Living With Your Photographs

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Living With Your Photographs

The title of this article has a bit of a double entendre.  This article is really about making proper decisions about your work before it’s shared with the public.  But second edge to this sword is that these decisions, good or bad, will affect the public perception of your work.  Your goal, of course, is to have a great portfolio.  But to do so, you have to think long and hard about your work – spend some time thinking and analyzing your work.  I refer to this as Living with your Photographs.

Building a great portfolio will require you to rethink the way you do things.  First and foremost, as a photographer, you need to learn to separate your art from your snapshots.  One of my big beliefs is that there is a big difference between the two.  Photographs are planned, composed, formatted and processed.  Every little detail has been thought out from the shutter speed to the depth of field to the lighting through the post-processing effects.  A lot of time is (or at least should be) spent on each photograph.  On the other hand, Snapshots are quick shots that preserve your memories.  These of course have an emotional connection to you, but they don’t necessarily have any bearing to an observer that has not made your acquaintance.  These are shots that you snapped quickly (possibly on auto mode or with a point-and-shoot camera) to catch a memory:  Your son blowing out the candles on his first birthday, your daughter’s graduation and so on.  There’s no reason why these shots can’t become great photographs, but chances are, most of them are important to you and your family and that’s it.  Knowing the difference between snapshots and photographs is the most important of all.  You need to separate the snapshots from your portfolio.  I would even recommend having completely different albums for each.  For example, you may post your family snapshots on your Flickr account, but you may want to keep your portfolio on a dedicated website separate from your snapshots.  If you have a business that depends on your portfolio, you may not even want to allow public access of your snapshots, and certainly don’t link it from your business’s website.  For the remainder of this article, I’m going to discuss my own workflow as it relates to Living With Your Photographs.  I’m going to assume that your snapshots are now completely separated and we will disregard them moving forward.

Now let’s talk about your photographs, the planned high-quality images that you hope to incorporate into your portfolio.  If you’re like me, you dump the images from your camera into a collective folder.  You may organize them in some way or another, but the point is that you should keep your unfinished works separate from your finished works.  Again, if you’re like me, you probably have at least couple of dozen shots that you’ve dumped into this folder (or a subfolder) every time you return from the field.  The first thing I do is go through all of my photos (not just the new ones) and immediately eliminate any photos that have no artistic merit.  I don’t yet delete them, because I could change my mind (though my initial reaction is usually what I end up sticking with).  I use Adobe Bridge, so I can simply flag the photos as “rejected”.  But before I had that wonderful program, I had a sub-folder specifically for rejected files.  Do whatever works for you.  Anyhow, as I said, I make an effort to go through all of my unfinished photos.  Some of them will have rejected flags from a previous session.  If I view them and still believe they aren’t worthy of being part of my portfolio, I’ll delete those.  I’ll also evaluate each photo again and determine if they’re worth saving.  When I get to my new photos, I’ll spend a little more time with them.  Some will get rejected off the bat.  Some I’ll leave for a second opinion down the line.  Unless one or two of the latest shots stands out as exceptional works, this is typically all I will do after my photo dump.  I find great importance in letting my images sit a few days before I format them.  It’s always good to have fresh eyes when post-processing your work.

So let’s talk statistics for a moment.  Assume, after a photo dump, I end up with 200 files in my incoming directory, 100 of which are brand-new.  About 25 of them were probably flagged as rejected from a previous review.  I’ll re-evaluate those, and likely will end up deleting all of them (I’m down to 175 now).  I’ll probably flag at least 50 of them as “rejected”, most of which will be from the latest dump (Down to 125 good images).  I’ll probably end up post-processing 10 of the images (if I have enough time), only two of which are from the latest dump.  That leaves me with about 115 images left in my workflow.  Remember, there are still 50 additional images that I flagged as rejected – but I leave them until my next session where I will probably delete them.  I end up tossing out about 30-50%.  Does that sound high?  Considering my current skill-level, I would say not.  A more experienced photographer will probably delete or reject far fewer images than I, but I would expect his ratio of good to bad images would be much lower.  That is, of course, a goal I’m striving for.  But I have a lot of failed experiments.  I truly believe you learn more from your failed photographs than your best work, which is why I don’t delete them flat-out.  If I reject a photo, I will likely analyze the photo and try to understand why it’s failed.  It’s a good way to learn.

Many amateur photographers have trouble tossing out their works.  This was something I always struggled with myself (still do, to some degree).  To make things easier, I devised these list of questions that I ask myself about each photograph:

  1. Will I be proud to share the photograph?
  2. Are the subject and the intent clear?
  3. Can I live with and defend any technical flaws that the photo might have? (very important, not every great work of art is technically perfect, but some flaws hurt your intent)
  4. Will complete strangers be able to connect with the photograph?  (This is especially important in portraits and candids as you must assume a stranger doesn’t know anyone in the photo.  That said, will they be able to appreciate the image?)
  5. Is the quality of the photograph an improvement over at least half of your previous works?

If the answer to any of the above questions is No, then I will reject the photo.
So now I’ve cleaned out my incoming folder.  I make an effort to format at least five images during that work session, focusing more on older items.  The intent, of course, is to make sure that my workflow is constantly moving.  But processing from older works helps to ensure enough of a buffer between my field session and my studio session that emotional attachments are temporarily severed.  I personally feel that I can better evaluate and format an image if I can separate my field work from the studio work.  Others may have differing opinions.  I will reconnect with the image through the post-processing of that image.  If I don’t, the image is yet again a candidate for rejection, but that rarely happens by the time I get to this point.

During my post-processing, I am constantly thinking about intent and it is constantly evolving.  For example, I shoot entirely in color, but may convert to black-and-white during processing.  I will make any changes/tweaks that I need, such as cropping, color and level tweaks and so on.  Then I will stop.  In my opinion, the image is not finished.  This is where my process will differ from others – I will export a few proof copies, but I will save the Photoshop document at this stage so I can tweak later, if I choose.  I will send copies of my proofs to work so I can view them on those monitors.  It’s not that they’re necessarily better monitors – just the contrary.  My monitor at home is a great monitor, which sometimes spoils me.  I often end up with images that are a little dark.  So I double check at work.  This could all be avoided if I had color corrective hardware at home to verify and manage my monitor’s color accuracy.  But until I can afford such a solution, this is what I do.  At that point I will once again ask those five questions to myself.  If I’m satisfied, I will release the image to the public.

My process is long and involved, but it works for me.  My real concern is that I do not want to regret releasing a photo for public consumption.  As I gain experience, I become more sure of myself and the process shortens slightly with each photo that I process.  As I make hardware upgrades down the line, I can expect the process to get much shorter (like I said, once I get a hardware color correction system in place, I will probably save myself a few days on each image).

The main take-away that I want you to have from this article is that you have to live with the influence each of your photographs will have on your portfolio for the rest of your life.  It doesn’t hurt to live with your images away from the public eye for some time, even if it’s a few months.  Since I adopted this involved process, I truly believe the quality of my work has improved tenfold.  Hopefully, a similar process will help you as well.

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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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