The Hidden Joy of Delayed Gratification as a Photographer

The Hidden Joy of Delayed Gratification as a Photographer

Even as the corresponding shifts from film to digital and from print to online have brought with them an expectation of instant feedback, sometimes you gain more as a photographer from being forced to wait.

I am a commercial and editorial photographer. The majority of the images and films I create are commissioned by either brands, agencies, or publications seeking to bolster their marketing efforts or illustrate a particular story. Unlike, just as an example, a headshot photographer who is working directly one-on-one with the end user, my jobs often involves dozens of stakeholders, multiple departments, sometimes multiple organizations, and relatively strict guidelines as to the deliverables, their usage, and their eventual release date.

It’s that last point that I found myself considering this week as I finally got my hands on the final images from a series of assignments I’d shot over a year ago for one of my clients. Yes, you heard that right. It was over a year between the time that I took the photographs until I actually saw the final results. And, to be honest, it’s not all that unreasonable when you factor in the situation.

I’d love to say the delay is some sort of compliment to my skill level or a measure of the prominence of the campaign, but truthfully, it is instead a result of practicality. For this particular set of assignments, I was tasked with shooting tethered straight to the client’s hard drive. Like most of my assignments, the look of the images would be determined almost exclusively by my lighting choices and whatever minor adjustments my digitech and I were allowed to make on set in Capture One so that the dozen or so client representatives standings around the monitor could get a look at what we were creating as the final images rolled in. Once the shoot is complete, this particular client will handle the retouching in-house, although edits are often minimal aside from changes to the actual product itself that may take place after the shoot.

Those images are then only visible to the client itself and certain other private stakeholders and business partners they designate until the product itself is actually released. This, of course, is the reason for the delay. There’s nothing particularly special about the work itself. But if the details of the product were to become public in advance of them hitting the shelves, it might cause a corporate version of WWII among its competitors.

So, it was in this framework that I sat down to review a set of images I had shot for six separate campaigns over a year ago and finally catch a glimpse of the final results.

The first urge is always to rifle through the client’s selects to see which of your babies made it out into the world. Inevitably, they have chosen a completely different selection of images than what you would have chosen. That shot that you fell absolutely in love with when it first popped up on the monitor almost certainly won’t make the cut. It will likely be replaced instead by a far more mundane version that won’t scratch your photographer’s itch, but will do an exemplary job of showing off the product. And that is, at the end of the day, your job. As much passion as we bring to our art form, and perfection we demand of our work, we are businesses providing clients with the tools necessary to do their job. And their job is to sell the product. The client is always right.

After going through the selects and either celebrating their choices or quietly bemoaning the absence of others, I am more than often overcome by a different sensation. Usually this feeling can be summed up in four simple words, “I can do better.”

But, in this case, those words are more than just misplaced arrogance. They are simply a statement of fact. After all, it’s been over a year since I took those photographs. Over a year’s worth of experience later, I really should be able to do better.

While waiting to see the final results may not do wonders for my obsessive compulsive disorder or particularly feed into my “why put off until tomorrow what you can do today” ethos, it does force me to take a step back, consider how far I’ve come in a year’s time, and also identify areas where I still need to improve.

In all likelihood, if I had shot the images, edited them, and published them all in a week’s time span, I probably would have fallen in love with all of them, included way too many of them in my cut, and given at least one or two of them more prominence than they ultimately deserved. Forced to wait a year, I now can evaluate the quality of each frame without the emotional connection driven by recency. I can view the work in comparison to similar images I’ve taken in the intervening twelve months. Quite often, I’ll find that I’ve repeated the same pose in more than one shoot. This delay allows me to step back and see if I’ve been improving on the execution of that particular shot or just resting on my laurels. It allows me to step back and ask with a cool head, “Have I done this shot better?” “Can I do this shot better?”

Mini delays used to be forced on us during the analog days, where no matter your type of photography, you would be required to wait at least a little bit of time for your film to develop (or, if you were like me, wait a really long time for your lazy self to actually make it to the lab). Now, in a world where one of the most prominent social media platforms literally has the word “insta” in the title, we go from shooting, to selecting, to posting all in a matter of seconds. There are certainly advantages to this sort of gut level approach as well. But the process can often deny us the emotional distance and mental perspective to step back and truly consider whether or not we have fully achieved the upper limits of our talent.

One of the first major awards that I won was for longer term personal project that I photographed over the course of six months. Wanting to keep the look and post processing of all the images cohesive, but forced to shoot in a variety of shooting conditions spread out on the calendar, I didn’t make my final selects until all of the multiple shoots were complete. Nothing was made public. Nothing was shared. Only after the full six months of shoots did I begin to cull the images that would form the ultimate collection and fine tune them to make sure they felt all of one piece. I’ve always felt as though this delayed approach allowed me to really get to the heart of the project rather than just getting excited every time a shot was in focus. And, as a result of that deliberation, the final series of images was that much improved and was far better received by its audience.

Now, obviously, you’re not always going to be able to take six months to deliver each project. And sometimes, you will be given a project that you can conceive, shoot, edit, and deliver all in the span of a day. But, when you are afforded the opportunity, there is a benefit in being able to take a moment to reflect on the work you’ve done, the strides you’ve taken to improve, and the heights you have still yet to reach. It may be difficult to wait. But it can also be worthwhile.

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Studio 403's picture

Delayed gratification is not the best use of my time.