Does a great subject make an otherwise blah photo great?
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Old 06-10-2007   #1
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Default Does a great subject make an otherwise blah photo great?

I just did my Sunday morning ritual of coffee and magazine browsing at one of our local Borders bookstores here in Phoenix. As I was flipping through the last B&W Special Issue (the awards issue), I found myself looking at photos that I didn't think were that great...but were of great people or things.

That's when the question occured to me:

Does the subject of a photo influence the opinion of the viewer on the merits of the photo?

On a technical level, it shouldn't. The subject, however special, should remain separate from the photo's technical impact, like exposure, lighting, composition, etc.. Taking an adequate picture of a 600 year old cathedral does not automatically make it a great shot, especially since dozens if not hundreds of OTHER photographers have taken similar shots in the past....and not won any kudos for it.

I'm having particular problems with this after wandering into my latest interest: nude figure studies in the studio. Of the half dozen or so that have made it into various forums, a good percentage of the responses have been "Nice stuff" or "Great model" while the photos themselves have been technically "not great". The only decent criticism has come from other photographers in the nude genre who aren't so turned on by naked women, I guess.

Same with sunsets....or famous buildings...or famous people...or cute, fuzzy animals. Simply getting one of these subjects into a frame almost guarantees kudos on photo sharing sites...yet the photo itself usually is average or actually sucks.

Your thoughts?

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Old 06-10-2007   #2
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Default Re: Does a great subject make an otherwise blah photo great?

The subject matter has to be interesting, taking a perfectly executed shot with an uninteresting subject will hold very little interest for the viewer.
A great shot is one that is well taken with a subject that captivates the viewer, in reality you need both to make it a great shot.
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Old 06-10-2007   #3
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Default Re: Does a great subject make an otherwise blah photo great?

Quote:
Originally Posted by yodasarmpit View Post
The subject matter has to be interesting, taking a perfectly executed shot with an uninteresting subject will hold very little interest for the viewer.
A great shot is one that is well taken with a subject that captivates the viewer, in reality you need both to make it a great shot.
I understand that part. The question, though, centered around a viewer's opinion of an interesting subject with an average or below average photo, technically speaking.

In other words, if the subject is interesting but the technique isn't very good, why do reviewers tend to think it's a great photo?
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Old 06-10-2007   #4
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Default Re: Does a great subject make an otherwise blah photo great?

If you consider the photo taken by Nick Ut of the Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc running after the napalm attack , that photo is not technically brilliant, but the subject matter and what it coveys is so powerfull that it can be classed as a great shot.
It's able to capture that moment, so in that sense I would say the subject is the most important aspect of a photo.

Phan Thị Kim Phúc - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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Old 06-10-2007   #5
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Default Re: Does a great subject make an otherwise blah photo great?

Yodasarmpit (?) makes a good point. The very worst snap of the first identifiable UFO landing on the White House Lawn would be an instant hit.......Sometimes, the subject matters most.....cheers...Bob
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Old 06-10-2007   #6
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Default Re: Does a great subject make an otherwise blah photo great?

Sure worked in Iwo Jima.
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Old 06-11-2007   #7
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Default Re: Does a great subject make an otherwise blah photo great?

I personally think the subject has to be the main thing, yes you can take a technically perfect, well composed, sharp image of an egg, but it doesn't interest most people.
If a great, interesting subject is captured 'in the moment' it will hold most peoples interest even if it is not technically brilliant.

Of course if you can get both...
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Old 06-11-2007   #8
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Default Re: Does a great subject make an otherwise blah photo great?

I think most of my pictures are perfect, yet they always get tanked here. Seriously, though, I try to assume that if there is some questionable technical element along with a stunning subject, that it must have been on purpose. History is full of great pictures that lack technical merit. I see a pile of pictures that are technically perfect, but lack anything else.
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Old 06-11-2007   #9
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Default Re: Does a great subject make an otherwise blah photo great?

If you look at the work of most any of the old masters, for example, some of the best images of Henri Cartier-Bresson, one can find some that have less then perfect exposure, or less then perfect sharpness, or other "defects", yet can be very moving and "effective". Some of his best work is grainier then most of care to have in our own images. Often the grain makes the picture better, but sometimes it can distract, unless the subject matter is so powerful, as to carry the picture on it's own.

I think this speaks to subject matter over technical image quality.

I think subject matter, the composition in general, will always trump aspects of image quality. However this is not to say that image quality does not matter.

Often one can view the work of Photo Journalists, those people that capture amazing pictures in less then perfect environments, that are very powerful, even as the exposure or other technical aspect of the picture are flawed.

The other side of the coin is interesting too. How many bad pictures have we all seen that are exposed perfectly, lit perfecting, and are otherwise technically sound? Many I think.

The brand/models wars, debates will always rage, but at the end of the day, the composition, the subject matter, is what carries a picture, first and foremost.

And isn't it true that it is easier to learn technique, camera workflow, and even post processing work flow, then to learn and get amazing compositions? We all can find many photographers that know lighting, exposure, camera workflow and post processing methods like a wizzard, like gods, yet can't often make a great composition.

Regardless of equipment, we all still are challanged by the making of a good photograph, and I think this is the most daunting thing about photography.

Moreover, I think that a skilled photographer, an artist, can make a boring subject interesting. You can take two photographers to the Disney Opera House in Los Angeles, and ask them both to make pictures of the exterior, the archetecture, and yet one makes boring snapshots, while the other makes art, yet the subject matter is the exact same building.

Our challange is to find a way to make a subject interesting; a subject that otherwise seems boring or lacks interest, and if one can do this, then one has a special skill. Look at the sometimes horrific subject matter that Diane Arbus made pictures from...some of her images of less then beautiful people can draw us in, mesmerizing our gaze.

Alot of the interest in a photo has nothing to do with asthetics, nor of art, and everything to do with naked female body parts. Often the viewer has no capacity for valuation of a composition...you show a nude to most people, they react by judging the model's looks and not the composition it's self. This is why many nude threads are more about porno then art, even if the posters of images are mainly makers of art.

And in the end, what people perceive as interesting is so, so subjective. Just because strangers here call your stuff crap does not necessarily make it crap. On the other hand, you might post a so-so image, that many think is the greatest thing.

Make pictures that make YOU happy.


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