Ian Plant • The Subtle Eye

Bold compositions and stunning light may have a strong initial impact on audiences, but will often fail to hold interest over time. Subtle touches, on the other hand, get viewers looking at a photograph over and over again

It is sometimes said that the little things in life make all the difference. In this Internet age, awash with nature images that are bold, over-processed and, at times, completely over-the-top, there just doesn’t seem to be much room for the little things anymore. With over-stimulated web audiences clicking only on tiny thumbnails that have immediate wow power, this comes as no surprise. The word ‘subtle’ seems to have all but disappeared from the photography lexicon – much to the detriment of the art in my opinion.

Wait a second, you say ‘subtle? What’s that?’ Okay, maybe I should pause for a moment and explain what this now-defunct term means. The dictionary defines subtle as ‘so slight as to be difficult to detect or describe; elusive.’ Now, I know what you are thinking: if something is so elusive as to be difficult to detect, why would you want to create an image out of it? Who on earth is ever going to click on a thumbnail image of a photograph that employs subtlety?

I feel compelled to respond by putting forth a potentially heretical notion: to wit, that one’s artistic expression should not be driven by the number of mouse clicks it will get. Although in-your-face photography will likely get you noticed more by the Internet masses, subtlety can, in many ways, be more artistically powerful and personally fulfilling.

Bold compositions and stunning light may have a strong initial impact on audiences, but will often fail to hold interest over time. Subtle touches, on the other hand, get viewers looking at a photograph over and over again. It is precisely the nature of subtlety – its slight, hidden, and elusive character – that builds interest over time. Simply put, subtle touches reveal themselves the more that a photograph is viewed, providing pleasing surprises that encourage further study.

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Mastery of the bold and obvious is easier than mastery of the subtle. It takes a refined artistic vision to incorporate subtle details into one’s art. When nature shows off with epic scenery and light, it is much easier to create a photograph that will get a positive reaction than when the scenery and the light are less than stellar. Subtle subjects require an eye for the details of nature, and the ability to think creatively about composition and the use of color and tone.

Besides, there’s no reason why you can’t combine gorgeous scenery and light with subtle touches. That way, you will get the immediate, thumbnail-clicking reaction that will make you a rock star on the internet, and also hold interest over time with the brilliant subtlety of your work. But first you have to master subtlety – so it pays to practise.
As the old expression goes, sometimes less is more. The subtle approach is arguably more difficult, and less likely to attract attention, than an approach that beats viewers over the head with unrelenting and overwhelming beauty. I believe, however, that it is a more meaningful approach, one maybe that is less likely to garner immediate oohs and aahs, but more likely to stand the test of time.

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About Author


Ian Plant is a full time professional nature photographer, writer, and adventurer. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, books and calendars, and he is a frequent contributor to Popular Photography and Outdoor Photographer magazines, among others.

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