It’s one of the most familiar stories that I hear: “You wouldn’t believe how difficult it was to take this photo. I captured it on the hardest hike of my life, but it was absolutely worth the effort.” And then the photo – though rarely a complete failure – just isn’t up to the standard of the photographer’s other work. Sometimes, it seems, photographers confuse a photo that was difficult to capture with one that truly succeeds.
Sometimes, the Easiest Photos Work Well
The photos above have one thing in common: They were all very easy to capture.
I didn’t have to wake up early for any of these shots. I didn’t have to hike long distances or endure harsh weather conditions. Instead, I simply showed up at the right spot, walked a few minutes at most, and took a photo. But the key is that no one would ever know it. Unless you’ve been to these locations, there is no way to figure out where I took the photo – whether from the side of the road or from the farthest reaches of an exhausting, multi-day trek.
A beautiful photo from your backyard is still a beautiful photo. A mediocre image that took years of planning and effort to capture is, at the end of the day, mediocre. This is not to say such a photo cannot be meaningful to you, which is itself an important goal. But you also can’t expect your memory of a scene to carry over to people who view it.
I’m a firm believer that good photos resonate with viewers because of emotion, and there is an argument that hard-to-capture images are more likely to have this elusive quality. The photographer poured all their effort into capturing the image; some of that may shine through. Maybe the photo shows something unique and beautiful, or it captures a well-known scene in a new and exciting way.
However, for better or worse, viewers won’t pick up on those emotions automatically. Although a hard-to-take image may have a head start in certain cases, you still need to showcase the scene skillfully if you want a good image.
Other Times, the Trickiest Photos Aren’t As Good
Like most photographers, I’ve dealt with tough conditions, long hikes, sore feet, and exhaustion in the field, typically while carrying a full camera kit on my back. Early on, I got into a mindset that I needed to bring back something good in order to make crazy hikes like this worthwhile.
On the face of things, it’s a good idea to take good photos whenever you can. The problem occurs when you feel guilty not capturing what you’re after. You might end up displaying an image that – any other day – wouldn’t be up to your standards.
I’ve certainly done this before. I can think of a number of times where I put a lot of effort into capturing a photo, and I displayed the result for a while even though it wasn’t particularly good. Over the long run, little mistakes like this add up. It can be disappointing to see a photographer whose newest work isn’t as strong as their older galleries, whether on their personal website or social media.
Take a look at the two photos below. They’re not awful, but they’re far from standouts in my opinion. Still, I displayed both of these on my website for a long time after taking them – indeed, for almost a year after the fact:
These photos are from two separate hikes that, even several years later, stand among the most challenging I’ve ever done. But that has no bearing on the quality of the photos. In truth, I didn’t get any keepers from the first hike, and only one from the second. Sometimes, that’s just how things happen, and there’s nothing wrong with it. My mistake was to put these images on my website anyway because the backstory had elevated them in my eyes.
Many photographers come back from amazing experiences in the field, and they can’t help but publish some of their newest photos as soon as possible. In many cases, too, there’s nothing wrong with this approach; your first attempts at sorting through your best photos will be pretty accurate, and you typically won’t let the backstory of a photo get in the way of things.
But everyone slips up on occasion. Inevitably, even if you’re careful, you’ll end up publishing a photo that you later realize isn’t all that good. Even if your experience capturing the photo was life-changing, that doesn’t mean your viewers will feel the same way. In the field, you need to compose your photo in a way that makes them feel the same way.
A photo’s backstory is a rosy filter that only you can see. Other viewers will look only at the image in front of them, while you’ll be reliving one of the most exhilarating sunsets or exhausting climbs of your life. The danger is that you start to rank your photos in order of difficulty, not in order of quality. Although the two sometimes overlap, they often are entirely unrelated.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with having a “favorite photo” that you care about solely because of the story behind it. Some of my most important photos are snapshots that bring back memories of people or places that matter to me.
But for portfolio-oriented photographs, especially if you are trying to attract clients, it’s important to keep your standards high. Ask yourself if anything could be clouding your judgement, and, if you aren’t sure whether one of your photos stands alone successfully, consider waiting a few weeks for the memory of it to wear off a bit. Is the photo actually amazing, or do you simply want to feel that your hard work has paid off?
It’s not easy to separate the image from your memory of taking it. Still, the first step is easy: just be aware, in the abstract, that the story behind a hard-to-capture image can change how it appears to you. By recognizing this, you lower your chances of publishing photos below your usual standards.