Photography, like all art, is subjective. However, one of the most common questions I see from people starting their photography journey is “how do I know when I’m getting better?” While the idea of ‘better’ is also partly subjective, improvement is still something every photographer strives for, and there are many different ways we can assess our own growth.
1. You See the Flaws in Your Current Work
As the saying goes “If you’re not your own worst critic, you’re your own worst enemy.” When starting out as a photographer, it can be hard to see our own work with a critical eye — after all, we don’t really have a reference to which we can compare our work.
One of the best ways to improve when you’re starting out is to get constructive feedback on your work from people from different walks, then use that advice when shooting in the future. However, there comes a point when you’re able to see the flaws in your own work, without them being pointed out to you.
When you’re able to start understanding what both does and doesn’t work in your images, it’s one of the clearest signs of growth, as a photographer. Again, what does and doesn’t work may be subjective, but forming a more critical opinion of your own work is an objective sign of growth.
2. You Outgrow Your Old Work
We’ve all had that moment where we think to ourselves, “This is the best photo I’ve ever taken.” It’s a great feeling. I can’t count the number of times I’ve felt this way.
I remember when I took my first picture of Mount Fuji back in 2017. I was absolutely elated, so much so that I almost knocked my camera and tripod into the lake I was standing on the edge of. However, there comes a point when your former “best photo ever” starts to look more and more average, maybe even bad.
When I look back at that photo and remember how I so proudly used it as my Facebook cover photo and showed every Tom, Dick, and Harry, I almost want to cringe. This change is a sign that you’ve grown as a photographer. This photo, while not the worst image in the world, is below my current standard, and wouldn’t even make it onto my Instagram, let alone my portfolio. However, back in 2017, this photo had me feeling on top of the world.
All of this is to say, if you start falling out of love with your old photos, don’t let it get you down, it’s a sign that you’ve grown as a photographer. Rather than dwelling, use that energy to create stronger work that continues to make you feel proud.
3. You Outgrow Your Gear
I’m going to say something possibly controversial here, so grab some chamomile tea (unless you’re allergic), a soft fuzzy kitty (unless you’re allergic), or your comfort blanket (unless you’re… allergic?), and take a deep calming breath. The claim that “Your gear doesn’t matter” is an exaggeration. OK, now that you’ve finished booing, let me explain.
I’m not saying that you can’t take a good photo with any camera or lens, but there comes a point where the gear you have becomes a limitation for what you can do.
For example, in recent years, I’ve started doing more and more panoramic images. My D850 makes this a breeze, as it has a built-in digital level. Now, could I have just gotten an attachable level for my D5500? Absolutely, which is why I did, and it was not intuitive enough for my liking.
For me, it’s like a digital clock vs an analog clock. I can read both, but with analog, it takes me a bit longer and a little more focus to get things precise. When it comes to taking panoramic images, precision can be the difference between a great image and a missed opportunity.
When you reach the point where your equipment is preventing you from taking the photos you want to take at the level you want to take them, it’s a sign that you may want to consider upgrading or adding to your gear (within your own means, of course). As a bonus, this also kind of answers the question “when do I upgrade my gear”.
4. You Become More Selective of What You Shoot
When you pick up a camera for the first time, whether it’s yours or one you’ve borrowed, it’s a natural instinct to start shooting anything and everything, at least it was for me. Back in 2008, I bought my first point-and-shoot camera. I remember getting home after hours of waiting in line and shooting literally anything and everything I could. I probably took more photos in my first month of owning a camera than I have in the past year.
While this is the best way to get a feel for the camera, to learn the basics of how light works, and practice composition, there comes a point where you start to shoot less and less. You begin to see things as “photo-worth” or “not photo-worthy” before the camera even comes out. Now, while this is subjective (one photographer’s boring scene is another’s award-winning photo spot), it’s a sign that you have evolved as a photographer, and have begun to start understanding what locations or subjects you can turn into a photograph.
This isn’t to say you should stop experimenting, but knowing what you can do with the scene or subject presented to you and visualizing the final product before you press the shutter is a big step when it comes to growing as a photographer.
5. You Gain Confidence in Your Instincts
Picking up a new camera for the first time can be overwhelming, even as an experienced photographer. However, as a new photographer, you not only have to learn what all of the fancy buttons on the camera do but also how and when to use them.
I often see new photographers asking questions about making decisions on things like focal length, composition, and aperture, and I was no different. When I finally decided to learn about the exposure triangle, I’d often find myself taking multiple photos of the same scene with slightly different settings or compositions, hoping to get something that works. However, there comes a time when you stop overthinking and just go with your gut.
It might not always work out when you start listening to your instincts, but over time choosing the best settings, focal length, and composition for the scene will become second nature. These days, I rarely go out with more than one lens. After scouting a location online, I have more than enough confidence to know which of my lenses will likely be needed for the photo I’m planning to take.
Going with your gut doesn’t end there, though. As you grow as a photographer, these same instincts will help you in the editing process.
6. You Become More Selective of What You Keep
Back when I picked up my first camera, absolutely nothing was left on the cutting room floor. It didn’t matter if the images were blurry, out of focus, over-exposed, or boring, I unabashedly shared everything online to attack people’s retinas. However, as I continued to shoot and edit, things started to change. Fewer photos made it onto my computer, fewer photos started getting edited, and even fewer got shared.
We’ve all had the feeling where we come back from a shoot, transfer the files to the computer, then look at some of them with a sense of disappointment. While this never feels good, it is actually a sign that you’re growing as a photographer, as it connects to point one of this list. When you become more critical of your own work, because the flaws stand out, you start to better understand what is worth the effort of editing, and what is beyond “saving”.
This isn’t to say all of the pictures you’re unhappy with should immediately go in the bin, but having the ability to quickly identify what is worth your time and what isn’t can help you manage your time a lot more easily.
7. Approval Becomes Less Important
When starting out as a photographer, nothing brought me more joy than getting praise. If no one liked or commented on a photo of mine, it crushed me. When I wasn’t checking and refreshing my activity feed on Instagram, waiting for new likes, I was jealousy-scrolling through the feeds of “worse” photographers with more followers who were getting more attention than me. However, as time has gone on, I spend less and less time caring about how much engagement each of my photos gets, and I’ve stopped comparing myself to others.
Sometimes, I go three or four days without even thinking about social media. This isn’t to say you should thumb your nose at the idea of getting more engagement, but at a certain point, the quality of your pictures is no longer connected to the number of Internet points they get.
These days, the worth or quality of a photo is connected to how much I like it, or the experience of getting it. Some get more attention than others, some sell better than others, and some get more international recognition others, but none of those change how I feel about the pictures I’ve taken.
Some of my favorite images in the past two years have received little engagement online, haven’t sold a thing, and never got so much as an honorable mention, but they are the photos I’m most happy with and the ones I choose to hang on my walls, and that’s all that matters. When this change occurs, you start taking more pictures for yourself, and fewer just to get attention online, which can lead to more unique personal work.
8. You Develop Thicker Skin
Admittedly, this one is more or less the same as number seven but applies more to how you respond to negative feedback. Back when I was starting to actually learn the ins and outs of photography, I saw a dramatic increase in the quality of the images I was producing. With that came a huge boost of confidence, and with that confidence, I decided to share my work outside my personal circle.
I’d mastered the exposure triangle, I’d bettered my understanding of composition, and my appreciation for light was at an all-time high. There was just one problem, I’d only ever received praise, which left me utterly ill-prepared for the harsh reality I was about to face. It may come as a surprise to no one that only receiving praise for mediocre photos left me with skin so thin that it would make one-ply toilet paper blush.
Perhaps this is a pathetic thing to admit but there were some comments that made me so angry they literally kept me up at night. This was a rather dark period for me, in terms of photography, as I spent a period of time simply dismissing my fellow photographers as being unable to see the genius in my work, rather than actually trying to get better.
When we think of photography, we often think of time spent with our camera or editing software, honing our craft. However, learning how to handle criticism is a sign that you’ve grown not only as a photographer but as a person. Needless to say, I get a lot more sleep than I once did.
One Thing I HAVEN’T Used to Track My Growth
The signs of growth may vary from photographer to photographer, but these are the ones I’ve used to track my personal growth as a photographer… albeit an obscure hobbyist. As I mentioned above, “You Gain a Large Social Media Following” is not on this list for a couple of reasons. First of all, I’m yet to gain a large following, so I can’t attest its connection to a feeling of growth. Second of all, with all due respect to the voices in Kevin Costner’s head, it’s a little more complex than “If you build it, he will come”.
Gaining a following is largely connected to how much time you spend trying to get said followers. I gained more followers in my first year on Instagram than I have in the subsequent three years. This isn’t because my work suddenly got worse (as far as I know), it’s because I stopped spending hours and hours every day trying to get noticed.
Admittedly, my introverted nature makes me pretty bad at the “social” aspect of social media, I’ve probably left a total of 15 comments on other photos in the last three years, on Instagram. These days, I’ll post something, scroll through my home feed for about 45 seconds, then close the app and forget about it for 3 or 4 days. This isn’t to say that better images won’t gain you followers, but rather better images alone won’t gain you a bigger following.
I say all of this knowing that some people will seek out my Instagram, look at my numbers and think “What does this guy know? He doesn’t even have X number of followers”, and that kind of ignores the point I’m making. While my social media following was once connected to my self-worth as a photographer, it no longer is. I only have my own lack of interest in the social aspects and dismal self-promotion skills to blame for my recent slowdown in follower numbers.
I know from experience that some will disagree, but I think an important message for new photographers to hear is that your social media following isn’t necessarily a reflection of the quality of your work.
About the author: Jordan McChesney is a landscape, cityscape, and abstract Canadian photographer living in Chigasaki, Japan. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of McChesney’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram.
Image credits: Photo licensed from Depositphotos and location marker icon by Iconfinder and licensed under CC BY 3.0.