It’s one of the hardest things we have to do as photographers — to look at our work and decide whether it’s a good image or not. Is it good enough to put in my portfolio? Good enough to share with my photo club? Good enough to put on 500px.com, or on Facebook? Is it good enough to enter a competition or submit to a magazine? Can I get client work with this image?
Part of the challenge of evaluating your own images is that you have emotion attached to those images. You see and feel things in that image the rest of the world doesn’t see. For example, when you look at your image, you might remember:
- How hard it was to create.
- How much fun you had the day you took that shot.
- Maybe it’s a type of shot you’ve always wanted to take.
- Perhaps you were with your family when you took it, and it reminds you of a great vacation?
- You’re proud of the post-processing you did. It’s the best you’ve done so far.
- Maybe it was the first shot you made with that new lens you bought.
- Or maybe there’s just “something about it” that strikes you.
You see some or all of that in the image you took of that tree. But to everyone else, your cherished photo of a tree is just that — a photo of a tree.
We’ve all seen trees before. To you, it’s a special tree in some way (maybe one of the reasons I listed above). To us, it’s just a tree. That’s part of the reason why it’s so hard to evaluate your own images, and why it’s so easy for others to quickly see if it’s a good image or not — they have zero emotion attached to that shot — it’s either a good photo, or it’s not, and that’s instantly clear to people who have no emotional attachment to it.
It helps to know there are two sides to evaluating any image…
…and they couldn’t be farther apart from each other:
(1) Technical or Foundational evaluation
These are the easiest to identify because we have a basic set of guidelines about whether an image is technically correct. Stuff like “Is the horizon-line straight?” or “Is the image sharp?” This is the stuff that often ruins good photos, but on the other hand, if you get every one of the technical things right on the money, it can still be a boring, soul-less, nothing of a photo. Nailing all the technical stuff won’t, by itself, make a good photo but making technical mistakes sure can sink a good one.
(2) The Artistic or Creative Side
This one is 100% totally subjective. One person can love a particular image, and another person may not like it at all. It’s art. It’s subjective. If you did the technical stuff in number one correctly, then you can focus on evaluating the photo’s artistic merit. One way is to honestly ask yourself if someone was looking at this would they find it fascinating or beautiful or intriguing? Does the image tell a story they would want to know more about, does it have that special something that moves them in some way? Does it have something that elicits an emotional response of some sort? Happiness? Sadness? Anger? Laughter? Joy? Longing? Interest? Pride? Surprise? Wonder?
If it’s a picture of the old bridge in your home town — one that the locals pass by every day, it had better be a pretty awesome photo, showing that bridge from an angle or perspective they haven’t seen before, or it has to be in unusually dramatic light or beautiful light that it’s seldom seen in, or something that makes this photo of the bridge special, or they’re going to look at it and say, “Yup, that’s the old bridge.”
That’s why the technical side of evaluation is so much easier
It’s well defined. You either did the right thing right or you didn’t. However, a technically correct image is only the foundation of how images are evaluated. It’s that “other stuff” – the creativity, the light, the moment, the story, or a magical combination of all that that creates an image that makes people say “wow.” I wish I could tell you exactly how to make an image like that. I wish it was that easy. I wish it was as easy as the technical side, but it’s where the real magic of photography lies.
Let’s Start With The Technical Part
The foundational stuff. I think I can help with that, but before I get to that, I have to tell you this: Once a month on ‘The Grid’ (my weekly photography show) I ask our viewers to submit images for a “Blind Critique” (it’s blind because we don’t know or reveal the photographer’s name on the air. The reason is so we can give honest critiques without publically humiliating or embarrassing anyone). It’s hard to get an honest critique of one’s work these days. Your spouse isn’t going to tell you the truth about your images. Neither are your friends or co-workers. Neither will people online (well, there’s always that one guy, right?). So, we try and give an honest critique and give pointers on how to make that image, or that photographer in general, better. Sometimes people send in images that are so good all we can say is “keep up the good work,” but most times we’re able to help with suggestions of what they could do to improve, both in camera and in post processing.
One of the most frustrating parts of being one of the critiquers (if that’s even a word) is that we see people making the exact same fundamental, technical mistakes each time we do critiques. Worst of all, some of these images could have been really great images if they had just paid attention to some of the technical parts, because those technical flaws are so obvious, that it kills the creativity and art of the image.
Some people would argue that it doesn’t matter if there are technical problems however, I would offer that those are the very people who are making technical mistakes and don’t want it held against them or their images. I would say to them — why would you let basic technical mistakes in your image take the viewers mind off the story you’re trying to tell, or the scene you’re trying to capture, or the emotion you’re trying to share?
Sometimes, an image is so strong that we can look past the fundamental technical aspects and just enjoy it for what it is. Sometimes we get lucky and capture an incredible frame despite doing a lot of things wrong, but luck isn’t a good strategy for creating wonderful images (though I’m happy to welcome luck with open arms anytime it appears in front of my camera).
Harder Than I Thought
I wanted to help all those folks who struggle with the fundamentals, so on Friday of last week, I went into our studio and recorded one of the hardest courses I’ve taught in a while. It was hard on a lot of different levels. One part was that I had to share over 100 of my really bad images throughout the class to use as examples of what not to do (including some really cringe-worthy stuff). Stuff I shot years ago. Some more recently, sadly. All that sharing of awful images with an audience of other photographers — that isn’t fun. The other part was conveying the message in a way that wouldn’t make the viewer think that just nailing the technical stuff was enough. It’s not.
I also fretted a lot with my idea of creating downloadable checklists the students could download for each genre I covered in the course (they included Landscape, Natural Light Portraits, Studio Portraiture, Travel, and Location Portraits using Flash). I finally decided to do it but I was careful to remind my students that it is NOT a checklist for seeing if you made a great image. It’s a checklist to see if you covered the fundamentals, and sidestepped some of the traps that ruin otherwise great photos. It’s a learning tool. Not a set of laws.
My video team tells me it’ll be about six weeks before the course comes out because we already have a bunch of courses in the production cue. I am really looking forward to getting it out there, because I think it has the potential to help a lot of people (plus, seeing 100+ of my worst images is probably just good for people’s souls). ;-)
I hope this post helps you realize that the technical stuff, this ground level stuff of photography, is important enough that you should be taking it into account when you’re making images. The technical parts of photography are not laws written in stone, and some of the greatest photos in history have some of these same flaws. Sometimes when I see one of those, I think, “Man, that is an amazing photo! Too bad they didn’t…” – see what I mean? Don’t let there be a “but…” after your photo. Learn the fundamental stuff, and apply it when you can to get that technical junk out of the way, so we can enjoy your story, the emotion, the light, the scene, and viewing your image without any “buts.”
Hope that got you thinkin’ :)
P.S. I’m in Los Angeles today teaching my Lightroom seminar. Between LA, San Francisco on Wednesday and Seattle on Friday, I’ll be training just over 1,000 photographers. I hope you’re one of them. :)