Thought’s on Jim Goldstein’s Best of 2014 project

Every year Jim Goldstein collects into a single post everyone’s “best of” postings to make it easier for us to see what everyone else is doing with their photography. Jim’s 2014 collection is here. Last year I went through the listings and tried to review them as if a photo editor was evaluating them as a submission. In retrospect, while that was an interesting approach, it was unfair to some photographers who hadn’t set up their listing with that intent.

This year I’ve gone through the listings again, but instead of how I did it last year, I’m instead trying to look for two things: images that stand out and site designs that stand out. Both of these should create collections that I hope will help people looking for ideas and inspiration.

One other thing I did last year was offer to critique portfolios of those that asked. Some of you did and I think I learned from doing it and I hope those that asked learned from my feedback — but this year, I simply don’t have the cycles to do that, so I’m not offering that service this year.

Without further ado, here are my lists (in the order listed by Jim, no rankings implied):

Outstanding Imagery

  1. Rebecca Jackrel
  2. Exploring Light Photography
  3. Pat Ulrich
  4. Janis Janums
  5. Natural History Photography
  6. Control Geek
  7. Craig Ferguson
  8. Carrie Cole
  9. Dave Wilson
  10. Behind the Clicks
  11. The Global Photographer
  12. Momentary Awe
  13. Clint Losee
  14. Margot Raggett
  15. Adrian Klein
  16. Views Infinitum
  17. Rick Holliday
  18. Phototraces
  19. Sid Foto
  20. Q.T. Luong
  21. Alex Buisse
  22. Richard Peters
  23. Paying Ready Attention
  24. G. Dan Mitchell
  25. Jonesblog
  26. Jon McCormack
  27. Naturefinder
  28. afkfotos.com
  29. Charlotte Gibb
  30. Michael Frye
  31. Regina Pagles
  32. Harold Davis
  33. Joe Ercoli

Outstanding Image Presentation

  1. Craig Ferguson
  2. Carrie Cole
  3. Mike Matenkosky
  4. Dave Wilson
  5. Behind the Clicks
  6. Alex Kunz
  7. Momentary Awe
  8. Clint Losee
  9. Adrian Klein
  10. Andrew Thomas
  11. Richard Wong
  12. Phototraces
  13. Latoga Photo
  14. Toknowmore
  15. Sid Foto
  16. Sugar Mountain Photo
  17. G. Dan Mitchell
  18. Jonesphoto
  19. Forgetmeknott Photography
  20. Jim Denham
  21. Shikha
  22. Jon McCormack

Notes and Comments

  1. These are my opinions. I am not pretending to speak for anyone else. I’m especially not pretending to speak for the market at large, and I can say with some enthusiasm my views probably don’t represent a lot of the market. So take this with a grain of salt, and only to the degree you find it interesting or useful. I have my own preferences and biases, and I try to explain the ones I recognize below in the notes.
  2. The overall image quality is stunningly good. That’s in some ways a mixed blessing, because that means for all of us it’s increasingly difficult for our images to stand out compared to everyone else’s outstanding images. In my mind, the best way to build in that differentiation is to shoot things in ways that other people aren’t shooting — for instance, no matter how good your waterfall shot it, it likely looks like a dozen (or hundred!) other waterfall shots of the same waterfall. We all need to think about how to break out from that sameness into things that have some unique or notable aspect to it.
  3. I am not blowing smoke when I say I didn’t see a collection that made me think it shouldn’t have been published. I think every collection had at least one image that made me stop and take a closer look at it. Except for the one gallery that was effectively advertising spam for someone’s products…
  4. It was a lot harder to blow me away with a set of images this year — not because there weren’t a lot of stunning images and sets of images in this collection, but because the baseline for overall quality was so high. It’s a lot harder for good images to stand out against their peers this year and the bar you have to jump over to really stand out has raised significantly in 12 months. This is good in some ways — the basic definition of “really good photo” seems way up (or maybe “how consistently good they all are?”) but that means excellent and top-notch is harder to reach. We all need to keep pushing our standards of quality and innovation to avoid getting left behind by all of the others pushing forward as well.
  5. I think one of the reasons I was struggling to get blown away is that so many of us are taking really great photos of the same subjects using the same techniques with the same styles of composition and doing very similar processing on them. I’m starting to wonder: is the mass availability of conversation and tutorial online moving us all into some common style instead of us building out unique looks and points of view? Is this some mass online peer pressure going on we haven’t caught onto yet?
  6. Sites that present their images as thumbnails make it harder to appreciate the image than those that use larger images. There’s definitely a tradeoff to be made here, but small thumbnails do your images a disservice. My general thought is that anything less than about 200px (250px is better) on the long side is making it really tough to see the image overall or how good it is, and viewers aren’t going to be as likely to click through and see the big image — those small thumbnails effectively turn your image into an abstract that’s hard to judge.
  7. Look at how a modern Flickr album displays the thumbnails (a variation of the current masonry style of gallery); if your images aren’t that large and your overall display setup doesn’t treat your images this well, you’re really hurting a viewer’s ability to judge your images from the thumbnail. I think we’re at the point that the larger thumbnail (200-250px long minimum) with a click through to a big image with a lightbox is a bare minimum for proper display of images online, and the lightbox should allow you to navigate a set of images without having to return to the small images. If you can’t do that — it’s probably time for a technology upgrade.
  8. One reason I think using a lightbox that lets you page through all of the images is now necessary is that it lets me get away from all of the clutter and chrome on the web site (like your sidebar) and focus on the image without distraction. I found it surprisingly easy for those other bits and pieces to keep grabbing my eyes and dragging them off the image, and that’s not what we want here.  And yeah, I did this, too. I’ll fix that next year.
  9. Your lightbox (and where possible overall site) should support navigation with the arrow keys. Most do now.
  10. When I started my second pass through to consider my “best of” image selections, I kept finding images where it was impossible for me to link directly to them. How can I recognize something I can’t link to? It seems not making this possible is a terrible way to build recognition and visibility for your images. (note: I ended up cutting this back out of my posting — too many challenges and compromises. Which is sad)
  11. I’m realizing that it’s rather trendy to put down Flickr (and I do so as well, and I’m migrating my images off of them in favor of self-hosting), but when push comes to shove, they’re doing an awful lot well, especially in terms of display, navigation, linking, etc. Many other setups don’t. If you’re using or developing a tool or site that doesn’t do this as well as flickr you have some work to do…
  12. I also think auto-forwarding slideshows are the wrong format for this kind if display format. This is also true for youtube videos, which are even worse because it limits my ability to click through to the full size or stop the video to study the image. That was pretty much my least favorite way to view images in this survey.
  13. I am personally very burnt out on sunsets or sunrises unless they are showing off something very interesting in its own right. Pretty colors just aren’t enough to warrant a lot of interest. It needs to be about using those pretty colors to make something really nice into something really awesome.
  14. I am also finding I’m hitting that point on flowing water with lots of motion blur. Really long exposures with really good ND filters is getting to be so common that they all start looking the same.
  15. More saturation is not necessarily an improvement. Correction: lots of saturation is a bad idea. Seriously, it’s turned into the “too much aftershave and this elevator is too small” thing in photography now.
  16. I don’t think I ever will find a picture of a slot canyon notable. If you want a slot canyon shot for a trophy shot for your own collection, great, but good luck making it stand out from the thousands already out there. They’ve been done to death. This holds true for pretty much any place you need to beat photographers off with a  stick to get a good shooting position, including Tunnel View, Delicate Arch and any number of other seriously over-shot locations.
  17. If you’re going to use HDR, remember that shadows serve a purpose in an image as well, and don’t process your images to make them all go away. you end up with an image that looks like it was lit by an army of floodlights, and it looks unrealistic. Also, we’re at the point now where HDR images with halos around objects show up like sore thumbs — and need more work to fix that problem.
  18. If you make me log in to your site or try to force me to sign up for something before letting me see your photos, I’ll ring off and go look at someone else’s photos. Don’t make it hard for me to see what you’ve sent me to look at.
  19. Night photography is rapidly hitting saturation and the “yeah, seen that. Milky way in the background. next” point. Ditto aurora images. After going through a few hundred, they all start looking the same. Also night shots of a dark wilderness and a lit tent.
  20. If you set up an image with a link that clicks through to another page with the image at the same size as what you display on the main page, why did you bother? Don’t make an image clickable unless you’re taking us to a larger (preferably full-screen) image.
  21. If your display setup dims an image until I mouse over it, it makes all your images look dark and underexposed. I’d like to suggest you display your images as processed and dim them for the mouseover rather than the other way around.
  22. I’m surprised how few galleries are published here from 500px. Or maybe I’m really not.
  23. It really looks like the day of the abusive photo watermark is over. thank goodness, people have finally figured out destroying an image to prevent copying is a stupid idea.
  24. Load time matters. There were a few pages that took so long to load up that I went and looked at the next site and then came back to see if it was finished. One didn’t finish loading until I’d looked at two other sites. Very few people are going to wait around that long for a site to load.
  25. Some people put two close variations of the same subject from the same shoot in their collections. This mostly left me wondering why they didn’t decide which one was better and only showing that one. That said, there were times when two very distinctive shots of the same subject both clearly deserved listing – but that seemed the exception. Edit ferociously and don’t ask your viewers to make those editing decisions for you.

My final thoughts

The overall quality of imagery this year is significantly better than what I looked at a year ago. This is a blessing as a curse: “I am a good photographer” merely means you now have a ticket to join the game, it has no relevance to you being noticed or successful as a photographer.

If you want to be noticed, simply taking good images won’t help that much; you need to be thoughtful about how they’re displayed, too. Bad site design can really make it hard to want to look at an image, and if there are a thousand sunset shots out there waiting to be seen, you don’t want to give someone an excuse to go look at someone else’s.

I’m happy to see that the day of the obnoxious watermark seems to have passed behind us. They have been proven to be ineffective and they get in the way of allowing people to enjoy the photograph. There are a number of photographers doing interesting things with the “gallery mat” form of border. I’ve experimented with it a little and I think it has potential to manage the “share first, worry about copyright” later crowd, because very few of those are going to bother to crop out the identifying info and frame, if they even know how.

It really struck home how much images are starting to look like each other – similar compositions, similar processing, similar colorations, similar styles. I’m not sure what this really means in larger contexts, but it bothers me. it also means if you’re trying to market your work, if there are a hundred shots of that waterfall that all basically have the same styling and composition, how can you push your image past the others to warrant more than a commodity price.

And think about it, that commoditization is simply the micro stock disruption problem pushing out beyond the stock houses. I think.

Overall, I’m happy with the quality of my imagery, but I feel I need to push myself to find those aspects that are unique to me and not just part of this common look and feel harder. There’s always a new horizon to hike towards, and as soon as you stop and sit under the tree feeling good about how far you’ve come, everyone else starts leaving you behind…

We’re all doing really good work now. A few are doing great work. The rest of us need to figure out how to pull the great out of our work and push it forward into view more often and more consistently. That’s the next leg of the journey for me…