I think the mixed reactions to my recent question on vignetting raise an important topic--one better suited to Meta discussion than to a comment area.

As has been stated before, we here at Photo.SE have the technical side of photography well covered. Since many, if not most, of us come from technical backgrounds, this makes sense. But for this community to grow into a photography Q&A site in a broader sense, I think we need to clearly lay out how we will deal with questions of an artistic nature, which will always contain inherent subjectivity.

In the interest of formulating clear guidelines for what constitutes an acceptable question and what does not, perhaps respondents could address the following questions in their replies:

What types of questions fall into the Excessively Subjective category?

What types of questions fall into the Tolerably Subjective category?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Can I ask that you refine your question by asking respondents to list categories of questions that are too subjective and also categories of question that are acceptably subjective? I think it will be useful to find agreement on good and bad categories of subjective questions. \$\endgroup\$
    – labnut
    Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 22:04
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ My question has been so modified. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sean
    Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 22:59

3 Answers 3


Good Subjective - Bad Subjective

I am going to kick off with a first attempt at answering a difficult question. But I am going to preface it with a strongly held belief - we are photographers and not technicians. Therefore we must embrace the subjective. Our field is a unique blend of the technical with artistic judgment.

To me it seems our main problem lies with subjective replies and not subjective questions. We have far too many replies that give opinions with no foundation of fact. If people are not prepared to research their answers they should not answer.
See this question for a good example of subjective replies:
Are there any downsides to using a UV filter?

Bad subjective

  • The question appeals to tribal loyalties. (which camera should I buy?) (fan boy alert)

  • The question contains tendentious wording. (Is it a crime to do xyz?)

  • The right answer is too dependent on the user's circumstances. (I want to upgrade to a DSLR, what is a good choice?).

  • It is unlikely there is an informed consensus (what background colour should I use?).

  • The questioner is in reality looking for confirmation of his bias.

  • The question contains a hidden agenda (related to the question above) (troll alert).

  • The question contains emotive wording.

  • The question is dependent on adverbs of degree, for example: almost, nearly, quite, just, too, enough, hardly, scarcely, completely, very, extremely. (Sorry, but your question fails this test)

  • The question has transitory value. Upgrade questions are like that, in a year's time they are quaintly outdated.

  • Any subjective question becomes too subjective when it is a lazy question, i.e. poorly formulated, vague with no attempt at precision, lacking in necessary information. (my photos are unsharp, but gives no or incomplete info about picture taking conditions)

Good Subjective

  • It asks for a description of good practices.

  • It asks for useful guidelines.

  • It can be answered by appealing to an informed consensus.

  • It is worded in a way that is factual and neutral

  • It is detailed and specific enough for respondents to find a good answer.

  • It has lasting value.

  • It is possible to research the answer on the Internet.

  • It is possible to back up the answer with references.

The golden rule
It must be possible, in principle, to answer subjective questions with references to authoritive sources. If that is not possible, don't ask the question.

Here is an example of a bad subjective question

I would like to know whether anybody else experienced the same issue? I've heared that Sigma lenses can be very inconsistent.

It is tendentious, affronts tribal loyalties and it is not asking for a researched reply that can be referenced.

Fortunately it could be salvaged by giving a researched, referenced answer:

To answer this question see the customer reviews on B&H Photo Video for this lens with a Nikon mount.

There are 69 reviews and the average customer rating is 4.5 stars out of 5 stars.

Of the 69 reviews 3/69 noted that the lens was soft at maximum aperture at the edge. 1/69 complained that the lens was very soft and returned it.

See also Should the Responder provide citations/references?

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ This is along the lines of what I was thinking when I formulated my original question -- that it is the objectivity of the answer and not the subjectivity of the question that determines the quality of the exchange. And, while I readily admit my initial wording came across as overly tendentious, I had formulated it that way with the intent to draw out a specific type of reply that would help me to understand the point of view of proponents of the vignette effect. It turned out to be a little too effective. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sean
    Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 23:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Answers to subjective questions will, themselves be subjective. Citing authoritative sources? As soon as art can be definitively quantified, that will become a good idea. Until then, personal taste will rule -- and it is the only sufficient authority. Anything else is just an example of skill at Googling one's own opinion. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 10:54
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Stan, there is such a thing as informed consensus in art, even if sometimes it looks like a hydra-headed creature. Its influence permeates all of our judgments and nobody, not even the most pig headed contrarian, can claim to be immune to its influence. Almost no one exercises their personal taste in flagrant disregard of artistic norms. No one is wholly conformant either, for that matter. So, yes, we give subjective answers, but they can be reasoned answers that appeal to knowledge, consensus and other inputs. But bald statements of personal opinion are seldom useful. \$\endgroup\$
    – labnut
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 11:50
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Stan, "Anything else is just an example of skill at Googling one's own opinion.". At least you have then found some supporting evidence for your opinion which gives it more weight, giving us some reason to consider your opinion. And in the process you will have been exposed to other points of view. The process of examining them and making a selection will refine your arguments and make them more valuable. So I would not be so quick to dismiss 'Googling'. Any and all research can (mistakenly) be dismissed in the same way. \$\endgroup\$
    – labnut
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 12:50

In general, I'm going to agree with labnut, but even questions that would fail the acid test there can be saved. Not to blow my own horn, but I think this is a prime example of what I mean: What should I do to switch my gear from Sony to Canon? Based on labnut's response, it fails on just about every point in the too subjective category and yet the question was kept alive and the responses were, I think, all around pretty good.

Still, I think you may be looking for a little more. What I haven't see a lot of here, so far, are questions about general styles such as abstract or other, more artistic, aspects of the craft. There are some, but the technical side vastly outweighs it. Perhaps that's partly the nature of the medium of the site, I'm not certain... I guess we'll see. I'd like to see more questions about the art as well or about the how-do-i model that isn't just water drops. :)

  • \$\begingroup\$ as it happens, you gave an excellent reply and I am glad the community recognised that with their votes which overwhelmingly favoured your answer. You took a very bad question and used it as an opportunity to give a thoughtful and balanced reply. But the question was simply an invitation to the fan boys and they obliged. @Sean made the point that a good, reasoned reply can rescue a bad question, which you proved. But, the problem with bad subjective questions is that so many people use them as an opportunity to punt their favourite biases. \$\endgroup\$
    – labnut
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 12:37
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @labnut - For sure, I agree with you. However, I was hoping to illustrate that it is possible to rescue something like that, so we should approach them with caution if you see what I mean and see if the community is stepping up. The question can always be shut down if it doesn't. \$\endgroup\$
    – Joanne C
    Commented Apr 5, 2011 at 13:13

I think one of the things that has evoked the response you've encountered is the wording you've used. You make a fairly "matter of fact" statement about post-processing techniques being "overused". I think that comes off as very argumentative to many readers, and since its your first sentence, I think thats set off a lot of readers the moment they first read your question. First impressions, and all that jazz. I'm sure this wasn't your specific intent, and I make the same mistake all the time...I state things pretty "matter of factly" by nature most of the time, and it ticks people off in most areas of life. ;P

From a content perspective...it being art rather than technical, shouldn't be a problem at all. I think most of the people on this particular SE site fully understand that we tend to be a rather unique member of the StackExchange community. We have a lot of subjective areas, and we can't (and don't want to) cut out those areas and solely focus on the technical side of things. We have covered the technical side of things more thoroughly largely due to the fact that a lot of the initial membership have technical backgrounds and came from the more technical SE sites (like myself, I came from StackOverflow.)

I think many of us very much want to see a more artistic, rather than technical, focus on this site. Photography, while it is built on technology and has some very technical aspects, is first and foremost a form of artistic expression. I think questions like yours are an excellent addition to the content here.

That said, I do think your question needs to be reworded. It definitely comes off rather bluntly as "this is fact", when in fact the use of post processing techniques, whether overdone or not, is one of the most critical factors in artistic expression in photography today. Its not simply that using a heavy vignette is bad in and of itself...its whether a heavy vignette is used artistically, or in bad taste, that really matters. That sounds really subjective, but I think there is...for lack of a better term, an artistic science to it that can help viewers discern the difference between artfully tasteful, and in bad taste. You might want to factor that into the way you approach the question you are trying to ask.


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