I’ve been working as a photography judge, reviewer, critic, editor, and even helped teach others how to judge and review photographs, since I was in high school. While there are a lot of points to consider when judging and evaluating a photograph, they basically boil down to:
- Capturing a “moment”
- Product Quality (film/reproduction quality)
These can be very regimented (only “rule of thirds” compositions allowed) or more subjective. Either way, they are the core foundation for judging a photograph for awards, reproduction, or sale.
The values of how a photograph is judged in the past few years has dramatically changed. Many of these points are not only considered not important, they are not even in the mix when it comes to honoring a photograph.
As I’ve been traveling recently, I’ve talked to a lot of photographers and found they all agree digital photography has revolutionized photography, and they aren’t sure what. Well, I’ve found out why, and it is a little disturbing.
Put a Camera in the Hands of Everyone, and Everyone Takes Pictures
When the Brownie camera was produced, it helped to put a camera in the hands of the common person. A Polaroid not only put a camera in everyone’s hands, it gave them instant gratification with fast picture results. Still, it was novel and the photographs faded quickly, so film cameras made a return boom in the marketplace. Then disposable cameras were in everyone’s hands. Not much later, the digital camera became affordable and now instant photographic gratification can be yours.
With the recent ability to share your photographs with anyone and everyone increased via the Internet, and the fact that most handheld computers and cell phones host built-in cameras, you can take a picture any time and anywhere.
Thus, by putting a camera in the hands of everyone, everyone is taking pictures. The past two or three generations have been the most photographed generations in the history of the world. Every moment of our lives are caught on film. There is a huge glut of photographs everywhere.
Instead of ooing and awwwing over beautiful photographs because they were special, photographs are a dime a thousand dozens. With the myriad photographic images out there, the way we are judging photographs has changed.
It’s About the Back Story
With the glut of photographic images everywhere, taken by anyone, judging a photograph now isn’t always about the technical perfection or expertise. It’s now about the back story.
This is an interesting evolution in judging photographs. I have taught students over the years that a photograph must tell its own story. It needs to stand on its own feet and tell the world what it is about.
Every element must help to relate the story. An elk in the woods snorting steam out of its nostrils, bellowing out its lust to the world during rut. Because we know it’s rutting season, we know it is the fall. We know it’s cold because of the billowing cloud of mist from the hot breath hitting the cold air. We know it’s early morning because the light is low in the sky, back lighting the steam, and it’s cold. We have a sense of space and time and understanding about the photograph. Yet it is timeless. It doesn’t matter if it was photographed in 1880 or 1980 or 2080. The image surpasses time. It is its own story.
But that isn’t what grabs your attention. It’s the dramatic action caught on film. It’s the power, the composition, the way the light hits the steam, the body position of the elk. All those elements capture your attention and holds it.
A photograph with a back story is different. It isn’t about the light or the composition. It’s about the story that comes with the photograph. And the story is usually summed up with “You should have been there.”.
The photograph doesn’t have a story. The photographer does. “We were walking down the trail and you should have seen the size of that elk snorting smoke out it’s nose.” The photograph doesn’t show the steam, and you can barely see the moose. No thought, no planning, no expertise went into the photograph. It was a snapshot, now published, and in order to understand and appreciate it, you have to hear the story.
With millions of photographs out there, without their photographers standing next to them, people are making up their own back stories to fill in the gaps in the story the photograph tells. If they recognize a landmark, a memory of their own experience at that place may be triggered. If they recognize a situation from the one caught on film, it will trigger a memory of when they were caught in the same situation.
I recently sat through a showing of photographs by people who “should” know what they are doing. As each image came up, I looked at it and buried a groan. The lighting sucked, there were too many distractions, the positioning was all wrong, the horizon line was tilted, or it was out of focus. Pictures I throw away at first glance.
Yet, everyone was so excited and proud of their pictures. And every picture came with a story. The more they talked about their photographs, the more others said, “Oh, me, too!”, “Been there, done that!”, “I remember when that happened to me!”, and “That reminds me of…”. Suddenly everyone had their memories out, using them as filters to judge the photographs.
One woman declared her favorite was a photograph of two kids walking on the beach. “It reminds me of when I was little and we used to go clam digging.”
I looked at the same picture and thought that this was a nice memory. If we were sitting in the privacy of a home browsing through a scrapbook, this wouldn’t be important. But these people are working their way towards serious-make-money photography skills. At that level, this photograph sucked. It was out of focus, the lighting was directly overhead and blinding, with deep shadows under the children’s eyes making them look exhausted, and the waves beyond them were caught between waves rather than one crashing dramatically in the background. Horrible.
The memories triggered blinded this woman to the real technical qualities of the photograph. The back story took over.
Is this right or wrong? It depends.
If you are taking snapshots for your family album, who cares? Only you. Twenty-five or fifty years from now, all you need is a photographic trigger and those memories will come spilling out.
However, if you are publishing, selling, or submitting your images for contests, then a higher standard needs to be met. It should have quality technical, compositional, and artistic merits. Unfortunately, I think a lot of photography judges are letting back stories influence their preferences from the results I’ve seen in the past year or two.
As you consider your own photography, for whatever the end use may be, think about how the photograph can tell its own story without you hovering over it. Think of your photographs as a canvas. You control what goes on and what comes off. Think before you take the photograph. Think about the light, the arrangement of the subjects within the frame, the background, foreground, colors, patterns, choosing horizontal or vertical formats, and all the elements that fit within the frame. Do this before you hit the shutter.
When you photograph consciously rather than randomly and unconsciously, the quality will naturally improve. Pay attention to the details, but most important, let the photograph speak for itself. And let it speak well.
It isn’t about the composition and lighting technique that makes a photograph awesome.