Seeing improvement in our photography can and should be very satisfying . Not seeing progress we want to see can be extremely frustrating and paralyzing. One thing for sure is that it’s often hard to know where we really are as creatives – what areas we have improved in, what areas we need to work on, and how to move forward. Tracking progress can be vague and difficult at best of times.
So how do we track progress and improvement – and what’s the value of getting our bearings straight?.
Review old work
Reviewing old work is a great way to see pieces of the creative path you have travelled. I often hear photographers say with disgust “Ugh. I was so bad back then!” when reviewing old work. The idea here is that their are noticeable elements in that person’s photography that have improved. It’s worth our time and effort to try and identify what those elements are. It’s difficult to know how you’ve improved until you compare current work with old work.
Reviewing old work also helps us to see if there are any unhealthy patterns or habits we might have developed. Over-vignetting, over-saturating, abusive black and white applications, super close portraits, shooting in landscape too often, favoring one lens, etc. About a year ago I went through my catalog and realized that over 65% of my shots were in a portrait-orientation. I spent a good amount of time trying to figure out why I shy away from landscape and wondering what opportunities I might have been missing because of it. This set me on a path to realizing there were some technical challenges with landscapes that I was shying away from and my photography is now better for knowing that. Information like that can be very revealing about our habits as a photographer. I’ve gone through phases of too much black and white, too much contrast, too much vignetting – you name it and I’ve made it into a habit. I’m not sure I’d have realized it without spending intentional time reviewing my old work.
Reviewing our old work has the capacity to cast future vision. We are not only looking for habits and technical improvements, but we are looking for ways to refine, improve, track, and develop our vision. I often go back through and see old images that I want to redo or images that I like but maybe want to try again with a different twist or different vision in mind. Reviewing your old work not only helps us avoid unhealthy habits and technical improvements, it can inspire future work and help us track and improve our VISION.
Ask for respectable opinions
A valued, clear, and honest opinion is your best friend. It’s simple really, other people don’t see our work the same way we do. We should be glad that their is another opinion out there. We tend to be polarized in our opinions of our own work – Our own opinions are often too subconsciously narcissistic and self-serving or too fatalistic and self deprecating. Neither end of that spectrum is a good place to review our own work and that’s why we need outside opinions. The bottom line is that you could review your own work for months on end looking for trends, signs of improvement, changed vision, and habits and never see what someone else will see.
Filter certain opinions
A clear and honest review that is negative is much more valuable than a confusing and dishonest opinion that is glowing. Certain places on the internet such as Flickr, twitter, forums, and other social media outlets are not necissarily the best place to get honest opinions, though there are exceptions. If you are looking to these outlets for signs of improvement and photographic review, you will need to filter the ‘noise’ from actual good and honest reviews.
Ability to execute vision
What projects have you taken on and executed well? We must look for improvement in our execution as well. A photographer can have great vision but without the ability to execute on that vision we will never see their work – or worse – it will be incomplete. We are not necessarily talking about success or failure in the traditional sense, but more of putting in the work and increasing our knowledge of the tools, techniques, and likelihood of success .
There’s a secret that all writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. – Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art“
It’s not all nebulous ‘artsy’ stuff, a lot of it is sitting down and doing the work. An upward trend in the ability to put in the work and execute, from beginning to end, is a good sign a photographer is improving.
Your portfolio should grow. If you are using a strong majority of the same images from two or three years ago as headlining porfolio images it’s a good sign that you aren’t improving on your previous work. Of course you will have images that will be life-long portfolio dwellers, but the portfolio should in most cases grow (or in some cases, shrink!). Conversely, an overly dynamic and rapidly changing portfolio can be a sign that maybe you aren’t filtering the right images into what you show the public. Steady growth is key and a good indicator of photographic progress.
Working through creative slumps
We all go through slumps. However the sign of a maturing photographer is often their ability to work through those slumps. Much like Pressfield suggests in the previous quote, it has a lot to do with sitting down and working through it all. Slumps aren’t fun and as unsexy as it sounds the only way to work through it is to put in the time.