On the Pursuit of Excellence in Photography / by Edward Crim

The digital revolution has certainly upset past notions about how things are done, and the visual arts have not been immune from the general chaos and confusion that resulted. Photography, in particular, has been revolutionized, and although it has always been the art form most accessible to the common man, it is now ubiquitous. Billions of photographs are taken every day on our planet (we have not yet received reports from any others) and the future promises an even higher rate of image accumulation. So, is all of this picture making turning us into better photographers?

My own take on the situation (and I am not alone in this) is that we have not only attained a higher peak of excellence (achieved by the best of the photography world), but we have also reached a new plateau of mediocrity among the general population of photographers. When I want to see good and sometimes great photography, I go to fstoppers  or 500px or the forums on Fred Miranda’s site. I look through the photographs posted  in these places – millions of images of girlfriends, boyfriends, dogs, cats, city skylines, mountain lakes, ocean shores, blurry mountain streams, looking up at tall buildings, tall trees, tall anything, people with strange eyes, sunsets, sunrises, photoshop-blurred  foregrounds and backgrounds with achingly sharp subjects, landscapes with burned-in skies, odd composites and other things I’d rather not mention. Go ahead and look for yourself. You will, wading through the muck of the commonplace, find outstanding and inspiring images every now and then, images that achieve the level of good and even great art that will inspire you to wonder if there is a way for you to achieve this plane of perfection. Allow me to say, “Yes, there is. But it’s going to cost you.”

Photographs first and foremost need to have impact. Impact requires much more than technical excellence, it also demands a clear subject, a message conveyed to the viewer, a story; a thousand words. We tend to photograph the things that speak to us: the first view of a new place, our loved ones, those special moments that happen to each of us. These photos typically fall into the category of document, items to help us remember our lives. Rarely do document images achieve the status of Art. Wedding photos, for instance, normally follow the script of documenting the people, places and things that collectively tell the story of the event. Naturally, some wedding photographs are better than others. Photographers who know how to use light to their advantage, how to arrange people and objects, how to pose, and when to click, will take fewer images and get much better results than those who don’t. Experience helps, but discernment, understanding and plenty of time make the difference in covering any event.

It can be difficult for us to evaluate our own photographs because of our involvement with them. For us, mediocre images can still recall feelings of sublime encounters with nature, humanity, architecture, etc. The difficulty is in capturing an image that conveys that same feeling to the viewer. Here are some of the elements of an image that can give it impact:

Originality – Is this image different from those around it? Does it show creativity on the part of the photographer? Was this an easy photo to make? It has been said that originality is plagiarism undetected. Artists influence each other, borrow from each other even, sometimes giving credit, (think Variations on a Theme by Haydn by Brahms), sometimes not. It isn’t actually important that your image be original as that it originates with you, rather than being simply a copy of what you’ve seen others do. One of the things I like about portraiture is, every person is an opportunity for originality. Unless you work for Olin Mills.

Composition – Does your image have a point of interest, a clear subject? Is it cropped to draw your viewer’s eye to that subject? Does the light direct the viewer to your subject? Are the elements in your photo well arranged (if you want to “photoshop” someone or something out of your image, the answer is “no”)? A well-composed image contains nothing not essential to the story and everything that is. Good composition has balance, with negative space leading the viewer to the subject, not away from it. Most of us include too much in our images, most of us are not critical enough of our images, and most us are camped on the plains of mediocrity rather than ascending the mountains of excellence. It is a tough climb.

Post Production – This is the area where I am most disappointed with the work I see. There is an astounding amount of bad digital enhancement being done today – severe artifacts from over sharpening, bright outlines where the artificially dark sky meet the unnaturally bright earth, eerily bright colors with radioactive luminescence and severe vignetting, as if we were looking at the subject through a key hole. And that’s not counting the bad color balance that makes everyone look jaundiced or the sloppy retouching that left streaks in the foreground or the over perfected skin that resembles a plastic doll.

Great photographs start with great photography. If the light was not right at the time of capture, it will never be a great photograph. If the composition requires more than a bit of adjustment or cropping, it will never be a great photograph. If elements must be removed, or rearranged, or drastically darkened or super saturated, it will never be a great photograph. So many of us are in such a hurry to get an image that we don’t take the time to look carefully at the world around us. We settle for mediocrity rather than wait for excellence. Great photography takes a great deal of time, a great deal of patience and a great deal of understanding of, and involvement in, the process.

We must think inside the box.

-Edward Crim

Join us at the St. Louis Photo Authority for our next photo critique, and take a look at the classes we offer. It’s a great way to learn!

Mariah by Janis Shetley