QOD 8/25/2017: Single Most Important Thing to Elevate Photos

by | Aug 29, 2017 | QOD | 2 comments

Short answer:  I’m not sure.  The best I could do from a distance would be a portfolio review, and that would likely leave us both wanting for something more meaningful.  The tiny adjustments that might result in field and post technique from a portfolio review could certainly make your work more readable.  However, the big stuff–the kind of change that can transform your portfolio, move it into different directions or into more focused directions–that sort of stuff generally occurs upstream of capture and process.

Let’s take a look at the photography process in general.  Pardon the cheesy graphics if you will (they were intended for a PowerPoint presentation I did some years back).  In the broadest sense possible, an individual (the artist) picks up a camera to communicate something visually.  The intended communication will be a reflection of the artist:  where and how they choose to make the photograph.  Capture skills will allow the artist’s message to be focused and distilled into a clean, readable frame while also dictating how much data will be available for post-processing.  Post-processing is where the photograher has the opportunity to merge artistic intent, place/subject, and data capture to produce a finished frame that, if all goes as desired, will enable the vision to fulfill it’s potential (as determined by each artist individually).


It goes without saying that most folks don’t step into the photographic process linearly.  Instead, if you’re like me, you enter somewhere in the middle, picking up a camera and immediately going about the process of learning how to capture a scene (dials and controls).  There’s an obsession about gear at this point, the thought being that the right gear and some knowledge about how to use it will result in images that are meaningful.  Somewhere along this path of collecting technological gadgets and expanding our capture potential, we realize that where we photograph is pretty important as well.  So, we begin to travel.  We begin to experience the magic of the natural world:  sunrises and sunsets atop mountains or along beautiful coastlines; the energy found at the edge of a storm; the vibrance of seasonal bloom or color events.  Perhaps we even engage a few photography tours or workshops to learn the locations where other photographers  are experiencing inspiration.  We meet many like-minded photographers along the way.  And we, naturally, begin to butt up against our limitations while trying to capture these landscapes.  We see others getting it right and we note our own apparent failures and shortcomings.  We do everything humanly possible behind the camera in the field to shorten this perceived gap.  Eventually, we realize (after trying everything in the field that we can possibly figure) that something is going on in post-production that is allowing digital images to move beyond our field captures.

So, into the computer we go.  Some folks are excited about this move to the computer and others, like me, are frustrated by the requirement.  But, go we must, sooner or later.  The tips and tricks are endless; the only limitation during post is our knowledge of the software and our creative imagination on how far we wish to take the finished image.  It’s a wide-open landscape of digital art at this point.  We each draw our own lines as to how far we want our work to travel in this arena.

We each work this process at different speeds and in different orders, but at some point, we’ve likely all traveled to the hotspots for our specific interests, have a bag full of decent gear, a computer with some sort of processing software and a small portfolio of representative scenes that are processed pretty well for our own standards.  Perhaps we’ve even developed some channels where others can come to view and interact with our work on a regular basis.  We know that there’s work to be done still with our photography–things that could still be tightened up–however, we’re confident that we can utilize the camera as a tool to say something.  In essence, we’ve been activated.  This is the point where I most often receive the question that was posed at the head of this blog post:

What one thing will move my photography from good to great?

If we agree that expert retouching requires great data capture; and if we agree that great data capture can’t make up for less than inspiring subject matter; and if we agree that inspiring subject matter is an extension of artistic intent and focus, then I would argue that the single greatest leverage point for taking the photography process to the next level lies within each of us as artists.  I would further argue that most of us spend considerable time hopping from capture to post-processing, back and forth, forth and back in our improvement efforts.  Perhaps the most neglected aspect of the photographic process is also the most important leverage point of the whole process:  the artist.

We’ve all known or been exposed to those photographers who are really good with the camera and within post-processing but who simply follow others around and take the same (or similar) shots of the same places, developing a portfolio with no particular voice or focus, devoid of individuality and authenticity.  Does their work inspire you?  Now, think about those photographers that do inspire you, those that you look up to as peers.  Do they have a degree of individual focus and personality?  Do compositional choices, light, colors, and images fit with their stated personal values and aspirations?  Have they done the work to clarify these things on their websites, within their photo captions, or on their social media channels?  Do you get the feeling that these are artists who are utilizing technology and camera equipment to further their individual creative objectives (their why’s), as Ansel Adams stated?  It’s not uncommon for me to meet individual photographers who are more talented at capturing and processing images than I am.  Many folks I meet can talk camera-speak that flies over my head and lands somewhere miles away–it’s actually quite impressive the information that can be retained about how cameras and lenses are built and function.  At some point, however, there must be a solid connection from ‘how to’ take photographs and ‘why’ we personally are taking this particular photograph in this particular place and time. The purpose of photography is not to create technically exquisite photographs, and it never will be.

Author Bernadette Jiwa states, “No one can tell you what to stand for, or how your values, wants and needs should intersect with those of your customers and then manifest as a business, an idea or an experience.  … Until you do the hard work of understanding the ‘why’ and the ‘who for’, every tactical ‘how to’ has the potential to take you down the wrong track” (26, 2014).  While you might not be a business, the point remains solid:  each photographer must understand why they are taking photographs and who they want to acknowledge and view their photographs.  All of the time that is spend on the ‘how to’ of the photography process–capture and post processing–will matter not unless we endow those decisions with meaning that can only be found from upstream inward reflection.

If I were to suggest one thing to elevate your photography from good to great, I think we could all work to obtain greater focus on ‘why’ and ‘who for’.  Why are we personally picking up a camera instead of moving a pen or pounding a keyboard?  And why landscape photography instead of street scenes or portraiture or real estate?  Why are we passionate about wild places?  What inspires us, and what doesn’t?  What motivates us?  Where do we draw the line in post-processing?  Why?  What do we hope others will see or experience when they view our work, or buy our work, or commission us for a project?  How does our experience drive our artistic choices behind the camera?  What will people say when they describe our work to others?  What matters most?  Once we get clear on what we’re doing and where we’re heading, there’s little that can derail us from progressing towards our personal goals.  The idea is simple:  if we’re about something others can decide whether they are also about that same thing, and they can evaluate whether the choices we’re making with our camera gear and technology are reinforcing those personal values and aspirations.  If so, we develop something we all desire (I would think):  authenticity.  And authenticity leads to trust–trust in what we share with those who engage our work–trust that what they are looking at or buying or commissioning reflects the core of who we are, that part that is not and can never be a commodity.

Working on understanding ourselves as artists has the potential to change every single downstream aspect of the photography process:  where we shoot, what we shoot, how we capture it, and what decisions we make in post.  As such, if I had to recommend one area of focus to move your photography from good to great, I would focus inward.  Work on the artist.  Get focus on who you are and where you want to go with the camera.  The rest will fall in line.


Got a question?  Fire away!  Use the comments section below and keep an eye on the blog in the near future for an answer.

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