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It’s Time to Stop Shooting Sausage Machine Photos

You shoot perfect pictures. But are they the photographic equivalent of fast food? Maybe it’s time to consider changing the way you shoot and reject sausage machine images.

Piers thrust themselves into dead-still water, birds perch on rocks, beautiful women show off their perfect bodies, the interiors of decaying buildings crumble, distant snow-topped mountains reflect in lakes, and light shines off polished Porsches. If you look at any photo community website, there are thousands of technically flawless images like these. Each is a well-executed, flawlessly sharp representation of the subject. They are well lit, and their compositions, colors, contrasts, and exposure fit with everything we know about photography. They look great.

But after browsing your way through a few pages in any genre, doesn’t each successive photograph make you gradually lose interest?

However technically perfect they are, they no longer surprise us. I would go as far as to say that most are clichés, unoriginal imitations of similar photos that came before them. Occasionally, one does jump out and grab your attention because it is unique, but most fall into the category of what I call sausage machine photography.

Similarly, we appeal to our audiences by adding continuity between a string of images, as I mentioned in my previous article about photographic essays. This usually means sticking to one type of photography. Most great photographers are known for doing just that, concentrating on one genre, or, at least, one genre at a time.

Sausage Machine Commercial Photography

Of course, there is a commercial need for these kinds of shots: car advertisers want to see those flashy fenders, and bird identification books need shots of separate species of a sparrow sitting on a stick, or indeed, a puffin on a rock. Unhappily, fashion magazines still require perfect images of unhealthily skinny young women with plastic-looking skin.

There is nothing wrong with trying to achieve perfection in our images. It means that with each shot, we have studied our art, learned from our mistakes, and honed our techniques. We have studied other photographers’ works, and then emulated or even improved on them. Indeed, I would encourage everyone to seek the ability to achieve pristine photographs. However, commercial interests aside, we should then strive to be challenging in our photography, attempt to create something different.

Barriers to Being Different

It’s a tall order. Firstly, the photographic establishment expects images to cohere with its norms. Anyone who rejects the recognized standards will get pilloried for doing so. History has shown that this is true of any art form. Nevertheless, photography often seems to be stuck in the mud because a vocal conservative minority will deride anyone who suggests approaching it differently. For example, if one dares to suggest that great photographs can be shot with crop sensor cameras, the full frame fascists leap to attack.

Secondly, with around 1.5 trillion photos taken this year, shooting something unique becomes harder. Admittedly, only around 7% of those will be shot with digital cameras, with most being mobile phone snaps, but that’s still around 105 billion DSLR, mirrorless, and compact camera photos per year. In other words, 3,330 images are snapped every second by photographers like you. With that proliferation, it’s difficult to find a way of showing our viewers something new, because someone else is probably shooting something similar at the same time. 

Nevertheless, there are still good reasons for breaking away from repetitive perfection and achieving compelling images that don’t comply with the accepted norms of the photographic establishment. Not least is the need to thrill our audience with surprises that keep them engaged with our work.

Lessons From the Other Arts

So, how can we surprise our viewers? There are lessons to be learned from other art forms, including cinema, television, books, and paintings.

Great photographers take things further than just shooting a single genre. Like some movie directors and cinematographers stick to using one focal length, some top photographers restrict themselves to just one too. Fixed apertures and shutter values, subject distances, and other compositional variables are kept the same within their collections. In this way, they make their portfolios more coherent and, consequently, more appealing to the viewer, especially if they reject the most widely used settings for that subject.

Then, there’s the image content. That’s where the big surprises sit.

Jump Scares, Big Reveals, and Plot Twists

The hand reaches out from under the bed and grabs the hero’s ankle (The Sixth Sense). The journalist looks at a photo and spots a vital clue that helps solve the mystery (The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo). A murder is revealed when an image from a hidden camera is developed (Enemy of the State). We are left wondering what was real and what was not (Total Recall).

They could easily become something of a cliché in movies, but the jump-scare, the climactic plot twist, and the big reveal still work. M. Night Shyamalan is a master of cinematic surprises, as was Alfred Hitchcock before him. In his written stories that were later televised, Roald Dahl added a twist to the end of his Tales of the Unexpected. They shock us and are often the turning point or climax of the story. Can we incorporate those sorts of surprises into photography?

It isn’t as easy as it is in stories. In books and films, the revelation happens at a point along a timeline and, individually, our pictures are a fixed point in time.

Nevertheless, we can surprise. For example, hiding a twist somewhere within the photograph, something we don’t immediately spot can make an image more compelling, assuming the viewer takes the time to see it. Alternatively, it can be a surprise image at the end of a sequence of photos that brings the whole series together. Adding a title to a photograph can also make the viewer see the image differently.

Things That Don't Sit Comfortably Together

Another approach is fitting disparate subjects together. Photographing things that are out of place with their environment can work too. Surrealist artists, such as René Magritte and Salvador Dalí, perfected this approach in their art. I am not suggesting you should have melting clocks on the beach or castles floating in the sky, but mundane objects out of place can have an impact and make the viewer think.

Hiding the Main Subject

Then again, the main subject of the image may be less obvious than the secondary subjects. For example, in the above photo, the leading line of the mast’s reflection draws the eye to the nearest boat. One is then taken further into the image to the larger hull, top right. It’s only then that one realizes that the real subject is relatively small and is not the boat at all.

I must reiterate that I am differentiating between creative and observational photographic art and commercial photography here. Commercial markets cry out for sausage machine images. My clients have specific expectations that fit into the norms of commercial photography, and it would be foolish of me not to meet their needs. Photographers making a living from their work know their photos must cohere with the expectations of the broader public; most people buy bland, mass-produced images from Ikea to hang on their walls.

The appeal of extraordinary photography that takes an effort to appreciate isn’t as big. But it has far greater value. There is space for more challenging, less usual photography too.

What Do You Think?

Do you shoot images that break free from the clichés? It would be fantastic to see them in the comments. Or are you solely shooting standard images with mass appeal? If so, do you disagree with my premise that we should shun the expectations of the photographic establishment? It would be great to hear your thoughts on this topic, even if you disagree with me.

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117 Comments

Justin Sharp's picture

Excellent article! I always try to avoid making "perfect" photos. All of my work is done in the dark room and I rarely digitize my prints, but here is a digitized print that I happen to have.

Justin Sharp's picture

This is why I dislike the internet. I wish we could sit and talk and have a meaningful conversation so you could better understand my motivations and I yours. I’ve given no reason why I choose to make photos like I do and therefore no excuse has been given. I have spent over 20 years and devoting exhaustive time and energy into crafting my work into something that is very meaningful to me. I am happy with my decisions as I hope you are happy with yours.

Justin Sharp's picture

The eight years of graduate school, the terminal degree, the post graduate work….and on and on….I am no stranger to technical discipline. I can tell you about the zone system in my sleep. My eye sight is forever damaged by hours with the spotting brush. You have very little insight into my work and obviously you don’t want to and that’s perfectly fine. Cheers.

Justin Sharp's picture

Well, I’m just grateful that you’re not the final authority. I’m grateful of my academic career. I’m grateful for the financial stability and creative freedom to create this and a similar style of photography. I’m grateful of the support of my colleagues in my creative and academic endeavors. Regardless of what photos you make, I can only wish you the same level of personal fulfillment and success.

Gabriele Cocco's picture

Every time I read a thread like this I’m excruciatingly fascinated how we always focus on the outcome and not on the happiness or satisfaction someone can draw from the process.
That especially if photography is not your primary mean of income. Your job.
I’ve been photographing for 10 years and my photos are likely worse than those of many out there who’ve been photographing for less. Still, I love the process, getting out there, discovering places, waiting for the right light, studying a bit of composition, opening photoshop at home and post produce however I want with a glass of wine and some music.
Just look at the happiness in what you do while you do it.

Carl Westergren's picture

Sad to hear these comments from you. I believe your critcism of Sharp's photo is undue. Your pretty cat pic doesn't cut it for me , you're just another bad-blood, bad-he hearted spoiler... Who cares about your picture-purr-fect-picture... it's great technically but nothing more. Stop being obnoxious and mean! Kindly, Carl ( Paris, France)

What the f4's picture

So in your considered opinion, as photographers, with the goal to perfecting our craft we ‘should’ all be striving to produce ‘sausage machine photos’?

Your negative comments only serve to validate the salient points made in what is an excellent article, one which I’m wondering whether you actually read?

Sure, you are entitled to your opinion as is everyone else but all you’ve succeeded in doing is to show yourself to be that vocal conservative minority who will deride anyone who suggests approaching photography differently.

If your idea of perfection is bokeh and the rule of thirds then enjoy your sausage making career.

Criticising others who use their creativity and imagination and strive to produce something different and original is quite sad and pathetic, you must live in a very beige world. You may not personally like Justin’s photo, I’m sure it’s not to everyone’s taste but the way you’ve castigated him with comments like “the goal is to perfect your craft, not seek to make excuses for your own inadequacies” and “you have a seriously skewed sense of what even looks reasonably decent” says more about your own lack of imagination and creativity.

You say, “if I didn't take advice or criticism I wouldn’t be where I am today in my photography”. Well, I think we can all see exactly where you are today in your photography, that is self-evident through your comments. Calling the whole article ridiculous say’s all we really need to know.

“You might have had fun making a terrible picture, more power to you. But don't tell me it's a great picture when it is not. That is being delusional.”

I fear the only person being delusional here, is you. As Justin says in his second post “I’ve given no reason why I choose to make photos like I do and therefore no excuse has been given” yet you’ve chosen to take issue with this. I’d happily go to see an exhibition of Justin’s photos any day over any ‘sausage machine’ photo exhibition because it inspires me and because it is refreshing to see something different, creative and original.

What the f4's picture

Glad to see your self proclaimed acceptance of advice and criticism shining through! It’s a real shame that you appear to lack the ability to hold a sensible, meaningful conversation about a well written, well-reasoned article and instead seem to feel the need to express your quite frankly aggressive, obnoxious, self-opinionated attitude instead by telling everyone including the article’s author that they don’t know what they’re talking about, quite sad and pathetic really, not to mention boring.

What the f4's picture

Yawn... 😴

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks for taking the time to reply, Justin and John, and discussing this. I think that between you you have illustrated the big difference between technical photography and using photography for art. I think there is room for each to sit side-by-side. They are both superb pictures that achieved what they set out to do.

Like a lot of art that pushes the boundaries of convention, like Justin's photo here, there will be those who struggle to accept it, but isn't that part of the purpose of art?

Thanks again for the discussion, it was interesting.

imnot here's picture

I think this quote fits here: "Have no fear of perfection, you will never reach it". – Salvador Dali.

There's beauty in that dark room print, but there's also some to be found in the cat shot. Beyond that, it's up to the viewer, no?

Nothing is really "finished". Even the craft itself is never perfect, we're always growing with it and learning something new and adapting. I think it's self-deceiving to think of your work as "perfect" as much as your technique.

This is what I picked up from Justin's original comment, not that he *wants* the opposite of perfection – but that there's beauty in imperfection and by allowing some "looseness" in the process you often find ways to build.
In this case it was what, to John, is not a "perfect" photo, but to others may be a very aesthetically pleasing print with a nice perceived texture. There's a story and perhaps attached with some words, may mean something to someone.
As Ivor said, there's room for both here. One could say you're not getting much of a story from the cat shot, a bit bland even, but that was a different approach, different intention, right?

Picasso said that it took him years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. I've heard many professionals, famous and not, express the same idea of the ironic difficulty in minimalism and in keeping it real once you pass those thousand hours, so to speak.
This is to say that the perceived "masters" across fields and styles that supposedly attained perfection also often appreciate these elements of "imperfection" and consciously retain or even re-incorporate these elements in their work.

It's in the constant dance that we find new moves. I say we keep playing, everything is meant to evolve and can always be revisited, and we shouldn't trap ourselves in a cage of "perfect".

Justin Sharp's picture

Well said. The problem with my conversation with John was the attempt to judge one approach by the standards of another. This has been as issue for a long time throughout the history of photography. William Mortensen and the pictorialists were at odds with Ansel Adams and Group f.64. (Ansel Adam's horrible animosity towards Mortensen makes John and myself look like best of friends). Man Ray and the surrealists caused many to react negatively. I could go on. "perfection," or whatever that means, for one approach looks very different for another.

Matt Edwards's picture

Very nice article, and this encourages me to branch out. I particularly am feeling this in regards to wildlife photography. Dealing with fleeting subjects that you have no control over, it is hard when the "perfect" shot comes along to break away from that and try something different, as in a moment the subject is gone

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks for the nice comment, Matt. I hope you will share your results, and I look forward to seeing them.

Theuns vanNiekerk's picture

Great article and insight. Thank you for voicing out the 'elephant' in the room.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks for those kind words, Theuns.

Charles Mercier's picture

Yup, just look at the contests here and how they are rated and judged and the photo of the day. There's a polished look to the colors that aren't natural.

g coll's picture

Agree about the competitions on this site and how they are judged. Also just take a look at the Editor's Picks selection, they all fit under this category of perfection. You don't see any rough looking, black n white doco photography there for one example. It's all just over polished, perfect looking pretty photos. It's almost anti-photography.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's an interesting point. I am not of fan of any photographic or art competitions, and I always turn down requests, including paid work, to judge them, though I do get asked regularly. Your point illustrates exactly why. Photographers end up shooting to please the judges, and thus the results become very samey.

I think the same argument you make could be aimed at most photographic competitions worldwide, and maybe that is a result of an expectation that photographs should look a certain way.

Graham Green's picture

Yet, if you judged photography competitions, you could broaden the spectrum, providing a opportunity for less sausage factory submissions to get the recognition they deserve.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's a good point, Graham. Thank you. Yet, I would still struggle with it because it would still be applying my own subjective view on the photo, and I don't want people to start shooting to please me, just themselves.

There's another consideration too. I really like the art of Rene Magritte, I am not so keen on the work of Edgar Degas. If their works were side-by-side in a competition, and I were to choose the Magritte painting as the winner, my decision would be purely subjective. My cousin would choose the Degas. The entire idea of competition in art becomes nonsesnsicle.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you Graham, it's a really good point.

But, then again, my choice would be subjective. I prefer the art of Magritte to Degas, so in a competition I would judge the surrealist's paintings to be better, but I know my cousin would make the opposite choice.

Furthermore, in a photography competition, imagine having to judge photos of David Bailey, Annie Leibovitz, Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange against each other. The idea of making a judgement is ridiculous and, to mind, not least because I respect all their work. For me, it's impossible when chosing between a number of less well-known photographers.

I far prefer to see exhibitions of photos over competitions, and then all the viewers can make their own subjective decision about what image pleases them.

Emmett Gonzales's picture

Good article! During my second trip to a unique European city, I found myself shooting the same tourist shots. I literally couldn't tell the difference in the shots. It was depressing. On that third trip I vowed not to take the same shot. This was in the days of film. I shot nothing but windows and doors. Sometimes you need to break the routine. I'm not saying it was easy. How tempting would it be to shoot a row of gondolas? Again? That everyone is shooting?

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thank you, Emmett. I think we all have a revelation at some point in our photographic career that creativity requires us to break free from the mundane. It's a valuable lesson.

John Mielke's picture

Well written article. In my only college art class the instructor asked me to draw outside the boundaries. I still remember how uncomfortable that was. I recently broke my hip and needed to stay close to home. I attempted ICM photography. Here’s two examples of “drawing outside the lines”. Thanks for the encouragement.

Richard Kralicek's picture

Even that can become quite boring like free lensing, extrem bokeh shots, lensbaby stuff or those swirly bokeh petzval / lomography stuff. Try not to be a one trick pony, and don't care about what others say/do (even my advice is to be trashed).
I enjoyed exploration, and I guess so do most of us.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks, John and Richard.

John, I hope your hip repairs soon, and I like those experiments.
Richard, yes, anything can be over-used and become boring, and, I agree, exploring new ways of being creative is one of the most enjoyable aspects of photography.

Rudiger Wolf's picture

Totally agree! In fact, my own shots bore me. Thank-you for helping me better understand the issue. Time to break the routine and become uncommonly creative! Appreciate the kick in the derrière!!!

Ivor Rackham's picture

Glad you enjoyed the article, Rudiger. I hope I get to see some results of your creativity.

Eric Robinson's picture

It is indeed a problem with an industry of sorts built to service it particularly in wildlife and studio work. All around the country there are various birds of prey centres that have feeding stations for birds like Red Kites. Just stand there sir if you want the perfect shot. Then there are specially constructed hides just above the water level that will repeatedly produce ‘the perfect Osprey shot’ if you stand once more in the designated spot. What is the point? My heart sinks when I see these images being passed off as wildlife! Let’s not talk about the images of Kingfishers taken with the aid of tanks of water stocked with minnows.
I must admit I’ve been tempted to go to locations to shoot Puffins where you can leave your 600mm at home and take your 85/105 portrait lens instead. Shooting fish in a barrel. Then there are the Eagle and Gannet feeding boat trips that chuck fish out the back….etc etc.
In wildlife photography there is also the darker side with photographers breaking the law around protected species and laying baits to attract whatever the subject happens to be. I recently left a talk by a major award winning wildlife photographer due to her brazen use of baits and what I considered to be gross unethical behaviour around endangered protected species…… all for the perfect shot.
Then there are the pouting nude tattooed models presented at a manwithacam studio near you with or without streaming material where all you have to do is again stand in the designated spot, after you have splashed your cash. Lighting composition and most everything else taken care of, all it’s left for the customer to do is press the button, hey presto instant art nude!
Landscape photographers are just as bad going around the country to ‘those spots’. If I see one more image of that lone Lake District tree or the Glencoe mountain that will remain nameless, I may we’ll scream.
I see nothing wrong with attempts to shoot the perfect photo as long as it’s your perfect photo that you have spent time thinking about and conceiving. There is a lot to be said for shooting out of the box, but the problem with that is it’s difficult, far easier to pay your cash and stand on the right spot.

Ivor Rackham's picture

You've hit the nail on the head, Eric. Thanks for the great comment.

Mark Rowe's picture

Hi Eric,
I hope you don't mind me replying to this and asking you whether you are able to give me some pointers on who it is that uses baiting (in terms of well known wildlife photographers)?
The reason I ask is that I'm a very keen wildlife photographer and completely agree that baiting and breaking the law around protected species etc is just plain wrong 'just to get the shot'. I would personally like to know (if you have insight) as to how I look out for people I may follow/look up to currently or in the future that use these tactics so that I may avoid them or no longer follow their work - I hope that makes sense? Please feel free to personally DM me if you would prefer to keep this private.
Thanks again
Mark

Ivor Rackham's picture

It's quite a problem. Here in Northumberland, there are people who lay bait for owls. Sadly, these are often near roads and have led to the death of the birds. Likewise, it's not unknown for photographers to use birdsong recordings to attract birds, thus distracting them from doing all the essential stuff they should do to survive.

I recommend photographers should join Nature First to get educated about how to photograph wildlife. https://www.naturefirstphotography.org/

Mark Rowe's picture

That’s really very sad… I’ve always enjoyed the difficulty of getting the shot and feel it’s worthwhile when I do. If I knew I got it through baiting then I wouldn’t bother in the first place, as that’s something everyone can do! I’m really interested to know who out of the very popular wildlife photographers actually do this and get away with it!

Ivan Zalesskiy's picture

Such a great message in this article! I would add one thing though: for me at these perfect landscapes, and portraits, and sport car shots are equivalent to fast food because they lack substance. Essentially — they are pretty postcards.

And don't get me wrong, I fully appreciate their technical execution and probably couldn't pull that level off professionalism myself, so hats off to those photographers for that.

But what differentiates great photographers from good ones in my opinion, is that the work of the greats almost always has some kind of message, there are more levels to it than meets the eye at first. It can be social, political, environmental — doesn't matter.

So, I think, getting away from this sausage machine photography is about finding a subject that you care about and trying to state something, trying to make the viewer feel what you want them to feel or come away with some kind of thought or emotion.

And in doing so, you will start finding your style and you will start finding compositions that you wouldn't have otherwise thought so. Because your approach to composing will be driven foremost by your storytelling and intent.

Ivor Rackham's picture

You are absolutely right, Ivan. Thank you for that.

Lawrence Huber's picture

Very good article.
I tire quickly of bird photos over and over technically perfect but boring as heck.
And skinny nude women who look more like boys missing parts.
So yes the boring dominates and cliché.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks for the kind comment about the article. Lawrence. If enough people shout about it like that, maybe the world will change.

tom fy's picture

I photographed for me, not for Instagram, or Facebook, or to see how many followers I get. I rarely post anything online. I have a mural photo frame with all the work that I have. I'm happy to create work for me and my family to enjoy in my home. I've had enough of the overdone Photoshop garbage. That's my two cents.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's absolutely right, Tom. I have always told people that if they like their photos, that's all that really matters. Thank you for taking the time to reply.

Stuart C's picture

Great article, I think this lust for the next big thing in camera tech plays a part too, less noise, more Bokeh, more megapixels, denoise software etc, all trying to find that ultra clean image.

Me personally, my lack of skill and editing techniques ensures my shots are always different lol.

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