Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Nature of a "Good" Photograph - Part 1

The first step in understanding what makes a quality photograph is to familiarize oneself with the history and development of the medium. Today many people take the history of the camera for granted. Sure many of them know that at some point their parents had cameras that used film. These same people probably remember the exciting day when the photos came home from the drugstore and they could begin a lifetime of accumulating fingerprints or being forgotten in yellowing albums, but they have no concept of how the camera as an apparatus evolved. The entirety of digital photography has been designed to emulate the usage of film and familiarizing yourself with the background of the camera can lend a photographer a greater understanding of the machine. (More to come on this later.)

Much like an instrumental musician has to be completely familiar with the workings of their instrument to produce "good" music, so too did the photographer need to master the technical skills of his instrument to produce effective artworks. The digital revolution in photography is slowly decreasing the technical knowledge needed to produce an effective photograph. Computers use algorithms and complex settings coded with "idiot-proof" symbols to synthesize the knowledge of the best photographers and almost eliminate the need for technical understanding. I can't count the number of times have I been asked on the street to take a picture of someone else amidst the hurriedly yelled instructions of, "You don't have to do anything but press that button". This transition is dangerous because it means that any mumblecrust with a pointer finger might attempt to don the mantel of "photographer".

Back to my main point, what makes a "good" photograph? Because of the advance in digital technology we are forced to eliminate technical skill in operation of the camera from the list of criteria. Certainly I have seen photos that are out of focus, too light, too dark, or tilted, but for the most part these problems are all human error and happen infrequently.

Inevitably, when a student begins photography their first instinct is to photograph things that are pretty. They go out on crisp fall afternoons and shoot pictures of leaves changing colors, of beautiful sunsets, of kittens playing with balls of yarn and they think that these pictures are art. This is wrong. Stop it. Stop it right now. All art can be a desktop background, but not all desktop backgrounds should be considered art.

Then after a little training they learn how to use light to their advantage, eliminating reflections, utilizing shadows. It is during this period that they might discover some of the BIG NAMES in photography like Ansel Adams. As if by magic they begin shooting in black and white. Some black and white pictures of flowers later, they are under the impression that they are really really good.This is also bad. I would suggest crying yourself to sleep while repeating the following phrase in between sobs, "I know nothing! I am an awful photographer."

It is only by maintaining the proper level of humility and self doubt that one can be properly motivated to learn how to do things properly. So don't be afraid to tell people that their photos are not very good. If they know anything about photography they should agree with you.

Sometimes it can take years for a photographer to develop a concept to accompany their body of work. This period may be preceded by large groups of images that they took at their cousin's wedding of people dancing and the bride and groom kissing at the reception, which they believe work together as a series about love.  This important stage is where the developing photographer learns the difference between a body of work, and taking a lot of different pictures of essentially the same thing. (There is a fine line that you can visit sometimes once you know the rules, but thats for later). For example a body of work could be a collection of portraits of all the people who knock on your door in a year, showing a cross section of society and the photographer's neighborhood through the work. Pictures of babies dressed up as fruits is not something that is considered a body of work.

For your comprehension I will now list some other things one can photograph in large quantities and yet will always be considered cliches:
  • Famous Landmarks
  • Images of your friends appearing to be sitting on, pushing over, or holding famous landmarks
  • Cats (simply avoid at all costs)
  • House pets in general
  • Sunsets
  • Sunrises
  • Trees
  • Bunches of Flowers
  • High School Seniors Leaning Against Cars
  • You and someone next to you in a social setting while you hold the camera at arms length.


A Good Photograph must be built on sound technical grounds. The differences in exposure, shutter speed, desired ISO, sharpness, camera angle and color shift (if applicable) should all be exactly the way you want them to be. If the fundamentals of photography are adhered to, there should be no reason or need to go into photoshop to correct these features. (For God's Sake, TAKE YOUR CAMERA OFF OF THE AUTO SETTING!)

Point of view: Part of what separates a photographer from a tourist is the ability to take pictures at angles other than eye level. The point of view is one of the photographer's most powerful tools, especially when coupled with techniques such as "Shallow Depth of Field" or "Deep Focus". The point of view can turn the viewer into an active participant in the scene, or exclude them entirely.

Concept: This is the main reason more experienced Photographers loath amateurs and also loath their own previous work. A concept is the underlying explanation for why you are creating your images. It is the rough explanation of the message the image tries to get across. Hundreds of books have been written on the subject each arguing different points of view. Should photographs be more like a window, allowing the viewer to see the world uninterrupted through the lens of the photographer, or should the photography be a mirror which reflects something personal about the photographer? Should a photograph be purely documentary and strive to capture as many different aspects of society as accurately as possible or should it be used to expression of ideas and situations which are more difficult to explain? The debate rages on, but the point that both sides can agree on is that a photographer should be able to justify their work conceptually. Perhaps the healthiest thing that a beginning photographer can do is to immerse themselves in this debate. Pick a side, defend it for a while, learn about the conceptualization of work as a starting point.

Originality: With the ability to instantly share photos around the world it has become increasingly difficult to create an image that someone else hasn't found and photographed yet. It is nearly impossible to take an original photograph of the Eiffel Tower or of Big Ben. These places are too saturated with tourists and cameras.  Strive to link your concept, point of view, and technical skill together to create something that no one else has thought of.

Now its time for some visual examples:
 This are all images of varying success that I took on an afternoon trip (with my 300mm telephoto lens) to the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo around 2008 or so.  The zoo is a tourist trap, and as such also threatens photographers to create images without regard for concept. In a zoo there are many different themes that can be explored, none of which I was thinking of when I was snapping shots.

As a Zoo, an interesting concept could be to explore visually how the animals behave in captivity or to try to capture instances of human and animal interaction through the framework of confinement. One could try to take extreme closeup shots of animals, challenging the viewer to deduce what part of the creature is being photographed. Or they could take a similar compositional arrangement and try to get as many animals as possible that fit that criteria (perhaps all their heads are turned to the right or something). I did not do that and instead I utilized what I am going to call the "Carpet Bombing" technique. This is where a photographer takes pictures of anything and everything and only after all the pictures have been taken, sorts them into a hodgepodge cohesive set. This is seen as a very amateur way to photograph a body of work. Stop it.

The first image is of an elephant. The positive qualities of this image are it's symmetry, the crisp detail and texture and the zoomed in composition makes it so that the viewer is forces to question what they are looking at. The exposure is decently balanced with some highlights and shadows present. This is generally not something that a tourist is going to come away with from the zoo, however the message that it is trying to convey is still unclear. I would rate this as undeveloped conceptually. This image might benefit from being in black and white, because the lack of color would help to emphasize the texture and shadows. Never photograph something, or convert something to black and white without a good reason.
The Baby Antelope image below is technically well done. The image is crisp and the shallow dept of field helps draw the viewer to a clear focal point. Past that its pretty much crap. The phantom pair of legs and part of a head that enter the picture are textbook examples of poor framing which generally could have been fixed by waiting a minute or two for the animals or yourself to move. The subject is uninteresting and serves only as visual proof that the photographer saw this animal. There is no implied message here. I am bored looking at this image.
The following image is a little different. It was taken from a covered bridge over a drained lake that is usually full of drastically over-sized coy (the fish bridge, as it is affectionately called by Omaha locals). Here we have an implied message. By taking a photograph I have drawn attention to this piece of un-decomposed garbage/pollution which has taken up residence on the bottom of the lake. It has "green" undertones about how careless people are to the fish environment. It is composed simply, but on it's own lacks something to be a successful image. Of all the images I walked away with from that trip to the Zoo, this was the only one of trash. An interesting series would be to go photograph trash that has been left in unusual places in the zoo, but one image does very little to convey the whole message that is possible. It too is boring.
What is the point of the next image? This is a classic example of someone playing with the "macro setting" on their camera. A close up shot with a little "shallow depth of field" and anything can look interesting. Some macro photography causes the viewer to see the super-close-up rendering of something small and compare it to a landscape they have seen in person. Other macro images strive to hide the true identity of the subject, causing people to contemplate a seemingly unknown form hidden in a very familiar shape. This image does none of those things. It is more of an experiment on how sharp an image the camera and lens can create. It does have some rich contrast and dramatic shadows which is something I personally like to see in a photograph, but other than that, there is very little here to recommend.
Finally, is one of the more successful images from that particular shoot. Ironically, it is on an abandoned train car in a part of the zoo used for storage, off the beaten path, and of an animal which is not confined to a cage. Still the repetition of the bars remind the viewer of a bird cage and the shallow depth of field helps to isolate the lone sparrow as the obvious focal point. There is an implied narrative here. The bird, the train car, and even the division of the image into light and dark can take on meaning for the viewer which can help them leave the image with a message. Having said that I am not captivated by this image and it certainly wouldn't win any contests.

 I like to think of a photography project in reverse. I take my end goal: A body of work to be framed and shown together in a gallery show, a collection to be published in a photo book, a stand alone image for a wall mural, or some other purpose and use it like a mad lib to fill in the blanks. I am constantly thinking how what I am currently seeing can be photographed to fit the concept I want to portray. Looking back at these images I did no such thing.  However, I can use the analysis of these images to put together a better plan for my next trip to the zoo, thereby learning from my own lack of discipline. I am not going to run out and get these printed, framed, and hung up in a coffee house somewhere for the same reason that writer's don't publish their table napkins, chef's don't serve things that are undercooked, or musicians don't sight read a concert.

ASIDE
One thing I cannot stress enough to the developing photographer is patience. Painters have to spend several months or years on a painting to see it through to it's completion, whilst a photographer can snap an image in a 60th of a second. This means that a photographer can create an image for no better reason than they think something they've seen is "Neat!".  I get so angry at students who would prefer to spend hours in photoshop correcting an error that could have been avoided by simply spending two additional minutes at the site of a photograph. The worst thing you can do is get back to the studio to realize that your tripod has had one short leg all day and every image slants slightly to the left. Taking two extra minutes to double check all your settings can help prevent some of the more time consuming photoshop mistakes.

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