Surprising Ways That Bad Images Improve Your Photography

Surprising Ways That Bad Images Improve Your Photography

We all want to take better photos. There are countless ways of learning how to do that. Attending courses and workshops, watching YouTube videos, and reading books and articles such as this are traditional approaches. But there is one unexpected way too: embracing bad photography.

I love bad photography. It’s not because it gives me any sense of satisfaction or feeling of superiority, although we all have come across people who think that way. No, I think bad photos are brilliant, not least because I believe I am perfectly capable of taking them.

Why? Firstly, there is the obvious answer: we can learn from bad photos. Why do we think they are bad? What would we have done differently? We can then go out and avoid making those mistakes again.

Secondly, bad photos allow us to challenge our beliefs about what a good photo should be. It’s easy for us to dismiss pictures because they don’t comply with what are arbitrary standards that we accept as good. Just because some famous photographer or art movement has declared that things should be done in a certain way doesn’t mean it is universally applicable. Similarly, just because you do something one particular way doesn't mean everyone else should do so too.

Pushing the boundaries helps us to discover something new and interesting.

I didn't check the camera settings first.

Passing Fads Make Bad Photographs

The way we have done things in the past often doesn’t apply to the way we do things today. New art movements have always been met with resistance before they are accepted. Then, after a period of popularity, they become passé. The same applies to photography. There are fads in our art that are forever going out of fashion.

For example, it wasn’t that long ago when photographers were raving about hyper-real HDR images. Selective color was once considered cool as well, as too were signatures on photos. All of those were my pet hates from the start and I am glad to see them disappearing. (If you think that distracting squiggle protects your photo from theft, check out the performance of generative fill that’s coming to Photoshop.) Similarly, something I was once guilty of, the too-heavy use of mid-tone contrast, is now met with disdain.

Consequently, when we look at pictures from 10 or 15 years ago, we often see those images as gaudy and tasteless. Thankfully, those techniques have pretty much gone out of the window and more subtle approaches to developing photos have come to the fore.

There's More Than One Type of Bad Photo

I think there are different types of bad photos. Firstly, there are those shot by beginners that really are not bad at all. They may be underexposed, have wonky horizons, consist of a jumble of distractions, have lines that lead our eyes in randomly around the picture, show a lamppost growing from the top of someone’s head, and are oversaturated, but it is important that we take them.

A multitude of errors. I shot this purely to see what the sign said, but then thought it was perfect to illustrate the point in that last paragraph.

Those are a few of the types of mistakes that everyone has made along the way. But when someone wobbles when they take their first steps, we don't think of their attempt as being bad. Similarly, our first photos are just the starting point on our never-ending journey of learning photography. That's fantastic, isn't it?

The difficulty though is that novices don't necessarily recognize their mistakes. They don’t see that their pictures have errors unless they are pointed out. Sadly, the majority of non-photographers will praise their images because they don't recognize the mistakes either.

It’s not just beginners. I’ve seen a professional bridal portrait with a road cone lying on its side in the shot, and another where a stray hair was running across the bride’s face. I wonder whether those photographers were encouraged to turn professional by well-meaning family and friends.

Equally, many of those who do offer criticism don't do it with compassion. I know young people who have been put off photography by unnecessarily harsh judging. More about that later.

Learning From Bad Photos

Here are two bad photos.

For me, the second one worked better because the person was not in the background, although I preferred the gull looking to the side. Also, the blue door in the background is a distraction, and I probably should have taken a couple of steps to the right. Usually, If I didn't want them for this article, I would have consigned those to the bin as rubbish.

A rubbish shot? Unlike the previous scene, this shot was improved by the person walking past.

Is It Bad Photography When the Subjects Are Materially Poorer Than Us?

Some subjects we deem to be immoral. For example, it is generally considered poor judgment to photograph the homeless, as it is seen as photographers taking advantage of their situation to promote themselves. There are counterarguments to this, as such photos can help fight social injustice and inequality. Not only that, many of the photographers I know who do capture images of people who are down on their luck also work to help their subjects.

I would have consigned this image to the bin because of the van and the people in the background.

Recently, an article here by Kim Simpson promoted an exhibition by Martin Parr. His work has been criticized for sneering at and looking down on working-class people. Yet, if you listen to him talk about his work, or speak with those he has worked with, this could not be further from the truth; he shows compassion towards his subjects. Those criticisms are more likely driven by envy. However, I think there may be another reason behind why he and others shoot situations that are outside their usual experiences.

I speak to lots of photographers, and many of them say that they find it easier to photograph people and places they are unfamiliar with than in their own backyard. That is because it is harder to see the appeal of what is mundane to them. Some go on a vacation and happily capture photos of people in the streets of their exotic destination, but they don’t find their own neighborhood as appealing.

Yet, a visitor to where they live would be captivated by it. Photographing things, people, and places that have novelty make it easier for us to find an interesting shot. Furthermore, some photographers have told me that they find shooting in their hometown intimidating.

The Dead Denter of Edinburgh. Away from my usual environment, I found it easier to photograph than where I live.

I guess there is truth in this as yesterday, I was photographing a member of the Royal Family. I found that much easier than I would have done with one of my peers because the situation was unfamiliar to me.

When we shoot the ordinary stuff we see daily, our reaction to the photo is less likely to be excitement because of its familiarity. In our mind, it may well be a bad photo, but your viewers won’t necessarily see it in the same light. Additionally, by honing our photography on mundane subjects, we build up a portfolio of technical, compositional, and storytelling skills that we can later apply to extraordinary subjects. If we can shoot everyday stuff well, then we can quickly apply the same techniques to things that take us by surprise.

Heroes. Images of tourist attractions like the Scott Monument in Edinburgh can be considered bad because they are 10 a penny. So, finding a different way of composing by including unusual elements can improve it: the man with the prosthetic leg and colorful shirt transforms the image.

Another Type of Bad Photograph Comes From an Unexpected Source

My old junior school headmaster had a saying he used to frequently use at morning assembly,

Empty vessels make most noise.

Mr Drake. Circa 1976

There are photos that are shot by more experienced photographers that, nevertheless, have no meaningful narrative and lack style.

Strangely, these are often shot by a particular type of unsuccessful photographer who believes they are the king of their genre. They vociferously shout about how fabulous their work is while taking the opportunity of putting others down. They are usually easy to spot on the internet by their scathing comments and their uninvited criticisms. Similarly, as I mentioned earlier, they can be judges at photography competitions. If you want to find bad photos to learn from, look at theirs.

Conversely, you will also find almost every photographer who has succeeded in the art has done so because they have a positive attitude toward others. They are supportive and encouraging and gently help others to achieve better. They are often over-critical of their work and deserve praise too. If you consider your photos to be bad, surround yourself with people like that. At the same time, give someone else a helping hand to improve and you will become better too.

Ivor Rackham's picture

A professional photographer, website developer, and writer, Ivor lives in the North East of England. His main work is training others in photography. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental well-being. In 2023 he accepted becoming a brand ambassador for the OM System.

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Putting a watermark has nothing to do with whether it is easy to crop out or remove. If someone removes it then it shows intent to steal which matters in a copyright suit.

I get your point, but if someone wants to steal your photo, they will. That is whether it has a watermark to remove or not. It's no less of a theft if there was no watermark to start with.

I didn't say otherwise and I am still not convinced you actually do get the point. My point is loosly akin to the difference between manslaughter and premeditated murder. A lot of people right click save photos and may not understand they are stealing. When they repost it then everybody sees who did the original. Every person who removes a watermark knows that they are stealing and when they repost they are trying to take credit for it.

Oh, I see. Luckily, for those of us who seek damages from those who steal our photos (or articles), whether they realize it is stealing or not, it makes little difference. Ignorance is no excuse under the law.

This is a thought provoking article, Ivor.

I have trouble thinking of a photo as being either "bad" or "good". There are so many aspects to each image, and just about any photo will have things that are good about it and things that are bad about it.

I just discovered a new-to-me photographer who photographs wildlife local to where I have been for the past few months. I met him in the field, we exchanged Instagram info, and now we follow each other.

I just spend a while looking thru his wildlife photo posts on Instagram. Almost all of the photos are technically poor. They look like they were taken with a bridge camera and then very deeply cropped. The fine detail is either noisy or nonexistent. But the poses that the animals are in are fantastic! He obviously has an eye for what moment, what position, will make for the most compelling image. So, while his photos are "bad" from a technical standpoint, they are pretty fantastic from an artistic / excitement standpoint.

Conversely, I see many photographers whose images are clean and crisp and tack sharp with wonderful rendition of the very finest details. Yet they are rather static, uninspiring images.

Personally, I often miss the most dramatic moment because I am fussing with focus or settings, so worried about the technical aspects of the image. And then when I do capture the animal at just the right moment and it looks very dramaitc and inspiring, the focus will be a wee bit off or the background will have something distracting in it or I will have somewhat over or under exposed the frame, or cut off a part of the subject because I didn't have time to frame it just right.

And so "good" and "bad" photos are really one in the same, most of the time, for most of us.

That's a good reply! Thanks, Tom. It is all down to the individual to decide whether their photo is good or bad, and what steps they must take to improve.

Bad shots can improve your photos if you have a thick skin and can withstand honest critiques. The 'photographers' that critique a photo by saying, "it's lousy" or "must have been a five year old that took this shot' are to be dismissed. Don't give a second thought to this person.

However, if you receive a critique that demonstrates why the person thinks it's a so so shot, consider it seriously. Yes, this is subjective, but if you get more than one critique and a pattern pops up, then the next time you shoot, consider what has to be done to correct that.

Early in my decision to take this stuff seriously, and Tom will appreciate this knowing Tom's love of deer, I took a shot of a gorgeous whitetail buck and presented at our club's image review night. The pro shooter that was doing the critique showed me how a simple crop would improve the shot. It turned out to be my second best selling print AFTER I took the guy's advice.

From then on, I always listen to serious criticism. It does work.

That's a fair point. And it helps if the critic knows what they are doing. I have seen some pretty shoddy critiques from self-appointed judges who are not up to the same level as the pro who helped you. Thanks for the comment.

For sure. Judging any sort of art has a large part of it based in the subjective and, we all have our prejudices. I've been fortunate to judge several photo contests as part of three judge panels. One thing I noticed is that for the most part, the judges I was seated with were fairly consistent on scoring. Yes, there were a few outliers, but the consistency in scoring was quite evident.

Even a good critique can show biases in the way that a reviewer judges what he/she sees. It seems that if you've done this long enough, you can see a photo and according to what you like, it'll either grab you or make you say 'meh'. When I see a photo that makes me say,"I wish I took that shot", it's going to get a high score.

Anyway, a good critique is a good learning tool.

Good or bad isn’t easy to define. I think that if a photo evokes emotion, it must be a good image even if it isn’t technically 100%.
And about people putting down other photographers with their comments ,I think about Sean Tucker’s question “ have you ever met a talented troll?”

That's very true! Thank you, Ruud.