Show Us Photographs You Love, but Can't Explain Why

Show Us Photographs You Love, but Can't Explain Why

This phenomenon seems to happen to us all: you take or find an image that shouldn't work, but you just love it all the same. Show us yours!

I find there to be two anomalies with photographs you create, and they're both confusing to me. The first is an image you have created that you're indifferent towards, but other people seem to love. The first time this happened to me was a landscape of some rapeseed fields near my home in England. I was still new to photography and didn't do a great job of composing it, capturing it, or editing it, and it grated on me. Still, I shared it and received an overwhelmingly positive response. In fact, Flickr used it as their homepage for a week. I couldn't figure it out; it just didn't work for me, but other people seemed to enjoy it.

The opposite of that bizarre problem — or nearly the opposite — is when you create (or even just see) an image that you love, but know you probably shouldn't. For many there'll be an instant response of "there's no such thing as 'shouldn't' like a piece of art" but we all know, however gray and fuzzy the parameters may be, there is high quality and poor quality art. Without exploring that debate too much, there are markers we look for; technical execution, color theory, composition, and so on. They parts don't always equal the sum of the whole, if the whole is taken to be high quality art, however. That is, perfectly executed, thoughtfully colored, well composed images aren't necessarily good. Equally, images that miss a number of those markers can be good and even great. What I'm pointing to in this article is closer to the latter, but really it lurches awkwardly in the undefined space between the two.

Perhaps some visual examples might clear this up somewhat. To my memory, the first time this happened to me was on an autumnal day in the Lake District, England. I looked out over the mountains from a rather average vantage point, and just loved the earthy tones that I was surrounded by. Everything was dull and muted — even the sky — but it just worked for me. The weather was overcast and unspectacular; there was no foreground interest; the mountain range made the horizon look tilted when it wasn't. Still, I took the shot and when I edited it, I just loved it. And yet, I knew it wasn't great. I knew it wouldn't win awards or even garner attention. So, why did and do I love it so?

I chalked this first instance up to my lack of prowess in the landscape genre, and like having an ugly child, perhaps I loved it because I created it. Or, alternatively, I loved it because it captured a moment that was in some way profound to me. However, it didn't take long before the phenomenon reemerged again, this time in my more comfortable territory of portraiture.

I had arranged a shoot with an actor and actress on a cold, blustery winter's morning. The premise of the shoot was to keep things completely natural; no make-up artists, hair stylists, or heavy beauty style retouching. So while we were getting set up, I took a few test shots in natural light. I was primarily concerned with the histogram, and the model wasn't concerned with anything in particular. When I got home and reviewed the day's fruits, I flagged that quick test snap. It wasn't beautifully posed (although she couldn't look unattractive if she tried), it wasn't carefully staged, and it wasn't brilliantly lit — it wasn't purposely lit at all. Though somehow, the image had something. It was dark, moody, and mysterious. Though I couldn't articulate why, I found the photo engaging and it held my attention far longer than it ought to have.

The critic in me has almost too much to point out, and none of them are the model's fault, she's carrying the image. The light is desperately flat due to it being overcast and this being a test to work out how much lighting I needed to bring in. The image as a whole feels messy and chaotic with little forethought; the model hadn't even adjusted her hair to how she liked it yet as these were just a test. The image is underexposed and that has really caused an issue with noise in the shadows. The retouch is... well, what retouch? I crushed the blacks for the cinematic feel, but skin and hair is untouched. So if I can see so much wrong with it, why do I love it so?

I'm honestly not sure. A lot of the work is done by the model not only being staggeringly photogenic, but an excellent actress with an emotive face. Then, I think, the faults just play in to this moody, chaotic motif and fits her expression. With all that said, I never expected a positive response to the shot. I didn't have confidence in its mass appeal, in fact, I had confidence in it not appealing to the photographic community at large. But that didn't detract from how I feel about it and have done ever since I snapped this ambient light test.

This portrait undoes a lot of my theories that the landscape created as to why sometimes you love an image despite seeing all its flaws clearly. This wasn't the capture of a profound moment. It was a shivering model standing motionless while a shivering photographer tested the lackluster natural light, all while the two of them got drizzled on by England's impotent and indecisive weather. Equally, it wasn't a love born of me having created it; I've taken lots of portraits and I discard many without a moment's hesitation, even if they've taken set up and forethought.

I have several more instances of this, but what I really want is to see the Fstoppers readership's examples. What images have you taken, or even just seen, that you love but can't really explain why? Do you have any theories as to what's going on in these cases? I know I'm not alone in having these unusual relationships with images and I suspect it might even be common place. Share the offending images and your theories in the comments below!

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33 Comments

Adriano Brigante's picture

I shot this one with a crappy plastic Time Magazine film camera. There's too much grain, it's out of focus and the subject is almost out of the frame because I shot it through my windshield while I was driving. Everything is wrong with this picture but I still inexplicably like it a lot!

Chris Silvis's picture

It looks like it could be part of a steam whistle on a WWII troop transport. Thats how old this picture dates. I love it.

Adriano Brigante's picture

Thanks, Chris! You're right, I guess there's a timelessness to it. That's probably why I like it so much.

RUI RESSURREIÇÃO's picture

Great article!

Scott Hussey's picture

Shot outside my favorite local diner on an LG flip phone in 2009.

Tom Lew's picture

dude this is awesome

Scott Hussey's picture

Thanks. This is my default example photo whenever the "it's the photographer not the camera" debate happens.

A shot of my step-daughter on her wedding day... shot at kitchen table with old ring-light flash. Always liked the subtle mood of bride before her big day. She was a reluctant model, nervous of course... but loved the way the pic came out.

Lennart Böwering's picture

Great Article. I don't remember every single photo that made me feel that way, but I guess there are quite a lot.
For example this old test shot, which was just for me to see if any of my flashes were still firing. Indeed one softbox with a speedlight laying on the floor was powered on (on 1/128 Power). The rest of the light was coming from windows behind the model. Only when I turned up the exposure in lightroom I saw there was an image in the darkness.
Despite the strange uplighting, rather neutral look (it was a only test and I didn't give directions) and lots of grain (had to bring it up 4 stops) I really like this photo to this day.

Alex Armitage's picture

This was an edit for my article on posting for 30 days straight on Instagram. I picked a really pushed/"out there" style just to test the waters and all of the photos are edited in the same way. I applied my preset to this one and fell in love and I don't know why. The odds colors and toning just really do something for me.

There is something about this photo...I forgot where I found it, but I love it for some reason.

Tim Gallo's picture

My japanese photography teacher used to say that photography betrays and that is the reason we come back to it.
Its boring to get the image already planned in your head... unless you want to drive it out of your mind that is.

Anyhow here is mine. My camera refused to focus on a naked girl behind the glass and somehow I end up loving this better than her being seen. Camera knows better I suppose...

Tim Gallo's picture

What about the eyes of the model? Did you retouched them? They look unnaturaly highlighted...

This is one of my daughter's senior gymnastics photos, I asked her to do something to make sure I had my settings right...I love it and want it to be better/different at the same time.

Motti Bembaron's picture

This is one of my favourite travel photos. My wife (smiling in this photo) cannot understand why. It was taken on a boat to Islet of Vila Franca do Campo (Sao-Miguel). I like the way it turned out as black and white and it came out pretty good considering the moving boat and water splashes. I printed a 19x13 and it's hanging in my office.

Susan Brown's picture

This is a street in Sacramento close to a high end area, yet there is something old and forgotten about it. I have always liked the lines and contrasts in this photo. Also, Sacramento is known as the City of Trees, and although you barely see any trees you can see their presence in the shadows.

Michael Jin's picture

A photograph I took as part of a project around having poor eyesight. I had a custom filter made to put in front of my lens that basically had the inverse of my eyeglass prescription and proceeded to zone focus. I think this was one of the more successful shots that I got and I like it despite the fact that it pretty much defies one of the key things you would want from your photography—for your subject to be in focus.

Jeena Paradies's picture

It's very unique, I like it because despite of the difficulty to see sharp, you get what's going on and you get the story which is being told.

Francisco Hernandez's picture

Photo is from 2011. Sharing it with the edit I did back then. Probably one of the first shots of mine that I enjoyed and still can't put my finger down on the why.

Chris Silvis's picture

Its the eyes. They draw you in and hold you there. For me its the subjects right eye I get fixated on.

William Howell's picture

The catchlights are perfect. And the composition fills the frame.

Ankur Jadhav's picture

This is the portrait I took in 2014 with a phone in pitch dark. One of my favorite portraits. :)

I shot this one intentionally with a very shallow depth of field, some of the dead tree trunks are over 4m in length, however most people think they are much shorter. It seems to confuse most people, others just look at it and try to figure out what is going on. I love it and have a print framed above my desk.

From my very early days of shooting during a visit to German Baltic Sea coast .. I often include this photo when I show pictures. It is SOC and i never bothered to touch it up. really like it, without ever analyzing why that is. A photographer friend once commented "Well, it is not easy to shoot humor" :)

Like wine, we enjoy the environment rather than the item so we can LOVE a bad picture. Others will see a technically perfect picture of something we did not enjoy, a great " So what?" representation for us.
Picture taken with my very first digital camera, day one, frame 5. A perfect day in the mountains with my wife during a rescue practice ( you can see her nude knee in the doorway, hence the name of "Calendar Girl" for those who remember the film of that name ). Good memories for me.

Photo I've taken at the Anzi observatory during holidays, I've kept it as a tourist photo but lots of people who see it are somehow captivated by it.

Studio 403's picture

I caught this shot as the musician was in the air jumping, my strobe is on the opposite side of my lens

Bianca Alexis's picture

I took this in college of a friend that was expelled from art school. i thought it was funny cause she framed herself. 15 years later i am still in awe.

Jan Naessens's picture

Simple. These examples scream authenticity and also have some mystic. Just accept it and dont overthink it.
Getting the perfect technical image often means you drop the above.
Why does a not so technical perfect image is not good enough?
I value authenticity far more over that perfect” image. That should be the goal for shooting pictures.
But in these days fake is the new reality i’m afraid

I feel there is a few technical flaw in this picture but somehow i really like it...

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