Yes, you read the title correctly. So why would you want someone to dislike your photograph? You wouldn’t! But that is what frequently happens when you give your photo a title.
You may know that I operate an online learning community called The TOGKnowledge Learning Community and a Facebook Group. I find that photographers routinely give their photos titles when posting them in both groups in both groups.
I will also observe that most photographers who do this tend to be aged 40 or older. So if you are younger and have never titled a photograph, good for you; read on to learn why you never should.
I realize that some of you are leaning into defensive mode and want to leave a comment to remind me that when you enter your pictures into a photography contest, they make you supply a title. That doesn’t make it right. I would suggest that camera clubs and photography organizations who require titles are not doing a service to your photography and should stop. Also, there is no way to comment on this article – sorry, not sorry.
The simple fact is that the easiest way to have people dislike your photograph is to give it a title that doesn’t connect with the viewer.
The History of Titles on Photographs
Paintings and sculptures have been given titles for over 300 years. 18th-century museums or salons began to circulate art for public viewing. This circulation meant that people needed a way to refer to the art, and titles were generally given to art pieces, not by the artist but by those who circulated it or viewed it. Artists didn’t begin titling their own work until the 19th century.
Also, in the last 300 years, literacy rates have grown dramatically. The title has become a way for the viewer to interpret what they see. Many modern artists have taken to creating their own titles to set an expectation of what the viewer should see.
The world’s oldest surviving photograph (1826 or 27) was captured by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Its title is a simple description: View from the Window at Le Gras. In the nearly 200 years since Niépce created his image, photographers often continue this naming practice, and many photography competitions require names or titles, as do quite a few photo-sharing websites.
My research shows that most MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) college programs teach artists and photographers that it is essential to title their work and generally require it for project submissions.
The Argument for Titles
Personally, I don’t feel there is a positive argument for titles. Still, a quick Google search shows that those who favor titles make the following points:
- Titles should create a sense of compulsion to make a viewer consider the image.
- Titles should complement the picture, narrating it to allow the viewer to better understand it.
- Titles provide insight into the artist’s inspiration and intention.
The Science Behind Avoiding Titles
This is a simple piece of psychology.
A title sets an expectation. If the expectation is not met, then the perception of the image fails.
If the title is intended to explain to the viewer what they should see and experience, it takes away the viewers’ opportunity to have a unique experience with that photograph.
Remember that as photographers, our experience with the photograph is unique and will not be shared by any other human being. We had the idea, planned the shot, experienced the subject, and processed the image. Our appreciation of the photograph is biased by our experience level as photographers, meaning maybe it was the first time we mastered a certain level of expertise. Our image appreciation is also biased by our unique experience with the subject or scene.
As creative individuals, we bristle at being told that we must create a certain way, use certain tools, or compose or light in specific ways. So why would we tell someone how they have to see or understand our work.
Our images should be allowed to speak for themselves, and people who view our work should have their own experience with the picture.
No titles. Period. Titles are risky business and a recipe for disaster unless you are excellent at creative writing and can craft a title that the masses will connect with.
Instead, work on your foundational skillsets. Strive to increase your creative abilities and create images that WOW. By creating images that people notice and remember, you will be different. By being different, you can turn back the clock because people will want to remember your work. They will assign your images names, just like the world did for the old master artists some 300 years ago.
One Last Observation
This one will get me in trouble for sure. I mentioned this earlier in the article, and I have discussed this with several other photographers to ensure it wasn’t my own biased thoughts… I have noticed that most photographers who insist on titles and argue their importance are over the age of 40 and or have an art degree background.
Make of that as you wish, but to me, titles are preferred by older people who are set in their ways or spent a lot of money on a traditional art education based on rules and history.
Creative photography should be unencumbered by rules and without expectations. If it is good enough, it will earn its name.
I hope you found this information useful. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because – “Your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!” — Joe Edelman