My “day job” is as an attorney. In my profession, skills, competency, and perceived value is often (if not most of the time) based upon judgment by peers (the traditional lawyer-finding guide — Martindale Hubbell Lawyer Directory — is an example of this).
While it is nice to be well thought of by one’s peers, we rarely do the work we are being rated on for each other. I have never given great credence to peer-rating and have never marketed my skills with reference to those ratings. I am impressed, however, by client observations, and measure my success by their satisfaction. I am also driven by a desire to do things “right,” and derive a great deal of satisfaction from a high level of professional skill. To me, that mix is the true measure of “success.”
In my view, this translates to photography. Sure, a favorable critique by other talented photographers feels good to the ego. But I view these mostly as learning experience and exchange of creative ideas. My true measure of success, is a mix of viewer reaction to my photography and whether an image “speaks” to me, personally.
As an “artist,” I don’t do this to make money, to impress other photographers, or to win contests. Yes, I have entered photos in competition, and am perfectly willing to sell my images, or to enjoy the “nice shot” comments of others, when offered. But for me, “success” will be measured very differently than it is to one who must make her living at the art.
However, while we may not all agree on what is a “successful” photograph, we probably can agree that there are certain fundamentals that must be present for a photograph to have any chance to be successful. Any “successful” photograph must be properly exposed, sharp (at least in those areas where sharpness is critical), well-composed and free of distracting elements.
Some years back I had a photograph “critiqued” by an instructor at a photography school, whose comment I have never forgotten:
“Photographers don’t take photographs — we make them.”
We make successful photographs. There are certain skills that we must master. Proper use of these skills distinguish photograph from lucky snapshots captured primarily by being in the right place, conditions and time. Sometimes these turn out to be spectacular photographs, even if by accident. But they are still by accident.
If you haven’t experienced “making” a photograph, and don’t believe me, try a little experiment. Beg, borrow, rent or steal a 35mm film SLR. Buy (if you can find it) some 50 or 100 ISO slide film. Set the camera to as “automatic” as you like, or use the metering system in the camera and take a roll of film in varying light conditions. Without the fundamental skills and knowledge of how a good exposure is made, you will undoubtedly be dissappointed in the result.
But “success” is measured by more, in my view, than just a technically correct image. In the Biographical information on my LightCentric Photography Website, I mention a professor at a small college in Vermont, who mentored me as a beginnning photographer. My photographic experience at that time was “shoot it and hope, snapshots” with consumer point and shoot cameras. I rather proudly took one of my first “successful” color transparencies to Professor Knox for his critique. I’ll always remember his comment: “Do you want me to say nice things about the photo, or do you want me to honestly critique it?”
Kind of a “gut check” for the future of my photography. I wanted the critique. I wanted to know what to do to make it “better.” A fundamental to “successful” photography is the ability to see that you can always improve your work.
No matter how “good” we think our work is, there is always room to make it better.
Purpose and an Element of “Interest”: It wasn’t a “bad” photo. Indeed, he indicated that it was a “technically correct” photo — in sharp focus throughout, well exposed, and even good composition. But it was missing something than might make it a candidate for publication (he was–still currently is–a published photographer, in Vermont Life Magazine). He viewed the photo, based on what would motivate a magazine editor to accept my photo for publication. In that sense, the photo was not “successful.” But was it “successful” from other perspectives? In fact, in many ways, it was a “successful” photo–at least as I measured success. It hung on my own wall for years after that. It evoked an emotional response from me, and from others who saw it and commented, unsolicited. Are there things that I could have done to make it a better photograph? Absolutely.
So, whether a photo is successful may well depend on its purpose. One of the reasons I enjoy photography as a hobby rather than a living is that my measure of success can be broader. If the photographer must shoot for specific purpose, success may be much more narrowly measured.
The photo of Artist Lake in Baie Fine, Canada, is a pretty scenic, all by itself. But if the purpose of
the photo is to illustrate a travel magazine, or a destination, it needs that anchor element that gives the photo some “people” perspective. The hiker with the bright red back pack adds that element of interest that makes a rather plain scenic, something unique–and most importantly, interesting.
I have always admired the pros who are given an assignment and a deadline and come back with not just a successful photo, but a successful shoot.
Perserverence and “Perspiration.” There is much to be said for the work and preparation a photographer puts into “getting the shot.” Within the concept that we make photographs is preparation, and a willingness to put the effort into “being there.” Good shots rarely just happen. To catch those unusual and magic moments, you have to be out in the field during the time when that moment is most likely to happen. Perhaps unfortunately, that time is often just before, during or after sunrise, which means you have arisen sometimes hours before, dragged yourself out of the nice warm bed in the darkness and gotten to the place where that moment will happen. Other times, that moment might be right when most folks are concentrating on mealtimes. The breakfast and dinner hours are usually the times of “sweet light” and when those magical moments are most likely to happen. This shot of shafts of sunlight filtering through the trees at Shenandoah National Park early one morning was an instance of both “being there” and perserverance. I had arisen early and was out before dawn. The morning had been largely unproductive. As I was hungry for breakfast and ready to quit, I came upon this road and as I followed it toward the light, I came upon this scene. Had I not been out that morning, this photograph would not be part of my portfolio. It now serves as the “theme” photo for the masthead for this blog.
Vision. There also needs to be something unique about the image that grasps the viewer’s attention and holds it. In the Fall of 1997, I eagerly anticipated my several day trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where the fall colors are often close to those you will find in Vermont or other parts of New England and the Canadian Laurentians. But my Fall Color exerience in the “UP” as we Michiganians call it, has been mercurial. Timing is important. And often colors differ significantly by region within that peninsula. That year, Porcupine Mountain State Park was rather disappointing. The color was sketchy and it was windy and rainy during most of my stay. I climbed to “the Escarpment” to take the oft-captured photo the “Lake of The Clouds.” After some shots of that icon, I swung my camera to the right and up the Carp River, and the scene here caught my attention. This photo, with hints and touches of the fall color to come, is perhaps my most “successful image” (see this image in hi-resolution)
I believe that we are drawn to photograph. Different things motivate us. If we can follow that call and let the fundamental and technical stuff (which we have to learn and internalize to the point that it becomes natural and unconscious) happen by itself, we will make successful photographs.
Filed under: MUSINGS, PHOTOGRAPHY | Tagged: artist, creative, critique, exposure, Musings, Vermont Life Magazine |