I don't know about the rest of you, but when it comes to comparing my work to others, I'm a sucker for punishment. Try as I might, I can't help but peruse the latest trade magazines when I'm cruising the bookstore, avoiding the editing I should be doing at home. And without fail, something catches my eye that makes my jaw drop. In this day and age when so much of the great work out there is heavily Photoshopped, should we be so quick to compare our own work to it?
Let's be upfront about this: photography has always been about image manipulation. From the beginning, we've been taking a baseline image and attempting to make it better after the fact. Whether it be in the traditional darkroom, creating emulsion lifts, hand-painting prints or negatives, or working with post-processing software, photographers have never been happy with what comes out of the camera. The difference between a lot of these techniques and manipulation through the computer is that this manipulation is fairly removed from the photographic process. You're dealing with data as opposed to something you created that you can touch and feel. As such, it requires a different skillset that some may be lacking in. As the gulf of required knowledge, size of images, and the necessary hardware and software becomes more and more complex, it's easy to fall behind in post-processing skill. So, does that make you a less capable photographer?
When you can't produce what is becoming industry standard work because of a lack of software knowledge, the temptation is to see yourself as less than. Well I'm here to tell you: Don't do it. Don't beat yourself up. All of the photography work you see out there started in one place: with something to take the image and a mind behind it. There was a recording tool of some sort, a medium to hold that image, and someone calling the shots. The rest is where the craft comes in. Craft encompasses all the skills you need to capture the image in the way you want. Did you see the image in your head beforehand and does it look like you imagined it? If yes, then you succeeded. If not, keep trying.
I don't want to get into the "Is photography an art?" question here, but one thing that's for sure is that photography is a technical craft. If you do want to compare yourself to others, don't worry as much about your artistic interpretation versus theirs. It's all subjective, and you'll only end up getting down on yourself. Rather, look at the work of others in terms of craft. Is it technically sound? Where does the eye lead you? Does the image say anything? Does the exposure look right? Tons of tricks can make an image seem better than it is (at least to you). Forget about all that. Get down to brass tacks. Does the image work? If you like an image, break it apart and find the light sources. Figure it out. But don't compare their art to yours. You do you.
Of course, it's easy to say "don't worry about the art of it." But that doesn't really work. So, here's my advice, such that it is: worry about the craft. The art will come. The more techniques you can apply, the bigger your toolbox and the more things you'll try. You'll take more risks, and your work will take on its own character. There's where the art lies. It's in-between craft and your mind. You want to be a better artist? Be a better technician. Learn the craft of photography first.
As for Photoshop, too often it's used as an excuse to cover up a lack of skill. There are those that take an image to use purely as a component of a digital illustration. Great! That's not what I'm talking about here. Use Photoshop as that final lacquer on the project and not as a cover-up, unless, of course, the software is integral to your final vision. If you want to be a better photographer, step away from the computer, pick up your camera, and work harder at it. Fail, fail, and fail again. I know I do! Don't just fix it in post. Get it right in the present. If you'd rather rip your eyes out than stare at Photoshop, don't do it. Outsource it. Or find a way to make it less painful for yourself. Keep building that toolbox. I guarantee you'll be a stronger artist on the other side.