Benchmarking Your Photography With A Test Site

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"White Noise" - taken in 2004 with my N2000 Film Camera

Photography, like many art-forms, is an art of skill and experience. Practice often, and you’re going to improve. Don’t practice enough, and you’re bound to lose something. Over the course of a year, your art can evolve a great deal. Sometimes, you’re on the right path to lead you to your personal goals. Other times, the path can be rocky – and looking back, you may find you didn’t get as far as you had thought. It is for that reason that we need to stop every once in a while and look at where we stand. We need to evaluate ourselves and our work to keep ourselves in check – to make sure we’re on the course we have chosen.

With an art form like photography, it is sometimes very difficult to benchmark where you are. Comparing one of your recent photos to one of your past photos is like comparing apples to oranges. The subject matter may be different, the lighting may be different, even stylistic differences will make it difficult to pinpoint exactly how much you’ve grown. To level the playing field so that you can more effectively compare your past photos with your current photos – you need a test location. It can be anywhere, really, a studio setup in your basement, a favorite building in the city. All that matters is that the location is consistent, and that you return at set intervals.

My test location is a nice little man-made lake in the mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania. For those of you who have been following me, you’ve heard me bring this place up many times. The place is called Lake Naomi, and there is a man-made waterfall at one end of the lake. I shoot there often, at every time of the year, and I consider the waterfalls my test location. This is where I benchmark myself. I benchmark myself every time I get a new lens, with every new piece of equipment and then I make sure to benchmark myself twice a year. So long as I find that my work isn’t slipping in quality, there’s usually not much to be done. If I find that my work has significantly improved, then I give myself a pat on the back and continue down the trail. But what I’m really looking for is where I wandered from my path, or where I may have made a mistake.

When I first visited the falls, I was shooting only with my Nikon N2000 film camera and a tripod. When I first got my digital camera, I returned to see if I could create better photos. I could not. Comparing the two sets of photos, I was very quick to realize that changing cameras had handicapped me in some way. It’s not that my new camera was inferior – I just wasn’t as comfortable with it. But I was able to identify two specific things that were hindering my work, and I was able to correct my process accordingly.

The first flaw in my process was that the new in-camera meter system was very different. The N2000 would tell me exactly what film speed options I had, the most ideal (according to the camera) would blink. Years of experience with that camera told me that it wasn’t perfect, and I would tweak my speed settings accordingly. The D80 uses a simple scale. Some would argue it is easier to use, but it wasn’t at all similar to how I learned to use a camera. And like the N2000’s meter, I didn’t trust the D80’s meter as much either. The real root of my problem was that I didn’t know when to trust the D80 meter, and when it shouldn’t be trusted. Or, more importantly, I hadn’t learned which lighting conditions required me to ignore the meter, nor had I learned which way to tweak my settings. With the problem identified, I spent a great deal of time the next several weeks experimenting with a number of different lighting scenarios, and I learned a lot about the camera and the meter’s limitations.

The second flaw was with the focusing system. The N2000 had nothing in the way of automatic focusing, it was all manual focus up until I got the D80. So with the D80, I was excited to begin using automatic focus, and I used it a lot – at first. My benchmark session showed me a number of situations where automatic focus wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Don’t get me wrong, automatic focus is great for a lot of applications, but it’s not perfect. Even with selected focusing points, I was still finding the focus wasn’t exactly where I wanted. From that day forward, I am now using manual focus again most of the time.

In both of these cases, I was able to identify specific flaws in my process that were hindering my work as I changed equipment. From your own benchmarking sessions, your findings may not be as dramatic. But you should still check up on yourself from time to time. You may find a flaw in your process. For that matter, you may find troubles in your own equipment – a dirty sensor or a scratch in one of your filters. You may also find that the quality of your work has dramatically improved, and that’s a good feeling.

So go out and pick a testing site. Pick a place you’re familiar with, and return there often. When you return, try to cover as many scenarios as you can so that you can accurately benchmark yourself. And don’t worry if none of them are good enough for your portfolio. In fact, I rarely share the photos I take from these sessions. The goal is to check up on your skills and equipment – you’re not trying to create a masterpiece.

Everyone has their own methods to check up on themselves. So if you do anything different or if you have a special process – we’d love to hear about it. So tell us what you do and share your experiences.

Same location in 2009 with new gear and more experience. I'm happy with how much I've grown.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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