During the last couple of weeks I’ve gone through over a dozen books that were mostly picture books taken by famous photographers from Sports Illustrated, Time, National Geographic, Life, and others. The one thing I’ve noticed that is true of 95% of the photos I’ve looked at is that none of them would pass the scrutiny that you or I face these days as digital photographers. Many of these photos aren’t sharp, they frequently are cropped poorly, they have tons of visual distractions that don’t add value to the shot (including dust spots), they are grainy as hell (because many come from film), the exposure is off, the colors are a bit muted, etc…
All of the things that normal people get hammered for on web sites, and through stock agencies are present in these great photos. Yet, I wonder if these great photographers faced the same rejection that many of us face if they would have gone on to be great photographers or if these great shots would have ever seen the light of day?
Granted, the pros of today have paid their dues. Many shot on film without all of the high-tech wizardry we have at our disposal, they shot on the move, and they shot with lesser equipment (by their own admission – not mine). They also faced @hole editors who made them feel like crap, so they know what it feels like to take a photo you are proud of and have it dismissed as a snapshot.
However, when I carefully analyze current magazines, post cards, and posters with photos being praised as great I see many of the same mistakes we all make. Perhaps the shutter speed was a tad slow, perhaps the focus was a bit soft, perhaps the light wasn’t just right so the ISO had to be cranked up and noise (beyond the help of Noise Ninja) was introduced. However, they still get their photos published and they continue to be labeled as great.
Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of current pros who are simply photography gods who could get a shot with a built-it-yourself camera and natural light, but it does seem that in this day of high res cameras, print, and monitors that we’ve all gone a bit crazy (especially me) about the technical merits of a photo rather than the creative merits of a photo. I know I’m guilty of this because I do it to myself. I find myself doing it because I know when I submit a picture for review – anywhere – I’m going to have someone tell me that the crop is wrong, the picture is a bit soft, there’s noise (even at ISO 100 or 50), and the exposure is a bit off. This has caused me, and I think many aspiring photographers, to focus on what is wrong instead of what is good about a photo.
With this in mind, I would encourage anyone who reads this to take time to start looking differently at people’s photos when they submit them for a critique. Sure, we all want to learn and get better so helpful tips are important, but I also think it is even more important to say what the photographer did well. Encouragement goes a long way, and in this super tough, over saturated, and highly competitive field, a little praise would go a long way. I know it would certainly help the dozens of people who have told me off-line that they are afraid to post their pictures (or in some cases, even comment to a post) for the fear of having their pride and joy slammed to bits.
When a friend asks you "what do you think of this photo", I would suggest using a template similar to Flickr’s Score Me In Detail when replying:
Creativity - 5 Marks
How creative is the photo? Is it original? How unique is it? Is the idea a good one? Does the photo tell a story without a title or explanation?
Colors - 5 Marks
Are the colors suitable to the photo? Are they justified in being vibrant/soft? Are the colors too bright, dark, light etc? If the photo is b&w, do you think choosing to use b&w was a good choice? Has the conversion been done well?
Exposure – 5 Marks
Is the photo too light, too dark, or just right?
Crop – 5 Marks
Is the image cropped very well? Is the subject in the right spot? Are there elements YOU find distracting in the picture?
Opinion - 5 Marks
These 5 points are personal to you. Even if the composition is off, the colors are wrong and the idea has been done much better, did it still capture your attention? Did it make you smile? This is where you give it the points you personally want to give it. It may not be perfect in principle but you might love it anyway. Many pro’s photos get published for being a 5 here when many of the above would get < 3 from me.
PLUS, include something positive to say about the photo in the format of:
“What I like most about this photo is…”
When offering suggestions simply offer the one thing that you think would make the biggest impact to improve the photo and BE NICE. Saying delete it isn’t being nice!
If a photo is original or super creative, simply share your praise so that photographer can continue to be inspired to take more risks.
Here's a quick template you can copy and paste to make it easy to provide a thoughtful reply to your friend:
<BEGIN COPY HERE FOR TEMPLATE>
Total (25 max):
What I like MOST about this photo is:
The best thing you could do to improve this photo is: