Photographers Have a Right to Be Subpar on the Way to Producing Art

When it comes to photographic competency, is it possible to be both accomplished and stink at the same time? I’d argue yes on both accounts. I find that people tend to generalize about what it means to be a skilled photographer without necessarily taking into consideration the artist’s strengths, weaknesses, or preferences.

If you’re good at street photography or environmental portraiture, then it would be reasonable to assume that you’d also be a complete ace at weddings or other family events, right? Well, no, this thinking doesn’t always hold water even when the situations are similar.

Let me use myself as an example. Over the past few years, I’ve volunteered to take photographs at a few important family events. My significant other (who is a talented photographer in her own right) often takes pictures alongside me with her consumer-level Canon DSLR. In many cases, I have found that my photos somewhat skim the surface of mediocrity, while her photographs are often better in many respects. Of course, I always have a few gems in the mix, but my overall output is nothing to write home about, and she often has a much larger number of usable images. Generally, I’d rather produce three amazing shots than 100 pedestrian ones, but don’t tell that to the folks who still insist that you provide them with every image on your SD card.

Country Wizard (Leeper, PA).

I’m not saying this to emphasize the competitive nature of photography. I really don’t measure my worth based on whether someone is better than me. Instead, I turn any competitive feelings inward as an opportunity to improve myself and learn from my mistakes. At the end of the day, I’m the one who needs to be happy with my own photography.

If I’ve taken 200 pictures and get three really awesome ones in the bunch, I’m happier than a clam. Anyone who is familiar with Magnum photographers understands that their “decisive shot” was often smack in the middle of a long series of disappointing shots. I wonder how the same Magnum photographers would feel if their editor wanted to publish all their shots, including the outtakes and unedited versions? Make no mistake, families often want all your photos—the good, the bad, and the ugly. More times than not, they’re also fine with JPEG images that are straight out of the camera with no editing. Sorry, but that’s not how I roll—I’d rather focus on quality rather than quantity.

A WWII re-enactor stands in a vintage tent filled with historical memorabilia.

One of the things I’ve come to learn about myself is that I’m not a high-volume shooter. I tend to take a contemplative, almost meditative approach to my photography instead of run and gun (which involves documenting everything you see). Additionally, I don’t do well when I’m asked to take posed, canned shots that most families have come to expect. Throw in a high-pressure situation where you’re on the clock and other family members are also jockeying for shots with their iPhones, and it will inevitably throw me off my game even more.

Two teenagers in Franklin, PA.

If I capture something special, I want it to happen organically (and on my own time frame) instead of being forced to constrain my style to a certain expectation. I want the subject to reveal itself to me when it’s ready instead of trying to force its hand. When I start feeling like I’m going through formulaic motions, the creative juices start to dry up, and I find myself just snapping away aimlessly. If you allow your photography to occur naturally without the pressure of capturing every scene, you’ll be much more likely to hone in on moments that really matter.

Like many, I work best when it’s on my own terms and there are no rules. Even on the editing side, where the photographer can still wield some influence on how the final image is ultimately perceived (through thoughtful edits, which can enhance mood), I do think it’s important to maintain some degree of creative license and control over what we distribute. Just as you wouldn’t ask a recording artist to send over their raw voice files without backing music, we shouldn’t expect photographers to do the same—yet we often do, treating their files like we’re sifting through a friend’s iPhone photo library.

It has often been said that when a photographer connects with their subject, the viewer is more likely to connect with their photos. Although I may connect with the family member on a deeper level, it doesn’t always translate. I think part of the problem stems from the fact that I know them too well (and vice versa). Sometimes there needs to a bit of mystery and a sense of the unexpected when seeking out a worthy subject. It’s also too easy for the family member to dismiss your efforts (or become impatient). We need to approach our photography like a kid entering a candy store for the first time. This is hard to do when you’re photographing known subjects. Stepping away from the commonplace can allow us to see things with fresh eyes.

Pappy (Jim Thorpe, PA).

Getting into a creative flow is not a formula, and it can’t be flipped on and off like a switch. People like me are perfectly comfortable spending hours just trying to get one or two images that move us, and if we’re not feeling it, we’re equally fine just walking away. When we’re thrust into a situation that takes us out of this mindset, we don’t always hit the mark. For example, if you’re trying to capture a photograph of every guest at the party, you’re likely to miss some of the more intimate moments.

High School Graduation Parade (Vestal, NY).

Although I have tremendous respect for photographers who have chosen to focus on weddings, events, or portrait photography, I’m finally ok admitting that these genres are not really my thing, and I’m at peace with this realization.

Only we photographers can judge what truly inspires each of us creatively. While we may excel at some aspects of photography, it doesn’t mean we’re accomplished at every facet, nor should this be a foregone conclusion. Just as it’s not fair to expect a landscape painter to be proficient at people caricatures, we can’t presume that our photographic capabilities would cover every type of shooting scenario or genre.

However, we can still use these challenging experiences as an opportunity for self-reflection and growth. Even when my shots are inferior, I still value any opportunity I can get to practice the craft. The way I see it, it’s just preparing me for those times when I am in the zone, and my creativity is flowing. The true magic happens when we are able to slow down our game and focus on subjects that inspire us and align with our interests.

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