Don’t Justify Your Bad Pictures As Artistic


Let’s be honest, most of us, myself included, have tried to justify a bad picture as “artistic”. Usually it’s because there is some merit to the photo, perhaps a great composition or a moment of beautiful light. 

The reason that the image fails is nearly always technical. We try to justify that technical imperfection as art because the the rest of the image looks great. Problem is, not only are we lying to our audience, we are lying to ourselves. Justifying bad technique as artistic is a slippery slope.

It’s something seen quite often on social media. Often the slightest criticism on Instagram or Facebook is countered by a defence of “art”. Often it clearly is not art. So today, with tongue slightly in cheek, we are going to look not only at some of the most common excuses for bad photography. We will also look at how to learn from those shots to make them truly artistic.

A Wonky Horizon Is Abstract

The old wonky horizon excuse is one of the classics. Yes abstract images very often have exaggerated, oblique angles. However a seascape with a waterline that is so skewed you could ski without a boat, is not abstract. It’s bad photography. 

In this day and age there is no excuse for a poor horizon. Nearly all cameras some form of electronic spirit level. Even if you are so rushed you could not get the a level horizon, it’s easy to correct in post. As a rule of thumb, images that are off by a few degrees should never be justified as art. If you want to go full abstract, tilt the camera at least 45 degrees and have an interesting subject. If not, use that spirit level.

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A horizon that is off 1 or 2 degrees can ruin a shot. By Josh Webb on Unsplash

Camera Shake Is Motion Blur

No, it’s not, it’s camera shake. It’s a common excuse but also one that is easily rebutted. Motion, by it’s very nature has direction. A speeding race car is going one definite way and the quality of the blur will define that direction. 

Creative motion blur is very different from camera shake. By Jason Row Photography

Camera shake, does of course convey motion, however the motion that it conveys is completely random and rather jarring to the eye. Even to non-photographic people, there is something clearly wrong with an image that has camera shake. Your success in persuading people it’s art is more down to your marketing skills than anything. If you could sell ice to the Inuits, you might get away with it, otherwise you will probably be quickly pulled up on it. 

It might be trick to justify this as art. By Jason Row Photography

Like a wonky horizon, camera shake is easy to overcome. Raise the shutter speed, increase the ISO or use a tripod. Or any combination of the three. If however you are looking to achieve motion blur, learn to pan in the direction of the motion and experiment to get the correct shutter speed. 

Overexposed Is High Key

A bit more of an advanced level justification of art but still relevant. Some photographers try to justify an overexposed image as high key without really understanding what high key means. A high key image will be well exposed. It might have the highlights clipping in the background. However exposure on and around the subject will lie inside the histogram. 

What defines a high key image is a near absence of any shadows.Clearly that is very different from a badly over exposed beach portrait where the sand and sky have become white yet there are strong dark shadows across the model’s face. 

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Over exposing an image does not make it high key. By Aditya Chinchure on Unsplash

High key shots are often, but not exclusively portraits. They are often shot inside under controlled lighting conditions and not outside in direct sunlight. It is possible, of course to shoot high key outside, but you will need to pose your subject very carefully, have the right kind of soft light and a bright, virtually shadowless background. 

Underexposed Is Moody

Another common excuse for poor technique is the moody underexposed shot. Yes, moody images are very often dark, perhaps a little underexposed. However what sets them apart from an underexposed shot is composition. A great, dark moody shot is defined by a well composed subject. Dark “moody” clouds over a bland landscape does not give that image emotion. It merely makes it look dark. 

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Dark clouds and no subject does not add up to a moody shot. By Lode Lagrainge on Unsplash

If you are shooting a beautiful moody sky, look for the foreground interest that will offset that sky. It might be the lights of a little cottage or car light trails on a busy highway. Mood comes from the emotion in the shot, and not simply because it’s dark. 

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A moody shots needs a subject. By William Bout on Unsplash

Poor Focus Is Soft Focus

As amazing as they are, modern autofocus systems will often focus on the wrong part of the image. This leads us to another common excuse, the subject is soft focus. The most common type of shot I have seen this on is portraiture, where the camera has focused on the nose rather than the eyes. 

Passing this type of technical error off as artistic is an insult to your viewers. Soft focus and out of focus are very different things, even to the eye of a layperson. 

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Lack of focus on one eye is not soft focus. By Thea Hoyer in Unsplash

A soft focus image will actually look to be in focus but with an ethereal, halo type softness to the whole image. If your portrait has that soft look to the eyes but the point of the noise or ear lobes are razor sharp, it’s poor focus. 

If you are struggling with getting the correct focus, use a single point focus mode. This allows you to place that point over the exact point you wish to focus on and lock the focus. You will get a much higher percentage of sharp images. 

If you are genuinely looking at getting soft focus, you could invest in a soft, portrait lens. Alternatively use the tried and tested vaseline on a skylight filter technique. An effective and cheap alternative.

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True soft focus has an etheral look to it. By Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

We all make technical errors when shooting. Sometimes that happens when you have the most amazing scene in front of you. As tempting as it may be to justify that technical error as art in order to show the image, avoid it. Whilst non photographer’s might fall for it, your photographic peers will not. And whilst likes and shares are great, advice and creative criticism from your peers is priceless. 

To learn more about typical errors in photography, check out the links below!

Further Reading:

  1. Are You Making These 7 Mistakes In Landscape Photography?
  2. Avoid These Top 9 Photography Mistakes Made By Beginners
  3. 7 Professional Photography Tips To Avoid Simple Shooting Mistakes
  4. Top Photography Mistakes To Avoid
  5. 4 Common Photo Composition Errors And How To Fix Them
  6. The 5 Stupidest Photography Errors You Don’t Even Know You’re Making

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

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