
But that doesn’t mean it was always the perfect fit. Sometimes parallax scrolling looked beautiful but was a user’s nightmare, covering up important text on a page or making loading a page laborious. Eventually, the overuse of parallax scrolling spawned Reddit debates and even eulogies for a once-promising web trend.

What happened? For too many web designers, marketers, and corporate teams, parallax simply became the go-to answer. We simply didn’t ask the magic questions: Do we really need this? Is saying no going to result in a better user experience? Just because everyone else is using it, why do we?

To create emotional impact, these are the types of decisions that teams have to make.

Let’s go back to photography for a minute. Ansel Adams, arguably one of the most famous photographers in history, was renowned for only taking two photographs of any scene: one original and one back-up in case something went wrong with the complicated large-format camera he used for his work.

The key to his success, as Expert Photography notes, was that he didn’t hesitate to make firm decisions about his approach to photographing the scene in front of him. Before he snapped the shutter, he had mapped out all the elements of a good photograph: the depth of field, the speed of the shutter, and any other adjustments necessary to capture the light perfectly. Two snaps and he was done.

Adams’ approach is so different from the kinds of decisions we often make in the digital world. He studied his options so thoroughly that he understood all the drawbacks and benefits of each variable and knew exactly how to combine them for maximum impact. Working with bulky and complicated cameras that had limited exposures, he simply had to.

Today, though, we’ve got the opposite problem. We have so many variables, so many options, such infinite choice that we simply give in and choose the path of least resistance, which often means following trends or simply avoiding choices altogether. Everyone else is using parallax scroll? OK, we are, too.

But let’s take a page from Adams’ book and those among us who still use film cameras to capture scenes from the world around them. Remember that to truly stand out in a crowded world, we must make decisive decisions about what to keep and what to abandon. Your work will stand out precisely because it is different, it is new, and it is refreshing—all because it is disciplined, something we often miss in web design and development today.

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