The evolution of a photographer is rarely a linear one. We get better, we get worse, we think we’re improving but we’re not, and then with some luck and a lot of patience and practice, we actually start to produce great images. For some that last point is never reached and it’s usually due to a few common mistakes. As a portrait and fashion photographer I struggle with these mistakes on a regular basis as much as anyone else, and have included a few of my own photos as retrospective of my personal progress.
Reason 1 - You Compare Yourself to Others Too Much
We’re surrounded by photographs everywhere we go, so our natural inclination is to compare our work to those of our peers and idols. While this can be a source of inspiration, it can also become dangerous if we use other people’s work as a general yardstick for measuring our progress. We look at the outcomes and question why our photos don’t look the same. Striving for ‘sameness’ is an exercise in futility and a recipe for failure.
When referencing the work of our peers, the key ingredient is to dissect their style into the attributes that make it desirable to you in the first place. Is it the light, retouching, models, colors, location, etc. that you gravitate towards? By striving to improve on individual characteristics, while injecting your own style, you’ll notice gradual improvements in the quality of your work, while avoiding the frustration of not reaching an identical result.
Reason 2 - You’re Not Committed Enough
Few great photos are taken from the comfort of our office chair. Regardless of the type of photography that you do, the great photos, the great ideas, all take a ton of effort, planning, logistics and dedication to bring to fruition. Convenience is never an ingredient of a great photo. We have to stop making excuses for not going the extra mile, for skipping a step because it was too much work, because we’re uncomfortable with it. Much like Edison’s famous quote, a great photograph is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
Reason 3 - You’re Too Afraid to Fail
We all hate failure and avoid it like the plague. Even though failing can be disheartening, we also grow more from our failures than from our successes. After all, what do you remember more? Do you recall what you did to take that great photo, or do you remember what you screwed up on when you took the bad one? Sure, there are times when you want to avoid failure - such as when you’re working for a client. However, there are times when you need to embrace it and plan for it. This is one of the main reasons why personal work is so crucial to your development as a photographer.
Personal work gives you a license to fail, learn and grow. Whenever I’m involved in a test shoot or a creative project, I always strive to attempt something that I suspect I may fail at, while balancing the results that I can deliver. This way, if a new lighting approach, creative effect, or another experimental idea doesn’t work out, I have a plan in place that I can fall back on. This way I can still provide my creative team with a result that they’ll be satisfied with.
Generally, the risk or uncertainty of a shoot should be inversely proportional to the stakes. If, for example, I’m planning on attempting something I have no idea about, I’ll do so with a friend or a relative as a model and another friend as an assistant, with only the promise of a free drink to deliver on. As the stakes increase and the number of people counting on our results grows, the pressure mounts, and we tend to succumb and stick to our usual routine. This is why photography is a gradual progression and not a race to the top. While we all want to work with the best teams with large budgets and mass publication, doing so at an early stage simply raises your stress levels, stymies your progress and increases the stakes on failure.
Reason 4 - You Shy Away From Feedback
A lot of photographers like to ask for feedback but don’t like receiving it. Too often I hear stories of photographers being asked for feedback, providing it and then offending the photographer with their honesty. A lot of us have become used to the destructive feedback that rules the internet and are conditioned to respond angrily and defensively, even when it comes in a constructive form. I generally feel that feedback should be given only when asked for, or given in private, but too many of us fail to ask for it in the first place.
Some of us are certainly self-aware and acutely familiar with our own limitations and shortcomings, but we only represent one perspective- and a rather biased one at that. I believe that part of our hesitation stems from our attachment to our own images. We don’t want to hear that a photo is bad and have to discard something we tried so hard to create.
What I’ve learned though is that photography is a process of creation and destruction. Not everything is portfolio-worthy, but everything we do will strengthen our portfolio in the future. Each image is an intangible investment even if it doesn’t end up as a finished product. Make it a part of your monthly routine to ask for feedback from people you respect. As a result, you’ll watch yourself grow tremendously as a photographer, even if your portfolio happens to shrink a bit in the process.
Reason 5 - You Focus Too Much on The Technical Aspects
This can be one of the most important and difficult things to overcome as a photographer. Too often do we become fixated with the ideal light position, perfect exposure, rule of thirds, etc. and ignore the vital creative element. When an image lacks creativity, a viewer either skips it outright or fixates on the technical issues since that’s all that is left. If, on the other hand, you capture a concept or an emotion that captivates the viewer, technicals simply play a supporting role.
That’s not to say that the technicals are irrelevant.
If you’re brilliant creatively, but can’t translate things into properly exposed or composed image, then it’s hardly a recipe for success. The technical elements, however, are rarely what we struggle with. That's the easy part. The creative parts are much more intangible. We can’t be taught creativity. It comes from inspiration and through imagining things without technical constraints.
Becoming strong technically frees you from feeling constrained, from worrying about failure and leads to believing that anything is possible. With the technicals under your belt, go out and explore. Go to a museum, sit down and observe the world around you, notice expressions, colors and moments. The things that evoke an emotional response in you are likely to do so in others as well.
Reason 6 - Inaction
Yes the title of this post states "five reasons", but this one simply relates to all of the above. It’s probably the one thing we’re all guilty of most -inaction. As we read the above reasons, we say to ourselves, “yeah, I should be doing more of that.” We get advice from others and say to ourselves, “yeah, they’ve got a point.” But then what? We’re all revved up and ready to make our work better but as time goes on, we end up doing nothing about it. We just carry on with the status quo and wonder why we’re not improving.