One of the things that is useful when trying to improve as a photographer is look at photographs from other people to get ideas and tips on how to improve your photographs.
As you do so you start finding things that hopefully you can include in your photography. A different angle on a subject, unusual lighting, different ways to use aperture or shutter speed. You also start getting an idea of what sort of photographer you would like to be, what subjects you want to concentrate on etc.
This is still a work in progress for me. I still cannot define easily why I like some photographs more than others (there are a great number of brilliant ones out there), but I have a pretty strong idea of the ones that I don't.
To me a great photograph adds something to a subject. A new angle, a different viewpoint, something that makes you think again about something familiar. Unfortunately a lot of photographs fail this test. People see a photo like the millennium bridge in London and take exactly the same picture. A great photographer will go to a scene like that and find a new angle that no one as ever seen before. At a club photo competition recently the judge kept using the phrase that a photo was a nice holiday snap when he saw a ordinary photo. Now I'm pretty sure he was trying to be nice, but to me there would no greater insult.
Unfortunately the downside of developing a critical eye is that it is difficult to turn it off. So when a friend or relative shows some photograph, I cannot help (internally at least) analyzing and criticizing it. Would it better cropped? Could the white balance be better? is there a better angle? Could we remove the distracting feature in the background? What would it look like in black and white?
This is not generally a problem, since the photograph was not designed to be judged and exercising your critical muscles is never a bad thing. However when it really becomes an issue is when you look at photos you are expected to pay for. For example I can spend ages choosing post cards because to be honest the vast majority have little or no artistic merit. To me, it not only has to show the scene, but it also has to do it in a way that interests me. Many photographs I see on post cards fall under the nice holiday snap category, so much so that I find it hard to believe someone was actually paid to take it.
However my biggest ire comes from a set of photographers that I am expected to shell out £10 or more at least twice a year.
The school photographer.
With only a couple of exceptions, virtually every photograph I have received from my school has been bland, unimaginative and even worse often a bad image of my child. It is photography by conveyor belt. Take a photo, move on. Do not worry about the result. In most cases a better photograph could be obtained by sticking them in a passport photo booth.
Now I know that being a school photographer is probably a pressurized job, with tight time scales. Also I am sure I would struggle to do better job. On the other hand I would not expect £10 or more for basically a happy snap of my child.
What makes me think that it does not have to be like this is that I have seen some exceptions to the rule. The one that really stood out were ones of my nieces. The photographer had taken their portraits as closely cropped black and white images in an outdoor setting. These were the kind of photo I would have no problem shelling out my dosh for if given the option.
However maybe I'm wrong. Obviously school photography is a lucrative market given the number that are out there. Maybe they know their audience and the majority of there customers would not be interested in anything too "arty". But personally I think it is just professional laziness. They do it because they know they can get away with it and their customer will feel under emotional pressure to buy the product, however bad it is.
If you are going to photograph something, be it the millennium bridge or the kids down the local school, you owe it to yourself to do the best job you can.
Especially if you expect me to pay for it.