Wednesday, March 20, 2013

It's Amazing How Often Amazing is Used to Describe Photos

One of my personal (and curmudgeonly) pet peeves is the word "amazing." Mostly, because it's so often used to describe photographs which, frankly, aren't so amazing at all. In terms of photographs being amazing, my peevishness about the word includes photos that I, myself, snapped. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever snapped a truly amazing photo and I've snapped an awful lot of pics.

I see the "A" word attached to so many photos, especially on social media sites like Facebook, on photo forums, and elsewhere.  Every time I do I cringe a bit-- not a big cringe but a little cringe. I cringe because so many of the photos described as "amazing"  are anything but... amazing that is.

All those supposedly amazing photos run the gamut of images that "suck" to images that are very, very good. Still, it's the rare photograph that I would use the word "amazing" to describe it, even when said photograph is a really, really good photo.

The dictionary defines amazing -- when it's used as an adjective, which it is when describing photographs -- as something that causes sudden wonder, astonishment, or great surprise!  Synonyms for amazing include astonishing, surprising, and awe-inspiring.

Do people, photographers as well as others, sometimes post photos that are astonishing, surprising, or awe-inspiring? Yes, occasionally they do. Do they post them regularly and routinely? That is, are astonishing, surprising, and/or awe-inspiring images commonplace? I don't think so. Not even close.  If they were commonplace, they wouldn't be so amazing would they? It seems to me that when the word "amazing" is so cheaply and regularly applied to describe photographs, it dilutes the relative amazingness, astonishment, surprise, and inspirational awe which rightfully should be attached to those very few photos which actually do qualify as amazing.

A lot of very good photographers get the word "amazing" thrown at their images fairly often. Usually, by viewers who either aren't particularly amazing photographers themselves, or by those who know little to nothing about photography.

There are three kinds of amazing photos dubbed as such by those who routinely describe photographs as amazing: 1) Photos labeled "amazing" because of their (supposed) technical amazingness; 2) Photos labeled "amazing" because of their content or emotional appeal; 3) Photos dubbed amazing for both their technical merits and their content.

As guy who knows and understands a fair amount about photography and what it takes to produce almost any photographic image, it's the very rare photo that I'd call amazing because of its technical merits. Certainly, there are technically difficult-to-produce photos which, to various degrees, produce awe in me or that I find inspirational or motivational, but they're not amazing in the true definition of the word. They're simply difficult to produce. Yet, bottom-line, I know I could produce them, i.e., reverse engineer them, if given the same tools, resources, shooting environment, crew, time, money, and more to do so. To wow me, a photographer needs to produce an image that stymies me in terms of how it was produced. To say that doesn't often happen is an understatement. I'm not bragging. But the technical stuff is all about knowledge and resources. Knowledge I've learned and retained while available resources aren't things I have an abundance of at my fingertips.

As for content or emotional appeal, truly amazing photos are often products of serendipity, luck, or being in the right place at the right time with a camera hoisted to one's eye. That's not to say a photographer cannot set out to purposely produce an amazing photo with amazing content or emotional appeal. They can. And they sometimes succeed at doing so. But it's not something that can be routinely and consistently accomplished.

Photos which qualify as amazing for both their technical qualities as well as their content or emotional appeal are the rarest of all. They don't happen frequently and, often enough, luck plays as important a role as everything else a photographer might throw at producing such an image.

So, next time you think to apply the word "amazing" to a photograph, you might consider using some other word or words because, odds are, the photo is not as amazing as you might, at first, believe that it is.

And so ends today's rant, as non-amazing as it might be.

The image at the top, one I snapped a month or two ago, has had the word "amazing" tossed at it a few times. (Click it enlarge.) You might not agree with those who labeled it amazing and, to be honest, I don't either. It's a decent enough nude image of a pretty model but, trust me when I tell you, there's nothing amazing about that photo. From a technical perspective, it utilizes my standard lighting setup against a neutral, seamless, background. I didn't do much processing to it. There's little emotional appeal and, while the image is somewhat dramatic, it's content is nothing special, rarely seen, astonishing, surprising, or awe-inspiring. In short, amazing it ain't.


photography by joe said...

Amazing post! :P

jimmyd said...

@Joe: LOL!

mkhealey said...

I went to a restaurant the other night and the server told us "tonight we have an AMAZING sea bass, which can be paired with an AMAZING chardonnay....and if you would like to pre order, we have an AMAZING souffle.
Overused? I think so! Thanks Jimmy for the AMAZING blog. :)

Joe Rooney said...

In a world where marketing hype rules, I do think we become saturated with overexaggeration about the qualities of this or that product, photos included. However, as photographers, we should also be cognizant that we are "in" on the trick of producing a quality photo. But from the perspective of someone who's knowledge on lighting extends no further than to push the button for the pop up flash, a well lit and composed photograph IS amazing, even if to those who are "in" on the magic trick it's nothing special.

To your credit Jimmy, you've done a yeoman's job in trying to demystify the "magic" of photographic lighting with your blog and ebooks. And there is one profession whose work is always, unequivocally, AMAZING- "Teacher."

jimmyd said...

@Joe Rooney: Thanks,dude. :-)

Nadja said...

Yes, Jimmy, but aren't you forgetting something in your rant?
Like the subjective experience a viewer can get when looking at a certain photo.
Knowing much about photographic techniques or not, some photos make a deeper impact on a person, and you just can't measure or explain these things.
I love many of your photos, and I understand you have great skills, but this one is something else anyway.
It surely is amazing to me!
And I really don't care what you think of that!
I think amazing is really an amazing word by the way, especially for people whom's English isn't so good, to make an understatement...

WestCoastJim said...

Lost in the "amazing" thing is that it's a very dynamic and eye-catchie shot! Earring in mid air, hair is flight, what's not to like?
Great shot!
Amazing, I dunno...
But isn't great realistic as a goal? "Amazing" besides being horribly overused (like "awesome") is supposed to be, just that, amazing! It ain't the Zapruder film. Nor is anything else.
Carry on.
And Great Shot!

Rick said...

Generaly speaking, most of the amazing comments you'll see on forums and especially Facebook are coming from friends of the model. They just can't believe that the plain Jane they've known all their lives could look that "amazing" in a photograph.

On the other hand, photographers that use the amazing word have a limited view of the truely amazing photographs produced since the advent of photography.

KimH said...

The problem is even worse, for the word, awesome.