Why Being Pickier Will Make You a Better Photographer

Why Being Pickier Will Make You a Better Photographer

The vast majority of photographers often flounder in a state of perpetual mediocrity wondering why their photos aren't getting better. They invest thousands of dollars in gear along with hundreds of hours of practice only to see what amounts to the most minimal of improvements. One of the most often overlooked characteristics of great shooters is that they never complacently accept that "good enough" is an acceptable metric in relation to their photography. Being picky enables great photography.

Be Picky About Subject

Years ago, I had my first portfolio review with a high-end commercial editor. It was a rough experience, as it should be. They tore apart my work and broke down exactly where it was failing. While the review provided ample feedback on aspects of my photography, the reviewer made a specific point of telling me that I needed to find better people to work with. While I thought the models and creative teams I worked with were awesome the reviewer told me very harshly that it wasn't the case. Even without making any of the other changes suggested the reviewer said that just by working with better models and makeup teams I could put my work up to another level. My initial internal response to this was to be somewhat offended on behalf of the people I worked with in the past. I had great respect for the models I worked with and how dare this reviewer to suggest they weren't real models? But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it isn't about choosing the models that I like and the models who I get along with, rather, it's about choosing the models that look like they belong in the commercial space from the point of view of a commercial editor.  

This advice is true of every aspect of photography. No matter how good of a photographer you are, your photography is always limited by the subject. Sure, a great photographer can make any situation interesting, but would they not create an even more spectacular image when aiming at a spectacular subject? There is a reason the greatest landscape photographers travel to the far corners of the world or that the best car photographers aim to be shooting the most exotic of supercars. Great photographers are picky about what they point their cameras at and it shows in the quality of their work.

Be Picky About Style

Another powerful piece of feedback that came from the above review was that my work needed to be more consistent. Not necessarily in quality, but in style. I have a love of exploration and a drive to constantly be trying new things. Doing the same thing over and over again bores me to tears. Unfortunately, photographers who have become utter masters of doing the same thing over and over is what draws commercial clients. Clients don't want to risk their budget on whatever your muse might be on a given day. They want a predictable outcome. This is something I will, personally, always struggle with as I will never want a career of doing the same. It doesn't have to be your road, however, become so picky about the style of your images that a client knows exactly what to expect before you even deliver the first proof.

Be Picky About Genre

How many world renowned, genralist photographers are in the world? Can you name one? I'm guessing probably not. There is a reason for this, true experts develop a laser-like focus on very specific subject matter and become utter masters of that subject. If your goal is to become known for being a great photographer then you need to learn that being willing to point your camera at virtually anything is working against you. Be the best at something specific rather than being OK at everything.

Be Picky About What You Show the World

You will always be judged by the weakest work in your portfolio. Make sure that there is no weak work in your portfolio. A great portfolio isn't determined by its size, but by a consistent quality throughout. Keep your portfolio small. Always be removing the worst work. Furthermore, consider the same for spaces such as social media that require greater volume. Each time you are about to post any work to any social feed as yourself if that work truly projects you in the best light. If the answer is no, then don't post it. You want people to be amazed when they scroll through your feed. Don't show mediocrity. 

Be Picky About Advice

The world is filled with armchair photographers, it is even more filled with non-photographers who are always quick to comment on your work. The vast majority of advice lacks credibility and should be ignored. Before accepting any advice, from anyone, put that advice through the gauntlet by questioning its credibility. Does the advice come from someone who has the motivation to help? Does the advice come from someone with the experience to speak on the subject? Does the advice come from someone who you respect? Be picky about the advice you accept as it will be a driving force in the trajectory of your career as a photographer.

Be Picky About Education

Without repeating all of the above paragraph again, it is important to be equally picky about education as you are about advice. Learning from a source who lacks the credibility to teach only will lead you down the wrong road. There is an old saying: "Those who can't do, teach." That saying has some truth to it. There are some teachers who teach because they love to teach. There are other photographers who teach because it is more lucrative than doing what they teach. Be very careful of the latter, they are often bitter while lacking the credibility to really be teaching at all.


By becoming a pickier photographer you are able to elevate your work to higher levels. Being picky doesn't raise your skill but it does reveal the best work that a given skill level is capable of creating. Don't be the photographer who is always accepting "good enough" as their mantra as it will always reflect poorly upon you. Accept nothing but the best that you can possibly create, for it is in that space where truly magical work is created.

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Jorge Cevallos's picture

I really liked your article. Thanks for sharing.

Love the article. I love photography in general, so always struggle to concentrate on a specific subject, therefore I become a Jack of all trades... master of none. Thx again for the article, good reading!

Chris Maes's picture

It's 'easy' to make spectacular pictures from spectacular subjects, landscapes, etc. You just need the money and the time to be able to afford it; in other words, probably being a pro or a rich kid. I kind of stopped appreciating the spectacular in photography. True art is seeing and rendering the beauty of everyday subjects or situations through vision, angle, lighting, or color. It's the message more than the subject.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Thats not true at all, otherwise all the best work would be done by rich people, which it isn't. Largely because the extremely affluent lack the motivation to put the extreme effort in to be the best. They can afford the gear and the travel but they often don't do what it takes to be amazing.

stir photos's picture

A lot of good points here for sure. My favorite "generalist" photographer is Joe Mcnally. If the article isn't written for amateurs (such as myself) my apologies, but from that perspective and my .02 cents worth- just below...

It's difficult for amateurs to be too picky about our subjects; after all, we don't have the "street cred" that allows us to be able to work with models that are agency repped, or appear as if they belong in the commercial space from a Commercial Editor's perspective. Maybe the advice here could be to be more picky with subject matter before anybody actually views your work? I feel like that's already touched on though with being picky about what to show the world... Anyway, the alternative is to shoot less and I don't think that makes you a better a photographer. Just as, "Great photographers are picky about what they point their cameras at...", so are many models at who gets to point a camera at them. This happened to me a couple of times; I certainly wasn't offended, just not there yet from their perspective, but I wouldn't decrease shooting because of it.

I'm not sure most amateurs know what their respective "style" is, much less how they (we) can keep it consistent at such a high level as to sway someone's mind, "oh my god, this is the style we've been looking for, book her today!" I'm not positive we should be too picky about our style just yet, as amateurs; I think our style needs more time to marinate... Maybe good advice is something like, "work on your style and hone it as best as possible". I'm not sure though; again, just my 2 pennies here....

I think photographers can be great at multiple genres and they typically are marketed via different channels. If amateurs are out there and the goal is to be "world renowned" in a particular genre, I might consider those goals a little too lofty. However, being great or very good at multiple genres is possible and many photographers are doing it successfully enough to earn a living. I'm not sure but maybe good advice is to pick a genre and get really good at it, then pick another and get good at it also. I don't think being so picky about shooting a single genre is so important if good balance is maintained and proper marketing channels are kept.

Overall there's a lot of very tangible advice here and the article is well written. I just wanted to point out my experience and observations thus far from my amateur perspective. Not every photographer is going to get so good as to see huge amounts of gain in short time spans, but as long as you're cool with the amount of improvement you've seen, then you're on the right path. If the amount of improvement doesn't seem like enough or isn't arriving fast enough- practice more. Practice doesn't make perfect, but it gets you closer.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Ya, Joe is pretty impressive, though even he isn't super generalist, he shoots editorial (and sometimes sports), even though the subject matter varies more than most. He came up in a different time though and even he would be quick to say that his road isn't one that is really practical anymore. Ultimately though, McNally brands himself very much as a lighting specialist. (not your typical specialization but it works for him)

Generally, when I write an article such as the above it is targeted at those who are looking to improve their work beyond amateur. Those who are perfectly content in the amateur space, as hobbyists, can do whatever makes them happy. The only person they need to please is themselves.

Bernd Stoeckl's picture

Hmm, I disagree on this view.
It reads to me like an amateur can reach the level of one that makes a living out of photography - because they cannot afford expensive models.

On the contrast, we have the freedom to capture whatever we feel is beautiful and in any style that we think is great.

A professional - well most of them - have to deliver a result ordered by their clients.

Best regards Bernd

jon snow's picture

How many world renowned, genralist photographers are in the world? Can you name one?
,Peter McKinnon I would say is a generalist photographer/videographer

Ryan Cooper's picture

I'd argue Peter McKinnon is an educator and YouTuber who happens to focus on the space of photography and video. His specialty is making engaging videos that get a ton of views. (which is why he probably doesn't even bother putting a photography portfolio on his website: petermckinnon.com). That said if you look at his IG feed he is very consistently a Travel/Adventure photographer with the odd product shot (which are almost certainly paid "influencer" posts. )

William Howell's picture

Hey Ryan you are the inspiration for this week’s “Tog Chat” from Joe Edelman. And it was his best, to me, show yet.

I will endeavor to watch the details, thanks for the great article.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Cool, I will have to go check it out