Are we blind?

So I’ve been taking a lot of pictures lately. Every week for the past couple of years pretty much.  Lately I’ve seen an improvement in my work and it’s gratifying.  Not that I’m trying to toot my own horn or anything so arrogant, it’s just something I’ve noticed.  Pretty much at the same time I’ve also noticed that some people just never seem to get better and I wonder why they are photographers at all.

For me at least, photography is about improving the way I see.  Observationally as well as critically.  Both can apply to what’s around you and the decision making process of producing a photograph, and to photos after they’ve been captured and you’re deciding what to do with them.  As an extension, I also include looking at other people’s work.  If you’re like me you participate in online forums and follow people on flickr and other hosting sites.  There’s one of these that I’ve been a part of for quite a few years, participating off and on since my film days.  Lately I’ve noticed that some of the other folks just haven’t improved.  The photos they submit in threads are at best nice snaps and sometimes downright terrible.  Some of them have been photographing in this way for years and it makes me wonder, why do they bother?  Can’t they see?

Some of the blame I think has to be that on most forums people are either discouraged from or afraid to give really harsh criticism.  I’m guilty, too, because I don’t want to make people feel bad, I don’t want to be a jerk, I don’t want to get bounced out of a forum and I don’t want the backlash that comes (flamewar).  Even in “critique” forums I tread lightly, offering what I hope are constructive ideas with a dash of praise.  Strangely I don’t offer much up to other’s review because I know how confining it can be distanced from the photographer and the situation when the image was made.  So how the hell can I be so chickenshit and yet claim to have improved?  Well, let me show you an example using the same subject.

This is Tucker falls in early December 2009.  At the time I was pretty proud of this and my technique.  It’s an OK shot, but I can see a lot wrong with it now.  The highlights are blown in the water and in the trees.  The colors are flat and the foreground is pretty dull.  I can’t remember if I used a polarizer or not, but I stopped the lens down to an extreme (f20) so I doubt I used one.  The poor thing could stand a bit of contrast and curves adjustment.  Also it’s a jpeg file so is somewhat limited as to processing options.  I do like the touch of sun on the tree trunks just above the water, but I didn’t do anything with it.  Probably because I didn’t ‘see’ it.  Oh and dig my crooked horizon (that oak on the left doesn’t really tilt like that).  Sigh – you gotta start somewhere, right?

Let’s move to a shot I took yesterday at the same location.  Granted it’s a different season, but I don’t think that matters.

Now that’s an improvement.  No blown highlights in the water, just a very few in the center of the trees above.  The composition is much more compelling with those logs lined up that way.  The colors POP like they did to my eyes…spring greens and muted sun.  Some of that is processing, but for me that’s part of my skill as a photographer.  Aligning a RAW file with my vision and intent are no less important than framing, composing and exposing the thing in the first place.  Also I used a polarizer to minimize reflection and glare and didn’t choke the lens down, instead keeping it in its sweet spot for maximum sharpness (f14 this time).

Is it the most amazing picture ever?  Nah.  Will this stand as one of my best photos a year from now?  Maybe, maybe not, but I hope I will have made another step toward being a better photographer in that time.  That will include continuing to evaluate my previous work and finding ways to advance my skills.  It will include studying other people’s work and discovering new ways to view scenes or process images.  It will include taking risks and trying out new things (future post alert!).  It will include failing and crappy pictures, too.  If I’m lucky and diligent, hopefully fewer of those, but I’m sure I’ll still take them.

So what do you think?  Am I nuts?  Am I still taking shitty pictures?  Has there been any discernable growth?  I’m not fishing for compliments, really.  It’s tough to stand outside your own head sometimes.  So go ahead.  Dogpile!

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10 responses

  1. hmmm. maybe im just blind, but i dont really see what you mean. i think theyre both beautiful …
    i guess it just amounts to what kind of thing youre after. i would like to be able to do all kinds of subject matter well, but my interest lies in artistic uses of light and shadow, and urban exploration.
    and maybe because i still know so little i dont know what to look for as an improvement. im sure your second picture is better, but i dont know how to judge it. i like them both.
    i still have to master the whole exposure thing …
    k☼

    May 11, 2011 at 6:11 pm

  2. I’m with you on this one Kris. I like to think I’m a lot better than I was two to three years ago. I also believe I create more good photographs on purpose. As my craft improves I feel less of my successful images are by accident. I will freely admit to using software to finish what I started in the camera as well. As long as the end result is believable, I’m not shy about my use of Lightroom3 and presets plug-ins.

    As for image critique, as you know I want the un-sugar coated truth. I have thick skin and good honest critique from photographers who’s opinions I respect, as well as studying the good (and bad) work of others is only going to make me better. I also try to give the same if I feel I have something to offer.

    May 11, 2011 at 8:14 pm

  3. It’s always nice to see improvement, I look back on shots I took this time last year, at the time I thought they were great, but now I can easily see whats wrong with them. Thats the journey, not only do you become a better photographer with practice in the way you approach an assignment, you also become a better editor, better at recognizing the good shots from the bad, and better at critiquing your own work.

    I now am in the habit of printing my best shots from each year in a hardback book. I’m hoping that my 2011 edition will blow 2010 out the water!

    I think as much as I like a good honest critique, I still yearn to have my ego stroked every once in a while.

    I can see a marked improvement from your first image to your second, maybe to get the last 10% out of this you need to revisit in search of the magical lighting that will make this standout from being a good image into being a spectacular image. of course I’d be open to you telling me I’m wrong. 🙂

    May 12, 2011 at 6:34 am

  4. Thanks for the replies, peeps.

    Sometimes it’s hard for me to step outside my skull and find another viewpoint for things that matter to me. It’s like mine is the only one, so the people who are content taking the same ‘snaps’ over and over mystify me.

    You’re right about the journey, Rich. That’s sort of how I view it – my photography is an ongoing process that hopefully moves forward. I like your idea of the book printing and will give it some thought.

    Critique is tough, isn’t it Jeff? I mean I always feel so awkward telling someone what’s wrong with their pictures. Do you participate in any forums where you get decent ideas and advice? The ones I’m on are hit and miss.

    SilveryL, if I remember right you’re fairly new to photography. Maybe you won’t get kicked by the I-hate-my-work Mule, but I think eventually it gets us all pretty good. I can invite you to a good forum if you want to put some images up for discussion. The folks there won’t skin you alive, but also they might be a tad to kind so having your own critical eye is key to improving your work. That will come in time; it did for me.

    Maybe I should find some REALLY shitty images from my first film years and scan them. You’d all have a good laugh.

    May 12, 2011 at 6:50 am

  5. Nice comparison. I do like the new angle you took on this waterfall. It draws me in. I do see improvement, props to the wonderful colors. Often my color photos look like your first one.
    Although, I think the changing of seasons has a lot to do with the difference of these photos. That looks like some pretty tough lighting in the first photo.

    Keep up the good work! This is a good exercise for me as well. Take time to evaluate growth…or lack there of.

    May 12, 2011 at 1:12 pm

  6. sure! im up for a forum. some good critique would help me know what to look for. improve my eye. as i said, i still dont have a handle on exposure, and stops mystify my still too. if im going to do well in artistic uses of light and shadow, and do ‘grab your eyes’ urban shots, i need to know how to get what im after. i never have liked snaps. too much like a tourist. bleh.

    feel free to visit my site. i have several doors that lead to other blogs, one which is a photo blog. i would like to know what you see as potential, and where i could improve.
    k☼

    May 13, 2011 at 6:43 am

  7. Pat

    Very thought-provoking post.
    I agree with a previous comment that the change of seasons may have something to do with how I see these two images. The second one, with its increased color and warmth is very appealing to me. I do like the composition better, and the image has much more depth. I have found that studying other photographers’ work through Flickr and blogs has made me much more critical of my own.

    May 16, 2011 at 9:16 am

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