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Why So Many “Professional” Photos Look So Bad!

by Gavin Seim (rev 03/14): I’m seeing so many bad photos posted as professional these days. People are trusting us with their time, dignity and money as they are photographed looking awkward, uncomfortable and often downright foolish. I am genuinely embarrassed. Not only for my industry, but for people and their families. They look ridiculous.

I’ve realized why these poor images are often even worse than snapshots: A snapshot is not pretending to be something artistic, creative, or edgy. It’s role is simply to be a memory, and it fulfills that role quite well.

I post this to remind those with experience to make sure we’re offering quality to our our clients. We are supposed to produce art they will want to keep, but I see and endless stream of bad images. Sometimes so-called professional images are so bad that a child could do better. People are pointing cameras and thinking they will do the work for them.

We cannot simply pull ideas for posing, lighting and composition out of thin air, with no aesthetic understanding of our subject. That is like builders throwing hammers at a pile of wood and expecting a mansion to appear. I see mothers who look fat, babies who look like Oompa Loompas, kids who look angry and dads who look like slobs because someone who was poor at their craft propped them up like badly drawn cartoon characters.

I love helping people learn. I’m not posting this to be hurtful, just to be real. It’s important that we’re honest with ourselves and clients. A doctor does not open their practice until they’re trained. A carpenter that opens a home improvement business without knowing how to improve homes is doomed to failure. Digital has not made great photography easier. It’s only made taking pictures easier.

These days it’s not easy, no matter how much experience you have. But some the best advice I can give to people starting out is don’t become a professional photographer until you are professional level. Having that camera means nothing. I’m not defining exactly when you become experienced enough. For most of us, it takes years, just like it does to become a doctor, a carpenter or just about anything else. You learn the basics first. Then it becomes your job and you keep learning.

This applies to all fields. A person should not be in business until they can make the product they claim they can. They should not have a website with prices offering services they are not qualified to give. They should not claim the title of those who spend years and decades mastering a craft, when they have no experience in that craft. There are different levels of professionalism and we don’t need to be perfect to go pro. But we do need to actually be photographers before we call ourselves photographers. We need to know the fundamentals of how to make quality images of whatever our subject might be.

If you don’t know the difference between f16, ISO800 or 1/160th, if have no idea how to light a 3:1 ratio or how to key strobes for a blue sky at noon, if you don’t know how to make your subject sharp enough for a thirty inch print, how to pose a woman so she feels beautiful and a man so he feels strong, if you don’t know what to do with the clutter in the background or how to compensate your exposure value, chances are you’re not ready to be a photographer professionally – There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with snapshots. There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur. You’re learning and that’s just fine. Keep at it. If you want to call yourself a photographer, take the time to learn how first.

You don’t start as a photographer. You start learning to become one – Gavin Seim

Further Reading…


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.

Video. Master Portraitist Ken Whitmire – On Photography

by Gavin Seim: I worked with Ken recently on a promo video for his Wall Portrait Conference (incredible workshop by the way).

So after the clips for the promo, ken just say down and chatted on various topics I promoted him on. I’ve pretty much removed myself from this and what remains is about 17 minutes of gold, as this renown portrait photographer talks about out craft and how he see’s it.

Ken’s really neat guy with more photographic awards that you want to count. But he’s always eager to learn new things and share ideas. It’s really cool. You can also view the HD version YT.

12 Tips for New & Aspiring Photographers.

By Gavin Seim

A few people think of me as a cranky old photographer who picks on newbies. This is probably because I’m pretty blunt, and I’ve written articles like A Style & Why Most Photographers Don’t have One and Stop Camera Abuse.

They have just not gotten to know me. Truth is, I’m just a guy in my late twenties, and it was not that long ago that I was starting out. I know what it’s like. I study a lot, know a lot of the hassles that can be avoided, and I see what’s happening in photography today. So I won’t simply play the part of a feel-good guy who says everything is great no matter what. We all deserve honesty.

Encouragement is a valuable thing, but there’s a lot of patting on the back going on because people don’t have the guts to be honest with their peers. In the end, the truth often comes out in the fact that they can’t make it in business. I say going bankrupt is terrible way to realize how hard photography is. Best to get to the hard truths right off, so you can make a business plan that works.

So that said, here are some thoughts–some observed, some learned the hard way–for newer and aspiring photographers. I’m going to be a little blunt, so don’t take it personally. It’s OK to be starting out. But you deserve honesty, and that’s exactly what you’ll get today.

It’s not like it was. Let’s face it. The standard of excellence is higher than ever. Everyone is doing photography. Yes, you can learn to take “good” photos pretty quickly. But so can everyone else. And with so many people doing just that, nearly as many trying to go into business, and a lot of those working for next to nothing, the market is totally saturated, and the value of photography has been driven to an all time low. But don’t lose heart. There is a market, but you need a brand and something with unique value to offer. You’ll need quality, personalty, and business skill to boot, or you’ll just be working for peanuts producing the same stuff everyone else is.

1. Take the Time.
You won’t be Ansel overnight. Don’t stress about it. Becoming a really experienced photographer takes training–a lot of it. It will not happen overnight. It probably won’t even happen in two or three years. Not that you won’t be taking good photos in that time, but don’t expect them to be the most amazing things every time. If you want to rise above just keep getting better. Keep training. Because you can, and you’ll feel great about that progress.

2. Don’t Rush Into It.
Make a clean, simple site where you can show your work and get feedback. Then keep at it, but take it easy. Don’t feel like you have to rush out and book gigs. It’s OK to be a photographer for the sheer joy of it, just learning, sharing, and having fun. As soon as you start hiring out, you’ll have to spend more time managing a business than making great photos. A lot more. In many ways, it’s actually less enjoyable when it becomes a job, even if you still love it. Continue reading ’12 Tips for New & Aspiring Photographers.’

Why You NEED the Zone System for Digital…

And How it Can Change Your Life in 15 Minutes.

by Gavin Seim: Original article from Gavin’s f164 journal. (updated 11/15/11).

This may be the most valuable piece I’ve written on photography. In the last year, I’ve started working with 4×5 film and digital side by side. I’ve also explored extensive exercises in tonal control, truly learned to visualize, and implemented key parts of the Zone System that was developed by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer, both in my film and my digital work, in color and black and white.

The idea of visualizing and using Zones is not promoted heavily today. It seems much of the industry, including many of its educators, arrived at digital and decided that the past 150 years of photographic knowledge were somewhat irrelevant. What I’m about to show you is not taught much, but understanding it WILL change your photography forever. I’m not kidding; once you get this, you’ll never see light the same way again. And I hope you’ll share it with others.

Sunsets Hidden Falls. Yosemite, 2010 - A general look at where I placed the scene elements in relation to the Zones. Each arrow leads to what I see as the zone on the scale.

I’m going to stay simple because these concepts are essentially simple. I have not come up with a new digital based zone system, a stripped down version, or an article full of nerdy equations, white papers, or complex systems. This is not hard, and you can start putting it to use TODAY for film or digital. Since most of us are in the digital world, I’ll focus on that. I’m going to show you how to use the core of the Zone System to make you a vastly better photographer. I’ve also brought along some examples for analyzing the Zones.

To those of you who already know this, kudos. But I challenge you to review and analyze whether you’re really using it, or just buzzing along in digital bliss and fixing things later. Excuse my bluntness, but this is happening to the best of us. We need to get back to basics, visualize, control tone, dynamic range, and image quality.

Originally, the Zone System was a complete approach that included everything from the initial exposure to the final print. Now we don’t use darkrooms much these days, so I’ll focus on the pivot point of the Zone System: the Zones themselves. That said, I would encourage you to study the whole process even if you don’t use film. It will help you gain a better understanding of light and photography. Not only that, but old books like Fred Picker’s Zone VI workshop, deal with it quickly and effectively and can often be had for mere pennies.

1. The Zone Scale.

The Zone Scale lies at the core of the Zone System. It consists of eleven squares that span from clipped black (Zone 0) to clipped white (Zone X). Each square represents a change of one stop. The first part of using Zones starts before you release the shutter. Truly visualizing your image is like nothing else. Once you master it, you see the image you plan to make, including your edits and refinements, in your mind before you ever take the photo. It changes everything about how you photograph and how refined the resulting images become.

Brilliantly simple, the Zone scale allows us to visualize all our light from complete black to complete white in one stop increments.

To begin, look at your scene. What’s outside your window right now? Visualize what zones in which the things around you fall. Then imagine you’re taking a photo. Imagine where the zones would be if the image came out exactly as you wanted. It does not have to be what you “see” but what you “visualize” for the finished image. How do YOU want to make it?

Think about what Zone levels on various objects in this scene would most complement your main subject as well as your supporting cast of elements. Sometimes it helps to begin by trying to visualize a scene in black and white, even if your final image is going to be color. Thinking in terms of only tones can be helpful, especially early on in the process.

Continue reading ‘Why You NEED the Zone System for Digital…’

The Huge List of Awesome Quotes from Renowned Photographers & Artists.

by Gavin Seim: Anyone can learn to use a camera to capture snapshots of time. That’s valuable for history and for precious memories. But it takes more to be a skilled photographer. Not just a picture taker, but a picture maker.

It takes tireless study, practice and long experience. I contend it’s no easier than being a sculptor or a doctor. A lawyer, or a painter. It requires being a skilled technician, a craftsman and a creative director. It’s neither fast or easy. But it’s one of the most rewarding skills one can study and master.

But that’s just my opinion. So I’ve scoured websites, videos, books and even picked up the phone for thoughts about photography from many of the renowned masters of it’s history. Thoughts that seem resound it’s ever alluring call. Reminding us to return to the basics of what makes a great photograph and perhaps to remember, that digital is just a baby next to more than a hundred fifty years of photographic history… Gav


  • “The whole key lies very specifically in seeing it in the minds eye which we call visualization” – Ansel Adams
  • “If continually people look and look and always come away enriched, then it’s a great work” – Sister Wendy.
  • “If I have any ‘message’ worth giving to a beginner it is that there are no short cuts in photography.” – Edward Weston
  • “The sheer ease with which we can produce a superficial image often leads to creative disaster.” – Ansel Adams
  • “Tone” may be the least understood, and least utilized factor in composing and finishing images” –  Ken Whitmire
  • “A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.” – Edward Steichen
  • “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” – Ansel Adams
  • “It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.” – Paul Caponigro
  • “Becoming a professional artist takes talent and perseverance, even more so when the field is photography.” – Clyde Butcher
  • “Never put lettering in your photos unless you want it read.” – Jay Meisel
  • “Sometimes I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.” – Ansel Adams
  • “In photography there are no shadows that cannot be illuminated.” – August Sander
  • “If you have enough craft, you’ve done your homework and you’re practiced. You can then make the photograph you desire.” – Ansel Adams
  • “No place is boring, if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and have a pocket full of unexposed film. – Robert Adams
  • “A photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into.” – Ansel Adams
  • “Saturate yourself with your subject and the camera will all but take you by the hand.” – Margaret Bourke-White
  • “We have glorified the camera itself. Which is only a tool.” Ken Whitmire
  • “Photography is the power of observation, not the application of technology.” – Ken Rockwell
  • “There are two people in every photograph: the photographer and the viewer.” – Ansel Adams
  • “A sloppy performance in a photograph is as distressing as a sloppy performance in music.” – Fred Picker
  • “Be aware of every square millimeter of your frame.” – Jay Meisel
  • “We are basically directors of images. Our objective is to attract the eye and leave an impression the mind.” – Ken Whitmire
  • “There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.” – Ansel Adams
  • “No photographer is as good as the simplest camera. – Edward Steichen
  • “A better camera won’t do a thing for you if you don’t have anything in your head or in your heart.” – Arnold Newman

Continue reading ‘The Huge List of Awesome Quotes from Renowned Photographers & Artists.’