Take a Bad Photo, Win a Trip to Thailand?

PinExt Take a Bad Photo, Win a Trip to Thailand?

Lightroom Contest 4 Take a Bad Photo, Win a Trip to Thailand?

by Gavin Seim: Adobe recently had a travel photo contest. The prize, a trip to Thailand with legendary photographer Steve McCurry. Yea, the guy who photographed Afghan Girl.

Matt Hardy once said – “Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.”

Adobe counted +Likes and gathered a panel of official judges to choose. The winner… this photo. You can see it larger here on Adobe’s page. There were many other entries, but this was chosen as the grand prize. I feel this is hurtful. Not only to the entrant, for it teaches them that quality does not matter. But to those who worked hard to enter quality work. It’s better to be honest with those that are learning, than to ignore a lack in quality. I would rather be improved by honest criticism than ruined by false praise.

How does the world’s largest professional photography software developer and it’s judges not know the difference between a photograph and a snapshot. As someone who has worked for fifteen years to understand photographics and light, I for one am not jealous; I am insulted and embarrassed.

For the record I did not enter this competition.  And the point here is not to insult the winner. I’m sure they will enjoy and learn from this trip. The point is that people need to understand a camera does not make you a photographer. People worked hard and entered quality work To award photo in this manner seems an insult to their efforts.

What’s Wrong With It:

Quite nearly everything. As a vacation snapshot, it’s perhaps acceptable. There is nothing wrong with a family snapshot. But we need to understand the difference between a snapshot and a photograph. This image won an international level competition. At that point it must be critiqued as such and compared to other entrants.

Great photos can be subjective. But that does not mean we ignore what makes them great. This photo has no subject, breaking the cardinal rule of a great image. A great photo has a subject. Usually just one. All other elements should be supporting cast. Is the subject little girl? The half cut off body taking the photo? Perhaps it’s the Oriental Pearl Tower, crooked in the frame. If we have to ask, the image has already failed.

When examined (something I have done over and over again) the picture feels of phone snap quality. It’s filled with artifacts and problems. The exposure is flat and dark and the sky is plain and boring. As journalism it lacks interest and as a street photo it lacks expression and spontaneity. Finally it fails at what is perhaps the hardest thing to put into words. It’s uninteresting and it does not tell a story.

Ansel Adams once said – “The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.”

While I don’t generally call out bad photos directly, I think this needs to be thought about. Everyone has cameras, but if in doing so, everyone becomes photographers, then the word photography no longer has meaning.

If we hold zero standards to the quality of art and use “art is subjective” as an excuse for everything, than the word art has no value – By calling everything art, by making everything great, we demean those who through effort and practice have mastered their skill.

NOTE: This is a news commentary. You are welcome to disagree and for obvious reasons I did not include the winners name. It’s not meant to be mean, but to raise awareness and get us thinking about quality and understanding the diffidence between a photo and a snapshot.

UPDATED: When this post was first made I had thought that looked like a phone photo. It is not. While the camera used makes little difference, some felt this should be disclosed. I have refined the post a bit to reflect this and things related to the ideas presented here.

So now that I’ve stirred the pot. Let the discussion begin.

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  • http://www.ebharding.com Eric

    I think you are being a little hard, at first glance I agreed with you, but the more I look at it the more I see.

    There is a message in the photo, the subject is the photographer (cutting the photographer off, draws your eye to them) taking a photo of the child, with the the tower behind them. (the travel sightseeing thing which should be the subject) Maybe they were looking for an ironic yet typical travel photo.

    Its not a great photo, but not as bad as you make it out to be, I’m sure the photographer will lear a lot from Steve McCurry, of that I am jealous.


    • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

      Eric, I disagree. It’s a snapshot no matter how we look at it. A photo has to have “A Subject”. But even if that was all that was wrong, this one has none.

      It is a low grade snapshot given a large award. That is not the way to teach new photographers have to excel.


  • Jonas

    Well Gavin, I think there is no denying that you are right in this case. In fact I can’t actually find anything I like about the pic (I choose that last word carefully). I’m not a photographer but I have an inkling about what it takes to make a great image after many years of amatourness and if that can win in a contest like this, well I feel I have grown and my images are perhaps not as bad as I thought.
    It just struck me though, maybe they selected the winning photographer that they thought needed the most help ?

    My 5 pence

  • Teddy

    Its not a phone snap ya bonehead. Did you take time to read the description?! Or google the winner’s name for a better point of view as to her scope and body of work? Nah. Though not.

  • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

    Teddy you are correct that it is not a phone snap. I have corrected that. Beyond that I think everything stands. It’s still a snapshot.

    Best… Gav

  • http://hiltonmeyer.wordpress.com Hilton

    The shot as you say is a snap shot. Saw the mud slinging over on Facebook and can see you are not the only one to have these feelings. The photo won with just 27 votes in the end. That is amazing. A contest like this?!?!? Well maybe they were just looking for someone that could benefit from winning the contest, thats about the only thing I can think of.

  • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

    Agreed Hilton. Like votes mean very little as a person can simply ask friend to like. Whoever is the most engaged with their friends wins.

    While Adobe has a right to give prizes to whoever they please, from a fairness perspective that should not get off so easy. This was not just a +Like contest. There was a panel of judges selecting images as well. Supposedly Steve was on this panel. That seems odd based on the how poorly it was judged.

    From the contest rules…
    “Steve McCurry and our panel of judges will select five finalists based on creativity, composition and story. Once the finalists have been chosen, your votes will determine the grand prize winner, who will receive:”

    As I wrote over on the LR page. There’s no need for us to be cranky about this. Honesty is all that’s needed here. But lets be clear. It’s not hating to call a bad image a bad image. It’s a kindness. Especially when that bad image just won a top award. The moment an image claims to be the best of the best, It’s fair game.

    If a work has been granted top honors, it can and should be judged on that claim by those with proper experience. It can no longer be judged as a cute vacation snapshot.

    It has been suggested that those who call this photo bad are mean, or bitter. I gave this further thought throughout the day and re-concluded that that truly is nonsense. I submit that the ones calling this poor are the most experienced among us who have been through these basics.

    Thankfully I did not enter this contest. I and many others have simply called out the lion in the room. This is a bad photo. The truth is it would not even make the keeper list for most experienced photographers. It should noted that judges were also involved in this selection. They should have done their jobs better.

    This was meant to be a “photo contest”. Not a family memories contest. The question is the photo. Not its back story or it’s caption. This photo breaks nearly every rule of a good image. Some will say rules are made to be broken. This is true, but only in the case when the maker understands those rules and where there is good reason to break them. Never as an excuse.

    Clearly this photo has meaning and memories to the maker. That’s great and in a family album there is relevance. But a good photo has to stand on it’s own.

    Ansel Adams once said – “The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.”

    There is a common misconception that a photo that has sentimental value, or bears great memories, or is cute, is a great photo on a professional or competitive level. This is not the case. In a photo competition an image must be judged on it’s impact and it’s own merit. Nothing else.

    As someone who has been doing this many years, who has judged images and who enters the very competitive PPA International Competition each year, I know how much work people put out make competition winning images. We don’t always agree with pro level judges, but we always learn something from it. As a snapshot this is passable. Maybe. As an award winning photograph it fails on near every level.

    By awarding this prize to a snapshot. A weak snapshot at that. Adobe has shown it’s lack of competence at being able to tell the difference between a good photo and a bad one. That’s not a good thing for an industry leader who should be educating and setting an example. Who should be helping raise the bar, not dropping photography to a deeper level of irreverence.


  • dbltapp

    Let’s assume that the folks who developed Lightroom weren’t involved in the judging.

  • http://www.kochfoto.com Jonah

    This is just another example of how the medium is being diluted with less than average work. Anyone and everyone is a photographer these days. It is just sad to see that no one seems to care about raising the bar anymore. They should publish the names of the judges. This also reminds me of the terrible picture publish of our Olympians.

  • http://www.kochfoto.com Jonah

    I just realized this was not a photography contest, it was a social media contest. To see who get the most likes ;-/

  • kelly

    Oh, Gav. You’re just being silly. You may not like it. That’s fine. And frankly, if art school taught me anything it’s that art will always be subjective and there will always be those who dismiss otherwise recognized art as trash.

    But this just smacks of bitterness to me. I’m not suggesting you are jealous, as you made it clear you were not a contestant. I just mean that your paternalistic “kind” honesty doesn’t actually offer a meaningful critique. It simply betrays that your idea of the definition of art is sadly limited.

    you write that “A great photo has a subject. Just one. All other elements should be supporting cast.” Are you being serious? Tell that to Weegee. Or henri cartier-bresson. Or Brassai. Or any talented street photographer in the history of the medium. Your statement is childish and reductionist. And your suggestion that this piece (which, while it doesn’t resonate with you, certainly appealed to the likes of Steve MuCurry) is a phone pic is just petty.

    I’m gonna have to side with Steve MuCurry over a bitter blogger. This piece is worth celebrating, and so is the diversity of artistry.

    • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

      Jonah is was not just a +like contect. They had a panel of judges as well.

      Kelly you are entitled to your opinion. But you are mistaken. I speak from experience. And yes, ONE subject. One subject could of course be a group, but it nearly always needs to stand on it’s own. The names you mentioned did this even in chaotic scenes. Is this rule ever broken? Perhaps. But the winner here is not an example of that.

      Your response suggests you lack experience in this area. My definition of art is wide my understanding of photographics is deeply studied. This is not about diversity in art. It’s about calling a photo that is poorly what it is. A bad snapshot. My critique is meaningful and honest (something this industry lacks) in saying every element of the photo is badly done. I actually was gentle on it. I look for positives when critiquing. But this was so poor that I could find none.

      I’m not bitter. But I am disappointed. This image winning such a contest is far beyond “art is subjective”. It’s more like a bad joke.


  • brianbot

    hurtful? get over urself dude. may have hurt your ego but lightroom made their choice. deal wit it.

  • Deshamer

    Gavin, even though I admire your work, use you presets and read alot of your articles, I have to agree with Kelly. You are on a very slippery slope when trying to define the boundaries of art or photography by the amount of years or hard work someone has put into it. It is simple, anyone with a camera could make an award winning picture, those that are photographers (by your criteria) just have more chance of creating one because of their experience (and tools). Same goes for art, if you create something (painting, sculpture, etc…) and call it art it is art. There is no club/judge/association/etc..that will check and give it an official art stamp. However, chances of your art ending up in a museum or art gallery is slim. This is where your skill and hard work come in…..and about this picture: I dont really find it very particullary interesting. But that is just my humble opinion (as is my comment above :-))

    • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

      Fair enough Deshamer. And you are welcome to disagree. But understand. I’m not defining the boundaries of art. I’m simply saying this is a bad photo. By nearly every accepted merit of what makes a good photograph, this one fails. I believe most experienced photographers would concur with that. But anyone has the right to disagree with me.

      If we hold zero standards to the quality of images and use “art is subjective” as an excuse for everything, than the word art has no value.

      The fact that you don’t find it interesting showcases how much it failed. Think about it. This is not a moms photo posted to her wall. This is the winner of an international competition. When an image is held up as being the best of the best, it must be judged as such.

      I can see only two reason to praise this image. One is if the critic does not understand photography or light (even then this is an easy one to call) and the other is that the critic assumes that since it was picked as winner, it must be good, so they need to praise it to fit in.

      In the end this one is an easy call. It’s a bad photo, nothing more. The overwhelming number of people whoa are shocked that this won shows it even further how poor it really is. That does not happen often. Generally people either praise an image or be silent. This image is far enough over the line that people are speaking. And rightly so.


  • Ryan

    Gavin, you may or may not have the open mind or skilled critical eye you claim, and you may or may not be a decent technical photographer, and you may or may not have license to declare the nature and purpose of art in the world today. But what is certain is that you are a very petty individual for creating an entire post to denigrate the work of a young aspiring photographer who will no doubt improve in the years to come, and whose other work and aesthetic you have never even seen, and as a result, been able to understand. I do hope you take the time to reflect on what you’ve achieved here.

  • Deshamer

    Posting from bed now as I could not sleep and kept on thinking about why this picture won. :-)

    Now I only saw the picture for a few moments when replying to your post earlier today, but even now I can still remember the picture. So eventhough I at first I did not find it very interesting it must have worked because I still remember it (and I try to see a lot of photos everyday but wont remember most of them after a few minutes)…..but why?

    I think because the picture tells a pretty clever story and whoever took it made some pretty good choices (or was just very lucky :-)). The picture tells the story of a woman photographing (with a pointandshoot camera) her little girl that is being held upright by her father. Thousends of people take this kind of photos every minute all over the globe making this a very universal theme. Now, in most cases this kind of photo is taken with a landmark in the background (to show off where they have been) or with no particular background (to just make a picture of their kid). By placing a (or another?) landmark behind the woman the photographer made it clear what was the case here. If we look at the quality of the photo again the photographer made some pretty good choises as it matches the quality of the photo in this story: strange composition with half cut off bodies and boring skies. All in line with the theme.

    Of course this is all my own impression/interpretation, but if you look at the picture like this then the picture is not a snapshot but a clever photo of a snaphot in the making. Which makes up a darn good story….now of course you might ask yourself why Adobe lets a photo like this win over photos that must have been using their software to show of their greatness. But that is a different story. :-)

    • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

      Deshamer I think you’re story here is much better than the image ;) But I also think the only reason this image is now memorable to you is because it’s a news story. Had you seen this passing through your Facebook stream I don’t think you would have given it a second glance, because it does not speak by itself. If an image has to be explained, it’s already a failure.

      I think we need to be careful not to give an image the credit of quality just because people are talking about it, or we’ve seen it enough times to remember it. Art by definition has aesthetic principles. I don’t feel the maker did any more here than make a snapshot. And not even a lucky one. One thing I’ve learned from entering observing serious professional level competitions, is that we cannot reward poor quality. It is a disservice to everyone involved.

      I would challenge anyone who defends this image to enter a State or National level professional image competition judged by credited international judges. I think it may change your perspective.


  • http://riccio.zenfolio.com Maurizio Riccio

    I very rarely enter photo contests and the debacle described above validates why I don’t. I had a particularly bad feeling about the adobe one, so I skipped it and I am glad I did. What’s surprising is how poorly people respond to criticism these days. When I went through art school I remember the carnage and brutality of peer reviews. It was a blood sport. If you couldn’t take that, you certainly wouldn’t make it in the art world.

    Nowadays we are surrounded by a bunch of whiny crybabies. Everybody has to feel good all of the time. Everything is great and wonderful and if you as much as sneeze, your swiftly labelled a “hater”. Give me a break!

    As far as the photo above, it speaks for itself, with a dozen words, maybe less. Anyway, calling it out as you did wasn’t such a good idea, I don’t think. Either you get it or you don’t. I would focus more on Adobe. I would tell them to stick with what they know.

    • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

      Your raise a good point on the criticism Maurizio. So many simply want to be told they’re amazing these days instead of being told the truth. It’s a part of why so few can actually make a profit.

      To really become a craftsman you must first learn to take criticism and learn from it.


  • http://www.digitalbiscuits.co.uk/ Oisin Connolly

    These facebook contests seem to be nothing more than a popularity contests. The outcome rarely reflects the actual quality of the works submitted in my experience.
    If you took 5 mins to get 100 of your ‘friends’ to like your shot, you have a better chance of winning than spending 5 years working hard at learning the technical and creative aspects of photography.

    It’s quite a shame that Adobe would hold such a contest.

  • Jeb Boyd

    Pointing out that this snapshot is just that, and nothing more is simply stating the truth. I know as a serious user of Adobe’s products I’m stunned by this “winner”. This *is* the type of situation that needs to be addressed as a bad tendency if photography as an art form is to be preserved. The photograph is a poor one, period. This statement is nothing more than a review of the standards of creating a technically good and well composed image. It has nothing to do with opinion, or jealousy, It simply meets none of the requirements of a good image.

    Ryan, you need to understand that simply pointing out the obvious in no way denigrates the person. To encourage someone whose work has yet to develop past this point will do them no good whatsoever if they’re told that this level of work is acceptable. One improves by learning the fundamentals of composition, light, exposure, and depth of field as well as other techniques, and this happens by honest critique. This image shows a lack of understanding of these basic points.

    That this snapshot won a contest is simply absurd.

    • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

      Well said Jeb… Gav

  • http://www.tilt-swing.com M. David Farrell, Jr.

    I find that the topics that have been discussed in this comment stream are much more interesting that trying to divine the reasoning that adobe used to choose this specific photograph.

    The comments and arguments made thus far speak very accurately about the speaker/writer as strongly as they argue for the author’s point of view. Reading arguments and comments from a variety of subjectivities and authors really shows the diversity in readership/listenership, as well.

    Interesting….very interesting ;-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/imagesbytori.net Tori

    Would look great on that little girl’s living room wall someday when she’s grown. As the winning photograph of a prestigious competition? I feel bad for those who took the time to create something truly special.

  • Marlo

    There’s lots of folks here making very final blanket statements. I see all the things Gavin doesn’t see. Maybe my eyes are open a little wider? At first glance, I agreed- crappy photo. But the more I looked the more I saw.

    When I read the blog post I almost get a feeling that it was written from the viewpoint of jealousy… You can tell me that you didn’t write it with a jealous feeling in your body, but when I read it, I get jealousy. Sorry. You wrote a crappy blog post. Maybe you should enter it into an international literary competition, you may win? If you do, I’m sure millions of writers will tell you it was a sucky blog post. You won’t feel that way.

    Get it?

    • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

      Hmmm. You’re entitled to your opinion Mario. But if at first glance you saw a crappy photo, it’s already failed. It has little to do with the wideness of your eyes.

      I’m actually an award winning writer, so I can relate to both sides very well. I enter both writing and imaging competitions on a regular basis and know how much work people put into them. That’s why it’s insulting to others when a carelessly made piece is given such honors. If you think my words are crappy, you have that right. If you think I’m jealous of this image, you also have that right. Though I think you’re just trolling, and I have that right too ;)


  • zeus1

    Look at the shot from perspective of visual flow. You will see it has exceptional flow. It tells the viewer where to look without the overused methods. Additionally the implied triangles are everywhere, trapping viewer in the shot. Furthermore, it stands out because it follows the typical composition rules in a creative manner. Most importantly, the shot immediately makes you think something, good or bad.

    • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

      Zeus this image does not have good flow at all. It’s filled with clutter, distraction and poor composition, weak lighting, lack of interest and lack of focal point.

      I am amazed we can be connived something of is quality simple because others say it is good. People look at something until they like it, eventually ignoring the faults that it contains. It goes to show that people need to really study their craft and not just assume or go with the easiest option.

  • Linda

    This type of judging just really peeves me off. Some of us work hard every single day to perfect this art. Yes, what one sees in a photo, may not be seen by others. But come on!! This photo actually won?!! There is no doubt in my mind that the judges truly didn’t care about this contest. If they were going by the likes then clearly this photo won due to “friend voting” which should not be allowed. I agree with you 100% on this Gavin. If I was in the competition I would be so very upset about this win. Not because I think I’m better, but clearly some one would be. What a shame and a down right kick in the ass to us true photographers.

  • Alex Sherrard

    I agree with Gavin that this picture winning such a large prize is sending the wrong message to people like me that are just entering the world of photography. I went to the Lightroom Facebook page and viewed several of the entries, there were many that blew my mind they were so amazing. The winning picture fell flat on my inexperienced eyes and confused me. I’m grateful that there are experienced people like Gavin that express their opinion, and also for the comments made regards his opinion. Without all of this honesty how would a person like me learn? Now, I’d like to read an article written by Steve McCurry and the judges explaining why they made the choices that they did.

  • Michael Jahnl

    Do I agree with the image having won the contest? No. Do I think this is a decent photograph? No. Do I see any appeal, other than my eye being drawn to the “peace” sign? No. Are there leading lines that guide me through the image? No. Is the lighting good, bringing structure to the image, depth, and contrast? No. Depth of Field? No. Rule of Thirds? No.
    However: Do I define the meaning of art? No. Does my opinion matter, other than to myself? No.

    I do have to give the artist one point, though: the theme was: “Around the world”. In a sense, the photographer accomplished his/her mission. An Asian family, in a North American town.
    However, whether the image indeed is worthy of winning an international competition, is purely in the eye of the beholder. As such, the panel has voted; who are we to contest their vote?
    If we, active photographers, disagree, it is upon us to do it better. To lead the way to better images. To raise the bar. To not submit something we would consider substandard to a contest.
    This time, the photograph many deem unworthy has won. I have no issue with that. I do however hope, that the artist makes exceptional use of their time with an internationally acclaimed photographer and comes back, knocking our collective socks off with their newly created images.

  • Pauly

    I’m just now seeing this photo, and have just now heard about the competition.

    I haven’t read the backstory, nor do I even know what the title of the photo is. I’ve read about 20 comments on the facebook page.

    This photo works on several levels. It’s a family photo clearly rooted in the location it was taken at- China. Since it WAS a travel photo competition, clearly indicating the location (without having to put it in the title). It’s also a commentary on the evolution of Chinese culture and how quickly things are changing.

    The photo clearly has a subject. It’s the family. Maybe that eludes a lot of people who used to seeing (and taking) photos of families smiling while looking straight at the camera, but the young Chinese is clearly proud of their daughter. For so long Chinese culture has been largely paternalistic and the females were not given the love and adoration the males were- obviously this is changing and you can see some of that here.

    The photographer has composed it so the girl is facing the Oriental Pearl Tower- a symbol of Chinese modernity, as if to salute the future of a more feminist, egalitarian future in China.

    To say it’s cluttered, distracting and lacks flow is absurd. It’s taken in a city. There are buildings in the background. it’s as ridiculous as suggesting that an outdoors portrait is cluttered because there are trees and leaves in the background. The sky was the was the way it was- to photoshop in a more interesting sky loses the entire point of street photography. It’s supposed to be real, and show us what it was like ON the day. You can’t help the sky Mother Nature gave you, and waiting for hours for a better sky just isn’t street photography.

    It’s obvious you either get this photo or you don’t.

    Obviously a panel of judges got it.