Recently I felt a bit let down when looking at my work. It seemed to me like I had not improved much during the last year and that I had hit a plateau. Then when asking friends, fellow photographers, and other people from the industry, everyone told me it was just in my head. Creating new things day in and day out is quite difficult, but creating new things that are better each time you shoot is even harder! Sounds familiar? I know for a fact that most photographers have felt like that at some point in their career. We all have periods in our lives where we feel disappointed with our work. That same time when we also start looking at others work and wonder why we are not better. But all we really should be doing is looking at our work to see how far we have come and how we could get even better.
Treat Yourself with Old Sessions
To get out of this feeling of insecurity, I went back to a couple of sessions I had shot in 2014 and started culling the files from scratch. Once I was done selecting the best shots, I compared my selection to the one I had made last year and tried to analyze why it was different – if it was. Then I looked at the pictures selected and tried to find things I would do differently today if I were to recreate them. Often times I was amazed at how much more I could and should have done on set to make my images better, rather than playing around in Photoshop for hours. From the different sessions I had analyzed, I kept one file that I retouched and compared to the ones I had edited last year. There again, I could not believe my eyes… The difference was almost shocking.
The Reasoning Behind The Analysis of Previous Shoots
The first step of culling a session again, lets you see how your creative vision and judgment have grown. I noticed compared to last year, I was selecting better shots and that my selection were less based on emotion attachment to the pictures but rather to purely photographic criteria. Comparing the selection from this year to the one made last year, made that point very clear.
The second step, analyzing the shots and seeing what could have been done differently when shooting, is very helpful in seeing the technical improvements as well the creative vision evolution. I could see the lighting was often nowhere near perfect, the poses where often times badly executed or did not suit the model at all, makeup was great but not always what I had in mind, etc. Having grown as an artist, my creative vision is clearer in my mind and easier to communicate to others. Since last year, I have started to develop ways of communicating with my team that allow me to get to a better final result, or at least one closer to what I have in mind. As for the technical improvements, shooting more both in studio and outdoors has helped me a lot. Attending workshops and talking with other photographers or even assisting them also helped me see things differently.
Finally, editing files all over again is an amazing step to see if what you have learned in post production has made your work better or worse. Retouching is somewhat double-edged. For some photographers it makes their work way better and really brings their vision to life, for others it just destroys their pictures and makes a perfect image look like a snapshot edited with Instagram. Talking with other photographers, I realized how many people outsource their retouching. Which could be an improvement for some if this step seems to plateau.
For me, having changed from Lightroom to CaptureOne and from a very random retouching workflow based on instinct, to a very precise and consistent workflow, my retouching has improved a lot. Resources like Phlearn or Retouching Academy also helped me in a great way with a couple of techniques.
Stop Looking at Others Work for Comparison
When feeling bad about their work, one of the first things photographers will do is start looking at others work and comparing themselves. Instead of doing that and telling yourself how bad you are or how you should not be a photographer or whatever bad thing you have in mind, start by concentrating and analyzing their work. If you are comparing yourself to a photographer it is most likely because you like his work. Well, look at what that photographer does that you do not, and how you could implement it in your work to make your pictures even better. I am not saying you should copy and paste everything another photographer does, but simply try to analyze what you really like in someone's work and make it your own. Perhaps what makes the photographer you are looking after special to you is as simple as a lighting setup, a couple of poses or the way they interact with their team or people on their social medias.
As an artist I believe it is normal to feel a bit down or burned out creatively. John actually wrote a great article to avoid or getting out of a creative burn out. It is a great compliment to this article, and actually one I read recently when feeling stuck with my creativity.
So if you do not feel confident about your work, do not beat yourself too much. Try to do things differently, take the time to analyze what you really have done, and not what you think you have done. Feeling burnt out happens to everyone of us. It can take time to overcome, but when we overcome it we feel better and stronger than ever.