Just Because It Was Hard To Shoot Doesn't Make It A Good Photograph

Just Because It Was Hard To Shoot Doesn't Make It A Good Photograph

This is a lesson that extends far beyond photography and one that took me years to understand: The amount of work you put into something does not affect the quality of the finished product. 

I can remember one particular project when I was studying graphic design where I was assigned to make a poster for snowboard company. I had just recently learned how to use Photoshop and I was excited to show off my skills. 
I searched the web for every photograph of snowboarders and anything snowboard related and I started combining them. After days of work I had created the most absurd, unrealistic looking mash-up of snowboarders flying off cliffs you could imagine. The perspective of everything was off, the lighting was off, and the fonts that I used for the copy were picked without any consideration. 
Looking back now it's so easy for me to understand that this poster would never cut it in the real world and no advertising agency would ever be impressed with it but at the time I wasn't thinking so objectively. I marched into a legitimate advertising agency with this very poster printed out in hopes of blowing their minds and landing the job that I always wanted. Of course they weren't impressed with my poster but to my surprise they didn't seem to appreciate it any more when I explained how long I worked on it and how many different layers in Photoshop it required. They never came out and said it but the look on their faces screamed, "Why the hell would you waste all of that time in Photoshop making this monstrosity."
It was after that meeting that I started to view my work objectively. I started to compare my finished projects with other advertisements in the real world without giving myself any extra credit for "effort." I realized that I was masking my lack of design talent by complicating my projects. The most talented designers could complete these projects in a matter of minutes rather than days and instead of layers, effects, and drop shadows, their designers were simple, elegant, and timeless. 
I quickly realized that I actually was a horrible graphic designer and even though I was receiving "A's" on all of my projects, my work would never be acceptable in the real world. In short, I realized that nobody was ever going to pay me for my graphic design. 

It's very difficult to work for hours, days, months, or sometimes years on a project only to step back and admit "this simply isn't good," but that is exactly what creative people must do. 

Can you imagine if you were watching the next Hollywood blockbuster movie and the audio was so bad you couldn't understand what was being said? It would be completely unacceptable. Would you forgive the director if he told you that he worked on the audio for this movie ten times longer than any other movie? Of course not. In fact, you would probably lose even more respect for him. 
What if you tasted horrible food and the chef told you he's been working on the recipe for 10 years? It might actually make the food taste worse. 

If you work longer than average on anything and end up with a below average finished product, you aren't artistic, you're just untalented. 


This is true for every industry but especially photography. It's only natural to appreciate a landscape photograph that required a 20 mile hike to capture more than a photograph taken in your back yard. The problem is that the viewer of your work has no idea that one image was more difficult to capture than the other. In reality there is a very good chance the one you captured in your back yard is actually better. 
I've seen photographers brag about horrible images because it was taken with a high mega pixel camera, or shot on film, or maybe it required a bunch of lights, or perhaps the gear was really expensive, or because "this is straight out of the camera." But at the end of the day, the "market," the people who are actually going to buy your work, don't care. 
This isn't to say that doing things slowly, or by hand, or the "old fashion way" doesn't have any value. It certainly can, especially when you get into the "fine art" realm. But the finished product, or in our case the finished image, still needs to be good. 
You could spend a lifetime photographing a landscape that simply isn't worth photographing. You could work for days Photoshopping an image that doesn't require it. Or you could come up with a concept that, although difficult to pull off, simply isn't worth the effort. I make these mistakes all the time. Hopefully though, as I get better, I can more quickly realize when something isn't working. I have ideas for projects that I am forced to abandon all the time and although it's depressing in the moment, admitting defeat frees me up to work on something that I will actually be proud to release. 
Working hard is great, but your effort should be reflected in your finished product, no matter what you're creating. Don't let the creation process itself blind you from seeing your finished work with fresh eyes. Being honest with yourself is necessary for improvement.
If you're anything like me, I'm sure you still struggle to judge your images objectively. If you'd like to see how other photographers would rate your images I'd like to invite you to put your images on the Fstoppers Community. Images are rated by other community members and it's a great way to get a realistic view of your work. 
Lee Morris's picture

Lee Morris is a professional photographer based in Charleston SC, and is the co-owner of Fstoppers.com

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Why you mad, bro?

I was thinking the same...

HAHA! :D I see what you did there :)

Can't believe he wrote this article just after the Atlas Sun photo discussion.. not wasting my time anymore on the subject...

Yeah, I'm a victim of emotion over quality sometimes. I did this shoot called Rad Max where I styled everything, came up with the makeup for it, and even made all the jewelry. But at the end of the day, because of the time of the year I chose to shoot it I had to do it all in studio so it just looks like lookbook photos for a fashion design.

The beauty shots are awesome though. For sure.

You should post your poster design!

If I can find it I will

I could not agree more. I find that i have to remind myself of this in both directions — just because I spent a lot of time doesn't mean it's good, but ALSO, just because it was easy and fast doesn't mean it's not good! Sometimes I get hung up on things like "well my best skills lie in my ability to use lights to create a scene, and this was shot with all natural light" and I'll feel like it matters. When in reality, the only thing that matters is the outcome.

A few years ago, a very experienced business man told me "Never confuse effort with results" (which is exactly what Lee is saying here), and I think about that all the time when trying to objectively gauge my own work.

"It was after that meeting that I started to view my work objectively."

No you didn't.

Response to "Atlas with the Sun"? I hope so.

I think this is definitely true when it comes to concepts and retouching. I see some very elaborate and heavily retouched photos on this site which do nothing for me, even though there was obviously a lot of work put into it. A simple portrait where there's a strong connection with the subject is enough to make it a compelling image, but its likely to be overshadowed by the photos which required more effort.

I get the point of this article but I don't totally agree with "The amount of work you put into something does not affect the quality of the finished product."

I believe it's something that needs to be balanced. More like, the more work you put into something to improve the quality, the more you will see diminishing returns for your effort. Unless of course someone really is willing to pay for it.
But then again, if you put too little work into something then it may not be up to scratch, some may see this and deem your work as poor quality.

Sometimes its about the concept and experience, not only about the final product. If you want to sell it, that's a different thing. If you just want to experience something, than the final product is final. The experience and fun last for ever. Your leaning curve expands.

The best example I can think of is the two Guns and Roses albums Appetite for Destruction vs Chinese Democracy.

Chinese Democracy is one of the most expensive albums ever produced taking 15 years to complete with a total budget estimated at $13 million dollars (almost $400k per song). The album had no less than 8 world class guitarists and was recorded using the most up to date digital equipment. In the end, the album probably made money but was panned by fans and critics alike (some hardcore fans did like the album, but I used those songs on the reunion tour as my beer break).

Appetite for Destruction on the other hand was recorded in 2 weeks, mastered in a month, and went on to sell over 30 million copies world wide. It is the 11th best selling album of all time. Many of the songs were written in days if not hours including classics like Paradise City and Sweet Child O Mine.

My point is that back when GNR was unknown and they had something unique to actually give the world, their debut album came pretty easily and was praised beyond what anyone would have imagined. On the other hand, Chinese Democracy was picked apart note by note and took almost 2 decades to release. Instead of scraping the album and taking another path, Axl Rose decided to waste a lot of time and money only to produce something mediocre at best. The same thing can be said about Dr. Dre's "come back album" Compton which was released about 15 years after his amazing Chronic 2001 album.

As a huge Dre and GNR fan, I think these two albums are perfect examples of "because it was hard to make (and took a lot of time), it doesn't mean the final product is good".

"their debut album came pretty easily" I would disagree with this. Describe "pretty easily"?? This to me implies that they just picked up instruments and started playing/singing/writing good out off no where. Often times, people work their asses off for 10yrs for everyone to say they "are an overnight success".

Another thing to consider is expectations as well. When a band/artist makes a debut, not a lot people know them or know what to expect. So you could ague that it's a bit easier for them to make an impression when they come out with something new/different people haven't seen/heard. But once everyone knows who they are, then there's an expectation everyone has they need to meet.

This is such a refreshing read! I completely agree with this topic. It can take 8 hours or 30 minutes the final result is what counts thats why you picked up your camera in the first place for a final result not for the in between credit. Thanks Lee Morris!

"If you work longer than average on anything and end up with a below average finished product, you aren't artistic, you're just untalented." If that were the case I hope you didn't spend long writing this article. You think every artist hits it out of the park every time? There are often time-consuming projects that never see the light of day, before a single success. That doesn't make someone untalented.

"There are often time-consuming projects that never see the light of day, before a single success."

I think we agree with each other. I never said that every project should be a success. My point was that you need to view your work from the perspective of your clients and in many cases your clients do not care how long it took you to produce your finished product, whatever that may be. If your art, or your photograph in our case, isn't good, you should not release it, even if you have spent a long time working on it. Telling your potential clients "yes this photograph may be bad but listen to how hard I worked on it," doesn't usually win them over.

I'm not sure how I feel about this entire discussion about "quality" vs "amount of time" b/c at the end of the day, music, photography and art are 100% subjective. And many times, people do it for their own personal reasons. Some people appreciate it, and some don't.

"Or you could come up with a concept that, although difficult to pull off, simply isn't worth the effort." The last part about "isn't worth the effort" is completely up to the person doing that work and it's their decision. One of the best teachers I ever had said "in the business world, time is money. But NOT when it comes to art". If you're an artist that's in business, you should find a good balance b/c at the end of the day, you made the choice to make money from your art. or some people are fortune enough that they don't have to find a good balance.

There's always "easier" ways to get things done. But there's a difference btw "easier" and "being efficient". btw "making money" and "success".

This whole discussion about "quality" vs "amount of time" vs "not being worth it" can be applied to other things. Why in the world would anyone pay $20,000 for a 18k Rolex watch when a $10 digital watch can do the same job & even has more features? It takes more effort, more time, and is more difficult to make a Rolex watch then a digital watch. There's a group of people who's mindset is that a Rolex is a waste of money when a cheap watch does the same job. To them, a Rolex "simply isn't worth the effort" and they don't care and see the value in it. However, there's other people that do.

WHY in the world would any company hand make a car and charge nearly half a million when those cost could be significantly cut and massive produced?? Henry Ford and Henry Royce are examples of completely opposite approaches to car making and both were successful. To some people a Rolls Royce "isn't worth it" when a scooter can take them from point A to B.

Going back to art. Lee, would you criticize a portrait painter who uses oils to paint a portrait of someone that takes him weeks maybe even months to finish or praise another painter who uses acrylic and can finish the portrait in just a few hours? or would you tell them both that spending ALL that time painting a portrait "simply isn't worth the effort" when I could just snap a picture and in seconds I'll have a much more accurate representation of the sitter?

This is a great argument and one that I only touched on in this post:
"This isn't to say that doing things slowly, or by hand, or the "old fashion way" doesn't have any value. It certainly can, especially when you get into the "fine art" realm. But the finished product, or in our case the finished image, still needs to be good."

I would argue that the value of art in general is based on popularity but in most cases does still has some sort of quantifiable value to it.

I certainly appreciate craftsmanship and I pay for it all the time. My home is filled with antique furniture that is far less structurally sound than something cheap I could buy at Ikea but I am willing to pay more for something "worse" because it's beautiful, rare, or has a story behind it.

But I do have to point out that both the Antiques in my home and the Rolex you used as an example are very different than the Ikea desk and Timex. The real debate begins when the products are the exact same. A quality knife forged by hand will probably cost more than an identical knife built by machine. But should it?

If you simply need a knife to cut food, then no, but if you want a piece of art then yes. If someone wants to pay more for something because it was hard to make or because there is a story behind it, I'm not going to stop them, I do it all the time. But my article isn't written for the world class knife forger who is capable of making a knife as good or better than ones made by machines and then who sells them to knowledgeable knife collectors. This article was written for the knife forger whose knives are ugly and dull and who is trying to sell his knifes at Bed Bath and Beyond, a place where customers come to buy knives rather than buy art pieces or collectibles.

I guess I would say that my article isn't geared towards artists who have made a name for themselves and whose customers actually are willing to listen to the story about how each piece was created and who would actually pay a premium once they learned about the time and effort that went into it.

Instead my article is geared towards the average photographer or creative person who is constantly looking for work and whose potential clients don't have the time to consider how their art was created. It is this type of creative person (the average one) who has a tendency to be blinded by the creative processes so much so that they can't honestly critique their own work.

Alexis, over the years I have heard this "in the business world, time is money. But NOT when it comes to art" many times, not only is this not correct - I can always go and make more money but I can't get any more than 24 hours into one day, not one minute - the person that tells you this does not value your time or your money.

Style and/or uniqueness is important to some clients and some artists. Others not so much, it's these - not so much, that have to be avoided with an artistic approach.

I come from architecture, so I see both on a frequent basis. I have to solve their problems for the built environment. The not so much client solutions come out as basic proportional boxes without design flaws or personal style either. But they still have to pay the fees and I have to pay my bills.

Hi Larry,
thanks for you comment. I respectfully disagree with you. You're implying that in order to be an artist, you need to make money from your art. And you also need to have clients. Like I mentioned above, if you decide to make a living from your art, then yes you need to find a balance. And at that point, your more of a business then an artist.

IMO you cannot really define a successful artist by how much money he makes. If that were case, by your logic Van Gogh wasn't an artist or successful at all. He didn't sell any of his work when he was a live. Actually, he's brother was much more successful but yet no one knows his name.

So to me, yes "in the business world, time is money. But NOT when it comes to art" is 100% true, when you're an artist because you're doing the work for yourself, and to express yourself, and don't care what others think. As soon as you start throwing the word "client" with your work, it then becomes a business because you need to meet someone else's expectation, or sell a product, or meet a certain functionality.

Good morning Alexis, we don't have much of a disagreement. As an architect, clients pay for my talent and skill, some pay more for my skill than talent. Think experience equal skill. In this venue time and money are close and I don't give away either.

Design on the other hand, the art part, may take longer or shorter time at the beginning of the process, who knows? But the fee does not change for the design and I either gain or lose depending on the time it takes.

I work in a different world from Van Gogh, my world is driven by deadlines not art. Vincent was driven by something else and that may not have been art either.

Our disagreement may be that I am more of a capitalist than artist. I am starting to learn about photography. And many thanks for your reply.

Best Regards

I usually want to debate you in the comments, but I agree with you 100%. Final product is the only thing that really matters. No client gives a rats ass how complicated it was as long as you got the results.

Well feel free to debate when I strike a nerve ;)

Holy shit. THIS.

Hi imho, why client would or should "care" unless it's point of interest to them for whatever reason money, time or curiosity etc. Creative or not It's business "you" have a product(includes time an effort etc..) to sell to someone who is willing to pay the amount that you are willing to sell it for. At least to me it is like that. Obviously you have to know your craft and be able to deliver desired results and etc. And very often it's not just "you" but whole team of people is involved in decision process. Editorials or personal projects is a way to "unleash" personal creative freedom and enjoyment...While many portfolios from workshops and masterclasses look a like we are all different...some will develop unique "style", "we" just have to keep digging(work,work) on our own or with "cooperation" of others.
Best regards,

Only final image matters. Nothing more. Nothing less.

So true! When people say they are hard workers, I am not impressed. Working smarter, not harder is what I aim for. People who are always very busy, do not get my respect. They are just poor at manage time and delegation.

I agree Lee Morris. The client wants results and doesn't care about how you achieve them.

I have, on occasion, spent considerable time on a project that I thought would be interesting, educational and maybe sell, only to find in the end I did not like the result. I threw the project out the window. While it was wasted time I did learn a few things in the process.

Great article, with technology getting better all the time, anyone can take a good photo, but there is a fine line between good and great and only a few people are great photographers. still style, experience and pure luck are things that just take time or not. i like to look at photos to get ideas but i feel there is a lot of digital clutter and too many good photos and not too many great ones. these days, if you have an Instagram account then you are considered a professional or good photographer. in short, you get what you put into a shot, brainstorming, prepping, equipment, lightning, models, and props, but sometimes you're just lucky. you will just know when it's a great photo and not just good.

Based on looking at the most popular and most liked photos on Fstoppers, may I make a suggestion for the next article title?

My suggestion:

Just because a woman is naked or half dressed it does not make it a good photograph.

Indeed. The same can be said for excessive Dani Diamond style retouching.

Just want to add to "Images are rated by other community members and it's a great way to get a realistic view of your work." Not necessarily true, in many instances it's just like living in the "buble". Without constructive criticisms means little, and offers next to nothing in many cases. I think it could be another topic for the conversation...

I'd have to disagree with you about some of this. What if a client requests a photo that might be really complicated to do, requires a lot of planing and execution but in the end has very little artistic value and won't be something you put in your portfolio. For instance a group shot of a large group of people, in an odd space with large products in the back ground. This does require talnt to execute. But in the end no one other then the client is going to give a shit about that photo.
And honestly the success of that photo is not based on what the "fstoppers community" thinks. It's based on what the client thinks.

I agree 100% too I find the more complex I make something the less I like it. Sometimes I think we as photographers get way too caught up in the technical and end up missing things like picking a great expression to showcase or whatever and instead showcase an image with great technicalities but no soul. considering most of us photograph people maybe concentrate on the people and expression and emotion first and the rest later because it's the human element that will always pull the most focus. I always love a good challenge though and sometimes attempting something very challenging can help us creatively too

I doubt anyone will read this comment, and yet I logged in just to write it. So this could also be considered a waste of time :)

HOWEVER, I do want to comment on Lee's "clientcentrism". He looks at everything through the eyes of the client. Will the client like it, what will the client think about it, does the client care how hard was it to crate the photo. It's a symptom of American culture (IMHO) which interacts... weirdly with some people. How about you stop thinking about "the client"? Clients usually don't know shit, wouldn't be able to differentiate a photoshop montage from a real work, drool over soft focus and selective coloring. And you're telling people the client is who gets to judge the work. LOL! The client should be ignored - hell, even 90% of "photographers" should be ignored (check instagram and 500px).

It doesn't matter if the "client" doesn't appreciate the shot. If he doesn't understand it. He doesn't need to. He'll either buy a stock photo or hire you, and he'll be happy.

I agree that the end result from the photoshop that inspired you to write this article isn't really stellar. It doesn't matter. I, as a photographer, appreciate the effort that went into it. And the "client" can go have intercourse with him/herself. :)

People Still make furniture by hand with using only hand tools. Can they use power tools and Get to the end result faster, and still have the same if not better results. Yes. but for those who like to use hand tools, And shoot in camera its about the journey more than the end destination. If we are talking about doing this for a client. I agree time is Money. How ever, Am I doing Photography for the Sake of Photography? Then I enjoy taking the long Trip. I want to look at a Picture and Think Crap that was a lot of work, I had to do............... not Man I had to do hours of editing in front of my computer.

Generalizations like this are pretty silly: "If you work longer than average on anything and end up with a below average finished product, you aren't artistic, you're just untalented." Every situation needs evaluated on its own merits.

I am very disappointed to read this. I thought we should get an occasional point or two for level of difficulty, I understand that the quality of the end result is all that should matter. However, all other things being equal, a fantastic shot from the back porch and a fantastic shot from a rock at the end of the primitive trail in a national park are not equal. Sometimes it is the challenge to do something difficult that make us better photographers, even if we don't always get it right.... the first or second or third.. time.