It is interesting to observe the wide variety of approaches adopted by photographers as they strive for new and presumably more stunning images. The range of photographic techniques and technical wizardry is of course already close to infinite, but that is something else altogether. Anyone who can read can also learn at least the fundamental principles of a new technique, or how to use a particular sequence of Photoshop menus. No, the centre of interest here is not technique but what went on in the photographer's head that ultimately led to an image he or she felt represented excellence.
Most photographers specialize to some extent as they learn which subjects bring them most satisfaction or success. They may discover that their wildlife work is more widely admired than anything else they produce, and so concentrate their efforts in that area. As soon as this happens, more effort, care and time is devoted to the chosen subject area and progress and personal development become more rapid. Consequently the level of competence in wildlife work rises further above that exhibited in other areas. Another reason for specializing in a particular field, and arguably the most important one, is that the photographer simply gains more enjoyment and satisfaction from working with the chosen subject matter. This is certainly one of the keys to better images and the ultimate achievement of some sort of success. Only when a photographer is pursuing a subject close to his or her heart will truly first-class or exceptional results begin to emerge. Ideally the chosen subject should send blood coursing through the photographer's veins, and the hair should stand up on the back of the neck! Passion is a huge element in successful work.
Professional photographers will no doubt argue, with justification, that they have to photograph whatever brings in a realistic income. That is undoubtedly true. However, it is also true that a professional photographer who routinely photographs a subject in which he or she is not particularly interested is likely to produce competent rather that excellent or exceptional work. If passion is not aroused in the photographer it is unlikely to be apparent in the images.
Many photographers, particularly but not exclusively in the amateur world, clearly do not understand this. It is all too easy to find enthusiastic and reasonably competent photographers who strive to better their work and reputations purely by pursuing ever more exotic themes and approaches. Indeed some operate at the fringes of public acceptability, and beyond, perhaps in the belief that shocking the viewers of their work equates to success. The implication seems to be that the author is so broad-minded and of such ability that you, the mere viewer, will be amazed, horrified, offended or even sickened by their latest work - which they regard as wonderful. Unfortunately, the ability to shock is all too easily available to everyone. In itself, a shocking element adds little or nothing to an image. Any photographer can create a shocking image, for example showing some form of abuse, violence or sexually explicit subject, without much effort or imagination. But what does the resulting image do for the viewer other than perhaps shock, and what does it say about the photographer? Unfortunately, very little that is worthwhile! Indeed such work may serve only to underline the photographer's limited horizons and lack of taste and judgement, and may ultimately devalue their reputation. This is probably the opposite of what they set out to achieve.
The ultimate measures of excellent photographic work are, or at least include, passion, insight and depth, communication, and the extent to which the photographer has contributed to the image. What has he or she done which lifts the image above that which might have been acquired by any passing snap-shooter? In a probable majority of cases the answer is once again, and sadly, very little. There is surely therefore a substantial case for acquiring a high level of competence in a particular field of work before seeking to exploit its more controversial aspects. At least shocking images are then more likely to exhibit some form of aesthetic value.