Are you at a point in your photographic journey where you are questioning what you are producing? Have you reached a point where you question your own ability? Are you taking photographs that you think will do well in competition or gain praise from a “judge?” I put the word judge in quotations because judging a photograph is extremely subjective. I think we have all seen this in a judges review of our photos. With a very few exceptions (in my view) many judges seem to have a bias of some sort or another. I can’t complain as I have done fairly well in competitions. Recently I begun to question where I am regarding my photography.
One of the photographers I follow on YouTube is “The Photographic Eye.” I recently watched two of his videos that speak to this topic. Basically, do we photograph for ourselves for are we trying to please others. I am really trying to figure this out and wonder what some of you are think about this topic. Here are links to the videos I am referring to, if you have time, please watch them and let me know where you are in regard to your photography. Am I alone? I would really like to see if I am alone in these thoughts.
You are certainly not alone. Every day I question my own ability. I find myself taking photos with competitions in mind. I know judging is subjective, yet I am bummed when I don’t do well. I come up with ideas about my photos and then discard them because I’m afraid they won’t do well. I’m starting to understand why people choose not to compete, and yet club competitions are the main way I share my work, so I hate the thought of giving it up.
I listened to the first video by The Photographic Eye and it brought up a lot of important ideas. I’m not trying to make a living at photography, but I know that feeling of Imposter syndrome. At least making a living to support one’s family is a respectable reason to do something, rat race though it may be. But putting a lot of effort into photography and then feeling bad about it, or not good enough, or maybe it’s not enough effort, or maybe I’m just not creative or talented, or maybe I just need to focus more and find my niche, but maybe I don’t have a niche because I’m just a scattered person or maybe a thousand other things. Maybe I should just give up photography altogether. Except I like it and I like the way I see the world differently since taking up photography.
I am nowhere near figuring all this out, but it helps to know that you, a photographer I very much admire, also feel some of these things.
Good question. I watched the two videos too. I like that there is a real conversation here. I had hoped this site would be a place where real conversations could take place, it didn’t turn out that way unfortunately which is why had you not sent out the email I would not have known this was here. Like the man in the videos I like to talk photography, I like the challenge of figuring stuff out. I don’t need my work to be validated by others. I find working just to get some kind of illusional validation is an inspiration killer. I take photos for myself because I am challenged to learn, to see differently, and to be creative in new ways all the time. Getting stuck in what typically works to “win” is a hole in my mind. I fell in for a while, it was even fun, for a while. but it became a formula and I got bored. All the questions you asked are ones I asked myself.
It is OK for photography to be nothing more than a passion to follow. It is a passion that has led me to interesting conversations, like this one. It is a passion that has led me to interesting people who also enjoy interesting conversations. It is also a passion that allows me to explore the world about me, to ask questions, get to know more about the people I meet and in doing so get to know and understand myself better.
Once I got out of the game I came to see all feedback as only that and I was able to listen without caring whether I agreed or didn’t. It no longer mattered. I will never be famous, I will never have a thousand views or any of the other stuff some seem to crave, but I am having wonderful conversations and meeting interesting people and best of all learning more about the amazing world around me and how I fit into it. I think the question is where you put your focus.
Ladies thank you very much for your thoughts and insight. I feel better knowing that I am not alone. I had suggested quite awhile ago that if someone posts on the forum we all get an email saying this are new posts or new topics, even if it was only once a week. Obviously it didn’t happen, that is why i sent out and email. I appreciate you taking the time to respsond. I do better understand why people choose not to compete a bit better now as Jennifer said. I have started a photoshop artistry class and have a very long way to go but it is fun learning new skills.
That is awesome that you are taking the class. Continuing to learn, explore and grow is where it is at. When the focus is outside of ourselves the world is open to us. When it is turned inward and the focus is all about us or what we think might give us status our sight is blinded to all the possibilities that surround us. There is a time for outside validation you can get from competing against others when you are learning but as you progress that becomes more of a handicap than a benefit. It is very freeing to throw off those restraints and give yourself permission to follow your own roads.
It’s a really great question. I’ve been struggling with ambivilance about competitions for some time because of this very question. I took up photography (again) for myself, and find I don’t like the feeling of wondering how an image will do in competition when I’m planning a shot, or even thinking about what category it might fit in. There’s so much subjectivity in art, and the things I’m naturally drawn to just don’t do well in competitions (minimalism, negative space, etc.) We’ve had some wonderful judges and I definitely have learned a lot from them, but I’d like to learn more from the folks who took the images I’m looking at, too. I did non-comp last year, and enjoyed it so much more. (I follow The Photographic Eye on YouTube and have seen these videos. He is always so thought-provoking. I also follow Jamie Windsor and Sean Tucker for the same reason.)
The best group photographic experience I’ve had in the last few years was the composite class taught by Charley, one of our judges. We students were given instruction and parameters, and the images to use, then we’d gather together and look at everyone’s images. We’d talk through their process and what they learned, etc. It was the learning together and sharing that made the class so special.
Regarding the forum, I agree with those who posted earlier that it would be great if we could receive alerts when new topics post, or topics we’re following have updates. If you’ve ever used Microsoft’s SharePoint, you know you can customize alerts and receive a notification when anything posts, when specific things post, etc., and at the frequency you desire. I check our forum periodically, but quickly get out of the habit when there’s nothing new. Heck, it would be great if the forum just put the most recent activity at the top of the forum page.
Thanks so much for asking the question, and to those who responded.
Thanks, Mike, for this discussion. I have had this discussion with myself for a long time. I feared that if we all follow the “rules” of what makes a great photograph (as defined by what images win then our photos) would all begin to look alike. Yet that has not been the case for when in competitions I can say that’s Mike or that’s Ronnie…I see that we do develop our own styles and favorite subjects and ways of attaining a certain “look”. For a long long while I was able to ignore the “what will win” voice and just play within the bounds of the club structure and of the photographers that I grew to know and respect. Suddenly I advanced within the group just when I was really letting go of ‘wanting to win” curiously. Now in Masters I am more and more selecting Critique/Feedback so that I feel freer to experiment and try what pleases me. I am SO glad that we have kept that category! While competing I surely learned a lot from the journey along the way and now it is good to be free. Mike I am glad you continue to explore who you are as a photographer for I enjoy all your images and postings. I bet those athletes and youth love having your images.
Mike, thanks for starting this discussion. I’ve been thinking about this for some time now. Not the who question. I enjoy taking pictures, so I guess I’m taking them for me. The question I’m pondering is, what next?
The recent editorial in LensWork No. 161 Feb 2023 by Brooks Jensen resonated with me. He talks about the “Plateau of Despair” and describes different routes for photographers after they reach a certain level of competence. Some sell their camera gear and take up something new (only to hit another plateau years later). They give up because they decide they have nothing more to say with photography. Some move into publishing, teaching and sales – teaching as judges, tour leaders, workshop leaders, publishing books.
Jensen suggests that reaching this plateau “is not a bad thing.” He says it’s “when the art life begins.” It’s “when you can do something that’s not just gathering another cliche image another calendar shot, another bunch of likes or award ribbons.” He says it means that “you are ready to practice art and do work that is truly your own.” Make the transition from pretty pictures to artwork.
Of course, that is all easier said than done. But I found his editorial inspiring and an indication of a possible direction forward.
Interesting videos, Michael. I share the imposter syndrome feelings, often feeling that I’ll never be good enough or accomplished enough to satisfy my own appetite. But what I know for sure is that since I was 20 years old and clicked a camera shutter for the first time, I am never happier than when I’m taking photographs, or making something creative from the photos I’ve taken. I love it when one of my images wins in competition and like Jennifer, I get bummed when a judge’s comments aren’t laudatory, but that isn’t the be all and end all for me. I do think competition makes me try harder, not for a judge but for my own sake, to make awesome photographs, to learn from the critiques, try new ideas, pay better attention. I may never join the master group, but I hope I can keep trying new things and keep the love of seeing through a viewfinder alive. These are the spirit of photography for me.
Mike, your question is simple, but not so easy to answer. I am taking photographs for a variety of reasons: for my own enjoyment as a hobby, for the enjoyment of people who see in my photos something pleasing or unexpected, for getting me out into nature, for communicating a problem and/or solution to something that matters, for documenting something from a historical perspective, for maintaining the plasticity of my brain, among other things still unknown. Whenever I hit a wall in my photography journey I just put it on hold and go do something else, and let inspiration come to me naturally. Thankfully I don’t rely on my photography to make a living!
Regarding competitions, my goal is to become a better photographer by objectively taking in the judges’ comments, not only on my images but every submitter’s images. In addition, I enjoy seeing what other photographers are submitting. When I start taking the judging comments personally or get consumed by winning and losing, that’s when I need to chill out, for it’s easy to get caught up in the competitive spirit and lose the plot. So, what is the plot? Perhaps it is to do something worthwhile, to apply our evolving photography skills toward a project that serves the greater community, for example, making North Bay cities more resistant to mega-wildfires, fighting climate change, or something else that stirs your passion.
Thanks for motivating me to think about your important question.