Be honest, now. How good are your photos, really?
It can be hard to be objective about your own work. We’ve already discussed what happens at one extreme, where we can be our own worst critics, refusing to acknowledge when we’ve done some of our best work. It’s easy to be so focused on how far we’ve yet to go that it’s just as easy to be blind to how far we’ve already come. At the other extreme, there are a number of circumstances in which our work isn’t at its best, and we can be just as slow to acknowledge that.
Not least of these is subjects about which we’re passionate. Especially if your subject is something that’s already inherently photogenic (kids or pets, for instance), it’s easy to get caught up in that and overlook otherwise glaring flaws in your photos. In my case, having an abiding interest in history and architecture, a photo like the one above of the Statue of Liberty is a no-brainer. Of course, when you’re dealing with a subject as frequently photographed as Lady Liberty, there’s a challenge in getting some new angle or shot that nobody’s gotten or thought of previously; suffice to say, this photo doesn’t really fit either of those criteria. It’s not incompetent, but it doesn’t have anything about it that’d make someone sit up and take notice, either.
Another challenge arises when a subject has strong memories, or a compelling story, attached to it. This is especially true of older photos you may have taken. Take a gander at the picture at the left, taken in 2009. It was taken on my honeymoon while we were passing through Yauco, in Puerto Rico.* We passed by those colorful, cheery-looking houses several times, and that scene would probably be burned in my memory with or without the photo. Does it have a sentimental value to me? Sure does. Would someone else buy it if I framed and matted it? Don’t bet on it.
If you have the time to explain the story, the image can still work on some level. But if you’re showing your 2,354 vacation photos to your in-laws, they’re not going to have the patience — or, probably, enough caffiene — to sit through the lot if you’ve got to explain each photo because you’ve come to realize it doesn’t stand well on its own. That goes double if you had in mind to turn those vacation snaps into cash. Some images work because, by themselves, they have an undeniable sense of place about them; others may work even if there’s nothing that immediately identifies them as being from somewhere in particular just because the image itself is compelling. In either instance, if you find yourself having to speak for your photos, they’re not working as well as you think no matter how much fun you had in Podunk.
If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that we sometimes need to bring some objectivity to our own work. Try to view your own work the same as you would anyone else’s, not necessarily looking at it not through the lens of its (or your) history or backstory, but rather through the criteria of what makes a good photo regardless of who was behind the camera. Is the subject compelling? How about the composition? Is it technically proficient? With that, I’d add a simple caveat: don’t be so cold or clinical about your own work that you get rid of something that has a sentimental attachment for you. Just realize that once you’ve decided to set your photography loose on the world, those feelings and meanings may not be as readily apparent to someone else.
*If memory serves, we were waiting para la policia after a minor fender bender.