Why Photographers Hate My Images

Why Photographers Hate My Images

I recently shot a new portfolio and every photographer I have shown it to thinks it is rubbish. But every art director, buyer, agent, and creative director loves it. Let's look into why this is.

First up, I am very thick skinned I write articles online and produce YouTube videos, you have to be pretty confident and able to not take others opinions personally to continue to do these sorts of work. So I am certainly not offended by the hate I am getting from photographers, its a weekly occurrence in one form or another. My area of work is commercial food photography. It’s a big industry with a huge scope of styles and the U.K. is a big location for this and its a genre that we take very seriously and are a go to nation for campaigns. So we perhaps have more sub genres of this genre than many other countries.

I have been working as a professional food photographer for some time. I was asked to shoot a chef's book cover many moons ago, once I had taken the portrait they asked me to shoot some images of their food for online content, to which I agreed. From that point onward I had found my calling.

I took to the internet, the forums, Instagram, and pretty much every editorial food magazine, and found a plethora of beautiful food photographs. Considering I have no internet profile, my work was well received on Instagram and work was going well. I was shooting big print worldwide campaigns, but I was on the cusp of everything and I couldn’t seem to progress. 

Now this all comes at a strange time in the world, but my phone has never rang so much, the emails I am receiving are from bigger art buyers, larger agencies, and agents who need my new style of work. So what did I do differently and why don't photographers like it?

Style

After a weekend away with my partner, I read an article about Andy Warhol, someone who’s work I love. For no real conscious reason, I had never ventured into more graphic photography, despite my love for the aesthetic. I had almost become too obsessed with what the profession outwardly looked like on the internet. Now if you had asked me about portrait photography, in a heartbeat I would tell you that what you see on Instagram, in the forums, and on YouTube is not what high end professionals are shooting, but maybe I was too close in food photography to see this before now. So I pulled in my stylist and set about creating my first test shoot for this new project. We managed 6 shots on day one and I had never been happier with any work that I had produced.

Technical Ability

One of my strengths in photography is my lighting. It is something that has always come natural to me and I am often booked for re-shoots where I have to deconstruct a previous photographer's work and recreate it so that my work can sit alongside their assets in an advert (happens a lot more than you would expect.) 

Some of the more technical work I shoot requires cameras with movements, 15,000 watts of sculpted light, and some fancy retouching. It is something I can do without really having to work my brain too hard, but it is also what was holding me back. For my new work I ended up using an obscure white coated 20 inch reflector/spill kill (has no name on it) from the 1980s and a 500 watt head set to about 350 watts with the classic 45/45 degree lighting from the top left of my flat lays. No bounce, no fill, just a single light source placed at the right distance to create the shadows and fall off I wanted. Then my camera sat on my studio stand with a 100 mm standard lens at f/10. So simple that I have managed to continue with my portfolio work from my house during the lockdown. 

Voice 

I am not going to pretend that I am now enlightened and have a unique perspective on the world. You could find lots of people who are producing similar work to mine in several creative genres. However, the food that I have selected is that of my childhood and more recently what we have available during lockdown, and therefore personal to me and who I am as a person. This is what gives my images a voice and means that when people have seen my new work book that they know it is my work.

Before, they saw pretty images that were well executed and looked like every other professional food photographer. This was all inspired by an article about Andy Warhol that I read in bed from The Times Saturday magazine and a long conversation that a famous photographer's agent was kind enough to have with me. The advice she gave was that after your books have been shown to the art buyers, they will have seen another 20 that week. They need to be able to say “I want the photographer who shoots tinned beans to photograph our new campaign.” If you are simply a photographer who creates nice work, you will be forgotten. That isn’t to say that you will only be booked for work that looks like your look-book, and I can already attest to that. I have shot a lot of big campaigns that looked nothing like my old book. 

Why Don’t Photographers Like It?

Let's get into some assumptions here. I am mostly basing this also on how I felt when I shot them as well as some closer friends opinions who didn't like it. Knowing them well allows me to make a few educated guesses upon why they are not fond of these images. It was easier than other work technically. A light, a camera, and a lens. The same settings, nothing changes apart from the subject. Anyone could do it surely? Well maybe they can, that shouldn't be a defining factor of your technical choices. There are a few little things that are technically required, an understating of the inverse square law, hyper-focal, and a good understanding of raw files, but where the photography skill comes in is actually away from the equipment. It is knowing what will photograph well and how to portray it. And this feels like cheating in photography, even though I find this aspect harder than the technical side. I spent over a decade reading up on how to physically take a photograph. However, I now find my evenings are spent with a note pad trying to come up with new ideas that will photograph well. 

If we look at other photographers work, say Platon, his work is simple. It’s the same camera, lens, and shoot through umbrella for every shot. Yeah, I could technically recreate it in a few minutes, but my images would be no where near his, simply because it isn’t my voice nor my perspective on the world. Now I am not for a second comparing my work to a legendary photographer, but I feel the same applies here. We can all recreate my new work, but it wouldn’t be in your voice. My older work was far harder to reproduce, but it wasn’t my voice. If you recreated my shots with your own voice, you would end up with a very different set of images to me. And this is the beauty of photography. 

Why Does Any of this Matter?

The point I am trying to make here is that we should all stop trying to please photographers. They rarely buy photographs. I think it’s also worth noting that as photographers we often try and flex our technical abilities, and in my case, it was at the cost of my work. Since pulling back and going minimal, my work has been so much better received by the community that pays my bills. People are retuning my calls who I would never have dreamed of being able to get in touch with and my phone is ringing more than ever with inquires for shoots once the lock down is over. 

I found the biggest difficulty was my ego and the fear of being mocked for doing something so technically repeatable by anyone, but photography is not a technique sport, it is a creative pursuit and I think after over a decade, I have finally grasped that. 

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61 Comments

Jeremy Lusk's picture

Excellent point. Anyone can fire a shutter. The art comes from know what to put in front of the lens.

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks Jeremy. I was worried about publishing this article as it isn't my usual fayre

David Blacker's picture

Interesting perspective. Are you taking this approach just for your portfolio work? I ask because if you’re saying what makes your work stand out to clients is knowing what will photograph well, what happens when you’re shooting for a client who will likely stipulate what he wants you to shoot?

David Blacker's picture

Interesting perspective. Are you taking this approach just for your portfolio work? I ask because if, as you say, your strength is knowing WHAT to shoot rather than HOW to shoot it, what happens when you’re shooting for a client who will likely tell you what he wants you to shoot? Sorry for the double comment. I don't seem able to delete my comments.

Graham Glover's picture

One of Picasso's early works was a painting called, "First Communion". It looks almost photographic. Had he continued painting that way, no one would ever have heard of him. He learned the craft and art of painting, and then he created. You may not like his painting, "Ma Jolie", but it was *his*. You can follow your own path, or you can listen to others.

Big Name's picture

That story is cute but has nothing to do with the history of art. Painters broke away from realism because of photography. For a long time photography was seen as beneath painting, and it probably still is. But most paintings are lame and boring and photos and video can communicate the same things much more effectively. Which is why you won’t find many great paintings outside of a museum, but you will find trillions of photographs.

Randy Nicholson's picture

Stop trying to please photographers - 100%! Self-edited the remainder of this comment to not cause a fuss. I personally like your new work a lot due to the graphically appealing nature of it.

Jim Bochicchio's picture

I couldn't agree with you more. When I first started studio shooting, I was singularly focused on my lighting techniques. Made so many complicated setups that I would say to myself, "look at that beautiful light". It took a few years to realize... actually remember... "it's composition and color, stupid!" I started enjoying my work at a whole new level.

David Pavlich's picture

Not to worry. The worst thing we can do is try to produce work for other photographers. :-) Each of us likes what we like, for better or worse. You're correct about 'thick skin'. This isn't a place to show your work if you're offended easily.

I sell prints and I can count on two hands how many I've sold to a seasoned photographer. I've been doing it long enough to know what my customers prefer and when I'm shooting with print sales in mind, the furthest thing from my mind is what a seasoned photographer thinks. Now, I will take criticism/advice and weigh it. Once in a while, I get a comment that actually makes the shot better. But since a substantial amount of my sales are tone mapped, mechanical stuff, I rarely get an 'attaboy' from photographers, especially the purists among us.

If what your doing is fulfilling your needs, be the needs personal or commercial, you're doing something right and that's what matters!

Perry Harrington's picture

The reason buyers like your new work is that it's versatile. You can take those images and use them in a dozen different ways, can you say that about your old portfolio work? A picture of a burger on a plate, well lit, can really only be used in a single context: "Buy this burger now".

I consider myself an amateur photographer and I don't dislike your work, it's different and gives me a reason to pause and reflect. I took a photography class in high school, shot B&W on a Pentax, developed film, and did my own prints. I remember the basic composition rules they taught us, but I break those all the time. I do what makes me feel what I want to feel, I look at some of my photos I choose to share and feel uninspired by some and inspired by others. I often think that 50% of a photographer's good photos are happy mistakes -- flukes. The other half are carefully crafted with painstaking effort, but their best photo is probably a combination of skill and luck.

My philosophy, learned upon hard experience and repeated ad nauseum, is; Beauty is in the eye of the checkbook holder.

Colin Robertson's picture

Great article Scott!

Deleted Account's picture

"The point I am trying to make here is that we should all stop trying to please photographers. They rarely buy photographs."

^ this

Tom Reichner's picture

Hmmmmm. But what if we are not trying to sell our photos, or derive any income from them? What if our goal is to be respected by other photographers in our specific genre?

If the very reason I head out with my camera and create images is to become more respected by other wildlife photographers, then why would I not want to create images that please those people who shoot the same things I do?

Before we say what other people should and shouldn't do, we must first know what their goals and objectives are.

Deleted Account's picture

Then you are deriving your sense of self-worth from extrinsic sources and at minimum need to evaluate why you have such poor intrinsic self-worth and whether you should be seeking professional help to address the issue.

Tom Reichner's picture

Wanting to be accepted by others is not a sign of poor self-worth. That idea is a bunch of crap spewed out by psycho-analysts and the like, all of whom will make up a bunch of crap to further their causes.

Another thing .... when someone is negative and puts other people down, it is NOT a sign that they think poorly of themselves and are insecure ..... that also is a bunch of never-confirmed-thru-data crap spun by the head shrinks. Stop believing all of the modern-day misconceptions that are out there. They are only made up to further people's careers.

Deleted Account's picture

Now if that isn't the biggest stream of lack of comprehension I've seen this week...

If you were to say something along the line of "the subject is nuanced and complex" you would have a point; fair to say you have never done any tertiary education.

P K's picture

Then the same should apply for photographers motivated by sales or pleasing the client, no? In a perfect world it would be great if photographers only had to please themselves, but that doesn't necessarily equate with commercial success or even making a sustainable living.

Deleted Account's picture

Putting food on the table is entirely a different proposition. So, no.

P K's picture

But it is still an extrinsic measure of worth. The idea of what constitutes success varies from person to person - some only think they have 'made it' when recognised by their peers.

Deleted Account's picture

No, deriving your sense of self-worth from your profession is equivilent; not the fact we have to make money to live. I regret that you can't intuit the difference.

Timothy Turner's picture

I personally like this work very much, it 's easy to take a good photo of an iconic landscape such as the grand canyon, half dome etc. But to take every day items and turn them into art work takes a lot more effort and creativity.

Chad D's picture

I reckon maybe many photographers are below you in their mind and the only way to make themselves feel better is to bash hoping it elevates them ?

lack of confidence in oneselves makes them bash more I feel maybe to say

and some might just not like it ? but that would be a small amount I reckon

Zac Henderson's picture

This is a point not discussed nearly enough. Great article.

Were you showing the new portfolio to other food photographers? If not, why even bother with non-food photographers? It's a pretty narrow niche that most know little about, and care even less about. As for the art buyers, well yeah, it's their job to know all about the kind of art they're buying. For example, I don't particularly like those photos of the slivered almonds and Spaghetti Os. They're just yucky SpaghettiOs and boring almonds. But I'm not hungry right now, and I'm also not trying to sell anyone those products. But will they work for other people who are the target audience for the advertising, and thus be worth it to the client? That's certainly possible. I don't know much about that kind of thing, so I can't say if they're "good" photos or not. I wouldn't presume to, and neither should most people who don't know the genre.

Rick Knight's picture

Scott. Your a very talented photographer. Thanks for sharing.

Daniel Medley's picture

The absolute worst people from which to take ANY kind of advice or critique from outside of very basic technical aspects, is other photographers.

Spend 3 minutes on DPReview's forums to get an understanding of this.

Stuart Carver's picture

Or Fstoppers contest submissions.

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