Why Photographers Hate My Images

I recently shot a new portfolio and every photographer I have shown it to thinks it is rubbish. But every art director, buyer, agent, and creative director loves it. Let's look into why this is.

First up, I am very thick skinned I write articles online and produce YouTube videos, you have to be pretty confident and able to not take others opinions personally to continue to do these sorts of work. So I am certainly not offended by the hate I am getting from photographers, its a weekly occurrence in one form or another. My area of work is commercial food photography. It’s a big industry with a huge scope of styles and the U.K. is a big location for this and its a genre that we take very seriously and are a go to nation for campaigns. So we perhaps have more sub genres of this genre than many other countries.

I have been working as a professional food photographer for some time. I was asked to shoot a chef's book cover many moons ago, once I had taken the portrait they asked me to shoot some images of their food for online content, to which I agreed. From that point onward I had found my calling.

I took to the internet, the forums, Instagram, and pretty much every editorial food magazine, and found a plethora of beautiful food photographs. Considering I have no internet profile, my work was well received on Instagram and work was going well. I was shooting big print worldwide campaigns, but I was on the cusp of everything and I couldn’t seem to progress. 

Now this all comes at a strange time in the world, but my phone has never rang so much, the emails I am receiving are from bigger art buyers, larger agencies, and agents who need my new style of work. So what did I do differently and why don't photographers like it?

Style

After a weekend away with my partner, I read an article about Andy Warhol, someone who’s work I love. For no real conscious reason, I had never ventured into more graphic photography, despite my love for the aesthetic. I had almost become too obsessed with what the profession outwardly looked like on the internet. Now if you had asked me about portrait photography, in a heartbeat I would tell you that what you see on Instagram, in the forums, and on YouTube is not what high end professionals are shooting, but maybe I was too close in food photography to see this before now. So I pulled in my stylist and set about creating my first test shoot for this new project. We managed 6 shots on day one and I had never been happier with any work that I had produced.

Technical Ability

One of my strengths in photography is my lighting. It is something that has always come natural to me and I am often booked for re-shoots where I have to deconstruct a previous photographer's work and recreate it so that my work can sit alongside their assets in an advert (happens a lot more than you would expect.) 

Some of the more technical work I shoot requires cameras with movements, 15,000 watts of sculpted light, and some fancy retouching. It is something I can do without really having to work my brain too hard, but it is also what was holding me back. For my new work I ended up using an obscure white coated 20 inch reflector/spill kill (has no name on it) from the 1980s and a 500 watt head set to about 350 watts with the classic 45/45 degree lighting from the top left of my flat lays. No bounce, no fill, just a single light source placed at the right distance to create the shadows and fall off I wanted. Then my camera sat on my studio stand with a 100 mm standard lens at f/10. So simple that I have managed to continue with my portfolio work from my house during the lockdown. 

Voice 

I am not going to pretend that I am now enlightened and have a unique perspective on the world. You could find lots of people who are producing similar work to mine in several creative genres. However, the food that I have selected is that of my childhood and more recently what we have available during lockdown, and therefore personal to me and who I am as a person. This is what gives my images a voice and means that when people have seen my new work book that they know it is my work.

Before, they saw pretty images that were well executed and looked like every other professional food photographer. This was all inspired by an article about Andy Warhol that I read in bed from The Times Saturday magazine and a long conversation that a famous photographer's agent was kind enough to have with me. The advice she gave was that after your books have been shown to the art buyers, they will have seen another 20 that week. They need to be able to say “I want the photographer who shoots tinned beans to photograph our new campaign.” If you are simply a photographer who creates nice work, you will be forgotten. That isn’t to say that you will only be booked for work that looks like your look-book, and I can already attest to that. I have shot a lot of big campaigns that looked nothing like my old book. 

Why Don’t Photographers Like It?

Let's get into some assumptions here. I am mostly basing this also on how I felt when I shot them as well as some closer friends opinions who didn't like it. Knowing them well allows me to make a few educated guesses upon why they are not fond of these images. It was easier than other work technically. A light, a camera, and a lens. The same settings, nothing changes apart from the subject. Anyone could do it surely? Well maybe they can, that shouldn't be a defining factor of your technical choices. There are a few little things that are technically required, an understating of the inverse square law, hyper-focal, and a good understanding of raw files, but where the photography skill comes in is actually away from the equipment. It is knowing what will photograph well and how to portray it. And this feels like cheating in photography, even though I find this aspect harder than the technical side. I spent over a decade reading up on how to physically take a photograph. However, I now find my evenings are spent with a note pad trying to come up with new ideas that will photograph well. 

If we look at other photographers work, say Platon, his work is simple. It’s the same camera, lens, and shoot through umbrella for every shot. Yeah, I could technically recreate it in a few minutes, but my images would be no where near his, simply because it isn’t my voice nor my perspective on the world. Now I am not for a second comparing my work to a legendary photographer, but I feel the same applies here. We can all recreate my new work, but it wouldn’t be in your voice. My older work was far harder to reproduce, but it wasn’t my voice. If you recreated my shots with your own voice, you would end up with a very different set of images to me. And this is the beauty of photography. 

Why Does Any of this Matter?

The point I am trying to make here is that we should all stop trying to please photographers. They rarely buy photographs. I think it’s also worth noting that as photographers we often try and flex our technical abilities, and in my case, it was at the cost of my work. Since pulling back and going minimal, my work has been so much better received by the community that pays my bills. People are retuning my calls who I would never have dreamed of being able to get in touch with and my phone is ringing more than ever with inquires for shoots once the lock down is over. 

I found the biggest difficulty was my ego and the fear of being mocked for doing something so technically repeatable by anyone, but photography is not a technique sport, it is a creative pursuit and I think after over a decade, I have finally grasped that. 

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60 Comments

Jeremy Lusk's picture

Excellent point. Anyone can fire a shutter. The art comes from know what to put in front of the lens.

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks Jeremy. I was worried about publishing this article as it isn't my usual fayre

David Blacker's picture

Interesting perspective. Are you taking this approach just for your portfolio work? I ask because if you’re saying what makes your work stand out to clients is knowing what will photograph well, what happens when you’re shooting for a client who will likely stipulate what he wants you to shoot?

David Blacker's picture

Interesting perspective. Are you taking this approach just for your portfolio work? I ask because if, as you say, your strength is knowing WHAT to shoot rather than HOW to shoot it, what happens when you’re shooting for a client who will likely tell you what he wants you to shoot? Sorry for the double comment. I don't seem able to delete my comments.

Graham Glover's picture

One of Picasso's early works was a painting called, "First Communion". It looks almost photographic. Had he continued painting that way, no one would ever have heard of him. He learned the craft and art of painting, and then he created. You may not like his painting, "Ma Jolie", but it was *his*. You can follow your own path, or you can listen to others.

Justin Sharp's picture

Huh????

renimagines's picture

Stop trying to please photographers - 100%! Self-edited the remainder of this comment to not cause a fuss. I personally like your new work a lot due to the graphically appealing nature of it.

Jim Bochicchio's picture

I couldn't agree with you more. When I first started studio shooting, I was singularly focused on my lighting techniques. Made so many complicated setups that I would say to myself, "look at that beautiful light". It took a few years to realize... actually remember... "it's composition and color, stupid!" I started enjoying my work at a whole new level.

David Pavlich's picture

Not to worry. The worst thing we can do is try to produce work for other photographers. :-) Each of us likes what we like, for better or worse. You're correct about 'thick skin'. This isn't a place to show your work if you're offended easily.

I sell prints and I can count on two hands how many I've sold to a seasoned photographer. I've been doing it long enough to know what my customers prefer and when I'm shooting with print sales in mind, the furthest thing from my mind is what a seasoned photographer thinks. Now, I will take criticism/advice and weigh it. Once in a while, I get a comment that actually makes the shot better. But since a substantial amount of my sales are tone mapped, mechanical stuff, I rarely get an 'attaboy' from photographers, especially the purists among us.

If what your doing is fulfilling your needs, be the needs personal or commercial, you're doing something right and that's what matters!

Perry Harrington's picture

The reason buyers like your new work is that it's versatile. You can take those images and use them in a dozen different ways, can you say that about your old portfolio work? A picture of a burger on a plate, well lit, can really only be used in a single context: "Buy this burger now".

I consider myself an amateur photographer and I don't dislike your work, it's different and gives me a reason to pause and reflect. I took a photography class in high school, shot B&W on a Pentax, developed film, and did my own prints. I remember the basic composition rules they taught us, but I break those all the time. I do what makes me feel what I want to feel, I look at some of my photos I choose to share and feel uninspired by some and inspired by others. I often think that 50% of a photographer's good photos are happy mistakes -- flukes. The other half are carefully crafted with painstaking effort, but their best photo is probably a combination of skill and luck.

Indy Thomas's picture

My philosophy, learned upon hard experience and repeated ad nauseum, is; Beauty is in the eye of the checkbook holder.

Colin Robertson's picture

Great article Scott!

Deleted Account's picture

"The point I am trying to make here is that we should all stop trying to please photographers. They rarely buy photographs."

^ this

Tom Reichner's picture

Hmmmmm. But what if we are not trying to sell our photos, or derive any income from them? What if our goal is to be respected by other photographers in our specific genre?

If the very reason I head out with my camera and create images is to become more respected by other wildlife photographers, then why would I not want to create images that please those people who shoot the same things I do?

Before we say what other people should and shouldn't do, we must first know what their goals and objectives are.

Deleted Account's picture

Then you are deriving your sense of self-worth from extrinsic sources and at minimum need to evaluate why you have such poor intrinsic self-worth and whether you should be seeking professional help to address the issue.

Tom Reichner's picture

Wanting to be accepted by others is not a sign of poor self-worth. That idea is a bunch of crap spewed out by psycho-analysts and the like, all of whom will make up a bunch of crap to further their causes.

Another thing .... when someone is negative and puts other people down, it is NOT a sign that they think poorly of themselves and are insecure ..... that also is a bunch of never-confirmed-thru-data crap spun by the head shrinks. Stop believing all of the modern-day misconceptions that are out there. They are only made up to further people's careers.

Deleted Account's picture

Now if that isn't the biggest stream of lack of comprehension I've seen this week...

If you were to say something along the line of "the subject is nuanced and complex" you would have a point; fair to say you have never done any tertiary education.

P K's picture

Then the same should apply for photographers motivated by sales or pleasing the client, no? In a perfect world it would be great if photographers only had to please themselves, but that doesn't necessarily equate with commercial success or even making a sustainable living.

Deleted Account's picture

Putting food on the table is entirely a different proposition. So, no.

P K's picture

But it is still an extrinsic measure of worth. The idea of what constitutes success varies from person to person - some only think they have 'made it' when recognised by their peers.

Deleted Account's picture

No, deriving your sense of self-worth from your profession is equivilent; not the fact we have to make money to live. I regret that you can't intuit the difference.

Timothy Turner's picture

I personally like this work very much, it 's easy to take a good photo of an iconic landscape such as the grand canyon, half dome etc. But to take every day items and turn them into art work takes a lot more effort and creativity.

Chad D's picture

I reckon maybe many photographers are below you in their mind and the only way to make themselves feel better is to bash hoping it elevates them ?

lack of confidence in oneselves makes them bash more I feel maybe to say

and some might just not like it ? but that would be a small amount I reckon

Zac Henderson's picture

This is a point not discussed nearly enough. Great article.

Timothy Roper's picture

Were you showing the new portfolio to other food photographers? If not, why even bother with non-food photographers? It's a pretty narrow niche that most know little about, and care even less about. As for the art buyers, well yeah, it's their job to know all about the kind of art they're buying. For example, I don't particularly like those photos of the slivered almonds and Spaghetti Os. They're just yucky SpaghettiOs and boring almonds. But I'm not hungry right now, and I'm also not trying to sell anyone those products. But will they work for other people who are the target audience for the advertising, and thus be worth it to the client? That's certainly possible. I don't know much about that kind of thing, so I can't say if they're "good" photos or not. I wouldn't presume to, and neither should most people who don't know the genre.

microteck's picture

Scott. Your a very talented photographer. Thanks for sharing.

Daniel Medley's picture

The absolute worst people from which to take ANY kind of advice or critique from outside of very basic technical aspects, is other photographers.

Spend 3 minutes on DPReview's forums to get an understanding of this.

stuartcarver's picture

Or Fstoppers contest submissions.

dean wilson's picture

Stuart Carver's comment: ⭐

dean wilson's picture

🤣

c0ld c0ne's picture

There are photographers on DPReview? ;-)

Timothy Gasper's picture

"Why Does Any of This Matter?"
The first sentence under this topic is clearly the heart of the matter. I've been shooting for 60 years and professionally for about 45. I never knew anyone who shot photos to try and please other photographers, but these days I maybe can see this happening. Too many flakes out there who need their egos stroked. I shoot mostly to bring beauty or other emotions to the fore. I try to cause people to smile or think or emote some type of feeling. Don't really care about pleasing other photographers, but I sure do love many of the works of others. I just never criticize.

John Bloomfield's picture

Best article I have read in quite sometime....and I agree 100%, I have definitely stalled my own progress sporadically over the years or so by trying to fit in with what other photographers whose opinion I respect are looking for usually without realising I am doing it!

Christopher Collins's picture

Hi, I would like to send a criticism about the article since it wasn’t very enjoyable to read for me and maybe other people had the same reaction and this might help.

The main difficult I had was regarding the absolutist title and tone of the article, “why photographers hate...”, I understand it’s an opinion piece, but it’s certainly impossible all photographers would “hate his work”. I don’t do paid photography, but I consider myself an aspiring photographer and I like his job, same with all the media directors and art department people, which probably contain a percentage of photographers and they actually buy his work and they certainly don’t hate it, unless they buy it because of masochism which is probably unlikely, the author even explains this saying he is getting more demand than ever.

He could have narrowed it down so “some photographers” since it’s their point of view vs his and this being an opinion article is clearly his point of view.

My second issue with the article lies when I tried to look for the objective of it which I think was stated at the end, which I think is about not letting other’s negative opinions change your point of view (Assuming those opinions aren’t constructive criticism). I think the point was hard to understand reading the article until the end or until the commentaries. I also understand that I have reading skills and the point was implied in the whole article, but my personal opinion is that it was muddled by the author having to explain his successes, this is probably a style difference, but something that diminished my enjoyment nevertheless.

I would also be really interested in seeing an article or video about his process, his photography is very interesting and reading more about the work would make more sense for me to read than a list of his sales, since I can see for myself how much I like it (I know he briefly described the technical aspects, but a full article I think would be more enjoyable). I hope you guys can create it. Thanks you !

vegaroyfoss's picture

..........

Tony Clark's picture

Ones style should be ever-changing and challenging. I started my career shooting models and was heavily influenced by Arther Elgort, Gilles Bensimon and Patrick Demarchalier to name a few. I remember discovering Food photography and applying what I learned about lighting to the subject. If you're not growing, you are dying.

Mike Ditz's picture

Many photographers play follow the leader, and are interchangeable in the client's mind. Showing your new work in addition to your other more regular work shows a different way you think. Most of the time they say "I love your new work, but it's kind of different, can you shoot this thing the way we usually do it?" Once in a while will they take the new look and run with it.

Tomas Atiles's picture

What you are creating is art. Most photographers are not artists and thus the appreciation is lost. That's not a dig on photogrphers. Creating art is hard work and takes many years to develop. Many will simply not get there.

"Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself." - Miles Davis

Usman Dawood's picture

But I really like your images lol.

Anthony Mair's picture

I really like the burgers and fries image. Love the lighting on that. It looks at first glance like one light but I am sure it's more than that judging from the reflections on the buns.

Deleted Account's picture

"Why Does Any of this Matter?", you ask.

Because the world is awash in images and the buyers have seen hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.

The buyers (i.e. people cutting the checks) are looking for something a bit exceptional, something done in a way that has not been done maybe millions of times before.

No doubt about it. Your lighting is exceptional. Shadows, especially with all the hot dogs on display, are striking. The consumer will pay attention. Their eyes away from their smart phones, they will be engaged.

David Justice's picture

Ugh. This article is exactly what I've been trying to write. I don't see myself as an artist and I think that's okay. You don't need to be an artist to be a photographer. The work I love doing is bright and commercial and fun. Still creative. Still contextual and not cheesy or weird. But not moody or editorial like many beauty photographers go for. I just want to have fun.

Christian Santiago's picture

I’ve been a fan of your work for sometime, and thoroughly enjoy the candid, no BS nature of the advice you offer on your YouTube Channel. I hope there is more to come. So I mean no disrespect when I say, I am one of the guilty ones who initially hated the style of your new work. Not because I thought it was “bad.” Per say. From a technical standpoint, you’ve achieved the aesthetic you pursued, so from that perspective I can’t criticize the execution. But I stared at them for a long time, returned many times to look again, and came to the conclusion that I hated what they represented: how simple they were to do.

I thought to myself “That’s all it takes?! A single hard light at 45 degrees that anyone with an ounce of technical proficiency can replicate? I could do that all day and night and my phone wouldn’t ring. What makes him so special? (please note I am not dismissing the effort it took in styling and placing the food for the composition, I am well aware that composes a good chunk of the final product.”

***Also I don’t even specialize in the genre of food/ product photography so Please don’t take my reaction as me comparing myself to you***

It’s funny that you mention Platon, because I - like many - adore his work and often use him as an example when talking to others of creating impactful, beautiful work with the simplest kit available. And I thought of him when pondering why your “Simple” work triggered me in ways that his didn’t.

So your assumptions about other photographers are spot on.

I guess ultimately I narrowed down my initial distaste for the style to my failure to understand why an art buyer would show interest in paying a photographer top dollar to do something perceptually simple enough that a less experienced photographer could come pretty close to replicating. What was/am I missing? As you say, they often hire you to recreate something completely different and presumably more complex on a technical level, so why would the bar be set so low from a technical standpoint in evaluating talent, when your (the art buyer’s) concept might require significantly more?

So it probably comes down to my own insecurity: If it’s not my technical skills / competency that’s holding me back, what is? That’s a significantly scarier thought to ponder. Rejection for me is easier to handle when it’s a concrete message: “I think your work sucks.” “You’re too expensive so we went with the cheaper guy.” But when it’s something more...abstract, its more frustrating to live with. ‘

Again please don’t take my comment as an attack on your work. As I said at the beginning, I am legitimately a very big fan of you as an artist and harbor lots of respect for how you carry your business. But I figured I’d lend a first hand reaction to the point you’re trying to make.

Phill Holland's picture

I would almost extend the conclusion to "don't try to please anybody except yourself" rather than just other photographers or commercial clients, but I'm in the fortune position of everybody hating my work and it not being directly relating to my income, it's a while different creative world our there when it's not about the money.

Frederic Hore's picture

A very stimulating article, providing some food for thought! Sorry... couldn't resist the pun.

The French have a saying - chacun à son goût, which means, each to their own taste. The ordinary can be the extraordinary, if done right, which Scott has shown us. Certainly very profitable for him.

I for one like shooting manhole covers, you know - those round steel discs you see on roads and sidewalks. But only round ones. I have photographed them in many different countries under all kinds of light. None of them are on my social media... yet, its just a personal project, one of many.

I was photographing a rather distinctively designed cover in a backstreet in Reykyavik, which had an interesting brick cobblestone pattern around it. I was spending a few minutes trying different apertures, angles and so on, when suddenly, a male voice blurted out, "Ya, it's a manhole cover!" He didn't get what I was doing, and frankly I didn't care.
So I say, find your own voice and style, and don't let the naysayers knock you down.

Cheers and thanks Scott. Nice work!
Frederic in Montréal.

axellemanfrini's picture

great article, love your photos ;)

Mike Ditz's picture

Hey Scott, is the new work you are being booked for similar to the new style of shooting?

Jim Hatch's picture

Who cares what everyone thinks as long as you like it

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