NOW I KNOW WHAT MADE ANSEL BLUE
"There is nothing worse than a sharp photo of a fuzzy concept." - Ansel Adams.
The further you progress into and your passion for photography grows, the more those words strike a chord and resonate within you. At the same time they can become a cause of annoyance and despair.
I can remember getting my first DSLR, an Olympus E-510 bought secondhand from eBay as birthday gift from my girlfriend in September 2009. Prior to that I had only ever used Kodak Easyshare point-and-shoot compact cameras. To me it looked the business and being able to use a multitude of lovely old glass lenses via adapters was a lot of fun. As soon as I took my first photo, I was wowed by the improvement in image quality. The sharpness. The shallow depth of field. Isolating my subject from the background. Did I mention the sharpness? All of my photos just seemed to look awesome and everyone I showed them too was also amazed by them.
In reality they were of course utter garbage. I sometimes look back at them and shudder out of sheer embarrassment. I dislike showing them to you now but, do so to demonstrate a point. I only keep them for sentimental reasons as they are family snaps of my nephews as toddlers, which my relatives enjoy reflecting upon on my Facebook page. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all.
In February 2010 I was bought a Nikon D90 by my Dad. As soon as I unboxed it and held it in my hand, the E-510 seemed like a Fisher-Price "My First Camera" toy in comparison. It felt so much sturdier and robust. The image quality just blew the Olympus out of the water. This felt like a professional camera to me at the time. Again, everyone was instantly impressed with my resulting photographs, as was I.
6 months later and I had begun taking my photography more seriously and I looked back to my earlier images both as captures and post edited - and absolutely hated them all. I began to see some of the common photographic and editing mistakes. The trees and lamp posts growing out of peoples' heads. The horrible lighting and shadows from on camera flash and poor use of natural light. The distracting backdrops. The fact everyone was always centered in the frame. I began paying attention to these things and was more mindful of what I was doing.
A year later and the same thing was true. I hated nearly all my photographs. Where I once was overjoyed and excited by what I had created in the camera, I could pick apart and point out all the glaring problems and mistakes in the images I had taken half a year previously. I was depressed by this fact. Everyone else's work looked so much better. I knew I had to up my game. I read the camera magazines my Dad gave me and watched tutorials on YouTube. I read photography blogs and websites dedicated to photography, trying to get my head around technical jargon like f-stops, shutter speeds and ISO. I joined forums and picked up many useful tips, as well as do's and don'ts.
This pattern of periodically loving, then subsequently hating my photos continued, despite my images winning competitions and appearing in national camera magazines. It still continues and I have accepted that it may always persist. As I consistently raise the bar on my work, scrutinize details and expand my creativity, I look back on my previous photos as lacking in some dimension or another. This can only be a benefit to my photography, although it will always leave me with some level of dissatisfaction and something I will just have to contend with.
In May 2013, I upgraded to the Nikon D800 and again was absolutely wowed by the image quality. However, this time it comes with the full knowledge that the camera is merely a tool and nothing more. It can produce extremely detailed and sharp images but, what it photographs is entirely down to me. Subject, scene, lighting, pose, expression, emotion, perspective, composition. These are all things I need to watch out for and aim to control. They all need to combine in an image that has dynamic visual impact. A photo that captures the viewer's attention and makes them look again and again. A portrait that speaks of the person or an image that tells a story. Being my harshest critic, it needs to excite me. A crappy photograph is still a crappy photograph at 36MP and being razor sharp.
This brings me back to Ansel Adams' quote. Just because an image is tack sharp and beautifully detailed, it doesn't mean it's a great image. Even if you do have some of the aforementioned ingredients, that doesn't mean your photo will "work" or cannot be improved upon. You could photograph something completely fresh and unorthodox but, if that photo doesn't speak to the viewer and cannot hold their attention, then in all probability, it's not a good one. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try new things and be creative but, if you're trying to communicate a message with your audience, it should at least be intelligible to them.
As a beginner, I really didn't differentiate between the two. Image quality and the aesthetic/artistic caliber of a photo were one and the same thing. It's the same problem virtually all beginners and laypersons suffer with. Where the general population are so used to blurry, poor quality snapshots they take with their phones or point-and-shoot cameras, whenever they see a sharp photo with a shallow depth of field it instantly looks incredible to them. They are also blinded by the fact that it's their friends and loved ones in the images too, so sentimentality often trumps crummy photos - as I demonstrated at the beginning of this article.
It sticks in my craw that some photographers take advantage of that fact and what some people hand over good money for. Sometimes a lot of money. I almost feel compelled to tell them "Put your wallet away. Those photos are just shocking!" You know that someone who knows their way around a DSLR, wowed somebody else with the image quality it produces and that person walks away satisfied because their loved ones look detailed in it. I see "professional" child portraits with limbs cropped off, exposures 2-3 stops over, hanging on the walls of friends and family members. Sometimes they paid hundreds of pounds for these prints. I've seen wedding photos by apparently seasoned professionals making "photography 101" mistakes, that the couple paid thousands for. Some were that bad that I'm amazed a lawsuit didn't follow.
There will always be cases of this happening. If you're passionate about photography and get excited about creating great work and capturing magic moments, then you too will most likely get somewhat irritated by substandard images receiving praise, accolades and undeservedly large payments. This isn't born out of jealous but instead almost from someone absuing something you love. You probably cannot help but feel bad for the person receiving those images, as you perceive them getting ripped off. It's not their fault. Sentimentality and image quality are two "Achilles Heels" to the ordinary Joe and something I have come to the conclusion that certain photographers will actively exploit. So long as the customer is happy and they are getting paid, it's all good and they don't really care about the image at all. Okay, from a business standpoint you might argue "what's the problem? Both parties are happy." I guess the answer comes down to your personal standards and what you're comfortable putting out there.
Unfortunately you just have to suck it up. Focus on what you are doing and always aim to produce the highest quality work you can, from concept to capture. Technical prowess with camera and lighting must be matched with artistry and marinaded into a gorgeous concoction of pixels. By doing this, your work will stand out above the crowd of monotony and those who were once happy with their badly lit, badly composed photographs will ask why the images they received don't look like the work you are producing. With any luck, they will beat a path to your door in future. As you once came to realize, image quality doesn't make a quality image - so will they.
This has been quite a diatribe but, I hope one that will strike a chord with some of you reading this. If you're relatively new to photography, look back at your images and try to disengage your feelings for the subject matter. Then ask yourself if it's a good photo or merely one that is in focus with a shallow depth of field? Is the lighting all that you could hope for? Is the pose and expression strong? Does the image work and stand on its own merits? If in doubt, post them for critique on internet forums. Other photographers often see things you completely miss. Never ask family or friends (unless they are a professional or good enthusiast), as you'll almost always receive praise. It's a double edged sword. At first you will feel disappointed and maybe even like you want to quit but ultimately it can spur you on to creating significantly improved photographs that genuinely are worthy of acclaim. Let your crummy captures be a stepping stone upon your path to better and better images and feel the excitement and joy that comes from doing so.