I asked for opinions on a photograph I took, and someone told me that an object in the background is "distracting". I wasn't sure exactly what this means, so I did some searching. I found many articles of advice — for example, Tips for Avoiding Distracting elements. It's clear that distracting elements are bad, but... why? Who are they distracting, and from what?
"Distracting" is a word often thrown around in online photo-critique, usually without much specificity. It's a criticism that can be applied to any aspect of a photo without, ultimately, need for justification — thus, it occupies a sweet spot between clearly opinionated comments like "very pretty!" or on the other hand, overly prescriptive rules which are easy to dismiss (they're made to be broken, after all). Therefore, if you want to sound like an expert with little effort, pick some aspect of a photograph and call it out as a distraction. Presto! (And not to sound too high-mighty on this — it's something I've done too!) But is that all there is to it? Read on...
I had a suspicion that this idea of "distraction" as a no-no was a fairly recent meme — maybe not just in the last few years, but, say, since the dawn of the Internet. But, no! In searching for a really helpful definition, I found references in critiques from as far back as 1899 ("care must be taken that the shadows cast on it are not too distracting"), and a quite harsh bit from 1922 basically hinges on distraction ("Too many distracting elements visible."). By 1944, photographic "distractions" are all over Popular Photography ("the fish is just a distracting element, and should be cropped").
Okay, so, this is definitely a thing. People have been complaining about distractions for almost as long as photography has been available to the masses. But, it's not always just the unqualified complaint. In searching, I found a nice 1944 Popular Photography article entitled "Pictures that Say Something", by H. Lou Gibson. Gibson writes:
Photographic art is the transmutation of thought into silver. If your subject matter is to be appropriate, it should comprise only those elements required to generate your thought in the minds of others. This article has dealt with what to do in order to accomplish this, but has as yet given no warning on what not to do. Remember, then, that distracting treatments or elements must not be employed. [...]
Distracting elements are those which attract attention but which do not help carry the thought. A few examples are: the telephone pole in the pastoral; the wrist-watch on the nude; the garbage can in the garden snapshot; the light switch on the wall behind the informal portrait; the extra space around any subject that should be treated as a closeup.
That's a pretty good, useful definition — even if we're using 1s and 0s instead of silver most of the time now. But, I think most importantly, it starts with an axiom — the idea that photography is the transmutation of thought. And that's really key. Not everyone's photography serves that purpose. We could probably argue about the true essence of photography all day (in chat, presumably), and not everyone will agree on that. If you don't agree with this premise, then the rule doesn't necessarily follow.
If you do, though, it seems like a pretty good, time-honored one (even if it does get tossed around so loosely), and the basic logic is useful for a wide range of "thought", from the simple examples of the telephone pole, watch, or light switch, all the way up to including wanting all of those apparently-random elements there intentionally. If there's an element in your photograph which you feel like is part of that expression, and someone calls out "Distracting!", you can freely smile to yourself and think: "Good, I 'distracted' you from what you misinterpreted as the meaning."
So, with that in mind — and going back to my first paragraph — I'd like to humbly suggest that it's really better to say what the offending element distracts from. Like this: "I just can't get my mind off of that wrist-watch... its presence here suggests to me that this is about the artificiality of time, so if that's what you were going for, I think it succeeds." But, if someone doesn't, and just points to something as "distracting", they certainly are in line with long precedent in amateur critique.
There are subjective things that one viewer may find "distracting", where the photographer may disagree. The watch on the nude is a good example. That's personal taste.
There is a more subconscious aspect though I think, to do with the composition and how the viewer's eye scans the image. In many images, the viewer's eye may wander, but settle on a focal point. For example a photo of a barn with some fences or other leading lines pointing in to the subject. The eye will scan the whole image, but it will tend to be drawn in to a point (the barn, the subject) where it can settle.
But if there is something bright, or colorful near the edge of that photo, it draws the eye away from that natural resting place. In what would otherwise be a balanced, "relaxing" image, there is a "distraction" which creates some imbalance or tension and the result feels unsettled to the viewer. (In some photos, that unsettled feeling might be intentional of course)
I think that applies to many of the examples given in your reference: "the telephone pole in the pastoral; the garbage can in the garden snapshot; the light switch on the wall behind the informal portrait" (or the ubiquitous tree growing out of someone's head).
Those things are largely unintentional elements. Things the photographer didn't notice when shooting, or elements that don't really "fit" but couldn't physically be excluded at the time of the shoot. If they don't add anything to the image, or in fact subtract (or distract), then those elements might be best cropped or cloned out (again adhering to a general rule that you simplify, and remove elements from your compositions that don't add anything )
The photographer might intentionally want the power pole in the shot, for scale, or to make some statement perhaps. He may intentionally want the discord in the photograph and for the viewer to be drawn to this man-made item in the middle of a natural landscape. In that case, the pole is to some degree the subject.
So I think on a subconscious level the eye is drawn away from the natural focus point of the image, which may give an undesirable unsettling effect, or make the image feel unbalanced (which in some cases is a good thing).
Then there are things more on the conscious level, where the viewer and photographer may or may not agree. Many of the critiques probably fall into this category of a subjective element that the viewer happens to find distracting. But I think it's a fair critique if that element isn't really adding to the image (light switch on a wall for example) and attracts, well, any attention from the eye at all. Unless it somehow adds to the scene or the context, I think it's a good suggestion to consider if it would be best left out of the image. Not saying it's a hard and fast rule that all such things should be removed, only that if you're really looking at improving, then simplifying and removing distractions is certainly something to consider.
My attempt to abstract a general answer from all the complications regarding different people's ideas about what a photograph should "accomplish": A distraction is some feature that, for a given viewer, has nearly the same visual importance as another feature to which the viewer attributes much greater cognitive importance.
I would think about it in this abstract sense, solely defined through the viewer, not the creator:
- The subject is something that the viewer thinks he/she should be experiencing.
- A distraction is something that the viewer experiences but is not part of the subject.
Neither has to be part of the picture necessarily, nor something visual at all.