We’re photo illiterate

This post is going to sound elitist and snobbish – I’m sorry.  If you follow my blog at all, you’ll know that I’m full of opinions.  Here’s yet another one.

When did people become so photo illiterate?  I’m not talking about being able to dissect a photograph and discuss the finer technical details – I mean being able to tell the basic difference between a grossly bad photograph and a fairly decent one.   It should be pretty easy for people to understand that “A” photograph is horribly bad, and “B” photograph is spectacular.  (it should be noted that both examples are randomly pulled from the web, and both are HDR – they were both chosen for composition – or lack of – and technical aspects.)

I went to a reception last night that announced the winners of the St. Agnes cemetery photography contest.  As I browsed the 150 or so photographs, I was struck by how bad the majority of them were.  I overheard again and again people saying “I’m so glad I didn’t have to judge this contest – there are so many beautiful pictures here!”  I cynically thought “well, I wouldn’t have had much trouble!”  Of the entire show, there were only about 4 or 5 photographs that I thought were well done – and none were spectacular or gorgeous.   The poor photographs ranged from snapshot varieties to “look, I took a picture of the fake flowers I put on mom’s grave” to blurry and pixelized. 

It seems that the judges agreed with me – of the three winners, 2 were ones I had made a mental note appreciating the shot.  The third photograph – first prize – was rather blah and was probably only chosen for the wow factor of star trails.  That in itself annoyed me because the cemetery closes at dusk and the winning photographer trespassed to get the shot.  He seemed to really need the prize, so I shouldn’t grouse too much.

Basic photography isn’t that hard.  It’s not rocket science.  While we can’t all be award-winning photographers that travel the globe, we can make sure we don’t cut off people’s heads and pixelize the prints.   And even if you’re not a photographer, it’s still important for you to recognize bad photography when you see it.  For example: you have 3 photographers in your price range to choose from for your wedding  – would you be able to recognize the one that simply doesn’t know how to take good wedding pictures?  Would you be able to pick out the stellar photographer who probably should be charging more than they are?

You could argue that if you’re not a professional, do you really need to know all the details?  Yes and no.  I’m not an author, but I can recognize bad writing when I read it.  I can also recognize good writing, which helps me pick out what books I’m going to buy.  I’m not advocating that everyone should be an expert on photography.  Not at all. Just know the basics.

I could grouse that digital photography has made everyone think they’re an expert.  I don’t really agree with that viewpoint, but I do believe the market is over saturated.  The absolute best way to learn the difference between good photography and bad is to look at a lot of good pictures.  Our market is loaded with a high ratio of bad photographs, even in advertising, and that makes it difficult.  

And do note that I’m not talking about personal preference here.  I can not like a shot and still understand that it’s a good photograph.

So, solutions.  Look at good photographs.  Look up the basics on the internet if you’re so inclined.  And above everything else, know your limits.  If you truly do not know how to recognize a good photograph, take a photographer friend with you when picking out a wedding photographer.

In the interest of full disclosure I did enter the contest.  I didn’t expect to win anything because these things are always highly political and subject to the judges’ likes and dislikes.  And as expected, I did not win anything – I simply went to the reception to see the competition.


6 thoughts on “We’re photo illiterate

  1. Well, I totally agree with you on this point. We recently had to edit some photos that were submitted by artists along with their articles about the work they were doing. Boy, were those photos lousy. The back of people’s heads, heads cut off, etc, etc…

  2. I enjoyed reading that. I will say that I don’t think the line between a good and a bad photo is always clear-cut, but there is a tendency among some to overlook things like composition far too often.

    Thank you for posting.

  3. Pingback: “Mediocrity Rules, Man”–Le Tigre | What the F-stop?

  4. Most people do not distinguish between a photograph and a snapshot. It is the difference being able to write words on page and compose a well constructed paragraph. With digital photography & cell-phonography making it as easy to snap a shot as pick up a pen and write; the cultural consequence is plethora of images and an audience of uneducated viewers.

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