How to Value Content Over Quality in Your Photographs
What you create is more important than the perfection by which you create it. In this episode, we talk about how shooting with your heart creates more meaningful images than shooting with technical precision.
When is a flawed photo a keeper?
This is a question asked while evaluating every single frame before hitting the delete button. It’s built into the workflow; what stays, what goes, and why. What merits being flagged as a winner in spite of, or because of flaws and how do you recognize it?
There are dozens of pieces to the puzzle that, when put together, form an amazing image. The direction and quality of light, the composition, the focal length, aperture, shutter speed, movement of the subject and so on. But it isn’t simply the act of putting together perfect pieces that creates a perfect whole.
It is the impact, the power, the beauty of that whole image that makes the perfection of each piece worthwhile, or the imperfections of each component forgivable. Noise, blur, lens flare, composition that cuts part of the subject out of the frame, over-exposure or under-exposure, and other flaws can be overlooked or even used as a bonus if they are part of an image that has a soul. A body can have all the right parts — limbs, eyes, ears, heart and brain — but that doesn’t make it a living being.
It takes everything working together, plus something unexplainable, some spark that gives it life. No matter how pretty the parts, there has to be that touch of magic to make it work. And so it is when creating a photo that touches viewers.
How do you know when your image has that spark? That’s the challenge brought to each and every editing session.
Highlights From This Episode:
- A photo is always, always greater than the sum of its parts.
- There are two ways to measure the success of an image. If it sings to you, and if it sings to others.
- Even the photographer can see something worth keeping one moment, and nothing the next, then back again.
- A winning photo comes down to the emotional reaction it draws from viewers. Full stop.
Brian Skerry's Story
Brian Skerry has just about the best story I've ever heard on this topic. His most recognizable photo nearly never saw the light of day because one editor didn't care for it. This is the story he told me several years ago during an interview:
“Probably my most iconic picture is of the southern right whale and the diver. I was down in the southern Antarctic in winter time on an 80-foot sailboat for three weeks, dealing with all kinds of bad weather and diving in a dry suit. These whales had never been photographed before. It was a very speculative trip; the Geographic really rolled the dice when I convinced them to charter the boat and send me down there. I had this new experience, I had all these whales around me and I had these great pictures. I came back to the main island of New Zealand after three weeks and I had to fly to Honolulu where I was doing a three week reef expedition, so I was in my hotel room getting ready to leave for the boat. I got an email from my editor who said, ‘So Brian, how did you do with the whales?'
I was all proud of myself, and wrote back, saying I think we did really great and we have stuff that’s never been seen before, and I attached a jpeg of that picture with the diver and the whale. I needed to check out of the hotel and get to the boat but I was very anxious for this email that I was sure was going to come back with just heaps of praise telling me how great I was and how wonderful it all was and I was the greatest thing to ever happen. And I got back this cryptic sort of reply that just said, ‘What else do you have.' That was it. Five words. I was crushed.
That photo has since become a life of its own. They made a little video about it that’s on YouTube that’s had 23 million views. Geographic has used it on their flag, they’ve used it in their exploration issue years after it was published. But I had to lobby when I was doing layout with [my editor] and the layout designer to get that picture in there. Fortunately, the number two person at the magazine in charge of layout loved it and he said, no that’s got to be in the magazine. But the point of the story is that my editor, whose opinion I value so greatly — she’s a dear friend and a wonderful, wonderful editor, and in 17 years of working with her I’ve maybe once or twice had a disagreement about a picture — but there was a picture that was my most iconic, most famous picture of all time and it almost didn’t get into the magazine because she thought it was redundant and she liked another one that I had that was similar that was just the whale by itself. It is very subjective.
You know I used to believe when I first began that a picture had to be perfect. The fish had to be within the four borders of the frame and I couldn’t cut off a tail or I couldn’t cut off a fin. I’ve learned that those things are less important in terms of a good photojournalistic picture if the photo has energy, or if there’s some grace or gesture in the picture. If it speaks to you or it speaks to people then it’s okay if you don’t see the whole animal, if the tiger is cut off and you only see a blur of him running through a field or something. Those things are alright because it’s about that energy. Photography is about truth to a large extent, it’s about your experience out there in nature in the wild and if a shark kicked up a bit of sand as he swam over and it’s off to the side of the frame or wherever it is it’s alright. We publish those pictures all day long because it’s real, it's the way it happened. It is about content over quality.
I firmly believe photography for the most part is subjective. Understanding light, how light works, and how you can use it as a photographer, understanding composition, knowing that 50 photographs with the subject smack in the middle like a bull’s eye isn’t particularly interesting. Understanding the fundamentals of photography is essential if you want to be a serious photographer. Knowing those essentials means you can also break them.”
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Episode 017: How to Value Content Over Quality in Your Photographs
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
I want to tell you about something that happened to me about a year and 1/2 ago. So I'm sitting at my dining room table and I have my computer up in front of me and I'm importing images into lightroom. See, my friend and I had just gotten back from photographing American dippers at one of my favorite spots, and we had this really cool pair that were doing some great behaviors. They were defending their territory on this little stretch of Creek from a third Dipper, so they had been really active with, like calls and posturing and chasing and flying around while also feeding. So at one point, one of the dippers had run across the creek right in front of me, and I had followed it as quickly as I could, and I was waiting to see if any of those images turned out. So finally, the images import onto my laptop and there's the series. There's that moment in the series of images, and one of the best ones in that series was ruined. The dipper was already running out of frame. It was a bit under exposed because I was panning from light to dark, and I just I looked at it and my heart dropped. And I remember so very clearly feeling really disappointed and thinking off this one. You know, I can't salvage. I love this shot, but I can't salvage it is breaking too many rules.
So I go and I show my boyfriend He's like, That's a really good shot. You've got to keep that shot. There's there's nothing wrong with it And I'm thinking, Yeah, yeah, yeah, You know, you're being really supportive, but I'm waving off his praise because I am looking at the shot and thinking, Oh, it's it's a rule breaker. I can't, you know, use this. Well, I just couldn't bring myself to let it go. I really loved this shot. The Dipper is poised so beautifully it's in mid leap across the water. Its head is up, its bill is open. It's a really unusual body position to see for a dipper or even any other songbird. And I just love this shot. It's full of personality and interest, so I go ahead and I crop it vertical. It's cropped pretty tight. It's never gonna be a submission into an awards contest But you know what? It makes my heart happy. So I keep this photo.
Well, eventually, that photo ended up in the hands of an editor at Audubon Magazine, and she loved it, too. And it is now in last winter's issue of the magazine. So I wasn't the only one whose heart was happy looking at this photo. In fact, everyone that I showed it to, including a magazine editor. I really loved it, despite the fact that it breaks a lot of rules now.
For years I've talked about valuing content over quality in images. It's more about the soul of an image that matters than about technical perfection. You can have noise, you can have blur. You can have a little bit of softness as long as what's in the image is powerful enough to overcome those technical imperfections. And I am not alone in this perspective of valuing content over technical quality, either. Quite a few years ago, I interviewed Brian Skerry. He's a National Geographic photographer who creates some truly extraordinary underwater images, and the conversation revolved around his favorite images that were also almost considered junk. But they've become iconic images, asked several other professional photographers about their take, and it was all the same. Content wins out over quality Every time
in this episode, we are talking about how when you're in a dipper moment, just like I was, you can avoid making the grave mistake of tossing an image that speaks to people all because it's technically in perfect. We're going to make sure that you don't make that mistake and that you gain the confidence in shooting and editing with your heart, not your head, because that is where the real magic happens. Let's dive in.
Welcome to impact the conservation photography podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch. And if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place, from conservation to creativity, from business to marketing and everything in between. This podcast is for you, conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in
Here is something as photographers, we should all live by. What you create is more important than the perfection with which you create it. I'm just gonna say it one more time because it is so important to the way that we need to approach our photography. What you create is Maur important than the perfection with which you create it. So what are you putting out in the world that changes people? That makes a difference. I guarantee that when you come at it from a place of authenticity and empathy and creativity and vision and heartfelt truth nous to the subject that imagery that you create will be more powerful than if you put out technically perfect work that lacks heart and spirit. It's about what your photos say, so much more than if their tax sharp or noise free in a day's worth of work. I would rather see you churn out a really cool photo essay that has maybe less than perfect but super compelling images. Then, if you were to spend that same day trying to get one single, technically perfect image, and I think that you would rather do that, too.
So how do you know that a flawed photo is a keeper? So in my dipper example, why was that technically imperfectly image? Something that was so compelling? Well, this is a question that I've asked while evaluating every single frame before hitting the delete button it's built into my workflow. What stays, what goes and why. What merits being flagged as a winner in spite of or because of flaws and how do you recognize it? There are dozens of pieces to the puzzle that, when you put them all together, form an amazing image. There's the direction and the quality of light, the composition, the Focal length The aperture shutter speed movement of the subject and so on. But it isn't simply the act of putting together perfect pieces that creates a perfect hole. Ah, photo is always always, always greater than the sum of its parts. It's the impact, the power, the beauty of that whole image that makes the perfection of each piece worthwhile, or the imperfections of each component forgivable. So noise or blur lens flare composition that cuts part of the subject out of the frame, over exposure under exposure. And all these other flaws, they can potentially be overlooked or even used as a bonus if they're part of an image that has soul. Ah, body can have all the right parts limbs, eyes, ears, heart, brain. But that doesn't make it a living being. It takes everything working together, plus something unexplainable, some spark that gives it life. And it's the same with photographs. No matter how pretty the parts are, there has to be that touch of magic to make it work. It's all about the soul of that image, something that I've talked about in past episodes. And so it is when creating a photo that touches viewers. You know that it is gonna make an impact when that photo has soul. If it has that soul, those technical imperfections are fine. So how do you know when your image has that spark? That is the challenge brought to each and every editing session.
There's two ways to measure the success of an image. There's if it sings to you and if it seems toe others, the first is easy to know. I mean, you recognize it when you see it. It's a gut feeling. When I looked at that image of the Dipper, I loved it. But then I started to get overwhelmed by all those technical imperfections on what people were going to say about it, and I was breaking rules and done it. It, uh, but I knew when I saw it that that image had something special. Even when sorting through the images that just missed the mark that you were originally aiming for in composition or quality. They might still have hit another, more emotional target, and you end up walking away with the winner anyway. Now the second way that you can tell if a image has that spark is a little more difficult to gauge and to predict. Sometimes photos are a complete success, and everyone seems to love it. But there's been many times when an image I thought was nice but not exceptional was actually a favorite among viewers, and then another that I ranked as one of my favorites from a trip or a field session was just given a shoulder shrug from others that I showed it to. But I believe that there's value in that as well. In having an image that is just for you, that's still important, even if only, you really appreciate it. I mean, it is all about filling your soul with what you're doing in photography, too, right? But measuring if it seems to others is a really key way to know if a photograph has that spark that makes it something exceptional, despite imperfections.
But let's back up for just a moment to the original question of how you recognize that spark that makes an image worth keeping when you when you know that you should value the content over the shot over the quality of the shot. It is deeply personal on one level, and yet it's completely universal on another level, because a good photo is a good photo after all right, but there's the rub. Even the photographer can see something worth keeping in one moment and nothing in the next and back again. Have you ever been in an editing session where you go back into your archives and you find a really great image that you had just passed over and thought was junk in a previous editing session? I bet you have. I certainly have. I have found great value in going easy on editing sessions, doing maybe 4-5 sessions with a more forgiving I when narrowing down a group of photos rather than doing one or two sessions that just ruthlessly go through anything substandard while zeroed in on a high bar in technical quality. And this gives me the chance to see the same group of images while I'm in different emotional states.
In fact, one of the things that I teach my students in my workshops and my conservation photography 101 online course is kind of how I go through that editing process and I'll go through once and select anything that I think is worth looking at a second time. And then I'll go through them again and select anything I think is worth editing. And then I go through again after I've edited and select anything that I think is worth showing other people. So the same images get multiple opportunities, and another thing I do is never delete. This is something a lot of professional photographers have taken on is you don't delete your images. One. It's time consuming, and two, you lose the opportunity to go back and find gems in your archive. Now, eventually, only the images that speak to me on every level in every mood are those that stay. Those were the ones that I show others. Those are clearly the most powerful. But I also know that I've reduced the odds of deleting a great photo just because it had some blur or lack of sharpness, that overall problem that may not actually matter so much. Imagine if I had deleted that dipper shop because I just said, Oh, technically in perfect gone, I never would have had something that spoke to so many people and ultimately ended up in a magazine. Now, more than once, I've looked through those deleted images, those ones that I just pass over and just leave on a drive untouched. And I have found images that I changed my mind about. And thankfully, I have that safety net of getting an image back that I failed to see the power of the first time around.
Now, can a viewer have that same experience? Can they see an image once and be unimpressed because of technical flaws? But then again, in a different mood there moved by the same photo or vice versa. Maybe they're moved by it, and then they go back and then, you know, maybe don't think so much of it. It is subjective. It is oh so subjective and mulling over just how subjective photography really is brings us back to the earlier question of gauging success based on if an image sings to you and if it seems toe others. Brian Skerry, who I had that conversation with, has just about the best story I've ever heard on this topic. One of his most recognizable photos nearly never saw the light of day because one editor didn't care for it. I am going to go ahead and add the quote from him from that conversation. This was for an article that I wrote a while back a minute. Include the entire quote from his story in the show notes. So if you want to read about which image that is, just go to the show notes for this episode, and you'll be able to see that story in his own words. Now, Ah, winning photo comes down to the emotional reaction that it draws from viewers. Full stop. All right now, let's say a photo speaks to you and only you. It summarizes everything that you felt and saw during that moment. When you click the shutter and every time you look at it, you are transported back to that experience. But it isn't something that you can or will publish. It's just not an image that's going to go the distance with an audience will then what? These images are entirely and completely for you, and they are of profound value. Just because they aren't to be published doesn't mean that they aren't worthy of keeping and displaying. It's these photos, after all that feed the creative spirit and fuel that drive to go out and photograph again and again and again. I definitely connect with this strategy. I have quite a few framed photos on my walls that aren't of interest to anyone but me. But when I look at them, I get a little thrill up my spine. My shutter finger twitches just a little bit, and I think that's why I pick up my camera.
I've heard many photographers go on at length about how important it is to shoot below a certain ISO to keep the noise low or to Always use a tripod to minimize any shake, or you have to zoom in 100% to make sure that an image is truly tax sharp. But, you know, I have found that when I need hi s o to get the shot when a tripod is holding me back from moving quickly enough to follow a subject or when a photo is fuzzy at 100%. But it prints just fine as an eight by 10. Then I am more than okay. With that. It's more important to me to have an image that feels right. That draws a reaction that has soul, because without that nameless spark that hint of magic that brings a photo alive that allows the viewer to connect on a wordless, instinctual level than having all the technical elements be perfect doesn't matter. In the slightest. There's a lot that you can fix in post processing. You can reduce noise. You can bump up the clarity and sharpness. You can bring up the shouters. You can restore the highlights. You can work on a less than perfect image to make it a bit better. But there is no slider for increasing the soul of an image, and I choose to focus on getting that right when I shoot the hone my skill in this most important area and let the technical prowess follow in the practice. All of that can come in the field over time as you work and work and work to build your skill sets.
But if you cannot shoot with heart and soul, if you can shoot with your heart as much or more than your head, then your images run the risk of being technically perfect and totally boring. So I urge you when you go out and shoot, and when you come back and you look at those images, trust your gut. If your gut says Ah, but I love this image, it means something to me. Or if someone that you show it to reacts, it means something to them. Then find value in that image, even if it's less than technically perfect. Just remember content over quality, content over quality. That is what is most important now again, I am going to go ahead and put that entire story from Brian Skerry on the show notes, because it is so worth reading. He cracked me up and also inspired me by telling this story. So head on over to the show notes and check that out. And remember, what you create is more important than the perfection by which you create it. Make sure that what you are putting out in the world changes people, makes a difference sings to you and sings to others and technical perfection that can follow. All right, happy shooting and I will talk to you next week
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