How can you tell if your pictures are any good?
The difficulty in finding the answer to this is that you’re often reliant on other people’s feedback on your work. But too often other people don’t really want to be honest with you for fear of offending you.
So if most people won’t give you an honest answer I found the best way is to work it out for yourself, and I’m going to offer some advice on how to be honest with yourself and how to identify what might need improving.
One of the main ways people rely on to discover if their work is good enough is to use sites like Instagram, Flickr or 500px, hoping to get an idea of how their work is perceived. However, usually, the type of commentary you receive on those platforms is biased towards civility and kindness, so how can you really find out the truth about how good you are?
Progressing as a photographer requires an understanding of where you are right now. In something like athletics it’s more easily quantifiable, you’re either the fastest, second, third or maybe last, so you know where you stand and you can work to improve on that.
In creative fields like photography, it’s more difficult. Success alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a skilled artist. Sometimes success might mean you’ve just got lucky in one particular niche or are very good at marketing yourself.
Quantifying your ability as an artist takes real honesty, not only with yourself but from other people too.
To do this there are three key things to consider when it comes to the creation of photographs: concept, execution and post-production.
As I explain in the video, you can use these three simple propositions to gauge your work against the very best to try and discover where you stand.
Most images require an idea, a pre-visual or research of the likelihood of an event or moment to happen and be captured.
In still life, fashion, portrait, or product photography the concept is your idea for the shoot and results in the story, the message and the style.
In reportage or wedding photography the concept would be the research you put into the location, the order of events, the culture and the planning to ensure you’re in the right place at the right time.
Once you have developed your concept or done your research you should have pre-visualised in your mind what it is you’re trying to achieve and what you hope the final image will look like. Only once you have this idea should you consider trying to execute it.
As the title suggests this concerns everything that happens after you have executed the image and it includes anything from simply re-cropping an image to spending hours perfecting it with retouching, colour or contrast control, or careful application of burn and dodge techniques.
The benchmark test
To do this I suggest finding and bookmarking the websites of as many photographers whose work you respect and admire. You’ll use these to refer to — not for ideas or to copy images, but to use as a baseline or a benchmark of where you want to be.
It’s a way, if you like, to figure out if that photographer is the Usain Bolt of the track, running the 100m in 9.58 seconds, then where do you come in and how can you improve your time.
So if you’re a wedding and social photographer, do your research on some of the best wedding and social photographers in the world. If you like fine art or fantasy images then find the best in that field and get those sites bookmarked ready for your self-assessment.
Once you’ve done that get your work ready in a folder or on your own website so that you can draw realistic comparisons.
In the video, I mention several photographers who I consider to be the best in their field. These include Tim Flach, Tal Silverman, Jonathan Beer, Nadav Kandar, and Luis Monteiro. But there are many other great photographers whose work I find inspiring too. You can find a list of 49 of my favourite photographers here.
The next thing to consider is a benchmark standard that you wish to be judged against. A level of skill, if you like, that will help you define how good you really are.
Let’s take a few examples. Let’s say for instance you’re a keen animal photographer, you want to take the very best animal portraits in the world. How can you discover how good your animal portraits really are?
Let’s use Tim Flach as an example here. I consider Tim to be one of the most knowledgeable photographers in the world and his fine art animal work is second to none.
So what makes his pictures so good and how would yours compare? Well, this is exactly where we need to go back to the three points explained earlier: concept, execution and post-production.
What if you wanted to be one of the best drinks or still life photographers? Then photographers like Tal Silverman might be a good choice of work to explore as your benchmark.
What’s important is that we not only be realistic but also use the concept, execution and post-production as the tools to evaluate and find out why our work might be missing the mark.
First of all, most of us think we’re better than we are.
I do this all the time, so I try to use this sort of benchmarking to arrive back to reality. If we wake up and smell the coffee we’ll realise that it’s unlikely our work is going to be as good as some of these guys. In realising that, it sets the foundations for your success.
But we also have to discover why we’re not as good and we can use concept, execution and post-production as criteria to discover where we’re falling short.
It might be tough to hear but it’s highly likely we fell short on all three. But the sooner we realise where our weakness lies then the sooner we can do something about it.
Creating a concept is one thing, most of us can do that, but how carefully did we really think it through, how carefully did we plan every detail, every item that’s going to be included in the image, props, set, mood, emotion, colours, location, narrative. Did we really give that concept everything that it deserved?
If you feel you worked all of that out when developing your concept but your images are still falling short, then the problem has to lie in the execution and/or post-production.
Have we really understood how to describe an object, an animal or a person with light? Do we fully understand the application of composition, creating a composition of supporting cast and hero, do you really know how to draw the viewers eye into and around an image so that they really spend time absorbing it and they don’t easily want to move on?
Many photographers that fail unfortunately immediately turn to lack of equipment as an excuse, but I don’t think we should accept that. As I’ve demonstrated in previous videos it’s possible to turn out many great images with just one or two lights.
Post-production plays a part in nearly all good photography, but it should be the icing on the cake and not the cake itself.
I utilise post-production as subtly as possible, but sometimes post-production isn’t necessary at all. Just a good concept and excellent execution can get you there, as I demonstrated in this video showing how I made this image entirely in-camera and with no post-production.
If you don’t aspire to be the best then, of course, there is no need to compare yourself to the best; you can choose to set your benchmarks somewhere else.
I’ve used a very simple logic path for many years to try and help photographers be the best they can. And as the type of person that considers there’s always more to learn, I use this process myself too.
I’ve used this method of thinking and self-assessment to better my own photography over the last decade and it has allowed me to teach and assess other up and coming photographers and help them too.
So if you’re serious about your progression as a photographer, then discover work that you admire, use it as a benchmark, look very closely at the details and how that compares to what you are producing.
And if you use the ideas I’ve covered here and in the video you should be able to find where your strengths and weaknesses lie and in being really honest with ourselves about how good we really are we can then use this to move forwards.