'WHAT NOT TO DO' in photography?

Discussion in 'Photographic Discussions' started by kkamin, Jan 16, 2010.

  1. kkamin

    kkamin TPF Noob!

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    I feel I have a very long way to go as a photographer and am nowhere near where I want to be, but I do feel I have accumulated enough experience to start discussing some larger ideas in depth.

    A question I often ask myself is, "Why do snap shots look so bad?". And the flip side would be, "Why do professionals images look good?"

    I sort of think that photography on a foundational level has more to do with avoiding the bad than on seizing the good.

    I think snap shots are rich with heart, good intentions, can have candid moments captured, nice locations, etc. But for some reason they often look like a hobo ate a piece of lustre paper and this is what came out of his ass.

    My idea is that there are a ton of strict "WHAT NOT TO DO" rules in photography, and if enough are amassed on a single image, the image becomes more or less a failure. Perhaps the number of 'things to avoid' is higher than in other visual mediums. Photography closely mimics human perception and when we tend to stray from that, it tends to unsettle the viewer. An example would be a crooked horizon line. If I tip my head from side to side, the horizon line remains relatively "level" in my field of vision. If I look at an image of a skewed lake horizon, I tend to think the photographer is mentally challanged. Maybe because of this closeness to perception we make fewer allowances, than with other mediums. Also we are probably exposed to hundreds to thousands of highly polished, still images every day and from that the bar is raised on what to expect from any image presented to us.

    Here are a few random things to avoid in photography (in general):

    •tilted horizon in landscape photography
    •don't cut off subject at the limbs
    •don't use a bare on camera flash. It doesn't mimic anything in nature.
    •reflections in eye glasses
    •centering your subject
    •dark eye sockets
    •busy in focus backgrounds for portraiture
    •side lighting for people with skin problems
    •shooting everything from standing eye level
    •subjects square to the camera
    •no catch lights
    •keystoning in architectural photography
    •lighting overweight subjects with broad lighting
    •having subjects shadow fall on wall behind them
    •things behind subject that look like they are sprouting from subject

    plus a thousand more for each type of photography: people, landscape, architecture, still lifes/objects, etc. And of course these things can be broken to amazing effect. But I am putting forth as things that get people in trouble a lot of the time.

    So when I am about to take a shot, I am at a point where I am running through a very large list of things to avoid, because I feel even the smallest thing will severely degrade my image. It is an organic process, after I think I have eliminated the 'no-no's' I will then shift to improving the image and from there will go back to looking for potential mistakes.

    So again, I am thinking that good photography on a foundational level might have more to do with avoiding a long list of mistakes than with things you should do. And that a very small number of mistakes can destroy an image bursting at the seams with good elements, since I believe photography holds a high bar due to its close ties to human perception and our daily saturation of professional images.

    Thoughts?

    p.s. I know people are going to reply that going by guidelines will make your images stagnant. Every medium has structure to it and is composed of things that work and is struggles to eliminate things that don't work. Every piece of architecture has common elements, walls, roof, support, etc. But from that can come the Taj Mahal or a trailer home. Look beyond the idea of guidelines for this debate please. My main idea is that between the principles of photography of things to avoid and things that work, the things to avoid are disproportionately stronger. Like a few drops of ink in a water glass will darken the entire glass of water. You can have an almost flawless image, but can be ruined by a few minor mistakes.
     
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2010
  2. Whatever. All of this is true and correct, except for when it isn't. I know you put a lot of time and thought into this post (and would like to thank you for using grammar and spelling, something that eludes most forum users nowadays). Nonetheless the proof is out there every day - we are bombarded with images, and every viewer has a distinct sense of what is attractive. There is a lot of commercial photography right now that tries to look "wrong"... this was begun by the Calvin Klein campaign back in 96 when everything was shot barebulb in front of a wood panel wall which made it look amateurish... but of course it wasn't. The point is that there is not ONE, but HUNDREDS of examples where rules are successfully broken, on purpose.

    The real question is: can you get the shot you want on purpose? Can you replicate the shot again and again, or do you come home and find a lucky hit in your data folder? That's the real goal...
     
  3. kkamin

    kkamin TPF Noob!

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    Thanks for your reply.

    I stated that everything can be broken to amazing effect. I'm not arguing rigid rules or faux pas' in the hands of the creative. My focus is on the fact I feel a few unintentional mistakes on an otherwise great photograph can spoil the image--you can have thirty great things going for an image but then have a couple mistakes that ruin it (things that are clearly not working in this particular image and are commonly regarded as a mistake). It seems like other mediums might be a little more forgiving.

    I've had so many photographs ruined by reflections I wasn't looking for, cutting people off at a limb, or posing the subject in an unengaging way. Part of my growth has been to learn what generally not to do...the rookie mistakes; and I think that there are a tremendous number of them.
     
  4. KmH

    KmH Helping photographers learn to fish Supporting Member

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    Pick a profession, any profession.

    Same thing.

    As a professional gains experience the level of detail thay can manage goes up.

    Just like I mentioned on the other forum where you've posted this same exact question. The devil is in the details.
     
  5. kkamin

    kkamin TPF Noob!

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    I think you are missing the point. Every art form has parameters that must recognized--you can break any rule if you know how but nonetheless photography has an internal architecture to it and reasons on why things work and why things don't work can be explored. What I am suggesting is that photography allows fewer unharmonious elements that most other mediums. I feel we expect more from photography since it has a close relationship to human vision and because we are confronted with a dizzying amount of highly resolved images on a daily basis.

    Ansel Adams was happy to get 1 great image a month. I've heard the statistic repeatedly that professionals are expecting about 3 usable images per 100. Photography is difficult and I think part of the reason is that there are so many things that can go wrong. I'm not trying to be negative but am trying to use this as a lens to view the medium and perhaps see it in a different way
    .
     
  6. kkamin

    kkamin TPF Noob!

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    I thought this section of the forum was a discussion of abstract ideas?
     
  7. Derrel

    Derrel Mr. Rain Cloud

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    I'll re-post the basic list:
    •level horizon in landscape photograpy
    •don't cut off subject at the limbs
    •don't use a bare on camera flash. It doesn't mimic anything in nature.
    •reflections in eye glasses
    •centering your subject
    •dark eye sockets
    •busy in focus backgrounds for portraiture
    •side lighting for people with skin problems
    •shooting everything from standing eye level
    •subjects square to the camera
    •no catch lights
    •keystoning in architectural photography
    •lighting overweight subjects with broad lighting
    •having subjects shadow fall on wall behind them
    •things behind subject that look like they are sprouting from subject

    As a basic tenet, I prefer a landscape's horizon actually BE level, and I'm not sure how you meant that; Landscapes with tilted horizons, or where the camera is deliberately canted, usually look snapshot-ish to me.

    As to the other items, I think in most cases, the guidelines are basically sound, although there can be exceptions with specialized pieces of equipment, like a bare-tube flash used on-camera to simulate "hard" sunlight; but let's face it, not many people have a Sunpak or other bare-bulb flash these days, and if you do, you know when to violate the "rules".

    I would agree with the idea of avoiding broad lighting on heavyset subjects, and also agree that it's often not good to photograph subjects squared up and square-shouldered to the camera, especially women who want to look feminine or "slenderized".

    Since this forum is so largely populated with beginning and intermediate-level shooters, I think your OP is a good basis of some generalized guidelines: I myself do not like keystoning in architectural OR product photograpy shots, and when I do see it in product shots, I know instantly that the photographer did not have access to a camera with movements OR simply didn't care to correct the image, or isn't trained well enough or fully enough to even recognize what keystoning is, or why it looks bad.

    The catchlights issue is trickier; there are times when they look good, and other situations where they do not look all that great. I'm not really a fan of the throw-on-a-flash-to-get-tiny-pinpoints-in-the-eyes type of catchlights, and for really critical people work, I think many,many times large, diffuse catchlights created by reflector fill from a panel or even a bedsheet looks better than the pinpoint, speedlight-sized catchlights many people advocate. it depends on how highbrow one wants to be on this: I'm of the opinion that "natural" eyes can be better looking than "pinpoint catchlights" achieved by flashing a tiny speedlight; to me, tiny little specs of light in a subjects eyeball are not the be-all-end-all of lighting, and I have seen many shots ruined by the addition of speedlight-sized flash catchlights. Like most things, there are rules and exceptions and different degrees of skill, so it's hard to generalize.

    One thing I DO think on-camera flash IS good for is providing on-axis fill light when using a second, off-camera light AND the sun. In fact, on-camera fill light would probably be the preferred place to have the fill light for most professional shooters who are capable of doing a two flash + daylight synchro-sun setup; the strobist blog did a good post on that 18 months ago or so, and showed exactly why on-camera flash is an excellent place for neutral,on-axis fill-lighting to come from when using flash outdoors in bright sunny conditions. A bare on-camera flash can make an excellent fill light, if used correctly, but Fong or Sto-Fen diffusers are useless beyond 15-20 feet anyways, so bare flash is actually better as fill than a Fong'd up flash at longer shooting distances outdoors.

    As far as where a single flash is mounted--in the hot shoe or on a stand, I think Denis Reggie's wedding work is a good example of how great shoe-mounted flash can look when it is bounced--off of ceiling,walls, doors,foam-core, whatever. He is an expert at using shoe-mounted flash with the new Canon high-ISO bodies like the 5D and 5D-II, which are capable of shooting beautiful flash shots at ISOs like 1600,3200,6400, using wide apertures, fast glass, and slower shutter speeds to pick up ambient lighting. See--this is a good example of how a "rule" can be broken: I spent time writing this out because the above example, and the Denis Reggie on-camera flash examples are where the photographer is using the flash not as the ONLY source of lighting, but is using the flash in a SMART, and professional manner. A tiny bit of on-camera flash can look good. A full-power burst of on-camera flash can look good too, if it is used smartly, like indoors with a wide f/stop like f/4 at 1600 ISO at 1/40 second, with the flash on-camera but bounced off of a wall---that is using every bit of the exposure equation in the best way: ISO for ambient boost and flash boost, shutter speed to peg ambient brightness, bouncing to create a direction of the light, and to increase the size of the light source, and *blending* of the flash with ambient light.

    Anyway...overall, the list has some good general guides, but I'm not sure about that landscape and horizon suggestion.
     
  8. kkamin

    kkamin TPF Noob!

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    Thanks, Derrel. It was a typo.
     
  9. Dusty Miller

    Dusty Miller TPF Noob!

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    Kkamin, what you said is right on. I remember when it became fashionalble to have a telephone pole right smack dab in the center of the image, as if that was some kind of avantegarde treatment!! Creatively breaking the rules is hard to pull off. That's why I think all photo education classes should start out with LF cameras. That slows down the student and makes him/her THINK before making the exposure. Today I shoot with a digital SLR but I've got the discipline to delete at least half of my images and make sensible modifications to those I keep. Whenever photographing people the very FIRST thing I look at is the background, that one practice has improved my people photography greatly. You hit the nail on the head.
     
  10. dcmoody23

    dcmoody23 TPF Noob!

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    What I have to say may be slightly off topic and not directly relate to what you're saying, or asking, but I found this to be very interesting and wanted to add my owns thoughts here.. Something Iron Flatline said really hit the nail on the head for me..
    In art (photography as a sub-category of course) there are those who have consistently over-achieved and create an amazing piece every time they use their medium ... After time, we are so used to seeing this extreme quality, that things they produce begin to "set the bar" or become right, or a different way to do things.. I'm sure you've all seen work that has sold for hundreds-of-thousands to millions that looks like it could have been done by a child. It's because these people are so distinguished that create these pieces that anything they make looks attractive.. I mean, sure, they have reasoning behind what they created, but I could have made something at age 10, and then when I'm 30 say "this is why I made this piece," and make up a story about how my colors relate, what the patterns are symbolic of, and what the meaning is behind it.. Art is about the artist, the one who breaks the barrier, breaks away from being uniform, does not let themselves become satisfied with mediocrity or what is expected..

    There is a reason why photography is art.. Art is a language in itself, it is meant to be interpreted in it's own way ... Sure there are basics, but there is no uniform policy to follow... It wouldn't be art if everyone's work looked the same...
    Aside from the common sense "Don't cut your main subject out of the frame, don't overexpose, don''t focus on meaningless areas, etc" There really isn't rules..
    I know you're just trying to get yourself on the right path and be able to produce quality stuff, but go by what looks good to you, not what the book of photography says to do.. It will take your uniqueness away, and the meaning behind your work.
     
  11. kkamin

    kkamin TPF Noob!

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    You make really good points. Art photography is a very different animal than commercial photography with its own rules, politics, trends; and it is very artist-centric. I should change my thesis to focus on commercial photography. A type of photography that allows clearer distinctions between 'not quite there' and 'commercial quality'. Even though that distinction is subjective and in the eyes of the beholders, it still can be examined in order to be understood. Just as any field beyond the straight technical produces theories to examine the nature of things.

    When you mention the hazard of going by the book and creating non-unique, non-meaningful work, I think it depends on the teachings. If everyone did what looked good to them, many people would hit a wall very quickly. I think people benefit when introduced to ideas and concepts.

    I really feel that commercial photography doesn't have as many liberties and freedoms as people think, and I think that is why people get into trouble. Examining photography under a certain light, I think their is an underlying architecture to every photograph and their are reasons why things work and things don't work. I think photography is actually very constrictive compared to some other mediums. But once the rules are made aware, I think that is where masterful creativity can arise. Knowing the limitations spawns creativity.

    Of course the rules can be broken and no one says rules are hard and fast--but the wisdom they hold can save someone months or years of repeated confusion on why something isn't working.

    A great analogy is a film. I was a film major in college. 99% of the movies you have seen are the exact same thing in terms of structure: In the first ten minutes you are introduced to the main character as well as the other primary characters. You learn the heros problem and character flaws and the theme of the film is stated. At about minute 10 the catalyst for the story arrives and shakes up the character's world. The character debates up until about 25 minutes in, and then the character makes a conscious choice to accept the "quest". At 30 minutes the b-story is introduced. Midpoint the hero has a false victory or a false defeat and the stakes are raised... etc. etc.

    But I so far have described "Ernest Goes to Camp" and "The Godfather". "Free Willy" and "Star Wars". I view photography in a similar way. There are only so many ways to light someone for a portrait. There are only so many ways to pose someone in fashion and still make the clothes look good. But there are infinite variations on the lighting set-ups and poses and from that it appears that type of photography is without border. But at the core remains limited number of options. I think it would help people to be aware of these structures, including myself.

    And I'm not saying anything is absolute either. There are too many factors and dynamics at work in even the simplest image. But nonetheless I like to think about these things.
     

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