Bad photos and how to avoid them
We all want our art to be appreciated by our friends, family and the public. But not everyone will like everything we do and sometimes we don’t like our own work. This is OK!
Photography is a progression and evolution of how we perceive the world at any given point in time.
As time passes our views on ideas, concepts and even standards change. What might seem like your best work at the time, you may later come to regard as below average. We may understand and remember what we set out to achieve, but due to new insights and continuing education, we know it could have been done a lot better.
Looking back on your photos and believing them to be subjectively “bad” is a good sign that you are in fact growing as a photographer. Keep in mind that the term “bad” is highly subjective and should not be used to describe someone else’s vision. It’s more of a simplified term to describe something that is lacking in technical skill, subject matter or is somehow flawed due to personal taste.
Being able to look at photos you take even now and know which ones aren’t up to scratch is a difficult thing to learn, but necessary if you want to be considered an expert. Not every press of the shutter is going to end in a masterpiece and without looking at your work, both past and present, with a critical eye, you won’t be able to learn from your mistakes and improve your craft.
Of course this is all well and good when it comes to our own work. Comparing one photo taken a year ago to one taken today, it might be easy to tell which one is relatively better. Unfortunately we are subjected to so many ‘great’ images online from experts and professionals that comparing them to our own work can be demoralising.
One thing that needs to be understood when we admire these photos, is that behind the scenes these photographers are curating the photos they’ve taken and only sharing with us the successes. They have also been through a developmental period where they had on average more “bad” photos than good. We are just seeing them at a point in their journey that we find inspirational, or demoralising if you start thinking you’ll never get to that level.
At the expense of any reputation I may have built for myself as someone that takes “good” photos, I thought I’d share some earlier shots in my personal photography journey so you can understand that for virtually everyone, you have to take a lot of “bad” photos to understand what works.
I do this kind of retrospective critique of my work every now and again, not only for my own growth, but also to help me see other people’s work from their point of view and not with any judgement from my own standards. It’s also so I don’t judge myself too harshly when I see phenomenal work from very talented people.
How to tell bad from good
Some photos are more obviously flawed than others. You know it when you take the photo. You may have accidently pressed the shutter while the camera was pointed at your feet, or you only had the shutter open for one second while in BULB mode and you needed 60 seconds. A flash may not have fired or it was set way too high and your subject’s face looks like a snowman. These photos are ones that can be deleted from the camera without any worries that you might be throwing away gold.
Where it starts to get tricky is when you’ve got two very similar photos and you want to know which one to take to post processing or send to a client or print for a wall. If it helps, write down a list of technical features to look for. Are the images in focus? Look at 100-200 percent at fine details and see if they are sharp, you may find one is slightly better than the other. Is the composition balanced? Most of the time composition is the biggest difference between two images.
Look for any distracting features like elements cut short near the edge of the frame, lead in lines going out of the image, poles or lines coming out of a person’s head, too much foreground or too much sky. Is the exposure correct? Changing settings between shots could mean that one image is overexposed and losing highlight details, or underexposed and lacking shadow detail.
Check your histogram for clipping rather than relying on the LCD preview. Are both images equally flawed in different ways? One image is sharper than the other but its composition isn’t as good, or both images are a bit over exposed for your liking.
Why not scrap them both? There is nothing wrong with not picking either of them. If you’ve looked at them subjectively and you aren’t sure if you really like either of them, then move on. Look at some completely different shots or step away for a while and come back to them. It’s not uncommon every now and then to do a whole shoot and not pick 1 shot out of the 100 you took.
Subject matter is another technical aspect, although it is difficult to describe. It can also be thought of as the story you are trying to tell with your photo or the mood you are trying to set. The most technically perfect image can still be a nothing shot if no one but the photographer knows what the photo is about.
Can the image be enjoyed by someone else without any context or description? Take your own emotion out of the act of taking the photo as well as curating. Sunsets are one subject that often gets caught up in a photographer’s emotion. Without something else in the photo to anchor the story to a place or person, it’s just another pretty sunset that could be anywhere.
Take a couple of seconds, look around, and find something to make it better. This will mean in a few years time you won’t be wondering where you took the photo.
Photoshopping, editing, post production; whatever you call it, the ultimate goal is to bring out the best features of an image. This can be done in four key ways; Realistic, Stylistic, Creative, and Poorly. It is up to you which direction you take and, with digital photography, it is as important as developing is to film photography.
Say what you will about editing photos, but if you are not doing it even on a basic level, then you are falling behind. Just like it takes time to develop your in-camera skills, it takes time to develop your post-processing skills.
You’ll never learn to swim without getting in the water, so don’t let any complexity of editing software stop you from giving it a go. You’re not going to drown, but you will most certainly produce some horrible edits. This is OK.
You don’t have to share anything you’re not happy with, but you do need to practise and fail in order to succeed. Also, there are some things that are worth trying only to see why you should avoid them. Such as? A few examples spring to mind.
No three letters make photographers cringe more than HDR. Although ‘high dynamic range’ does have a purpose in photography and can be utilised correctly, the style of processing that it has been attached to is one where the highlights and shadows of an image look the same.
Although at first it may appear like your image looks colourful and super detailed, it confuses the human brain and should be avoided. Shadows are dark and highlights are bright for a reason. Without a clear distinction between them, an image will look more like a cartoon than a photo.
Desaturating an image except for one colour is a technique that’s worth trying once – then forgetting. There are only two things I can think of where this method has worked: in photos of red buses and telephone boxes in London; and in Schindler’s List. That’s it. You may as well stand next to your photo and scream, “this is what I want you to look at.”
There are better ways to direct viewers’ attention. Subtle changes to light, contrast, sharpening, and colour are much more effective. Selective colour may look cool at first, but I guarantee once you improve your skills you’ll change your views on it.
Sliders are an easy way to over edit an image. Pumping up the contrast, saturation or clarity to 100 is the fastest way to destroy an image. Most of the time when you’re starting out you’ll over-process a photo. This is OK. The more you do and the more you start to realise what too much is, the better you’ll get.
There can be a fine line between too much and too little and it is probably safer to leave it undercooked than over. Switching back to the original shot every now and then helps you see how far you’ve come. If you’re still unsure, walk away from it for an hour or overnight and look at it with fresh eyes.
If you’re still not sure, save it and start again and compare each result. If your mind isn’t made up by then, the same method applies from your original curation, scrap the whole thing and move on.
Learn from your mistakes
The enjoyment you get out of photography can come down to your own development and progression. If you’re not practising and failing then you’re not really learning. Style and taste can change over time but skills should only grow and strengthen. Only compare your work to your past self. If the images you’re producing today look the same as the ones you took two years ago then it’s time to learn some new skills.
Those awesome photos you’ve seen on social media weren’t made in a single shoot and editing session, they were produced over hours and hours of practice and unseen failures or rejects. It’s important to be able to identify those “bad” photos in your own work so you can constantly evolve. It’s OK to take bad photos, as long as you learn from them. ❂
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