Thursday, March 04, 2010

How Do People Judge Photographs?

There are many methods and ways people may employ to weigh the scale of how good a photograph is. The lines determining the final verdict are never clear. One photo appears beautiful to one viewer, but may not necessarily be the same case for another. Undeniably, different viewers approach the photographs presented to them with their own differing outlook and expectations on how good photographs should be. Can this ultimately mean that photo- judging is entirely subjective and never come to an absolute conclusion?

I would like to believe that there are certain criteria that govern the process of filtering the good photos from the, well, not so good ones. However, as I have plunged myself further into this photography world, I have come to notice a lot of trends being set by the predecessors, but faithfully followed by many, and practiced in mass numbers. Since everyone has different opinions, it is obvious that those opinions when stacked against each other won’t hold hand in hand together.

I wish to highlight those trends, and group them as follows:

1) Technical Junkies

You must follow rule of thirds. Too much highlight clippings in your photographs, not enough dynamic range. The white balance is slightly off. The skin tones are reddish. The photo is not perfectly leveled; it is a bit tilted to one side. Too much distortion, the building looks like it is going to fall off !!

Are the above mentioned not the common complains we always hear, typically from many photographers who have very squeamishly technical viewpoint when it comes to judging a photograph?

They would go through a long list of aspects that should or should not determine a photograph’s technical accuracy. If you are unfortunate enough to deviate from their standard parameters, your photograph ranking will be dropped by a significant margin. They would grill you for every single mistake you have done against their ridiculously stringent technical quality control. On the other hand, even if you just took a photograph of your hairy legs, but you got your white balance settings spot on, leveled horizontally, with no barrel or perspective distortion, at just the right exposure, revealing details at highlight and shadow areas adequately, and basically hitting all the right technical aspects, your hairy legs will be admired throughout this community.

I would say, understanding how the camera and lenses works, the basic mechanism behind it, and knowing their limitations would be crucial to work around the weaknesses of your system and get the best out of it. Going overboard with the technical aspects of a photography system can somehow create a repulsive exasperating monster out of you.

2) Bokeh Fetish

There is this particular group of people who would constantly mark down your photographs, if:

a) Your photograph does not have any bokeh at all.
b) Your photograph does not have sufficient bokeh.
c) The bokeh of your photograph is not smooth and creamy enough
d) Your bokeh is not “artistic” enough

All they would ever see as a value in a photograph is how much bokeh you can make out of it. As much as I love having nice bokeh on my photograph, I believe it is one of the many methods to isolate your subjects from the background, by blurring the background off, and popping your subjects out of the whole frame. There are other ways to isolate the subjects, by careful compositions and arrangement of colors for instance. Prioritizing bokeh as a sole criterion to tell how good a photograph is can be a pain in the ass.

Having your subjects being splattered over bokeh in every single photograph just makes you a very dull and uninspiring photographer.

3) Self-Worshippers

This is by far the most repugnantly loathsome category I am presenting here. There exist a certain number of photographers, growing in number, who are so self-absorbed that they think they are professionals, labeled themselves as professionals but their works may astonishingly show the total opposite. I am not one eligibly fit enough to disqualify the status of others, but I am sure my observations were not made and agreed by myself only.

I believe the professional levels of photography can be delusional. When people comment positively on your photographs, especially by non-photography literate people that can only mean your photographs successfully impressed your viewers. It would be a fatal move thereon to self-claim a professional status and store so much arrogance that every word you speak about your work airs certain self-praising remarks. For instance “Oh, none of my shots were taken by luck, I have meticulously planned them so”. “I thank God for my wonderful gift in Photography, while others have to do it the hard way”. “I am so young but look, my photos are so much better than many professionals who have done it for decades”. “Look I have these international awards and I have this international certification, I am a lot better than other photographers out there who had none”. Sound familiar?

Everyone gets to brag once in a while, and show off their talents and achievements. It is wise to know the limits of doing so, because, pride always comes before the fall. Self-worshipping will not only make you look foolish, but it negates the purpose of true photography: to connect people. How can people connect to your work: see the beauty in your work and appreciate the artistic value of your photograph when all you wanted them to see is how almighty you are? If you are indeed good, you do not need to convince others, nor do you need to talk others down.

Let your works speak for themselves.

Getting any comments about your photos at all from people in this category can be quite a morbid experience. To them, only their own photos can reach up to their expectations.

4) Naturalists

This category of people is photoshop’s number 1 enemy.

They would scoff at any photos that exhibit any hint of digital manipulation or processing. They will complain that your photographs have fake colours, and how you should have got your white balance setting right in camera instead of correcting them later. Cropping is not allowed, because if you can compose properly in the first place, why is there a need to crop? They adore people who can make beautiful straight out of the camera shots. To them, the existence of photoshop is unnecessary.

I believe in doing all we can to get the photograph right in the first place. However, a little touch up can surely make your photograph sparkle a little more. It has come to a point today that photo-processing (editing) is an integrated part of digital photography. Neglecting this as a powerful tool will consequently set you back from a world of wonderful possibilities.

5) Pixel Peepers

Most photographers, or people involved in digital photography are at some levels, pixel peepers. We scrutinize the photographs by examining output quality at a staggering zoomed in to near per pixel level. Each pixel counts.

The extreme peepers would usually complain about two main things: sharpness/level of details, and noise performance. If the photo looks sharp overall on a normal view, but once zoomed in, traces of softness and blurring of details are evident; your photo will be considered flawed. Having tack sharp image with tones and tones and tones of good pixels will guarantee you very high marks. Similarly, if your photograph seems ok at an ordinary viewing but once zoomed in, the noise grains are evidently present, you will be screwed.. The only question is this, how extreme are you are pixel peeping?

Generally as for me, first thing is to have the photographs sharp in focus. If you get your photos wrongly focused, nothing can save it. Of course we want as minimal noise as possible, but to just shove the photo aside due to that few traces of visible grains zoomed in at 200% magnification can be overkill, no?

I am not going to list down the “guidelines” on what a good photograph should be. That, I am afraid is still rather subjective. You can judge the photos however you like, as a naturalist, pixel peeper, a technical junky, or an asshole such as a self-worshipper.

As for me, you give me a photo with blown highlights, completely no bokeh, grainy, slightly out of focus, non-professional looking, but if the photo can make me smile, and it has a strong meaning or message behind it, I would say it is a great photograph.

What say you?


  1. i'd agree with you! hehe.

  2. Agreed! I think after learning a little bit of photography, one tends to focus too much into the technicalities rather than what makes a good photograph.

    Recently, I helped a friend taking group photos and took a couple of shots of the same scene. During the selection with my friend who is a non-photographer, she actually selected better photos than I do. I overlooked the most important bits such as a person's head was covered by another or was looking away.

  3. hey allen,
    LOL !!

    Hey Nelson,
    yeah, there are times we are so focused in getting that noise free sharp image that sometimes we overlook very fundamental aspects that make a good photograph.
    I guess we need to find a balance there.

  4. Cool... Totally agree with u~! The most important part is actually how the photo tells the story of the moment you snap not the technical perfection on it. Without denied, it might get better if it's technically perfect but it comes after the 1st this. A normal viewer wont bother much about the DR, noise and etc... :)

    ~FREDERICK~ . ~D'WinBreaker~

  5. 1) These group of people will normally comment on young/newbie/amateur photographers. And they are from the same group too! They are just following the 'rule book' (that's if the book exists)

    2) More like prime lens fetish to me. :P

    3) They are arrogant snobs. I don't see good photographers do that i.e. simplyrobin. :D

    4) I guess they didn't know that photo-editing existed long time ago. You know, the photo shop (i.e. Kedai Foto Ah Beng) where people send their films in to develop. Like it or not, they will edit your photos before developing them unless they are told otherwise.

    5) I choose noise over blur photos anytime. :)

    Nevertheless, I'll try to avoid these groups whenever they start to 'preach'.

  6. Hey frederick,
    yeah,to really have an impact there should be a story or meaning behind the photograph. Technicalities help us to achieve the shot,but it is the photographer's eye and heart that add the ooomph!

    Hey chong,
    i cant believe you actually read everything! I thought you were busy lol.
    Robin is noob mar,so no right to brag or show off yet.
    Yeah when they preach, the noise cancelling headphones come in handy.

  7. I am busy. And hence, I read it while I was on my way work.

    BTW, the last photos is so cute!

  8. Hey chong,
    lol! It was supposed to be a short entry with descriptions on my zoo trip but i don't know how it ended up like that. Yeah the last cat was darn adorable!

  9. oh .. and show 'em your kilometrico! hehe..

  10. Hey allen,
    upgrade pilot liaw!

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  12. i think I am a naturalist..hehehe..

  13. That was definitely a good read, Robin! Thanks for sharing! I laughed at Bokeh Fetish. I know sooooo many photographers who can't get enough bokeh. :D