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What happens when you ask 150 people to look at the same photos and pick their favourites? The answer is simple: a pattern emerges. But which pattern emerges can be very surprising, as I found out recently.
Last year I decided to self-publish a photo book on Spain. I’d been wanting to do it for years. When the crowd-funding website Kickstarter announced it was opening up shop in Spain, where I live, I took it as a sign and made sure my project was uploaded the day they opened.
But I wanted to do something different with the book. Then it hit me – I could get supporters to be a part of the process by choosing which photos would go in the book. I thought of it as crowd-funding meets crowdsourcing. I wanted everyone to play a role in my book. So I uploaded 240 images onto a private webpage, and gave everybody a password and a mission; chose your favourite 80 images. After the voting period was over, I tallied up the results and the top 80 images went into the book.
I was blown away by the results. Some of my personal favourites didn’t even make it in, and some other images that I didn’t think were particularly strong, ended up being extremely popular. It was very instructive. The one that stands out for me is of cows in a field beside a church in the mountains of northern Spain. I almost didn’t even include it in the original batch of 240 images. But not only did it make it into the top 80, it was the 6th most popular image!
On the other hand, here’s a shot of a beach in the south of Spain that I quite like. But it didn’t make the cut – not even close. It ranked a mere 223rd. Fascinating!
I think there are a number of things at play here. For one, the photographer often attaches a value to a photograph that the viewer doesn’t. If an image took repeated attempts to achieve, or was somehow difficult to get in another way — perhaps finding the right angle took hours, or maybe there was some fantastic luck involved that would be impossible for the viewer to appreciate — then it’s natural for the photographer to place a greater value on it. But the final image is what counts, and should be judged on its merits alone, which is sometimes hard for the photographer to do without bias.
For instance, I particularly like this image of a church in the city of Salamanca. The strong graphic lines of the church’s shadow on itself, was not only dynamic because of its oblique orientation, but also offered a second yin-yang with the tourists, some in shade against the sunlight, the others in sunlight against the shade. But, it ranked only #208, again, not even close. But I find the fact it was not very popular more interesting, than disappointing. It wasn’t an obvious image to take, I had to see the opportunity first, then carefully compose, and wait for people to enter the light (and shade) at just the right time. I got it after almost an hour of waiting. Is that part of the reason I like it so much? I find that an interesting question.
Of course the reverse also happens. The following image of the field of sunflowers was an easy photo to take, and much easier to spot as a photo-op, versus the church in Salamanca. Speaking as a photographer, I don’t think it’s one of my best images technically or creatively, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s a beautiful landscape. The people who look at your photos don’t (and shouldn’t) care about how hard or easy an image was to take. They either like it or they don’t. In this case, the field of sunflowers was very popular, ranking 4th overall.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you should only take photos that you think will be popular. But if you want to please a crowd with a slideshow, or a book, paying attention to what people like will make it more successful. It doesn’t matter how lucky you got, or how hard you worked to get a photo. The important thing is to try to look at it through other people’s eyes. If you enjoy sharing your images, it’s crucial to remove your own bias, and in the end it will make you a better photographer.
Editor’s note: How you can go about using this new knowledge without making a book? You can try posting a set of images as a collection on Facebook and ask people to rank their favorites. Or post a color and black and white of the same image and ask people which they prefer. Why not go ahead and try it here – post some photos in the comments below and rank each others images. How else can you look at your image objectively?