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ARE YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS SUCCESSFUL?

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.
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22 Responses

  1. I’m fortunate enough to have stumbled on to a relationship with a retired sports photographer who has agreed to mentor me. He is absolutely integral to taking my skills to the next level. But if I had to depend on him for the type of feedback I need, I’d be in trouble.I measure success (for me only) by two things – does this photo please me/excite me and does it have a purpose? I need to share. Making a great photo for myself is not enough. I need someone else to either appreciate it or need it. I get that from clients on two levels – 1) historical extended family photos (that are happen to be different from typical family shots and 2) capturing action for parents (and players). Several parents comment that my photos are not only good but they also appreciate that it allows them to sit back and enjoy the game without being distracted trying to get a good shot (with an often inferior camera and definitely without my sideline vantage). What pleases me the most is the comments that they like my “eye”. I avoid shots that I call sports card shots to capture the player fully (suitable for framing). I shoot to capture action for myself – to get those magic moments. I think that pleasing myself pays off for my clients. If I’m not happy, chances are they’re not going to be happy as well. I’ve found that parents are surprised by my perspective and come to really appreciate. In a corny sense it’s “to thine own self be true”.My mentor disregarded the parent feedback initially because for a while I volunteered at a local school as “community service”. I donated photos to the Boosters and gave away photos to parents because I felt I was learning and had somewhat inferior equipment for the task. I can imagine some of the feedback was affected by the fact that I was giving them away (another subject). But now that I have a better camera and now charge, the feedback doesn’t seem to have dropped off.As a bonus, I’ve gotten very good feedback from peers. This may be because I’m part of a group that supports each other and trades tips and has no internal competitiveness.Overall I feel successful because I capture (make) enough special shots that I like that it is worth my time AND I feel (based on feedback) that what I’m doing matters to my audience (even if it’s creative family shots).

  2. Are my photographs successful? Hmmmm…..good question Andy. If you were to ask my mother in law, she would say that I am the next Ansel Adams.:) If you were to ask a professional photographer to critique my portfolio, I'd probably be lucky to have a handful labeled as "good". I recently joined my local camera club. Once a month they hold "competition night" where a professional photographer comes to judge the submitted photos. I entered 5 of my photos into next months competition and it will be very interesting to hear the critiques. What's even more interesting to me?………I already "know" what some of the critiques may be. For example, I sent in one of my favorite black and whites in to the b&w contest. It is a photo of a barn and tractor taken as the snow was falling. I am very happy with the tones, contrast, and sharpness of the photo. I really like the composition, *except* the weather vane on the roof is hitting the very top of the frame…….there needs to be just a bit more room at the top. I have already *critiqued* this photo myself, so it will be interesting to hear what the judge has to say. I also understand how subjective having a photo critiqued can be. It is art afterall, and we all have our own personal views on what we like and don't like.I guess at this point of the learning curve that I am on, I would say my photos are successful when they are personally satisfying to me. I know I am never going to be a "pro", but as long as I have the desire to get out there, and as long as my shutter finger gets "itchy" when I haven't used it in a while, and as long as I can't wait to get home and view my photos on the computer at the end of the day, then I feel personally satisfied and successful. Even some of the technically "bad" photos taken can be viewed as being successful because they have taught me something and hopefully I won't make the same mistake next time.Good topic Andy. Last month at camera club we viewed a movie on the life of a National Geographic Photographer. These guys and ladies are sent out on a photoshoot for 8 weeks and out of 8 weeks of shooting, 2 or 3 of the photos are technically good enough to be published. Amazing, huh?Thanks for another thought provoking blog Andy. I am my own worst critic and it was a nice reminder for me to sit back and reflect on my photos.Carol

  3. One of my close friends and an excellent photographer in his own right, privately remarked that my post rambled a bit and the formatting around the photographs is distracting.I took another run at the former, hopefully focusing and organizing a littler better.The latter is a VERY frustrating aspect of Blogger! Google, are you listening? One of your primary competitors’ editor frankly beats the pants off you. You should be the leader! Get that kludgy, clunky interface fixed!

  4. Hi Phil: Your comment that you shoot images that please you first, resonates with me. I think that is a critical ingredient for developing your own individual style. Clearly, finding personal satisfaction in your images is a fundamental part of a “successful” photograph.

  5. Carol: Likewise, the comment that you know a photograph is “successful” when it is personally satisfying to you, resonates.Interestingly, as you grow as a photographer, what is personally satisfying will change. As time goes on and your “world view” changes, what is personally satisfying will change.You are right, too, that “critique” is largely subjective. That is why I used the term “successful” and also why it isn’t a very well-focused post. Everyone’s measure of “success” will be different — and relative.I appreciate your comments.

  6. OK Andy — I want to take a stab at a comment.I think mine are successful since I like what I do — period. On occasion I will enter contests and sell a print or two. It is nice when others who know a little bit about photography praise my work.About “making” a photo. I have heard this numerous times and I can’t agree with it. It does not flow for me very well — I take photos — not make them. I am there and see something before me that calls me to take what I can from that time and place. I use a tool (my camera) to take the photo. Making photos conjures a mental image of someone Photoshopping the heck out of something to “make” it something other than what he/she saw. But anyone can call whatever they do whatever they wish — so long as they are happy with it.I totally agree that good shots don’t just happen. You need some thought behind what you are doing and some knowledge of how to make it happen. And I can’t stop telling people in my workshops about being unique. At present I am directing a show. I had many people asking me to advise them on what to enter. My advice to them was to make it interesting and unique. We did not want a show filled with 50 wide open landscapes — how boring. When I am working I go out of my way to not do something that I have noticed before. I am lucky to have a nice little photo group. We meet twice a month and your can pick up some decent critique — as little or as much as you ask for. Very nice post Andy — I enjoyed the read!

  7. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Donna. I hope it will stimulate some discussion here.I think we agree more than we disagree here. I think we are really talking semantics when we start discussing the meaning of the words “make” and “take.” I’ll leave that to Bill Clinton (just kidding!!!!!).What a word conjures is important because we use words to express our meaning–not always as artfully as we would like. In fairness to the instructor who said this, he was reviewing a Fujichrome slide. That about as “unmanipulable” (if that’s not a word, maybe it should be 🙂 )as possible. Slide film is WYSISYG! So I didn’t think of photoshop at all. His point was that “taking” a photo implies that you point and shoot, whereas “making” a photo means that you go through all the processes (from the esthetics of composition and nuance exposure, to the fundamentals of proper focus, exposure, selective focus, color, etc., perhaps in a split-second, but necessary nonetheless) a photographer does to create a “successful” image.But you are right. Its not really about what we call it. Its about the point, and that is that good photographs take more than just a “nice camera” and a pretty subject. They take skill and creativity.

  8. I’ve come to think that the light, and how it’s used, is about 90% of a good photo. Make that more than merely “good,” I suppose I’m thinking about a real “grabber.” If the goal is to simply take photo that shows what something looks like, a sort of documentation, it’s normally easy to be successful. If the goal is to make a photo with great impact, that’s where the ability to recognize light and how to use it really comes in. You don’t need to have sunrise/set kind of light, the type you called “sweet light”, to have high impact. The last photo of mine to appear in print (Trains magazine, March 09,) was made at night using 8 remote fired flash units. I made my own light. My own photography didn’t advance any as I changed cameras and changed very little as I bought better lenses. The Big Leap was made once I learned how to SEE light. I’ve come to think that’s the whole thing. All light is good. What matters is how you use it.Kent in SD

  9. Hey Kent: Good to see you here. Its a great point. It may be hackneyed to remind that the word “photography” roughly translates in English, to “painting with light.”I tend to be a bit myopic in my approach. I use very little so-called artificial light, so when I talk or write about photography, I forget its impact on the craft. I agree though, that whether created artificially or naturally, light is a critical ingredient to what gives a photographic image its impact.My use of flash, for example comes mostly as “fill light” in circumstances where I either need a little “pop” or where I cannot avoid harsh light and need to fill shadows to balance things.I have seen your night work. Its pretty impressive.Thanks for your comments here.

  10. A lot good thoughts here Andy. To me a photograph is successful if the person who made it likes it. That said, we should keep in mind that even the photographer can be fickle – we may like it today, but upon further thought and reflection – decide just the opposite.

  11. Hi Mark. Thanks for commenting. I have had that very experience. Sometimes, as we grow, or as our general views and tastes change (maybe a function of age?), what we thought was “good” or “successful” becomes more “eh.”

  12. I have to say I totally agree on the use of a term and you call it whatever works for you and inspires you.Now — Hello Kent! Every time I see an animal on the side of the road — I still think of you — how are you???OK — light…the last bunch of photos I took (g) that I really loved were taken at high noon — under sun and clouds in a peach orchard. Oh and “nice camera” drives me bananas!

  13. Hey Andy,It was great meeting you today. I have poked around your blog today and I like it! I’ll spend more time browsing when I have more time. I really enjoyed your review of your Epson printer. And it sounds like we’re birds of a feather regarding the meaningless debates (Canon vs Nikon, Mac vs PC, film vs digital)- none of those debates makes our photography any better. Also, I love your masthead photo with the “god beams” as I call them. Nice work my friend. I’ll be back soon. All the best, Dan

  14. Dan: Thanks for your comments. They mean a lot to me. I will look forward to getting to know you better and learning from you!

  15. Andy: really intriguing article and boy, you covered a lot of philosophical ground with this one! As we can see from all the long comments, that usually sparks a lot of thought & discussion… which is very good. The more people stop and think about what they are doing and why, the better, in my mind. Especially in this digital age, we tend to move along from subject to subject and finish work really fast, but it's easy to loose track of what we're trying to accomplish.I recall in one of my photo classes in school, that the end of semester project was to produce a series of images on any subject we wanted to.. the catch was that we had to write a clear and convincing paper that outlined exactly what the purpose, goal and approach to the subject was going to be and we couldn't start until the teacher was satisfied with our reasoning. It was by far the hardest part of the project for all of us! "success" was measured by how well we stuck to the plan and achieved our stated goal.This kind of analysis makes your blog especially interesting.Oh, and peer input vs. the opinion of the "general public"?.. I'll leave my thoughts on that for another time. Probably a post of my own.

  16. Andy: I agree; the Porcupine River image is spectacular.btw, My favorite comment from people is this one:…Wow, those are beatiful pictures. You must have a very good camera…. Well, yes, I do … but …Cheers! Peterwww.peterkburian.com

  17. Hi Peter: Thanks for looking in. I appreciate your comment.Looking at your Better Photo site this afternoon, I took one of the online quizzes and one of the questions from William Neill said something like “the most important element of a good photo is” and it gave choices like good light, good equipment, etc. The correct answer was indeed, THE correct answer. It is the photographer!BTW, for those here who don’t know Peter, he really DOES have a nice camera! -grin-

  18. Mark: As always, I appreciate your insight. I think that assignment is a good one. In fact, maybe a “self-assignment” for me.And. . . I’ll look forward to that post on peer vs. viewer comments!

  19. Andy, I haven’t visited your blog for some time and I’m glad I did now. Very good article and the comments have been good as well. I agree with the comments about light. While the best light is often early or late, the challenge is to take the best advantage of the available light. Whether it is sunrise or high noon, making a successful photograph means figuring out how to create something special out of the ordinary. I think too many of us rely on “golden hour” light and have not learned how to use “high sky” light. It isn’t easy and it may be that you have to choose different subjects than you might ordinarily shoot, but it is those kinds of challenges that I really enjoy.Sometimes mistakes can create great photos too. One of the shots on my site was taken at Canon Beach, Oregon at high noon. The Needles were in shadows because of the high sun. I intended to overexpose them to get the detail but what I accidentally did was underexpose them. (I was shooting slide film at the time.) When I got the slides back, I saw that my photo looked like a night shot with the moon glowing on the water. So, fiddling with exposures is another way to deal with “bad” light. When the light is too harsh, it is time to turn your attention to shady subjects. Dappled sunlight on the forest floor may only be available in the heat of the day.Maybe we need a hole discussion on how to take advantage of the available light. Your next subject perhaps?

  20. Hi Al: I looked for the photo you described on your website, but couldn’t find it.Thanks for the suggested topic. It went on the list! There is no doubt that it is “about the light.” Thanks for your comments.

  21. Andy, the photo I referred to is the first shot in the Water portfolio. I did something similar at Acadia last year, only I used Photoshop to create the affect. It is the last shot in my National Parks gallery.

  22. Thanks for the clarification Al. Very cool effects. Something I haven’t thought about — but now will have to put in my “to try” box.Maybe two more Blog ideas come to mind from this exchange. But you all will just have to “tune in” to find out what the “other one” might be. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.BTW, if you haven’t seen Al’s work, his site, GOLD IMAGES,is well worth the visit!

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