It is not uncommon to come home from a shoot, download your images (or hit the darkroom), and then find yourself very disappointed with your results. If this happens often enough, you may start to question your skills and whether it is even worth persisting. This can lead to periods of weeks, months, or even years without photographing.
Disappointment can come from a number of sources, some of which are listed below:
In the fall of 2006, I was on holiday on Vancouver Island and returned home with hundreds of images. My initial review of my images left me very disappointed with the results. However, over several months time, I found some nice, if not exactly earth-shattering images, and my opinion of the trip changed significantly. Since that time, I have refined a few of the images and they are now among my best. Had I not rechecked those files again and again, I would be missing some portfolio-quality images. This experience represents a very important lesson.
I realize, though, that I have to be careful. Sometimes, in an attempt to find something new, I will scan old files and try to convince myself that an image, which I previously rejected, is worth printing. There is nothing wrong with that, providing that at some point in the process I recognize when it isn’t working and know when to abandon the image. I find I can usually tell part of the way through the editing process when I am simply trying too hard to save a mediocre image. In the case of finding “late bloomers” the feeling was quite different—each just got better and better as I worked on the image, until I recognized it as a major find.
At the time of capturing the images, I had no awareness that any of them would turn out to be one of the best images of the trip. My feeling about these was the same as it was for hundreds of other images, which was, “Has potential—hope for the best.”
When selecting images for your own entertainment, a “greatest hits” theme works just fine. If, on the other hand, you want to impress someone who knows art, then this strategy is less likely to impress. This holds true whether you are seeking the approval of a magazine editor, a gallery owner, or a museum curator. It is also true of many photo contests.
From the point of view of the keeper of the gates (e.g., the editor or gallery owner), their reputation hangs (sometimes literally) on the work you give them. A gallery owner hopes for a good review in the local newspaper, an editor wants more advertisers and readers, and a book publisher’s living depends on the success of the book. They have the right, the need, and even the responsibility to choose very carefully.
A cohesive collection says a number of things about a photographer, some of which are described below:
Sometimes magazines hosting a contest will specifically state that the work should be of a single theme, or that preference is given to such. Sometimes they don’t tell you that until after the contest, or until the deadline for submissions has passed. You should assume this is implied unless specifically mentioned otherwise, and even then, you should still wonder, knowing judges are only human and perhaps not even aware of their biases.
In the case of B&W Magazine, every other year they publish the top portfolios received (on alternate years they publish best single images). This is the only way to get one’s images in the magazine, other than by specific invitation. No other submissions are allowed. They clearly specify that they prefer a unified theme. They look for 8-12 images, and random, top-ten type collections are not typically selected for publication.
Some editors, owners, and publishers are specifically looking for something new and different to present; the more “artsy” it looks the better, but it damn well better be different. For example, Camera Arts Magazine goes out of its way to push the boundaries and feature the new, different, or some might say, just plain odd. Sending this magazine a portfolio of classic landscape images is unlikely to get very far.
On the other hand, while Lenswork Magazine does like to show things not seen before, the classic and traditional values of quality still hold forth here, and a traditional portfolio is more likely to be welcomed. Do keep in mind though that magazines of this ilk receive hundreds, if not thousands, of such portfolios, so your work does need a certain something to make it stand out.
Following is a list of questions you might be asking at this point:
Remember that it is human nature to want to control one’s work. That applies to us photographers, but keep in mind that it also applies to the editor, and after all, it’s their magazine you are hoping to get your work into. This means that giving the editor who plans to publish six images, several more than they asked for so they can choose what they think is best, is only common sense.
I will walk you through the method I use when I am selecting images for submission to a contest or magazine.
I start by selecting every image that could reasonably fit the theme I am presenting. I collect them together, and because mine are digital, I run a slideshow on the computer and rank the images as I go.
The first time through, I eliminate any images with technical flaws. Keep in mind that even if you sneak a digital copy past the selectors, sooner or later you are going to be asked to make a print of the image. Therefore, all the images must hold up in print. If you haven’t printed every image by the time your collection has been determined, then print those you haven’t to confirm quality and check for any printing difficulties.
Look for flaws such as:
If I feel any hesitation about the quality of an image, I eliminate it from the collection.
Next, I run through the slideshow again and pick the obvious winners–the images by which I define my photography. They don’t have to be crowd pleasers; I may only be trying to impress a single person whose taste I am not privileged to know beforehand. I then place the definite “keepers” into a separate pile or folder so I don’t have to repeatedly go through all of them.
At this point, it’s not necessary to have a detailed ranking system–we don’t care if an image is a 3, 4, or 5. All we need at this point is a good, bad, maybe system. Fine-tuning may be helpful near the end of this process when trying to separate the good from the great, and making final choices for the portfolio or submission.
By now, I am probably down to 50% of the original group of images, having passed through the top 25% and rejected the bottom 25%. My selection process now becomes more difficult.
The middle-of-the-pack images that are remaining are there for several possible reasons:
Hopefully, none of the images fit into every one of these categories! Many images may be flawless, yet not so obviously exciting. That’s OK. Not every image has to be a barnburner. Because they will be presented together, some images may be needed to fill gaps, provide explanations, or expand the story.
The images that I like except for that “one flaw” are probably best bounced off of someone else. I had an image I showed my wife (who is a non-photographer) and she said she liked it. I then asked her about the out-of-focus areas (which, if truth be known, weren’t out-of-focus enough), and she said that they were distracting—so, out with that image! Other times, though, the one thing that bothers me in an otherwise wonderful image may not be distracting to others.
If you look through the published images of the greats, there are lots of minor imperfections, which, had the photographer obsessed about it, we would not have had the opportunity to view the work. We expect perfection from ourselves, but are more forgiving of someone with a proven reputation. The subtle imperfections we notice this year may turn out, with a couple more years experience behind us, to be glaring errors. I have found myself in this very situation, looking at prints I made a few years ago and thinking, “My God, I’ve come a long way!” At least that’s what I think on a good day. On a bad day I think, “God, I was awful. How did I ever have the nerve to show that in public?”
Regarding images that are good but not great, when I submitted my work to Lenswork for issue 57, I sent them about 25 images. After accepting me, they then asked for everything I could send to them that was along the same theme (black and white industrial). I sent them everything I had that I thought was reasonable, and I even processed a few more images that hadn’t excited me enough previously to even work on. To my surprise they didn’t consistently publish the images I would have selected as my strongest, and they published several images from the extra images I sent. This was interesting, because they printed 17 images, and I originally sent them 25. They chose not to publish about 11 from the first batch of images I sent, and used four of the extras. Of course, I’d already been accepted, there was nothing to lose in sending the extra images. We should all consider the possibility that we are not necessarily the best judges of our own work. Some of our “goods” are “greats” to other people.
At this point, I usually want to show my entire selection to someone else to get his or her feedback. This is especially helpful if the person is pretty honest about their reactions. I am blessed with a wife who, while not making derogatory comments about a picture, will let me know how interested she is in it, and if it doesn’t work she is not afraid to say so. This is a great asset, and though my wife doesn’t have a visual arts background, I find that if she isn’t excited by an image, I’d better have a pretty darn good reason to overrule her. You too might want to find someone who could play a similar role. I believe it might be better if it isn’t a photographer. Usually, people who aren’t photographers themselves, but are skilled lookers, will judge our work.
And so, back to my selection process:
Well, I needed 8-12 images and am now down to 15. I now do a double check for consistency of theme. I realize that although all the images are from the Badlands, 11 are close and middle ground images with no skies, one has a dramatic thunderstorm over the Badlands, and the last is an old truck dumped into a gully in the Badlands. It would make sense to eliminate the last two images no matter how strong they are because they are jarringly different from all the other images (or, alternatively, add more images in that style so the two don’t look like they are crashers at the party).
Here’s another check I do. I ask myself if any of the images are too much like each other—enough so that it is repetitive. I do think you can submit more than one image of the same object, person, or whatever—provided there are enough differences to justify both being included. Simply including a second image that is, for all intents and purposes, a crop of the first image is a definite no. You would have to use your feet to explore the subject from a different point of view, and then can include another image that shows a different aspect of the same subject.
Even if the subject matter is different, if it is similar in shape and tonality, and especially if it doesn’t really add anything further to the portfolio, this is grounds to exclude it from a portfolio. Though this is not necessarily the case when publishing, because the editor will decide which of the two he prefers and if he happens to use both, well, obviously he felt there was enough difference.
Now for the last check. Let’s say I am down to 13 images of the 8-12 I need. It’s time to stop thinking about the images and to just react to them. Although by now I have looked at them dozens of times, I flip through them again and rank them according to my emotional response. If I haven’t had a chance to sleep on my selections, I need to come back the next day and see if I still feel the same way.
I have to ask myself whether it is better to provide eight really strong images, or to show my depth by providing the full 12. The answer to this depends a bit on the situation. In the case of B&W Magazine, we are told they will only print four images, therefore having eight to select from is pretty good, and if they are strong images, there is nothing to apologize for if you don’t submit 12.
This would be a much bigger issue if you had simply included your all time greatest hits, in which case, running out at eight has some pretty significant implications, but you can tell a lot about a single subject in eight photographs, so my inclination would be to see if I can determine where the breakpoint is in quality (the point at which there is a noticeable falloff in quality) and if it falls between the 8th and 12th image, that would become my cutoff, no matter what.
Of course, after doing all these steps, you may come to the point where you decide your work is not good enough for publication, and you lose your nerve and never submit it. Because it is very unlikely that you will magically, within a few months time, produce dramatically better work, why not go ahead and stand behind your work and say, “This is the best I can do.” The worst that could happen is that you may receive some derogatory comments from a gallery owner referring to bird-cage liners, but even here there may be something in the feedback that you can take and work with. The only time you can guarantee no rejections is to never submit. And, what a pity that would be!
I think there is some truth to the saying, “You are defined by your weakest image.” If you include images that are glaringly weaker, they may tend to drag down the better images. I would never submit an image of lesser technical quality. Aesthetically though, who’s to say? The image you worried over may be their choice for a cover.
Good luck in selecting a portfolio of your own work. Show the world the best you can do, and then move on.
Someone mentioned that we are not the best judges of our own work. This raises a number of questions.
I have heard this expressed before, though of course, something being stated multiple times does not necessarily make it so.
Let’s assume you and I are reasonably talented photographers with something to offer the world. Some of our images have been admired. We normally present only our best work to the public, burying our mistakes.
First, allow me to make some bold statements.
A dog is a dog is a dog. If we think an image is bad, chances are pretty good that every-body else in the know will agree. That is not to say that these images might not get positive feedback; regardless of how bad they are, they may be liked for any number of reasons, not related to their strength as images. Perhaps the person looking at them doesn’t have an educated eye and simply doesn’t notice the compositional or technical flaws, which are so glaring to us. Still, a skilled viewer is likely to see the same fatal flaws we do. Flaws don’t fade with time, but instead become amplified.
Secondly, when it comes to sorting our good from our best work, we are not necessarily good judges. There is a reason that in the movies there are directors and there are editors, and for the most part they are not the same person.
Here’s another story. For a recent show, I sent a number of images, some strong enough I would stake my reputation on them; others good enough to sell, but definitely not amongst my best. Of course, it is one of those weaker images they chose for the catalogue, website, and advertising. My first reaction was to be upset that my “name” was going to be made (or not) on the basis of this image. I thought of asking them to change it, but I’m not the one to tell a curator they are wrong when they have offered me a show, so I kept quiet.
It is now six months later, and looking at the advertising material from the show (even with my name spelled wrong!) I now see this image in a different light. I see it more as an abstract in forms rather than a picture of a frozen waterfall. Maybe I had undervalued the image, and had either accidentally or intentionally put more into the image than I recognized. In hindsight, I can see why they picked the image. I still wouldn’t choose it to represent my work, but I can now see why someone else might. And, I find this a bit disturbing. It clearly means I can be wrong about image choices, so yes, I would have to say that it’s true: We aren’t always the best judges of our own work, and yes, we do need help from editors and curators, even ignoring the fact that these shows and publications represent their best efforts and their reputations stand on what they show.
I have read several times of photographers needing and seeking outside help to select and sequence images for a book.
Here’s a fictional story. A photographer strongly dislikes an image. He junks it as a failure, but a friend notices it in the garbage and rescues it, exclaiming over it’s worth. Our photographer is persuaded by said friend to include it in his catalog. This image turns out to be tremendously popular, our photographer is asked to reprint it many times, and it becomes the image by which he is known. Yet, he still hates the image and cringes every time he’s forced to print it.
I think it means that we need to divide our images into the following categories:
So, when picking our best work, it’s fair game to pick from the great and the good, but not to use any of the others, no matter how enthusiastically someone else might recommend an image.
We run the risk of missing an image that others will get excited over, but we can always change our minds. There are a number of images which I have much later decided are good after all, or more commonly, I can now make good prints of these when I couldn’t before (I now see how to work them).
In the end, I think it’s better to hold back an image that you are less than happy with.
In terms of sorting out the good from the great, it looks like we may need some help here. Two problems immediately arise.
Just as we can ascribe wonders to an image, which aren’t actually there (they are remembered), we can also remember things, which spoil the image, and yet which don’t actually exist in the image. Rather, they can come from other memories and associations.
Here is the bottom line: If you hate an image, don’t show it to anyone. Maybe, in time, you’ll change your mind, but ultimately they are our images and they make a statement about us. If one or two images don’t get shown which could have been, well that’s just too bad.
If your reputation hangs on a couple of images, then you have more work to do.
I look at a lot of photographs. Some are by near-beginners, others by people who have been practicing the hobby for 30 years. Quality ranges widely and some are fantastic, yet a fair number of the images are quite weak (even some by the same photographer as the great images), more often they are lacking aesthetically rather than technically. The weak images have no message and are often just a hodgepodge of pretty things thrown together. I’ve written about the finer points of creating images, but these shots are failing at a fairly fundamental level, and at the risk of offending, I think it is important to deal with this issue.
These images fail, not because someone did or did not use the rule of thirds for composing. Rather, they fail because the photograph is a disorganized jumble; such as a bright sky here, a deep shade there, and branches sticking out everywhere. I somehow have the impression that what the photographer saw is not what ended up in the print. Giving advice on improving the image is difficult. Telling someone I wouldn’t have taken the picture at all isn’t terribly helpful, yet it can be true—the image doesn’t need improving, it needs replacing. Unfortunately, some photographers are often unaware of their faults, or even if they see something lacking, they are convinced that it could be fixed by a better camera, more pixels, or some technical fix the experts have and aren’t willing to share.
The following are a list of the more common reasons for images to fail. Because many of my old images, and not a few of my current ones fail for exactly the same reasons, I hope you will forgive me for raising the subject and for suggesting some image faults to avoid.
The SLR viewfinder with its dark surround and optics that make the image appear distant, and the relatively small size of the image all contribute to making the image appear better than it really is. It can actually be worth recording the image with your digital SLR, use the LCD screen to evaluate the worth of the image, erasing it if necessary, and then reframe and reposition as needed to improve the image.
I was on my way home from my intended photographic destination when I caught, out of the corner of my eye, a meadow in which stood a single dead tree, clearly burned and black. I could see that the surface was uneven, and previous experience with burned stumps meant I knew this was likely to have some great tonalities in black and white. After a quick and relatively safe (but probably illegal) U turn and carefully pulling off the side of the road, I ran across the field with anticipation and wasn’t in any way disappointed. It wasn’t a particularly large tree—perhaps ten inches across. The roundness of the tree meant that depth of field would be an issue at the edges of the trunk. It was pretty clear it was going to be a vertical image.
There were patterns in the burned bark where branches came off, and some great light areas as well as some deep cracks which exposed the unburned wood underneath. Although it would result in a very tall narrow image (an unusual and unconventional and therefore, probably unpopular shape), I felt this would work best for this image. It took some considerable time to find the best position and focal length to record the image.
Burned wood tends to form small rounded squares of charcoal and some areas, perhaps more dense, actually become quite reflective and work very well in both black and white and color. In this image the only color in the entire image was in the deep cracks exposing the beige wood underneath; not enough to keep it in color and I’m very happy with the black and white result.
In selling photographs, it’s not uncommon for people to buy for specific locations, and so it is not unreasonable that they have very specific shape and size requirements. Therefore, even an image of this shape may be perfect for a wall somewhere.
This was photographed only a few blocks from downtown Calgary, population one million. The bus barns were behind me and a railway bridge just to the left of the image.
I’d been out photographing on a warm February afternoon. The river was starting to thaw (in fact I went through the ice thigh high at one point trying for an image). I’d hoped to find interesting swirls in the ice, but had in fact been quite disappointed with the patterns. I found nothing that would make a strong composition. Then I came across this scene. With the intensely blue sky, except for a few clouds, two of which are reflected in the pool in the center of the river on top of the ice, and another hiding the sun, there was a little bit of a bay at river’s edge giving the lovely sweep of the bottom of the image. A large tree on the opposite bank is reflected in the pool, while the ice at the edges has melted and refrozen so many times it has formed large crystals that are fairly easily photographed.
The blue comes from the skylight, its intensity increased, because of increasing the contrast in the image quite dramatically—so much so that I had to desaturate the image a couple of times to get a reasonable balance. Of course, I know the color isn’t real, but remember that I’m a photographer with more concern for creating an image than recording one. Not everyone agrees. My wife still prefers the muted tones of the original image.
This raises the whole issue of fidelity to the original scene. Just how far from “natural” is it fair to go? Some would argue that no deviation is reasonable, though these are often the people who happily darken skies with a polarizer or choose Velvia slide film for it’s propensity to saturated colors. Others simply want the image to look natural, whether it’s real or not. For myself, I have no qualms about deviating significantly from the original, feeling that I am creating art (with a lowercase “A”). Perhaps this is a left over of my purely black and white days in which manipulating an image was the norm and fidelity to the original was hardly an issue since the color was gone anyway.