The Rise of the Armchair Expert

These days, information about any facet of life seems to be at our fingertips. Whether it be through internet search engines, library databases or other forms of intangible media, we are spoiled for access to data. With such a variety and number of sources available, it also seems that our attention span dedicated to one particular area of interest is also diminishing.  As a result  of this information excess , a new breed of critic ; the armchair expert has arisen.  This new breed of forum spamming monster pays no heed to their own ability, nor the reputations of others. They often have limited (or no) experience on the field of their chosen areas of pseudo-expertise  yet display supreme confidence when actions are not required to back up words. Armed with a few phrases found on Wikipedia, a few quotes from random search engines and a lightning quick ability to press [Ctrl-C] and [Ctrl-V], they will shoot down anyone who dares to encroach their turf. Call them the grim reaper of tall poppies perhaps, call them a group of left wing internet socialists, call them what you like. But once spotted, their words can be a great source of ironic amusement.

With that introduction in mind , I’d like to draw your attention to the following link:

This image of a cyclist was taken by a famous photographer (Cartier-Bresson). I’m very poor on my photographic history and had no idea that this was a famous image.  It was presented as a joke to flickr group (photosharing site) in which participants voted to keep the photo or delete it from the group with some kind of rationale behind their decision.  There was a flurry of comments regarding its slight motion blur, flatness, lack of depth of field and poor composition. Those “in the know” sat back and chuckled or frankly abused the nay-sayers.  I must admit that on first glance and even on closer inspection, I’d have to agree with most of the critique given even if it was all on technical grounds.

One could criticise those with a negative view of the image for being the so called armchair expert, the theory based expert focussing entirely on the technical concepts of photography without taking artistic interpretation into account. On the other hand, I’m also quite sure that many of those who took the righteous stance of defending the image were equally guilty of being internet art critiques who had stumbled across this image through many hours of ‘research’ . Many from both groups were undoubtedly proficient photographers but many were just as likely those who freely give opinion and are yet unable to produce anything of similar quality themselves. What exactly is my point then? It seems that nowadays, advice is so freely given and so easily researched online, that it’s often nearly impossible to differentiate between a true expert in the field and pseudo-armchair expert. In fact, the armchair expert may be more eloquent in his argument since he invests far more time in commenting rather than doing. Sometimes, just sometimes though, the armchair expert is caught out on nuance and hence my approach is to take anything I read online with a grain of salt.

Here are a few random examples of critique on my images by some armchair experts which you may or may not agree with.

“I would clone out the power lines and the hiker”

Annapurna Ranges, Nepal

I blame the sophistication of software for these kinds of comments. Adobe Photoshop’s ‘content aware fill’ allows the user to select an area of the scene and with one click, quite effectively remove a feature from the image while filling it in with the surrounding elements. The ease of ‘cloning out’ among other tools has very likely created an era of photographers who shoot first, compose later. In the above image, I like to think that part of the image was supposed to depict man in the environment and the scale of the surrounds? Perhaps I failed in that intent and people thought I was trying to depict wilderness alone.

“You should make the sky brighter than the reflection”

“You should clone out the flowers from the foreground”

Sure, if I wanted a 100 % faithful replication of the scene I could do that. But given that I had used a wide angle lens to distort depth perception , used filters to even out the gradient of light from the scene and accentuated colours in the sky I’m not sure why I should be trying to bring back reality to the image in the reflection.  I found it a strange detail to criticise. I really don’t know what to say about the flowers and cloning them out. Does it look accidental that they are there?

“The image is dark”

In my defence, it was taken at night……..

“You’ve ruined a perfectly good image”

Hrafnntinnusker Sunset : RAW file

Hrafntinnusker Sunset: Edited file

The top image is what came straight out of the camera in RAW format. The second is how I had chosen to process the image.  The background to this image is that it was 1030pm after a long day of hiking and I had gone out to the toilet to find a glowing red sunset. I rushed back in to get the camera and photograph the scene of Iceland’s incredible interior. In reality, the mountain was glowing red and the black sands dotted with bright tents.  When displaying this scene to someone else, is it more important to portray exactly what the scene looked like or to portray how I felt when I was sitting there in awe?  To me , I think it  is the latter that is more important and that is the approach with which I present all of my landscape photographs.  Often that means exaggerating colours and the depth of a scene to the point of unreality. While I appreciate differences in opinion, I believe I have highlighted the reasons in a previous blog post why any image straight out of the camera is just as unlikely to portray the reality in a  scene anyway.

“This picture has too much contrast and has an unusual crop”

This brings me to my last point about armchair critique. Critique from this source often follows the current opinion of a body of experts in the field. The current trend in wedding and portrait photography is to present images in flat, washed out tones with a slight sepia tinge akin to an aged photograph.  Also, for ease of printing,every image should be presented a standard 6X4 crop. I love wedding photography not just for the technical aspects of it but for the joy and happiness you can feel from sharing in the couple’s day. To me this translates as colour and vibrance and so, why not put that into images. As for the printing issue , we could just inform our clients to tell printers not to crop images when printing instead of limiting our composition. I have no issue with those who choose to process their images according to what seems now accepted as the norm but it seems there are those who choose to dislike the fact that our images don’t necessarily conform to a perceived industry standard.

This is my rant for the day. You should of course believe my every word because of the armchair expertise I’ve tried to demonstrate.  😉


Posted on February 26, 2011, in Iceland, M&D Corner, Nepal, Photography, Random Musings, Scotland, Weddings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Nice post – and nicer photographs. I can’t say I really agree with most of the critiques you got on them. It seems that a lot of people read the “rulebook” and think that’s all there is to photography. The problem with argueing with them, however, is that you must come up with some agreed on definition of “good” and “Art” – which is almost impossible.

    I do have a critique on the last image though – in my opinion, the crop is fine, but the out of focus greenery on the left side distracts from the couple. A small crop in would help mitigate that effect.

    Oh, and famous or not, I’ve never really been that impressed with the Cartier-Bresson image – nice to see I’m not alone 🙂 I know I couldn’t produce that kind of image – but neither do I claim that I can.

    Thought provoking post – thanks for sharing!

  2. Good call. Ha ha… oh so true!

    If this is any comfort…. I can happily say i know the pain all too well Dylan 🙂

  3. Great post and spot on. I think most people forget that most of us take photographs with a vision in mind – the end result is an image. Sometimes they look like what was there Mostly, well for me anyway, it what I thought I saw and what I would like the viewer to feel.
    I think a photograph is successful if people look at and think about it for at least 30 seconds so I suppose you could say that if people gave you that feedback you were a success 🙂

  4. I understand your point of view about “armchair experts”.
    This is my two cents worth (well possibly 12 cents worth).
    First of all given that all of YOUR images fit at least into “reasonably well executed” and you obviously have a good knowledge of the equipment and technology it comes down to your own personal vision. Which I believe was your own conclusion.
    We could claim “artistic licence” 🙂

    At the risk of being villified, your point about the Cartier-Bresson image is valid if you rate it to the technology and equipment that we have today. Goodness me in the days of Bresson they used Coke Bottle lenses (compared to the razors we have now) Film speeds that mandated double digit exposure times, grain heck, more like sandy beaches. From the comments on the Bresson image so many people rated it based on todays technology – or made a subjective statement and then attempted to justify their position based on technical merit.

    There was a time when I considered myself a master of B&W film processing and printing. When I started looking at the work of Adams, Minor White, and other so called masters I was awed. (I still am when considering what they had to do). But now when I revisit these works (and I have seen originals) I feel that I could do better (at the print level) because the papers and chemistry we had in the 1980 and 1990 was so far advanced over what those guys had – most of which they “manufactured” themselves. But in doing a “better” print that would not always be what they were striving for.

    OK, I am rambling a bit but I am sure you see my point.
    For you – I think you are doing what you do best and that is capturing an image and then creating an artistic result. Nature creates, photographers interpret.

    Consider any image wether it be a photograph, painting or a sketch. It is like a bottle of wine. In real terms there are only two kinds of wine in the world, wines you like, or wines you don’t like. All the discussion in the world is just filler.

    On the other hand if you feel you need to justify or apologise something in an image, perhaps it does need work – 🙂

    Let the image stand on its own merits. Banish the armchair experts.

    • Thanks for your thoughts David – everyone has their own perceptions of what a good photograph should be. I believe that nowadays though, this opinion is being formed based more on theory than practical experience. Whether this is good, bad, valid or baseless – who knows! I’ve presented one opinion of many floating out there.

  5. There is nothing wrong with yours photos. Some people are simply ….. …..

  6. I so share your musings on the armchair experts.. watch out they are everywhere 🙂

  7. I have been guilty of purveying a sense of ‘armchair expertness’ but I tend to bite my tongue a little more these days and restrict any [constructive] criticism I may have to what I know I can produce (or at least how to). Well said. I love a good rant! Love your website(s) and your photography is simply beautiful – the pair of you that is. Jon

  8. Quality articles is the secret to attract the visitors to go to see the
    web page, that’s what this site is providing.

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