I’m starting a new set of images tagged portfolio shots. One of the things that’s been sucking up my time recently has been grappling with figuring out what I needed to learn to get more out of my images — I could see they could be better, but figuring out how to make the “better” come out has been a fascinating journey.
This is the end result of a journey I started over a year ago. To put it bluntly, I wasn’t enjoying photography, I didn’t think I was turning out interesting work, I was sure that technically it wasn’t up to snuff, and I realized I was just going through the motions – both with a camera and here on the blog. So I realized I needed to either refocus and get back to enjoying what I was doing and turning out work I was proud of, or I should just quit pretending and go play video games and stop wasting my time.
It’s taken some time (and discussing the journey is a novel-length blog post of its own), but I think I’ve got it all sorted out (for now), I know what I’m trying to accomplish (for now), and I’ve put in a lot of time and energy researching how to get to where I’m trying to get in my work.
And so it’s finally time to start moving forward again. I’ve gone through my entire portfolio, retired a bunch of the weaker work and flagged what I feel is my best work, and now I feel comfortable identifying some of my images and saying “these are my best images, and this is the best I can make that image — and this is an image I’m proud of”.
I don’t believe it’s possible to stop improving your craft. I do believe that every so often you need to put a stake in the ground and say “this is the best I can do”. So that’s what I’m doing. If nothing else, it forces you to be honest about your own images and think about whether you’re really producing your best work, and if not, what you need to change or learn to do so.
As part of this, I went and did a significant edit and restructure of my catalog (again). And tossed into retirement about 8% of the weaker images. The last time I did this I tossed almost a third, so I seem to be getting better at evaluating image quality — but I can say without a doubt my concept of “good enough” has changed radically for the better over time. Something to think about if you haven’t gone back and re-evaluated your older work that’s out there on flickr and your web site…
I also try to be very selective on what I publish. I know some photographers love to come back from a shoot and dump 100 images on flickr. I try to see how few images I can post that still present what was interesting about the shoot — and sometimes, that number is zero. I know, gasp, shocked look — but sometimes, you come home and everything looks at you and goes meh.
I’ve come to think that key tipping point in the maturation of a photographer is when they become willing to stop settling for average images, and show nothing rather than show forgettable. It took me a good while to get to this point (and please forgive me if I’m babbling in my religious fervor…)
I went and looked at my collection, and here’s how it’s segmented right now:
33,500 total images: This is everything I’ve kept. A good estimate of images I’ve trashed forever is about 40% of a typical shoot (welcome to the wonderful world of wildlife/bird photography), so I’ve probably shot 50,000 images in the last 13 years. This breaks down to:
- 28,000 images retired: Of the images I’ve kept, 28,000 are “retired”, which is me-speak for “technically okay, but nothing that makes my active collection better”. When you burst shoot a flying bird, you might end up with a string of 5-15 images. Do that a few times, and you come home with 75 images of a duck. Of those, anywhere from zero to a half dozen might actually be interesting and unique — and the rest are effectively photocopies. Those photocopies — good, but not better than the ones I keep and public — get retired, just in case I want one some day. Or I see something when I go back in and re-evaluate them. These days, rarely happens. I keep these in a second Lightroom Catalog on my big RAID where I can look at it but mostly, it sits there ignored, and when I get really bored, I fire it up and slowly work on cleaning it up and re-organizing it to my current catalog standards, and look for missed gems. Occasionally — very occasionally — I find one. but disk is cheap. (though, for what it’s worth, this is a terabyte of images…)
- 5,500 Active: I keep everything else in an active Lightroom catalog on my laptop. Some of the images actually live on the RAID so they don’t travel when I do, but they’re available when I’m docked in at home.
Of those 5,550, the collection breaks down this way:
- 2,800 in my “private and parts”: personal, family pictures, and the image files used to create things — the pieces of a Panorama, for instance, or an HDR. Or the copy of an image that I use to publish a wallpaper at a specific format, or the PSD I use to manage printing an image.
- 2,700 in my “portfolio”, or the images I consider good enough to show off in public.
I break these down further:
- 2,300 “flickr quality”. These are images I think are good enough to show off in public, but may not be something I’ll put the energy into special optimization or turning into a print-quality piece. I think of this as the equivalent of what I keep out of the images I send off to the lab to be developed and printed, back in the film days.
- 300 my “portfolio” pieces. These are the ones that back in the film days I’d pull out of the pile and carry off to the darkroom to retouch and clean up and do a custom print of.
- 80 “best of breed” images. And these are the part of the portfolio that I show off, put on my walls, give to friends, and show off to prove what a damn fine photographer I am to strangers.
So, of all of the images I’ve taken and kept since 2001, the reality is I only consider 8% are worthy of showing to anyone, and 1.2% of the collect are images that every time I look at make me go “wow. I took that”.
Some might wonder about how low those numbers are. I’m not. I’m not trying to be known as the person who posted the most images to Flickr, I want to be remembered as someone who created images people were moved by. I’ll take that a step further: I think most newer photographers are too enthusiastic and not critical enough about their work. God knows I was, and I think one factor in the maturation of a photographer is growing into the “gee, I no longer want this image associated with my name”, and being willing to refine and shrink their portfolio as their skill increases and their eye develops.
(If you want another view on this, then I suggest you check out Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer, who discusses this issue in Do You Want to be Famous? and A Different Way of Working).
This new portfolio series is starting out with those Best of Breed images. Each one I’m now putting through a full edit and retouch, doing what I can to make it a “live on my wall” quality print. One thing I lost along the way was what really made photography sing for me, and that’s printing it out, sticking it on a wall, and enjoying looking at it. I’d gotten so comfortable doing everything on-line and on-screen that I just wasn’t bothering, and once I retired the HP B9180 printer, it became really easy just working on images so they looked good on the blog.
The fact is, you can make pretty weak images look good at 800 or 1000 pixels on a monitor. It’s not that hard. In my film days, what really mattered was the images I had not after I sent the film off to the lab and got 4×6′s printed out to stick in a book, it was when I picked a few images I really liked, hauled them off into a darkroom, and figured out how to make them sing, and then put them up on my wall so I could look at them.
I lost that. Now, I’ve brought it back. And I’m loving it. And here’s the big secret — Even with these first few images that I’ve been working on, I’ve found that when I take them back to the online world and publish them there, the images are a damn sight better than they were before. If you’re only working your post processing for what looks good online, you’re probably leaving a lot of image quality on the virtual light table. (You don’t need to listen to me on this advice, but you should listen to David duChemin, for instance in Why I Print and The Print and the Process Released).
At some point, I’ll do some before and afters and explain what I’m doing to improve the images beyond “good enough for Flickr”, and do some practical examples. right now, frankly, I’m still refining the workflow and my practices so I build in the habits and I can do them reliably.
Now that I’ve worked out the technical issues that were standing between me and reliably printing a quality image, I’m moving forward on all of this again. And this first image is that stake in the ground from which I will start showing what I’m capable of, as opposed to just what I feel is good enough.