Reviewing our old photographic work can be a little daunting. As styles change and skills improve, we start to notice what was once a hero image is now sorely lacking in quality and perhaps even embarrassing to look at. I propose that it is a good thing if you hate your old photographs because it could be a sign that your taste is improving. Having a refined visual taste is arguably one of the most important factors to developing as a photographer. It guides all our creative and technical decisions, but it is also one of the most elusive qualities to develop.
In one of my favorite documentaries, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” the titled sushi chef offers this remark about serving great food:
…you need to develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad. Without good taste, you can’t make good food. If your sense of taste is lower than that of the customers, how will you impress them?
Jiro is a master of his craft, and above culinary expertise and equipment, it is his sense of taste that he attributes to the quality of his food. It guides his work and it pushes him to discover new techniques and skills. Similarly, having refined visual tastes as photographers helps separate us from other people who own cameras, allowing us to create images that stand out from everyday happy snaps. If this sense is underdeveloped, creating a good image is almost a bit of blind luck.
Having this critical eye can take years to develop, but reviewing your old work is a good way to see how far you have come. As an example, I’ll start with what I thought was one of my best images until I checked it again much later.
I shot and edited this image over a year ago. I remember loving this photograph, with the dramatic tones created by the lighting, describing the elegant figure. This year I was asked to submit an image for an exhibition, so I decided to use this one. When I opened it up again, I was shocked at how blocky the tones looked with certain areas feeling very flat. I hated the idea of exhibiting it in its current form, as the edit appeared almost amateurish.
I pulled out the RAW file and edited the image again, this time paying attention to the subtle contouring in the highlights while retaining the deep detailed tones of the shadows. Editing in Photoshop, I was more attentive to working on the image in smaller sections rather than making global changes. The difference between the new and the old edit may seem subtle, but to me, I felt the newer edit was more sculptural and true to life. A year ago I would not have noticed this. A cropped detail can be seen below.
Attaining a refined sense of aesthetics comes from years of practice, with hours spent glaring at your own work, deconstructing photographs, all to better understand what makes a great image. There is no one way to cultivate this overnight, but there are some strategies that can put you on the right track to improving your visual taste.
1. Don't Stop Looking
I have spent countless hours looking at works of photographers like Peter Lindbergh. Lindbergh is a master of black and white portraits. His fashion images are simple but powerful. I take notice of how the highlights of his images are rendered in his prints, or how he lights certain scenes to achieve those deep tones. I have his images open next to the photos that I'm editing so my eyes don't just adjust to the tones of my own image. Sometimes I just sit with one image, trying to understand what makes it work so well. I have studied it to the point of obsession.
This is necessary because it takes time to really look at something. We are too quick to jump from one image to another on Google image searches, not really absorbing anything. I want to see it so well that when I'm not looking at it, I can still see it. Having this kind of archive of imagery in your head will help you notice things in your work that you may never have before.
2. Don’t Make Excuses For Your Work
If the photographs we create are less than stellar, don’t make excuses for it. If someone points out how our work could be improved, own it and be more determined to get it right next time. I've met many photographers who always insist on defending their work, citing lack of equipment, or poor conditions. If we keep excusing our work, we eventually accept that that is how our work is going to look and we don’t develop any further. We can dull our sensitivity to noticing where positive changes can be made. Not all our images will be winners, and it doesn't make us bad photographers. Assuming any negative comment on our work is an attack on ourselves is a major killer of our creativity.
The ones who improve the fastest are the ones who aren’t precious about their past work. They understand that they are on a journey with their photography, and there is a hunger to learn from their experiences. Everything they shoot is up for review and their visual tastes are always improving because of this. Failures are just a shortcut for discovering a new technique!
3. Do Seek Other Opinions
Often the biggest improvements I’ve made in my photographic journey is through letting fresh eyes look over my work. The best people for this are the ones who are honest enough to tell you what needs to be changed, and supportive enough to do it in a useful way without being jerks. I prefer to have my go-to people rather than throwing out my image for the world to critique. If there are too many voices, we can lose focus on our own vision for the work. Worse still, everyone will tell you your work is great, robbing you of meaningful insight into your own work.
Having worked as a photography teacher, I’ve given a lot of feedback about other people’s images. The first question I will ask is, “What are your intentions for this work?” From their response, I can then offer helpful critique about how their use of visual elements or subject matter achieves or fails this. I can also suggest other artists or photographers that they can research to help refine their visual taste. Useful feedback can help us see our work more objectively, often highlighting qualities that we have not considered.
Let Your Vision Lead You
There hasn’t been any mention of specific photographic or editing techniques in this article because improving your visual taste will lead you to the right knowledge you need. All the techniques I’ve learned are guided by knowing what I need to improve in my work. I’ve seen photographers make amazing edits just by using the curve tool in Lightroom because they have the instinct for strong images. I’ve seen a photographer create beautiful lighting from cheap lamps because they’ve spent time studying works of the masters.
I am fairly confident in my technical skills, but I was quite humbled to realize my work is not always as great as it exists in my memory. There are many images I've produced I would rather forget, but as I look back, I am glad I have work to cringe at. It is important to be satisfied with our work in the past, as it gives us the confidence to continue pursuing our passion in this field. Equally, it is important that as our skills and visual tastes improve, the quality in these works should start to decline in our mind. It means something good is happening. Who knows how I will feel about my current work this time next year?