It’s the old 80/20 rule – 80% of what I shoot is crap or average and 20% is very good or exceptional. Because I’m only shooting for me, it doesn’t really matter if this slips to 90/10 or even worse (although I’d be bummed). Many images are special to me not because they’re technically amazing or feature the best light on earth or a unicorn coming out of sea, but because they help tell the story of the place. And that’s how I’ve tried to grow as a photographer.
But what about the 80%? The ones that aren’t “wall hangers”. Do they count? Should you show them? Should you print them? Delete them?
Only if they’re really bad.
For me, they still have value. The craft of photography is more than just the end result, it’s getting there and for me the journey has been decades long and, if I’m lucky, decades longer. When I happen upon an amazing place (snowy woods!!) I have the most wonderous time doing my thing in it. The experience of the woods in the winter and using my artistic sensibility and all the skill I’ve built to find compelling compositions and hidden scenes – that’s the joy.
Mistakes teach us the most. Failure, while sometimes crushing, builds skill (and character – your dad was right). It’s shots that don’t work that reveal the shots that do – sometimes forcefully. “Seat time” my old driving instructors called it. The more seat time, the better you get. You can’t expect to go out the first day with your new camera and capture scenes like a 20-year professional. Learning is littered with failed projects. Images that don’t quite translate. And I don’t mind.
Some of my images only sing to me.
It’s ok to love shots that other people might scratch their heads over. What resonates with one person often eludes another. Many of my images make me smile at the memory of taking them. If your photos do that for you – they’re keepers. Maybe they aren’t show-offy or wall-hangers, but they have value. They’re part of your process – the part that brings you joy. The most important part. They’re also a part of the story of the place. Alone some photos might not be super strong, but bringing in others to support can make them important as part of a whole. Not everything can be done in one photo all the time. It’s like a lead actor and a supporting actor – they both need to be there for the film to work.
So long as I can still recognize the “keepers”. We all know excellence when we see it, and hopefully we’re capable of attaining it when we practice long enough. I like to think I know my best work when I create it. Whether in the field or in the editing phase; you need to know when you’ve done your best. Recognizing your growth as an artist isn’t something to be bashful about.
I don’t like my images only when other people do. That kind of validation is long in my past. It’s my love of something that makes me want to share it in the first place. Offering up my vision means that not everyone is going to appreciate, love or even just plain get it. You have to accept that for what it is. Yes, there are experts who can talk about composition, framing, exposure, post-processing – all with technical precision, but art is emotional first. Either it grabs someone or it doesn’t regardless of how perfect the technique or execution. Whether that perfection matters to you is individual, but for me it’s part of it. I want to be technically proficient in my artistic expression. Acquiring those skills will make me better – in capture and in processing.
Having a critical eye when evaluating your output is the key to recognizing your growth. Developing expertise means you need to look at your process and the result dispassionately. Then figure out if it’s the best or if you still need more practice. Practice makes perfect is what they say, but if you don’t love the practicing, you’re gonna have a hard slog of it. We need to enjoy our craft – all parts of it, the doing, the having and the failing; that’s practice. Your best today might not be your best tomorrow.
Criticism is a valuable tool for improvement. Not just yours, but others’ who do what you do. I wouldn’t seek out the advice of a landscape photographer to improve my street work, so aligning yourself with the right audience is the first step. Then you have to leave your emotions out of it. It has taken me years to be able to accept criticism with any kind of grace. Now I have matured I can continue to make better photographs by learning new ways to see, capture and edit photos of the natural world.
B.G.P.s go for that single iconic image. The mind-blower. The magazine cover. Those are great, but my goal is to show more. To round out that big shot with small ones. Intimate ones. For me the combination tells the story of the place.
So not every shot has to be epic to be important to you or your improvement as a photographer, but you do need to recognize and present your best work to an appropriate critical audience. It won’t be easy at first, but if you separate your emotion you will benefit from others’ instruction, experience, perspective and talents. It will push you to be more discerning about your process. It will teach you new, and possibly better, ways to make the photographs you love and have always wanted to make. It will teach you how to evaluate your own work and as I said before, your best today won’t be your best tomorrow. It will be better. And that’s the key to a fulfilling journey with photography.