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Is this the best they can do?

A while back, I happened upon a couple of tweets posted by the travel photographer Terence Carter:

If it’s so hard for travel writers & photographers to get gigs why is the writing in the major glossy mag I’m reading shite & photos blurry?1:49 AM Jun 22nd via web


Every photo in a major story in another glossy travel mag has lens blur or no discernible point of focus.1:53 AM Jun 22nd via web

I’d been catching up on a stack of magazines–mostly travel–and I agreed; a good number of the photos weren’t just boring. They were downright shitty.

In writing and art, including photography, plenty of subjectivity enters into any editor’s (or reader’s/viewer’s) decision about whether a piece is “good” or “bad.” But there are also basic technical skills that need to be evidenced to demonstrate competence and to merit publication. In photography, one of those skills is focusing. If achieved, the product is a crisp photo with, as Terence put it, a “discernible point of focus.”

Sure, there are some settings and situations in which photos with blurring are not only acceptable but may even be desirable. Photos taken at night or with subjects in motion fall into this category. The blur may not detract from the composition. Some good examples? Photos Francisco shot at the Larry Harlow/Ruben Blades concert a couple weeks ago and many of Lily Lebawit’s concert and nighttime images.


After sharing in Terry’s indignation, I let it go… more important things to spend my energy on. More important issues to get righteous about.

Then I flipped through Travel + Leisure’s September issue and read the article “Sydney, in Style.” The lead image on the first page of this article is just terrible- a totally blurry woman next to a rack of boutique clothing; there’s not even the suggestion of movement in her posture, which makes the blur both puzzling and annoying.

Is this really the best that Travel + Leisure can do? Seriously, what are the reasons why a photo editor would even consider running a picture like that?

I’d discuss it with Terry on Twitter, but if his last tweet–dated August 5–is to be believed, he’s abandoned microblogging, judging it a “shallow mass grave.”

Instead, I’ll ask you: What do you think lets photos of such poor quality slide into the pages of print magazines?


14 responses »

  1. Cheap stock photography?

  2. Because bad photographers are cheaper?
    No idea honestly.

  3. I’ve no doubt it’s about price, but damn, the editors could probably find better photos on Flickr for free (that’s what travel guide book editors do).

  4. as a lover of magazines, both travel & trashy, i’ve noticed more & more boring blurry people appearing. does it have anything to do with the photographer not needing a release from the people in the pics? As you say, they could find better photos on Flickr! I think faces make photos more interesting though.

    • Rebecca-

      Well, that could be one reason, but if the photog was shooting in a boutique, I don’t think it would have been too hard to ask for permission. 🙂

  5. probably the same reason the new yorker publishes so many shitty poems by the same famous writers — they’re lazy. these writers have, at points in their careers, written some good stuff. they’ve also written some god awful stuff. the new yorker doesn’t seem to be able to discriminate between the two.

    or rather, they don’t want to take the energy and imagination to try. i’m guessing that might be the case for travel and leisure, a magazine that has so many resources yet so often chooses to be incredibly boring. i guess i sound like a horrible cynic, but honestly, i’m just not surprised.

    • Oh no, Simone, I think you’re right. I haven’t gotten going on a rant about just how ridiculous the magazine’s editorial content is, especially this month (the editor’s bourgeois musings about what constitutes “authenticity” in particular)! That’s why I think that non-travel magazines produce the best “travel” writing and most obscure magazines are often the most interesting.

  6. Difficult to say without seeing the images directly, but there could be a blur ‘trend’ going on, a bit like the ‘slightly-tilted’ shot trend in many guidebooks (Time Out especially). Most of those glossies are highly competitive and bite each other’s style on the regular. Other than that, the tastes of some individual photo editors can be less than discerning, sometimes downright baffling. Anyone got any links to the images in question, or similar examples?

    • Paul-

      I couldn’t find the image from T+L (the main one to which I was referring) on their website and didn’t want to take a picture of a picture… especially a bad one. 🙂
      I just went to the photog’s website to see if it happened to be there; it’s not. But I was surprised (again) to learn she’s won a James Beard Award for Food Photography, especially since the shots on her site are also what I’d consider to be average.

      But what you propose is intriguing, the idea that this might actually be a trend rather than a monetarily-motivated decision.

  7. Someone just alerted me to this, so I’ll chime in. It’s true that I’m not currently tweeting on my own account…because people keep turning my damn tweets into blog posts 😉
    Some points:
    First up, I have to point out it wasn’t an ‘I could do better than that!’ type comment or two I left on Twitter. I’m gainfully employed. I didn’t name the publications or the photographers, because, well, that’s poor form – see the next point. Secondly, as a travel & editorial photographer, I know that there are situations where you don’t have a great shoot. For example, last year I was doing a food and portrait shoot in a restaurant while I had food poisoning and the shoot could not be rescheduled. It wasn’t my best day behind the camera. So I’m not going to judge a photographer on just one spread in a magazine – I don’t blame the magazine so much because they’ve usually paid good money (at least, the ones I’m talking about!) and they almost ‘need’ to use the shots or someone gets fired. Literally.
    But I have to say this, all of the photos I was talking about were technically flawed in a non-creative way.
    Some points on the excellent comments so far:
    Carlo: Nope, ‘flown in with expenses’ type photographers, not stock.
    Matt: These were established photographers. See above.
    Rebecca: No, most of them use models, also ‘flown in with expenses’.
    Simonemarie: Plenty of food for thought there, but when it’s so competitive, I didn’t think that there would be room to be that lazy.
    Paul Sullivan: The ones I was talking about? No. But I know what you’re talking about. I have no problem with tilt-shift personally – I have a couple of tilt-shift lenses. But there still needs to be ‘something’ in focus. If there is not, there’d better be a damn good creative reason why not – such as a several second exposure of a moving crowd, for example. With food photography, tilt-shift and shallow focus is pretty much the norm these days and it’s not a bad trend if you go back and look at food magazines from the ’70s-‘90s. Even Gourmet Magazine treated food like it was a beautiful Rembrandt or Vermeer still life back then.
    If it’s a trend to have out of focus, poorly framed and poorly lit shots published, I’m in luck. I have thousands from this year that I could sell alone. 😉

    • Terrence-

      Thanks for sharing your opinion and experiences. Just want to clarify that I didn’t interpret your tweets as “I could do better than that” kinds of thoughts, but rather as a “Why are there so many bad photos in major travel mags?” And I’m certainly not suggesting I could do better–what I’m saying is that these magazines can do better. They certainly have the resources to publish photos that are better than the one I referenced in this post.

      And I chose to call out Travel + Leisure because I think it’s important to note that they *do* have resources.

      And hey, I suppose people write posts about your tweets because they’re generally pretty interesting. 🙂

  8. Most glossy magazines actually get their photography from stock and a handful of core photographers and usually only assign feature pieces to their core snappers.

    It’s definitely a subjectivity issue as well as a little bit of the buddy system. Editors tend to go back to their regulars, who probably had prove themselves early on with high quality work, but can now get away with subpar work.

    I’m with Paul. Without personally seeing the image itself though, it’s difficult to say for sure. Also, it may be a new trend, a shift to more “fine art” style of travel photography which is suggestive and open to interpretation than traditional photography which actually communicates sense of place.

    Or, it could just be a crappy photo 🙂

  9. I really want to see the photos in question now! Is there a link?

    • Paul-

      The photo isn’t up on T+L’s site, but if you like, I can send you the photo via regular mail; just email me your snail mail address.


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