Every year Jim Goldstein collects a list of “Best of the Year” postings from photographers around the globe and posts them. You can find the 2013 edition here. I started going through the lists, and I realized it gave me an opportunity. I decided to turn it into a project.
So here’s the scenario. I’m the photo editor at the Stunningly Great Photography magazine. Every month we publish portfolios for ten photographers. It’s my job to choose those ten. My list of candidates is 328 long. I have three days. It’s your job as a photographer to stand out from the rest and get chosen as one of those ten photographers.
How hard can that be?
It took me three and a half hours to go through the first pass on the list, including occasional breaks when I started to lose concentration. My first cut is 96 sites, so I selected about one third of the original list. That’s both not bad for a quick first cut, and an indication of the high quality of photography out there. In some ways that’s really encouraging to see, and in other ways it almost makes me want to sell the camera and dig ditches as a hobby instead. There’s a whole bunch of really good photographers out there.
Oh, and as I was making selections, I took notes.
I’m not going to talk about any site specifically, but on trends, on things I found I liked, on things I found I didn’t, on the kinds of things that helped a site stand out from the rest, and things photographers do that made it really difficult to me to choose their site, or even see the images to have a chance to choose them.
Think about it this way: those are you best images of the year. Now you’re competing with all of the other “best of breed” sites for “best of show”. How do you think you stand up? Does your site properly show off your images? Are you images going to stand out against 300 other sets of images?
What I found out about my own site and work is that it doesn’t, not to the degree that it should now that I looked at it this way. it might have made the top 100. It definitely wouldn’t have made the top 50 — and I’m biased to select my own stuff, but I also try to be honest with myself, because that’s important if your goal is trying to improve.
This turned out to be very useful research for me for next year — and I’m hoping you’ll find it useful information as well. If you’re going to submit to this list, think a bit and don’t just slap something together. To stand out, your images have to be even better than the good images everyone else is posting, and they have to be presented in a way that the presentation doesn’t hide their quality. Remember, people are browsing Jim’s list and going to each site quickly because they’re trying to see a lot of work in a short period of time. If you want to make them stop and really look at your images, you have to make it quick, easy and not give them excuses to close the browser window and head to the next site.
By the way, anyone who submitted to Jim’s list that wants me to comment/critique on their site, just contact me and ask. I’ll be happy to if I have time to do it properly.
Things I learned looking at 300+ sets of images in one huge gulp
- When you look through the list yourself, do NOT just cherry pick photographers you know or like. Spend time looking at genres and styles different than your normal stuff — look for new people to follow and study, new types of photography that intrigue you to investigate. Sometimes the best way to improve your core photography is to study things completely different and learn techniques you can bring back and integrate…
- It can be hard to limit the collection. But do it. you present a huge glob of photos at someone, they’ll move on. the more you show, the more each picture has to be a killer image.
- Your images are great, but if they look like three other photographer’s work in the last 20 sites I’ve seen, they stop looking special. Some subjects suffer not because they’re not good, but because too many other photographers are doing them. Especially true of sunsets without unique geographical interest, but so many bird, critter and people shots look so alike… Why should I pick your sunset from Tunnel View in Yosemite instead of any of the 100 others I saw in this collection of lists? If your pictures aren’t — different — in some way, they aren’t going to be picked. Being good is just the entry price to the race. There are over 3,000 images just submitted to Jim’s list that are all really, really good.
- Make sure that when you submit to Jim’s list, you submit the link to your “Best of” page, not the home page of your blog where the “Best of” page may now be buried by three other pieces. And make sure you submit the “best of” for this year, not 2012. And that the link works.
- Don’t use thumbnails. If the image is tiny, it destroys detail and makes it hard to see anything but large blocks of color. Someone given a list of 300 sites to go through sin’t going to click to see larger images unless the thumbnails look impressive. Chances are yours don’t, and you need to make an immediate impression. Take a look at the new Flickr look and feel. You shouldn’t be using images smaller than that on your pages.
- Slideshows are nice, but… the first image must convince me to check the rest out. This is in complete conflict with my “no thumbnails” rule, of course. But you really do need good sized images on one page for a viewer to have a quick look — and then take them into detail pages in some way.
- Note: both thumbnails and slideshows might be useful in other circumstances, but here, users are taking a quick glance and need to be convinced to stay and look in detail. Both thumbnails and slideshows are lousy ways to do that convincing. My current feeling is that I’m probably going to retire both techniques completely.
- If the ‘large’ image I click through is small, you’re doing yourself a big disservice. This isn’t 1995 with slow dialups, and if the best I can see is a 600px wide image, it’s going to be hard for me to really decide how good it is. This is especially true of complex images with subtle colors and details.
- Flickr’s new look actually works quite well for this… It holds up surprisingly well. So does the ‘new’ smugmug. The ‘old’ smugmug looks dated and displays images that are too small; if you haven’t updated the look of your site, you really should. 500px does well. Google+/picasa? not really, not in this situation. Facebook: no. Just no.
- Limit the amount of text between the top of your page and the first pictures. Get to the meat quickly. Narrative around the pictures is fine, but don’t write novels.
- If your site does anything to make me take action before showing me the pictures, it fails and this in-a-hurry person moves on. That includes dropping pop-overs to suggest I sign up for anything, or asking me to sign up or sign on to view it. I’m not going to jump through hoops to look at your images.
- Watermarks should not the the most prominent thing on an image.
- If I’m interested in looking at your stuff in more detail, I’m going to check out your blog and look for your Twitter or G+ or Facebook. If you point me at a Twitter feed or blog you haven’t updated in three months, that’s a fail. I’m not going to pursue you through a ghost town. If you’re not using a social media service, hide it and don’t publicize it on your site.
- If you use thumbnails or smaller images that change the aspect ration and recrop your image, either make sure you validate that those crops don’t mutilate the image, or don’t do it. Taking something 16:9 and chopping it to 1:1 rarely improves the image, and remember, that 1:1 crop is now the first (and probably only) version of the image this viewer will see. Is that really what you want? Make your first impression count.
- Does your site have a mouseover effect when the cursor crosses the image? Does it “fog” the image? Is that what you want your viewer to see? This is the first (and probably only) version of the image the viewer will see, and you’re obscuring it?
- Don’t display images by date. The first image on the list might not be the best. If the first image or two are weaker ones, we might not bother viewing the third. Line them up for maximum impact and to, if you can, say something about yourself, your photography, or something.
- If you have weaker images in the set delete them. You are better off showing 5 really awesome shots than fill with 5 more simply okay ones. It’s okay to not have 10 images in the list. Don’t dilute your quality. IF you really, really think you have 20 killer shots you can’t live without, that’s fine. If you’re right. Stop and think about how few of the top tier photographers do that… and then go edit again.
- Image load speed is important: I’ll only wait for the images to load so long before moving on. Is your site fast enough?
- Don’t make your images too similar. Three images of the same person makes it hard for any one image to stand out. Three waterfalls or half a dozen golden-toned sunsets start giving the site a look of sameness and lack of variety, and no matter how good the images are, that they all look the same. Imagine eating hamburgers five nights in a row for dinner. By the fifth, will you really care how good the burger is? Or will your next meal be something spicy (and not on a bun)?
- Genre switching and technique switching within a “best of” is fine, but can be jarring. consider placement to create a flow, or grouping images of like type or style together to minimize bouncing the viewers brain off of a brick wall. This, of course, conflicts with making your images too similar. You can go too far in both directions. The trick is to create enough variety to interest the viewer to dig further into your site, without looking like your photographic style is random and has no structure. Find that interesting medium.
- Animated GIFS. Maybe on Google+. Not on lists like this. Please, god, no.
- The images getting the most likes on a social media site should not be confused with your best images.
- Spellcheck. Basic typos can lead to a feeling of unprofessionalism or not caring, especially when the typo is in something like your name or your site’s name. When people are looking for a reason to close the browser window and move on, these details really do matter.
- Make sure the images are actually loading. Broken images can’t be picked.
- If 11 of your 12 images are landscapes or wildlife or some specific genre, and one image is completely different (like a wedding), should it really be in that list? If you want to show a variety of imagery, then show a variety of imagery. If you want to be a specialist, show just that specialty. Showing 90% as a specialty and one ‘special’ image just makes it hard to figure out what you’re doing.
- I do not envy people who do this for a living.
- I’m really starting to like the “poster frame” look for displaying images online (see, for instance, G Dan Mitchell or Gary Crabbe). I am starting to consider adopting it myself.
- By about 60 sites in, one weak image was usually enough to make me stop browsing.
- I was only about 80 sites in when I started finding myself thinking “oh my god, more sunsets….” — do not expect sunset photos to be the thing that catches them and makes them stop and look. unless they’re the absolute most stunning…
- By about 90 sites in, I was starting to pray for weak images.
- I am not a fan of sunsets where it looks like a disney animator threw up on the photo. There’s a difference between dramatic evening light and setting the saturation lever to “11”. Or as I see too often, “13”.
- Velvia has a lot to answer for.
- Good HDR images can be wonderful; and generally, they don’t look like what most people think of as HDR. The most common mistake I see with HDR (other than rampant saturation-itis) is forgetting that in the real world, shadows exist. Too many HDR images ramp up the shadows too far.
- I tend to be more color than B/W by preference, but really good monochrome images will blow me away. I wish I could do monochrome as well as many of you.
- Some sites scream “these are MY best images!” while others have a “these could be anyone’s best images”. Were these images shot by a photographer with something to say and a point of view? Or could they have been shot by any photographer? The difference is hard to explain beyond “I know it when I see it” but it’s definitely there. My list this year is missing that. I have to think about what to do about this.
- It’s amazing how often a site made the cut by the third or fourth image. Or didn’t.
- Watch your color palette — do all the images look the same? If there’s no variety in colors on a page, it makes it very hard for any one image, no matter how good, to stand out and be seen from the rest.
- We’ve all done the “night shot with the lit tent” now. Please move on, nothing to see here. Night shots in general are heading rapidly into the “nice. next…” category for me.
- Death valley racetrack shots. It’s been done. (want this for your personal collection and wall? great. want to promote it as a top image to others? boring…)
- It’s impossible to do slot canyons in a way that hasn’t been done a hundred times already. You may be really proud of those shots; they aren’t standing out from the crowd. That’s the problem with trophy shots; it may mean something to you, good luck getting others to see the wow. It’s been done to death.
- Great Blue Herons are awesome birds. It’s almost impossible to do a shot of one that half a dozen other sites on this list aren’t also doing.
- For some reason, lighthouses seem immune from this “everyone is doing them” problem. Probably because each lighthouse is built in a unique architecture. But don’t overdo any one lighthouse in your collection.
- I could name 20 other topics where 100 of the sites had more or less the same image on them. Too many photographers are taking the same shots of the same things with the same treatment. When you get into a group evaluation submission, it quickly turns into this mass of sameness and loses the specialness. Does your stuff stand out from the crowd?
- Just when I was sure I never wanted to see another picture of the Golden Gate Bridge, a night shot of the stars behind a bristlecone pine, sunset over mono lake, the barn in the Tetons, or any attempt to make crater lake memorable, I ran into a photographer who had all of those on their best of for 2013, and it was awesome.
If there’s one criticism of the entire list I can make, it’s how many photographers are trying to stand out using such similar techniques on similar subjects. It all kind of starts melting together after a while, and then you run into a unique vision on those topics or a unique subject and the brain goes WOW. Imagine your favorite food in the world. Now imagine eating ONLY that food for a week. When you finally change and eat something different, it’s going to seem amazingly tasty. Now, imagine sifting through 300 sites worth of “best of” images stuffed with sunsets. How many sunsets are really going to stand out and be remembered?
Find ways to not be part of that crowd.
2013 sites I want to study in more detail
I did this because I’m always on the look out for new photographers who are saying and doing interesting things. Over the next month, I’ll be going back to this list and checking out portfolios in more detail, looking for twitter feeds where people are saying things I can learn from, Google+ accounts with pictures and conversation and blogs with good writing and images to study.
Along the way I’ll pare it down to that list of 25, which if there’s interest, I’ll post in a later blog entry. Mostly, though, this is about finding fresh and new resources to help me keep pushing my own photography forward. I thought I’d share, because maybe you’ll find it useful as well. If you do, let me know.