Why This Photo Stinks

January 16, 2014  •  2 Comments

And why I don't care what you think
















Ok, so that's not exactly true, I do care what you think, but this is a story of my first foray into public critique of any of my photos.  The audience for it was pretty large, the website was called Photoblink.com created and run by Sergei Samus, a talented photographer from the UK.  This site still exists today, but at the time (c. 2000) it was still relatively new and gave photographers the ability to critique other photographers work.  At the time, anyone could comment and rate a photo.  I was new so I invited outside people (family) to comment.  Little did I know that was frowned upon on that site.

My Dad got on and gave me a high rating.  Family will do that.  Unconditional support is great.  But I raised the ire of quite a few other photographers on that site who were very quick to down rate me and were very clear that this photo was not deserving of the praise it got and set out to list every single fault with it.  Then my sister came on to defend me, family will tend do that.  The photo does not exist on the site anymore, but from what I remember, this is how the conversation went:

(1/24/14 Update: Edited to fix the actual people involved.)

Dad:  I love this photo, it's very natural and she's cute.  4/5 stars

Photogs #1-10: This is what's wrong with this site, anyone can comment!  Obviously, they know nothing about photography.  The little girl here is CENTERED.  Don't center your subjects. The girl should have been positioned so she was not in such harsh sunlight.  Maybe use a scrim or something to shade her.  And a speedlight to bring out the shadow detail... blah...blah...blah...blah  1 Star!

Sister:  What a bunch of snooty b.s.  (Ok, I don't remember exactly what she said, but I remember the point)

Various other Photogs: Grumble Grumble Grumble

Soon after that, the site implemented a policy that you had to critique 5 other photographer's work before you could upload your own.  The people critiquing also needed to be members of the site.  I'd like to think I was the reason they did that, but I'm sure it was already in the works.  I wasn't the only offender.  And to be fair, this is not the general attitude on the site.  The overall environment is constructive from other very talented photographers who simply know what they are doing.  Otherwise, I would not have kept posting images there.

Yes, I got the message.  Don't put up sub-standard work.  And don't ask friends and family to vote for your stuff.  Yes, I know she's in harsh sunlight.  I know the difference in light on her face is like a half moon in the night sky.  There aren't enough flowers around her.  I should have taken this during a cloudy day or used a scrim sheet.  But I didn't know if anyone critiquing knew (or cared) that:

This was candid.  I did not pose this little girl

I don't think you can compare it to a studio or setting where everything is controlled down to the power level on the speedlights.  In this case, I was at my boyhood home at my sister in law's baby shower.  This was in my old backyard (actually the neighbor's garden, but there is no fence).  I did not know the girl and may have met the parents briefly at the party.  I saw her out of the corner of my eye smelling the flowers and saw the combination of her dress and the flowers behind her and RAN to the spot where I took the picture you see.  I may have been in the middle of a conversation, maybe even in mid-sentence, but I saw an opportunity and capitalized on it.  Maybe that was rude.  This picture happened when she first noticed me.  After that, I didn't get the same look again.  After that, I went back to the party.    I probably apologized to whoever I was talking to.  Then again, I may have forgotten who I was talking to in the first place.  I didn't know what I had until I had the film developed.  Being a novice, I did not see the imperfections in the lighting or the placement.  I saw a priceless expression on a cute little girl wearing a dress that matched some of the flowers around her.  This is the essence of street photography (I know, this was a garden, but the rules, or lack of, still apply).  You get what you get with the light you have and once in a while you will capture a completely natural moment and a unique expression.  Something different than what you would get if I had told this little girl to "move around and smell the flowers and ignore this 6' tall stranger stalking you like a Nikon branded cyclops".

>>1/23/14 Update:  I recently watched a very interesting video by pro photog Joe DiMaggio (no relation to the baseball player) entitled  "Everything in Photography is a Compromise" (click to view)  He touches on this dillemma between getting the shot and getting the perfect shot.

Even if I had staged that shot back then I would have committed the same fouls.  I didn't know any better.  In the shot on the right, I cut off my nephew's shoe.  Arggh!  Still using film at the time.  Didn't realize that until later. Otherwise, a good shot.  Also, someone commented that there was too much depth of field and the background was not out of focus enough.  I mean, how much bokeh do you really need?

Sometimes it's better not to know the rules at all than to know what the rules are and intentionally break them.  Some people can do that.  But it's usually the ones with the magazine column assignments or those with a multi-million dollar gallery business in Costa-Coloma California.  Hey look, they say, "I'm centering my subject, but that's ok to do, sometimes you have to break the rules."  I wonder sometimes if someone famous posted this same picture to the same forum whether the response would be completely different.  "Love your use of contrast on the face, Mr. famous photographer, you know sometimes breaking the rules is what you have to do."  Anyway that's what I image would happen.  I've seen Franz Lanting post some horrible stuff in his articles in Outdoor Photographer magazine and I have to second guess my critiquing muscles.  He is famous and has an excellent lifetime body of work which adds up to more than all the neurons in my brain.  All I have is a little girl with a purple dress in a garden.  And cake, there was cake.

When I first saw this photo printed, I thought maybe that I had some talent.  Maybe a little bit.  I thought maybe with some instruction I could do better.  I posted 30 or 40 more shots on that same website and got some decent feedback.  I wasn't able to match some of the other art being posted.  And I was always curious why some photos ranked higher in scores than other photos that seemed to me to be much better.  Maybe I needed to be part of the clique of photographers who score all their friends photos higher.  That was the conspiracy half of me talking.  That really doesn't exist, does it?

So I'd like to be better at posing people for portraits.  I'd like to be able to get people into natural poses.  but telling people to be natural is tricky.  If they have to think about being natural, they never will be.  You have to catch them in mid thought or relaxed.

My Dad took this shot of some family friends back when I was a kid.  They asked that he take a formal portrait that they could give as a gift to their parents when they returned from an overseas trip.  This is what my Dad said about it:  

Burnham Graphic ArtsCooney Portrait

"We went down to Swan Pond and I set up remote strobe lights that flashed when I took the picture.  Took pictures in color and B/W.   I told them to relax and take a break and I took the picture moments after.  It’s the one they picked to give their Father on his birthday."

So, how about this?  When taking family portraits, pretend to take photos when they think you are, THEN start shooting when they think you aren't.  That's gold, Jerry, gold!











So a week after 9-11 I went on a soul search in downtown Chicago.  I called in sick to work and just drove downtown.  I may not have even called in sick, even.  I took my camera on purpose looking for something interesting.  Then I found this guy playing an accordion.  I don't even remember where exactly this was, but it was close to Madison St, maybe on LaSalle.

I loved the hat.  I was trying very hard to be inconspicuous, but in order to get the shot and blur the background, I had to get far enough away and zoom in.  In order to do that, I had to circumnavigate some construction scaffolding in a doorway.  I had a hard time positioning myself between the bars and finally I took a few shots.  I was anything but inconspicuous.  He was looking at me the whole time (and playing).  He didn't take his eyes off me.  And his expression in this shot was perfect.  I thanked him and gave him $5 for the trouble.  My performance was free. 

After that, I saw a banner somewhere that the Red Cross was taking blood donations for walk ins to help the victims of the twin towers.  I think that might have been the first time I ever gave blood.









On the same day, I was in downtown Naperville, IL where I found a 9-11 memorial set out on the lawn of the City Hall building by the River.  There was a small flag placed in the ground for everyone who died.  I was taking close ups of the flags when I noticed a Mother with her two daughters walking nearby.  I hung out and watched as the little girl's mother began reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with her.  Afterward I approached the Mom and got her name and address and later sent her a print and got a nice thank you note back.

I posted both of these on that website for comment and voting.  I got some very good comments and scored fairly well in the contests.  Family life kept me from using the site more and I eventually stopped submitting. Even though I stopped presenting on that site, I think Sergei did a great job building that global community of photographers.  You can check out the site here.  It used to be a free site, but Sergei came to his senses and created a pay model to support his habit.  Segei, if you are reading this, I hope you and your wife are doing well.

And I learned some valuable lessons since then

1. Praise from your family and friends is not critique.  If you want critique, find someone unattached, and who doesn't hate you, at a minimum.

2. Break the rules if you want to.  But don't do it because you are a rebel, do it because you don't know any better.

3. People who don't know they are being photographed make the best photographs.  Just don't start creeping around to get them.  Be obvious, but not oblivious.  Don't ambush people on the street.  If they know you are there, introduce yourself, get their info and offer them a print.

4. Don't get up close in people's faces without permission like some "street" photographers do.  It makes the rest of us look bad.  But you can still do it to cats.  They give you unconditional permission because they are born attention hogs anyway.


The sister.(non-registered)
As they say on Broadway, "everyone's a critic..." The point of the critique is to educate and guide, not shred to pieces to show that you "know better". I had a young photographer tell me that "good photography" meant that you had to use only your camera (no flash, no darkroom technique, absolutely no photoshop). Yes, definitely know how to work your camera, but there is nothing wrong with a little extra help. If all photographers thought this way, we would have no flashes, diffusers, baffles, backfills, studio lighting, darkroom dodging, etc. (and Adobe would not be the powerhouse it is today....) Rules are man-made and constantly changing. Even the "Impressionists" turned their world of art and art critics upside down. Now their work is admired and honored. And to this day, there are a lot of people who don't like "modern art". Now you have everyone and his brother's uncle out there with their Nokia Lumias taking candids, selfies and not following any of "the rules" and some are winding up with some pretty interesting pieces. The point of art (and that includes photography) is to ask the viewer to see something in a different way. I like the Little League shot (and not just because I am his mom). It captured the emotion of the moment. Yes, getting the shoes in there would have helped the image. Oh, and one final thing... I don't like cats. Opinions are opinions and not necessarily "truth".
The other sister.(non-registered)
You didn't say you wanted honest commentary....BTW, nice piece. And, don't take the critique of anonymous amateur photographers at face value. Some of that is jealousy. The pic of the guy with the accordion is awesome. Pictures happen anywhere. Good pictures happen about every one in 1000 shots. Play the odds, but don't sacrifice your family.
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