Questions on quality

I’m not good at giving answers. I’m way better at asking questions. If the following maximum is true…

“All I know is that I know nothing.” – Socrates

…then I’m the true master. In addition, I put question marks beautifully. Do you hear how gracefully I mark their curves?

It’s also because I’m a rookie in the world of photography. While I’m eager to learn techniques and gain knowledge about photography, I still involuntarily rely more on intuition when taking photos than on my technical knowledge.

Questions on quality

What better way to learn a skill than by asking questions?

Like the father of cyberpunk, William Gibson, “I’m not a technical guy”.  It seems that quality in photography, more often than not, focuses on technical issues. Why? Because when I googled the phrase “quality in photography”, most of the trilliards of billiards of results concerned technical issues. These included, but where not limited, to sensor resolution, ISO, aperture, focusing, sharpness, etc. I agree that the tecnicalia of a picture is an important part of the overall quality of a picture. This can be especially true in the case of toy photography, where scale and detail play an important role.

But here is my crucial question: is it possible to judge the quality of a photo in isolation from tecnicalia? Is it possible to focus (sic!) more on the story, mood, meaning or moment? Are these technical issue more important than the contents and atmosphere of the photo?

How do you judge the photo itself?

Before we can answer this question I think its important to agree that elements such as framing, composition or lighting are aesthetic, not technical choices. I’m also aware that beauty is also a matter of physics, not only psyche. 🙂

The Best Photo

Is it possible that we can say: “that photo has good quality” about a photo taken with a phone camera? I’m not talking about a careless snap, but a photo that was carefully set up complete with attention to  light and composition (of course according to the photographer’s skills). That photo probably won’t be crisp and sharp as shark. It will lack a level of technical quality due to lower camera parameters. We use to say “The best camera is the one that you have with you”. But is the resulting photo also best?

Of course we can create a separate categories for different kinds of photography. For example, we can create a category called “phoneography”; or in our case “toy phoneography”. But by creating these different categories we instantly stigmatize these kinds of photos. Obviously they cannot compete with a photo taken with a professional or high end hobbiest camera. How can we create a quality criteria that is as objective as is possible?

More questions

Am I asking the right questions? Are these issues reasonable? Or are these hard, equipment conditions an inescapable part of the photo and we can’t judge them separately? Am I simply confusing ideas?

I encourage you very much, Toy Photographers, to join the discussion and help me find at least a few threads that might lead to answers. Or at the very least find the right questions to ask!

~ Tomasz

 

12 Comments

  1. zekezachzoom

    What a great post. I think I have only scratch the service of what my camera can do and still trying to understand it’s settings sometimes. I used to worry sick about my lack of technical knowledge. Whenever someone asks me for the settings for the shot, I would feel my brain scramble for a bit before I can answer.

    Couple of times, I tried watching some Youtube videos to better understand the technical aspect of photography and less than 2 mins in, I kind of lost interest. I should try to make an effort again to revisit those videos. In the meantime, I try to focus more on the storytelling and just live by the maxim: I SEE. I LIKE. I SHOOT.

    • Thank You Sunny! This is also my point of view. I want to learn to have a control over the shot, especially that I like to take photos in extreme lighting conditions. But it takes time and, as You pointed, storytelling is most important for me too. I really like the maxim You quoted!

  2. Quality is a really hard thing to quantify. Technical is very easy – which is why a lot of folks obsess over technical aspects of photography, and ignore the “quality”.

    Normally I think of photos as being technically correct (proper exposure, composition, low noise, sharp in the places it should be sharp, etc.) and being impactful – what impact (emotionally et al) does the photo have on me, if anything?

    Those two things are entirely orthogonal and can absolutely be judged independently.

    You can have a technically correct photo that has the soul of a brick wall (leading to Ansel Adams quote: “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”) You can also have an image that hits you directly in the feels, and knocks you over emotionally, that is technically a horrid mess.

    Now technical issues with a photo can impact an image, so it is important, but for me I’d take a technically poor but highly impactful photo over the alternative any day of the week. Normally non-photographers don’t notice the technical issues anyway, unless they are incredibly obvious.

    As far as type of camera used, that is pretty much a fools errand. One may use a description like phoneography to describe what equipment they like to use, but in general the image produced and the camera used is irrelevant. One can make highly impactful images with anything.

    • Thank You Dave! I like your point of view too.

      I think You’re right about judging the technical quality and the idea quality independently.

      The impact of the photo is great idea and I it’s close to me, which is obvious, since I don’t consider myself as “the photographer”. I would love to take impactful images, even if they lack in technical issues.
      Thank You!

  3. Reiterlied

    The problem when you look on Google, most of the discussion around photography is about technicality and camera gear rather than photography itself.

    “is it possible to judge the quality of a photo in isolation from tecnicalia? Is it possible to focus (sic!) more on the story, moo, meaning or moment? Are these technical issue more important than the contents and atmosphere of the photo?”

    Yes, but I think then you shouldn’t look for “the best photo”. Asking if a photo is “good” can only lead to technical question because it’s the only aspect of a photo that can be objectively measured. I think the right questions are “what is the intent of a photograph and is it accomplished successfully”. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of people talking about that on the Internet. (That said, I strongly recommend you to search online for the blog post “is it any good” by David DuChemin which is the first thing that came to my mind when I read your post :-)).

    • Tomasz Lasek

      Thank You Maelick!
      I was also surprised when the “quality” in most cases equals sharp, low noise photo, without noticing what is on the photo, which reminds me a bit audiophiles who listen to the gear, not the music itself.

      I agree in general that the technical quality is the only objective issue and judge of “artistic” (I know, maybe too big word) value should limit to “I like it” or “I don’t like it” But it doesn’t satisfy me 🙂 That’s why I try to hollow deeper.

      Thank You for blog recommendation. I will check it for sure!

  4. Janan

    Good question Tomasz. Quality of a photography is really subjective and hence, I can only speak for myself. Also, it’s good to note that what is widely appreciated and enjoyed does not apply to everyone’s taste.

    Personally, knowledge of the technical aspects of lighting and composition should serve to tell the message of the image. This includes knowing when to break the technical rules as well! I also feel that using post production edits to create the lighting and composition desired is legitimate (purist may not agree.)

    Then, there is the “je na sais quoi” aspect of a stellar image that speaks to me. An example of that special ingredient is Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” street photography.

    Good question Tomasz and it reminds me of another question I heard before about cooking which may apply here – “is cooking an art or science?”

    • Thank You Janan for this comment! There are interesting thoughts! Mostly I agree that technical skills can help achieve the desired effect. Also to, as You pointed rightly, when to break the rules 🙂 And I agree, quality can be really subjective feeling. And here we have the je na sais quoi 🙂 I wander is it possible to find this je na sais quoi in the picture that has some technical issues 🙂 but I think it might be a matter of subjective judging of the beholder 🙂

  5. Quality is always subjective. What is quality for me, could be trash for you.
    That’s why (thankfully) we have so many different styles, so we can keep exploring creative ways to reach our goals while taking pictures.

    I see the “tecnicalia” as a supporting tool: if i know all those things, i can choose how, why and when to use it.

  6. As others have mentioned, “quality” is subjective. Part of the reason that Google is full of technical articles about “quality” is because technical details are an aspect that can be discussed with more concrete certainty. Either a photo has noticeable compression artifacts in the JPG or it doesn’t. Either a camera produces a slight warping at the picture edges or it doesn’t. Those facts can be compared and judged.

    But those facts don’t touch at all whether or not a photo brought joy to the viewer, or whether the photo would stand on its own merits against other photos in a certain context of judgment (in a photo contest, as part of a portfolio to gain clients, as an appeal to a brand to obtain free products, etc).

    You speak of phones as if a phone camera could not compare to a “real camera”, but I have experienced phone cameras recently that shoot RAW files and allow me to dial in elements like exposure, ISO, aperture, etc. There are photos I see online all the time that I really couldn’t say are from a camera or from a phone. It could be either one! So I don’t like speaking of phones as if they could never measure up, even if they often don’t. Technology is changing all the time, and some phone cameras are far better than some cameras.

    “Quality” relies on criteria in order to be judged, so it all depends on what criteria you use. Different photographers have different goals for their photos. Someone who needs to generate large-scale, high-res prints will have different criteria than someone who just needs the photo to look good on Instagram on a phone. Someone who values pathos will have different values than someone who values action. Humor, realism, composition, color aesthetics, so many factors!

    One of the things I love about the Toy Photographers community is that we respect each others’ work even when we may have totally different goals and values for the “quality” we seek to achieve. Thanks for bringing up an interesting topic!

    • Thank You Teddi for your comment!

      I’m aware that in the “artistic” terms there are no “hard” and objective criteria. I was only curious if we can judge aesthethical values by avoiding simple “I like it, I don’t like it”. And, as You say, there are many criterias, but at the same time they’re still not objective 🙂

      I tried to dig this theme and I’m satisfied by all your comments! They gave me a lot!

      I’m also not judging phone cameras, I started my toy photography from mobile shots! And phone gives many opportunities unable for digital camera, for example due to its size. And I know that there are phones that can take photos in RAW [You see it? we’re talking about phones taking pictures! Full cyberpunk! :D], I’m changing my phone subscription now and I ordered a phone that can take pictures in RAW, finally I can afford it, cause it’s not the newest model :). But it’s still not a common thing and I think that phoneography may be still treated by some people as the forgotten stepchild of photography.

      Once again, thank You all for your great comments!

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