Lately, I’ve been stewing over what makes a photograph good. Or maybe I should say “good.” It’s hard to determine because what people like is so subjective. And oftentimes there are elements to a photograph (any art, really) that people both like and dislike.
I was inspired to write about this after reading some commentary from a website I’ve been playing with called ARS (beta). It’s the beta version of a future site billing itself “social media for photographers.” The idea is that you’re presented with a series of photographs anonymously and invited to “keep” or “ditch” with the twist of being able to earn ARS coins for leaving a critique. The coins can be used to buy in-depth critiques from other people for your images.
What gets me is how across the board the commentary is. I posted this image above last week to see what sort of responses I’d get. Personally – and this is the rub, I think – I love this shot. It’s so sharp that you can see the sweat, invoking the summer heat of Taipei. Yet he’s eating soup; a hot dish! He didn’t notice me shooting despite sitting right next to him. And the angle emphasizes the way he’s leaning in to taste the soup. I wish I’d used f/4 instead of f/2 so you could see the Chinese characters on the sign for context but I like this at f/2.
Responses were as follows:
“Keep” – While this looks pretty sharp and uses a low f stop to blur the background, the hand is also out of focus and the face does not seem that interesting to me.
“Ditch” – Boring
“Keep” – the action is eating soup, and you dont see all bowl soup
I use ARS as an example – I ply for comments on a number of websites and the results are pretty much the same – inconsistent. In reflection, though, the “keep-ditch” binary choice of ARS may be more to blame here, since a critique can and should contains elements of what’s good and what’s not.
Still, it’s worth reflecting on what do people seem to universally like? The people who are probably offering most critiques? Mugshots of pretty girls at f/2 or below. Split-toned images, regardless of how realistic it appears. Hyper-contrasty B&W. And let’s not forget HDR. Does that mean it’s good, if everyone likes it on Instagram? Something in me says “yes.”
Reading photography forums, people who have been doing it for years have a very different take – yet it seems to me that those are just another set of opinions. If the majority likes overdone HDR, bokeh-filled images of average people, and Photoshop then why do a bunch of old farts get to gate-keep what’s actually good photography?
I guess I’m struggling to figure out where and how to grow as a photographer and not seeing any clear direction because it’s all subjective. The standard response is “just shoot and forget about people’s opinions.”
Critiques are also sometimes useful. I learned to stop shooting at f/2 or below (except this time) to include more details from some folks. It taught me to focus more on composition rather than bokeh. I took my best street photo ever a couple of weeks ago thanks to thinking beyond depth of field and trying to see lines and story. But a lot of it also came more from reading up on composition.
This image has had a strong response in terms of “likes” from folks. There’s something good here – it’s provocative, I think. They’re confused by me and I’m obviously close-up. I’m dragging the viewer into the scene and it’s thrilling. Still, when I asked for a critique on what elements within the image makes it strong, my single response was along the lines of “they don’t like you taking their image and you took it anyway. How disrespectful.”
The candid, frank expressions are what make this one so much fun. Someone clearly doesn’t shoot street photography or even knows how this played out. Actually, the guy hiding his face came out from behind the paper and laughed with me after I walked by. So – garbage feedback from a photography critique forum, no less.
I need feedback but whose feedback? When I critique shots on ARS beta sometimes I get fashion or model shots. Those…Really aren’t my thing. Sometimes it seems to me that someone knew what they were doing – maybe they’re using a very well-established style that harkens to the ’60’s or something. But that’s just not my style so I click “ditch!” Sort of like the person who thought my shot above was “disrespectful.”
I’m beginning to suspect improving as a photographer comes down to:
Specialization. Picking a few niches that really speak to your vision and focusing on them over others. That’s not to say you can’t shoot a landscape if one presents itself.
Reflection. Thinking about why certain images appeal to you. If there’s universal elements that speak to you or not. When I’m walking down the street, I often see a scene that speaks to me and makes me wish I had a camera in hand. Or if I do have my camera, makes me wish I was brave enough to take the shot. If I abstain, I’ll stop and at least consider what it is about the scene that appeals to me.
Focused feedback. Getting feedback from people whose work you enjoy and appreciate in your genre. I wouldn’t ask a professional landscape photographer what she thinks about my street photography. Even Ansel Adams would have failed with ARS beta while collecting who knows how many faces with ❤ for eyes on Instagram. Who decides he’s good or not? Maybe I should be reading up on the so-called greats, instead, and determine why they’re greats. People’s opinions seem, as usual, rather overrated. Despite it being those same opinions that have decided Ansel is “one of the greats.”
“Likes” can count for something but do people always know why they like what they like? Feel free to like this post, though.