Aug 062012

NY Times


If you spend enough time on forums,

the criticism of  blurry Leica pictures

will always come up.  As the debate

goes, no one will publish an out of focus

picture.  Is this really true?


Justin Mott for the New York Times. Is the blur intentional?

Saturday Morning

This weekend, as I left the house, my eye caught a copy of the NY Times.  Abandoned copies of the Times sit in our lobby like refugees.  Its a strange blip of information to see on a daily basis.  From a passing distance, I enjoy the very best and the colossal failures that grace the Times.  This weekend was a picture of woman in front of a Burmese temple, or I guess I should say Myanmar (pro-nounced Mee-an-mar).  I got my pronuciation from the 80′s film Top Gun, clearly a bad source for accurate information on South East Asia.

Actor James Tolkan was responsible for my mispronunciation of Myanmar. Hollywood is not the best geography teacher.

Either way, the woman in the picture was blurry.  The obvious effect of a longer exposure, possibly caused by a photographer avoiding the high ISO if his camera.  In the forum debates about Leica’s terrible high ISO performance Nikon and Canon users typically remind the Leica audience that professionals need high iso, Leica’s are over priced, and artistic blur is the realm of amateurs.

This is a half truth, as are many things that consume forums.  For one, this picture indeed made the cover of the travel section in the NY Times.  Not a bad credential that most photographers would love to have (myself included).  What actually bothers me more is the fact that the photographer has an entire website filled with people shot from the back.  Coincidentally I have an article coming out tomorrow about shooting people from the front.  In most cases, pictures from the back do not work and give the preception that the photographer failed to anticipate the shot.  The “back shot” often looks like an attempt to salvage a missed moment. But more on that later.

While this has almost nothing to do with the article I thought it was a hysterical comparison.

Fuzz, Blur, & Character

Why does a blurry shot work sometimes and not work others?  Well usually for a blurry or soft picture to work, everything else needs to be exceptionally strong.  The composition, the figure to ground, the subject, the colors ect.  The second we loose focus, we loose information.   Which means, what ever is left in the shot better work double time for the picture to be a success.

The other day, during a One-on-One session with a photographer, he said, “Yeah, you never do say anything about focus, why?”  The reason I pay little attention to focus in critiques is that focus is one of the few aspects of photography that can be automated.  If a camera can be programmed to get it right, its not a skill.  Composition, however is a much bigger challenge.  Sharp pictures spend more time masking poor photography than they do delivering good pictures.

The picture would have been more successful if he tipped his camera down and lost an inch off of the top of the frame. Take your hand and cover everything above the black line and use your imagination to picture the bottom.

In this case the picture was not bad.  The woman, who is plunked in the middle of the frame reads against the background of the temples and water.  I am bothered that he cut off her feet.  We don’t need that much sky, but we would be in much better shape if we had her feet.  In terms of communicating, it is successful.  We “get it.”  Even as I was quickly walking out the door the picture was clear enough to say “Look at me I am exotic Myanmar.”  The most interesting thing to me was really that a picture, which seems like it could have been sharp was not.  And it was published.  The blur, in this case, hardly detracted from the shot. What do you think of the picture?

And tomorrow I will publish the article about photographing people from the front.


Adam Marelli

  11 Responses to “No One Uses Blurry Photos”

  1. Thanks Adam, interesting topic. Have to agree, not sure what’s up with the feet being chopped. This image taken by the same guy at another Myanmar locale has the same thing going on:

    Having just spent almost 3 weeks in Myanmar back in June i have to say, both Bagan (which i believe is the location of the shot you’ve discussed) and Shwedagon Pagoda (the site in the link i’ve just posted) offer much better backdrops/scenic options than what has been used in these (and again, feet chopped in both) but that’s another story entirely. Why the feet keep getting lopped is anyone’s guess though – could the NYT have cropped these before running them? Strange this made the front cover of the Travel section though, just seems quite “average” for me personally.

    As for the thoughts on focus, personally the woman’s motion in your posted pic does little for me personally. The main things are, as you’ve said, compositionally the picture seems odd – i can’t stop looking at the wooden railing which provides a nice leading perspective but is also chopped off at the lower part of the frame which personally irks me. I can only guess that showing motion on her as the obvious central element, and a lack of motion on the water or reeds (everything else seems very static), juxtaposes with some dynamic balance but it just doesn’t do a whole lot for me.

    As someone who sometimes shoots people from behind, i’m also looking forward to tomorrow’s article with bated breath :)

    PS YIKES on those “Then and Now” Top Gun pics!

    • Hey Dave,

      I meant to send you a more thoughtful response, which is why i have not responded yet. Will have a touch of free time tomorrow morning to get back to you.

      How did the front/back article work for you?


    • Hey Dave,

      The explanation for chopping off the feet is surprisingly simple. The same tendency that has people put “heads” in the center of an image is the same impulse which sees professionals chop off the feet. They simply do not see what they are doing. They are so preoccupied with the center of the picture, they forget about the edges. It is a very common mistake. It also points out that he or any other photographer that makes this mistake, was not trained as an artist. Photography educations are notorious for focusing on technical aspects (post production, printing ect.) and conceptual elements (narrative, context ect.)

      They often miss real discussions in composition, because in many cases the photographer professors never learned them properly. Since art is not like studying medicine, where you have to fulfill certain requirements…there is no canon for studying design and composition. Which means, someone can have a very successful career based on poorly designed images. For someone who has learned how to read an image, the mistakes stand out in a second. Chopping the feet is not a artistic element, but rather a boo boo that went unnoticed.

      As for shooting from the back, there are plenty of instances where it is valid. But if in this case, the portfolio is filled with shots from the back it becomes gimmicky and it gives us the sense the photographer is not putting themselves in the right place.

      How did you find Myanmar?

      Sorry for the lagged delay.


      • Thanks Adam, i checked out some of Justin’s portfolio and agree, there is quite a prevalence of shots from the back. I must admit, I do like the work i saw, he has a good eye and some beautiful “travel” shots.

        As for lopping off limbs by getting carried away and over excited about what’s “in the middle”, i’ve definitely been guilty of that myself (no art/design background here :) ). I constantly find assessing the entire frame contents, deciding what to leave in/out and how to present what’s left in, and to do all this in an often quite brief moment is an amazing challenge (and i think one of the things i enjoy about candid shooting on the street so much).

        As an aside, it’s amazing where chopping limbs can work and be used to great effect. I’m sure you’ve seen Alex Webb’s “Suffering of Light” which has some great examples of complex multi layered compositions, where he deftly crops and lops limbs. It feels like he either meant to do it, and it adds something, or at the very least, where perhaps if it wasn’t intentional, that it doesn’t detract (see below for an example of what i mean)

        PS Myanmar was amazing – it still feels like a step back in time and the people were incredible – they loved the fact we were visiting their country and they almost universally loved being photographed. Very open, kind, happy and hospitable people, and amazing sights/history with a cuture that doesn’t yet feel like a homogenized hotch potch of “theirs plus ours” (they aren’t buried in their smart phones and tablets because they don’t have any yet).
        Only hope the influx of western foreign investment doesn’t change things too much, although that is probably inevitable, it’s just a matter of time.

      • They are so preoccupied with the center of the picture, they forget about the edges. It is a very common mistake.

        Hello Adam,

        i’m not qualified for judging this, but are you sure the cropped off feet wasn’t intentional?
        If i learned rule of thirds, it improved my shots rapidly. but then i had hard time “unlearning” this technique. Actually i considered HCB’s photos as snapshots with lack of composition :-)

        He just used techniques that i have never heard of before and i my judgement was based purely on my knowledge (which was poor). Now, after reading your articles i understand the geometry of his shots.

        You have an art training. You know about diagonals, root rectangles,… I’m just wondering if such knowledge as yours can be a barier sometimes.

        • Stefan,

          The more I experience and understand about design, the more I realize that the opportunities are endless.

          In 1000 lifetimes I will never touch all the corners of the design.

          At first it might seem like the knowledge is limiting, but ask any pianist if learning how to play the piano properly made them feel limited? Its only when we can’t connect to a history or explore further options that we feel stuck in a box.

          Learning design allows you to discover your true artistic voice, with authority, confidence, and humility.


  2. Adam,

    I was really surprised to see your post on the Myanmar photo. When I was reading the Times on my iPad, I instantly noticed the blurry photo and the chopped feet on Sunday morning. Also, I’m not sure if it’s that way on print, but on a computer screen the image has a look of HD software or extreme saturation.
    I must admit, that if I noticed something that you did, I must be learning something about photography.


  3. There are out of focus photographs and then there are images with intentional blur. I think sharpness is overrated (not focus) intentional blur suggests things such as time and the ephemeral that one can not see and brings a certain emotion to an image. Also shooting from the back doesn’t bother me, the intention is usually you are there, imagine this is you and this is what you see.

    This image seems a bit boring to me mostly due to the plain gray overexposed sky. The missing feet give the effect that she is floating rather than walking. I’m not saying this is an incredibly successful photograph (though it is as it has made it into the NY TImes) but not an issue of focus.

  4. It is my experience that when I publish an out of focus picture I will very rarely get any comment on it. Even though some of my favorite images are a blur, they can be the ones that really make me feel aware of myself and the image when I look at them.

    Contrast that to posting virtually any sunset / sunrise snap shot where I am virtually guaranteed to get comments.

    • Hey Guy,

      Sunset, kittens, and naked girls all strike immediate chords with people.

      Slightly blurry shots are almost immediately written off. But have a look through an HCB book and we can see that he was not obsessed or even interested in tack sharp images. Its all about the gesture.


  5. I’ll try to justify the chopped feet :P
    maybe the photographer wanted to show the woman entering the scene.
    the blur and the chopped feet give the observer that idea… she’ “just” in…
    anyway, I like it, chopped feet or not.

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