Your Photos Need More Life and Less Photoshop

Your Photos Need More Life and Less Photoshop

I find so many photographs today to be technical masterpieces, yet they lack any sense of life. They don't draw the viewer into the photograph or encourage the viewer to spend several moments viewing the photograph.

They don't request the viewer be even more inquisitive after those few moments. They only promote a response of "that's nice" as the viewer swipes to the next photo. This belief of mine that photos need to speak was reinforced when I read Emma Bowman's article "'He Belongs to the World': The Powerful Work of a Jailed Bangladeshi Photographer" for National Public Radio.

When I read Bowman's fantastic article about Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam and saw his photographs, each one of the photos made me stop and wonder about some aspect of the photo. One photograph in particular made me stop and wonder. The photo involves a female refugee in a Bangladeshi cyclone shelter with what appears to be her two young children. Her expression conveys to me a sense of, well, I'm not sure, because each time I look at the photo, I get a different feeling. Is it tiredness or is it a sense of defeat? No, perhaps it is a feeling of acceptance. I don't know, and that's what I find so interesting about the photo, it makes me wonder and think, to question what the subjects are thinking or feeling. 

Used from the Library of Congress under public domain, by William Gottlieb

The photo above by William Gottlieb of jazz musician Cozy Cole is far from being perfect from a technical standpoint. After all his, right-hand drumstick is blurred, but not enough to emphasize motion. Then there is that blown-out light in the upper right corner with flare. How can that highlight on the rim of the drum be acceptable? Well to me, it doesn't matter, because the photo has a life to it. I wonder who he's looking at beyond the camera? And that flash in the right-hand corner, whose hand is holding the flash? Was it Gottlieb's assistant? Was this taken at a large show or was Cozy Cole just messing around with the photographer?

These photos that I write about don't have to be created by some world-renowned photographer. Photographers just like you and me can create them. They may not draw everyone into the photograph; after all, we each have our tastes. But with a little concern about the subject and not the technical aspects of the photo, we all can make photographs that have a bit of life to them.

The following photo is one that draws me in every time with one huge question for me. Did he know who I was at that moment? You see this is a photo of my father who was suffering from Alzheimer's and was well into the late stages. I captured this photo when I made a trip back to my hometown to visit my parents. You probably don't see it, but I do, and I think perhaps my family does too. There is something about what I see in my father's eyes that I hadn't for years as his Alzheimer's progressed that shows me the man I knew growing up was still there, at least for that one split moment. And I'm sure you don't see it, but that doesn't matter, because this photo speaks to me. It is far from being a technically perfect photo, and thank God for that, because to me, it has life.

What I would like to convey with this article is that it is more important to create photographs that have some sort of life to them than it is to produce an image that is technically perfect. Perhaps the photo only speaks to you, and if so, I feel you have accomplished the most important aspect of a photograph. 

Do you have any photos that seem to speak to you, ones that you have taken or perhaps a famous photograph that always calls to you? If so, post them below and tell us what it is about the photograph that captures you.

Lead images under public domain.

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39 Comments

Kenneth Jordan's picture

Catching moments is priceless. Appreciate the article as it makes me think more.

Jon Kellett's picture

Good article, Doug.

Dead is how I describe a lot of photos these days. If the image has no spirit, has no life, how can it have an impact?

Technical perfection is something that photographers care about. It's not something that viewers care about (unless they're being critical, or trying to appear smart).

I'm not saying that technical execution is not relevant, just that if we want more than simply a pretty snapshot we need to focus on the spirit of the image.

Another thing to keep in mind is that people are often turned off by perfection. Perfection seems cold and impersonal. A little imperfection can humanise the image, as we subconsciously feel an affinity with the creator or subject of the image. We're imperfect, even if we forget that on a conscious level.

Rob Davis's picture

I would love to see the sentiment in this article reflected more in Fstoppers featured photos section. It usually looks like an ad for a retouching service.

lee arthur's picture

I have seen some that are ads for retouching services.

Evan Kane's picture

This is a great article! While I don't necessarily think that less Photoshop is the answer, the general concept that if you're taking the time to edit images but the "base" image itself is lifeless or has nothing to say, then no amount of Photoshop will change that.

The images that you edit (if you edit, depending on what you're doing it may not even be necessary), should be images that matter. Work that actually means something, that reflects a moment or an emotion, or that genuinely has something behind it.

Photoshop isn't the enemy, art with no intention and no feeling is :)

user-204663's picture

I totally agree. A good photo start with an interesting subject, concept or composition regardless of the amount of photoshop. B&W photojournalist images by their nature will always have more humanity as they often capture unique historical moments of joy, struggle, suffering and character etc. and of course by virtue they shouldn't be photoshopped. Now a lot of classic B&W images were highly manipulated in the darkroom to make them perfect, same process different tools and technique.

Douglas Turney's picture

Thank you. You are right Photoshop isn't the enemy. The enemy is being more concerned with the beauty of the shot rather than the meaning or life of the shot. A meaningless photo is still a meaningless​ photo no matter how much makeup one puts on it.

Mike Kelley's picture

perfection erases humanity. - the most quotable thing casey neistat has ever said

I really appreciate reading this at this particular time. My default mistake is to spend too much time editing and ultimately ruining a pretty good photo. This morning I woke up and looked at a landscape I had edited the previous evening in Luminar. In the morning it looked like s..t to me, so I trashed it and started over from the RAW file. And kept it simple.

Rex Larsen's picture

Great headline and article, especially in Fstoppers. Moments and ideas lead to great images way more than heavy processing, retouching, compositing.

Mark Guinn's picture

Thanks so much for this, Doug... you've given me inspiration. I typically try to keep people out of my photos because a) I am, as my daughter calls it, "socially awkward" -- lol (kinda), and b) intimidated because I know the people in my photos will look nothing like those Peter Hurley shots I've been studying. The photo and story of your dad, though, was touching and makes me want to go out and find more stories to put an image to. It reminded me that not everybody has to look perfect with tack sharp detail and color-coordinated stage scenes.... The pictures tell a story. Thank you!

Douglas Turney's picture

Dive in and see what happens. Photos don't have to involve people to have a life to them. I have a photo that some person took of my hometown. It involves a snowy day late in the afternoon at the train station and train is passing by. I look at that photo and it instantly takes me back to my childhood. My school bus drove past that train station every day and I can remember coming home after school on snowy days like that and feeling safe and loved. Why that particular photo does that for me I don't know but it just screams to me. I actually only look at it from time to time to preserve that feeling. Weird? Yeah but so what!

And thank you for your kind words.

Geoff Thompson's picture

I agree totally with this sentiment. As a wedding photographer (now retired) I often took pics that were not technically perfect but were loved by the clients as they captured expression and emotion and triggered a memory of their day.Too much retouching is done on landscapes in particular.

stir photos's picture

oh the ironies... :) #HappyShooting

Rifki Syahputra's picture

good reading.. I need more articles like this :)
Thank you Doug

Douglas Turney's picture

Thank you for the compliment.

Michael Jin's picture

Garbage in. Garbage out.

Studio 403's picture

Enjoyed this post. I am 72, so it is so much fun to get "that" shot that tells a story. Inspiring, thanks

Michael Bernier's picture

I wish that all photographers would try shooting with film before picking up a digital camera. I grew up with 12/24/36 frames per roll, no chimping, and no deleting if you didn't like the shot. You had to actually think about what you were doing, as an artist does, and get it right in the camera. Digital makes it way too easy to forget the artistry for the sake of technical perfection... now it's more like spray and pray and fix it later in Photoshop or Lightroom.

Anthony Cayetano's picture

I Photoshop some, and I SOOC some. End of story. Questions? Yes, you, at the back...

Great article. Yes, many photos need more life. Photoshop doesn't matter then.

But isn't this a result of Instagram? More and more people are optimizing their pictures for likes and on Instagram you have just a second to catch the viewers attention to get a like, before the viewer swipes to the next picture. People are less and less taking the time to look at a picture any longer :-(

Jon Kellett's picture

Whilst Insta bears a lot of responsibility for the issue, I think that it's social media in general that's the poison. Just think back to Flickr or 500px - Both used to be places for serious photography with purpose and meaning. Now they're both "pretty pics" without any spirit or context or story even...

If we didn't feel good when receiving compliments or a like, we wouldn't be in this situation. Hmm, that's a rather "grumpy old man" sentiment isn't it!

Totally agree. I made a comment to someone on Instagram that I loved their ‘natural’ (emotional) work from their website, but on Instagram it was just full of stylised, staged, overworked photos. Suggesting that they show more of their website work instead as it had more meaning. Well I almost got hung by his Instagram followers. Obviously a lot of people who would disagree with you. As you said each to their own. I am a professional retoucher and design Specialist but don’t like to do any photoshop on my own personal photography (apart from very minor colour balance, curves etc). Filters make you lazy I feel, and you don’t get a sense of personal pride of creating everything yourself.

Christos Dikos's picture

I thought a photo had to be "planned out", camera on a tripod, perfectly structured lighting with a model faking expression to be any good. Great article, thanks for sharing!

Michael B. Stuart's picture

The photo of your dad and the story along with it really drives the point home. Great article.

I actually got into photography to learn how to see life and connect with the world around me. Being on the autism spectrum, life is subtly different for me. I see everything all at once. Everything in my viewfinder is equal and at once subject and object framed by only the technical 2:3 composition with no story connecting the viewer to the moment.

This article hints on the photography centered therapy I'm trying to cultivate for myself and others with autism.

If anyone has any practical tips or would like to discuss it further, please feel free to contact me.

Robert Nurse's picture

"Perhaps the photo only speaks to you, and if so, I feel you have accomplished the most important aspect of a photograph."

Sometimes it takes articles like this to make me slow down and take stock of what I'm doing and trying to accomplish in photography. It's not a bad thing to seek technical excellence. But, at what cost? Perhaps a balance can be struck. To which side is for each of us to decide.

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