I wrote a guest post on http://modelbitch.blogspot.com/ a month ago and though I’d re-post it here as well.

No pictures, but I hope it’s interesting anyway:

This question arises on modelling and photographic fora all the time in various guises. Are Professionals good, or are they all bad? Are Amateurs bad, or are they all good? How many years of photographic experience do you need to be good? Is there a difference between photographic Art and Craft? Why is it that poor photographers manage to make living from their work, and the good ones don’t? Does good equipment, a good photographer make? And, crucially: what is “good”
Here I’ll give my view on most of those variants

The simple answer to ”what makes a good photographer” is “someone who takes good pictures”. And there is the rub. What makes a picture ‘good’? We all have different opinions on this as this is ultimately a subjective view. I’d guess that for the majority of the population the definition of a good photo goes something like this:

“A good photo should contain, somewhere within the frame, a reasonably clear likeness of someone I know or a place that I have been ”

There could be background clutter, slight blurriness, a stop or two of under or over exposure, poor composition, nasty colour casts…. or any other technical flaw that you could imagine. But as long as they can see a recognisable subject somewhere in there, and they know them, or it, they are happy.
As an aside, that probably answers the “Why is it that poor photographers manage to make living from their work, and the good ones don’t?” question. The sad fact is that most professional photographer’s work is judged against the above idea of ‘good’

Taking Good to the next level brings us into the “Camera Club/Photo Magazine” territory. Here the definition centres on technical competence:

“A good photo should be correctly exposed and composed in such a way to conform to the rules of photography as set down by over 100 years of tradition”

Note here that there is no emotional component to the definition, no artistic judgement, just a conformance with the technical norms.

The unfortunate truth for models considering working with photographers on sites like ModelMayhem and Purestorm is that this is the level of excellence that nearly all of the photographers there aspire to.
Many, of course, are way off this level and would probably struggle to meet the general public’s definition of good, let alone the camera club one! But the critique forums, magazine articles and
general expectations mean that this level of ‘Good’ is about as far as they can conceive as a goal. For models this might be fine for getting clear, clean portfolio shots so people wanting to hire them can see what they look like, but it will never get them a portfolio that makes people go wow!

The final level of good is what I call “Magazine Good”. It is stratified naturally with many sub-divisions of goodness, from the big fish in a small pond ModelMayhem and Purestorm stars, to the top end, huge fish in the ocean good, that grace the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Here the definition is simpler:

“A good photo makes you go wow! And has you coming back to look at it again and again.”

This definition is all about the emotional impact of the photo, which is often achieved (often much to the despair of the camera club type photographers) by stretching the rules, or ignoring them completely. It comes from a complete image, where subject, composition, lighting, and above all else a congruent sense of style come together to delight the eye and tug on our emotions.
For me this is what photography is all about

So how do people take those “Wow” images? Well, it’s all about vision. I get the sense that a lot of photographers thrash around during a shoot, moving lights, adjusting their camera settings, randomly changing a models wardrobe, make up and expression just hoping that something good will happen. Sometimes they might get lucky, but this is not how the really good images are created.

It’s like trying to write music. Some people just have a gift for it. Rhythm, melody and lyrics just form themselves in their head, and ‘all’ they have to do is realise that vision and pull it together into a song. Whenever I sit down with my guitar to try and come up with anything my head is empty and I just hit random chords and notes hoping that something will emerge….. and it never does.

Photography is exactly the same. Whenever I put my camera to my eye I have a vision in my mind of pretty much exactly what the finished, edited photograph will look like. This means I am working at realising that vision only, not trying to create it on the fly. Because of that I can see immediately if the realisation isn’t matching my vision: the light isn’t quite right, the pose is just ‘wrong’, the whole style and vibe isn’t there yet. So when I make changes it is with a purpose, I am converging on my vision.
That isn’t to say there is no room for spontaneity, often a random element with force it’s way into the Vision and change it slightly, or even dramatically. But the key is that you are working from a known baseline, variations on a theme not just random thrashing.

I do appreciate that all photographers work differently, but from those I’ve talked to over the years I am utterly convinced that without a clear vision beforehand of what you are tiring to achieve you will never create much that is truly good.

Professional vs. Amateur
Let’s get this one out of the way as well. There are two completely unrelated scales here:

Crap Photographer……>>>>…….through to……>>>>……Excellent Photographer


Amateur Photographer……>>>>…….through to……>>>>……Full Time Professional Photographer

Given what I said above about the majority definition of what a good photograph is you can easily see why there are many Full Time Professional Photographer’s making a good living producing what I would consider to be awful images. Basically my quality criteria are massively more stringent than their clients. So good luck to them.

On the other side of the coin there are loads of Excellent Photographers making superb images that never make a penny from their work because they do it purely for the love of creating Art.

This might be a contentious view, but I think experience has little to do with Goodness. There is a minimum level of craft skills that a photographer needs, but these can be gained pretty quickly (and by quickly I mean in a few months, not years). What do Aperture, Shutter speed and ISO do to how a picture looks; how do you work lights; what are the normal “rules”, and more importantly why do these rules exist and what are they shorthand for; And with people photography you probably to have to have at least a couple of shoots under your belt to work through the interpersonal aspects of a shoot.
To get to true Goodness, as I said above, you need a vision. And just like with music some people seem to come into photography with a fully formed capability to create that vision.

I’ll wander off down the well trodden side road of Film vs Digital for a short aside. For me this is the huge step forward with digital photography, it has worked to liberate a whole slew of artists and enabled them to create amazing work. With film learning the craft side of photography was a slow and laborious journey. Just the time delay from shooting and seeing the result slowed, or even prevented people grasping the basic skills. With digital we have instant feedback. So even if we haven’t really understood fully yet the relationship between aperture, focal length and depth of field, we can see on the screen on the back of our cameras that the background isn’t blurry enough so we need to open up the aperture, or use a longer lens.

So nowadays there really isn’t any excuse. If you have a Vision, and you have a camera you really ought to be able to realise that vision, even if you have only been shooting for a few months.

Other related areas of Goodness
From a models perspective there are other non photographic aspects of goodness that are probably at least as important as the photographic ones:

  • Is the photographer organised enough to actually arrange a shoot?
  • If working TF does the photographer actually give you any pictures? And if so within a reasonable time frame
  • Is the photographer respectful towards models (this covers a massive area)?
  • Does the photographer have the facilities and contacts to pull together a great team (depending on the Vision the team might just be the two of you, but it could involve MUA’s stylists, etc)?


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