Effort Does Not Equal Quality in Photography

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AloneAs artists, it is sometimes hard to separate ourselves from our work.  When browsing our own photo libraries, it’s hard to detach ourselves from the process – our favorite photos may not be our best photos.  We may favor a specific shot simply because of the effort put into it.  This is a stumbling block that we must get over if we wish to improve ourselves artistically.  The most complicated shots may not be our best shot.

Shown here is one of my photos taken many years ago with my Nikon N2000 and a 50mm lens on Kodak T-Max 100 speed film.  If you’ve ever worked in film, you know the amount of time you might take to get measurements, framing perfectly and so on – just so you don’t waste film.  Wasting film is bad, and I perhaps spent more time setting up photos back then (though I have gained a lot of speed through experience alone).  This shot is nowhere close to my best.  But I favor it simply because of the time and effort that went into this one.

I remember this day well.  This was the summer just after my marriage to my lovely wife.  My in-laws have a vacation home up in the mountains, and it has since become one of my favorite places to shoot.  This waterfall, in particular, has its place all throughout my portfolio in the last few years, and I return here often.  My wife and I were trying to save money in any way that we could so that we could buy a home.  That included film.  Film was perhaps only a few bucks a roll, but after you add developing costs – it can add up.  So in an effort to reduce my film consumption, I was focusing on being more careful with each exposure.

The setup took longer than most.  I’m standing in a rather poorly maintained field, not a flat piece of ground in the place, and it was wet.  I was using my old cumbersome tripod (which broke later the same weekend) and getting it level was difficult.  Getting the camera level was rather difficult as well as I didn’t have a good frame of reference.  I managed to rig it level finally using a hand scope – but keep in mind, I was working blind with film.  I wanted to make sure everything was just right.  But the meter was playing tricks on me.

See, my N2000 doesn’t have a selectable metering point.  So after I got my camera set up, I realized I forgot to meter.  My experience told me that if I metered off the waterfall – mostly white water – I would end up with a dark exposure.  If I metered off the wooded area, my exposure would be too bright.  I had to meter off the sky.  My junky little tripod didn’t have a quick-release and the head only moved in two directions.  I had to unscrew the camera in order to meter off the sky, which I should have done before setting the camera up.  So I grabbed my meter readings, and then I had to get the camera set up again.  Noting the meter readings once I got set up again, I confirmed to myself that my gut was right:  The shot would have been underexposed if I metered off the waterfall.

And then a few kids in kayaks crested the waterfall – almost as if they were going to go down.  I didn’t want them in the shot, so I had to wait.  I waited, and waited and waited some more.  After what seemed like a long while, the kids disappeared and I was ready to shoot again.  Looking through the viewfinder, I was just about to push the shutter button when I realized my meter was showing a much slower speed than when I got it set up.  Looking behind me, the sun was starting do drop behind the trees for sunset.  I had to meter yet again.  Take the camera off the tripod, take a meter reading, get it back on the tripod.  And then *click* – I finally was able to take my shot.

I earmark this shot in my personal portfolio (most of which I don’t share with the public) because I was so proud of my patience.  I really spent a lot of time making sure everything was just right.  And for a while, I considered this one of my best photos.  But I’d be wrong to say so.

In hind sight, I learned a very important lesson from this photo:  Effort does not equal quality in photography – or any art, for that matter.  Sometimes our simplest and most insignificant works (at least as far as effort is concerned) end up being our best.  If I were to catalog the top 10 photos in my portfolio, I have to admit that only two of them were at all challenging.  And only one of those took me longer than a few minutes to set up.

The takeaway is that we need to learn to detach ourselves from our own knowledge about each photo when we assess the quality of each.  It’s difficult to do, but it is an essential skill as a photographer.  Keep in mind our audience, even those who are photographers, will never be able to accurately account for the time and effort that went into each photo.  Such aspects cannot be considered influences in the overall quality assessment of a photo.  So when you go through your work to evaluate each photo’s worth, think from the perspective of your audience:  Pretend you know nothing about the process.  Because effort doesn’t matter when it comes to the finished product.

Many of you have your own biased towards specific photos.  Whether or not you acknowledge your bias, we’d love to hear about your own experiences.  Do you have a particular photo that you favor but will not share with the general public?  Do you have a photo you wish you never shared with the public?  Share your thoughts and experiences by replying below.

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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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