The power of statistical photography

Inside Microsoft, there was an employee photography contest to provide images to be included in Windows 7, either in one of the pre-release versions or in the final product. Each subsidiary selected the photos to be included in their localized version of Windows, choosing images which best reflect that region's culture, history, and natural beauty. The employee-submitted photos were in direct competition against the professional photographs; as a result, some regions ended up selecting multiple employee-contributed images and others picked none. The Swiss delegation, in characteristically Swiss fashion, put it to a public vote.

(As you may recall, Windows Vista included photographs drawn from the community. That article is another great example of No matter what you do, somebody will call you an idiot. Microsoft decides to involve the community in a fun way, and the result is condemnation from the professional photographic community.)

Around 2000 photographs were submitted by Microsoft employees, and one of the photos selected for the U.S. version of Windows 7 Beta was taken by a member of the user interface team. In response to congratulations, he humbly replied, "I'm a statistical photographer. I rely on sheer quantity to produce occasional quality."

Bonus reading: A Look Behind the Backgrounds of Windows 7.

Comments (12)
  1. Bob says:

    I learned photography back in the film era and we were given the advice that film is cheap and that we should take as many photos as possible in any situation. Some will be good. Similarly, the stereotype of the fashion photographer is someone who is always moving, always clicking off exposures hoping some will be good.

  2. Gabe says:

    I would say that most professional photographers are statistical photographers. I might take 500 photos, but only show you 50 of them, and of those you might only really like 5. It's not so hard to imagine that 1% of photos are really good ones.

    So what is it that makes those 5 really good? Is it my discerning "eye"? My artistic training? My decades of experience behind the lens? My thousands of dollars worth of professional equipment with all its fancy features?

    Well, last month at a party I let a 6-year-old (and his younger brothers) borrow my digital SLR camera. I enabled autofocus and autoexposure, but otherwise it had no fancy features — no flash, no zoom, etc. He came back over 400 photos later and easily had 4 that you might think were taken by a professional and worth printing or even hanging on your wall.

    So how did the little boys with no artistic training, no experience, and no fancy features at their disposal manage to get just the right composition, just the right lighting, just the right subject? Purely statistics. They took photos of just about everything. It's almost hard to imagine that at least a few wouldn't be good. It turns out that if you have the right angle or unusual lighting, even mundane subjects are interesting.

  3. Falcon says:

    @Gabe: Interesting observation – sounds like a great argument in support of the theory of evolution!

  4. Marijane says:

    Once when I complimented my brother's photography, he informed me that "you can tell how good a photographer is by the size of their wastebasket," implying there were a lot he wasn't showing to people. =)

  5. Gabe says:

    I've become convinced that for many photogs, particularly the action-type, their biggest tool is expensive cameras that take a dozen shots a second.  Find somewhere near the right framing, fire a boatload of shots at a critical moment, and one of them might turn out to be brilliant.  The best photos now will be those who can get those shots more often because they know how best to position themselves and take advantage of settings, lighting, the whatnot…but a dozen amateurs could likely get the same result by accident and statistics.

  6. mvadu says:

    This post reminds me of an article I read on (a leading photography site),…/bangla-worked.shtml

    He shot 5,000 frames, and kept identified 75 images. Which is just 1.5%. And the author said "My sucess ratio is usually about 1%, so I'd call this shoot a great success"

  7. Nick says:

    Professional photographers clearly need either a stronger union or better lobbyists in Washington.  Or both.  The injustice must end!

  8. dave says:

    re Gabe:

    …but a dozen amateurs could likely get the same result by accident and statistics.

    Or an infinite number of monkeys.

  9. Worf says:

    For one-time events like sports, the faster you can snap a photo, the more chance to catch a winner. And more is better because it won't happen again. And always better to have too many and have to sift, than too few and realize you missed the money shot.

    Contrast this to a vacation photo where you get the family together and pose – a couple of shots will get you there.

    And photography is art. There's no perfect composition formula. So the best is to shoot many and hope a few have the je ne sais quoi that goes "it's good". Because no one can define it so you can make a photo taking robot take perfect photos always.

  10. Dave (the other Dave) says:

    Professional photographers get good results through a lot more than taking thousands of shots (although that helps too).  If you read the annotations on published photos (which are not always present) then you'll see things like "blah camera + lens, 1/4s exposure with tripod and Lee ND filter after waiting four hours for the sun to be in the right position".  That's not just an expensive camera, that's a pile of other equipment, the knowledge how to use it, and an ability to visualise a scene under conditions other than what's in front of you right now.

  11. GWO says:

    Being a statistical photographer is a norm (I'm one too). Sadly, a quick look at facebook/flickr/etc tells us that the filtering/selection process to leave only the best shots is sadly going out of fashion…

  12. 640k says:

    I think the problem is that MS looks for active directory competence when hiring AD dudes.

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