Three annoying things photographers don't like to hear

Three annoying things photographers don’t like to hear

Photographers are generally very nice, helpful people. Although they usually don’t say it, there are three things they don’t like to hear after someone looks at their photos.

“You must have a fantastic camera.”

There’s a quote doing the rounds among photographers that sums up how much of us feel sneaky inside when we’re asked this question.

A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. Entering the front door, the host said, ‘I love your photos – they’re great; you have to have a fantastic camera.” He said nothing until dinner was ready, then, ‘That was a lovely dinner; you must have a great stove.’

Sam Haskin

A great stove.
Night photo with lightpainting, Nelson ghost town, NV.

Here the host gives a compliment. We recognize that the person is trying to give a compliment or start a conversation. But we also recognize that most people don’t say that a great chef must have a great stove or that a great singer must have a great microphone. I usually say thank you and accept the compliment.

A better alternative: “What techniques do you use to take such beautiful photos?”

This question seeks understanding. It’s also more open, assumes nothing, and is likely to spark a nice flow of conversation.

“This image has been photoshopped”

This example is more hostile than the previous example, which is quite benign by comparison. It is often implied here that it is not a real photo and that the person has manipulated it in some way to make it look so good. “Photoshop” seems to be a catchall term for anything that is heavily manipulated, even if not everyone uses it. And for those who often use it to dodge and burn, adjust colors, adjust contrast and much more.

And dodging and burning, adjusting colors, adjusting contrast, and so on are the very same things film photographers have been doing in darkrooms for over 170 years. Indeed, the first HDR photo was taken in the 1850s by Gustave Le Gray.

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Above: 1857. That’s the first known attempt I know of, long before Photoshop, Windows 11 or USB cables. This was a photo by the pioneering French photographer Gustave Le Gray. He combined two negatives – one exposed for the sky, the other for the sea.

How non-photographers often view post-processing

There are many misconceptions about processing. I’ve even had an artist say to me, “Real photographers don’t need to process their photos.” This doesn’t make sense on any level, yet people keep saying it.

However, as photographers, we have to remember that most people don’t process their photos. In addition, they may not realize that they are choosing to let their digital camera or phone camera do all the processing for them. Professional photographers usually choose to make the processing decisions rather than let their cameras do it for them. We as photographers need to understand that this is most people’s frame of reference.

People accuse night photographers of “Photoshopping” more often than many other types of photographers. Why? Because what we show in a photo often doesn’t look like some kind of night scene someone is experiencing. They are long exposure photos, often lit with a lamp during the exposure. Night photos also show more color because the camera doesn’t have the same bar and color limitations that we do.

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Above: In a very informal, unscientific poll by the school newspaper, 59% of Yale students believed this long-exposure night photo was AI-generated art, not a photo. “That must be AI” is quickly becoming the new “This image needs to be photoshopped.”

I don’t know how other photographers respond to statements like “You must use Photoshop.” I choose to be polite. If I have time, I could briefly explain that the processing is similar to what film shooters did in the darkroom. In general, though, I don’t expect anyone to change their mind if they’re already making personally accusatory statements of fraud against me.

A better alternative: “Why does post-processing improve your photos?”

This is not confrontational. It’s considerably friendlier. And it’s a better conversation starter that isn’t fraught with assumptions of fraud.

“You just click a button to take a picture, don’t you?”

This too is often a hostile statement. It is also rather passive-aggressive. The implication, of course, is that what you do requires no talent and offers no value. You just press a button. Bam. All done.

Every time I’ve ever heard this, the person never really expected an answer. In fact, the person often started turning away before I had a chance to respond. Again, I’d rather be polite and move on.

A better alternative: “What skills do you need to get that shot?”

This is a kinder question, one that isn’t hostile or passive-aggressive. This question seeks understanding. It assumes that skills are involved. You are guaranteed to get a much friendlier response from a photographer than if you start a conversation with insults. In short, it’s an effective conversation starter.

Amboy, California.  Almost the whole town is deserted, but the sign is now illuminated.  "Leaving Route 66: Under a Western Moon" by Ken Lee
An HDR photo actually makes the scene look more like how we’ve seen it in person. Still, this processing is often considered “fraudulent” because it combines multiple photos into one. This photo is from the book “Route 66 Abandoned: Under a Western Moon” by Ken Lee.