How do you describe a photograph, without using technical words? But in a way, with a language, the listener understands?

Most of the discussion, when talking about photography, focuses on the technical. How to operate a camera, how to get a good exposure using the exposure triangle, how to compose your images with using composition rules, how to edit in the digital darkroom, and so on. And in that, we’re losing the opportunity to transform ourselves and other photographers into more meaningful and reflective photographers. Into photographers that bring something more to the table than just the mastery of how to operate a camera.

Even the legends. We study their styles in technical terms and try to recreate it. Ansel Adams in landscapes, was a master in the darkroom, and you can study how to use his zone system in Photoshop. Peter Hurley, the master of headshots, gives trainings and publishes videos that teach you how to replicate his style. (They are excellent, by the way, have a look here.)

One man’s food is another man’s poison, so while you may like a certain image, I may not. But I have no idea how to tell you why without using technical language. I will almost always fall back to describing it using terms like depth of field, focus, rule of thirds, parallel Iines, aperture, shutter duration and so on. There is no standardised method to just describe an image subjectively

All images ©️Randhir Andy Malhan

Let’s say my client is the Urban Birds magazine. I have the assignment of shooting a cover photo for their next issue. The cover story is ‘The early bird’. I shoot the picture above. When I submit it, the photo editor responds with : 

Technically strong, uses of rule of thirds – the pipe and bird are on one vertical axis and the bird is on an important intersection point. You’ve chosen your frame of reference in a manner that the bird has a clear sky as background. The light is directional yet soft and flattering. Judging by the fact that the left side of the bird is darker than the right, this would imply the image was taken somewhere near the golden hour, and this is further confirmed by the textures in the feathers being visible, and all this contributing to the pleasing aesthetic of the photograph. A good image, but it doesn’t work for the cover story. How does this convey the ‘early’ bird?

So clearly he likes the image, but there’s zero feedback on why it doesn’t work for the cover. Rule of thirds. Important point, framing, emphasis, light, texture – these are all things that are technical in nature. They offer no aesthetic or subjective opinion.

The response doesn’t offer any real feedback on how the photographer (me, in this case), could make it better from a subjective perspective, how could I have made the image more meaningful? What could I have done to be more aligned with the intent of the image?

A potential solution

Michael Rubin, formerly of Lucasfilm, Netflix and Adobe, proposes an interesting solution. In a recent article on PetaPixel, he describes it in detail – worth a read, check it out.

In a nutshell, he proposes a standard system of 8 metrics against which we should measure our images, allowing for a structured and consistent way to compare, critique and improve our photography. 



Thing vs. Moment

A photograph of a coin is a thing. A photograph of a runner crossing the finish line is a moment. Of course there can be overlap (a coin falling into water), but there’s always a leaning to one side.



Obvious vs. Cryptic

If you can tell what it is, quickly, it’s obvious, if you can’t, or it takes a while, it’s cryptic.



Formal vs. Random

If there is some structure to the composition, it is formal, if none, random. He adds, (and I agree) that random tends to be somewhat of a newbie problem.



Authentic vs. Fabricated

Is it a photo of something you came across, or did you move things around to get the shot?

[An aside: a photographer I admire very much, Steve McCurry, is a photojournalist best known for his iconic cover of National Geographic, called ‘the Afghan girl’. Photojournalism is by definition, is intended to be authentic. Steve got a fair bit of flak, when it was discovered that several of his pictures were tweaked, and some, even fabricated. Personally, I still love his work.]

When you start analysing and talking about photographs in these terms, the feedback takes on a completely different context. Consider again, the pigeon. Using Rubin’s metrics, we might get this from the photo editor:

Technically solid, but unsuitable for the cover. The theme was ‘The early bird’ which implies more of a moment when paired with the ending of the phrase, which will echo in every reader’s mind “…catches the worm”. I like the formality, but it isn’t obvious enough. As photographers, you and I can tell that the sun is low in the horizon, thus implying early, but our average reader will not be able to read the light. The authenticity is terrific.

What a difference that makes! As a photographer, I would have a much clearer idea of what my editor is looking for. 

I’m quite impressed with his choice of metrics. I’ve been trying to think of anything I’d add, but it all seems to fall within the footprint of one of the pairs. Can you think of any?