Not Everyone Looks at Photos Like a Photographer

Not Everyone Looks at Photos Like a Photographer

When you look at a photo, what are you looking at? Composition? Lighting? Color grading? With your knowledge and expertise, you look at certain things with more intent than others, but are you seeing the whole picture?

When you look at a photo, are you able to look at it from the perspective of other viewers? Unlocking the ability to see from other perspectives is a great way to grow your skills and become more knowledgeable in certain genres. Models and makeup artists don’t talk like photographers. A creative director's needs don't always line up with what would make the best photograph. Being able to talk in their languages and understand their needs not only clears up confusions, it creates trust, because it shows you understand what they’re doing and shows you're on the same page.

In this article, I want to go through the ways different members of a team might look at the same photo. For the sake of the article, let's say this was for a beauty counter promotion for a hair brand. This will be important later on.

The Photographer

The photographer cares about everything from a macro perspective. They need to make sure the lighting works and and the posing is natural and flattering. Also, they're looking for any distractions that need to be removed or changed. Here is what I see from a photographer's perspective on the photo.

1. Does her shoulder look natural for the pose?

2. Are the eyes open enough for the smile, and are they an even size?

3. Are the highlights exposed correctly?

4. Are her lips natural in the photo? Can we get the teeth to show a little in the light?

5. Is the lighting picking up the hair shine enough? Should we add an extra hair light?

Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist

The makeup artist is looking at how the makeup looks under the lighting conditions. Is the highlight too bright? Are the lips even? They don’t notice the lighting or the intricacies to the pose, like if the hands look bigger than the head or if one eye is slightly closed more than the other eye. They see how the eyeshadow pops, and they’re looking to see if the wing is crooked. Here's what they see from the photo.

1. Is the eyeshadow showing up well under the light? Is the light picking up the highlight/color?

2. Is the contour too heavy?

3. Are the lips even on each side?

4. This is for the hair. Is it coming too far over the neck? Does it need to be moved?

5. Is the wind separating the hair too much? Does the wind need to be changed/moved?

You'll see from this the hairstylist is mostly paying attention to how the hair looks under the lighting like a makeup artist, but also paying keen attention to any time the hair gets out of place. They're looking at the volume, shine, and styling of the hair.


As for models, they’re seeing how they look under the lighting with the makeup. They might notice minor things with the makeup and hair, but they are mostly paying attention to the pose and how they look in the lighting. For this photo, there are a few things to point out from their perspective.

1. Are the eyes giving off the right intensity?

2. Do the lips looks good, are they open enough?

3. Does this pose look good?

Their job really works in tandem with the photographer and/or creative director. Letting them know the context and directions helps them understand how they should be posing for the photos.


As the retoucher for most of my photos, I’m also looking at the minor details like how much of the texture is showing. How much work am I going to need to do on all the little editing details that are not necessary for makeup and the model? I want to make sure the highlight is manageable, the uneven skin texture has been taken care of fully, and things like neck lines and stray hairs are gone. With this photo, I'm looking specifically at just a couple things.

1. Is the texture, specifically in the midtones even? In the highlights and shadows, it's also very important, but not as noticeable as the areas where skin tone and texture show the most.

2. Minor details are taken care of like neck lines, nose hairs, stray hairs, eyeshadow powder on the cheek — all the small details you might not notice until you look up close.

A tighter crop so you can see more of the smaller details in the photo.

Creative Director

The creative director is looking at everything like a photographer, but in a contextual sense. As the photographer, you are usually the creative director until you work with brands and agencies. Then, your job is more utilitarian. The creative director works with everyone to make sure the context of the shoot works from every end. Does the makeup make sense for the product? Does the lighting flatter the product and make sense in context? Are the model's pose and facial expression matching the brand identity? These are all necessary to help sell the product. You want everything to match contextually; this is their job on set. For the photo, here are a couple points of interest.

1. Is the hair showing the proper shine for the product?

2. Is her facial expression showing what we are going for? Should she be smiling?

Something else that is important for the creative director in pre-production that affects the shoot is: where is this going? An ad for a beauty counter (this context) won't work as well as a social post, because the audience is different there and is looking for different things. A part of their job is to devise creative ideas that will be successful in different environments. This is good to know for when you're talking with creative directors. Being able to understand the contextual difference from a marketing perspective shows them you understand why all the little choices are made.

Normal Viewer and End Consumer

This is where it gets tough, because the end consumer differs wildly. The one thing that connects everyone, however, is the phrase: is this interesting? Or how a lot of normal viewers will put it: does this have the wow factor? Does the photo have interest to it that attracts the regular population?

For products in a store, this photo might be great. Perfect for a conditioner ad at the beauty counter. It isolates the subject and gives you the idea that the product adds shine to the hair. But on social, this post would be easily forgotten. There's no color, no context to the photo. It looks like every advertisement they're served on a regular basis. 

A great example of what normal people like and how they think comes from an Fstoppers video, when Lee has his mother on their Critique the Community series. Seeing her opinion on the photos as a normal viewer is important for everyone to understand. The end consumer does not think like you or me. And these are the people that most of us are trying to cater to. So, it's important to take their opinions into consideration when it comes to photos that are meant for their viewing.

Here are some timestamps I found interesting:

  • 6:05: She likes some aspects to this, but doesn’t note specific things like the hands on the model or the pose. She just thinks the model has an attractive face and the owl is beautiful, but it just doesn’t work. All true, but she doesn’t note any of the other aspects on why it’s not great. Like the unattractive hands, the color grading, or the model’s expression.

  • 19:35: She values the interest in this photo way higher than anything else. The attractiveness of the animals, the tones, the boring lighting: none of it matters to her.

  • 23:36: This is, to me, a world-class street photo. She doesn’t see the value in it at all. The artistic value that Lee saw, she didn't. She's just not aware of the artistic details and why they're important to others.

Unlike the other groups, understanding the perspective of the normal viewer is important for pre-production and the end result. You can have a great team, make a great series of images, but if they don't connect with the audience, then it wasn't successful in the long run. Understanding who you are creating for is just as important as understanding who you are creating with.

So Dave, Why Is This Important?

I figured you might ask this. When you're working with a team, you really need to make sure everyone is on the same page. Once I started working with larger groups, I made it a point to learn how to talk to everyone from their needs. So that means knowing makeup terms like ombré and the difference between a glossy look and a matte look. From a retouching perspective, knowing what's best for the image will make my life or my retoucher's life easier down the road.

And that's what this is all about, understanding everyone's needs and helping them get their job done. The best photographers, makeup artists, and models all know more than just how to do their job. A great model will be able to understand the context of the final product and pose to match the concept. A great makeup artist will understand light sources and know how those affect the makeup before even starting application. The people knowledgeable in more than just their positions make the best team members. If you plan to be part of larger teams, you should strive to be one of these team members.

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LA M's picture

So true.... I think we spend too much time worrying about the details when we should consider the audience and their perceptions

Ariel C's picture

I agree 90%, but the other 10% says to me,- maybe if i don´t worry THAT much about the details my photos won´t have the differential between me and the competition. It´s for sure a hard balance.

David Justice's picture

I’ve gone back and forth on it. Obviously nothing is absolute, but I do believe style is more important than technical abilities. So things like retouching and lighting matter, but what matters the most is the connection it creates with the viewer. One of my favorite photographers is Saara Taussi ( Her retouching is really plastic, not really technically good. But the work is so distinct.

LA M's picture

I like her work too for the aesthetic ... sadly this is how a lot of (instagram) women want themselves pores, no wrinkles, no scarring....

Robert Altman's picture

If you ever shoot dancers- be prepared. Especially classical ballet! ALL they look at is subtleties of toe/foot arch/turnout. Otherwise spectacular images can get the thumbs down for minor positional 'problems' that the rest of us (even a dance photographer!) can barely notice. BUT- good foot/leg/arm positions in a photo with terrible exposure and missed focus can be their favorites (don't ever let them see those!!)

Marco Ribbe's picture

in fact i had the very same problem with a ballet dancer last week, doing a stock photography shot for my blog, she rejected all the images i loved and loved all the ones I thought were mediocre... because of some subtleties i didn't even notice, no matter how much i looked. had to learn a lot about ballet that day, especially with all the movements how is anyone supposed to pay attention to those details ;) great respect!

Robert Altman's picture

Ballet dancers are the MOST self-critical artists. (Modern style dancers are usually a bit more chill) Their positions/feet are completely defined by a standard with essentially NO allowance allowed for 'artistic freedom'. Since I shoot mostly location work it is very hard to get everything perfect - and I try to emphasize to them that the perfect images from the studio are not going to happen in the midst of NYC! For example-I had to lobby for this image (which I thought was very nice) - the dancer didn't like her back foot arch . I told her that with this sort of wide shot her back foot would be 5 pixels in size on the iPhone screen where most people would see it anyway! She 'gave in'...

Julian Ray's picture

Great article David. Thanks!

David Justice's picture

Thanks for reading!

A P's picture

Loved this piece. Good stuff and perspectives. Thanks for writing it

Dana Goldstein's picture

Great article, David. Here's the thing: Anyone who's been to a portfolio review knows the level of detail with which the reviewers are looking at your work. They will point out things that a photographer might say, oh I shouldn't worry about such and such so much, the viewer will never know the difference. BUT the people who can hire you DO know the difference, and it could easily mean being passed over vs. getting the assignment. Professional work is polished. There's a reason retouchers and makeup artists, etc exist, and a reason one gets $1500 day rate and another gets $150: their attention to detail. Those little extra bits of polish really stand out when you compare one image against another.

David Justice's picture

I’m not saying be lazy and ignore things. The opposite if anything. I’m saying the best photographers understand more than the composition, they understand what the makeup artists are looking at and the stylists and they understand the details that go into those sides of the shoot as well.

Kirk Darling's picture

My wife just makes character judgments of the subject. She absolutely cannot see any of the artistic characteristics of the rendering. "Babe, what do you think of this?" "She looks like a slut." "You're not helping."

Pete Tapang's picture

sadly this is how a lot of end viewers see things

Motti Bembaron's picture

Very true. Just the other day I showed my wife children photos that were very badly taken and corrected (bad lighting). I then corrected them and showed her how different they were. Her reaction was "I like both". I told her that I would never give or show a parent the photo as it was originay but she said she would not care.

Most don't look at photos the way photographers do.

Bert Nase's picture

When I see these ugly botox faces...

David Pavlich's picture

So true! I sell my prints and among the best sellers are two tone mapped pictures of diesel engines in varying states of disrepair. Posted on different photography sites, they get a lot of negative remarks which I understand. But my target audience isn't pixel peepers or purists; it's people that like a photo for other reasons than composition and/or processing results.

The funny thing, in my very first exhibit, one of those engine shots received the third place ribbon. :-) But I realize that another judge may have given it a thumbs down. You have to consider your target audience. A pleasing shot doesn't have to follow all of the rules we use.

Edwin Cobbinah's picture

I had my fiancee go over a bad photo shot by another photographer jugdged to be one of the best around (by "a pro"), she saw nothing wrong with it till I pointed out the bad skin retouch (extremely smooth skin, uneven sharp skin contrast retouch, highly reflective skin due to high flash settings usage, etc.......
My point is, though most clients dont realize the flaws in images some do (a client once requested I whiten thier teeth a little), so one should do the best to present thier best at all times if possible.
After all if that is not the case no one will have photographers cover thier programmes, projects, etc but would just pull out thier phones to finish the job.

David Justice's picture

Of course. The point of this article wasn’t “be lazy, no one will notice”. It was the opposite. It’s that you might not recognize all the details that go into your photo. There are other things that might not be as important to you, but a makeup artist and a stylist would notice right away.

As for adding the normal viewers. This was about concepts and final products. Your artistic vision might fall flat to the end consumer and you need to think about their perspective as well in the pre-production.

I like to shoot commercial beauty. If I showed the end consumer an avant-garde beauty photo they might cringe at first sight compared to the bright smiling work I normally shoot.

Scott Choucino's picture

Brilliant article. Certainly something worth remembering when shooting.

Indy Thomas's picture

People deeply involved in their craft or industry obsess about details that may or may not be important in the end. However it is what we think about all day and it is what makes us inch ever closer to effective imagery.

As for the artistic impact of an image we also have to remember that artists deeply involved in their work have been thinking and doing things for such a long time they have long since left what was commonplace and familiar. That is how new ideas get made. The entire modernist movement in art came about because artists were wrestling with the idea of perception, representation and what the meaning of images were. Thus we get explorations such as impressionism, cubism and surrealism.

To the layperson, Magritte's painting actually is a pipe.

Edwin Cobbinah's picture

Couldn't agree more, great post, bookmarking it.

Daniel Medley's picture

Excellent piece. One thing I'll point out is that often times the attention to detail and finer points can make a difference even to the casual non photographer viewer. I've seen where they will look at some shots and show a preference for some over the other and, though they may not even know the why or what, it turns out that the shots they prefer are the ones with careful attention to detail.

That being said, to get feedback from only other photographers is not a good idea in my opinion. Photographers can notice a clipped foot, cropping at a joint, "busy" background, etc., and be bothered. Whereas a non photographer couldn't care less if the aesthetic fits their tastes.

David Justice's picture

Of course, I'd never say be lazy and ignore details. Thinking about the end consumer is important for pre-production. A high-concept art piece probably won't work well when the end consumer is Target shoppers. You need to think about who this is for. It doesn't have to be people at Target, that's just from my point of view.

David Hynes's picture

I agree to an extent - If you have a client and need to produce a certain look, feel or mood then 100% yes. But if it's a creative shoot and you are doing this to push your own work and style then I wouldn't worry about how everyone thinks of your own personal stuff. Which is the same as trying not to be a slave to the social media "Likes" machine. Keeping in mind that you are spot on with your technical lighting & color work, directing, post-work, etc.

It goes with everything - It's weird until it's not; it's not popular until everyone is doing it.

I hope this made sense to someone haha :P

Val Bond's picture

Everything is so subjective. They talk a lot about artistic style but there is nothing artistically valuable in what they comment on. Bird, fish, bird's head... artistic?... Everyone is focused on propagating some cliches they are specifically good on shooting. Like Mike Kelly with his straight lines and perfect pillows...

Kate Yelkovan's picture

Interesting to think about

Peter Pike's picture

Thank you, very abstruse

Fahnon Bennett's picture

Fantastic article. One of my takeaways was also that different photographers or even different types of photographers will also have different concerns. My concerns before turning in a job would look more like a combination of the photographer and the retoucher. I also don't shoot beauty/fashion, and my instincts being more editorial would want it to not be too glossy or "produced", and the personality of the model in their expression more than pure beauty. An architectural photographer may not have any of the same concerns (and probably wouldn't be the right choice to shoot your new ad campaign).

This line of thinking also translates to film and video. I work as a director and a cinematographer, sometimes both on the same project and sometimes only one or the other on larger projects, and while there is overlap, the same differences apply to those different jobs. When I'm purely directing, I care more about connecting with the audience, the performances, keeping the project running well and hopefully under budget (obviously I want great images too).
When I'm the DP I care about those things too, but the cinematography being great and serving the story is my primary goal.

It's really interesting how when you do different jobs how your focus shifts.

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