How do you know if your pictures are any good? There are many types of pictures and they can be good for different reasons and they can also be bad for many reasons. You cant ask your mom, because no matter what, she'll say they are excellent. And besides, what does she really know about photography? In this series I will describe different types of photos and how you can analyze them yourself.
What qualities make a photo exceptional?
Sometimes even more important than subject will be the composition of the image. Composition is always crucial but it will be different based on you subject matter, the lens used, the point of view used and the lighting. Learn all you can about composition. A badly laid out image never looks good.
There are various types of subject matter. The subject matter is one of the keys to creating spectacular photos. With all the Subject Types there are rare occasions where a photo will be exceptional within that Subject type. An example would be a good photo of a very cute little kid, or, if you took a photo of your house and you happen to live in a Castle high above the Cliffs, then perhaps these "Personal Subjects" could make a good photo.
Personal Subjects are the typical kids, Aunt and Uncle, and the House kind of photos that mean absolutely nothing to the viewer unless they have a personal interest in the photo. These photos are tied for the worst kinds of photos to show others. Many snapshots on holidays fit into this category as they are meant as a "snapshot" in time or what we call a "record shot" for personal memory only.
These are the totally non-interesting photos that generally bore everyone. Again, there are exceptions but a brick wall, a normal field, a typical snapshot of a bird stuck in the middle of a photo, a typical sunset or mountain. All of us have seen all these photos numerous times. Some are better than others, but unless there is something else to the photo, we usually just give them a casual glance. If you have what you think is a good photo of a sunset, ask yourself; "Is this the best sunset I have ever seen?" and also "Is this a great photo of the best sunset ever?" It will be very rare when you honestly answer yes to both those questions.
Basic Interesting Subject can be a typical boring subject with a little extra pizzazz. How about a sunset photo with incredible cloud formations, or great water reflections, or perhaps a backlit subject, or a mountain scene where all the wild blooms are out?
The other type of Interesting Subject is a photo of something we do not see too often, something rare. Perhaps, you have seen that Mountain with the Wild Blooms, but this one is better than the ones you have seen. More blooms, actually all blooms! A good Macro of a tiny creature that you never see details of because they are so small, or perhaps a scene or animal that you never see in everyday life as it is from another country. Locally we have an abundance of Heron photos. Here, Tiger photos are exciting! These are the photos where many people would gladly pay $5.00 for a poster or print to hang on a wall or would grab from the Internet to use as Desktop Wallpaper.
Exceptional Subjects are rare and hard to come by, such as scenes in life that can be once in a lifetime scenes. Rare and Strange Animals, or Animals that we love in a perfect setting, an Eagle as it is just about to pounce on a Rabbit for food. These are magnificent scenes that we rarely see or for many, scenes that we never see even once in a life time.
Artistic subjects are those that are usually scene through different eyes, like the eyes of artists. Often, close-ups on life, flowers and other objects can be very artistic. Scenes that take on great shapes or patterns that intrigue the viewer. Or themed photos that have a color theme. In the way of how interesting these are varies greatly from dull and boring and on rare occasions, can be exceptional.
These are the photos that tug at the heart. The Fawn being licked by its mother moments after it was born, or some cute kittens, or perhaps a scene that captures Hunger, or a Clear Cut that shows the devastation of a forest. These types of emotional subjects are usually well received by many viewers. These are rarely dull and often if well done can make for exceptional photos.
The Perfect Subject
Finally there are what I call the Add-ons to the photos. What if you have that Fawn being licked by its mother but there is a beautiful early morning Fog with Dew and exceptional lighting? It could be the exact same photo as I described in the "Emotional Subjects" but this one has the extra elements to make it perfect.
As an artist or photographer you must decide which subject your photo falls under. You must decide if the subject matter is worth showing the world. Should that photo with that subject be put into a Portfolio or posted onto a Web Site such as MyShutterSpace.com or a Club site? Usually, Personal Subjects and Boring Subjects should never be posted on-line or included in a Portfolio. Would you want that photo on your wall even if you were not related in any way to the subject matter?
Interesting Subjects, Artistic Subjects and Emotional Subjects are always good to post on-line and these are the typical photos shown by Enthusiastic Amateur Photographers. These are also the photos that other artists and photographers can comment on to help you take better photos.
A very good Professional Photographer or Artist will combine, Exceptional Subjects with Artistic Subjects and Emotional Subjects to create that perfect photo and will work hard at capturing those extra Add-ons in every scene to achieve that Perfect Subject matter.
How can you tell where your photo fits in "Subject" matter wise? Simple, Study! Look at Photography Books, look at the top Photos on MyShutterSpace.com or Photo.net, look at other people's photos and see which ones get a lot of good comments. Do your photos have similar subject matter? Over time you will learn what is a good subject and what isn't. And, unless you are taking "Personal" photos, ask yourself, "Is this a good and interesting subject?" before you take the photo. If it isn't, is there anything you can do by moving, changing the angle or by other means to make it interesting? Perhaps shooting at a different time of the day when the lighting will be better? If not, why are you taking the picture?
I started the "Are Your Pictures Any Good?" article discussing Subject Matter and Artistic Matter. Here I continue the article by looking at Technical Quality. For you images to fit into that "Good" category, it must meet a minimum level of quality.
The great thing about judging "technical" quality is that it is not a subjective thing like artistic merit. Quality is easy to look for and easy to test for as well. A poor quality photo of the best subject or of the most artistic thing in the world will be nothing more than a poor quality photo.
The other nice part about quality is that as the photographer with a DSLR and even most Point and Shoot cameras, is that you have all the tools and capabilities to control all the aspects of creating a quality image. All that is required is a little knowledge and on some occasions, a little patience and/or luck.
Exposure is the first key to achieving a high quality photo. The correct exposure will control what your final image looks like. (I.e. Exposure as in is the image too light or too dark.)
The correct exposure will also control other aspects of quality in your image. Burnt out Highlights or washed out Shadows, Detail, Color and even focus. It is because of these reasons that the correct exposure is so critical. Make sure that the exposure is correct. If you have areas in your photos that are all washed out (all white) or shadowed (all black) that should contain a little detail, it has probably been over exposed (too much light) or under exposed (too little light).
Although these problems can usually be fixed in Photo Editing Software like Photoshop, it is always best to get proper exposure in camera. This over and under exposure will also greatly affect the total amount of detail in your image. Too much light will burn out and BLUR the white areas loosing detail. The same occurs if you under expose your image. Incorrect exposure will also affect the color and tone of your image. If you want proper and accurate colors, make sure the exposure is correct.
Examples of these over or under exposed images abound on the internet and are easy to spot. Are your photos guilty of this?
Color is usually off because of exposure problems mentioned above. However, some camera sensors can also cause off colors. Poor exposure can cause snow to look gray and can cause other color shifts.
White Balance (learn what it is) can greatly affect your colors. A Bright Red Shirt will look different when photographed in the sun, in the shade, with flash, by a lamp or under fluorescent lights. If you properly white balance you camera before the picture is taken, the Bright Red Shirt should always look the same in any situation.
Poorly adjusted monitors also cause problems. Make sure your monitor is adjusted or "calibrated" properly to display colors accurately. Software like the Xrite ColorChecker Passport and hardware tools like the Datacolor Spyder4Pro and the Xrite ColorMunki Display1 are available for this purpose.
More common than most people think, color blindness is also a cause of many photos not being adjusted properly. If you think (or know) you have color blindness, ask others if the colors look natural.
Lastly and a more current problem is bad color caused by over saturation. When users find this new tool in their Photo Editing Software, they tend to usually over do it. If your photo color is a little dull, by all means fix it up a bit but please do not over do it by making your images look like scenes in CSI Miami or overly colored scenes in Hawaii Five-O.
Exposure and Color can both be difficult to perfect and in some cases can also be subjective. A photo may even look better if under exposed to give the overall image a darken tone or mood. But focus is focus and it cannot be cheated. An out of focus image can be spotted a mile away. Out of focus images look bad and make the photographer look bad and un-professional. How can photographers take out of focus images and then post them on a web site and then ask other users to comment on the image thinking it's good and worthy of comments? It's bad. It's out of focus. Don't post it.
Learn how to take "Sharp" in focus images. It's not difficult. Have your eyes checked out. Adjust the Dioptric Adjustment on your view finder if it's available or purchase the appropriate Dioptric adapter. Do NOT use the LCD Screen to check focus unless your camera allows you to zoom into the LCD display image to confirm the focus is sharp. Automatic exposure is not always accurate, try manual focus and take your time to make sure it's sharp.
Some images that look out of focus are caused by blur or "camera shake" and may not actually be out of focus.
Again, learn to hold the camera steady. Learn to gently "release" the shutter as opposed to "pressing the button" without moving the whole camera. If you need to, and "everyone" needs to, use a tripod. I use a tripod for the majority of my photos. A tripod is a photographer's best friend. Get one, use it.
Learn what your shutter speed settings are used for on your camera. Sometimes a simple shutter speed adjustment will create better sharper images.
Do not use High ISO settings. The high level of grain created by using High ISO settings can exaggerate the effects of blur and out of focus images. Also, something most photographers don't know or understand, using higher ISOs reduce the Dynamic Range capture capabilities of your sensor. This will in turn reduce perceptive focus.
If it's blurry and looks out of focus because of it, it's a bad photo and you should not post it or show it. Some photos may intentionally be blurred to show or indicate motion or for artistic reasons, but it is usually easy to tell when its just blurry.
Tack Sharp Images
Read the article I have posted called "Start to Finish Tack Sharp?" for hints, tips and tricks on how to take "Tack" Sharp Images.
Noise, Grain and Pixels
Noise, which can look a little like grain can be caused by using High ISO settings or by improperly exposing your image. Noise though is colored and may not look good. Don't confuse Digital Noise for Grain.
If the subject you want a photo of is but a small portion of your full image, don't bother cropping it out and blowing it up. It won't look good. There probably will not be enough pixels in the final image to make a large print. Lack of Pixels (which is why we buy cameras with a lot of pixels) can cause enlargements to look grainy, pixelated with digital artifacts and will usually be blurry.
A rule of thumb is to NOT crop your image more that 10% of the Pixels and that would be for a 10 Mega Pixel camera. Caution here. Turning a 4x6 Image into a 2x3 Image and blowing it back up to 4x6 is actually 75% crop, not a 50% crop. If you need help understanding this please check it out on the web.
So, if you can't fill your whole frame with your subject, zoom in. And if you can't zoom in any more, then move in. Yes, use your legs and walk closer to your subject, obviously only if you can physically move in closer. Most photographers have become very lazy because of zoom lenses. Use your feet and take a few steps forward! It's free and it gives you way better results than only using 1/4 of your sensors pixels! Since you paid big bucks for it, why not use your whole sensor!
It is very easy to see if a photo is technically and artistically OK. It takes about a full second. A bad photo on the other hand can be spotted in about 1/100 of a second. It looks bad. You know yourself if the photo is bad, why post it or show it and ask for advice? You can go through your own checklist before you post it:
1) Is it properly exposed? If it's not bad and slightly off, others may comment on it. Learn from that. If the exposure is way off, don't post it.
2) How is the color?
3) Is it out of focus?
4) Is it Blurry?
5) How is the grain?
Checking to see if it's out of focus or if it's blurry is easy. Print your photo on an 8 x 10 sheet of cheap photo paper. Now check the focus and the blur. It will be easy to tell. Once you learn the basics on how to take a technically good photo, then you can concentrate on how to take great photos or artistic photos.
What separates the good photographers from the bad photographers on most sites and in most clubs is the technical quality of the images. Most good photographers only post and show technically good photos. Most of these same photographers have taken bad out of focus and badly exposed photos (as I have) they just choose to not to show them.
As a viewer when you see 5 good photos from a photographer, you will be inclined to think that the are a good photographer. The same five photos mixed in with ten bad photos will make you think that the photographer is not very good. Watch what you post and show! It's akin to dressing properly when you go to a job interview. It makes the first and biggest impression.
So, learn to be the first line critique of your images. Be hard on yourself and your photography will improve very quickly.
© 2013 Francois
(Version 2.00 - March 2013)
free to leave comments, corrections, ideas, thoughts or suggestions.