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Beware the Stars! (aka, “Those Zero Star Photos May Not Suck after All”)

Steve Thorpe's picture
June 2, 2014 - 9:00pm

The nearly endless features of powerful programs like Aperture make our photographic lives easier in ways we couldn’t have imagined even a few years ago. But some of those features can work against you if you’re not careful.

Aperture’s allowance for “rating” images from 0 to 5 stars is a slick way of bringing order out of the chaos when you’re processing a lot of images. It also helps you get back to the “good stuff” quickly if you’ve been away from a particular batch of shots for a while.

The downside of that power is that it encourages you to not revisit the images that didn’t make the cut the first time around. Most of your images are relegated to a sort of purgatory and never get a second chance. This is a necessary part of photography ever since we went to roll film from plates and certainly in today’s digital realm. Not everybody can be a star. If I had an 8X10 print of every frame I ever shot, I’d need to buy a second house just to store it all. And, admittedly, almost all of those overlooked shots richly deserve to be neglected.

I draw heavily on my experiences as a professional newspaper shooter in the ‘70s and photo editor in the ‘80s. In addition to being skilled, you needed to be efficient on a daily newspaper. Navel gazing, introspection and careful consideration take a back seat to getting the damn paper out. And then doing it again tomorrow. And the day after that.

A photographer or editor in that environment could blow through 100 exposures on a proof sheet – or even negatives fresh out of the fixer – and say “that one and that one and that one.” You almost always knew what you were looking for and could quickly identify the clues that led you to “THE image,” or at least the strongest candidates.

The good part of the publishing world was that you were part of a team and, if you were lucky and had a good one, your editor was your secret weapon.

As always with any creative endeavor, multiple eyes on the content leads to better output. With photography, you know what you were after and that’s what you look for. But it’s an amazing truth about the craft that sometimes the best thing you get isn’t what you were seeking. It’s as if you were dragon hunting and instead bagged a beautiful unicorn. 

There can be real value in having a non-photographer examine your day’s take. Their head isn’t cluttered up with F-stops, shutter speeds, image noise and all the other junk clanking around in the shooter’s skull. They tend to just react to the power of the image. And isn’t that what it’s about in the first place?

After a recent trip to the zoo (we’re fortunate to live just a few block from one of America’s great city zoos), I was eagerly looking through my take for the kind of goodies that a zoo trip always produces.

The biggest challenge I set for myself that day was shooting a very young chimp playing in an indoor enclosure. The light was nice, but weak, and I was shooting through glass. The hairy youngster was bouncing around and I already knew, between the shutter speed I was forced to use, the shallow depth of field and trying to follow focus the little bugger, I would go home with a high percentage of losers. But I also had a pretty good idea of what a winner would look like: Chimp’s face relatively sharp but some motion suggested in his outer extremities. 

As I went through the pictures, I saw this one and said, “Aha! Four stars for you!” I then went on to look at my shots of camels, wolverines, polar bears, etc.

At some point, my girlfriend Noreen was looking over my shoulder and remarked that she really liked a shot of the baby chimp I shot looking heavenward right into the light. I mumbled something and kept on working. She was back in a while and said again how much she liked the rejected chimp shot.

Anybody who shoots a lot tends to develop a set of mental standards for their stuff. The upward looking baby chimp fell right into my “too soft” category. I confess I never would’ve given it a second look without Noreen’s prodding. I worked with it for a while and finally realized, this is kind of a nice picture. In fact, the softness even contributes to an ethereal quality that I’ve grown to really like.

So bottom line is use the stars, but beware the stars. They can make your post routine a lot more efficient, but they can also encourage you to not give a shot a second chance.

Maybe, if we’re lucky, when Aperture 4 comes out in 2023, the developers will have added a “?” to the five star system to identify those shots we think might be worth reevaluating at some point. Hello? Apple? Anybody there?

But for the time being, maybe using the 1 star rating would be a way to create a pool of shots you’ll later want to dip back into.

About the author, Steve Thorpe:

I am many things, but I must confess that one thing I am not is an Aperture expert. I was a shooter on the biggest evening daily newspaper in the country in the ‘70s and then became a photo editor for two papers. After a decade as a web developer and website manager for a major corporation, I drifted back into journalism as a newspaper reporter. Now, as I approach retirement, I’m passionately pursuing my first love – photography – once again. Aperture and its power have been a real revelation to me. I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle awakening in Digital Land, but perhaps my experiences while transitioning to that world are worth sharing.
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Steve Thorpe
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