Thursday, 5 March 2009

Who Do You Take Photos For?

Who Do You Take Photos For?

This is a question I've been dwelling on quite a lot recently and after a conversation on twitter with @bburzycki and reading a related post on Chase Jarvis' blog I thought I relate my thoughts on the issue.

With all the instant sharing capabilities of the internet, we as photographers have a near infinite selection of methods for instant feedback on our work. This, of course, is fantastic; especially for those just starting out trying to learn the ins and outs of their light tight box.

For example, we have DeviantArt , usefilm , pbase , , PhotoAnswers . Then, for those brave enough to the terms of service, there's the less obvious choices of Myspace and Facebook and many many more.

Great! We have many wonderful channels to share our work and get advice as we progress!

The Forum Trap

If it seems to good to be true, than it must not be true; right? Does all this instant feedback and critique come at a price to our artistic integrity?

I mean, picture this: You're a self-professed n00b armed with a new camera and a teach yourself photography book. You've scoured the pages thoroughly and have already taken hundreds of photos you are well aware should never see the light of day. All of a sudden something clicks and you just sit staring at your monitor. You did something right and the very first photo that you're really proud of is staring back at you. Hastily, you post it to one of the online forums you've been lurking on, yet have never posted. You come back an hour later to find three comments. The first one says "That's pretty". You're now beaming. Scroll down. The second says "It's nice, but the white balance is off." Okay, you understand that because you've been brushing up; something to note for later. You scroll down to see the third comment is from one of the forum's veterans that you've noticed a lot of activity from. You get excited and start to read. All of a sudden, you're photo is torn apart. Nothing about it is right. Everything is completely screwed up and it should be binned.

In that situation, I've seen people react in two main ways. Either they give up or they turn around and and try again making absolute sure that everything that was nitpicked is fixed. Why? Simply because they want that same person to turn around and approve of what they have done.

Again, for someone starting out, this can be the boost they need to start piecing everything together. However, I've seen very experienced photographers fall into the exact same trap. Essentially, they'll have stopped by to test the waters in a new forum and got sucked into the trap of bending over backwards to meet the standards of another faceless photographer.

What's the Price?

From here, let's exclude the people starting out. For the most part, the information they can get can prove invaluable. Let's stick to the many of you who understand the relation between aperture and shutter speed, who live by inverse square law, who know that the rule of thirds isn't a rule at all.

By far, my favourite photography related adage has to be "How many photographers does it take to change a light bulb? One. Then another ninety-nine to say how they would have done it different."

Anybody, armed with the knowledge and the right equipment (yes equipment does absolutely matter depending on the task at hand) can take a good photograph. My issue, is what happens when that photograph is "finished" and posted to a forum, or similar outlet? I have seen far too many photographers who DO know what they're doing and who DID know what their exact intent was turn around and be bullied into either removing the image altogether or going back and completely changing it, losing the original intent altogether. Why? For the sake of positive feedback from other photographers.

My own personal definition of art is something you create to your own standards. My definition of craft is something you make to someone else's standards.

By my reasoning (Oh and I don't claim to actually know a thing so take this with a grain of salt) when someone turns around and changes the content of an image, or removes it entirely, based on the critique of someone else, they are actually bastardising their art and betraying their vision for the sake of feedback. No longer is it a piece of personal expression, but rather it is a craft work designed to appease the masses.

The same applies to those who make images with the sole intention of gathering bajillions of comments on Flickr or those who intentionally set out to make it into explore. They aren't taking photos for themselves. They are making photos for an audience. More power to them if that's exactly what they want to achieve, but have you ever spoke to some of these guys and girls. Some of them get very disillusioned very fast.

It's a Double Sided Coin

Here, I am going to contradict my entire argument.

There's always two sides to every story and this one is no different. In the examples above, I honestly believe the whole personal aspect of photography as an art is being obliterated by people trying to achieve mass appeal.

Is this neccasarily a bad thing. No.

Obviously, when it comes to selling photography as a commercial product, one of the boxes that must be ticked is "mass appeal". So these guys and girls in my Flickr example are potentially placing themselves in a situation that might just be preapring themsleves for a place in a very competitive market.

Then again, they might not be. Referring to my original point, the "masses" of Flickr tend to be other photographers.

The general rule that people need to remember is that photographers don't buy photography. So if you're trying to market yourself and make photographs that appeal to buyers, why on Earth would you seek approval from someone who wouldn't buy it in the first place?

Yes, feedback is nice. Very nice. As is networking and sharing with like-minded individuals. However, that doesn't mean that photographs should be made for that purpose.

Who Do I Make Photographs For?

Since this issue has been on the forefront of my mind for quite a long time, I have given it some very strong thought. My own personal decision has been to forego forums altogether, at least for now, as I was fairly prone to that trap myself.

I have decided that I will make my photographs to the standards of three groups of people:

Myself, My Models and My Clients. Any other feedback is an added and welcome bonus!

So far, I have had the great pleasure, from both my models and clients, to be able to make photographs for them to my own standards for the most part. That in itself, is quite the honour and one I hope to have for some time in the future.

*DISCLAIMER* I at no time actually claim to know what I'm talking about. This post represents my opinion based on my experiences and should under no circumstances be taken as gospel of any sort. Simple food for thought at the very most! Also, this was by no means meant to be critical of anyone. I do not presume that I can or should tell anyone else how to conduct their own personal matters. This is only my own thoughts as of how to conduct myself.

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  1. I get what you're saying here, to a point. I wouldn't agree with the new photographer example, because that person didn't remember to look at the white balance until it was mentioned to them. Or the weird shadow the head made, or the stray hair, or remember to make sure the eyes were razor sharp.

    That person in this circumstance turning around and doing it better the next time, is a good thing.

    That was me two years ago in our photography forum. You guys taught me SO much.

    So I would say your point applies to a photographer who knows their shit. If someone like Melody for example, decides to blow out an image, I know damn well it was intentional.

    That, for me, is the difference.

    ~J :)

  2. Well, the white balance example was only 1/3 of that entire point and not the negative bit. It was the bit after that that I was condemning.

    Then shortly after, I made it a point to exclude n00bs from my argument altogether, so yeah, we're on the same page I believe!

    Sorry if my wording threw you a bit. I was all over the place with this one!

  3. It's probably my fault. I'm a skimmer to the max. I promise I'll come back, read meaningfully and slowly and then re-comment. :)

  4. I agree with your musing. And being a photographer you have to decide what your goals are. Since your work is a good deal of portrait work you have chosen to meet your clients expectations. In itself that is a great goal. And you can work on what pleases your client.

    I have taken a different approach and work on pleasing myself. I generally do not do portrait work so I really do not have clients to please. Or my goals would be similar to yours.

    My approach has been to please myself first and see the response of viewers. I am not sure which approach is harder. Portrait work has the immediate cash reward. You have a client who is emotionally invested in buying your work. Your reputation rests on if you please them or not.

    It would scare me to death to be a Wedding photographer. I could see myself screwing the whole job up. And, they are not going to redo the wedding because of you.

    I am thankful I do not deal with that pressure. If I do a screw up a shot, or even a whole shooting the delete button is right at hand. And without that pressure I usually succeed in taking passable photographs that might find their way into a publication.

    But doing that kind of speculative photography has it drawbacks and income can be very sporadic.

    Besides nature and landscape, I also do race track photography. I have found that to be lucrative, but again I do it on a spec basis. And, I just print up what I like and if they like it at the next race I have a sale.

    But to get down to the nitty gritty I photograph because I love to photograph. And, I process the way I like to process. And if it does not please others, so be it.

    Photography to me is more than a passion than a pay check.

    Thank you for such an interesting post.

  5. Robert,

    Thank you for such a well thought out and insightful comment!

    It is quite inspiring to hear those words from a working professional and after spending a good deal of time looking through your images I can say I'm honestly quite humbled.

    I couldn't agree more on the wedding aspect. I just couldn't do it!

    Thanks for taking the time!