We sure are good at getting questions on what camera is better than what other camera, and we're perfectly great at answering questions about optics and mechanics and how buttons and dials work. We're even pretty decent at some specific well-known photographic techniques.

But when people post interesting questions about photography, at best we horribly and embarrassingly fall on our faces, and usually we jump on 'em with close votes ("Opinion based! I can't measure this with calipers so get it away from me!") or downvotes. I mean, that's when we even get these questions. Mostly, they're buried in the sea of gear queries and people wondering which lens makes the best tape measure.

Is there any hope?

  • Thanks Scott :) Where is autocorrect when you really need it? – mattdm Sep 15 at 18:25
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    +10 points for "which lens makes the best tape measure." I'd love for that to be a bullet item in the list of questions that are off-topic here. – scottbb Sep 15 at 18:49
  • ARGHHHHH Are. You. Kidding. Me. – mattdm Sep 20 at 21:54
  • It’s a poorly posed question. As worded, it’s clearly opinion based. Maybe there’s an underlying good question there, but frankly it needs to provide info or background – scottbb Sep 20 at 22:05
  • @scottb Why? I can see someone looking at these images and wondering exactly that, without knowing the context and background. – mattdm Sep 20 at 22:08
  • How is it different from this question, which has 36 upvotes and 8 answers? – mattdm Sep 20 at 22:09
  • By that metric, all questions along the lines of “why do people value / not value X” are topical. – scottbb Sep 20 at 22:12
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    All "why do people value X" questions where X is historically significant photographic work ARE TOPICAL. That's EXACTLY my point. – mattdm Sep 20 at 22:14
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    I'd even argue that "why does this particular image on social-media-site-du-jour have so many likes/upvotes/hearts" is topical. Given knowledge of cultural, artistic, and photographic context, these questions have real answers. – mattdm Sep 20 at 22:16
  • Alright. Convinced. VtC retracted. – scottbb Sep 20 at 22:19
  • Sorry for getting yelly. :) – mattdm Sep 20 at 22:21
  • no worries, Not taken personally at all. :) – scottbb Sep 20 at 22:23
  • It is not only an issue here at photo.se. Similar things happen over at electronics.se too. – Alexander von Wernherr Sep 25 at 11:24
up vote 9 down vote accepted

This site really has become rather unfriendly to real questions about photography. It is FAR too technical, and does not have enough questions about the artistic aspects of photography. That really does need to change, and it is not impossible to do so.

Photography IS an artform, and really the vast majority of questions about photography...PHOTOGRAPHY, not the equipment we used to take photographs...are going to be less than 100% perfectly ideal for the standard technical SO format. We need to ACCEPT that, and get with the program. Photography is art, and questions about that aspect of photography, arguably the most important aspect, MUST be allowed here. To say they are not is just ridiculous.

Just because you are answering a question about the subjective artistic aspects of photography does not mean you cannot maintain the question/answer format, and avoid extensive discussion. You can most certainly provide such answers. We may not get a clear "winner" of an answer, and that is ok. We may have some opinion show up, an that is ok. That alone does not break the question/answer model that SO provides.

The only thing we really have to keep under control is discussion and debate in the comments under each answer. If a question demands opinion-based answers with a degree of subjectivity, FINE! Let them be, don't debate their mere existence into oblivion. We really do NEED such questions, and we need people to provide their answers, even if they are somewhat subjective, because that is what PHOTOGRAPHY is all about.

Further, regarding questions that are hard to answer. Rather than closing them permanently, we need to work with people to ask better questions. Just because a question STARTS OUT poorly worded does not mean it cannot be turned into a good question. As a community, evolving questions into a form that DOES better fit our format and DOES allow good answers to be provided, even if they involve some opinion (again, it is PHOTOGRAPHY, opinion is fundamental to it!), is something we need to be better at.

Matt is dead-on here. I've kind of lurked for a while now. I did not really realize why until I saw this post. I think now I understand...Photo.SE is not really about photography. It is about hard photographic theory and hardware...and not really anything else. Whenever I look for information about the artistic aspects of photography, which is something I am far more interested in these days, I very rarely find myself directed to Photo.SE. We just don't have the content. That is really sad...

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    "The only thing we really have to keep under control is discussion and debate in the comments under each answer" - I'd suggest simply removing comments by anyone that has also posted an alternative answer. – dav1dsm1th Sep 21 at 14:31

enter image description here

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    Nice. I mean, not sure it's gonna help, but nice at least. :) – mattdm Sep 17 at 2:26
  • As long as there's life, there's always hope. – Michael Clark Sep 17 at 16:15

Besides the fact that it is opinion-based, the problem I have with the question you link to is that it's unclear what the point of it is. It asks whether cropping in post constitutes cheating (presumably, according to some ill-defined moral authority). So some answers may say "Yes, because [...]" and others may say "No, because [...]". Big deal! What's missing, I think, is what OP intends to do with that information, because I hope we all agree that OP probably shouldn't stop cropping just because someone (anyone) didn't do it.

StackExchange sites are not discussion forums. Even those where opinion-based questions are explicitly allowed, like Parenting or Interpersonal, require questions to state what the questioner is trying to achieve, which should be more concrete than just getting everyone's opinions.

  • That's just the latest example, though. – mattdm Sep 17 at 9:37
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    Someone downvoted my question about Group f.64, and there's a lot of "can't you look this up on Wikipedia" commentary, neither of which happen on gear questions. For example, much anything anyone has ever asked about neutral density filters is very nicely covered by the Wikipedia article, yet I've never seen a negative reaction to any questions about those. Most people on this site are not, despite the description to the contrary, interested or knowledgeable about the history or cultural impact of photography. – mattdm Sep 17 at 13:04
  • @mattdm My reason for asking about the Wiki article on that question was in hope that there was something you wanted to know that was not covered by Wikipedia. – Michael Clark Sep 17 at 16:15
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    Even with that example, I don't see how it's entirely opinion-based. While the moral authority is undefined, the question can be answered with reference to the typical practices in common branches of photography (photojournalism ethics on cropping, photo contest rules, typical artistic practices, etc...). There's no single objective answer, but that's never been the requirement; there are plenty of good answers that can cite more than "just my opinion." – Zach Lipton Sep 20 at 21:31

I've long had a pipe-dream of a StackExchange type site dedicated to constructive feedback on photography. But, I have no solution on how to prevent it from collapsing under the weight of negativity. Regardless, the idea of allowing "up-and-comers" to post a picture and get feedback from experienced "masters" about composition, white balance, exposure, background clutter, color saturation, etc. is still appealing to me.

I fear it may simply be too delicate a task for somewhere as impersonal as the Internet in its current form. Too easy to argue over opinions; too easy to offend when none is intended.

Great question, unfortunately I don't have the answer, but I would love to help! Can we work on removing 'opinion based' as a valid reason to close? I suppose that may not work out very well, there would be too many questions like 'why Nikon is much better than Canon'.

The Q&A format and the insistence on answerable rather than discussable questions is simply not conductive to critical or really any kind of discourse about art or any other soft subject, combine this with the heavy tech (read: Software/IT) bias of the SE demographics and the best you could realistically strive for is having more questions related to art terminology and art history that can benefit from encyclopedic knowledge and the willingness to share it.

But then you should get rid of rules that kill threads like this: Who is your favorite photographer and why? and embrace them instead.

I'm somewhat hesitant to suggest a special tag for a "critique this photo" type threads as my feeling is that this community isn't really able to offer meaningful critique beyond the rudimentary technical aspects, but hey - prove me wrong :)

Or you can stay as-is and accept the current state of affairs - this really isn't a bad state - a reliable Q&A site focused on gear and workflow is actually useful, especially considering that the closest alternative are the toxic and downright psycho-pathological dpreview forums.

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    Not surprisingly, I agree with most of this. However, I think there's still a reasonable and good-things-about-stack-exchange distinction between open ended survey questions where there literally is no possible best answer and questions about art which can be answered even when such answers are often subjective. – mattdm Sep 21 at 11:35
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    In fact, my frustration largely comes from the crazy claim we keep getting from site members with no knowledge, background, or interest in art or history or photographs that all questions about those topics are inherently unanswerable. In fact, there's often a perfectly straightforward answer which can be backed up by quotes and references. – mattdm Sep 21 at 11:38
  • I think the other thing — open ended surveys and discussions — would be better for an entirely different site engine / network. – mattdm Sep 21 at 11:38
  • That's because SE encourages a culture and attracts people that consider "answerable" in a very narrow sense - opinion-based / partial / subjective answer is still an answer - in particular "because nikon cameras have better DR and noise level at a given price point than canon" is an answer to "why is nikon better than canon" and "because canon renders skin tones better" is an answer to "why is canon better than nikon" when both questions are implicitly read as "Why do some people consider X to be better than Y" - which imo should be the normal reading for such questions. – x-terminate Sep 21 at 14:10
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    Regardless of what SE at large tends to attract, this is our community. This is a community that is supposed to be about Photography. As a community, we need to embrace what we are, a community under the banner of a title that is about ART, first and foremost, and accept questions about the artistic aspects of photography. We CAN do that. Damn the rest of SE. As long as we maintain the Q/A format and manage discussion/debate in comments, as a community we can decide how we want to operate our forum, and what kinds of questions we allow. Lets decide to allow PHOTOGRAPHY into our forum! :P – jrista Sep 21 at 18:28
  • Well like I said in the body you need to think about what it means to do that, otherwise doing the same thing and expecting different results... – x-terminate Sep 21 at 19:28
  • I think it's not just the culture — the format really does work better for things which are "answerable". I agree that sometimes the sense of what is answerable is too narrow, but my larger frustration is that a lot of questions which are — even narrowly! — answerable are negatively received because of their topic. Like your question about the Bechers' work, or the one about traditional attitudes towards cropping. These really do have objective answers, even when there are competing views. – mattdm Sep 22 at 13:05
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    On the other hand, a question about solving some computer vision problem might have a thousand different possible ways to go all perfectly functional — and those get upvotes and angry people because a physical camera is involved even though photography is definitely not. – mattdm Sep 22 at 13:06

Your example question got 1 downvote - not too bad for a new contributor, I'd say. Also, OP got their answer (I suppose) and the answers that I have seen are okay. But I understand that it was meant to be a recent example.

Stackexchange's format is not tailored for questions that offer a spectrum of answers rather than a glorified "yes"/"no". Also, it is much harder to write an answer for a general question than for a very specific problem. If, for example, someone asked how to reset their picture count, I would cite the manual of their camera and all would be well. If someone asked if (and why) composition in postproduction is/was considered bad style, I need multiple credible sources (because opinion-based answers are far worse than opinion-based questions) at my disposal - and many hours of leisure time to write all of it down. Considering the average length of the answers to most of the questions we are talking about here, it does not seem that I am the only one that cannot answer such a question with 5 minutes worth of trying it out on my own cam, googling the camera's manual and writing everything down. That's also why I do not plan to answer the cropping-question myself: At the moment, I simply do not have enough spare time for that much research.

In conclusion, I do not think that there is a problem with these questions - and I do not see our community failing here. The cropping-question got answers, as did this one and that one.

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    Seriously, show me question about the artistic side of photography which I didn't have to fight for. – mattdm Sep 20 at 22:18
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    Well put - however, the question at hand is (at least to me) a bit hard to grasp, as "what is so important about XYZ" seems a bit pretentious - i.e. I never thought of grain elevators as artistically important objects, and I almost certainly never will. My understanding and/or agreement with a question does not have to do anything with whether the question is on-topic or not, though. – flolilolilo Sep 20 at 22:55
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    The question … let's be honest, probably because it was created by someone trolling a little bit — not me, I promise — and playing with the fact that most people here don't have a background in contemporary photography as art … anyway, the question presumes knowing that the referenced photographs are part of the canon of modern art. The rest kind of follows from there — it's really similar to "What's the big deal with Miró? My kid can draw better than that." – mattdm Sep 20 at 23:11
  • Are SE mods allowed to have a pseudonym account? Asking for a friend. – Michael Clark Sep 21 at 6:34
  • @MichaelClark, I can't find the right question on mother meta to cite, but the policy is that you can have multiple accounts as long as you don't use them to do something that you couldn't do with a single account (e.g. upvote your own post, upvote a post twice, etc). – Peter Taylor Sep 21 at 20:51

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