Philosophy & Reflections

You Don’t Have to Be a Good Photographer to Be a Good Photographer – By Ailbíona McLochlainn

February 9, 2022

I know, I know. The title makes no sense, and no doubt comes across as silly. But let me assure you, it is genuine. I simply did not know how to phrase the thing I hope to express, without sticking the entire essay into the title. So bear with me as I try to explain.

To begin with, let me get this out of the way: I am not a good photographer. And no, I am not being self-deprecating, suffering from imposter-syndrome, or any of those things. I have a healthy amount of self esteem and in that vein am fortunate enough to be aware-yet-accepting of my shortcomings. So I merely mention this matter of factly, you understand: I am not a good photographer. In truth, I am kind of terrible – especially when you consider how long I have been taking pictures and how passionate I am about doing so. Alas, my technical acumen has always lagged behind my enthusiasm. It took me years to properly understand what aperture does. Then years again to grasp the effects of factors such as focal length, vantage point, and camera tilt, on the way ‘stuff looks in photos’. My exposure and white balance are still all over the place. And don’t even speak to me about light… I only truly began to ‘get’ that side of things quite recently. Considering that photography is literally all about light, such an admission from a lifelong photographer is – to put it gently – concerning.  

But perhaps more baffling is that despite this, throughout most of my adult life I have managed to earn part of my income taking photos. I have done paid work in editorial photography, wedding and event photography, portraiture, even product photography. The other day I was online shopping for a certain cycling-related item, and was startled to come across some of my own photos on several retailers’ websites. It had slipped my mind that I took those photos a decade ago and sold them to the product manufacturer. I can only assume they were pleased with my work, if they still use and distribute it all these years later.

How is that compatible with the confession in the preceding paragraph? Well. I have come to think of it in terms of the Adlerian concept of organ inferiority and its compensation. The idea goes something like this: When an organ in the human body is weak or functions poorly, other organs compensate by working harder so that the system can function overall. Likewise, when a person seeks to achieve a desired goal but lacks certain abilities needed for that, they can compensate with other skills. An example: As a young girl I longed to sing in the school choir, but was completely tone deaf. My mother, sympathetic to my plight, suggested that perhaps my acting skills could compensate for my lack of musical ability. If she sang the songs, could I imitate her? We tried it, then spent weeks practicing – until I could perform every song in the choir’s repertoire… albeit in my mother’s voice, complete with her mannerisms! The audition was interesting, to say the least. But I got in, and my dream of singing in the glorious Victory Day Concert came true.  Over three decades later, I still cannot carry a tune to save my life. But I can imitate a human voice singing a specific song, which in turn enables me to sing.

While the technical side of photography has never been my strong point, I compensate for this with other attributes. Perhaps the most valuable one, which I have only come to appreciate in recent years, is that I have endless – quite clear and specific – ideas of what I want to photograph. It pains me to think how many photographers I know  are technically brilliant, yet genuinely suffer from {perceived} lack of subject-matter. This is a problem I have literally never experienced. At all times, there exists a slideshow extravaganza of imagery in my head which I can’t wait to capture on camera, time and weather and situation permitting. And in a more spontaneous sense, as I move through the world in everyday life I automatically see my surroundings as photographable scenes.

Walking across the city centre for instance, my inner narrative goes something like this:  

La-la-la, bus-stop, fountain, shadow, tree… rusty gate… la-la-la… Look, a girl in a fur coat feeding pigeons! Quick, get her from down low, so that the sinister Victorian building looms over them… And oh, wouldn’t it be great if she turns in profile so that it looks as if her and the pigeon are chatting?… Okay, eyes on the prize. Down on the ground… Oh who cares about my ‘good coat’… camera to my eye… Wait for it… Bang! Quick, stop down just in case. Bang-bang! Yay, I got the pigeon girl… Oh wait, were my settings okay? Is she backlit??..

Is this the internal monologue of a good photographer? Far from it. I shoot first, think later. I am careless and sloppy.  But I ‘see’ the shot. And when I do, I am quick to react.  Those two things alone can go a long way toward compensating for lack of technical due-diligence. The number of times stunned friends have witnessed me drop to the pavement without prior explanation or warning, has become a sort of running joke… perhaps all the more so because it usually isn’t obvious what on earth I am pointing my camera at that had to be photographed so urgently!

This impulsive and image-driven approach serves me well at times. But quite often it also undermines me, and breaks my heart. If only I had stopped to think. If only I was not quite so excited.  If only I had taken an actual light reading rather than ‘intuiting’ it! Then the Pigeon Girl would not have been underexposed. Tragic really. But then again, I do not allow such trivialities to discourage me – which is perhaps another attribute that works in my favour. While a sensible person might have long given up on photography when faced so repeatedly with their enduring ineptitudes {or at least given up on using manual settings and gear!}, I am not so easily thwarted from doing something I love.

In more controlled situations, some of my tangible skills come into play as well. Coming from a painterly background, I have an inherent feel for colour, movement, visual balance, and overall composition.  I have a knack for building narrative, tension, and drama. When photographing people I am able to make them feel comfortable, and they react to the camera accordingly.  Can these strengths really disguise, or compensate for,  poor technical skill? In my experience… yes, at least to some extent. When I did wedding and event photography, I always found it interesting that the clients tended to choose images which were the most visually compelling and narrative-driven, rather than ‘good’ in a technical sense. I have also been chosen for projects over technically superior photographers on the basis of my decidedly imperfect but evocative portfolio. One client even told me quite bluntly: ‘You are not a good photographer. But you have a good eye, and we can work with that.’  Fair enough!

If we are asking the question of whether creativity can compensate for lacking technical skill, it is only fair that we also ask the opposite: Can technical skills compensate for lacking creativity?  The answer to which is, in my opinion, likewise yes. I have a friend, for instance, who {and he would be the first to admit this} cannot compose a shot for love or money. And not in a deliberate, critical-theory-driven way, where the seeming lack of composition is in fact quite studied and the point of the image, if you see what I mean – but genuinely. His pictures seem to start and end at random and have no focal point for the eye to rest on, things overlap in distracting ways, branches and telephone poles stick out of people’s heads, limbs and parts of faces are cut off. But the technical perfection of the photos is breathtaking and the use of lighting is glorious – so much so, that these aspects of the image captivate the viewer and become a sort of narrative in their own right.

Depending on context, I genuinely believe that a photographer can be bad – even terrifically bad – at certain aspects of the photographic process, and yet manage to overcompensate in other areas so much so as to be a Good Photographer overall. It’s a bit like, when we find a person attractive, yet upon examining their individual features it isn’t clear where that attractiveness comes from. Sometimes a construct like being ‘attractive’ or ‘good at something’ can be more than the sum of its parts. There is a certain je ne sais quois-ness involved and to me that is more exciting, than if these things were perfectly formulaic.

Why do I muse on all this, and feel compelled to share it here? Well, I suppose that – like many of those reading this, I suspect – I find myself at a crossroads where I am thinking how to move forward with my photography. And in conversations about this with others, I find that all too often we tend to focus on our shortcomings, by way of explanation as to why we feel frustrated, or stuck, or in some other way not entirely happy with our photography. And while it is certainly important to acknowledge areas in need of development, I am coming to the realisation that it can also be demoralising and counterproductive to focus solely on our inadequacies. And so in order to move forward it is perhaps equally important to identify our strengths and consider how we might harness those strengths to their full potential.

Of course, as adults – while admitting our shortcomings feels socially acceptable, noticing and acknowledging the things we are good at feels a tad weird. And lest you misunderstand my intent, it is certainly not to say  ‘Look ha-ha, I am creative and so ultimately needn’t bother myself with all that pesky technical stuff!’  I do not congratulate myself on my lagging technical skills, but insistently strive for improvement in this regard – and rejoice at every tiny bit of progress precisely because it does not come easily.  At the same time, I am grateful that even as I continue to learn and grow in these areas, there are still opportunities to be a Good Photographer – by making the most of my strengths.

___

NOTES
Header image courtesy of Gary McLaughlin, taken with a Leica M9 and a Voigtlander Color Skopar 35mm lens.

Further reading on ‘overcompensation’ and related concepts for anyone interested: The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler, edited by Ansbacher & Ansbacher.

Ailbíona McLochlainn is a photographer, knitwear designer, and recovering academic, based in Ireland. For additional information and lots of pictures to look at, visit www.ailbiona.com

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26 Comments

  • Reply
    Thorsten Wulff
    February 9, 2022 at 11:15 am

    Dear Ailbíona, it is 40 years now that I picked up a camera first. Last night I shot a stage production of a musical by Sting, with the band new Nikon z9. The camera is silent, ultrafast and the autofocus is quicker than your eyes are. 1500 tack sharp pictures, all perfectly exposed, because you see what you get in the electronic finder that is again, almost sharper than reality. You see single photons crossing the room. Technology delivers in 2022 everything we should expect, minus the flying cars. My Google pixel phone shoots perfect 15 frame HDR images Everytime I lug it out of my pant pocket.pigeon girl wouldn’t be a problem. But the happiest I am with my old analog F3 and in the darkroom, trying to get a decent print out of the new Multigrade. So no, technology is not what makes you a good photographer. You saw the image, you composed and captured it. That’s all there is.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      February 9, 2022 at 2:09 pm

      Interesting work you do!

      Technology can compensate for lack of technical skill to some extent, but unfortunately for people like me it can’t help with lighting. Until fairly recently, this was my biggest problem. Not sure how to explain this properly, but I literally could not tell by looking at the scene where the light was hitting, and how to place the subject so that they were lit up; it was a trial error guessing game that took ages. I almost think it might be a sensory issue of sorts, similar to mild colour blindness except with respect to distinguishing between lights and darks. And I think my exposure issues were a result of this, rather than a separate problem. I have done a lot of work to improve, and about a year ago it finally ‘clicked.’ Now I can often recognise this same ‘light-blindness’ in others’ photos, and at least I know that I am not alone in having struggled with this. It’s kind of like composition I suppose: some people just see it naturally, others need to learn it starting from very elementary building blocks and practice a great deal. And unfortunately the Z9 is powerless to help {although I would be very curious to try it anyway}!

      • Reply
        Thorsten Wulff
        February 10, 2022 at 10:25 am

        I see. My other job is graphic design, I learned that trade back when hot lead was a thing. You worked with type invented, like looking into your camera upside down. That covered the basics of composition. In the cameras finder I work the same way, pushing things around in the golden ratio of 1.6. the z9 is a heavy chunk of camera, what you could try is another of my favorites, the Fujifilm x100. It comes in 5 versions meanwhile, I have the second, called S. It gives you the perfect mix of naked optical finder window and digital preview, so you can meter by eye. No guesswork about light. On the other hand, since I’m dabbling in large Format analog, I finally managed to understand Ansel Adams zones, and why you need a Spotmeter for that. One way or the other don’t get bogged down by technology.

  • Reply
    Mark Kayuda
    February 9, 2022 at 11:27 am

    You seem to be in captivity of the concept of “good photographer”. If you managed to sell and the customers were satisfied, in general, and have a relatively constant income even in the interim – you are already a good photographer, it does not matter how you make the photos, what you think in the process – even you stands on your head at this time.
    P.S. Почему-то кажется, что Вы выросли в русскоязычной стране.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      February 9, 2022 at 11:50 am

      родилась в советском союзе, но выросла в америке и потом жила в основном в европе. смотрю много русско-язычных фильмов, и язык таким образом остался!

      The ‘good photographer’ thing is something that’s been brought up a lot lately by the photographers I know in person, and that’s what got me thinking in this direction. It’s interesting you mention customer satisfaction. For a while I did use this as a gauge of success/ to reassure myself, but ultimately I came to find that approach problematic. I suppose that is one reason I am at a cross-roads.

      • Reply
        Mark Kayuda
        February 10, 2022 at 4:22 pm

        Thanks for the answer!
        Then it is possible and true that this is not enough and self-pleasure with one’s work is important in order to recognize oneself as successful. Reason for reflection.

  • Reply
    Keith
    February 9, 2022 at 11:56 am

    I’m never convinced by the phrase a “good” photographer, as it’s quite subjective and inherently suggests that others are “bad”. I prefer the phrase “successful” i.e. has the photographer been successful in conveying what they intended with an image. Success can be achieved through technical perfection and/or through something almost emotional and therefore less tangible. Even then, what works for one person obviously won’t necessarily have the same impact on someone else. I guess all we can do is take images we are happy with and hope that others feel the same.

    I really enjoyed this article Ailbiona. It made me think about a lot of things and so was most definitely , in my opinion, successful! Thanks for posting.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      February 9, 2022 at 2:23 pm

      Funny, for me ‘successful’ is equally problematic – but I get what you mean.

      The ‘good photographer’ phrase was definitely tongue in cheek. But I do think that, because (1) there is so much imagery now in the public domain, and (2) postmodernism has erased all objective criteria of what is ‘good’, many of us struggle with how to place ourselves within this landscape, and even how to develop our own internal subjective criteria of good/ successful work. For example, I am working on a series of portraits now that I hope to submit to a gallery, and I know that 90% if not more depends on my bio, artist statement, and the written narrative I cobble together to describe the project, rather than on the actual series of images. For me this is deeply problematic, and it makes me feel lost creatively. Perhaps this is why I feel it is important {for me} to cultivate a sense of what is good, and then strive to meet it according to my own criteria…

  • Reply
    Alex
    February 9, 2022 at 12:14 pm

    Carradice should make camera bags 😉

  • Reply
    Bob Janes
    February 9, 2022 at 1:15 pm

    An article filled with good insight.
    For me the things that make a good photograph are subject, composition, light and timing – it sounds like you have those covered. The technical elements may be able to scupper a photograph, but in my experience they rarely make a good photo by themselves.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      February 9, 2022 at 2:47 pm

      Totally off topic… Are you from Northern Ireland, or is ‘scupper’ used elsewhere as well?

      • Reply
        David Hill
        February 9, 2022 at 6:20 pm

        Scupper is a nautical term: scuppers are the openings in the bulwarks which let water which has come onboard to flow off the deck. By extension, /to scupper/ is to let something wash away, or to discard; by further extension to trash, to ruin.

        • Reply
          Ailbíona McLochlainn
          February 9, 2022 at 6:59 pm

          Oh I know the nautical origin; I’ve just never heard or seen it used colloquially as a verb to mean ruin/ mess up, except in Northern Ireland where it is used in that context very commonly. {For background, I have also lived in the US, England, and Republic of Ireland, and do not recall it used that way in either of these, only NI. Maybe I’ve been hanging around the wrong people!}

          • Alan Simpson
            February 10, 2022 at 8:37 am

            I think the use of ‘scupper’ extends well beyond Northern ireland. I’ve used it all my life – on the London/Essex border.

          • Bob Janes
            February 10, 2022 at 9:19 pm

            I grew up in SE London – lots of ships &docks so maybe it comes from there. I hadn’t reused it wasn’t universal…

      • Reply
        Tim Bradshaw
        February 10, 2022 at 10:43 pm

        I’m from the home counties: ‘to scupper’ is native to in my not-quite-RP dialect. Slight caveat: my father came from a slightly naval background and his father from a very naval background, so it may be idiolectical, but I don’t think so.

  • Reply
    Khürt Williams
    February 9, 2022 at 5:27 pm

    Hello Ailbíona. I have been on my photographic “journey” since the 1980s. I am still learning. Perhaps the story is “How to be a Good Enough Photographer”, where good enough is defined by the person holding the camera.

    Cheer!

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      February 10, 2022 at 1:35 pm

      A quality that has served me well in life {and I am only partly joking} is that I am not a perfectionist. So ‘good enough’ is definitely an appealing concept! But then there is the dilemma of moving goalposts. Some photos that I thought were good enough a few years ago, I now can’t stand to look at.

  • Reply
    Alan
    February 10, 2022 at 8:22 pm

    Brilliantly written and some sage advice here. Your portfolio is bloody good too.

  • Reply
    Khaled_IM
    February 11, 2022 at 10:24 am

    On the other hand, you need to be a good writer to be a good writer. This is a captivating article, bursting at the seams with spontaneity and expressive ease. I would say it is a better portrait of you than any photographic image can be.

  • Reply
    David Hume
    February 18, 2022 at 1:09 am

    Hi Ailbíona. I missed this article but just read it and your more recent one. I think they are both really interesting and resonate strongly with my own observations. I have a strong and lengthy visual arts background that informs my photography, and I’m finding a common thread in work that I respond to is that there are aesthetic elements to it that some people can see and others can’t. It sounds a bit harsh put like that but it’s pretty true I think. As for technique – yeah, it can be learned either easily or with difficulty but it’s not a deal-breaker if it’s tough along the way as long as you want to keep going with it. It’s not really my place to say that to you or anyone though. As for being good; I don’t agree with people who think that aesthetics is all subjective. I like the fact that I know I’m good to a degree but I’d be worried if I didn’t realise that I’m not THAT good. I can tell when work is better than what I can make, and I have a sneaking feeling that most people can’t really. It’s odd editing and cropping images and feeling quite ill looking at things that have faults in them and then calm only when they’re fixed. On the other hand it can be overpoweringly intense seeing beauty to the point that it gets quite uncomfortable and draining. I’m working at ways of expressing that without sounding elitist because really it’s nothing to crow about, but it’s also silly not to use an ability and keep working at improving it. I like your observations about people choosing your strongest images over the technically best ones – as part of our job is to show things to people that they would not otherwise be able to see. Anyway, I think your pieces so far are a really worthwhile addition to the site, so thanks.

  • Reply
    K.M.
    February 20, 2022 at 2:23 pm

    Hello Ailbiona. Thank you for personal piece which I appreciate. This comment may be a bit of a sidetrack but noting the more serious commentaries here, I thought I would get it try to give other views. I am Asian but educated in the English language. If you read about photography in English, what is deemed “good” is always about CLEAR subject matter, GOOD contrast, a certain kind of composition, sharpness, techincally perfect, etc. These values in my view are directly descended from Modernist Art values. Sure there are overlaps and commonalities, because we now live in a porous globally connected world. But I think there are other ways of determining what is “good” other than Eurocentric terms. Look at some of photographic images coming from Japan (the most “advanced” country in Asia, and therefore deemed interesting to the West). Those that do not conform to the conventional “good”. Like Chinese claasical landscape ink paintings, some of us like images bland, or super dense without “subject” focus, or blurred beyond “acceptability”, or composition that is not “classical”. Imperfection is also a preferred value for some of us. Because there is something beyond our control. Because the environment we live in is not about an “us” versus “them”, not a distinct “subject” “thinking” an “object”. I apologise if I don’t make a clear enough sense here. But what I sense and can see is that there are differences in aesthetic values.

    • Reply
      Ailbíona McLochlainn
      February 21, 2022 at 12:02 pm

      Thank you for that perspective. Being European born and educated, I do see things from that cultural prism and this is difficult to change. During my university years I was involved in some research on ‘East-West cultural differences’ (in the context of psychology – emotional expression, cognition, that sort of thing); I have also taken courses in Japanese art history. So I understand what you are saying, but in a limited abstract/ academic way, rather than truly being able to relate to it – which makes your points all the more interesting.

      In photography, I am only somewhat familiar with East Asian aesthetic approaches. But I encounter them more in the fibre industry, where I work as a knitwear designer. Techniques such as sashiko & boro that promote visible mending, as well as the overall idea of valuing imperfection, are being introduced into the western craft culture, and there is a synergy. Because inevitably, even when these concepts are introduced they are still seen through a different cultural lens (so to speak), and the result will differ from the original.

      I suppose for me, no matter which cultural prism is used to define ‘good,’ or even if that concept is used at all, it is about mastery over one’s work. For instance, it is one thing if I am mindfully following a Japanese aesthetic approach. But it is another thing if I am following a classic European approach, but upon discovering that my photos are blurry and the horizon is tilted I then say ‘that’s okay, because imperfection has value…’ I do believe intent matters. After all: even the East Asian approaches that value imperfection and lack of control are known for their distinct and recognisable aesthetics – which require awareness and mastery to achieve, which in turn involves its own set or rules (albeit different ones from western rules), which in turn makes evaluation possible, which again brings us to the concept of something being ‘good’ or not even if that specific word is not used and we replace it with ‘successful’ or ‘having met our intent’ or similar. I hope I am making sense with this line of thinking!

      • Reply
        K.M.
        February 24, 2022 at 6:39 am

        Thank you for the considered reply.
        There is certainly a “good” or a “successful” within our own cultural spheres. I guess what I want to point out, is that in a lot of discussions about photography ANYWHERE, the hiddenness of an Eurocentric perspective is taken for granted, unacknowledged. We all have to abide by these values or else the discussion doesn’t hold interest. Or else be filtered through these values. Moriyama Daido is canonised by the institutional gate-keepers of the West through the identity of a 60’s counterculture aesthetic. What he said he wants to do is to “become like a camera”: relinquishing as much as possible of most portions of his authorship. He is like a camera walking briskly capturing, almost unthinkingly, Tokyo’s “desires” as it unfolds before him without value judgement. Of late with a simple small point-and-shoot.

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