Emotion Versus Technical Quality, and Do You Care? Your Customers Probably Don't

Emotion Versus Technical Quality, and Do You Care? Your Customers Probably Don't

I'm a very technical guy, probably to the point of being a little obsessive. Today I wanted to talk about technical skill and quality versus emotion.

Since I first started in the industry, I have been obsessive about the best technical quality I could possibly deliver. Spending countless hours, days, even years refining and honing skills to get to where I knew I wanted to be. Still learning and working to get better every day, regardless of current status. I mistakenly thought that if I was the very best in town, people would see that and I'd get all the customers. Boy was I wrong.

The current days of everyone being a photographer (the state of the industry) has shown me some things I thought I would never see. High school seniors are taking each others senior portraits, and people are eating it up. Astounded, and not understanding how this could be, I dug a little deeper and it actually directly parallels the people skills and psychology field of observing humans. Let me explain. When you speak to someone how you speak and your body language is more important than what you are saying. Professor Mehrabian came up with the 7 percent rule and it goes like this: communication is 7 percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal. The non-verbal is split up into 55 percent being your body language and 38 percent being your tone of voice. 

This applies to photos as well. The body language equivalent in photos it the feeling people get from viewing it; the mood.

We as photographers are constantly looking at better photographers than ourselves, and always wanting to get better and be better. But the sad truth is your customers don't notice. Within reason of course, this isn't a license to go out and just blow everything. But it's been studied that people prefer images that have deep emotion or make you feel a certain way over a much superior technical image that might not have that sentiment. This extends far deeper than I was willing to admit as a photographer. I thought there were certain things that all photographers would make sure of, such as the image being in focus, or a person's face not being blue from the sky with a poor color correction. The harsh truth is, people don't care. Perhaps it's not so much a "don't care" as it is a "don't know the difference" situation, but the end result to you is the same.

This was a disappointing reality for someone like myself who has poured everything I have into my quality. But the one constant in the world is change, and to say the industry hasn't changed, or isn't changing would be foolish so all we can do is adapt and work with what we have. So in summary, whether we like it or not, we need to get outside our technical shell and make sure we are delivering content with feeling and emotion, or we'll likely be left behind. I've personally experienced it many times with seasoned veterans and very good quality photographers unable to make a living while there's people doing great with very subpar quality, because they deliver the feeling.

What are your thoughts? What would you say the percentage of quality versus emotion is?

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21 Comments

Kirk Darling's picture

As a professional, I don't think it's an either-or proposition. I'm paid for providing both emotion and craft, consistently, on command. A poet sets out to create sadness and does so. A stand-up comedian sets out to create laughter, and does so. A propagandist set out to create outrage, and does so.

I am amazed by Holst's "Die Planets" suite, in which the composer "calls his shot" with each movement: Joy, tragedy, dread...and drops every ball into the pocket.

If there are seniors photographing seniors (people not seeing the difference or not caring about the difference) there are a couple of obvious reasons.

1. We've shot ourselves in the foot by emulating amateurs. We boast about what we can do with cell phones--by keeping carefully within the confines of cell phones. We copy amateur errors (flare, overexposure, camera shake) and call it art.

So customers realize they can do all that themselves--paying a photographer brings nothing to the plate that is out of their reach.

2. The pictures they shoot for each other are actually a different product--it's the difference between having a cook-out and going to a four-star restaurant. The cook-out is a very different occasion in which the fellowship is the main course; it's the same for the senior pictures seniors take of each other. The experience of the moment is the main course.

The professional product, like the meal at the four-star restaurant, should be for the sake of an image that is desirable for itself, or for a particularly different experience--both of which worth the money.

Our clients are not stupid; they can discern a difference when there is a difference. People play video games when they could play hacky-sack.

First: Make sure there is a difference.

Second: Sell them on the value proposition of that difference.

Spike S's picture

>>The pictures they shoot for each other are actually a different product--it's the difference between having a cook-out and going to a four-star restaurant. << This analogy is wrong and the post, if read properly, points to the right one. The correct analogy is between having an intimate get-together with friends in your home and going to a stuffy restaurant with hovering waiters and conversations making it harder to enjoy your companions.

Kirk Darling's picture

Spike S, by characterizing an evening at a four-star restaurant as "going to a stuffy restaurant with hovering waiters and conversations making it harder to enjoy your companions," your own prejudices betray you.

If you don't like going to a high-end restaurant, fine, but don't let your own prejudices blind you to the fact that there is a market for them.

Four-star restaurants do good business--a whole lot of people are looking for that experience and are willing to pay for it. Most of those same people also enjoy the "intimate get-together with friends in your home."

It's not either-or, it's a matter of recognizing that those are two different experiences.

But the photographer can only sell the the "four-star restaurant" experience, never the "intimate get-together." At least not at the four-star restaurant prices necessary to pay the mortgage.

Spike S's picture

You seem to have missed the point. I said the analogy was wrong in the first place. I claimed no equivalence between your analogy and mine, which makes me wonder how carefully you are reading.

user-156929's picture

Perhaps the analogy doesn't work for your experiences but I've seen and experienced it myself. I'm sure your analogy works for a segment of the population as well. But those people don't hire professional photographers.

michael buehrle's picture

we have evolved into a "it's good enough" world. how many photos have you seen that people have said they are spectacular when we look at them and cringe ? a lot i'm thinking. the rave of the iPhone photographer has hurt the industry as well. people doing commercial shoots or weddings and being praised because they use a iPhone is crazy. everyone is a photographer and now that christmas is over just wait and see how many new guys pop up. you need to know so much more these days than just your camera. post and composites is what separates photographers now.

user-156929's picture

Good or good enough? I've shown a lot of people before and after photos and they don't realize the difference until they see them side by side.

user-156929's picture

"Trolling"? "Insults"? The mention of your wife, in an entirely neutral way, bothers you? Good grief, Charlie Brown.

Spike S's picture

Here's a set of photographs shot with a phone - http://citysnaps.net/2014%20Photos/Mission%20Photos/ These demonstrate Bill Larkin's point. The photographer's work with his phone got a full page in the arts section of a big city newspaper and he's had shows with 20x20 prints from the phone. I'd rather see these than anything that garners comments like "so sharp."

user-156929's picture

I agree with your point but don't have the same reaction to those particular photos. I think the emotional connection depends on your life experiences. Personally, I hate cities and feel no connection to their denizens.

Kirk Darling's picture

Maybe you're rather see them, but will you pay for them? Where I am, people--"civliians"--still pay big money for images beyond the level they can create themselves.

Dana Goldstein's picture

I think this article was primarily directed to photographers who shoot for “civilians.” Those who work with photo editors obviously have an audience that does recognize quality, and while emotion plays a role, the final image must communicate to those who had nothing to do with the experience of creating it. So, two audiences here are hearing this two ways. Perhaps the author could have made that distinction.

Bill Larkin's picture

Certainly a reasonable point. It was written from the perspective of a portrait photographer.

Bill I think you are so right. Take for example that we colour correct our monitors, colour balance the light, our whole workflow even. Then we send jpegs (my area is PR) to the client and they look at the shots on uncorrected monitors, so they do not notice the beautifully colour corrected images we produce.

Look at this article about President Trumps official portrait: https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/31/white-house-releases-official-portraits-...
While the portrait is not technically good it is a good portrait of Trump , the lighting is poor he does look good (irrespective of your views of him), however the portrait of Pence is technically a much better portrait. I suspect for Trump the photographers speed of shooting is the deciding factor.

As for speed, in 2017 I lost a shoot because the client wanted photographs delivered as they were been photographed at a blacktie awards event. The photographer who got the gig was wifiing the photographs from his camera to his phone, where they were been uploaded to Dropbox as he was shooting. The client had access to the Dropbox account and was able to Tweet out the shots as soon as they received them. In effect the photo was tweeted out before the award winner got to sit down after reciving their award. The shots I had taken the year before had better colour, plus better use of light, but that was not of interest to the end user. I wonder who will get the job this year? But guess what, I now offer this service as well!

I think the market has changed. As a professional we are expected to produce to a certin standared. Excedding it may not produce the extra work we expected. We need to produce results faster than before and as Bill says invoke emotion in the photographs.

Mike Schrengohst's picture

The same thing is happening in video. Some clients would rather have a crappy lo-res video that is "live" vs. a polished video that might take weeks to produce.

Bill Larkin's picture

It certainly is, it's honestly happening pretty widespread among many industry, not just photography. Technology and the age of the youtube tutorial has empowered people to want to do things themselves and therefore inflicting major damage on the professional industry that is related to whatever it was they did.

Bill Larkin's picture

Thats right. The market has changed, regardless of if we like it or not. We can refuse to accept that and carry on as usual, or adapt. Thats each of our own choice.

Mike Schrengohst's picture

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder"

proverb
beauty cannot be judged objectively, for what one person finds beautiful or admirable may not appeal to another.

I have viewed hundreds of landscape photos on this site. Technically - most of them are 10's. But the majority of them lack that emotion you speak of. Also - many beautiful people photos on this site are technically perfect but lack emotion. Achieving technical perfection is easier than achieving "emotional perfection" - if there is such a thing. I think that is why I became a video director/producer early in my career. I loved photography and achieved "technical" perfection - but that elusive "emotional impact" always seemed elusive. I now find that many of my iPhone photos are actually more "emotional" than ones I take with high end equipment. That is the enigma of life itself.

Amaury Descours's picture

I do agree with Bill's article on the fact that actually emotion is paramount. We too often forget that in photography, emotion is the only criteria that makes a good or bad picture for the eyes of a viewer, whoever it is.

And I've found that this criteria is truly universal: it works for intimate photos, as well as fineart for sure, but also documentary or news.

I do think people, and photographers themselves, often overlook what is actually emotions. We have in mind the usual "strong" emotions like love, sadness, anger. But actually, psyschologists like Robert Plutchik have demonstrated that they are many others. At least 48 in Plutchik's wheel of emotions. Bad pictures actually transmit emotions: sentimentality, disapproval, contempt, disgust/boredom. That are emotions we don't like to feel, but they are still emotions.

So technical quality is not a bad thing. For me, we always have to remember that there are a lot of ingredients that make an image feelingful: the subject, the shooting technics, the composition, the light, the editing/post-processing, the presentation. You know all this. Technical quality is a fraction of it in each of the 6 domains, and always at the service of emotions.
Technical quality may explain why we have in front of us a good picture, but a good picture cannot be only made from its technical merits. Nobody wants a technically good picture with no emotions in it, even a photoeditor or fineart curator or whoever.

Also, the biggest caveat of technical quality is overquality. Overquality is an issue because it is a waste of photographer's resources (time, gear, expenses, ...). As quality experts set it out: quality is the fit for purpose. If you actually don't know the explicit and implicit requirements of your viewer, how could be sure you're investing the right amount of your resource.

The only objective of the viewer (customer, fineart amateur, ...) is to feel the right emotions in front of your photo, and you as a photographer should know the magic on how to achieve this. Technical quality is only one of the trick.

user-165452's picture

Photography is not my profession but a hobby which is directly connected to my work in the creative industry, in design visualisation and implementation. Providing a technically competent image In a professional environment will make you stand out and be respected and it can make or break some projects during implementation. I believe being technically efficient gives you more time to look for and capture that emotion.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

I think a balanced mixture of both is a great place to be unless the project calls for an extreme of either.