It doesn't matter how long you have been a photographer, I guarantee that some of your images will suck. Question is, do you really know why they do?
Each and every one of us has made their fair share of terrible pictures as a photographer. It's actually an essential part of growing and improving as a creative. If you're not finding yourself disappointed or frustrated from time-to-time you're probably not experimenting or challenging yourself enough. While I'm sure you've heard this piece of advice spouted off many times before, I think a lot of the articles and videos which proclaim similar suggestions fall short in explaining the reasons why a photograph might not be working. Sometimes the reasons can be technical or visual, while other times the problem is less to do with the image itself and more about the mindset of the photographer.
1) The Image Can Be Read Too Quickly
Less can most definitely be more when it comes to great photography, but if there is not a lot going on in your picture then it's more than understandable why the viewer can't get excited by it. Good images hook people in and stop them in their tracks. If your picture can be read in a second then it's no surprise that people are quickly scrolling past it on social media or not giving it the time of day when it's printed and displayed somewhere. Try to create photographs which tell a story but leave enough space for the viewer's imagination to run wild. Spelling every single detail out in your work leaves the viewer with no reason to hang around. It's when they can connect the dots by themselves that they'll feel the most engaged.
An Example of Getting It Right:
I think this image by StockSnap is a great example of how to keep the viewer engaged. The imagination can really run wild with a piece like this as not everything is spelled out for you. The longer you look the more you see. Did you spot the two people in the far distance or see the trash left on the floor?
2) There Is Too Much Going on in Your Picture
There is only so much information that we can take in and process at any one time. Generally speaking, our brains much prefer the path of least resistance. If your image is crammed full of many different elements then you run the risk of overloading the viewer. The brain will always try to avoid over-stimulation and so seeing a busy photograph may very well result in a negative response. Ideally, you want to get a balance between not having enough information in the scene and having far too much. Ask yourself if all the elements you are seeing in the frame are essential to the success of the picture. Sometimes knocking backgrounds out of focus or cropping in tighter can be enough to turn the volume down on a noisy image and dramatically change the response people have when they look at it.
An Example of Getting It Right:
I really love this image by Engin_Akyurt and although the scene is busy there is enough space for us to move around the image without our brains becoming overloaded. In this instance, the smoke billowing out obscures what would have been a busy background. If the background is only adding to the distraction of the picture then use a shallow depth of field so your subjects in the foreground become the main focus.
3) The Backstory Is the Best Thing About it
If the best thing about an image is the story behind it then the image in itself is in trouble. While hearing about the tales of how a photograph came to be created can really enhance the picture in question, this component should never be used as a crutch to carry an average picture. You have to remember that not everyone will read your captions or care about the backstories attached to them. A lot of viewers will judge the work purely on what they can see. This point is especially important when it comes to selecting your best images for your portfolio or website. Potential clients or customers will form an opinion on you based on the quality of the images alone and not the stories behind them. I know it's hard to detach yourself from all the effort and emotions behind a picture but you need to try to not let the details cloud your judgment. Ask yourself if the picture is good or bad in itself. If you struggle to untangle your feelings for a picture then get some second opinions from people who don't know the backstory. Our very own Community Discussion Groups could be a great place to receive valuable feedback from fellow photographers.
4) We Stop Seeing What Is in Front of Us
Carrying on from the previous point about emotions clouding our judgment, there are times when we get too close to the work that we can't actually see it. It really is all too easy to become fixated on certain parts of an image that we easily miss other vital elements that let the overall picture down. We've all seen the many high profile "Photoshop Fails" stories that happen from time-to-time. Do you really think they gave someone an extra hand on purpose? No, they just couldn't see the image in front of them. It's for this reason, that after editing your work you should always take some time away from it before you decide to upload it or send it off to the printers. I have lost count of the number of times I have missed things because I had got too close to the work. Thankfully, I always take a few days or even weeks off from an image so I can see things with fresh eyes before officially signing it off.
5) The Image or Idea Is Already Far Too Played Out
We are bombarded with thousands of images each and every day. This does make it much harder for us to stand out as photographers but it's not impossible. The real problem photographers face is that if the images they produce already feel far too familiar to the viewer they are much less likely to engage or feel any kind of attachment towards them. For this reason, I personally avoid any kinds of photography fads like the plague. Smoke bombs, fashionable color palettes, or using colored gels on my lights are just a few examples of things which look great visually but are so well played out that the chances of creating something meaningful or unique are rather slim. This onslaught of homogenized images can actually be used to our advantage by actively steering towards ideas and concepts that don't involve what the masses are doing. If your portfolio contains work which many other photographers also have is it really a surprise that you are not making sales, getting the followers on social media, or being hired?
So there you have it, just a few reasons why your pictures may suck. While this list doesn't center too heavily on the technical aspects of photography, it goes without saying that getting the fundamentals right obviously plays an important role in the success of an image. On this occasion, however, I wanted to focus more on some of the less obvious reasons why a picture may not be working. It's somewhat of a cliche but being able to actually see what is in front of you really is the most significant lesson a photographer can learn. It's only when all these many conscious and unconscious elements that go into making a great image pull in the same direction that great things start to happen.
Do you agree with the points made in this article? Do you have any suggestions for making more engaging work? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.