The 5 Worst Compliments You Can Give a Landscape Photographer

November 7, 2022

I know this entry may be a little controversial, or feel like I'm whining. I apologize in advance if it comes off that way. My goal here is not to belittle anyone who's ever said these things, but rather, to educate viewers of photography. Let's face it, no one likes a backhanded compliment, and to photographers, that's what many of these comments are. I know that no one who makes these comments means them that way, and I've often struggled with how to respond to such comments without coming off as ungrateful. So rather than singling out any specific individuals, I've decided to list some of my least favorite "compliments", and explain why they aren't quite the compliment some think they are. I'll also suggest what could be said instead.

Cape Neddick Lighthouse stands on a rocky island during a storm as waves crash on the rocks.

Autumn Storm at Cape Neddick

An autumn storm whips the Maine coast at Cape Neddick. Large format fine art photographic prints for home and office.

1. "That Looks Like a Painting!"

I get this one quite a bit. And to be honest, it probably annoys me the least of any of the ones I'll mention. The reason it doesn't quite hit photographers as the praise it's intended to be is that it implies that painting is somehow a higher form of art than photography, and requires more skill. That said, I understand what's really being commented on- the way the shutter speed chosen depicts motion, as well as the handling of color, contrast, and depth in the scene- similar to Hudson River School Painters of the 19th century. I think it's the phrasing where people get lost with this one. Or perhaps, it does remind them of those paintings, but weren't conscious of why.

If we were referencing the above image of Autumn Storm at Cape Neddick, instead of saying it looks like a painting, one could comment on the use of a slow shutter speed to create the wave motion. Or if you don't know the photography terms, you could say that the way I captured that crashing wave looks very painterly.

The sky glows deep orange over the Great Smoky Mountains as seen from Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Appalachian Hues

The sky glows deep orange over the Great Smoky Mountains as seen from Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

2. " That would make a great painting!"

This one is related to number one above, but to me, is much harsher. I know it's meant along similar lines as above, but this one is like saying to someone, "That outfit makes you look much slimmer!" While yes, you're telling someone they look good in an outfit, the unspoken implication is that in other outfits they look fat. With this compliment on a photograph, by saying it would make a great painting, it implies that painting it would somehow elevate the work to something more than it currently is. It implies that photography is somehow a lesser art than painting.

I know some amazing painters who do beautiful work. But the reality is that painting and photography are very different arts, each with their own challenges. Painters can create a beautiful scene wholesale from their imagination, while landscape photographers have to get out in whatever weather to make their images. It can feel demeaning when someone makes this comment and implies that somehow a painting would be better.

So what can you say instead? Focus on what you like about the image. Is it the color? The composition? The conditions captured? I understand that it's likely the sum of those that make a viewer feel the image should be painted. To focus on those instead of a different end result is more likely to make the photographer feel his work is appreciated, rather than feeling like it still wasn't enough.

An old barn stands in the fields of winter wheat in the hills of the Palouse in Washington.

Forgotten in the Fields

An old barn stands in the fields of winter wheat in the hills of the Palouse in Washington.

3. "That Would Look Great in Black & White!"

This one is similar to number two above. It simply implies that the photo as presented in color isn't good enough. I understand that many people consider black and white photography to be more "artsy", and when saying that an image would look great in black and white, they are most likely commenting on the range of tones and contrast in an image. If you truly feel an image would look better in black and white, offering a critique as to why is often helpful.

Generally, an image with a wide range of highlights and shadows, as well as a lot of texture, such as the grasses in "Forgotten in the Fields", above, are good candidates for black and white images. If you feel an image would make a good black and white, it's helpful to comment on those types of elements to explain why.

However, when a photographer presents an image online or on their website, it's usually as a finished work. In that case, it's best to comment on the image as it is, as the photographer, or any artist posting work as completed, are not necessarily looking for a critique.

Mount Hood is reflected in the melting ice of Trillium Lake in Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon.

Mount Hood Reflections

Mount Hood is reflected in the melting ice of Trillium Lake in Mount Hood National Forest, Oregon.

4. Wow! You Must Have a Great Camera!

There's an old joke about a photographer at a dinner party, where he shows some photographs. The host exclaims, “I love these photographs! You must have a great camera.” The photographer replies, “I love your food. You must have great pots and pans.”

I get this one though. While some believe the implication is that the camera makes the photo, rather than the photographer's skill, I understand that some will be curious about the gear a serious photographer uses to take photos. While any skilled photographer could make stunning images with a beginner's camera, most professionals will use what they consider the best tool for the job. The same would go for the chef preparing the dinner party. Because of what I believe the point of the statement is, it's all really in the delivery. Jumping straight from loving the photographs to asking about the equipment leaves out the important variable in the equation, the photographer using the camera.

Sunset on Rodeo Beach, California.

Sunset on Rodeo Beach

Two sea stacks frame the setting sun on Rodeo Beach in Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California.

5. "That Doesn't Look Real!"

This one is especially loaded. Image manipulation has been around since film and the darkroom, and unfortunately, when a photographer captures an especially dramatic or unique scene, many people's first thought is "PHOTOSHOP!" The problem with this kind of statement is, I believe, a general misunderstanding of the photographic process.

Before we even get into the darkroom or digital image processing, there are a variety of things that can be done in-camera to create an image different from what we see with the naked eye. These include manipulation of the exposure settings and the use of on-camera filters.

Then there is the darkroom and digital darkroom work. There are people, photographers and non-photographers alike, who believe that any image manipulation is bad. If you're looking at photojournalism, that's absolutely correct. Photojournalists adhere to a very strict standard where they are limited in how they can manipulate a photo. They can crop, color correct, adjust contrast, and not much else.

Fine art photographers are not limited by these standards. I myself am not trying to convey a factual scene as much as I am trying to convey the feeling of being there. I think we can all agree that seeing with our eyes and seeing with our hearts are two very different things. In all of my images , I adjust color, contrast, and crop. I also dodge and burn, which is a way of selectively lightening and darkening areas of a photo. These techniques were also used in the traditional darkroom. Ansel Adams was a master at them.

So to get back to the original compliment, "That doesn't look real!", I understand that it is meant as a compliment of me or another photographer having captured a very special scene. But like other compliments on this list, it has a second, hidden meaning that could be seen as detracting from the image.

Instead of commenting on the photo in that way, think about what about the scene sets it apart. Usually, it's some uber dramatic element such as a sky or stormy sea that while not commonly seen, can happen on occasion. Photographers like myself do our best to ensure we are there when it does.

The sun sets over Barnegat Bay in Lavallette, NJ.

Sunset Over Barnegat Bay

The sun sets over Barnegat Bay in Lavallette, NJ.

I do want to say again, that I understand none of these are meant in a negative sense when said to me. I'm not trying to attack anyone, or appear ungrateful. I am always appreciative when someone takes the time to comment on my work. At the same time, I would want to know if something I intended as a compliment did not fully convey the meaning I intended.

As always, thank you for your support of my work!

Palouse Falls at sunset in Washtucna, Washington.

Sunset at Palouse Falls

Limited Edition

The Palouse River cascades 198 feet over Palouse Falls as it winds its way through the scablands of eastern Washington, before it joins the Snake River. Fine art Limited Edition print, series of 100. Each Limited Edition includes a signed Certificate of Authenticity.

Rolling green hills with blue skies and puffy clouds overhead on a sunny day.

Afternoon Bliss in the Palouse

The rolling hills of the Palouse bathe in the warm spring sunshine as cumulonimbus clouds pass overhead near Colfax, Washington.

T.A. Moulton Barn in sunlight as the Teton Mountains stand in the background.

T.A. Moulton Barn

T.A. Moulton Barn greets the first light of a summer morning in Grand Teton National Park near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Buoys and rope litter the dock in Friendship Harbor, Maine as the sun rises on a summer morning.

Buoys and Line

Limited Edition

A lobsterman's buoys and rope is left on the dock on a summer morning in Friendship Harbor, Maine.

Available as a Fine Art Limited Edition of 100 prints, which includes a signed Certificate of Authenticity with serial number. COA will be shipped separately.

Sand Harbor in Lake Tahoe.

Sand Harbor Tahoe

The waters of Lake Tahoe gently wash around the rocky shoreline at Sand Harbor.