There are no bad photos, just bad photographers. Just kidding.
Yesterday I received some fairly rude feedback from someone on a photo I had taken. As a former trainer who had the privilege of delivering mandatory compliance and technical workshops to very busy people who may or may not have seen the benefit of the content I was required to review, receiving tough feedback is not a problem.
But what bothered me, in addition to the patronizing tone, was that this person’s entire dismissal of the photo was because I did not follow the “rules”. He pretended that his reception of the photo was impacted by the consequences of the “rule” violation, and read me the equivalent of a one sentence critique from an overly rigid Photography 101 class he must have taken once that outlined the cookie cutter formula to “better” photos.
As a photography student, I of course always want my photographs to be better. But according to Jim Hobart from Macbeth Studios, the real question is what exactly does better mean? If better means you were able to achieve the photo you wanted to take, then yes, that’s better. But if it means the photo is “properly exposed” according to the prevailing guidelines out there, or follows the “rule of thirds” or other composition principles, then that’s invalid. Every decision, including whether or not to adhere to or separate from the “rules”, is subjective and should not be perceived otherwise.
One example of a generally accepted principle is that it’s best to take portraits during overcast days, because the sky basically becomes a giant softbox, casting a soft but full light onto faces, resulting in no harsh shadows, less pronounced wrinkles and blemishes. All in all, overcast day portraits are commonly received as very flattering.
Except I find overcast days so emotionally barren, the meteorological equivalent of a person who is milquetoast. Robert Frost once said, “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” I feel the same way about my photography. If I am not in awe of a landscape, or not connecting well with the subject, the photo may be pretty, but it will also likely be pretty bland.
And overcast days are not endcapped by warm sunrises and sunsets, glorious moments referred to in photography as the “golden hour” where the colors of the sun, now lower in the sky soaks skin tones, plants and the built environment in shades of orange or pink or yellow, and where you may end up with dramatic bursts of light and emotion-stirring shadows. On overcast days, the light temperature changes appear minimal, so you end up with neutral, flattering pictures. Fine if this is what you want but not the art I aspire to make.
I took the following photo on a non-overcast day, during sun set, and yes there were shadows and yes the details of my colleague’s face are pronounced. But there was also a glow, which he could feel — as the sunset offered not only a visual warmth but also a physical one. Using a relatively low ISO (200 — to reduce grain as the sun rapidly set around us), in partnership with the engineer at Nikon who programmed my camera, light and color were captured to produce the photo I was hoping for in my head.