Favorite Versus Favorited
It's that time of year again. Many of us professional photographers work up a blog post of our favorite image or images of the year. Yes, I know I'm a bit late to the party as it's now mid-January. It is a useful tool as it allows us to showcase our best stuff and to reflect on the year with a critical eye towards the future.
As I look at what other folks have done it usually makes me want to shoot more, lament on where I didn't travel, and redirect the jealousy by stimulating the creative juices. All good right? Sure, pat on the back and good feels around. This year I wanted to take a different approach and examine the difference between favorite and favorited. It is an important distinction and understanding it can help you direct and advance your work.
Know Your Audience
Every photograph has an audience, even if your intent is that the audience ever only be you. Probably the most important question you can ask yourself as an artist is "Who is my audience?" This becomes ever more important should you want to eventually sell your work. Most of the amateur photographers that I know want to take steps to broaden their audience base so they ask me how to accomplish that. Sadly, there isn't an easy or simple answer. The easiest one is "What do you want with an expanded audience?" Notice I didn't say whom yet. Establishing what you want is important towards setting personal goals and you should have them because the realm of public opinion can be a harsh environment. If you are after the dreaded feedback steel yourself unless of course you are shooting nudes in which case the internet will love you. Seriously, nudity always plays. It's sad really.
Let's do a quick case study of the post image of surfboards. I was in the US Virgin Islands on St. John working for a commerical hospitality client. Bouncing out to Cinnamon Beach, I had hopes of catching some palm trees along the shoreline. Happening by a small shack that rents out water sports equipment, the arrangement of the surfboards looked pretty good so I took a few quick snaps with a black and white treatment in mind and moved on with the rest of my day. No tripod, I didn't bother to look at or adjust any camera settings. As an aside, I was trying to focus on getting a shot of a wild donkey with a beach background because the client really wanted it (see below). It's a local feature of the island and was top of my shooting list. The surfboards went on to be used in an international ad campaign for Banana Republic. I had no idea it would be received that well and honestly think it's a rather pedestrian shot but that does not matter. I was shooting with my future audience in mind and as a professional photographer I want to maximize my image pool. Being mindful of my goals, most of which revolve around revenue generation, helps me to stay focused in the field. Ever heard of the term starving artist? Sure you have and I really think many of these folks don't bother to have a plan other than to make art and then to expect money to mysteriously rain from the sky. Being a professional artist is brutal. Anyone else who tells you otherwise is lying. It takes work, dedication, commitment, and time. Yep, sometimes it takes time. The surfboards shot I took in 2009 and it didn't blow up until 2016 and it did blow up, especially on Pinterest lately. Go figure.
We don't get do overs as photographers. You cannot go back and replicate something exactly as it was previously, even if it is in your own back yard. Knowing who you are shooting for helps you in the moment because it's present then it's history.
So you have this favorite image. The one you are sure everyone and their mother will adore so you put it out there on social media, maybe you even spend some of your hard earned cash to enter it into a contest as you are so confident that the world axis gets realigned just by viewing it. Ok, that was heavy handed but you get the picture. You like it. I've been there. The truth is that just because you adore it does not in any way guarantee that anyone else will and your favorite does not always equal getting favorited.
I have this image that it grabbed on a glorious evening in Joshua Tree National Park. It was one of those just perfect evenings and I was in the zone. We were doing some experimenting with light painting the joshua trees and I found a stand alone subject without much clutter and came up with this great idea to add the moon into the frame but not just the moon itself. I experimented with the aperture settings to get the moon to flare in such a way that it looked like it was sending energy waves to the tree leaning towards it. This was some high brow special type stuff in my mind. It required not only finding a unique spot and set of circumstances but also a bit of actual photographic acumen. I was rather pleased with myself. So, yep I threw it out to the world and entered a contest or two even. The response, meh. I was bummed and if I was relying on that image to put food on the table I was in trouble. You just never know how something will be received that is unless you are John Sexton. If John points to something and calls it his favorite image of the year most people will nod because he's just that good which is not to say any work is above reasonable critisism but just that in any profession there are those on an elite level. I mean elite in a positive way. I'm not sure how we reached the point that it is viewed any other way but that's another issue. To summarize this point, don't let other people's impression of your work define it.
Ok man, I've got my audience figured out and hear you telling me not to get too emotionally invested in one shot. How do I do that exactly?
The solution is to work on how you craft an image. Start with practice. Shoot loads of images. Fill up memory cards then get good at editing. Look at image aggregating sites like Flickr, Pinterest, and 500px. Take notes on the images you like the most and why you like them. Ya know, your favorites. Try to replicate them, that's ok. Copying takes effort. It really does. Along the way you will be forced to develop a critical eye and will hone you editing skills. This will later give you the freedom and confidence to experiment and refine your own vision of image-making. Along that road your personal style will emerge and you will hopefully adopt method. Confidence and method are the cornerstones of creating not just an image but a body of work that represents not just a place or a thing but an idea. That is one of the principle differences between amateurs and professionals photographers. The transition lies in knowing it is good enough and why. Unless you want your work to live in a vacuum, the end result will be seeking out people you trust to give you real criticism and not the anemic internet version of it. Haters gonna hate but if you have built the foundation of quality image-making you will be able to shake them off and just focus on the work.
So What Is Your Favorite Of The Year?
My favorite image of 2016 is an iPhone shot of my son climbing a tree. Uncle Mik wanted kiddo and I to check out this expansive oak that he thought was cool. Arborists just see the world a little differently but we were game. Upon arrival, the tree sat in a large field full of rotting pumpkins with a late fall Washington grey sky so it didn't immediately jump out as particularly photographic on that day so I left the Canon in the car. When we got through the minefield, kiddo wanted me to hoist him up so I did onto a lower branch. He straddled it like he was ridding a horse and gazed up into the sky with this great curious expression on his face. I love it. It does what all great images do and that is to make you feel something.
Until next time.