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.