Curation, judging and objectivity

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Let’s start with three critical thoughts for any photographer: 1. You cannot show what you have not shot. 2. What gets seen is only what you choose to show. 3. What you choose reflects you as much as what you shoot. The more I think about it, the more I think what differentiates a really great photographer from a mediocre one – at least the perception of greatness – are their curation choices. I’ve written about curation in the past but not said that much about the criteria I use to determine in or out – that’s the purpose of today’s post.

I’ve had the honour of judging a number of photographic competitions in the past; sometimes as part of a panel, sometimes as head judge with veto rights. And the most common limitation I’ve noticed in all entries is that very few of them actually fit the theme – whether it’s because it was not considered at all, not understood or understood but not well interpreted due to limitations in skill, I can’t say. But you’d be surprised how few eligible finalists we land up with after simply eliminating those which don’t even begin to address the topic, let alone do so in a creative and intelligent way. This might be a rather obtuse place to start, but it’s relevant: if you aren’t sure why you’re shooting, how are you going to decide if an image is a keeper or not?

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Forget all of the technical stuff: as much as I go on about putting ever last one of my pixels to work, I only do so because I know that I can express what I want to express in my image. I have enough experience and practice that I know how to arrange a composition to suggest a certain narrative or emotion over another, and be able to execute it. I shoot enough and have an existing portfolio consistent enough that near misses on any front get nixed – it’s not an ‘obsession with sharpness’ as some readers have put it; it’s knowing that compromises to one image in a sequence of ten, twenty or however many large/high resolution prints – which is how I’d ultimately want them to be seen for reasons of transparency – will be very obvious and weaken the whole body of work. Why cut corners if you don’t have to? It’s an attitude thing: you can’t improve if you’re willing to settle.

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How is this relevant? The order of priority for curation should actually defer to the main weakness of the photographer: if you are strong technically but weak conceptually, then you should cull those with an unclear idea first. If you are strong conceptually but weak technically, the opposite. This forces you to up your game so that taken holistically, the work both conveys what you intend it to convey and continues to improve. The clearer the idea, the easier it is to execute because you can quantify what you’re trying to translate into an image. The more controlled the technique, the wider the visual vocabulary you have at your disposal to communicate with. Remember, photography is not really about an image: it’s a conversation between photographer and audience, with subjectivity of interpretation thrown in on both ends – actually, it’s really a study of human psychology in a nutshell. Being able to anticipate a typical range of responses in your expected audience is therefore extremely helpful in selecting the images that are likely to be ‘successful’ to begin with.

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There are of course two schools of thought here: the artist should keep it ‘pure’ and just show what he or she thinks is work that meets their own standards; the other is that they should show what is likely to be popular. I do not personally agree with the second curation strategy for the simple reason that it leaves you feeling as though the selection was a compromise at the end. I suppose this is the perpetual conundrum for seasoned competition entrants: do you enter what you like, or what you think the judges will like?

In short, I’m looking for four things when I curate: firstly, adherence to the theme/idea and overall clarity of conveying my interpretation of that theme – think of it as suitability for purpose. Secondly, there must be a certain aesthetic – I guess it’s best interpreted as ‘balanced’ or ‘harmonious’. Next, the image must be the most technically proficient image and deliver the maximum image quality I can expect to get out of that particular situation; it is because transparency requires both information for a certain flexibility of presentation and to tip over that threshold of believability required to fool our eyes into thinking ‘there’s more’ – in the same way as a real scene. Finally, there’s the concept of relativity: is the image I’ve selected better than the other ones I’ve taken containing the same idea, subject, aesthetic or combination of the three? Looking at the final set, there should always be some degree of distinction between each image – at a glance, one should not be mistaken for another.

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I also find there is an optimal temporal window in which to make the selection: it has to be long enough after capture that your judgement isn’t clouded by the effort expended (or not) at the time of shooting; you’re more likely to remember an image that took more effort to produce than one fast and spontaneous – even if the latter image is a ‘better’ one. Being too emotionally involved clouds one’s judgement. On the flipside, if you leave the curation too long, you may forget what the intended idea was – this matters especially if you are curating before post processing (which makes sense, given the effort required to process all images before selecting) – it’s very possible to forget what your vision was at the time of capture especially if you’re a prolific shooter. Of late, I’ve been trying a new curation approach – I make one set of selections close to the time of capture, tag them as such, then a second set perhaps a few days later; those that overlap are the ones that make it into the final cut. The more you shoot and go through this exercise, the shorter the wait between capture and curation can be.

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Of course, the most important thing is to go into the shoot itself with a relatively defined idea of what you want to get out of it – this way at the point of capture you can ask yourself whether the scene in the finder meets those expectations or not, and if not, why your camera is pointed in that direction 🙂 I’m going to close with an explanation of the images in this post: they were curated from about forty similar ones for a project tentatively called ‘Paradise Lost’; they are intended to be viewed together with the other sections of the project (still work in progress), but the intended idea was to convey a sense of confusion and decay. Compositions and subjects that appeared too ordered or structured were thus rejected, as were those that appeared too ‘clean’ or required color to work – these did not fit the concept. More discourse on the subject of portfolios and projects soon. MT

Curation is covered in further detail as part of Photoshop Workflow II.

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. I like your curation strategy – curate same set at two different times, first quite close to capture, then a later session reviewing all images, not just the first round “picks”, then work on the images that got picked both times. This is a different strategy than my recent usual “round 1 cull and delete”, then later “review the survivors for actual “picks””. I have to say that I didn’t actually cull and delete early on in my learning, but just flagged favorites. I didn’t understand even the tiniest bit about post-processing at that point, just shot RAW because the books said you can get more out of a RAW image, but judged the image on its Lightroom default jpg processing. Going back to the original set of all images, I find that sometimes I under-rated an image because I was “expecting” it to be something else and didn’t see its (accidental?) unexpected good points, or that I simply didn’t understand that default jpgs are only useful for evaluating “default” lighting and contrast situations.
    Being still in the “phase 1” of development, I find that careful examination of the “culls” and of the pattern of “culls” in the photo session is at least as useful as looking at the “winners” in figuring out better working habits and thinking/seeing habits.

    • I think this is why understanding PP latitude – both software and camera-specific – is so important. This way, we don’t lose opportunities that might actually be doable with a little computer time (even if physically impossible in camera.

      • That’s part of the problem with using the otherwise intriguing and quirky Sigma DP Merrill camera(s) – I can deal with the camera-side weirdness, but having both the camera weirdness and the Sigma Photo Pro tendency to send my computer into kernel panic (not just program crash, which is bad enough – the whole OS locks up and computer must be rebooted ^@#$& 😦 ) after 20 to 30 minutes of SPP use on RAW x3f files makes it hard and painful to learn the Sigma ecosystem. I am currently making the acquaintance of a demo (can’t export without watermark) Iridient Developer RAW converter, the only other “finished” RAW converter for Merrill x3f files. (There’s a third called “Kalpanika” but it is v. 0.5x free beta-ware for people who are more knowledgeable about computers than myself, a non-programmer who forgot most command line stuff after the uni. stopped running internet services off a DEC mainframe).

        • Have another look at the Kalpanika DNG batch converter – it only requires one command line instruction to install, and one more to run after that. I got it work on both of my machines. It also looks as though we may actually have a usable workflow now because the DNGs can be processed using the usual PS/ACR/LR combo. Much less painless than SPP at any rate…

        • Lyn app works well for curating Merrill .X3F and other RAW files on Macs without converting the files. Lynapp loads .X3F thumbs and jumps to full screen quickly. It will do .X3F batch conversions to tiff and jpeg too. After curating my best images with Lyn app I use SPP for converting to tiffs because the images seem “truer” to my perception. A rare, no nonsense app for .X3F. lynapp.com

  2. One huge benefit of curation is discovering photos are more than I meant when I took them. I was following a coyote the other day and took a number of photos with trees in the background. In one photo, there was a fenced building in the background – something I was trying to avoid. During my first run through of the photos, I almost dismissed it until my teenage daughter saw it on my computer screen. She said the coyote looked sad as if it was feeling the impact of humans encroaching into its habitat.

    • Additional elements can change the implied story, especially if they’re prominent. Our challenge as the photographer is not to get so fixated on one subject that we don’t notice the surrounding details…

  3. Hello Ming,

    I’ve been guilty of some verbose replies on your blogs (and not being the only offender probably isn’t much of an excuse!)

    So this time I’ll endeavour to keep it short(er)

    As ever, you seem to have a way of speaking to photographers, no matter where they sit in the photographical food chain, about subjects which apply to them.

    Choosing the keepers, it never seems to get any easier, even after the times I’ve improved my input game!

    It’s good to hear a philosophy around it.

    So before I get carried away on the keyboard, I’ll sign off with a simple

    Thanks (again)

  4. Jaap Veldman says:

    Great title, Ming.

    I see multiple interpretations possible.

    There are questions to be made on a micro level.
    About the machines themselves, almost as organisms:
    the lost functions, the progressing age, the loose ends, what are the functions anyway, etc.
    Once they were great, now not so anymore.
    Paradise lost.

    But also on a macro level:
    Machines brought us up till where we are now.
    They also bring us down to where we’re going.
    Paradise Lost.

    These photos indeed bring confusion and decay.
    And inevitable sadness.

    You’re exploring other worlds with a realistic style of photography.
    Very interesting and very well done.

    It makes me question what’s the driving force behind the theme and
    what is your interpretation of the theme.
    Mine can be completely wrong of course! 🙂

    • Jaap: spot on with the first interpretation; that was my intention too. Second interpretation: very interesting, and not one I’d previously thought of – also definitely deserving of further exploration. Automation causing entropy of man? Certainly; machines make most of us very lazy, and some of us very creative (the makers of the machines). I suppose it’s not so much entropy as redistribution of creativity?

      • Jaap Veldman says:

        Ming,

        The second interpretation was caused by something else.

        Since the Industrial Revolution, engines have played a key role in the development of (a part of) mankind.
        For the engine as an ‘organism’ the emotion one can connect to that role is: ‘Engine’s Paradise’ because their role was glorious.
        For the involved part of mankind they made the current high standard of living possible, Paradise.

        Without engines, the population of mankind wouldn’t have grown exponentially in such a short time.
        Since the Club of Rome report in 1972 however it has become increasingly clear that our dominant presence on this planet
        can’t be indicated as positive for life on Earth in general.
        Paradise lost.
        For the engines because their role isn’t 100% glorious anymore.
        For mankind because we seem to be reaching limits of what this planet can handle
        while maintaining the conditions under which we can survive.

        Your (and my first) interpretation brings a melancholic smile because the engines are associated with organisms.
        The decay is a sad thing for that organism and we feel that emotion although we know it’s an engine and not alive.
        (There are more interpretations possible on the confusion, but this reply has to stop somewhere).

        The second interpretation, both with or without a connection to the engine as an organism, sadly doesn’t bring that smile.

        I think Paradise Lost as a theme in combination with engines brings this second association because Paradise is highly connected to Adam and Eve and their paradise. Which clearly must have been on Earth. I haven’t heard yet about apples found on other planets :).

  5. Larry Kincaid says:

    Very useful essay and set of images. Your “curation choices” reminds me of an argument I had with my brother, who is a painter. He made the usual derogatory comment that anyone could produce a good photograph if they randomly took enough of them, which ironically a digital camera greatly helps you do. I quickly pointed out that no human can take photos randomly if their eyes are open. A machine could, but it would have to be 360 degrees every direction. Secondly, that same person would not be able to recognize and pick out a good image after the fact. If they had that talent, they would take that or many similar ones to that to begin with. In other words, photography as we know it. Same would apply to randomly throwing paint at a canvass, or chimps smearing paint on a canvass. They would not likely stop and say “That’s a great one: use it.” In other words, none of the above cases would have any ability to make good “curation choices.” So, I like your choice of subject. Monkeys typing infinitely might get a line of Shakespeare, but they wouldn’t know it when it happened. Same idea; bad editors of the literature they created. My sister took 500 or so travel photos once with a small P&S digital camera, more or less quickly and haphazardly. I had her send me all 500 so I could pick one to blow up and print for her. Only found one out of 500 and it was too blurred to use. No kidding. These examples set the outer parameters on photography and “curation choices.” In spite of what I said. I think it’s hard work. On the other hand, when I see hundreds of images in a competition on the web, there are always 2-3 that get an immediate, intuitive “Wow, that’s gotta be a winner.” One often wins as well. Now. I can see how your upcoming workshop in Lisbon would help with all of this. Tempting.

    • Thanks Larry. I think frequency certainly helps a low hit rate, but I agree: it doesn’t at all open you up to images that require deliberation.

      Interesting experiment with your sister’s set, btw…

      Early days so there are still spaces for Lisbon available 🙂

  6. I found this article most helpful and would like to see more like it! Oddly enough I felt the 2nd and fourth image a bit out of place.
    But, I love the concept of objects of desire succumbing to entropy👍

    • There are hundreds more like it in the archives.

      2nd and 4th are square on, which might be why?

      • Well I didn’t notice that right away but maybe that’s what I was seeing . Thanks, I will search for archives that deal with culling images and conveying a theme. In so far as this topic is concerned, I think perhaps I tend to focus on composition without any thought of what my “idea” is. So, that is something to keep in mind.

  7. interesting read, thanks for sharing!

  8. Said AZIZI says:

    Hello Ming and thank you for this interessting read.

    I think that every photographer was inspired by another’s work and I would like to know which photographers inspired you the most to be the photographer you are now if you don’t mind of course.

    Thanks

  9. Amazing…

  10. Great thought provoking post! As someone who has been a musician for 30 years, with seven albums of my own and production credits on other artists albums, I have a pretty good handle on what I like from the auditory spectrum. But with photography, I am like a two year old toddler.

    I took the challenge from Zack Arias and made a commitment to shoot with only one camera and one lens for an entire year. Hopefully I will focus (no pun intended) on my composition and editing skills instead of obsessing over gear.

    Luckily, I have a fiancé that possesses great aesthetic sensibilities and can help me judge which photos are worth keeping.

    I really dig your blog, Ming. It’s not “all about me and my photos and cool gear”….you are truly an educator and someone who enjoys sharing their knowledge. I appreciate it greatly!

    • Thanks Robert. It’s always been about the photos…the gear is merely the tool to get you there. Just as you need a pot to make soup, certain bits of hardware have certain applications…no more, no less.

  11. Michiel953 says:

    I can only echo Tarmo’s sentiments. Of course, we (or just I) also enter the world of gut wrenching doubt. Is that one good enough (“good enough” is in itself a massive disclaimer), should I bin it? The binning part plays (from a psychological point of view) a very important role.

    I blame digital cameras. Ha!

    • I think digital is certainly responsible for both laziness and doubt/upping the game: you are fairly confident you can do better, so why settle?

      • Michiel953 says:

        Ming, you have a point, obviously, but the eternal (and baffling) question is where the goalposts should be. If I let my critical self full reign, almost everything will get binned (“What did I ever think I was going to achieve there???” etc etc).

        So it remains a struggle, as it should. I find the constant to and froing I do from digital to analogue b&w (Ha! Brought in my FM2n for a cla and the Kiev for a frowning upon today) stimulating, because it keeps me asking myself what it is I want to show in an image.

        • There is only one answer to that question: further along than we are now. Then again, I guess I’m a masochist…

          • Michiel953 says:

            Well, sort of, I agree… But I also agree digital has bvrought us in leaps and bounds enormous progress in image quality, and in ways to express ourselves. I can only be thankful for that.

  12. Good, short essay! I was about to suggest writing one on themes (or projects/portfolios) and my call was promptly answered 🙂

    P.S. doing the world a favour, just submitted “up your game” to the banished words list: http://www.lssu.edu/banished/

Trackbacks

  1. […] to only that audience; however, we often do not realise this and land up committing the sin of poor curation. Images that are intended to have a wide appeal must move beyond this. Photographic implication: […]

  2. […] between photographer and audience and that the process of photographing is really an exercise in curating and excluding elements of the world according to one’s own personal biases, then sharing the results with an audience such that they might be interpreted in the desired way. […]

  3. […] shots just don’t flow with the rest of the sequence. This of course leads to a very focused curation, which may well change massively should the intended message also […]

  4. […] often do we either a) edit the results of a shoot immediately after said shoot, or b) leave the curation so long that we forgot what we shot – and worse still, forget of the post processing […]

  5. […] about the outcome and hoping that you get what you intend to. At very least any degree of curation is a step towards improvement because it forces you to identify preferences (I’m loathe to […]

  6. […] here, it’s because I find that that duration is optimal for me when it comes to improving objectivity of curation. Unless it’s something very time-sensitive, I generally like to have some ‘sitting […]

  7. […] on from the previous articles on curation and how to approach a project, I thought I’d conclude with a slightly different look at the […]

  8. […] The curation proces plays a critical role in execution of a successful project: one needs not just a clear definition of the underlying theme or idea behind a project, but also the ability to objectively assess whether or not an image conveys the intended ideas. Sometimes, this may not be evident until well after the normal workflow has ended. The challenge of curation is always trying to balance objectivity and emotional involvement: if one is too close to the action, it is difficult to select a strong set that isn’t heavily personally biased. If one is too objective, the personality may disappear. […]

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