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Sometimes People Love The Subject, Not Your Photo

Image: "It's not me, it's the subject"

"It's not me, it's the subject"

I admit to feeling like a fraud sometimes.

A fraud because I have people “ohhhh”ing and “ahhhh”ing over a photo of mine and when I sit back and look at it, I realize it’s not my photo skills they are astounded by, it’s the subject of the shot.

Yes, I was there and composed the shot, picked the subject matter and made sure the exposure was solid. I probably made a minor adjustment or two in Lightroom back in the office. I did have an influence on the outcome, that is for sure.

Yet, once in a while I honestly have to state, “It was Mother Nature (one of my favorite subjects) that really did all the work to make it that beautiful.” I do this because I feel like a fraud pawning off the sheer natural beauty of the scene as it was in front of me for something I created. Especially when I used no more skill than a well trained monkey would.

I bring this up to explain a phenomena novices sometimes have towards their work and their newly acquired adoring fans. One student of mine showed me a shot of a geyser in Yellowstone. He asked me, a bit baffled, “People keep telling me they really like this shot, but it seems fairly normal to me. Why is that?” I did my best to explain my take on his shot, which was that it was well exposed and had good saturation and wasn’t astounding. Just not solid use of technique.

What was astounding to his viewers were the colors in the geyser mound; burnt reds and smeared alga filled oranges streaming down glistening, dirty white surfaces with a sky that could easily apply for a copyright on the color “sky blue”. A line of emerald evergreens divided the scene.

And I had stood in nearly that exact spot just 20 feet from the parking lot and taken the same shot (on a cloudy day).

I wasn’t trying to put him down and he took it constructively. I wanted him to understand what I’m hoping might help you, and it’s that sometimes it’s the subject that people are raving about and not your photographic ability.

This next point is very important to those starting out: That need not be a bad thing. Taking a photo of something beautiful in its own right and snapping a quality shot to share with others is a noble endeavor. But it is important to understand as a gauge to know if your skills are improving.

Another example is this image by Jessica Spiegel, who runs WhyGo Italy Travel Guide. The shot is taken in Ravenna, Italy.

Image: Copyright Jessica Spiegel

Copyright Jessica Spiegel

A comment on my blog post featuring her photo and a subsequent discussion on Twitter showed many people liking the photo, a lot. And Jessica will be one of the first to admit it’s not her skills, but the mosaic itself that draws people.

I can go on and on with examples and likely you know of some in your own catalogs. Photos that people love that are just “so-so” to you. Not a great photo, but a great subject. My own example is up top with a shot of Fes in Morocco that took no special talent or thought. Just a zoom lens.

Be thankful people like the photo because it brought a bit of beauty or understanding or knowledge into their life and they are happy for that. On the quest to improve your technique, make sure you don’t get caught up in the accolades of beautiful subjects and start ignoring your technique and unique view of the world.

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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