Thursday, December 24, 2015

Do I Like My Own Photographs?

Sun Rays Over Cummings Mountain - Tehachapi, California
I recently came across a question that I had to stop and consider awhile before answering. "Do you like your own pictures?" Am I satisfied with the results of my photography?

The photograph above, Sun Rays Over Cummings Mountain, I captured last month. It's a better image than 95% of the photographs that I've ever captured, and better than 99% of those captured more than three years ago. It's a dramatic monochrome landscape with depth, contrast and atmosphere. It has good compositional balance.

But I'm not satisfied with the image. I worked on it for a long time on my computer. I made a couple of different versions. I couldn't get it right. The edit that I finally settled on is the one you see above. It's not perfect. I was tired of editing it, so I decided that it was good enough and quit messing with it any further.

Do I like it? Am I satisfied with it?

I don't think that "like" and "satisfaction" are the same thing (although they are seemingly similar). I can like something but be dissatisfied with it. We have to look at these two things separately, and then bring them together later.

Satisfaction has to do with contentment. If you are satisfied you are content, and if you are dissatisfied you are discontent. I would define contentment as being at peace with limitations, shortcomings and situations. You know something's not perfect, but that's alright, because it doesn't have to be perfect.

In Sun Rays Over Cummings Mountain there is plenty that I could be dissatisfied with. Perhaps it's the location--maybe the image would be stronger if it were a more dramatic or interesting location. Perhaps it's the gear--maybe the image would be stronger if the camera had a larger dynamic range or if I had used a large-format film camera.

Alternatively, I could be satisfied that I've created what is probably the most interesting image of this location ever captured. I could be satisfied that I had a camera with me, because if I had bigger gear I most likely wouldn't have had it with me when this scene unfolded. A camera with limitations in hand is far better than a camera without limitations at home on a shelf.

Contentment is a choice. It's purposefully looking at the positive instead of the negative. It's seeing the glass half-full instead of half-empty.

However, I don't think contentment is ignoring the negative, because negativity serves a purpose. I can see what wasn't perfect and try harder next time. It's a driving force for improvement, and in this way negativity can be positive. So it isn't pushing every negative thought away, but it's making peace with the negative thoughts so that you are not a negative person.

Contentment is choosing to not get so overly wrapped up in the negativity that you miss the positive. It's not regretting everything that went wrong, it's accepting that some things went wrong, but you can learn from those, and that no one has ever created a perfect photograph because it doesn't exist--there will always be some "wrong" in every image captured.

Like has to do with taste. It's opinion. Do I like ice cream? Yes! Do I like mayonnaise? Absolutely not! You may hate ice cream and love mayo. Everyone has different tastes.

Tastes can change over time, too. Maybe you didn't like baseball as a kid, but now you do. Maybe you thought wine tasted gross but now you are a connoisseur of sorts. Maybe you used to listen to "hair metal" but now you can't stand it. Things that you once didn't like you might now love, and things that you once did like you might now hate.

There are a number of my photographs that I once thought were great, but looking back they were pretty mediocre. I cringe at many of my older images. My tastes have changed. What I like has changed. What I think is "good" has changed. And it will continue to change.

If I like an image it is because it fits my tastes. Sun Rays Over Cummings Mountain fits my taste (at least for now, I might someday hate it). I like the image. It's not my best photograph. It's not likely a Top 10 favorite, but it's probably a Top 25 (I haven't tried to rank it, it's too soon for that). It doesn't have to be at the top of my portfolio for me to like it. I like it simply because that's my opinion.

I like the photograph, but I'm not completely satisfied with it. I imagine myself capturing a similar, yet superior, photograph sometime in the future. Perhaps the scene will be slightly more interesting. Perhaps the lighting will be just slightly better. Whatever it is, I see Sun Rays Over Cummings Mountain as the catalyst that makes the future image possible--that and lots of work.

If I don't like my photographs I have the power to change that. I can try different compositions and subjects. I can try different focal lengths, apertures, shutter speeds, lighting, etc. I can visit different locations. I can try and fail and try again. It's up to me to create photographs that I like, and I have the ability to do that. But's it's not necessarily easy, and, in fact, it might be quite difficult.

And it's not worth worrying about what other people think of my photography. I like to receive positive feedback and I dislike negative feedback. I think that's normal. People like to be validated by their peers. But I'm not doing this whole photography thing for them, I'm doing it for me. I'm doing it because I enjoy it, because I'm good at it, because I have a deep-down desire to express my creativity, and because it is a stress relief for me. So it really does not matter what other people think or say about my photography, just as long as I'm happy with it.

I can be happy with my photography and like my own images and still be dissatisfied with them. It is natural and even good to strive for improvement, to become an even better photographer. It's not bad to pursue perfection. However, I need to be at peace with the fact that I will never be a perfect photographer and I will never create the perfect image. I have to choose a positive attitude despite the imperfections and limitations.

The question is simple: do I like my own pictures? The answer is complex, but can be summarized this way: yes, but I'm always trying to improve. 

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