This is going to be a pretty long post.
I am going to give someone some big expensive piece of gear, and even though I could just give Zack a name and be done with it, I really want to explain how I chose the winner and the thought process behind my choice.
I will try to be nice and not hurt anyone’s feelings, but sugar is empty calories — it tastes oh so nice, but leaves you hungry and goes straight to your butt. Also, I’m a bit of a bitch, to be honest.
First things first: good job everyone. The shittiest picture that has been submitted is still worth more than the most magnificent masterpiece some guy had in mind but didn’t turn in. So if you are one of the many people who is reading this while thinking, “these are all crap, I could have done so much better”… well — you didn’t. One of my all time favorite quotes comes from good old Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
That said, a lot of the people who participated just kind of entered the arena, didn’t like the idea of getting their clothes dirty, and went back out, where it’s safe.
And I get it; if you spend twenty minutes setting up a photo and it doesn’t get picked, you don’t have much to lose. But if you spend days or even weeks working on something and it doesn’t win, it sucks big time, right?
But here’s the thing. Twenty minutes wasted on a bad shot are twenty minutes you could have used painting your nails, or trimming your ironic beard; days spent on a single image, trying to make it perfect, are way more useful than most workshops you will ever take. Even if you don’t win, you go home with something you didn’t have before, you solve problems, you become a better photographer in the process.
When you’re entering a contest to win, you need to do your homework and make sure your photo will have a fighting chance.
First of all, you need to read the brief a bazillion times. Really, that thing is your frigging Bible. There’s no point in trying to be original if you’re not operating inside those limitations. If you’re asked to have something spilling in the frame, it has to be there.
A lot of photographers think that they need to be original and be different and break the rules — bullshit. If there are a bazillion photos and they need to become 10, everything that can be eliminated because it doesn’t fit the brief will be cut without a second thought. It makes it so much easier.
Then, you have to be aware of who’s going to be looking at your pictures, and people, you had it easy here: you should have watched 6 critiques from past assignments, to understand what Zack and Meghan were looking for in a photo. What makes them stop? What makes them go “oh!”? I had written down exactly what I was looking for right here.
This usually doesn’t happen in normal contests (but you can still go look at previous years and research the judges as soon as their names are made available).
It’s not about giving up your voice, it’s about being aware of who you are speaking to.
If photography is a language (and I strongly believe it is), you wouldn’t talk to your lover with the same tone you’d use when talking to your grandma, unless you have a really boring sex life or a really weird family.
The only real question mark was the “people choice” section of this contest, but I would have tried to make the message clear and universal, the photo legible even if it’s not displayed full screen (more on that later), and if I were one of the 10 people chosen, I would have campaigned the hell out of it, asking friends, family and complete strangers to help.
I would have probably filmed a behind the scene video explaining how my shot came into existence and how it was done. I would have showed how much work went into it, made an awesome tutorial, and I would have emailed the link to every aggregator that is always looking for content to push. I would have done this the day the voting page went up. I would have then photocopied flyers in my office during work hours and hung them around in my town, asking my fellow citizens to help me crush “the others from those other places”. “Together!”, “If I win I’ll spend a whole day shooting a free portrait with my new gear to every person who steps into my studio!”
I mean, there’s always a little bit of luck, but a whole lot of stubborness can punch luck in the face. Or maybe I just wanted that camera more than you did and I couldn’t participate and that sucks.
I also noticed no one tried to bribe me. I mean, kudos on your integrity and everything, but really? Not even chocolate? What a bunch of wussies (jk, jk!)
But anyway, so many photos fell completely under the radar. Why? I watched the critique and in many of the photos that weren’t picked, I’ve seen a big lack of pre-production.
I’m a big advocate of using what you have available, but unless you are shooting a reportage and something of extreme historical importance is happening in front of you, everything that enters the frame needs to be there because you wanted it to be.
So, let me waste some more of your time to tell you how I think you should approach this kind of assignment:
Step 1: First and foremost, decide what are you trying to say. The world has changed… why? Are you commenting on something that you noticed? Are you telling a story in which the protagonist’s world is just about to change forever? Write it down, with words, on paper. Write some key words around it. Talk about it to a friend, go see what other people had to say about it before. Nothing is new under the sun and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you shoot. If you are going to talk about a dystopian society go watch “A Clockwork Orange”, “Blade Runner”, “Brazil”, “District 9”, read “V for Vendetta”, “Battle Royal”, “1984”, listen to “year Zero” by NIN until your ears bleed, come to Italy and watch public television in the afternoon.
There’s no such thing as “I don’t want to be influenced”, you already are. Make your influences great and make them diverse and what will come out of that will be original.
Step 2: Gather your materials. If you need a blonde with long hair for your shot about “lust and lost chances”, and all you have is your short hairy brother wearing a blond wig who’s not willing to get waxed, you are changing your narrative. You just made all the work done in step 1 useless. Go find the right subject. Go find the right dress, the right location, the right props. You don’t have to own them: rent, barter, cash in favors. You found the perfect location and it’s someone’s barber shop? How would they like a free portrait and some shots they can use for their website in exchange for letting you shoot there when they are closed?
Don’t settle. This might take time, but you had time, a lot of time. You can take a photo in under a second, but everything needs to be ready, when that second comes.
Step 3: Solve the technical stuff before you start shooting. Figure out the light before your talent steps on set and spend some time refining the frame. Technique is your grammar and you need to be articulate. If you don’t have much experience, keep it very simple, but make it clean and deliberate. The focus needs to be spot on, the light needs to be controlled, the exposure can’t be all over the place. A trained monkey can shoot a properly exposed picture in auto mode, and so can you. That’s the very least.
Everything that’s in your frame, especially when you’re trying to build an image that tells a story, needs to be there because it has a role in your narration.
You know what the Chekhov’s gun is?
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
This is about the written text, but photography IS a text (I’ll spare you the long rant about semiotics). In fact, one of the best photography books I’ve ever read is “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. Mentally substitute “photographer” every time you read “writer” and you’ll learn a lot.
Step 4: Don’t screw it in post. Photoshop is a bit like a spice: in moderation, it makes a good dish great; some people like their food a little more spicy than others; spices can help cover the taste of ingredients that are going bad (but most likely you’ll regret it in the morning). But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t suggest rolling a turd in cinnamon and serving it to your guests for dinner.
Let’s get to our 3 candidates.
I’ll start by letting you know that I wouldn’t have picked any of these as the clear winner.
I think that #6 was the most accessible in terms of the theme and it also had a clear message that a lot of people can relate to, that #5 was a solid fun portrait, clear and legible even small, compared to the others (being the only vertical photo and being right in the middle, it ended up standing out a lot) and #8 was different and poetic and again a little bigger than the others because of its format.
I honestly suspect some people didn’t even know they could click on the photos to make them bigger and if you look at the 10 photos together, you can see that the harder it is to understand what’s going on from the thumbnail, the less votes the photo got.
It’s just part of the game when images end up on the Internet and it’s like that for almost every online contest I have seen where people are asked to vote. We always take it for granted that people will want to look at our photos full screen and get lost in the tiny details, but the bitter truth is that they rarely bother.
Type “Gregory Crewdson” on Google image and then go stand in front of one of his prints. He doesn’t shoot for the Internet. But if you only look at his work online, you need to look at your image full screen but also look at it when it’s 300px wide and see if it still holds.
Anyway, at this point I found myself with 3 images that I liked and didn’t love, because each of them had some issues, in my opinion.
So I went and asked what other people thought about them.
We talked about it in my studio, I asked the opinion of a trusted group of very talented friends (a photographer, a retoucher, a writer, an editor, a graphic designer, a photo editor), I discussed these photos with my students, I asked the opinion of both my parents, who honestly know nothing about photography: they still don’t really know what I do for a living.
Before we proceed, I need to publicly apologize to the three finalists, because I don’t wear gloves when I critique images, and I know what Thumper said to Bambi, and I respect the work these photographers have put into their images, but I think the two people who will hate me forever will want to know why I chose the lucky bastard who got the Hassie instead of them.
#6 This is a clear concept, it’s accessible for a wide audience and it’s super obvious that it fits the theme that was given. Children play with they i-Devices instead of playing with toys and we are all doomed. It’s a photo that has been designed: the frame is perfectly split in half, the colorful past, with imagination and messy rooms on one side, and the bleak present, where there is no color at all and no engagement whatsoever on the other.
Everybody I showed this image to, got that. But they also got bored with it fairly quickly.
This shot is very didascalic. Like very, very didascalic, to the point of being patronizing.
I believe that the “show don’t tell” principle can be applied to successful images, where the photographer presents what’s going on and leaves some room for the viewer or reader to form their own opinion.
Here, the photographer is using visual grammar to tell me what I should think: technology is bad and is robbing our children of imagination, they become passive drones and we should stop that. But there’s nothing “changed” about that — to me it’s the old tale of adults being scared of anything new and trying to impose their view on new generations.
The device here is photographed as if it was a TV, with the kid passively watching, which is of course an option… but a tablet is not a passive medium only.
I’ve seen kids explore content in a way that wasn’t possible when I was young. Toddlers using the camera to document what they see around them, learning to solve problems and speak a new language just because they now have access to basically a whole new universe.
“TV is ruining children”, “videogames are ruining children”, “smartphones are ruining children”… is this really a new concept? Honestly?
The same idea was around when I was a kid and I’m not that young. I’m pretty sure some caveman complained about how drawing on the wall instead of spending time outside of the cave ruins children.
But I would be fine with that, if this was a great image.
Problem is, this is not, at least from a technical point of view. It’s not bad, but it’s not great.
The light is flat, there’s something off with the perspective of the table (I don’t know if it’s lens correction gone wrong or just the visual balance) but what really kills me, is that in an image like this, where the photographer went to great length to build a set so that half of the frame was filled with toys, he then left the top left corner empty and didn’t place something under the table so that the straight line dividing the frame in two actually does that. This throws the image off balance in the bottom right section, in a way that is not intentional.
Maybe I’m anal retentive, but I can clearly see that that was the aim and it was a good intuition. It just fell short, for me.
#8 I really want to like this image. It’s very well executed, there is obviously a story going on, the attention to detail is great and everything is coherent.
But I see no connection to the theme.
Everyone I showed this picture to was a bit confused by it. Those who liked it, still couldn’t tell how the world might be changing.
The most common explanation I was given was: “Maybe it’s because the man is serving the woman?” But other than that there is obviously no trace of a feminist message in this shot, he just looks like a butler. So there’s nothing exceptional about him serving her.
Here’s the thing — I ended up having to go and track down this shot on Flickr to try and look for some clues and I now know that this is about a man and a woman so enraptured by their mutual connection that nothing else matters.
But I don’t buy into this scenario. At first it was hard for me to understand why, since everything seems to be in the right place and it’s really well done.
It took me a long time to name it: it’s the way she is kind of floating the hand on her hip, probably not to wrinkle the dress. This is something she is doing for the photographer, no one stands like that.
Try it, mirror her pose and tell me if you feel relaxed and completely in-the-moment. She is leaning away from him, in a pose that is pleasant for the viewer because of the hip curve she makes, if the viewer is not the man in the frame.
So, instead of honesty and magic all I can think about is the photographer directing them.
#5 This image is well shot, well lit, well timed and this moment looks genuine. I believe this guy, who is listening to something that makes him so happy that he starts chuckling and spills coffee all over the place.
To me the connection to the theme is not immediate, though. I would have passed this, if I saw this among hundreds -or even ten-, in favor of something as good but more immediate and complex.
So how has the world changed here?
One way to see it: he’s listening to the radio and hears something that changes his personal world (winning the lottery, I guess? The woman he loves dedicates a song to him, finally proposing? He hears the news that his strict boss, who made is life hell for the past 20 years, has been arrested while shooting clown porn?)
This doesn’t completely work for me, because he’s standing in front of a studio backdrop. If he had been standing in a room, this would have been SO great.
But here’s the thing. As for the other two images, I was forced to spend a lot of time looking at this, trying to come up with possible -less obvious- interpretation of the theme.
What do I see? I see an older guy in a t-shirt enjoying his day so much that he spills his coffee. And this reminds me of two books I’ve read: The Cultural Context of Aging: Worldwide Perspectives by Jay Sokolovsky, and Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly by Catherine Mayer. (Go read this TIME article and look at this amazing photo essay by Kendrick Brinson).
This image fits that kind of view about a new world where old people are fighting the “normal” conception of what being old means. In this case, the studio backdrop is serving that purpose.
This could be a book cover, or a great opening image for an article about ageism.
I’m fairly sure the photographer didn’t put this intentionally in his photo, but it’s there.
So the first shot had a clear view, but didn’t leave any room for interpretations. The world has changed for the viewer, more than for the kid (who is born into that world). It was also the weakest image of the three.
The second shot was a strong image and left immense room for interpretation, but gave the viewer little direction. The world might have changed for those characters, but it’s hard to tell and it lacks connection.
The third shot has a narrative and a point of view and is open to both interpretations: the world might be changed for the character or it might be a commentary on how the world has changed for old people. It’s also a solid image. Which is why it wins, for me.
Damn. Well done everyone. I’ve got a post coming up this week to expand on the thought process behind this contest. – Zack