Taking timeless pictures

Three years ago I worked my ass off during the summer-break to buy my own digital camera: a Nikon D3100. It takes great pictures and I still use it when on holiday. I am however struggling with a dilemma.

On the one hand, I want to take great looking pictures and show them to my family. After taking the pictures I would edit them, in a way I like them. That probably involves color correction and such.

I am however afraid that I edit them too much, in a way that they don’t look good in 10 years anymore. Right now if I browse my Instagram feed, the pictures I find the nicest have a grain and are faded, making them look a little old and soft. I’m afraid that if I would edit my vacation-photos they will turn into these old-looking soft photos, because I like that effect now. In ten years, I’m not so sure if I will still like that style.

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Example of a faded and grained picture by Jacob Santiago.

I have been struggling with this dilemma for a while now. It was clear for me to chose for the latter option of the two options mentioned earlier, creating timeless photos. This got me thinking, what is timeless, when is something timeless, and how do you make timeless photos that looks great 10 years later?

Up until yesterday I was still thinking about that. Then, I read an interview with Chris Ozer, which stops the quest for an answer on the questions above for me. The following article is a summary of things I found and took in consideration on this hunt for an answer.

Timeless

The whole search started by asking myself what ‘timeless’ is, and which objects are timeless. In school I learned about the jeans being timeless. They were invented by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss in 1873, and practically look the same nowadays as they did in 1873. Also almost everybody has one of them, if not more, in their closet. Why are denim jeans timeless, and others pants not? I don’t know.

Later I started to wonder which other objects I would classify as being timeless. The way newspapers look is timeless, however their lay-out is changing, changing from broadsheet to tabloid and also the design changes every now and then. But the newspapers served as a jump to something I still consider timeless, a book. Books have been around for a long time, and they’ve always looked kind of the same.

Details

Now for my definition of the word ‘timeless’, I compared modern books to old books, created by monks during the Middle Ages. The first thing that will strike you is how many drawings there are in old books. They might serve as a way to visualize the text so that the reader gets the text, but these drawings serve more as decorations. Modern books have very little to no decorations. The first letter of a chapter is just a capital letter, instead of the curly and colorful decorated letters older books start with.

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Old book with a lot of decorated letters

After comparing ancient and modern books, I compared denim jeans and pants again. Turns out jeans have very little decorations, and pants have many, many more. Therefore, in my opinion something is timeless when all unnecessary details have been removed.

While reading Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products by Leander Kahney I stumbled upon this excerpt about Jony Ive trying to design things that do not date -right, timeless things!-

“In an era of rapid change, Ive understood that style has a corrosive effect on design, making a product seem old before its time. By avoiding style, he found that his designs could not only achieve greater longevity, he could focus instead on the kind of authenticity in his work that all designers aspire to, but rarely achieve"

Comparing Macs to other computers, Jony Ive did a very good job. The first iBook had lots of custom styles, like the bold curves. The next iBook looks timeless, it could almost be a laptop that would be sold in stores today, if you don’t take the thickness in consideration (it’s amazing how slim notebooks have become by the way, the second generation iBook was 1.35" thick, the current Macbook Air is only 0.68" thick, at most.)

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An almost timeless iBook

So I wondered if I should remove every style of pictures in order to take a timeless picture. For instance, on the photo below of a street in Boston I took two years ago, should I remove the cars, because they are a detail that indicates in which time period the photo was taken?

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I could do that, but I’m afraid removing all objects indicating time will create the opposite of what I want: a retro look because you can’t see in which time period the photo was taken.

Emotions

Just yesterday I read an interview with Chris Ozer on The Great Discontent about his pivot in his career when he became a photographer. When asked for advice he would give to photographers just starting out, he answers the following.

“There are all the technical aspects of photography—composition, light, framing, aperture, shutter speed, etc.—with both the camera and the image that are really important to nail down. But images that get all the technique down without having an emotional element are missing a really big piece of what makes a great photo. There are a lot of photographers who don’t quite get that. I don’t know how you would teach that exactly, but it comes from being authentic and shooting real moments: things that are actually happening”

This is what ends my search. We’re human beings, we look for emotions. We don’t see the front of a car as a normal front, we see faces. I think taking a timeless photo isn’t necessarily about applying the right filter or removing objects, it’s about showing emotions. The emotion will be there 10 years later too, and we will still recognize it.