August 31, 2007

"Most of your pictures suck"

I tend to get in my own head about photography.  Maybe because it can be praticed with fairly little physical skill (compared, say, to sketching, which came rather naturally to me), photography seems to put more emphasis on one’s "eye," one’s taste.  That can be nerve-wracking, making it seem like a failure to take a good shot* is a comment not only on your technical chops, but on your worth as an aesthetic being.  See, I told you I get in my head about it.

Maybe that’s why I found this comment from experienced photographer Mike Johnston refreshing:

To be honest, most of my pictures suck. The saving grace of that admission is that most of your pictures suck, too. How could I possibly know such a thing? Because most of everybody’s pictures suck, that’s how. I’ve seen Cartier-Bresson’s contact sheets, and most of his pictures sucked. One of my teachers said that it was an epiphany for him when he took a class from Garry Winogrand and learned that most of Winogrand’s exposures sucked. It’s the way it is.

Whew.  It’s nice to know that bad photos happen to all guys sometimes, so to speak.  And as Mike reminds his sometimes gear-obsessed readers, "Cameras don’t take good pictures, photographers do."  Just not all the time.

*There’s also the whole angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin question of what good is.  In Ireland I’d joke, "Look, honey, I set the camera to ‘Trite‘…"

Posted by John Nack at 12:41 PM on August 31, 2007

Comments

  • Charles — 1:24 PM on August 31, 2007

    You’re talking about what fine-art photogs refer to as “seeing.” You don’t “take pictures,” you “see pictures.”
    This occurs on a couple of levels, technical and aesthetic. Technical approaches like the Zone System allows us to see (previsualize) how our equipment will record a scene. Aesthetic judgement helps us see how we’d like to approach a subject.

  • ron — 1:29 PM on August 31, 2007

    The legendary movie director John Ford (whose films featured some of the greatest cinematography of all time) once said that most of what he considered the good parts of his films had happened by accident.

  • jezza — 9:53 AM on September 01, 2007

    But it’s about composition, if you can sketch you can compose a scene and you have the ‘eye’.
    ‘Suck’ is way better than bloody awful :)

  • Eric — 7:58 PM on September 01, 2007

    Of course, Cartier-Bresson had his moments. I talked one time with the editor of Italy’s equivalent of LIFE magazine – Epoca. He told me that he once hired Cartier-Bresson to shoot a story on Portugal – in color.
    He then told us how Cartier-Bresson took his Leica and two rolls of Ektachrome film and came back with 70 exposures good enough for the magazine. I suspect few photographers could pull that off.
    Ansel Adams once wrote that a crop of 12 good images in a year was a good year. So I think the point remains.
    I sure proved it at work this week. I shot two mug shots of new members of our Board of Director. The photos sucked! (What a bad time to do that!)
    I kept thinking how I’ve been in remote parts of the world in really harsh conditions, like 1900 meters underground in Colombia in an emerald mine, and pull off some photos that really prove my chops. And then right in the boardroom of our company I can’t shoot a decent mugshot of people who decide how big my bonus is each December!
    Keeps me humble.
    [Heh–I hear that. –J.]

  • John Peterson — 2:27 AM on September 02, 2007

    Somebody once was watching a famous photographer sort through his negatives. He was amazed the photographer could flick a 35mm neg clear across the room, smack into the trash can, without looking up from his light table. “Practice…”
    [;-) –J.]
    I often find it difficult to figure out which of the dozen snaps of a particular scene should be the “winner” that gets printed. (And of course, the correct answer much of the time is “none of them”).

  • Martin Stein — 11:08 AM on September 03, 2007

    It’s true: quantity before quality. A blind chicken eventually finds the worm. But then there is still the question of judging which of the shots are outstanding – the 12 good ones for the last year. How do we find them?
    So one could argue that good photographers are just good in picking outstanding shots.

  • Todd Vachon — 12:08 PM on September 11, 2007

    I attended a session at Photoshop World this past week put on by Jay Maisel. He commented that he felt he missed 90% of the shots that he saw. When someone in the audience asked if he ever took bad shots he said with the deadpan of a seasoned New Yorker ‘Of course, but I’m not going to show you those, I’m not a schmuck!’
    I once heard it put this way: ‘The only difference between success and failure is the number of attemps it takes to achieve either.’
    Good to keep things like these in mind if you ever find yourself getting discouraged.

  • JustSomeSchmoe — 4:48 PM on September 26, 2007

    John, I love your site. Here’s something fun I just wrote up.
    TOP 10 SIGNS THAT YOU’VE GOT A GREAT PHOTO (at least in your own mind):
    10. If you were standing upright, comfortable, and clicking the button didn’t take too much physical effort or thinking then what you shot was a flying pink elephant.
    9. Your legs were cramped for waiting a bazillion hours.
    8. The only motor was on the mode of transportation that got you to your subject. (Praise to Walter Iooss.)
    7. Your clothes are dirty. (Just because.)
    6. You absolutely did not get the best shot on the day you actually prepared for.
    5. You pretended to be the ball (or the camera, or the animal). (Praise to Frans Lanting in the Okavango.)
    4. You were either really, really cold or unbearably hot when releasing the shutter and said the shaking effect was intentional.
    3. You raised Alexey Brodovitch from the dead to do your photo edit.
    2. If you were shooting people, you ran instead of getting the subject’s release signature.
    And the number 1 sign that you’ve got a great photo (at least in your own mind)…
    (drum roll please)…
    You used a camera that had professional “film” in it, paid for the developing, and didn’t see the result for at least 24 hours!
    [Heh–I have no idea what you’re talking about. :-) –J.]

  • Noah Mittman — 1:58 PM on April 10, 2008

    I think the saying goes: “A good photographer never shows you his bad photos.” :)

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