Have you ever seen a spectacular image and been flabbergasted when you saw that the photographer was an amateur – and they used their phone? Or looked at the website of a pro only to be disappointed by a slew of boring photos? Maybe you know someone who knows everything about photography has has perfect technique, yet still takes lacklustre images. Counterintuitively, being good at photography does not guarantee good photos.
Let’s define photography as the art and craft of image making. Good photography requires a knowledge of both technical and artistic techniques, from the exposure triangle to visual weight. A good photograph, on the other hand, is not dependent on technique. Certainly a well composed and well exposed photo will be better than a poorly crafted one, all else being equal. However, the draw of an image comes primarily from the subject of the photo. A terrible photo of an amazing subject will always be more interesting than an amazing photo of a terrible subject.
Consider the recently famous photo of Usain Bolt grinning back at his competitors. It’s not 100% sharp. The panning technique was good, but not perfect. Imagine that another photographer, a true master at panning, had captured a stunningly sharp image at the same moment, but from the other side of the track. The image would be technically better – sharper, more contrast between the still bodies and the blurred legs, and a feat of skill. But it would show the back of Usain Bolt’s head rather than his grin, and would be a completely worthless image. The subject of the photo, and what the subject’s doing, is more important than anything else in a picture.
The professional photographer is often mentioned as an example of a good photographer. While this is usually the case, sometimes pro photographers are simply great at business instead – but let’s assume that the pros are better than the amateurs for this discussion, even though it’s not always accurate. Why would a professional photographer take worse photos than an amateur? We’ve all seen this before. Sometimes we even see it in one person – their professional work is bland and uninspiring while their personal work is stunning. The key is the subject. A professional is paid to photograph whatever their client wants them to. From concrete office buildings to grease-stained car parts, these assignments rarely feature truly beautiful subjects. And even when there is a good subject, the professional is given a deadline to deliver the images, which can reduce the creative potential of the subject and encourage “safe” shots that will make the client happy. Amateurs have no such limitations. No one’s looking over their shoulder and preventing them from trying riskier compositions, and no one’s telling them to shoot boring subjects. The amateurs shoot only what interests them, and often this makes for a wonderful image.
I might even take it a step further, and suggest that good amateur photographers often take worse photos than worse amateur photographers. Compare two enthusiasts — one lives in the mountains of New Zealand, while another lives in the suburbs of Michigan, USA. It’s a matter of walking outside at sunset to get a spectacular image when you’re living in a beautiful area. There’s no special skill required — using an ND filter might help, as would some tripod skills, but really it’s a matter of snapping the shot in the right direction. The photographer living in Michigan has a greater challenge though — if they walked outside and snapped a shot they’d capture a view of the majestic pre-fab home. There’s no easy way to get a great shot, so the Michigan photographer needs to find ways to make boring subjects more interesting through the use of more advanced techniques like elaborate lighting, perspectives, and processing. They’ll be forced to become a better photographer, and yet it’ll still be difficult for them to take better photos than the enthusiast with New Zealand’s ancient beauty on their front porch.
As a side-note, it’s worth looking at Instagram here. Instagram knows that the majority of users are not great photographers, and that the majority of photos don’t capture great subjects. There’s nothing at all interesting about a Starbucks coffee cup, a suburban sunset, or even most people. So Instagram offers filters. Suddenly the photo isn’t about the coffee cup, it’s about the interplay of colour and contrast that the filter’s created as it interacts with the image. The subject becomes the filter itself. Provided the original photograph was less interesting than the filter, the image will be improved by Instagram. Photographers do similar things by making light, or colour, or geometry the subject of a photo rather than the physical subject itself. In commercial photography, there’s nothing interesting about an object – but there is something interesting about gradient lighting that you never see in daily life.
Finally, bad photographers take more good images than good photographers because there are simply more bad photographers. Most people don’t have much in the way of photography skills, yet everyone now takes multiple photos a day thanks to their cell phones. Every day more photos are taken, and every day it’s more likely that the great photos were taken by the average Joe. While good photographers will always take better images of the same subject, there are only so many great photographers to go around, and sometimes amazing things happen where the only person around knows nothing about the art of photography. Yet their snapshot of an incredible moment will still be a more interesting capture than a pro’s great shot of a boring moment.
Remember this when things seem unfair. When your beautifully crafted image gets no attention next to someone else’s snapshot. Technique matters, but subject is king. As National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson said, “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”
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Lauchlan Toal is a food photographer and writer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He’s currently working on a new website focused on creativity in photography, with more information and a free guide to learning photography at Unlock Creative Photography.
Absolutely awesome article! I found this right at a time when I needed it most. I’ve lost my motivation and have trouble finding inspiration and I’ve come to realize that as I’ve practiced more and learned more and researched more I’ve lost my passion. It has become more about technique and “rules” than the subject and it was portraying the subject that made me fall in love with photography decades ago. While I agree, there is a place for technique and it is important, I absolutely agree with the fact that it is more about the content of the photo. Thank you for reminding me that I should be more focused (pun intended) on what I love to shoot than trying to make a photograph that others will approve of.
Thanks for the comment Holly, I’m glad to hear that you found this article useful! Best of luck with your photography, hopefully you’ll be able to apply your skills to the subjects that really stand out for you.
There’s no easy way to get a great shot, so the Michigan photographer needs to find ways to make boring subjects more interesting through the use of more advanced techniques like elaborate lighting, perspectives, and processing. They’ll be forced to become a better photographer, and yet it’ll still be difficult for them to take better photos than the enthusiast with New Zealand’s ancient beauty on their front porch.
Maybe to you, but there are people more interested in urban photos than nature ones and would disagree.
Absolutely, I perhaps should have better couched my words. That was definitely a generalization that doesn’t apply to everyone or everything, but hopefully the idea was clear. You’re 100% right though that novelty is relative, and people who are more interested in certain subjects will be more fascinated by the nuance of those kinds of shots.
Technique trumps equipment. Content trumps both.
Thank you for the refresher.
Ok – I think it’s time for somebody to play devil’s advocate here, so I’ll give it a try. While there are quite a few good points made here – there is one point in particular with which I respectfully disagree
My main quibble is about the importance of the subject. My personal photographic mantra is “It’s not about where you are, it is about what you see”. It is of course much easier to see a good image in a spectacular location, but it is (in my opinion) much more interesting and challenging to make a good image in an everyday or mundane environment. Not the least because you tend to become blind to the imaging possibilities in your everyday surroundings.
I am personally attracted to a photographic style called “New Topographics” – some good names are Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz. The common denominator is an unflinching view of everyday life and objects. As an example I can mention the Norwegian photographer, Dag Alveng, who was working night shifts in a mental hospital, and to alleviate his boredom started taking photographs of the interiors and furniture on the ward (but never of the patients) – the resulting book “Asylum” is well worth seeking out if you can find it (hmmm – I found a link to his online portfolio at .
To use another example – Henri Cartier-Bresson may have worked in Paris, but his photographs aren’t particularly “touristy” – it’s all about his observation of people in his environment. Another photographer I admire greatly is the German photographer August Sander. He set out to document ordinary German people between the wars – his book “Antlitz der Zeit” (“Face of our time”) , is a fantastic collection of posed portraits of ordinary Germans. Not surprisingly, his work was banned by the Nazis.
So my message is – Don’t wait until you get to that perfect picturesque location, the challenge is to make interesting photographs of what you see every day, even if you think it’s boring! Spectacular is easy.
That some of what I was trying to say. You have said it better… Thank you!
I would agree with this, and I think you’re really hitting the crux of the matter here. There’s a divide between good photography and a good photograph, at least from a certain point of view. Cartier-Bresson was a good photographer, who was an expert at photography. But if his images were posted on 500px, Facebook, or anywhere else outside of a gallery, no one would really appreciate them. To most people, they’re not good photos. They don’t have the popular appeal that sunsets and mountains do, as the subject of those photos is simply not interesting to the majority of people. And yet they’re great photography.
Hopefully that helps to clarify the viewpoint I’m presenting – I think we’re both on the same page with this and I definitely agree that photographic skill matters, and is crucial to maximizing the number of great images you capture. And sometimes we can appreciate an image even if no one else does, there’s no need to tailor your work to the general populace if you’re not reliant on them for work.
I think Helge Naired understands a lot more about photography than Lauchman Toal does. The title of your article is completely wrong, from a professional photographer’s point of view, but probably understandable/ agreeable from an amateur photographer’s point of view. Professional photographers are not primarily thinking about pixels, sharpness, equipment etc… They think about an idea, a concept that they want to work uit to finally achieve a goal, with is to evoke a specific kind of feeling on the viewer. And that is much more difficult to achieve than simply doing a beautiful landscape photo, which will impress all other amateur photographers, but probably not a pro. The thing is that to see and understand the work of a pro, you probably have to be one yourself or be very involved with photography as art. So that explains your great misconception. But of course there are the pros whose work is made to sell for the great public and amateur photography magazines. these pros make fantastic looking pictures, for those he is trying to sell his pictures to, people like you for instance. If you start understanding things this way, you’ll start understanding how pros work and maybe you’ll start understanding their work as wel, and also why for instance they almost always work whit series instead of loose pictures….and you’ll maybe one day be ashamed of the title you chose for your article. Photography is much more than just taking photographs.
I’m not entirely sure that we disagree as much as you think we do. I fully realize that this article was written to address the perceptions of people who aren’t professional photographers, and I think it covers the reason why amateur photographers often take prettier photos than professionals do quite well. What I’m trying to explain is the difference between good photography and a good photograph (in the eyes of most people).
Professionals are good photographers, at least for the most part. They think about the purpose of the image they’ve been hired to take, reflect that purpose as best they can through both technical and artistic technique, and deliver an image that the client will appreciate. This is the result of good photography – using photography skills to achieve a specific goal or vision. But that doesn’t mean the image will be necessarily pretty. Sometimes it will be compelling, if not attractive, and sometimes it will be just plain boring. It may take a great photographer to take a series of images of complex car parts on a white background for a car manufacturer, but no matter how talented the photographer is those photos will never been seen as good photos by the general public, because the public cares more about the subject of a photo than the technique used in creating it.
When sharing work with other professional photographers, or even amateur photographers, a well executed photo can be appreciated for the skill that went into it rather than the photo itself. Other photographers are able to recognize that skill and be impressed by it, and can tell when a photo must have taken significant work to achieve. But to someone who isn’t a photographer, that work isn’t seen. They only see the image itself, and the main component of the image is the subject of the image. For them, a photo of something interesting will always be a better photo than a photo of something mundane. Yet photographers are interested in photography, so sometimes photographers can see the photographic process behind an image as the subject of the photo, rather than what’s depicted in the image.
So you’re completely right, in that to appreciate much of great photography you have to be a photographer yourself. And I by no means slight that photography nor encourage others to in this article or anywhere else. Rather, I explain why that great photography isn’t necessarily liked by the general public, and how the actual subject shown in your photo matters most when it comes to taking photos that anyone will like.
I think Helge Naired understands a lot more about photography than Lauchman Toal does. The title of your article is completely wrong, from a professional photographer’s point of view, but probably understandable/ agreeable from an amateur photographer’s point of view. Professional photographers are not primarily thinking about pixels, sharpness, equipment etc… They think about an idea, a concept that they want to work uit to finally achieve a goal, with is to evoke a specific kind of feeling on the viewer. And that is much more difficult to achieve than simply doing a beautiful landscape photo, which will impress all other amateur photographers, but probably not a pro. The thing is that to see and understand the work of a pro, you probably have to be one yourself or be very involved with photography as art. So that explains your great misconception. But of course there are the pros whose work is made to sell for the great public and amateur photography magazines. these pros make fantastic looking pictures, for those he is trying to sell his pictures to, people like you for instance. If you start understanding things this way, you’ll start understanding how pros work and maybe you’ll start understanding their work as wel, and also why for instance they almost always work whit series instead of loose pictures….and you’ll maybe one day be ashamed of the title you chose for your article. Photography is so much more than just taking good looking photographs…
What is the ND filter for?
In this context, the ND filter would allow a photographer to smooth out waterfalls and waves, getting that magical milky look to the water that’s very popular, possibly get some neat blur in the sky if the clouds are moving, and effectively erase people in the scene if they’re moving – great for places that have lots of tourists.
What they said. Plus:
Dealing with moving water can be tricky. Shutter speeds above 1/125 will freeze the action, giving you sharp-edged waves and droplets. Speeds below 1/8 will give you an attractive blur. But speeds between 1/15 and 1/60 will just give you an out of focus picture. That is, blur will be visible, but it will look like the kind of blur you get when you set the focus wrong or jerk the camera.
But what happens when you’ve maxed or minned out your exposure settting and you are still trapped in the bad range? To get above 1/125 you just change your ISO. But minimum ISO (100 usually) is seldom low enough to get you below 1/8. An ND darkens your shot and so moves the shutter speed downward, below 1/8. It fakes an ISO of 50, 25, 16, etc., and so gives you shutter speed of 1/4, 1/2, 1 sec, 2 sec etc.
I agree with the article mostly. I’m a cultural photography tour leader. I noticed that there’s little between a technically good and an amateur in terms of producing great photos. At least, I don’t see the co-relation. I won’t go as far to say that the amateurs take better photos than the pros, but certainly I see more emphasis on the content than on the technicalities. I do notice that, the ones with humble gear come out with better photos than those who carry expensive gear like Leica rangefinder or medium format digital system.
Absolutely Zeissiez. Sometimes people buy the expensive gear thinking that it will make them a better photographer, but you actually need to be a skilled photographer to take advantage of that equipment (and a DSLR or even a point and shoot would be easier for many people and get them better images).
Great article Lauchlan, and I really enjoyed all the comments it provoked. I’ve been a ‘photographer’ for over 50 years and reckon I can take a good pic. What depresses me though is some of the stuff that gets picked in photo competitions – especially if the word ‘art’ is used. There seems to be an inverse relationship between good photography (i.e. sharp, well composed etc.) and ‘art photography’.
Thanks Rob, I feel the same way sometimes. It’s nearly impossible to distinguish some popular contemporary/abstract art photos from something that was taken accidentally by a chipmunk. I think that the value in photography that pushes boundaries is that it makes you stop and think – you have to question why the judges appreciate the photo and in doing so you gain a deeper understanding of the image that you don’t get from a standard photo that you only glance over. Yet if we didn’t need this prodding to contemplate the image, and treated all photos equally, I suspect we’d find a lot of hidden value in the photos that aren’t picked as winners, the more traditional photos. This feels subversive in a way – the art competition is not about the virtue of the image itself, but rather the extent to which it can provoke thought, irrelevant of its quality. This strikes me as a different kind of art from photography entirely, and the two merit separate competitions. Or perhaps I’m just over analyzing things. Regardless, thank you for posting this very kind and thought provoking comment, you’ve sparked a very new line of thought for me.
Wow… And Cubism ruined painting too…
I took the Eilean Donan castle photo into a separate tab and viewed it 1:1 in editing and massively just did one thing, reduced saturation. And the end result was surprisingly good. Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away in editing, but just wind back a bit and it can be much better.
Great point Hoeras. Good call with reducing saturation – it’s sometimes too easy to get carried away in editing. I’ll admit that I toed the line on purpose a little with this image as I was testing engagement on 500px to different kinds of photos (and found that they love over-saturation), but I definitely find it gets a bit tacky and tasteless at the extremes. Moderation is the key to Photoshop, and I think you’re onto something here – I’ll try re-editing it with a little more subtlety and see how it goes.
De nuevo me he sentido feliz leyendo no sólo el artículo sino también los comentarios con otros puntos de vista, siempre tomados con gran respeto. Esto es muy enriquecedor y muy saludable. Gracias por estos ratos. Un saludo.
Thanks Luis, the comments really are what make online articles great. And thanks to you and everyone else this article is much better than it would have been.
This is an interesting article which offers up a lot of food for thought (no pun intended – it was written by a food photographer). What it makes me think is that whether we are pros of amateurs, good or bad, have many great photos or just a few, most of us take pictures because we love taking pictures or because we love what we are taking pictures of, or both. Even now jaded pro photographers probably started out taking pictures because they loved it.
There is a quote usually attributed to musicians that goes something like, “If I miss a day of practice I know it; if I miss two days the critics know it; if I miss three, the public knows it.” Musicians, photographers, and golfers – anyone who practices what they do, have a lot in common!
I’d say I’m a good amateur photographer. At least I know how my camera works and I can usually recognize what would make a good photo when I see it. I can tell when I have not been out taking photos for a while. My main excuse is that I have a 96-year-old mother in law and I am her primary care giver four or five days a week. I’m retired. My wife is a full-time Nurse. On her days off we share the work of taking care of her mother. I cannot get out and take photos (practice) as often as I would like and when I do I find I can tell it’s been a while and I miss chances at good photos what I would not miss if I was out taking photos every day. (My other excuse is that I live in drab, dusty, hot, air polluted, etc., Bakersfield, CA and when I can get out to take photos (landscapes, wildlife) I have to drive an hour or more to get to where I think I need to be.)
Searching for the source of the quote about practice I came across some other statements that could apply to photographers. “Research now shows that the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success. The secret? Painful and demanding practice and hard work.” And this quote, “From studies of athletes, we know that successful individuals tend to engage in more systematic and extensive mental rehearsals than less successful individuals.” bulletproofmusician.com/does-…tice-work/)
So I read articles such as those offered by Photography Life and look at the photos there which usually show the camera, lens, f/stop, etc. data. Sometimes I can look at those photos and try to imagine how I would set up to take one of those photos. Still, It is more fun to just get out and take photos, good or bad, than it is to visualize great ones.
Fantastic comment Allen. I love that quote about missing days of practice – it really is true in all fields. Your comment about it being more fun to take photos than to imagine taking them is also great. These days it’s all too easy to get lost in fantasy, dreaming about being a rockstar in front of thousands of people, and you forget to pick up the guitar and practice. But despite what dopamine may want us to think, actually doing something is vastly more rewarding than dreaming about it.