Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The subject is everything

I want to talk about why IQ isn't important. No, I don't mean a discussion about why it always seems to be The Unintelligent running the country; I'm talking about Image Quality here. (Cue for the purists to start shuddering.) Yes, I'm saying that image quality isn't important. Well, not that important. In my humble opinion.

You might not agree with me but I'd ask you: who is your photography for? If you're like me, it's for yourself. As an amateur I can choose what I want to shoot. Within the constraints of the law and my own code of ethics, that is. And every shot (except those taken for tourists, with their own camera) is taken for my own enjoyment. The fact that other people have said they like a fair few of them is a bonus as far as I'm concerned. And for me, the choice of subject and how well I've portrayed that subject is far more important than any technical quality the image might have.

Take my Mr Bubbles, for instance [top left]. On the piazza at London's Trafalgar Square are to be found two or three pavement 'artists' just about every day. (You have to see what they produce to see why I've used quotes there.) One day while I was on the piazza I noticed a sizeable group of foreign children of primary-school age (under 11). The group leader had gathered them quite near to one of the pavement drawings. The guy whose drawing it was produced a bubble-blowing kit from somewhere and proceeded to amuse the children who ran around trying to be the first to burst the bubbles. I had on my Canon 70-300mm f4-5.6 IS USM lens and my camera's always on when I'm out shooting, so I raised it and created Mr Bubbles. I don't know the guy's real name, and he certainly wouldn't answer to "Mr Bubbles" if you called him that - I just wanted to capture his essence at that very moment. I think I succeeded.

But you don't even have to look very closely at it to see that his face is out of focus. As I half-pressed the shutter to lock the focus and reframe, he moved his hand up and the camera focused on that instead of his face. I didn't notice at the time as it looked like a pretty good capture when I reviewed it on the LCD, and I tend to only go for one shot of each subject. Maybe two now and again if I didn't catch the light right.

I have to take a small detour here to explain a few things: that I post my good pics on Flickr as a backup (they're also copied onto two separate partitions of my internal hard disk and an external HD, too) - I also make them publicly available under a Creative Common licence as bloggers and Wikipedia use some of them; also, I should make clear that I don't play the Flickr ego-stroking game, though I have nothing against it if other people want to play it - I have neither the time nor the inclination. The long and short of it is that each of my photos doesn't get very many views. In some cases it's because you can pretty much see the picture by looking at the thumbnail; in others it's because people don't find the picture interesting enough to warrant clicking through to view it in a larger size. Yet, despite this, Mr Bubbles continues to get several views every day - 17 on the day of writing this article. Yet never has anyone on Flickr mentioned that the guy's face is out of focus.

Why is this? Well, in my opinion it's because it's a picture of an interesting subject. With this photo, IQ (image quality) comes second to SQ (subject quality). But this is just one example.

The photo The Girlfriend Spotted Me is, if you discount photos of celebrities, my most-viewed photo of all time on Flickr. And, knowing a bit about psychology, I think I know why. When most people look at photos, they prefer to look at pictures that interest them in some way rather than pictures that are technically "good". While photographers - or at least, some of the most hopeless cases - might prefer to look at pictures with good IQ, the rest of us prefer to look at stuff we like, things that interest us, photos with good SQ. And if their image quality gives them more impact, even better.

What are some of the most well-known photos you know? If you don't know many, check out the World's Famous Photos website. How many of them are famous because of their subject matter? Don't they have the impact they do because their subjects are compelling? Wouldn't you like to produce images that are as compelling as those?

That's why I asked you near the beginning of this article, who is your photography for? If it's for you, by all means make IQ a priority if you like. But if it's for other people, just remember what it is that they like. Take another look at those famous photos. Check out Flickr's Explore: Last 7 Days Interesting page. Especially if you're fairly new to photography, don't just skip past the pictures in magazines; study what you see. Learn above all what it is that makes a picture interesting. Maybe aim to go less for Image Quality and more for Interestingness Quality - in other words, Subject Quality.

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