Thursday, April 16, 2009

The photographs I hate looking at

When I visit just about any photo sharing website I am confronted with all manner of photographic horrors that induce in me anything from mild irritation to out-loud swearing.

Everyone has their own taste. Overall my blog is nice and warm and positive in tone but for once I’ll let out the dark side and tell you which types of photographs I hate and why. Within each category there will be exceptions of course, because the first rule of photography is that there are no absolute rules except the first rule.

In no particular order then...


Over 90% of HDR images are absolute rubbish. They’re flat, lacking in contrast and it often looks like someone has smeared black pixels across the highlights and mid-tones. HDR generally looks unnatural and cartoonish. It produces bland pictures with no sense of light; without mood. Everything is on display, depriving the image all quality and character. In contrast (no pun intended) non-HDR images do not give up all their secrets. The viewer is left to use their imagination, to fill in the shadowy areas and their eye is led skilfully by the photographer from one light area to another as they are seduced by the mystery and tension in the frame. Women have long understood that to preserve a little mystery makes you far more attractive. HDR photographers on the other hand believe in baring all.

Sharpness issues

I come across so many images that are unsharp. I don’t mean completely out of focus. I mean that search as you may you will not find a single area that is completely sharp in a huge number of images. Usually the cause is camera shake but sometimes it’s bad processing too where the pixels have been so messed about that they fall apart.

Of course poor focus also has to be mentioned. I see a small thumbnail on screen of a lovely portrait and open it only to be thoroughly disappointed. The photographer has focused on the tip of the subject’s nose or their ear instead of on the pupils of the subject's eyes.

Then of course you get those photographers who over-sharpen their images producing all manner of unpleasant artifacts. I suspect over-sharpening is often resorted to by photographers who are trying to compensate for unsharpness in the original. Forget it. Unsharp is unsharp. No software can match getting it right in camera in the first place.

Colour casts, heavy vignettes and effects filters

I’m all for using colour creatively but I hate ‘artistic colour casts’ applied without any rhyme or reason. Colour has meaning. It conveys emotion. So why for example take a picture of a young pretty lady and then obliterate her with a bilious green colour wash. It doesn’t make the image more interesting or artistic. Newsflash: art does not equal going mad with the hue and saturation sliders in Photoshop or applying one or other kitsch effects filter.

And please spare me from the arbitrary and random use of blur, dark vignettes, lighting effects and assorted filters which photographers apply to make their images look like anything except a photograph.

A few, a very, very few photographers can get away with using the full Photoshop and assorted plugin arsenal of effects because they ultimately create an image which has the power to move the viewer's emotions and it communicates. It is such a rare treat to discover one of these.

I also do not like the highly oversaturated images with eye popping intense colours, which would be totally unprintable. Just because you can move the colour saturation slider all the way to the right doesn't mean you have to do it!

An image file is a delicate and fragile thing. Apply auto levels, use massive curves adjustments and push contrast and brightness sliders too far at your peril. Image quality will suffer. It is always best to get the image right in camera. Besides saving image quality you also save a lot of time sitting at the computer and the ultimate frustration of producing an image which looks OK on screen but is totally unprintable in a book or magazine.

Assorted other reasons

To me every element and aspect within the frame should contribute to enhancing the image. In a way it is like a piece of music and the photographer is both the composer and the conductor, bringing everything together in way that the audience can enjoy and instantly grasp. But if the percussion instruments are not keeping time, the violins are doing their own thing and the brass section is off key – well you've just got a noise – or to transfer the metaphor back to photography a badly put together disharmonious image, unintelligible to the viewer.

In summary here is a list of comments I could make when looking at images on the internet:

  • Skew horizon for no reason (sometimes it can add a dynamic element but most of the time it just looks bad)
  • Poor composition
  • Too far away from the subject
  • Boringly photographed subject matter
  • Poorly lit
  • Boring light
  • No clear focal point
  • Underexposed
  • Oversaturated
  • Overexposed
  • Colour cast
  • Overmanipulated
  • Poorly manipulated eg bad cut outs
  • Oversharpened
  • Bad or awkward pose
  • Disturbing visual elements eg an unattractive foreground
  • Camera shake
  • Blurred
  • Badly focused
  • Cliché
  • Bad make-up on the model
  • Airbrushed to death – you know these portraits with plastic skin and not a single bit of skin texture left, and eyeballs as white as a ping pong ball in the sun.
  • Bad vignetting and unexplainable dark patches clearly added in Photoshop.
  • Texture filters and 'arty' effects

While writing this I had a chat with my wife, pro photographer Magda Indigo and she made an interesting observation. She said that it seemed like a lot of photographers were trying to make their images look like paintings while at the same time there are painters who try to make their paintings look like photographs. What's that all about?

In this day and age of digital photography it has never been easier to produce a technically perfect picture. Why not aim for pure photographic quality? It's far harder to achieve than taking a mediocre snapshot and messing around with it in a software program. The true art of using image manipulation programs is knowing when to stop. I wonder how many really good photographs are currently buried under a ton of software filters and effects.

There I've said it.


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