Discouraged? Develop a Split Personality…

There are times when everyone gets frustrated with their images. Surfing the interwebs to see other photographers’ feeds can be inspiring and instructional. But let’s admit it – sometimes it can also be demoralising… depending on your state of mind. The little man in the back of my head starts piping up – “when are your images going to be as artful? how come you don’t get as close? why can’t you see the world the same way? maybe a new camera / lens / flash will fix it?” – have you heard that negative self talk as well?

Let me share some thoughts that might help you next time you hear that little guy… and punch him in the face for the win!

A great image is a rose amongst the thorns…

The greatest photographers still need to get a whole lot of images “on the roll” or memory card to get a winner. I just didn’t realise the shots taken to great image ratio was pretty large. I use a rough ratio of 1 shot out of every 12 will make the “shortlist” and then 1 out of every 3 of these will make a final cut. This gives me a “final cut” ratio of 1 out of every 36 original images.

For an exhibition, I usually need about 15 – 20 images. That takes the ratio of 1 framed print on the wall out of every few hundred shots minimum.

This ratio is based on film – where you might get one or two frames at best of a subject. When shooting digital, I will often go to “burst” mode to get the best possible single frame – a trick I picked up from Thomas Leuthard’s online Udemy course on street photography.

You can get a feel for some of TL’s tips here :

Being a great street photographer needs a balance of both decisive action to capture the shot and to frame the image competently in the viewfinder. The easiest way to curb your development is to rely too heavily on post processing cropping to get your image right – the more you get it right “in the camera” the better your eye will become.

Yes, I often crop a bit on the computer, but I always try and get it right in the camera. Careful consideration of the frame when taking the shot will build your skills quicker than just cropping the hell out of everything in photoshop.

At the same time, you have to just take your best hit as the opportunity rises. Sometimes, only a passing split second window is there for the image to be taken. You win some, and lose some. The absolute priority is to take a chance – the more opportunities you let pass through a moment of indecisiveness, the more timid you will become. Timidity is not a good thing for a street photographer – I am not suggesting you go all Bruce Gilden on your city (frankly, I think he is a bit of jerk and tends to get the same shot over and over and over), but you have to have some courage to succeed.

You have to keep shooting. Wear out that shutter… The more you shoot, in a considered and thoughtful manner, the better you are going to get. The more I run, the fitter I get, the further I can run, and faster…

One of my favourite books which highlights this is “Magnum Contact Sheets” – Sheesh! I just realised I haven’t reviewed this wonderful resource that is sitting on my bookshelf!!! Will fix that shortly… The book is a simple catalogue of famous Magnum images presented with the original contact sheet and some commentary.

ali castro

It helped me realise that not every shot is going to be winner…

As you get better, you get bitter… The Curse of Curation

Every year, I look at my back catalogue. Images I loved two or three years ago don’t look as good as they did at the time. Occasionally, a new favourite appears from the mire too! If the images haven’t changed, then what has? – my aesthetic and creative capabilities have grown.

When I started out, walking through the streets of San Francisco with my Nikon D80, I would post 30 out of every 50 images. I was just goddam excited and chuffed with my new hobby. I had done a bit of reading on composition and thought “how easy is this!”. Everything looked to be a masterpiece – compared to my friends shots they were posting on Facebook… Touristy and party shots taken by regular peeps.

These two shots were from my year 1.0… Note the early love of Holgas and film with the “batman bin” image!

Then I started to hang around with other street photographers, and look at their images… My definition of “great” shifted quickly and I had to try and keep up. Over time, I have become more and more perfectionistic with my self curation.

The more aesthetically aware you become, the more self-critical you are going to become. I was recently with a mate at the Loop Bar, swapping stories. We were talking about where were both at with our craft. I talked about how I was a bit disappointed with the images that had made a final short list from a recent trip to Japan. I chucked over my iPhone for him to have a look.

I felt I had struggled with wide angle lenses on the trip – having taken a 21mm equivalent medium format lens on a Mamiya 7.  It was a W    I    D    E     lense for sure!

He started to comment on images he liked. I took back the phone and looked at the short list again… in a new light. I realised that it was good to be so finicky about the images, but also to cut myself a bit of slack. The images were great! Particularly when compared to my average from 18 months ago. There was clear creative growth evident. I learned that afternoon to compartmentalise my inner critic sometimes and just enjoy the visual pleasure and sense of accomplishment in producing images that amaze my friends and family.

Yeah, they ain’t gonna make the Magnum cut anytime soon, but that isn’t why I do it.

For the record, here are the 88 images I have on my short list from the trip. I went to both Hong Kong and Japan – most of the images are from Japan though.

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To give an idea on the ratio…

Shot 91 rolls – a combination of medium format and 35mm film – let’s assume a 40 / 60 split?

40 x 12 = 480 medium format

60 x 36 = 2160 35mm images

Short list : 88 images

Ratio : 1 short listed image to 30 original images!

When I get to an exhibition, this will cull down to the 15 best images.

Ratio : 1 exhibition image to 176 original images.

Please don’t ask how long it took me to home develop 91 rolls… It nearly killed me and took about two months of solid weekends! I am more LC29 developer than man now…

Tweaking is for Twerps

Aaah, I don’t really mind what you do with your images in post processing. Whatever makes you happy. Remember that some images you see will be produced by “pros” – their job is to make the staged look casual and spontaneous. These images will make you feel inadequate – particularly when it is not disclosed by the photographer…

I have watched the whole Steve McCurry drama unfold with moderate interest. Essentially, he has been staging and post processing images and kinda pretending he never does it. His images are great, but with him giving the impression it is all spontaneous is unfair on regular non-godlike photogs like you and me.

Looking at McCurry’s images could make anyone feel a bit inadequate – particularly when my impression is that he was a hard core photo-journalist, avoiding retouching and significant changes post capture. I used to be amazed that his images were pretty much perfect “out of the camera”. It turns out that this may not be the case.

I am not going to set any hard and fast rules for what is OK for retouching, but cloning out whole people feels a bit iffy…

The earliest bubble burster for me was seeing HDR for the first time… I was blown away. Why didn’t my images look as cool?

Dranesville Tavern

What was I doing wrong? Well, it turns out I wasn’t taking multiple images of the same subject and superimposing them on each other to extend the breadth of highlights and shadow detail. It is now not to my personal taste, but each to their own.

For me, street photography is about minimalising retouching / technical stuff on the computer. I don’t like retouching any street image to the point where it looks different to what your senses naturally perceive – with a black and white filter implant in your eyes, of course!

When you see a visually arresting image, and gaze in wonder, think about how much of impact is technical vs art. The image of the farmhouse above is beautiful, but the photographer is displaying their technical skill more than artistic – in my opinion. I checked out the rest of the photographers’ stream and there is plenty there I do like!

Just don’t be disheartened by peeps how are photoshop masters…


After a bit of a ramble… Develop a split personality.

A Smarter Version of Simon Cowell : Continue to sharpen your aesthetic sense, and harden up your inner critic to self curate mercilessly.

Mr or Ms School Teacher : That school teacher or person that encouraged you, but without giving out “participation” awards… People who recognise a good job and given praise and feedback to help motivate and grow you.


One Response to “Discouraged? Develop a Split Personality…”

  1. Absolutely great article! Agree agree agree. I’ve had this critic bug since the very beginning.
    90 rolls, man! Considering the ratio I’ll never have a photo worth any exhibition))) i just can’t make myself waste this amount of expensive resource.


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