Is It Photography?

May 17, 2010 | • Critique • Philosophy

I’m going to share a story about shooting crappy pictures then share a recent comment from one of y’all regarding our last critique that’s worthy of taking some time and thinking about what we do.

At the turn of the century I was photographer for The image above is one I shot for them in 2001. It was shot with the then amazing Olympus C-3030. You should have seen the camera we upgraded from. My iPhone takes better pictures.

Ramblings after the jump…

I could typically shoot three apartment complexes a day. I would show up, introduce myself to the property manager (PM), explain what the Internet was (contracts were usually sold on the national level so local PM’s didn’t always know what we did.), and then take off through the complex to shoot one or two model apartments, the exercise room, the pool, the front entrance, miscellaneous property photos, the club house, etc, etc, etc. In addition to stills I would have to shoot virtual tour panoramics as well. An average apartment complex would take an hour or two to photograph and I would shoot, on average, 150 to 200 images per property.

Once I was done shooting I would sit with the PM and have them choose their favorite photos. It was not unusual to be sent back out on the property or to the model to reshoot something. Usually I was asked to make a bathroom the size of a size 6 shoebox look like it was the Taj Mahal . I would shoot the tennis court that had not seen a tennis match in 10 years and then be asked if we could Photoshop the cracks out of the surface and add some nets. I wish I had a dime for every time I was asked if we could Photoshop water into the pool. Truth in advertising people. Truth in advertising. Not that any of that mattered to folks who would name an apartment complex “Mountain View” when there wasn’t a view of a mountain for at least 600 miles.

Prior to shooting I was shooting this stuff for JC Penney… (sorry for the bad scans)

4×5 fo’ life!

How did I go from working in a large commercial photography studio to shooting apartments? I had a degree in photography, I had been an assistant for two or three years by this point, and I was then moving into a management/shooter position for JC Penney’s corporate studio shooting table top product, booking models, handling the best gear in the world, and interacting with amazing photographers each and every day. I moved from that life to racing around the Southwest shooting exercise rooms and horribly decorated 2 bedroom 1 bath apartments. JC Penney hit some really tough financial times and a big fat target was painted on the studio I was working in. We were all told to be on the lookout for other work because it could be closing any day. I got a call around that time about a photography position at The Internet was at the tail end of being the wild frontier. The pay was good, the benefits were amazing, and the job allowed me to work from home and have time to get my freelance career started while still having a salary to rely on. What could be better? Other than the fact that I was now a photographer for I was embarrassed to tell any of my photographer friends about my job. I never ever mentioned it on the forums I was active on. Pride would not allow me to breath a word of it. It wasn’t “photography”. I could train a monkey to do the job.

So I thought.

You know what?  I learned a lot about photography with that job. I shot 300 to 600 images a day and then had to sit and have them reviewed by the client on site. I would have to prep the selects and upload them each night so my workflow had to be efficient. Near the end of my time with I could breeze into a complex, knock out the photos in 45 minutes, and wow the PM’s with angles of their complex they had never seen. Even though I was never showing that work to anyone… I still took pride in what I did. Even though I felt I wasn’t doing anything with “photography”. I learned a lot about talking to clients, working with images, educating a client about photography and getting them involved in the process. I learned about being consistent and delivering on tight deadlines. I learned so much about photography with that job but I didn’t realize it at that time.  To keep from going crazy during this time in my career I spent a lot of time shooting personal work and continued to build my portfolio and get my freelance work up to the point where I could leave the Internet job. This was the time in my life when I was buying gear, going into debt, living more on forums than in my life, etc, etc. That horrible word “profitability” also started getting tossed around the home office in Chicago and the internet started to get incredibly Khaki around 2001. I had to start learning to read spread sheets. No more keggers in the kitchen.

I was really inspired by guys like Dirk Halstead, David Leeson, and Brian Storm back in those days. There was this new frontier called “new media” and these guys were at the forefront of it and they were lumped into one of two categories by the photography industry. They were either visionaries or they were bat shit crazy. I think in someways they vacillated between the two on any given day. I think they were bat shit crazy enough to be visionaries and time has proven that they were right on the money. Back when I was getting to know these guys there was another dude who had just become the youngest staff photographer for the New York Times. His name was, and still is, Vincent Laforet. Never heard of him right? :)

Now that I’ve dropped enough names to break my foot… what was I doing with my life?

Shooting effing apartments… but damn it all… I was trying to get my career and my craft beyond algae filled pools and mauve and teal clubhouse virtual tours. I jumped into the new media pool and started working on a project in Austin, TX about a group of homeless folks who flew signs to make ends meet. You see them on every corner. Someone holding a sign asking for some help and God blessing you as you ignore them while you pray for the light to turn green. I was shooting stills…

And shooting video…

I thought I have a lot to learn about audio and video now? I had even more to learn then. Like, check out this clip from that project of Worthless Kenny.

I’ve gone down this trip on memory lane because of a comment from reader ChrisDavid42. His comment took me back to this weird time in my life when I had more knowledge in my head than I had experience with a camera in my hands.

In the critique, I was looking at a gallery of images and I made a comment that went along the lines of, “Yes, it is a photograph but it isn’t photography.” I knew it would strike a chord somewhere with someone. Sometimes I say this sort of crap to make us all think or start a discussion. I also say crap like this to try and set a bar higher than where any of us reach with our own work. Myself included. Well, that statement did spark some conversation and this comment… (emphasis added)

This comment is meant as a contribution to the ongoing discussion, and not as criticism or dis-agreement with anyone.

First, my opinion about art vs. commercialism: Art has always existed at a cross-roads between commerce and human expression. Artists who wish to benefit from their art will always be subject to the aesthetic of those who are willing to commission, or pay, for that work. On the other side of the coin are the artists who reject all control in pursuit of a “pure unadulterated expression of their vision.” I recently read of a photographer from eastern Europe who was discovered in his sixties or seventies. He spent much of his life in poverty and two decades in a mental hospital. I don’t want to be that guy.

I believe a key element of art is the interaction between artist, medium, and subject. Though at times this may not be conveyed successfully to the viewer, an arguably necessary component of “successful” art, the joy of the creation of art, in my mind, is as important as the result.

Zack consistently pushes his listeners and readers to strive for excellence and individual vision in their work, and I agree. And, I have been encouraged by his message. However, I must respond to a couple comments, including the comment about getting a side job rather than producing mediocre work, or as in one of Zack’s repeated quotes “competing with Wal-mart.”

I also take issue with Zack’s comment that an image can be a photograph, but not photography. I agree completely with the sentiment that there is way too much mediocrity in the industry and in the media. I cringe at most of the photos our local paper runs, especially after years of reading Zack’s blog and Strobist and knowing that 5 more minutes of effort could have improved those pictures. And yet, that tolerance for mediocrity is the what will allow me to build a small portrait business and get the experience that you can’t get from blogs, or shooting your kids and neighbors, and pay for the equipment that I can’t pay for out of my household budget.

As a photographer, I find incredible joy from making images of people. I find joy from growing in my craft technically, or, to say it differently, interacting with my camera and equipment. I find great joy from interacting with people and creating a photo with them, not of them. My goal is to someday have the skill that allows my images to show the world “my experience” or “what I see in my subjects.” However, I am still producing mediocre images, because of where I am at technically in my photographic journey. But, my skills are improving, and I am seeing more and more improvement in my images.

I have recently had the opportunity to do two evenings of “event portraits.” Setting up in a corner at a community event and doing a hundred mini-portrait sessions over the course of two hours. The blogs and videos very much informed that experience, but having to shoot successfully under pressure is something that you can only learn from experience.

And I loved every minute of it, every compromise, every success, every time that I had to sacrifice composition to a technical detail, every time I was able to show them a picture that was better than they expected; even the failures when I couldn’t overcome technical difficulties, or connect with my subjects. Every second of that was PHOTOGRAPHY.

Even if it doesn’t translate yet on my website, it was photography. Even if I spend two years competing with Walmart for customers. It was photography because it was a labor of love for the craft; even if the viewer cannot see it. Someday it will be GOOD PHOTOGRAPHY and the viewer will see it. And that is my problem with Zack’s criticism, you can’t always ascertain the process from the product. however, I think we could agree it is a communication failure, the failure on the photographers part to successfully communicate his/her vision.

Perhaps where I take issue is that I perceived an insult to the process, and I see the process as inseparable from the product. (Honestly, what is really tweaking me is that I really identify with the first person you critiqued. One of the first things you read from her e-mail was that she had been doing this for one year. I look at what I was doing after a year and think “wow. I didn’t have the guts to put together a website after a year.”)

Zack commented in earlier critiques that kid sports photography may be boring, but he will buy it because it is his kid. I totally get what he means here, it is like watching a movie where somebody’s dad dies in the first scene, you are emotionally connected to the movie whether it is poorly scripted and produced or not. Same thing with the pictures, you buy them even if they make you cringe. However, I think that the answer is not to berate the photographers for making lifeless images, the answer is to stop buying the images. Vote with your wallet, pay a more envisioned photographer to make images of your kid in his softball uniform. Keep encouraging and educating photographers and the overall level of the industry will rise.

In summary, thanks for taking the time to read my rant. Your critiques are successful because they are thought provoking. I love listening to them. I listened to your critique on Tuesday and have been arguing the ideas in my head all week. I absolutely loved your talk at Photocamp Utah; it inspired me. I will continue to cull my best images for my portfolio, and I will continue to shoot whatever people will pay me to shoot (or let me shoot for free), and i will likely display some of that in my portfolio, if that is what my customers want and are paying me for.

enough said.

Wow. Chris’ comment stopped me in my tracks and took me back to the hundreds of apartments I’ve photographed. It took me back to all the crap ass photos I’ve taken (and, um, well, still take). I thought about this music video I just put together last week. My first. It isn’t a masterpiece but it’s mine. I’m tied to it. Attached in a way that is hard to let go and I often forget about that with photography. Is my level of video work on par with the highest end of the industry? No way. I struggle with it. I fight with it. And to me, it’s still film making. It’s doing something inside of me. If it is mediocre then I need someone from higher up the food chain to call it out and call me up… And that is the goal when I do a critique. Ok. You nailed the exposure. You made a portrait that is on level with Wal-Mart. You have made it to that level but that level is a low one. You must now rise. The bar is higher than that.

So as much as I stand by my comments in the critique and will continue to push buttons I also have to say that Chris’ comment opened my eyes. You made me stop and think Chris and I thank you for that. You made me remember the strange struggling times when you are fighting for your first jobs. I mean, I’m not so old hat around here that I forget but sometimes I do.

Yes the picture may be somewhat boring… but it is still photography.

My favorite part of Chris’ comment is this…

And I loved every minute of it, every compromise, every success, every time that I had to sacrifice composition to a technical detail, every time I was able to show them a picture that was better than they expected; even the failures when I couldn’t overcome technical difficulties, or connect with my subjects. Every second of that was PHOTOGRAPHY.

Pretty amazing quote huh? I want to print that and hang it on the wall.


Cheers, Zack


  • C.C. Chapman said on May 17, 2010

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Good to have you back blogging. Hope you can keep it up! *grin*

  • Paul B said on May 17, 2010

    I think the quotes in bold sum it up perfectly.

  • Danielle said on May 17, 2010

    This was a much needed hug.

  • John Batdorff said on May 17, 2010

    A killer post…

  • Shane Savage said on May 17, 2010

    Great post, as photographers I don’t thin we will ever stop learning and evolving. I know that no matter what I produce, I always think that I could’ve done better. I like my pictures for a short time and then move on to new ideas, project and images that motivate me. I think that all off us take jobs that are just pay checks, it’s sad, but necessary. Your post does highlight that any time you grab your camera it is or can be a learning experience.

    Thanks Zack, you inspire us.

  • William J. Ingalls said on May 17, 2010

    WOW. First off AMAZING quote. Chris you’re awesome for drilling down the essence of why I (and I think the community) take photos.


    Thank you very much for being humble enough to let us see a side of you never seen before.



  • ricky said on May 17, 2010

    wow…? thanks i will think and finish a sweet 15 and finish a family portrait..

  • Somerset said on May 17, 2010

    Great post Zack – and I have to say – I really do prefer 4×5!

  • Justin Keitch said on May 17, 2010

    The first home I owned was called Mountain View actually. All the darn trees blocked my view of the mountain though. 😉

  • Jeremy Hall said on May 17, 2010

    Really enjoyed this honest, introspective piece. Goes with a lot of thoughts rolling around in my head right now. Props for being so willing to truly listen to comments & reflect.

  • Robert said on May 17, 2010

    sometimes we all need a little kick in the face to jar our memories …

    I’ll just say thanks …

    for provoking thoughts …
    for promoting a higher standard …
    for simply being inspiring …

  • Ryan Brenizer said on May 17, 2010

    Great post. Some of the biggest growth in my photography was learning to take boring assignments as a university photographer for Columbia and make them look good. Taking photos at luncheons and not getting shots of people eating, trying to make dudes sitting at a table and talking magazine-worthy, it was a constant challenge, and sharpened my thinking.

  • Brian Hirschy said on May 17, 2010

    I can’t read stuff like this too late at night (2:00am) – Made me want to run outside and try to find someone to take a picture of.

    Nonetheless, I love the fact that these quotes give an enormous amount of grace to people, no matter where they are as a photog.

  • TC said on May 17, 2010

    Thanks for sharing this. I didn’t comment on the photo vs photography comment the first way around, as I wasn’t quite clear on what I felt about. Still isn’t.

    But ChrisDavids story is kind of close to (one of) my own. I was shooting my fourth or fifth wedding, and one of the things I had been asked to do was shoot couple portraits of all the guests. It ended up being 34 couples in 45 minutes. I had an assistant herd people for me, but that’s it. Had to take the softbox of my light, as it was falling over without the assistant holding it.

    Those 45 minutes, was some of the most important in all the shooting I’ve done.

    This is one of my favorites, from that set:

    Is that an amazing photo? Taken out of context, maybe not. But if you take into consideration that I spend less that two minutes with these guys, I’m quite proud.

    While I do think that it’s important to set a bar, and set it high, I’m not sure that naming the goal “Photography”, makes much sense. Saying that something is, or isn’t photography, is just a mocking way of saying “I (don’t) see artistic value in that photo”. If you want to make that call, I think that’s your right, especially for people who have submitted their site for review. It’s a valid critique of a photo – I make the same call sometimes in critique forums. Usually I’ll say some to the effect of “It doesn’t do anything for me” or “I can’t connect with it”.

    Maybe the difference here is that I call it, from my point of view.

    Arg, damn it – this art vs. documentation vs. commercial vs. whatnot, discussions always end op in semantics, and meaningless attempts at defining what art (or photography in this case) really is.

    My advise: Forget it, GOYA and go take some photos.


    p.s.: Please make a preview function on your comment system, and please make the comment textarea bigger. It’s a pain to proofread.

  • Stephen S said on May 17, 2010

    Is it the right question? Recently a friend of mine pieced together a photo slide show for his aunt who was turning 90. He received a ton of photos from family and friends. Some were so old he didn’t know the people in the pictures. He said, “These could have been pictures of anyone’s family” – meaning he had no particular attachment to the photos. He completed the project, set to music and all, and played the montage at his aunt’s party to everyone’s delight. Then something interesting happened. People wanted to watch it again, without the music. They wanted his aunt and her sister to talk about the photos. That is when the photos literally transformed from pictures of people he didn’t know into family heirlooms he would treasure for the rest of his life. In short, post your Garden Gate Apartment photo on the web with no context and it would be passed over as an uninspiring snapshot. But share that photo and your story behind it and somehow that silly picture becomes endearing. Photography is a process that long outlives and evolves beyond the moment of capture. If the photo served a purpose (whether small or grand) then who cares if it is or isn’t photography? Perhaps we could tweak the question to “Does the photo serve a purpose?” The answers to that question may provide more usable information to all who ask.

  • Frank T said on May 17, 2010

    I think this goes along with your own GOYA shoots. Make an image. Tell a story. Evoke emotion. Or, just capture a place and moment in time.

    For me, my own mediocrity of work had been going along until I shot some test images with a model. My fiancee had never really reacted to any of my work, other than she “liked it.” But the test images really set her off. She “HATED” the images, she said. Wohoo! Controversy! Technically, they were ok shots – lit well, framed nicely, but the poses (a dancer, very limber) and the red dress she wore, really evoked a reaction. I took the images down because my fiancee wanted me to. I complied – and knew that she really cared about my work, and how others would perceive it.

    For me, photography is about capturing an emotion and trying to connect with the viewer. Or, just making a pretty picture that will pay the bills. I love being in the moment of working with others and working within myself to create – and most of the time it is crap, but on occasion, you get that one that really makes you feel good about what you do.

  • cat said on May 17, 2010

    I want to start first by saying that I appreciate what Zack has done for the photography community as a whole, giving his time, knowledge and experience so freely to all who’ve sought it (/end suck up)

    While I realize that not all of us will ever be great photographers, taking to heart something that someone else says is not always best. It’s important to remember to trust ourselves, and our instincts. Maybe we aren’t always consciously aware that what we are doing, at any given time, is bringing us closer to where we want to be, but there is always something – a feeling of excitement, of fear, the thing/s that drive us to continue on, is what we can trust.

    Chris’ thoughts are a reminder of this for me, and after a bout of not getting quite as excited, waiting for ZA’s critiques, mainly because me thinks sometimes the comments are a little too personal, rather than technical, I’m wow’d, and humbled by Zack’s response, and again look forward to seeing what comes next.

    I am also reminded that we are all still growing, as photographers, and peeps as well.

    Cheers, Zack and Chris – great insight!

    I signed up for ZA’s Creative Live Sessions here
    Have you?

  • Elma said on May 17, 2010

    Great post. Thanks Zach for being you. I’m thankful that there’s guys like you around. I can always learn something when I stop by.

  • Colin said on May 17, 2010

    Photography is art. Pushing the button without creative thought is not art. Is a photo booth at a mall an artist? If anyone in that scenario is an artist it is the people in the booth composing. If you have intent to be creative (whether or not you succeed in your goal) is what makes it art. When you lose the intent you lose art and it is no longer photography.

    The 16 year-old at Wal-Mart who has zero interest in being creative with a camera is not doing photography any more than a photocopier going to town on replicating the Mona Lisa is doing art.

    The 50 year-old with the identical studio setup for 30 years taking identical senior pictures is not doing art because there is no creativity and, thus, not doing photography. Moving light stands, changing angles, putting in new props, using gels, etc. is art.

    Button pushing does not a photographer make!

    I think every agreement/disagreement I’ve read here or on critique #13 hits this point: it’s about the journey, the story, the learning process, the gaining of skills, etc. that makes it photography even if it’s the “line ’em up and shoot” sports team photography. All these things are creative processes but when the intent to do those is gone: it’s a photo booth.

  • JF Machado said on May 17, 2010

    I’ve also been shooting club parties for this last year, and all-in-all, they are not that great.
    But, I’ve been learning from it. Dragging shutter, composing, interacting with the subjects… And it transpired in the appropriate gigs in the meantime.

  • Sree said on May 17, 2010

    I feel much better now about struggling with ISO, aperture, shutterspeed and really bad lighting in a high tense event. I can still make the images work, but I was critiquing myself way too much. I’m still learning! And this reminds me there are people out there like that too. Thanks Zack and Chris for the inspiration and affirmation.

  • Jeff Weeks said on May 17, 2010

    I was the photographer who took the “boring” photograph that evoked the “it’s not photography” comment. I am thankful that Zack took the time to evaluate my work and to challenge me to improve. That process of improving is indeed a journey, and Zack is absolutely correct that we should never stop pushing ourselves to improve.

    It seems to me that Zack is a graceful, compassionate person, and he really wants the best for his fellow photographers. That must be reason for his blog and all the time he puts in this.

    I posted my response to Zack’s critique on my website (after making some changes as suggested by Zack):

    But for now, let me say it seems to me that many photographers and forums lack grace, but that is not the case with Zack. Although I’ve never met him, I consider him a friend.


  • Geoff said on May 17, 2010

    It definitely challenges us all to understand that even the little things matter…to always push ourselves, to leave the day saying I did the best I could…great post!

  • Katy Weaver said on May 17, 2010

    Wow. I read this entire post and just loved it. As a 20 year old in college this really made me realize (and feel less guilty about) the importance of experiencing any and all types of photography, even if it doesn’t do much more than pay the bills. I want to break into the commercial end of the industry, but shooting weddings, seniors, family pictures, events, and photos for my college paper is also great experience, and I love the people the meet and share the time with. Thank you for offering a new look on this subject matter that doesn’t just tell people they are “sell-outs.”

    I’m a huge fan of your blog and your work, and this discussion has only made me more so :)

  • TC said on May 17, 2010

    A small after thought:

    I like Colins comment #19 – I think it sums it up well.

    But – If I can after-rationalize Zacks original comments about a photo not being photography, in that light, maybe what that meant was, that to Zack, that photo looked as if it was taken by somebody who had been using the same light setup, for 30 years.

    And even if Zack was told, that the photographer had used half an hour adjusting lights to get just that special look, that he love, or thought perfect for that portrait, it would probably look the same to Zack.

    There’s a sender and a receiver. Both are important for the understanding of the message…

  • Caleb Benton said on May 17, 2010

    Thank you Zack!

  • SpencerO said on May 17, 2010

    I appreciate that you can critique yourself. Great response.

  • Jeffrey Lee said on May 17, 2010

    Thanks for this great post, Zack (and Chris).

    I recently read a Craigslist ad for assistant work where the advertiser was looking for help with “boring” work like weddings. Wow, I would so want to be that guy’s client. If you approach your subject with disdain, whether it be a couple getting married or a an apartment building, it’s an attitude that is bound to produce mediocre work. I’ve barely made dime one with my photography so far, but I always want to keep that in mind. You are the one behind the lens, so you have the most control of what ends up coming out of it. Whether I’m shooting for money or love, I want the result to be something I’m proud of.

  • moonie said on May 17, 2010

    man, that really helps me look at it from a different perspective. the emotion behind that last quote is what i so often forget to bring to my day to day shooting. i’m printing that out and keeping it where i can see it

  • kevin said on May 17, 2010

    yep i pretty much have been living in mediocre land for too long, mostly out of fear but this year has been the complete opposite.

  • Howard Haby said on May 17, 2010

    I love this blog entry, Zack. It’s really cool of you to lay out that part of your life, and I think Chris’ comment is a great one, worthy of a subject to be talked about here. I’ve only been shooting with any real intention the last year or so, and for you to dedicate a blog entry to this makes me feel pretty good.

  • chrisdavid42 said on May 17, 2010

    Wow, Zack
    I was pretty amazed to wake up and see my comment on your blog today. Thank you for reading and responding to my thoughts. A big part of this blog is your integrity and the fact that you are true to who you are. It made me feel like I could make a comment like that, and it continues to be a source of inspiration to me. Thank you to everyone else who responded to my comment as well. It’s pretty cool to be able to contribute to the discussion in this way.

  • Chaz Carlson said on May 17, 2010


    You still manage to capture my attention and kick my ass. I haven’t read an entire photo blog like I just did with this one in months and months. This was an insanely valuable use of my time.

    Thank you sir,


  • Christopher said on May 17, 2010

    My two sons were born 15 months apart, now 11 & 12 years old. About 4 years ago, I bought them each a little 3 megapixel digital camera. They immediately went out and began creating their own images, loading them into their eMac, and proudly showing me what they had accomplished. Did they make photographs? Yes. Was it art? Well, who’s the judge? (For what it’s worth, I was more intrigued by my kids’ photographs than some crap I’ve seen hanging in art galleries). And finally, was it photography? Absolutely. Created by very young artists without regard to the complexities of technical camera settings. Purely visual, simple and unadulterated.

  • Phil in Aus said on May 17, 2010

    Welcome back Zack.

  • Thomas said on May 17, 2010

    I have to say, one thing that irked me more was when Zack took issue with the wedding photographer described his style as “photojournalistic.” Zack stood up on a soapbox to say that photojournalists put their lives on the line every day, and to equate wedding photography with that would be dishonorable, or something. “Documentarian” would be more accurate, Zack suggested.

    Let me tell you, as someone who’s worked at a couple newspapers, that’s all photojournalism is. WAR photography is what Zack was talking about. Photojournalists — the vast majority of whom are *not* war photographers — are nothing more than documentarians. Photojournalists do a lot of stories about one-legged barbers, high school football teams, and a lot of stuff that’s way more mundane than a wedding.

    I say there’s no problem at all calling a wedding style photojournalistic, so long as that’s what you mean.

  • Paulo Raimundo said on May 18, 2010

    …well, it´s good to refresh ones mind and all, as long as we know were we stand.
    There are philosophy thoughts here, photograph is like a poem, and there are poems written by 5 year olds, 18, 30, 40, 60, 80.
    What is being talked here is what´s the definition of photography, and a photograph.
    Well, i think that one is the means to get the other, and the final one is to be read and deconstructed by whoever sees it. Different times, spaces, moods, everything might make the experience in looking to a photograph diferent, as proven here. Each as it´s own experience and view of the world and also the capability of expression.

    A photograph is and image of the world, composed or natural, at least for some. For the tribal people in Africa(or other place far away from our culture) it is a magical sight, on paper or screen.
    And photography is the means to get that magical item.

    We are trying to define what photography and a photograph are, because we what them to be magical. What others tell you is always relative, because it confines to ones experience.
    Do greater, do better. I remember in my school, on one of our talks with the professors, someone said that you try and do great and “magical” images using photography, and when you get to a certain level you drop down and do shitty images and people will applaud anyway…so…I think sometimes photography and photographs are miss read and miss used. It´s a fashion thing, you go were you best fit this kind of technique or the other so that you have people say wow your great, and those people are the same as the African guys…they see something pretty and that’s it.
    It´s funny, because you see on the internet and books, use composition, use the rules, and then you have…break the rules..It all points out that this whole theme is centered on you, you define what you want, don´t go freely after others and their opinions, stay at your own river and flow.

    When we critique an image we do so with our view, our experience of life itself. That will always differ from the one that made the image.
    Like some one´s kids here, they take pictures, photographs, call it what you want. They do so and they find it super cool, other might look at it and find the lack of technical composition,
    proper light, bla bla bla and so on.
    Zack is doing great stuff on the critique area, it´s a way to get ideas, but it is also a way for you to define your self. Your not suppose to became “Zack”, he is helping us all to became individual that know what that magical item means for us and how to get/create it.

    Photography is the means to get the image, that image that is yours. That is transformed into a photograph when someone sees it.

    P.S. Somewhat chaotic thoughts and writing..sorry.

  • Stu said on May 18, 2010

    This is a great post – thanks, Zack.

    I’ve been watching your critiques with interest – considering putting myself forward – but I _know_ a bunch of stuff you will say already so I haven’t done so… I don’t have my specialist direction yet because I need to earn money to keep my roof over my head.

    I have a view of where I _want_ my direction to be, but until I have learnt the ropes, I can’t go full-pelt in that direction.

    It’s great to hear about shooting apartments. That’s the sort of thing I feel like I’m doing now… I don’t _want_ to be doing it necessarily, but it goes towards paying the bills.

    What I am working on now is separating them, so that I have a website where there is NO PHOTO WITHOUT A PERSON IN IT, since my vision is to be a suck-sessful portrait photographer… but I still need to attract those little commercial jobs – interiors and so on that pay well with very low outgoings.

    Thanks again. I know my 10 year plan, but this has helped me come to terms with the more short-term planning.

  • bobk said on May 18, 2010

    Awesome post… and BTW, I just discovered the critique series, and spent every free minute last weekend watching ’em and trimming the fat from my portfolio.

    One of the non-free times was a freebie shoot of an awards show with a couple friends. Freebie isn’t even the right word, since there was no expectation of results, just “see what you can get,” so we approached it as practice. The only goal was to have something for them to post on Facebook by the next day. Easy, right?

    First lesson: workflow. I’m used to shooting bands and making 6-8 tweaked RAW files from a show. Here I was delivering 100-200 images for somebody to choose from… OMFG the JPGs have to look good! Gotta gel the flashes, deal with high black ceilings, coordinate with other photogs. All easy stuff, but challenging if you’re not in the habit.

    Didn’t make a nickel, didn’t even make a single image that I like. But the experience was incredibly valuable. It was all stuff I knew about ahead of time, but putting it into practice is like learning a whole new skill.

    Now I’m ready… any openings at 😉

  • Matt said on May 18, 2010

    Awesome post and raises an interesting question (at least to me), which is whether or not critique/criticism should account for the “context” of an image?

    Quick story told by a dear friend of mine…

    A photographer was visiting the home of a photographer friend of his (a working pro) and noticed a nicely framed image on the wall that wasn’t really much more than a Facebook-type camera phone snapshot of a young couple. The house guest asked who had taken the snapshot and the photographer friend told him that, in fact, he had. Given that the photographer friend was a working pro and this was a poorly captured snapshot, the guest seemed a bit perplexed. Turns out, this was the last photograph taken of the couple before they were killed in an automobile accident.

    I’m not trying to unnecessarily tug at heartstrings and, for all I know, the story may be completely true, wholly untrue, or somewhere in the middle. But, whether true or not, the story raises an interesting point, which is that, just as Chris pointed out that criticism/critique doesn’t always account for “process”, I think it doesn’t always account for the larger sense of “context/time/place.” Now, in the world of commercial photography, maybe that is the photographer’s problem…you are bidding a job based on your book and it is either in the four corners of the book or it ain’t. You can’t expect an art director to divine “context” or “process” or anything else that isn’t in the image – for better or worse, they will see the image standing alone and will make a decision without the benefit of any additional knowledge about the photograph or how it was taken.

    Nonetheless, when we are called to give critique, I think it makes sense for us to ask about context, process, etc. Would it be fair for us to go back in time and criticize a young Pablo Picasso and beat on him for his poor understanding of 3-dimensional perspective? Would that criticism be at all useful given what he was trying to do?

    Just a few rambling thoughts. As always, though, I like that this little corner of the internet has become a place to discuss these kinds of ideas in a mature and civil fashion. That’s a testimony not only to Zack, but to the folks who take the time to comment and share their thoughts.

    Thanks, all!

  • lmphoto said on May 18, 2010

    thank you both for this discussion. reading this came at a good time for me; just when the ashton kucher commercials were again beginning to piss me off….;)

  • david said on May 18, 2010

    You aint lived till you shoot 50individual athletes and 4 team photos in an hour and half
    and with a little zip on em. Now thats Photography

  • Daryl said on May 18, 2010

    This article is awesome. Thanks.


  • Luke said on May 18, 2010

    Thanks for an awesome post and sharing some great feedback.

  • Valerie said on May 18, 2010

    I really enjoyed watching your video. I found it touching… Your post was very interesting too. Makes me think a lot and gives me the adrenaline to continue. Thanks.

  • Charlemagne Obana said on May 18, 2010

    Thank you Zack and Chris for your inspirational words.

    I am a United States Navy Mass Communications Specialist. My job description during my 8 year career so far has varied from print shop grunt/xerox technician, supply clerk, IT support, photojournalist, biomedical photographer, and assistant public affairs officer.

    I found your website through strobist, and I haven’t been able to stay away since.

    Anyhow, I have been trying to improve my technique by becoming more proficient at my craft and your critique series has done a great job of getting me focused. I would personally like to salute Zack for all that you do for the worldwide community of photographers. Chris, thank you for putting into words the feelings toward photography that have been motivating me. I’ll try to keep both of y’all’s words in my mind as I carry out each assignment, and I’m sure my work will improve by doing so.

    -Sincerely, MC1(SW) Charlemagne Obana

    P.S.-Here’s a link to recent article I wrote and photographed:

  • Heather said on May 18, 2010

    Wow! Love Chris’ take on it. And couldn’t agree with him more. I know that I am starting out and the photos are not where I want to be. But I’m learning And it’s going to take me some time to get out of that mediocrity but hey I’ve got to have some mediocrity so I can learn and get to those awesome pictures. If not for the crappy pictures, we wouldn’t learn.

  • Haakon Eltvik said on May 18, 2010

    Great post ! Well said !


  • michelle said on May 18, 2010

    Zack, Love ya even more now! Mad respect!

  • TonyJ said on May 18, 2010

    The bias I see in Zach’s critiques is the push towards the well executed different shot. A recurring phrase is “we’ve all seen this X many times” Of course, Zach also says there’s money to be made with the old standards and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

    I come to Zach’s blog for a kick in the behind which he gave us, beer in hand in from the wee hours of the morning.

  • Lou said on May 18, 2010

    Wow… Very great post Zack (and Chris)!

    I know how Chris feels. I’m still starting out with actual gigs myself, one of my first (recently) was an event photography deal as well. A bunch of crazy fun people mobbing through my “set” taking pictures with each other. Me and a couple of X1600 strobes I rented, a severely ghetto backdrop because they failed to provide what they said they would provide… I’ll be honest, it wasn’t easy… But it sure was fun once the ball was rolling, and I learned a lot.

    I wouldn’t call many of these useable for anything other than fun candids, MAYBE in a B-roll portfolio of misc stuff, so it wasn’t much benefit to me in a measurable manner (needless to say the payment never happened either), but I still have fun, and did my best to provide these people with excellent images.

    Great post again Zack. :)

  • Severin Sadjina said on May 18, 2010

    Good and very interesting read. Thanks!

  • Jef said on May 19, 2010

    I don’t have a fine art degree, I have a computer degree. I’m not an artist, I’m a scientist. It annoys me when I hear people talk about good paying jobs with a stuck up snooty nosed attitude because their job isn’t real “art”. Obviously, they haven’t gone hungry from trying to scrape work together when they can to pay for food for the family.

    These days, when art is a crumpled piece of paper someone threw in the trash or three drops of paint someone spilled on the floor, I’m going I don’t understand the arrogance.

    I’ve seen apartment pictures that look better than my finest portrait. (Probably not hard.)

    A job is a job. It’s your job to make it palatable, not to sit around and dream up how to make it abstract.

    Like the post, very well said.

  • Ned said on May 19, 2010

    Great post and discussion!
    As someone also just getting started, one of the funny things is you immediately don the mantle of Professional the second you hang your shingle…I don’t dare tell the few “clients’ I’ve shot that I really don’t “know” what I’m doing!
    But you know what…it always seems to work out and yes I’ve salvaged a few jobs in Photoshop!
    But what really rings true is the satisfaction Chris describes in somehow pulling it off and beating the expectations of the clients. Or in finally “mastering” or for the first time understanding a technique. It really is about the journey…the learning curve!
    EVERY time I shoot I can feel the growth…and it’s a good feeling!Finally when I first saw your tweet Zack I thought Oh No…he’s really not going to go on a tear about stuff he thinks is mediocre is not “photography is he?!?!
    I can show you lots of work by “professionals” that I think sucks…way creative…way blown out…way out of focus…and I’m supposed to think “that’s good?!?!”
    Hey…it’s all photography and it’s all about the journey and the personal satisfaction. Yeah the praise and accolade sfeel good…REAL good…but the only true barometer is in your own mind!

  • Ned said on May 19, 2010

    Sorry to double post but it just hit me…Case In Point!
    Last week I shot a SOCK RACK…here’s my blog post on it …and yes I gave Zack a hat tip.
    Point is they used my shot in the catalog…is it photography… Yup…did I have to use 100 things I learned in the last year to pull it off…you bet!!! Felt good too!
    This week I’m shooting the socks…on feet…NOW we’re talking photography…HA!!!

  • brec__ said on May 19, 2010

    I’m glad it came to this discussion. Your blog aint that bad 😉 but I think it’s also read by people that stop by the other usual suspects like Chase, etc. I think what all of you do is in a way telling people they can be just like Bill Gates. You have a garage too, right? You know about computer stuff, right? No problem, just set the bar higher, be creative. Shoot more personal work, etc. etc.
    To kinda stick to that metaphor – I’m pretty happy if the guy at Best Buy is a cool dude. He doesn’t need to be store manager or Bill Gates. I just want to buy a computer from him. He probably goes back home after his work is done and has more fun that you and I doing his hobbies or something.
    And let’s be true – You, Chase or anyone else of the ‘bloggers’ work so many hours, I don’t think you spent much time on hobbies.
    In addition to that you got a strong will, you got talent, know the right people, made the important mistakes and whatever else it takes to establish a successful photography business. You can give people all the tools in the world and all the knowledge if they don’t work exceptional hard and with a path in mind on their careers, they won’t get far.
    BUT I’m really happy for anyone who has fun with their photography hobby or even who has taken it further. AND I’m happy for everyone who shoots those senior portraits in a good way.

  • zack said on May 19, 2010

    Brec – You make some great points in your comment. It’s true, I don’t have a hobby. I was just with some folks this week when the topic of hobbies came up and I was lamenting that I don’t have any. I would like to have a hobby. Something to escape to and do that has nothing to do with work. Sadly, I work, I go home, I work. Now, I love my work. I love my home. I’m a lucky MF’er and I never ever take that for granted.


  • david said on May 19, 2010

    Wait a minute Beer drinking is a hobby.

  • zack said on May 19, 2010

    You make a great point David!


  • Michelle said on May 19, 2010

    incredible read..and one that i needed…thank you for posting this and thank you to chris for saying it

  • Allen Ross Thomas said on May 19, 2010

    Well said by all parties.


  • Ted Pryor said on May 19, 2010

    I’ve watched several of the critique clips and every time I thought to my self…there is no way I would want him to check my website out. It’s like turning in a term paper for a class and the teacher picks one at random, reads it aloud to the class and points out all the dumb mistakes. Your slumping down in your seat praying “God don’t let him pick mine up next” because I know that I made the same mistakes.

    I was very relieved to see that you remembered what it was like to be starting out.


  • torsten winkler said on May 20, 2010

    i love your critique-videos. and i understand the “its a photograph, but its not photography”-remark in a way, that you look at the portfolio as a client. and the client wants inspiring photography. its not a remark judging the effort or work put in to the photo. its just judging the result. and thats a difference!

    like if you’re a race driver and you do it with all your heart and love, but you’re not driving beside the track and in the wrong direction – you wont show up on the scoreboard. its driving, but its not racing.

    or if you’re baking a cake. with all your heart and love and all the effort. but the cake is like a solid rock and tastes awefull. well … you did bake something … but its not baking.

    so i think that every photograph has to stand for itself. no word, no title – nothing. if the photograph isn’t telling the storry and you have to tell it to make it meaningfull – well that’s storrytelling, but not photography that makes it meaningfull.

    i love the pushing for a higher goal that zack does. and i allways understand it as a critique on the pure result, never the person and/or their effort. and the critique is allways to be seen in the setting of – a photographer wants to make money and attract clients, where is something that could be improved. and like zack often says – even is portfolio isn’t perfect and could bee improved. so its allways good to have someone experienced point out his personal view. and its just one viewpoint – but with quite some experience.

    the “its a photograph, but its not photography” should be left in the setting it was stated and not taken out and put so much stuff in it.


  • Brock Childs said on May 20, 2010

    I had to chuckle! I remember photographing a horse semen auction! yeah thats right an auction for semen. I made money and gained experience. Embarassing, yes! but it has made me appeciate where im at now! keep your heads up and never settle for mediocrity!

  • Surly said on May 20, 2010

    This is the third blog post I read this week about setting the bar higher and getting out there and working your ass off.

    This just drives home that photography is about people. The people on both sides of the lens.
    I also want to say it’s refreshing to read this discussion with Zack being humble and honest and all the commenter’s being civil. An honest to God discussion with no ego trips or mention of Nikon or Canon. What a concept. Thanks to all involved. Oh, and it’s all photography.

  • Chuck D said on May 20, 2010

    Zack.. How long did it take before people started take you serious as a photographer? This is something that I’m deal with.

  • Adam said on May 20, 2010

    This came so well timed. So well. Still pluggin at the day job, and trying to decide if I am willing to “compete with WalMart” to pay my bills and bag the day job, or keep at the day job and thin my portfolio down to what I want to shoot, and let the clients roll in when they do. I’ll still shoot loads of crap either way, but shooting for would teach me more… So Zack- what is this internet thing, and do I still need Khaki’s?

  • Jason said on May 20, 2010

    Every time I stop in to read new content, I walk away nodding and saying, “Yep, nailed it again.” And like Chris, I have a lot of respect for you and your work. I first became aware of your work from your guest video post over on SK’s blog. Truly inspiring! However, with all due respect, I would like to speak to this portion of your post:

    “If it is mediocre then I need someone from higher up the food chain to call it out and call me up… And that is the goal when I do a critique. Ok. You nailed the exposure. You made a portrait that is on level with Wal-Mart. You have made it to that level but that level is a low one. You must now rise. The bar is higher than that. ”

    Why must it be someone “higher up the food chain” to make note? By your reflection on Chris’ commentary, it seems you are able and aware that insight and inspiration can come from anywhere, so why do you limit critique to someone “higher up”? This is the part that seems at odds with the very point of your overall post…that you can learn from anyone, anywhere.

    ’nuff said

  • Mike said on May 21, 2010

    Wow. That’s amazing. I’ve just started out as a freelancer and in this economic climate (not to mention living in a foreign country and not speaking the language!), it’s REALLY tough. But I love what I do.

    Even though you often feel like you’re just not good enough; you can’t make it when there are so many photographers out there, more talented than you, who are also struggling to make a buck.

    Even though you don’t know which direction you want to take. “I wanna take photos of people. I love taking photos of people. Whether they’re on the street, or glamour models in a studio, I love shooting them”.

    How am I going to make this pay? Who could possibly want the crap I’m shooting, when there are 10 million other photographers out there shooting, with way more experience?

    That doesn’t really matter.

    I feel disillusioned today, but tomorrow, or next week, I’m going to take a photograph that’s going to take my breath away and make me ask; Did I really take this?

    That moment is why I continue to do this.

    This post and the resulting comments have been a fascinating and illuminating read, as is the whole site. It’s a source of inspiration and refreshing to read that those 10 million other photographers, no matter how high up the ‘food chain’ they are, all feel the same insecurities that I do.

    Keep up the good work everyone and continue to shoot, just for that ‘moment’, if for nothing else.

  • Becka said on May 23, 2010

    I love that you are so open and honest and at times, brutally honest. And I love how giving you are as practically, an online mentor. And above all else, I love that you actually listen and admit when someone “new” has a point. That’s a trait I wish a lot more experienced photographers shared. Thank you. :)

  • Jay Hartman said on May 23, 2010

    Hey Zack. I was reading another photographer’s site who was discussing a class of yours that she took. As expected she had nothing but praise. She discussed less about the technical teachings and more about the encouragement you offered. She tried to quote you but could only offer this up. “It’s not about being a rock star photographer. It’s about serving people.” While I totally agree with your critique of the website that led to this post, I do not understand how you get from the photographer quoted above to the guy who says “It’s a photograph but not photography.”

    I suspect that if you had the chance to carefully refine your phraseology, you would say “It’s a photograph but not fodder for a photography website.” Rather or not you enjoyed taking apartment photos or fulfilled your creative desires, it did have value as far as your employers were concerned and was indeed “real” photography. When the shutter falls a photograph has been created. Rather that photograph is artistic, utilitarian, exceptional, or folly bound for the trash can is up for debate. It’s status as a “real” photograph should be reserved to photography elitist snobs who couldn’t find a decent frame while standing on the moon. You’re not “that guy” and probably why you got emails!

    On a personal note, what happened with your 365 project? Tell me you weren’t whipped by Jan 2? I made it all the way up to Jan 10th before I threw in the towel and took the site, and my black eye, down.

  • Jay Hartman said on May 23, 2010


    Well I found the 365 project photos. Man this medicine sux. Once those words come out…..

  • Alex Gardner said on May 27, 2010

    The last several months have seen me make more in roads to becoming a full time wedding photographer not just for me but for the woman I love. I’ve found it easy to move on from the clients that don’t get me but I don’t forget them however a month back I hit that big stumbling block.

    “Fuck, I’m a hack.”

    But you know what, I’ve got this great network of friends and photographers who remind me that I’ve come a long way in just 12 months and even more in the last 5 then guess what Al, it doesn’t end. You keep on improving and keep driving forward.

  • Michael Erb said on May 28, 2010

    I am so there with Chris. I have wanted to quit so many times because you and Joe Effing McNally make it look so easy. But Joe’s got 30 years of experience and you’ve got way more than me and formal training to boot. I will cling to that process and keep trying because like Chris I LOVE IT. I’ve never been more alive than when I have a camera in my hands! Thanks for the comments both of you.

  • Todd Parola said on June 1, 2010

    This is a very sweet, sweet human moment … this convergence of history and effort and devotion. Between two artists. Sweet. Nice going Z.

    It’s really difficult sometimes to keep the pressure on, and yet maintain the sweetness and simple humanity.

    Trying to eat is more costly than we know sometimes. But savoring even the most modest stuff can be good for the soul.

  • Todd Parola said on June 1, 2010

    i mean … anyone who’s working has to count themselves a pretty lucky f*ck.


  • Secret Agent Mama - Mishelle Lane said on June 7, 2010

    That quote? Sums up my life.

  • Leonel Cortes said on June 13, 2010

    Great.. And again thanks. Calling to earth, calling to earth, all of those flying calling to earth

  • Paw Larsen said on July 10, 2010

    Interesting post. It’s rare that I read a full post like this and on with the comments (ok, gave up around 70 + being over a month late says something about my blog reading activity)

    I have a day job, so photograph(y) is only a hobby to me (and I can brag that I have one! :-) But I actually think that Zack’s comment is one of those eyeopeners that some (maybe even alot of) photographers need. Otherwise there’s no improvement. And we all need to start at the bottom doing things that we retrospectively might not see as the greatest thing we’ve done, but it was a part of the evolution taking us towards the next step. If everyone says “that’s great” and no one challenges what we do, we’ll be stuck there. I personally delte “I like your picture” comments from my mind, because they don’t provide me with details on good or bad.

    Reading through it, it almost seems that some people thinks Zack was born the the piedestal they’ve placed him on. I regard this in the same context as now famous bands telling stories about how they played weddings before they were famous. We’ve all been beginners and struggled. But without honest critique, we would in some sense still be beginners.

  • Michael Ririe said on July 12, 2010

    Yes! I went through similar stuff recently… coming out feeling like my stuff wasn’t photography, just point and shoots that documented that I was there… but I learned more during that time than I have in a while! So it was good! Thanks!

  • Andrew Forder said on October 12, 2010

    Photograph Vs Photography. Really rang true as I have been taking a lot of ‘photographs’ lately.

    Im still very much a beginner but had felt for a while that I wasn’t making much progress. I thought it might be because I could only had one lens, or that I didn’t have the ££ for a flash setup yet. Really it was because I wasn’t thinking and no amount of kit can compensate for that.

    I have been out once since reading this and watching the critique videos and can see the difference in my shots.

    I dont mind the photographs I took before as that was how I learnt about the camera, settings, lens etc. Understanding the equipment was my focus at the start but I forgot to shift that focus to the pictures once I figured the camera out.

    Many thanks Zack.

    Just noticed Im a bit behind the times given the last post here was 3 months ago.

  • John said on March 23, 2012

    Great write-up. This is an excellent read for those of us who are just starting out as “pros” (full time or part time). Also, as a side, I recognized those apartments. They are off N. Beach St in Fort Worth – I drive past them everyday to and from work.

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