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5 Reasons Your Photography Isn't Improving

The evolution of a photographer is rarely a linear one. We get better, we get worse, we think we’re improving but we’re not, and then with some luck and a lot of patience and practice, we actually start to produce great images. For some that last point is never reached and it’s usually due to a few common mistakes. As a portrait and fashion photographer I struggle with these mistakes on a regular basis as much as anyone else, and have included a few of my own photos as retrospective of my personal progress.

Reason 1 - You Compare Yourself to Others Too Much

We’re surrounded by photographs everywhere we go, so our natural inclination is to compare our work to those of our peers and idols. While this can be a source of inspiration, it can also become dangerous if we use other people’s work as a general yardstick for measuring our progress. We look at the outcomes and question why our photos don’t look the same. Striving for ‘sameness’ is an exercise in futility and a recipe for failure.

When referencing the work of our peers, the key ingredient is to dissect their style into the attributes that make it desirable to you in the first place. Is it the light, retouching, models, colors, location, etc. that you gravitate towards? By striving to improve on individual characteristics, while injecting your own style, you’ll notice gradual improvements in the quality of your work, while avoiding the frustration of not reaching an identical result.

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Reason 2 - You’re Not Committed Enough

Few great photos are taken from the comfort of our office chair. Regardless of the type of photography that you do, the great photos, the great ideas, all take a ton of effort, planning, logistics and dedication to bring to fruition. Convenience is never an ingredient of a great photo. We have to stop making excuses for not going the extra mile, for skipping a step because it was too much work, because we’re uncomfortable with it. Much like Edison’s famous quote, a great photograph is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

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Reason 3 - You’re Too Afraid to Fail

We all hate failure and avoid it like the plague. Even though failing can be disheartening, we also grow more from our failures than from our successes. After all, what do you remember more? Do you recall what you did to take that great photo, or do you remember what you screwed up on when you took the bad one? Sure, there are times when you want to avoid failure - such as when you’re working for a client. However,  there are times when you need to embrace it and plan for it. This is one of the main reasons why personal work is so crucial to your development as a photographer.

Personal work gives you a license to fail, learn and grow. Whenever I’m involved in a test shoot or a creative project, I always strive to attempt something that I suspect I may fail at, while balancing the results that I can deliver. This way, if a new lighting approach, creative effect, or another experimental idea doesn’t work out, I have a plan in place that I can fall back on. This way I can still provide my creative team with a result that they’ll be satisfied with.

Generally, the risk or uncertainty of a shoot should be inversely proportional to the stakes. If, for example, I’m planning on attempting something I have no idea about, I’ll do so with a friend or a relative as a model and another friend as an assistant, with only the promise of a free drink to deliver on. As the stakes increase and the number of people counting on our results grows, the pressure mounts, and we tend to succumb and stick to our usual routine. This is why photography is a gradual progression and not a race to the top. While we all want to work with the best teams with large budgets and mass publication, doing so at an early stage simply raises your stress levels, stymies your progress and increases the stakes on failure.

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Reason 4 - You Shy Away From Feedback

A lot of photographers like to ask for feedback but don’t like receiving it. Too often I hear stories of photographers being asked for feedback, providing it and then offending the photographer with their honesty. A lot of us have become used to the destructive feedback that rules the internet and are conditioned to respond angrily and defensively, even when it comes in a constructive form. I generally feel that feedback should be given only when asked for, or given in private, but too many of us fail to ask for it in the first place.

Some of us are certainly self-aware and acutely familiar with our own limitations and shortcomings, but we only represent one perspective- and a rather biased one at that. I believe that part of our hesitation stems from our attachment to our own images. We don’t want to hear that a photo is bad and have to discard something we tried so hard to create.

What I’ve learned though is that photography is a process of creation and destruction. Not everything is portfolio-worthy, but everything we do will strengthen our portfolio in the future. Each image is an intangible investment even if it doesn’t end up as a finished product. Make it a part of your monthly routine to ask for feedback from people you respect. As a result, you’ll watch yourself grow tremendously as a photographer, even if your portfolio happens to shrink a bit in the process.

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Reason 5 - You Focus Too Much on The Technical Aspects

This can be one of the most important and difficult things to overcome as a photographer. Too often do we become fixated with the ideal light position, perfect exposure, rule of thirds, etc. and ignore the vital creative element. When an image lacks creativity, a viewer either skips it outright or fixates on the technical issues since that’s all that is left. If, on the other hand, you capture a concept or an emotion that captivates the viewer, technicals simply play a supporting role.

That’s not to say that the technicals are irrelevant.

If you’re brilliant creatively, but can’t translate things into properly exposed or composed image, then it’s hardly a recipe for success. The technical elements, however, are rarely what we struggle with. That's the easy part. The creative parts are much more intangible. We can’t be taught creativity. It comes from inspiration and through imagining things without technical constraints.

Becoming strong technically frees you from feeling constrained, from worrying about failure and leads to believing that anything is possible. With the technicals under your belt, go out and explore. Go to a museum, sit down and observe the world around you, notice expressions, colors and moments. The things that evoke an emotional response in you are likely to do so in others as well.

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Reason 6 - Inaction

Yes the title of this post states "five reasons", but this one simply relates to all of the above. It’s probably the one thing we’re all guilty of most -inaction. As we read the above reasons, we say to ourselves, “yeah, I should be doing more of that.” We get advice from others and say to ourselves, “yeah, they’ve got a point.” But then what? We’re all revved up and ready to make our work better but as time goes on, we end up doing nothing about it. We just carry on with the status quo and wonder why we’re not improving.

Don't let that happen to you.

Connect with me here: Michael Woloszynowicz | Facebook | YouTube | Twitter

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49 Comments

Zach Sutton's picture

You have no idea how excited I was when we hired you, Michael. I'm a huge fan of your work.

Great article!

Michael Woloszynowicz's picture

Thanks very much Zach. I appreciate the warm welcome. Nice to be a part of such a great team.

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

YEAHHHH!!!
MOAR ARTICLES PLEASE! :D

Michael Woloszynowicz's picture

Thanks Julia :)

Clay Cook's picture

So happy to have you on the team! Great first post, my friend!

Guest's picture

Thanks a lot Clay, I'm happy to be here buddy!

Rusty's picture

I like the before on the portrait, but everyone has an opinion.

Jaron Schneider's picture

I don't think any of his photos are at all bad (quite the opposite), but you can see subtle advancements in his command of what he's doing. Those subtle advancements seem quite a bit less subtle when it's your own work you're looking at.

Francisco Salgueiro's picture

me too

David Vaughn's picture

It kind of stresses me out thinking that some of your "Then" shots are as good as your "Now" shots. :P

Michael Woloszynowicz's picture

Thanks David, I guess I'm just anal. I can't look at most of my old work.

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

And that's great, because you're constantly trying to be better - that pays off. Always :)

Filipe Santos's picture

This is the kind of post I like to print and put beside my bed to read when I'm doubting my abilities as a photographer.

Mike Woloszynowicz is an excellent addition to the Fstoppers team.

Michael Woloszynowicz's picture

Thanks a lot @FilipeSantosFineArt:disqus

lifeofaku's picture

Excellent post! Really motivating and eye opening. Thanks for this great post!

Michael Woloszynowicz's picture

Thanks for reading Aku

Guest's picture

Hi Michael, glad to see a familiar face! Quick question. I see nothing worse about your 'before' photos. More like apples vs oranges kind of thing. Considering that this article is about improvement, was your intention to point out a flawed past?

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

I think the point was that Michael himself sees the improvement - it's in his vision, he's been working hard to get there and he did.

Those who are further ahead of Mike in visual arts (more experienced, more skilled, etc.) will notice that progress, those who are "behind" Mike will not. And that applies to everyone's work.

Someone comments on your photo: "AMAZING!" and even though to a hundred of such commentators your work is already AMAZING, you may still not be very happy with it, because you know it can be better.

Stephen Vosloo's picture

Congratulations Michael — Fantastic first post. Loved your candor, especially showing old work. That takes a lot of confidence. It's inspiring to see especially because your new stuff blows the older work out of the water!

Eric Adeleye's picture

Excellent article Michael, it was an informative read.

KO KO's picture

We the North!

ALEXANDER TARDIF's picture

Very humbled by your "before" work :) I actually came across your gallery a while ago, somehow, and have you bookmarked as one of the photogs for inspiration, lol! Small world out there on Fstoppers, thanks for the article. Inspiring work!

rejeanbrandt's picture

Congrats on your first post Mike. Great article!

Michael Woloszynowicz's picture

Thank you Rejean!

Sean Smith's picture

Great post Michael. You've been a favourite photographer of mine for a while and I'm really pumped to read your contributions to fstoppers!

Michael B. Stuart's picture

Awesome read with some really helpful insights. Photos are amazing as always from Michael. Congrats!

Michael Woloszynowicz's picture

Thanks a lot Michael. Much appreciated.

JanetTVelzquez's picture

While this can be a source of inspiration, it can also become dangerous if we use other people’s work as a general yardstick for measuring our progress. We look at the outcomes and question why our photos don’t look the same. Striving for ‘sameness’ is an exercise in futility and a recipe for failure. http://num.to/4584*5046*5556

Chris Knight's picture

Very excited to hear you're on the team! Great article!

Wes Jerdon's picture

Amazing work Michael! This article REALLY helped me as I tend to fight myself on ideas and put failure into my head constantly. Right after reading this article, a three part series that my friend and I were bouncing ideas around with fully came to me! The entire meaning behind it and I know exactly what I need to learn and from where so I can shoot it! So thank you!

Michael Woloszynowicz's picture

Glad you enjoyed it Wes! Thanks for reading.

James Jenkins's picture

Great article. This is exactly the kind of content FS needs more of. Less advertorials, and celeb fluff pieces and crap. Thanks for this!

Ian's picture

#7, Not shooting. You can only get better if you get out there and practice.

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

I believe #6 Inaction is what Not shooting falls under.

Christian Webb's picture

Love your work Michael and this is an awesome article. One thing though: Your THEN work is damn good. And mostly, what I see, is that your post processing work has advanced more so than just the actual photography. I could be alone in this assessment but that's what I see. Either way, the work is freakin' great. I personally agree with the other person here who likes your THEN portrait more than the NOW. Even the fashion THEN...is great. They're just two completely different looks but both fantastic shots. Only issue here is that I'd LOVE to see another photographer's THEN & NOW shots.....someone where we can REALLY see the progression in their overall photography work.

Gabbie's picture

Your "then" photographs are really awesome too ;)

Anonymous's picture

Thank you, Michael, for the suggestions. I'm glad to see you on here, and welcome to FS.

Roman's picture

nice article....

raysot's picture

I can't even say my current work compares to your "Then" images! Great work and great article.

JonRivas's picture

Amazing post! I have many projects in my head, but doing none of them, this post has given me the push to take my gear. Thanks!

Matthew Odom's picture

Excellent read Mike..

I dug up some old images a few weeks ago and was amazed at where I've come. Failure is not a bad thing just make sure you don't F$$@ Up that's a whole different ballgame !

Laurent Francis's picture

Now I know, ''ahsante sana'' as we say in Swahili.
Great post.

Kverulv's picture

All the photos are great... both now and then. I really dont see the difference.

Kverulv's picture

But that is maybe why you are better than me:)

Jennifer Kelley's picture

Age and maturity can play a huge role too. In spite of a several year long photography hiatus, my older photos look nothing like my newer ones. My 20-year-old self just wanted to take pretty pictures and flat out told my art teachers I didn't know anything about life at that age (it was true). My 32-year-old self has a message and a voice for my personal work and a style for my professional work. My 20-year-old self stressed over photographing weddings (which I hate) and trying to learn how to run a business and being assertive enough to direct a shoot. My 32-year-old self spent years as a business developer, has NO issue being bossy, and has learned to ignore my mother's professional advice ;)

franciscojfm's picture

I think all the photos are quit nice, I guess if you show the pictures to people and ask them to vote on them, in the end you would find out that maybe you changed, but not improved haha :D

Daniel Prates's picture

I just can't get tired of this page. And have just read another awesome article. I've tried my best to listen to and follow the advice from more experienced photographers. Well, about the feedback, I'm the kind of person who likes having it. It hasn't been so easy to get it, however. Most photographers I've tried to reach just don't get back. I understand you guys must be very busy and receive a lot of emails asking for help, but it is a bit frustrating not to get any response. i'll keep on trying anyway.

Femi Aboluwarin's picture

Thanks for writing this Michael. Worth my 4 mins of reading!

Anonymous's picture

Great article! Served as a much needed pep talk too. Well written and I look forward to more.