Road Train !!!!!!!!!!

by Russell McMahon

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As someone who's more technically minded than creative I find it hard to know what constitutes a good photo.

To me it almost seems like some type of voodoo trying to figure this out and my only logical thought of trying to get a sense of what's good is to consistently browse through portfolios on 500px.com of popular photos.

Is there some other way of 'training' yourself to get good captures?

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Wow... I'm afraid your question is going to be closed as too broad (though rather interesting). I regularly spend hours debating that with friends and we disagree quite often. There are some general criteria, but sometimes they don't apply. And even on a per-photo basis, people rarely agree. –  FredP Mar 7 at 9:08
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I actually don't think it is too broad. There's value is helping somebody understand how to develop creative taste. –  rfusca Mar 7 at 9:12
    
@rfusca Great :-) –  FredP Mar 7 at 9:14
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A related earlier question (which implicitly contains this one): Can one make good photographs with artistic sense but little real technical skill? –  mattdm Mar 7 at 9:28
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I think there's a difference here between the two questions. This is asking how to train yourself to identify these things and the other is asking for a technical list of things that make a photo good. –  rfusca Mar 7 at 9:35

7 Answers 7

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Generally speaking, you've hit the nail on the head.

How do you know what good sushi is? You go taste lots of sushi that is reported to be good!

How do you know what good photography is? You go study and look at photography that is reported to be good (and that you enjoy)!

If you're trying to photograph something without having a well defined sense of what you personally think is good, then you're setting yourself up for failure. You need to study other works in the field.

There's definitely no technical outline to what is creatively good.

The creative learning process in general can be well broken down into four steps (for nearly any creative endeavor, not just photography):

  1. Study. Learn everything you can about how to do the creative craft you're pursuing. Read books, read blogs, go to shows, ask questions, LEARN.

  2. Taste. You have to develop your sense of taste. You do this by consuming large amounts of other people's work who are highly regarded in the area that you are pursuing. If you don't know what is good, then you won't know how to make what you consider good. Since you've already studied in step 1 - look at the examples with an eye towards how they were done as well.

  3. Copy. Convince yourself to take the time to stylistically recreate some of the works you saw in step 2. This will help you hone your skills but not have the burden of being 'creative'. You'll learn muscle memory and pick up tons of little 'tricks' that only happen when you get out there and start 'doing it'.

  4. Create. Now that you have the knowledge, the taste, and the skills you can focus on creating your own works. Draw inspiration from what you've seen, what you would change while doing step 3, and in general the world around you.

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Ok, so I'm on the right track then. Trying to recreate some of what I see in photos has been challenging because for the most part the photographer doesn't give his techniques in the descriptions of the photos. –  VenomRush Mar 7 at 9:25
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You can ask on here how a specific technique in a specific photograph was done. People on here can help dissect it for you. –  rfusca Mar 7 at 9:31
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@VenomRush - there's a pretty good chance that if a photograph relies on a "secret sauce" to be good, then it's the sauce, not the meal, that's tasty (and that'll probably turn out to be mostly MSG, ketchup and corn syrup, which is why they won't let you into the kitchen). The honest, but unsatisfying, answer to the post-processing question for some of the best photos you'll see might be "well, I pulled the highlights back a bit and added +10 clarity". So while one photographer might be all about keeping secrets secret, another might be insulted by the suggestion that it's all Photoshop. –  user2719 Mar 8 at 12:32
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@VenomRush Personal opinion here, but I don't find 500px to be all that useful. The most popular photos there are all stylistically very similar (mostly HDR-ed out landscapes/cityscapes), and the comment system is filled with nothing but pointless "great photo!" comments, usually accompanied by a request to check out the commenter's own photos. You might see some nice pictures on 500px, but looking at that site alone is not going to expose you to a wide enough variety of styles. –  Norman Lee Mar 8 at 17:46
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@VenomRush "... no one seems interested in using their brain." That, unfortunately, extends well beyond both 500px and photography in general. Don't expect much, and you'll be less disappointed in your species. –  user2719 Mar 10 at 17:17

How do you get to know what other people consider "good creative taste" to be if you are just beginning in the field of image making?

Easy. Talk to people that know about it. Join a local photographer's organization. Go to exhibitions, buy books and get engaged. Volunteer at an art museum department that specializes in photographs or even get a job in a photo studio.

What seems to be overlooked in most of the other answers is that images are visual communication and as such it is absolutely important to talk to other people about it. Although I am not necessarily recommending that you start a college education to take pictures, one of the most beneficial aspects of structured learning environments is the community of people who give you direct feedback. Herein you will discover the personal development you seek.

These small conversations will help you to understand how your work is understood and will not only enable you to express your visions more creatively, but also to position them in the societal context that ultimately prescribes the "taste" you mentioned.

Whatever you do and wherever you seek your community there is only exactly one way to fail to develop your creativity: By giving up. Statistically speaking, the best guarantee you can have of not failing is to keep going further. That is why I tell all of my students to "Stop liking what you know and strive to know things you don't understand."

Good luck!

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Visual communication is difficult for me. I struggle trying to figure out how to communicate an emotion that you can't really describe with words, let alone do so in a photograph. –  VenomRush Mar 10 at 9:14
    
The easy solution is not to try to communicate emotions, but rather to let emotions communicate themselves. What I mean is that emotions are very real reflections of the human experience and using metaphors or tropes will probably position your work in the "uncanny valley" of trite Hallmark cards. Don't use an image as a surrogate for words, but keep the shutter-release half pressed in order to capture that exact moment where feelings are being expressed. –  denjello Mar 11 at 10:54
    
I can give it a try. I certainly want to avoid being placed in the Hallmark category. –  VenomRush Mar 11 at 12:14

You develop creative taste the same way you develop taste in anything... through consumption, creation, and refinement.

I'm going to be charitable and assume you want to develop your personal taste and vision, and not a taste for what the 'market' desires. I can't help you with that, as I've spent a lot of time trying to ignore those voices.

So to develop your own taste and vision in photography, go to photo shows and galleries, and notice what really excites you and what doesn't. Try to understand what it is about pieces that you find exciting or otherwise. And don't limit your perusal to photography... you can learn a lot from painting and other art forms as well.

Try not to pay attention to what other people like... that is a direct path to mediocrity. Pursue your own passions and vision.

(This is the same strategy I recommend for folks asking me how they should develop their taste in wine.)

Be patient with yourself... the improvement in your personal style will be incremental. A year from now go back and look at your past work. You'll find three things...

  • You've improved.
  • You'll find that some of that work was better than you thought at the time.
  • You might also see that you had already started towards your personal vision, but you didn't recognize it a year ago.
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I've been doing this already, just haven't been doing enough of it I guess. –  VenomRush Mar 12 at 7:08

taste is not objective, unless you specify the rules of estimation (en even there, this is not sharp and limited).

there are also 2 ways to take this notion of taste:

  1. What YOU like, so your taste maybe to refine or explore in this area
  2. Taste of other for different point of view (by ex: quantity sales, special request, popularity, ...)

in both case, taste are evolving and change with time.

Some people make picture naturally appreciate by other (and/or themself) without any theoritical notion of pictural technic and other with a large background that will never put any soul/life in their technicaly good picture (until someone like this kind of picture).

to have an comparaison, music is consider as boring / funny / irritating or very inspiring , ... depending of context and people. The first rock singer was devil in his time and consider as puppy compare to some song of today on lot of radio.

rfusca give you a very good process and the main word FMHO is to test and test until you found something speaking to yourself and then work on this base. One of the "missing" point is the critic. "why/what I like/dislike my picture" and try to make the next one better including your reflexion.

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What establishes a good photograph is pretty subjective in my opinion. Photography like art is down to personal taste.

I would say that a good technical knowledge of how to correctly expose is required. I'm not saying that a photographer should know all the ins and out about his camera but, in terms of depth of field, white balance, exposure etc the photographer should know how to correctly manipulate them.

However, if you just learn the technical side of things, you will learn how to take very technically accurate photos that maybe of little interest. I would say this - you need to learn the rules of photography to break them and change things around.

Don't fall into the trap of having to have your photographs "liked" on online platforms in order to believe that you are doing something worthwhile. You can get opinions from people and constructive criticism but, it essentially boils down to your personal taste.

Steven

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A lot of people say I should be breaking the rules but what are these rules? Give me an example of some please? "Break the rules" is just so vague. –  VenomRush Mar 10 at 9:49
    
What I meant is something like this - digital-photography-school.com/break-the-rule-of-thirds –  user26683 Mar 10 at 13:11
    
So when people say "Break the rules" they're simply talking about the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio? –  VenomRush Mar 10 at 13:31
    
No, I mean breaking the rules in general. That was just an example. What I mean is like a painter, instead of using brush strokes, he or she flicks paint at a canvas. I.E the painter has already learnt how to do art but instead of applying paint to the canvas with strokes, paint is thrown onto it. Do you see what I mean? –  user26683 Mar 10 at 14:20
    
I do but it just makes no sense to me. It's like saying to someone "Learn all these rules for this <thing>. Now don't obey any of them." But people will undoubtedly tell me that you learn 'how' to break the rules, but how do you know the right or wrong way to break the rules? Aren't you then creating rules to break the other rules. –  VenomRush Mar 10 at 15:29

Apart from everything that's already been said, there's an older art form called "painting" that can help a lot to learn about photography.

It's completely different, yet humans have been painting since… well, it's been a couple thousand years, and for the last 5 ~ 6 centuries some really bright people have spent their lifetimes experimenting with light, color, anatomy, movement, composition etc.

There's a reason why we have a "Rembrandt" light, there's a reason why we talk about chiaroscuro. The not-to-be-discussed-again Rule of Thirds and that other nasty discussion subject, the Golden Rule -- discussed here elsewhere with some great insights -- … those also come from painting and most of the basics come from the Renaissance.

Not everyone makes a quick jump from paintings to photography, but it's my personal opinion that if you take the time to go to a museum and look at paintings from a photographic point of view, you'll find out new things about photography and you'll probably find you some very interesting things about Art in general.

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I did art in high school so I understand and agree with your comment. Thanks ;) –  VenomRush Mar 26 at 7:22

This is a question that I have been working on for years and I am sure, many photographers are out there. After about almost 8 years or so of trying to find out what I want to express, I am finally getting to my vision, mission and artist's statement. I think expressing these in some form or other is critical, but one should also allow this to grow and evolve. Here are some things that I practice:

  1. Creativity, as they say with most things, is over-rated and over-emphasized. If you look at highly creative people discuss their work, or see them in action (and it may very well be you, just underestimating yourself), be highly technical about their work. At least in photography, creativity cannot exist without technique. Composition can truly succeed only when you know what you want AND how to get it. So that way, I would say, you are half way there if you have a technical slant.

  2. Secondly, creativity is also highly subjective. Rather than wait around for others to deem your work creative, figure out what it means to you. Keep a journal - and it can be photos others have taken, sketches of what you want in your photos (this is how movies are made after all), and other creative works of art.

  3. Next, nothing beats practice, practice, practice. You should look up techniques and practice them. Pick favorite subjects and keep going back to them. Go at different times of the day. Try a film camera. Shoot IR. Figure out what you want. You will also have to refine whether it is creative composition, creative lighting, creative camera techniques, or a combination thereof is what you want.

  4. Share your work. Look at others' work. Ask questions. Upvote them. Leave comments. Encourage. Vocalize and verbalize what about specific photos or portfolios moves you. This will start giving ideas of what you like and what you are looking for. Ask for feedback. Be gentle in providing feedback, unless people are open to brutal feedback (I am, for example). Go on social networks. Go to galleries. Go look up street art. Go to workshops, or go shooting with others.

  5. Another thing to do would be to take up a secondary hobby that is not time-consuming. Techniques are partially transferable, and so are composition tricks. Painting, ceramics or some other form will probably help get you unstuck with rigmaroles in your own practice.

  6. Finally, I will close out with my favorite: You need to break the rules. To break the rules, you need to know the rules. You could look at the rule of thirds, for example, lovingly referred to by those chagrined over decades as "rule of t*rds". Now, in engineering, we love symmetry, albeit for other reason. If you start with a symmetric mold, you can reduce the amount of work and the amount of mistakes in your final product. There is nothing to say, a half way split wont make a great photo. It breaks the rules, and perhaps that is what makes it creative!

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Could not disagree more - "Creativity, as they say with most things, is over-rated and over-emphasized." I think being technical is overrated. Its easy to be technical, its much harder to be creative. It sounds like you're advocating to suddenly just start creating work. Its near impossible for most people to do that. Its especially difficult to do that if they don't consider themselves to have good creative taste. Its like being a chef, but refusing to taste dishes you haven't created. –  rfusca Mar 7 at 16:41
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Have you read the entire post? It appears you have not. –  Srihari Yamanoor Mar 7 at 17:58
    
I have. If you're referring to number 4, it doesn't really 'work' for me because you're advocating that they should have already developed their taste. –  rfusca Mar 7 at 18:03
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I think what @SrihariYamanoor is getting at is that knowing some of the technical aspects of photography lends a great deal of ease to the creative process. It's like learning to draw. There are techniques that help improve your creative skill by leaps and bounds and if you didn't know these technical aspects your drawings would still look horrible. I certainly know that my photography improved hugely after I learned all of the technical knowledge I know now. But it does only get you so far. Hence my original question. –  VenomRush Mar 10 at 9:43
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I fully agree with @VenomRush and his read of this answer. Rfusca did not get it, imo. –  Esa Paulasto Mar 17 at 13:02

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