Saving The World From Bad Photographs

By  Gary Gray

Original Photograph

Edited Photograph

I saw an article on PetaPixel recently concerning a photographer who took some photos of clouds and posted one online. It got lots of “likes” and it also got a lot of unsolicited critique from his readers. Mostly, he was criticized for what many considered to be bad editing in Photoshop. The photographer said his image wasn’t manipulated and the drumbeat of discontent rose to the level of making a headline on a notable photography website.

It all felt like a tempest in a teapot to me. Some of the comments were down right vile and the accusations made it seem as though the photographer had performed some grievous act on par with human sacrifice in a city park.

If you frequent any of the photography forums around the internet, you’ll eventually come to a photograph that sparks a conversation accusing the photographer of bad editing, or faked in Photoshop, or egregiously bad photographic skill or something highly critical. They are trying to save the world from bad photography.

Online unsolicited photo critiquing is a wasteland of self-indulgent bloviating by every monkey who thinks they know something others don’t. Many think they are being helpful, but here’s the rub. If the critique isn’t helping the person, it isn’t helpful. I say, save your critiques of images for those who ask for critique.

Once you ask for a critique, accept the responses. You did ask for it after all. Many times I’ve seen people ask for critique and then behave as if the photograph was one of their children. Nobody wants to hear someone criticize their child. Well, a photograph isn’t a child. It’s a photograph, nothing more.

If you are going to critique someone’s photo, try to be nice about it. Knowing what you are talking about helps too.

If you are someone who owns a camera, it doesn’t automatically make you an expert. It’s not your opportunity to shine down on the world with your inflated ego, your inflated sense of self importance nor your inability to actually be helpful.

Critiques from knowledgeable and skilled photographers can indeed be helpful. If you want an honest critique, seek them out privately and ask for honesty.

Beware though, when you post something online, you get the rabble along with the emotional instability of the rabble.

I freely admit that I’ve given critiques of images in the past. Most were solicited, some were not. My opinion has morphed on this subject over time. When I was involved with camera clubs and online photo sharing, critiquing of images was all the rage. Everyone had an “expert” opinion, including myself and those opinions often varied from person to person. What I’ve discovered over time is that critiques aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Most opinions are irrelevant to the quality of a photo and seem to mainly serve the emotional insecurity of the person doing the critique.

I’ll tell you up front that I frequently edit the contents of my images in Photoshop. The above two photos are a prime example of what I might normally do with photo editing. No, not every photo is re-wobbled, but if I think a photo can be improved by removing something distracting or correcting something that needs correcting, I go for it.

I have a photography group on Facebook.  North American Nature, Wildlife & Landscape Photographers Association.

I don’t allow unsolicited photo critiques on the photos people post in the group.  All it does is create discontent and arguments and it’s typically more belittling than helpful.

A good photo is easy to see. When you look at a photograph, you know if it’s good to your eyes. If you take a shot, once you examine it on the computer, you’ll know what is good or not good about it. You generally don’t need people telling you what’s wrong with it nor you. You probably already know.

If you are just beginning, you may benefit from some informed critique, but for those of us who have a few photographs under our belt and have submitted their work to publications, contests and public sale, we pretty much know what we’ve got. What varies is the opinion of others regarding what’s wrong with it. Those opinions often turn ugly and are generally unproductive.

Unless I’m using a photo for journalistic reasons or as a public record of something or on contract,  I don’t worry about making tweaks to a photograph and you shouldn’t either. They are my artwork and I can do what I like with it.

Is it dishonest?  I don’t think so. Photography is art and I want my art to look the way I want it to look. I don’t follow some fabricated and aggrandized and variable ethical drumbeat from hordes of unsolicited critics of my work. You shouldn’t either.

Your mindset doesn’t alter the opinion others have of your photographs. Your results do alter the opinions.

If your mindset is to get everything perfect in the camera and to not fix anything, go for it.

If your mindset is to improve the aesthetics of the image by editing it to your liking, go for it.

If you want to take your photos and turn them into photo illustrations, go for it.

Just be honest about your intentions.

The world isn’t going to stop spinning if you edit your image in Photoshop and it isn’t going to keep spinning because you decided to be purist about what your images look like and feel the need to project your purist ethos onto other photographer’s works.

It’s all in your/their head. The image speaks for itself.

From my view of the road, there is absolutely nothing wrong with editing your photographs for presentation.  The ethical consideration is; how is the edited photo used? What’s the intent of the editing? The rules of photography only exist when rules are stated. A photo contest may be such a situation. Most photo contests I’ve seen allow for tweaks to color, hue, saturation, correcting minor artifacts and such. If you are manipulating beyond what the published rules state, you’re cheating.  Stock photography absolutely requires editing of photos. One has to remove trademarks and identifying aspects of the image before a stock agency will accept it. Is that dishonest? No. It’s a rule that has to be followed. If your editing skills suffer, you’ll get rejected. If you don’t follow the stock agency rules, they’ll refuse your submission. Absent any published rules, there are no rules. There are just good photographs. Critiquers don’t get to create your rules for photography.

Too many unsolicited critiques tend to focus on rules that haven’t been enacted yet. Sometimes to the extreme as to end up attacking the person for using artistic freedom in a way the person doing critiquing considers offensive, or even worse for Gods sake, an amateurish attempt to express themselves. For those who think their concept of what photographic art is and is not supposed to look like or how it is produced, I say…get a life. The unsolicited negative critique is more often more offensive than the actual subject of the critique.

The beauty of art is that the artist gets to decide how they want their art to look and the viewer gets to decide if they like it or not. It’s not up to the viewer to decide what methods are acceptable nor what the artist does. The viewer’s only responsibility is to their own opinion of rather or not a photograph is good enough for their own tastes. No two opinions will be the same. Bloviating on what one thinks was done wrong or about some unwritten rule is not followed is rude.

If you are a photo journalist, publications normally like a photo to be unedited. It’s an accurate representation of the story behind the photo and manipulating the photograph is considered to be manipulating the truth of the story. A famous example of this is the Pulitzer prize winning photo from the Kent State National Guard killings in May of 1970.

Photograph by John Paul Filo -1970

Look closely at the Kent State photograph. Notice the fence post above the lady’s head in the left photo and how it was removed in the photo on the right. Even something as mundane as cleaning up a tangential artifact in a journalistic photo can create all sorts of discord among critics.  I agree with the concept that if it’s intended for journalistic purposes, don’t rearrange the contents.

We have more recent examples. Take the 2017 inauguration of Donald Trump for example. The crowd scene was edited to Trump’s wishes in order to give the impression that there were far more people present than were actually there. I don’t know about you, but that’s a public journalistic record and the intent of the edit was to deceive the American public for political gain. That to me is over the line.

Fashion photography is full of exuberant photo editing. Blemishes, body shapes, hair color, just about anything is fair game when it comes to fashion photography. Where does editing cross the line? To me, if the end result doesn’t resemble the original to a great degree, it’s purposely deceptive. You decide for yourself if you like being sold something in a deceptive manner.

Lets move away from journalistic ethics and into the realm of the ethics of artwork.

In my photos, you can clearly see that I removed branches from the original photo. I also cropped the image to zero in on the Blue Heron’s nest. The wonder of high resolution cameras allows for such a thing.

What was my intent?

The intent was to make a usable image out of something that contained too many distractions for my artistic taste.  I couldn’t get any closer to the birds, so I settled for the framing I had. The branches in the scene cluttered the image so I removed them. Same thing as the Kent State photograph only the Kent State photo is journalism.  The tangents were cleaned up and the image looks better without them in my opinion. But, here’s the difference. My photo isn’t an editorial photograph designed to represent a factual depiction of exactly what was there. It’s photographic art, designed to render the birds in a way that was visually appealing. I’m not trying to deceive anyone, nor am I trying to alter public opinion. I just want a nicer image to print. If I were making a painting of the photograph, I wouldn’t paint those branches into the scene.

I never falsely claim that something is exactly the way the camera saw it. To me, that’s the pivot point.  Artistic license vs journalistic integrity.

If you feel the need to criticize another photographer, put their work in perspective and judge accordingly. Just be aware, your unsolicited critique is probably not welcome. It’s probably not all that helpful either.

Just my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.