When is a flawed photo a keeper?
This is a question asked while evaluating every single frame before hitting the delete button. It’s built into the workflow; what stays, what goes, and why. What merits being flagged as a winner in spite of, or because of flaws and how do you recognize it?
There are dozens of pieces to the puzzle that, when put together, form an amazing image. The direction and quality of light, the composition, the focal length, aperture, shutter speed, movement of the subject and so on. But it isn’t simply the act of putting together perfect pieces that creates a perfect whole. A photo is always, always greater than the sum of its parts. It is the impact, the power, the beauty of that whole image that makes the perfection of each piece worthwhile, or the imperfections of each component forgivable. Noise, blur, lens flare, composition that cuts part of the subject out of the frame, over-exposure or under-exposure, and other flaws can be overlooked or even used as a bonus if they are part of an image that has a soul. A body can have all the right parts — limbs, eyes, ears, heart and brain — but that doesn’t make it a living being. It takes everything working together, plus something unexplainable, some spark that gives it life. No matter how pretty the parts, there has to be that touch of magic to make it work. And so it is when creating a photo that touches viewers.
How do you know when your image has that spark? That’s the challenge brought to each and every editing session.
There are two ways to measure the success of an image. If it sings to you, and if it sings to others. The first is easy to know. You recognize it when you see it, a gut feeling. Even when sorting through the images that just miss the mark you were originally aiming for in composition or quality, they might still have hit another, more emotional target, and you end up walking away with a winner anyway.
The second is a little more difficult to gauge and to predict. Sometimes photos are a complete success and everyone seems to love it. But there have been many times where an image I thought was nice but not exceptional was still a favorite among viewers, while another that ranked as one of my favorites from a trip was given just a shoulder shrug from others I showed it to. But I believe there’s value in that as well — in having an image that is just for you, that it is still important even if only you really appreciate it. It’s a question I raised to National Geographic underwater photographer Brian Skerry in a recent conversation, and he had a wonderful example of why a photographer should keep a photo that has particular meaning or merit to them, even if it isn't publishable.
But let’s back up just for a moment, to the original question of how you recognize that spark that makes an image worth keeping, when you know you should value the content of the shot over the quality. It’s a deeply personal process on one level, and yet completely universal on another. A good photo is a good photo, after all.
“I don’t believe there are any right or wrong answers,” says Skerry. “I firmly believe photography for the most part is subjective. Understanding light, how light works, and how you can use it as a photographer, understanding composition, knowing that 50 photographs with the subject smack in the middle like a bull’s eye isn’t particularly interesting. Understanding the fundamentals of photography is essential if you want to be a serious photographer. Knowing those essentials means you can also break them.”
I asked a few more folks for their take on this question. Melissa Groo, a conservation photographer, tells me, “I used to be much more concerned with the perfection of my images. A super clean and out-of-focus background, lack of graininess, a subject sharp from stem to stern, with the light perfectly falling on it, and an ideal head angle to the camera sensor — these were my principles. This was partly due to the fact that I was spending a lot of time on an online nature photography forum that preached these as necessary elements of any truly good image of wildlife. I began to realize that stringently conforming to these principles was stifling my creativity. That I was missing out on truly exciting and authentic moments as I was too consumed with the devil of the details.
“Now, my attention to the action in front of me takes paramount importance. And occasionally I come up with images that aren't perfectly lit, that lack perfect sharpness, that may have visible noise. What I've learned though, is that sometimes it's these images that are the most powerful for me, both in my eyes and the eyes of the viewers, as a quintessential moment in an animal's life has been captured, a moment that enriches our own lives. For me, capturing that behavior often trumps the flaws. Rules are good to know about, and are an important foundation for any developing photographer, but don't let them trip you up and stand in the way of your own creativity.”
Gaston Lacome, a documentary photographer, has a similar sentiment, that the focus should be on the message of an image rather than the settings, “As a photographer, it bugs me to no end when someone asks me: ‘What was your shutter speed on that? What was your depth of field?’ The little hairs on the back of my neck raise up in irritation, and I have to remind myself that for some people these technical details seem very important. I usually answer: ‘I don’t know, I would have to check,’ but what I really want to say is: ‘Does that matter? Can’t you see the photo for what it is?’
“When I lift the camera to my eye, I do think of course of my shutter speed and depth of speed, otherwise I wouldn’t be a photographer. However my main concern does not lie in the numbers, but in the artistic intent. I ask myself: “What am I showing here? How does this tell a story?” As a conservation photographer, my most important measure of success is to know that an image is conveying a message effectively, and that often means ignoring technique, settings, and rules, and just getting lost in the moment. An editor I’ve worked with once said: 'Let your photos get dirty.'
“Letting my photos get dirty however does not mean letting them get sloppy. Clicking the shutter carelessly will not push my story forward. Rather, I interpret it as embracing the imperfections that make my photos unique. Motion blur can bring a more dynamism. Dirt and water on the lens can bring more intimacy and immediacy. Lack of focus can bring mystery. Uneven color balances can bring artistic toning. I don’t usually seek imperfection in my images, but when it does happen, I’ve learned to consider how it makes me feel, or react, before I discard it outright.”
Tin Man Lee expands on this idea, that flawed photos can sometimes have the farthest reach, much more so than “clean” images. “So many times I have seen pictures that go viral in the internet that have poor image quality but have special meaning. And I have seen numerous technically perfect images — right angles of light, perspective, sharpness and no noise — that didn't stir any emotion in viewers. Content is always the most important.
"As a photographer, I strive to find the good light, composition, etc, to accompany a special moment. I think we are all storytellers. To tell a good story, it needs mood and emotion. Mood is the light, the composition, and may be about sharpness, noise. Emotion is the content. When mood and emotion come together, its a good story. To present the emotion perfectly, photographer's task is to reduce distractions and add the mood. Distraction reduction is to look carefully in the viewfinder to move to a spot where the background is less distracting, try to maximize the sharpness with lowest noise. All these are secondary, but help with bringing the emotion to a new height."
Robin Moore tells me about getting started on the editing process, both looking at quality and content at once. "The first thing I do after a shoot is a quick first edit to cull my images down to a manageable selection. This initial cull will be largely based on a gut reaction to the images. It is really the content that I pay most attention to here. If the first thing I notice is that it is out of focus or grainy, then it can’t be a very strong image, and so it goes. If an image doesn't speak to me on this first pass, no matter how sharp the focus or low the noise, no matter that it conforms nicely to the rule of thirds, I will cull the image. I think I have become more ruthless in this regard over the years - I used to place more emphasis on technical prowess, as if I had something to prove, but I have found myself focusing more and more on content and story. The words of Ansel Adams, 'There's nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept' echo in the back of my head as I am editing. If all an image conveys to the viewer is that I have a nice camera or that I know my way around the f-stops, then I have failed to connect with that viewer on any meaningful level."
But being tough in editing can backfire, especially when it comes to questioning the value of a photo at first glance. Moore continues, "What resonates with me one day may also be different from the next, and this can make my editing process somewhat inconsistent. I recently went back through an old shoot of mine from Colombia, and recovered an image of a glass frog peering through a leaf that I had culled the first time around. I have no idea what was going through my head when I culled it, because it was a strong composition, an interesting and beautiful subject and tack sharp. In theory all the elements were there. I suspect I was influenced by other, similar images, in my shoot. When faced with a couple of thousand images to edit I was ruthless in cutting this down to a manageable and representative selection. But in doing so I got rid of one that, upon recovery, has become one of my favorite frog shots - and my most popular image on Instagram. I now keep my 'almost' shots backed up because I never know when I could view them with different eyes and decide they are, indeed, a winner."
There’s the rub. Even the photographer can see something worth keeping one moment, and nothing the next, then back again.
I've found great value in going easy on editing sessions, doing four or five sessions with a more forgiving eye when narrowing down a group of photos, rather than one or two sessions that ruthlessly delete anything substandard while zeroed in on a high bar in technical quality. This gives me the chance to see the same group of images while I'm in different emotional states. Eventually, only the images that speak to me on every level, in every mood, stay. Those are clearly the most powerful. But I also know I have reduced the odds of deleting a great photo just because it had some blur or lack of sharpness that overall may not matter so much.
One of my tricks that I stumbled into accidentally and now view as a great strategy is to use my backup system as a safety, just as Moore does. I always back up everything on at least two hard drives. I dump all images into both drives but just work from one, narrowing down and deleting images from the single drive. And just in case, I have all the images on another drive. More than once, I've looked through those "deleted" images that still exist on the second drive and found a couple I changed my mind about, that I wanted to keep and work on. Eventually, I have my winners from the batch, and I back up just the final keepers on both drives. But at least during the editing process, I had that safety net of getting an image back that I failed to see the power of the first time around.
Can the viewer have the same experience? See an image once and be unimpressed because of technical flaws, but again in a different mood and be moved by the same photo's content? Or vice versa? Subjective. Oh, so subjective.
Mulling over just how subjective photography really is brings us back to the earlier question of gauging success based on if an image sings to you and if it sings to others. Brian Skerry has just about the best story I've ever heard on this topic. His most recognizable photo nearly never saw the light of day because one editor didn't care for it.
"Probably my most iconic picture is of the southern right whale and the diver. I was down in the southern Antarctic in winter time on an 80-foot sailboat for three weeks, dealing with all kinds of bad weather and diving in a dry suit. These whales had never been photographed before. It was a very speculative trip; the Geographic really rolled the dice when I convinced them to charter the boat and send me down there. I had this new experience, I had all these whales around me and I had these great pictures. I came back to the main island of New Zealand after three weeks and I had to fly to Honolulu where I was doing a three week reef expedition, so I was in my hotel room getting ready to leave for the boat. I got an email from my editor who said, 'So Brian, how did you do with the whales?' I was all proud of myself, and wrote back, saying I think we did really great and we have stuff that’s never been seen before, and I attached a jpeg of that picture with the diver and the whale. I needed to check out of the hotel and get to the boat but I was very anxious for this email that I was sure was going to come back with just heaps of praise telling me how great I was and how wonderful it all was and I was the greatest thing to ever happen. And I got back this cryptic sort of reply that just said, 'What else do you have.' That was it. Five words. I was crushed.
"That photo has since become a life of its own. They made a little video about it that’s on YouTube that’s had 23 million views. Geographic has used it on their flag, they’ve used it in their exploration issue years after it was published. But I had to lobby when I was doing layout with [my editor] and the layout designer to get that picture in there. Fortunately, the number two person at the magazine in charge of layout loved it and he said, no that’s got to be in the magazine. But the point of the story is that my editor, whose opinion I value so greatly — she’s a dear friend and a wonderful, wonderful editor, and in 17 years of working with her I’ve maybe once or twice had a disagreement about a picture — but there was a picture that was my most iconic, most famous picture of all time and it almost didn’t get into the magazine because she thought it was redundant and she liked another one that I had that was similar that was just the whale by itself. It is very subjective."
A common thread from the friends I talked to on this topic is that we all think that following the rules is important, up to a point. But we can’t let the rules get in the way of what’s real. The emotion, mood, circumstances… the reality of the instant in time that we captured is more important than if the light is coming from the right direction or if it comes out a bit grainy. If the content holds up, a viewer will most likely look right past those imperfections. A winning photo comes down to the emotional reaction it draws from viewers. Full stop.
Skerry says, “You know I used to believe when I first began that a picture had to be perfect. The fish had to be within the four borders of the frame and I couldn’t cut off a tail or I couldn’t cut off a fin. I’ve learned that those things are less important in terms of a good photojournalistic picture if the photo has energy, or if there’s some grace or gesture in the picture. If it speaks to you or it speaks to people then it’s okay if you don’t see the whole animal, if the tiger is cut off and you only see a blur of him running through a field or something. Those things are alright because it’s about that energy. Photography is about truth to a large extent, it’s about your experience out there in nature in the wild and if a shark kicked up a bit of sand as he swam over and it’s off to the side of the frame or wherever it is it’s alright. We publish those pictures all day long because it’s real, its the way it happened. It is about content over quality."
So, say a photo speaks to you and only to you. It summarizes everything you felt and saw during that moment when you clicked the shutter, and every time you look at it you're transported back to that experience. But it isn't something you can or will publish. It's just not an image that is going to go the distance with an audience. Then what?
These images that are entirely and completely for you are of profound value. Just because they aren't to be published doesn't mean they aren't worthy of keeping and displaying. It is these photos, after all, that feed the creative spirit and fuel the drive to go out and photograph again and again and again.
“The guy that brought me in to National Geographic, I idolized him for a long time," says Skerry. "His name was Bill Curtsinger. He was an underwater photographer at National Geographic for over 30 years and he did these sort of more elusive underwater stories — did cold water in polar regions and did big animals like whales before anyone was doing it — and when I would go to his house, he would have these little prints in the bathroom or on the wall somewhere. It was just a little 5x7 or 4x6 print of maybe something that mattered to him, something that spoke to him. It wasn’t a picture that appeared in a magazine, it wasn’t in any book, but it was something that he liked. Sometimes he would do them in black and white and sometimes in color, and he would put a little mat around them and hang it on a wall. Again in those days I was of the mind that every picture had to be perfect, and I was only going to publish or print and hang on my wall the most beautiful images. But I learned from Bill that it isn’t about that. There are those pictures that are going to be published and seen and ooh-ed and aahh-ed over by the general public, and then there are pictures that matter to you. And you need both."
I definitely connect with this strategy. I have quite a few framed photos on my wall that aren't of interest to anyone but me. Even my wife silently questions what's so great about them. But when I look at them, I get a little thrill up my spine, my shutter finger twitches a bit, and I think, "That's why I pick up my camera."
"I think at the end of the day the reason that we pursue photography is that it is something that speaks to us," Skerry tells me. "It is some internal desire to produce images and record a moment in time that is fleeting; it’ll never happen again, it’s just that moment. For those of us who are pursing professional photography, to some degree we have to care about what other people think about the photos or else we can’t make a living. But you can’t get so hung up on that — if you're producing good work and people like it then that’s all well and good, but ultimately at the end of the day it has to please you. Otherwise, what’s the point?"
I've heard many photographers go on at length about how important it is to shoot below a certain ISO to keep noise low, to always use a tripod to minimize any shake, to zoom in to 100 percent to make sure an image is truly tack sharp. But I've found that when I need a high ISO to get the shot, when a tripod is holding me back from moving quickly enough to follow a subject, when a photo is fuzzy at 100 percent but prints just fine as an 8x10, then I'm more than okay with that. It is more important to me to have an image that feels right. Because without that nameless spark, that hint of magic that brings a photo alive, that allows a viewer to connect on a wordless, instinctual level, then having all the technical elements be perfect doesn't matter in the slightest.
There's a lot you can fix in post-processing — you can reduce noise, bump up the clarity and sharpness, bring up the shadows and restore the highlights. But there is no slider for increasing the soul of a photo. I choose to focus on that, to hone my skill in this most important area, and let the technical prowess follow in the practice.