ILLUSIONS: A Photographic Challenge

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.

~ Mark Twain


Illusions infuse our image making. And we tend to believe illusory myths about our photography, despite a lack of factual evidence for their existence. Why does it help us to challenge our photographic illusions?

Without a seismic shift in our beliefs, our old norms and practices can become delusions. Rigid myths challenge photographers who value fresh, creative art. Illusions in our imagination can be insidious when we cannot progress beyond them. They limit our growth and make our work stale.

This article focuses on three of our current flat-earth illusions in photography. The images seen here, selected from my series about illusory ideas in photography, were chosen to address a central problem in photography. The Problem–Rigidity of Belief.

Illusion One: Our Brands and Label Make Us Better Photographers


Photo of Brooklyn Bridge, New York City by Jim Austin 

We make artificial distinctions that are meaningless
(Canon vs. Nikon, Digital vs. Film and/or Enthusiasts vs. Pros).
The bridges that are built between us are what counts in photography.

Sitting in front of our computer screen, we can’t see other photographers. If we could, we would be looking in a mirror. Our separateness, I believe, is but another illusion. We are a democracy of photographers, and so we have more in common in the ways we feel and see. We see another person’s picture, and think, “Yes, I made one like that.”

Sharing and laughing more, and building bridges of harmony between ourselves and other photographers, become vital parts of our image making. It really does not matter what gear a person is carrying. When I photo walk with friends, we take less gear, and more grins.

What matters is the mind, passion, spirit and story-telling we bring alive with our photography.

What we carry in our brains, not our hands, defines our photography.


Illusion Two: The Gear is what Defines the Photographer

Photo of Monarch Butterfly by Jim Austin 


The life cycle of a monarch butterfly, from egg to caterpillar to
chrysalis to adult, is a metaphor for cycles of change for photographers.

Gear itself is not the illusion. An over-emphasis on gear with a firm conviction that it makes one a better or more important photographer is the illusion. Idolizing gear is the illusion. Making photographs with digital and/or film, it is easy to fall into a trap of trying to define oneself by techniques: “I’m a commercial photographer”; “I’m an HDR photographer.” These ideas can handcuff an image maker. Similarly, defining a photograph as pure, natural or “straight out of the camera (SOOC),” limits its meaning.

In my early teens, I used film and printed in the darkroom. Later, I added digital. Now I use film and digital capture, a scanner, and make images that never see the enlarger. Change is inevitable. How we define our vision does not have to over-emphasize our tools.

Photo of ammonite and eye layered in Adobe Photoshop CS5 by Jim Austin 

The craft of photography is letting your tools and vision evolve; be open to trying photographic tools new to you, from view camera to iPhone.

Does this mean we should not concentrate on a pure approach of using one set of tools? Of course not! Many of the great photographic artists have done so successfully. I only suggest that we do not judge others by the camera they have in their hands.

Illusion Three: The Decisive Moment


Photo of White Sphinx Moth in flight by Jim Austin

We cling to an illusion that there are special,
unique decisive moments in photography.

The single machine-defined moment is not important. The symbolic nature of time in a photograph is crucial. What the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson showed us through his images (Images a la Sauvette, The World of Henri Cartier-Bresson) was not a moment, but a picture. His photographs did not concern split second timing so much as they showed us the importance of awareness, geometry and the composition of a picture.

All moments are unique. There is no decisive moment. The geometry of a scene is continually changing, so there are no right and wrong captures. I photographed this sphinx moth over nine weeks in the summer. After many tries, I increased the shutter speed and added fill flash. The image did not work as a picture until the moth flew in front of a naturally dark background.

We usually ask what the exposure duration or shutter speed was for a picture. It is always a lifetime, because the thought that goes into it takes years. This is what worldwide nature photographer Franz Lanting meant when he said, “The exposure was 41 years and a 30th of a second.” Often, the time spent thinking about how to improve our images is the most meaningful. The illusion is to define our images by the speed of the camera or the exposure metadata. We can instead progress from seeing to vision when we slow down and consider ways to make images more compelling by attending to better light and composition.


Why does it help us to challenge our photographic illusions? How would we behave if we still believed today that the earth is the center of the solar system? Beliefs are powerful. If destructive ones are left alone, we risk having them orbit our vision as delusions. Challenging our illusions and our photography can evolve as the caterpillar progresses to become a butterfly. The picture is the thing, not the metadata behind it. Split seconds do not count over time. What matters is the curious mind, persistent passion, and the story-telling spirit we choose to bring to our photographs.

Images ©

1. Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

2. Monarch butterfly, Cape May New Jersey

3. Ammonite and Eye, Layered in Adobe Photoshop CS5.

4. White Sphinx Moth in flight, Denver Colorado.

by Jim Austin
All text and photos: © 2011 Jim Austin. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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