For the past several years, I have done this one thing at the end of the year, and it has been responsible for my improvement more than anything else.
I was given my first camera as a young kid in middle school. It was an old Minolta X-370 with a basic 50mm f/2 lens. I only shot a drug store film – I honestly don’t even remember what it was – and all of the film was developed at that same drug store within an hour! It was quite a time. Eventually, that camera was stolen in college, and years later, in graduate school, I picked up a Sony a7 and started getting back into photography again. While I improved, I honestly don’t know that I improved much beyond some trivial technical skills. It wasn’t until I started printing my work that I really felt like I started actually getting better.
I honestly believe that there is no better way to critique your own work than to print your work. As you may recall from previous work, there are several writers here at Fstoppers that encourage you to print your work for a number of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, prints offer the chance to have a physical manifestation of your work. The tactile sensation of holding a high-quality print cannot be replicated digitally. Moreover, it offers you the chance to look at your work in a way that you’re not used to seeing it. Even better, the chance to look at your work without the context of a computer means that you have the chance to sit back and enjoy your best images.
With all of that said, the beginning of a new year is the perfect time to print your work from the year just past. Why, you ask? Because it’s the perfect opportunity to go through all of the photos you’ve taken from the year. That is, it provides a very clear start and endpoint.
Despite all that I’ve said before, the two things that I believe have really helped improve my work haven’t even been mentioned. One is the chance to reflect on my work. As the end of the year approaches and I start to look through all of my photos from the year, I really have the chance to review my work after having walked away from it for potentially several months. In addition, taking the opportunity to look at so much of your work at once, which was made over the course of several months, gives you the chance to see which of your photographs work best and which didn't work so well. Even more still, it gives you the chance to look at the photographs that aren’t the best or the worst but rather, just exist. The natural next step is to think through what makes certain photographs work better than others — particularly when you have different kinds of photographs: photographs of portraits and landscapes, black and white as well as color photographs, and photographs taken with wide angle lenses, “normal” focal lengths, or telephoto lenses.
To expand on the previously presented idea, compiling your work from year to year provides not only the chance to reflect on your work from that specific year, but it also gives you the chance to compare the best of your work from one year to the next. That is, if you are particularly exclusive in the way you choose what photos to print and have only the best one percent of your work printed each year, comparing your best one percent from 2020 with your best one percent of 2019 and 2018 can really be eye-opening as to the ways your work has improved and can provide some insight as to what differentiates even your best photos from one another. For me, this has meant developing a better eye for framing, seeing photographs I might not have seen before, improving my metering, improving on my editing, and improvements to my scanning. Overall, it is an opportunity to reflect on consistency to see how certain photographs could have been edited to fall more in line with your other photographs.
How To Get Your Work Printed
There is a number of ways to get your work printed. For me, I prefer to get a very few select frames printed and framed — sometimes, I replace older photos, and sometimes, I just add to my collection. There are tons of places to get prints made. Many people take the plunge and get a nice photo printer, but personally, I have no interest in getting my own printer. In Columbus, OH, where I live now, there are a couple of shops where I’ve had work printed, and I think they do a good job and use them both when I want a print ASAP. When I’m getting serious prints that I genuinely care about, I go with Imaging Arts Printing as a personal preference, but again, there any many places to choose from. That said, what I like most about Imaging Arts and the other local spots here in town is that given the nature of small businesses, they’re typically more accommodating and appreciate your business more than the giant online retailers.
Perhaps the way I like the best is to have my work printed in book form. This year will be my fourth year in a row having a book made, and I’ve really grown to love them. It’s a fantastic way to appreciate the things you’ve done, the work you’ve made, and the experiences you’ve had over the past year.
For Film Photographers
There’s nothing like a wet print made in a dark room. True, without practice, consistency can be a bit challenging, and any contrast control also takes a lot of practice. Moreover, dodging and burning is much more intuitive in the darkroom, but without creating actual, literal masks for dodging and burning, consistency is extremely difficult to achieve, and I would even argue it goes out the window. With all of that said, however, when you get a good print you won’t ever want to go back to prints from a scanner. Even better, darkroom prints make fantastic gifts because of the quality of the print and the work that goes into it.
What are your thoughts on having prints of your work made? Is it something that you’ve done before? If so, have you made a habit of it?