Depth of Field, Depth of Feeling

Depth of Field, Depth of Feeling

This title comes from a quote from photographer W Eugene Smith: “What uses having a great depth of field, if there is not an adequate depth of feeling?”

I see the idea of “feeling” here as having two instances: the first is with the photographer, the second with the viewer.

I believe that as photographers, we need to be able to feel something strong and close about the subject or scene that has drawn our attention. It needs to move us. Without this initial “depth of feeling” on our part, we will fail in capturing the spirit or soul of the scene or subject, what it means to us, why we connect with it. “Search your feelings… you know it to be true,” a famous Sith Lord said to his prodigal son (after infamously lopping off the son’s hand with a laser sword, naturally! Yikes!). But even Darth Vader possesses some wisdom in his insight into the power of one’s feelings to uncover personal truths.

If we feel something, an emotion, a vibe, a sentiment, that connects us with what we photograph, then this will drive us and give us greater clarity on how we can photograph it. It informs our composition, framing, how close (physically and figuratively) we get to the scene or subject, and how we use light in the frame. We do a picture justice when we feel for the subject we immortalise within it.

The second instance of “feeling” lies with the viewer. “Photography is a small voice at best,” Smith is cited to have said, “But sometimes one photograph, or a group of them, can lure our sense of awareness.”

We are no strangers to the power of images to change the course of history. As photographers, we have seen many images that have connected with us emotionally. And every photographer dreams of hearing about a viewer who was “moved to tears” by their image/s.

With this in mind, I encourage the photographer in you to begin reflecting on the power of feeling. Be guided by it — be driven by it — when you have your camera in hand. Feeling can make even the most mundane glorious. A pretty picture is like a sweet. It tastes great but the memory of it is impermanent. An image that evokes feeling is long remembered, even when it is no longer before one’s very eyes.

Let me tell you a story about how the above image came to be.

It was May this year, and I was on the Greek island of Sifnos in the Aegean. Sifnos is a small island, with beautiful blue-domed churches scattered about its coast. This one was very close to the town of Kamares where I stayed in my Sifinian sojourn. The weather during the day was beautiful and there was such a relaxing vibe that filled my days on the island.

On that evening, I decided to take a leisurely stroll to that church, about a 50 minute walk along the coast from Kamares. By the time I arrived, it was close to sunset and I took all the requisite “pretty” pictures of the church in that golden light. Then, it was time to go and I felt pangs of sadness as I didn’t really want to leave such a beautiful and isolated spot. I began to reflect on the impermanence of all things… that even in time, my wonderful Greek holiday would end and I’d return to life and work in Australia. And I felt quite wistful.

As I took the path back to Kamares, I kept looking back at the church, until I got to the steps which would take me down the hill and out of sight of it. I stopped there and gazed back at the small church cloaked in the fading glow of gloaming and the way the scene slowly dissolved into shadows touched something in me. Before my eyes was the idea of impermanence manifesting. I quickly set up my tripod and grabbed a handful of frames just as the light went.

Now, when I look  at this image, I can sense the wistfulness I felt then. The solitary position of the church in the rugged coastal landscape, where it seems to sit forlornly waiting for something, still communicates feelings of isolation, remoteness, and the quiet tranquility of that evening.

This image was only taken because I felt something when I saw it (I had already packed up my camera, tripod etc), and of all the images I took at that location, it’s the one I love best. Because it’s an image with not only depth of field, but also with depth of feeling.

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