I’ve gone on two photography trips recently with very different results. The first trip led mostly to duds, aside from a single portfolio-quality image. The second led to dozens of publishable shots and multiple for my portfolio. It made me wonder what counts as a successful photography trip at all.
Before I answer that question directly, let me share one of my favorite photography quotes. It’s when Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photos in any one year is a good crop.”
That seems like a rather low standard for one of the most gifted photographers of all time. Just one good photo per month? But even looking at Ansel Adams’s own work, it holds true. The book 400 Photographs is a portfolio from about 48 years of his professional work, which means it features an average of just over eight photos a year. That’s obviously less than one per month and shows that even the greats didn’t churn out masterpieces every day. (Further, despite the huge number of impactful photos in the book, calling all 400 of them significant is probably a stretch.)
But the world has gotten faster since Ansel Adams’s day. The new gold standard is to post one great image on Instagram per day if you want to keep the algorithm well-fed and your audience interested. Almost all of the most famous photographers on that platform – which, despite its endless flaws, is still the place where photographers gather – meet the standard.
It’s also true, and not just in photography, that clients have been demanding dramatically more quantity and speed over time. (Quality demands do not show the same trend.) As a photographer, you’ll run into this mindset no matter what subject you capture, if you shoot for clients.
And that brings me to the two trips I took recently. The second – where I captured the greater number of successful shots – was the UAE/Jordan/Turkey workshop that we run at Photography Life. It’s probably not a surprise to get a high volume of publishable images from a trip that covers so much ground. But this time, there was also the factor of a client’s requirements.
To be specific, we work with the Jordan Tourism Board each year of the workshop, and part of our agreement is to provide them high-quality photos at the end of the trip. This year, they wanted about 50 images. (Not to put too fine a point on things, but that’s about 200 times the pace Ansel Adams would have preferred.) During the trip, I found myself jumping constantly to different subjects, one after the other, so that the 50 photos wouldn’t all be variations of the same mountain.
It would suit this article to say that my photos from Jordan had good breadth but lower quality per photo. The truth is a bit more nuanced, since I’m still happy with many of them and consider some to be portfolio worthy. Even so, instead of refining those 4-5 photos to the maximum (which is my favorite method of taking better photos), I tended to move on quickly to the next subject. I think that left subtle room for improvements in each of the portfolio shots, beyond what I actually captured.
Those are my five favorite photographs from the Jordan portion of the workshop, and I feel good about them for the client and my own display. For a week of shooting, that’s a bigger haul than usual for me.
Meanwhile, the other trip I mentioned is the one I wrote about earlier, where I (foolishly?) went to Iceland in the winter with two of my closest friends to celebrate some big events in their lives. That was a completely personal trip, no clients in mind, so I was free to move slower, use my 4×5 instead of something digital, and shoot for myself.
As a side note, I’ve found this to be my favorite thing about shooting with large format film. It’s not the detail or colors of the images, or even the flexibility of lens movements, but the thinking process that I like the most. Every image I take with the wooden camera is scouted, thought over, and created, with more attention to detail than I can usually manage with digital. I only took one image that I love from that trip, but it’s a very important one to me.
I did get a few other publishable shots from the week – and no doubt exhausted all of them in my post about the trip – but this is the only one that merits printing or displaying in my portfolio. To me, it captures the feeling of the trip and matches my artistic intent very closely (more so than the other photos I’ve taken this year). This image is what crystalized my belief that if you’ve taken a photo you like – even if you missed some opportunities and felt frustrated along the way – you’ve done well.
So, how many good photos from a trip is a success? One. That’s all.
The Iceland photo is so beautiful, I can’t stop looking at it! It really is breathtaking. The Ansel Adams quote puts things in perspective. Came across this while looking for inspiration and found it in your article. Thanks! :)
Thank you Spence for this… “It’s when Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photos in any one year is a good crop.” it takes my stress to be fruitful😊Love your articles🥰
Thank you, Ester!
This is a great article and your photos are brilliant! I am an amateur photographer and in the past would felt defeated if I didn’t get more than a few great photos that I would want to print and display. Now I am pleased when I get one or two that give me that wow feeling. I also think it’s funny that sometimes when I go back and look at past photos there are those that stand out more than they did the first time around. I think too, like someone mentioned, we tend to be our own worst critic.
For me the answer is ‘none’. I have the advantage that I shoot mainly for pleasure and although I like to produce good photographs, both artistically and technically, I am not dependent on my output to generate income. Thus I can have a great photographic trip even if I produce no top quality images.
As an example, some time ago I spent a week photographing wild reindeer in Norway with an experienced guide. This involved long treks over the hills in search of herds and approaching them very cautiously. It was a great photographic experience and I generated some images which I was pleased with. More recently, on another trip, I photographed semi-domesticated reindeer which were far less timid. I produced some excellent images – but somehow it did not have the same level of satisfaction as my previous experience.
The fact is that, for a lot of wildlife photography, better images can be generated in a semi-controlled environment (e.g. from hides) rather than in a totally wild setting. But, for me, the latter is still more satisfying.
I agree 100%. Once or twice year I go to a cabin in a remote forest in New Zealand to try to photograph wild deer. To get there I have to pass through a deer farm. It has never even crossed my mind to stop in the farm and photograph the enclosed deer, but I am happy to spend hours out in the forest at dawn and dusk to get one photo of a wild one.
I love this topic Spencer! Well done and thought provoking content!
For me at least one keeper (exceptional) photo per day of shooting is a success. I am very strict judging my own photos. My most successful photos on Instagram, strangely, are these i didn’t thought as “portfolio” grade… it seems that people that are not in photography goes with the tide: they like sunsets and beautiful locations and that’s right by me. If you asked me a few years ago i would probably gave you a different answer. I love my still life and street photos more than my landscape ones, but every time i post a street photo on Instagram the likes it takes are about 90-100… to the contrary, many landscapes with sunsets and long exposures took well over 300!
One last thing: if you are not professional in photography try to keep social media out of your sphere of influence or, at least, don’t take the like counts as benchmark of your work’s quality. Do your thing for yourself, enjoy what you shoot and keep it for you and a small group of people that shares the same passion and interests with you. It took me long time to figure it out but now i am more focused and enjoy me photography 100%.
When I go on a backpacking trip to say the Sierras or the Rockies I count myself lucky if I get three or four what you call portfolio shots in a week of shooting. I think the reason is that a great photograph is one that evokes emotion in the human mind and heart, and those are not very easy to make. Of the seven photos you used for your article the best two are the iconic Ansel Adams photo of the Tetons and your photo from Iceland, both made with “old” technology, and while you are a consummate artist and professional I have to give the nod the Adams. Even the passage of time has not dimmed that shot. I see in the comments following a lot of these articles very earnest discussions about this new wiz-bang technology or that one. But we can’t buy ourselves into being good artists, that must come from our mind’s eye and a million megapixels will not improve that, only time and experience will. Even then, the great shots will be few and far between because it is not easy. It is said that people would pass by Paul Cezanne’s studio and see canvases in trees he had thrown up there in disgust. We can take thousands of shots in the time it would take to paint a canvas but the principle still stands.
“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”. -Ansel Adams “.
One important sub-theme in this thoughtful article is the issue of dealing with pressures of trying to meet expectations for the production of constant volume. This can be self-imposed, or as you note, it comes from the fact that on the major SNS platforms, users/viewers need to “be fed” a steady stream of content. Otherwise, the SNS system algorithms or user impatience will draw their attention to other content, and one’s own work will get lost in the sheer volume of images that appear everyday.
I am not sure how it would work, but perhaps photographers who care about quality over quantity should actively advocate the value of a “slow-life, slow-shooting” approach to their art.
Okay, I’m going to be “that guy” and say it depends on your definition of success. I’m always happy when I come home from a trip with a few good images and I usually consider the trip a success. However, I occasionally come home without any image I’m truly happy with. When this happens, I study the photos and consider the conditions (weather, lighting, time of day, etc.) from the time the photo was taken. If after doing this, I can say that I learned something, then I consider the trip a success. It might not be the type of success I was hoping for, but it’s a success none-the-less.
Scott, I was waiting and actually hoping someone would comment something like this! A few of my best trips for photography didn’t result in any good photos, but instead gave me valuable info on how to capture the place next time.
Good article. I recently was on a trip to Ireland and Scotland with my wife for 3 weeks, not on a dedicated photography trip. All in all I was satisfied with the results of the trip photography wise. While my wife was very patient and let me shoot for whatever time I needed, there was always some pressure to wrap things up. Tourist were also a challenge, needed to just wait a bit for my composition to clear of them. There were some required PS tourist casualties, but I did keep some in for scale. In summary the trip was a success and inducement to go back as a dedicated photography trip.
Thank you, Gary! I think that’s a familiar story for most photographers. Traveling with loved ones is usually more rewarding anyway than a solo photography trip, and if you manage your time, it can lead to a similar rate of quality shots.
This is a very interesting topic and one I’ve thought about a lot. It varies too. Some places are just much easier than others. Two years ago, I went to Presqu’ile Park in Ontario for just under a week. It was beautiful, but I found very few shots to be outstanding. Realistically a week of full-time photography for me looks like:
* 7-10 images that are good enough to show / people will enjoy them
* 1-2 images that are truly amazing for me
* 0 images that I think are perfect
For the last point, there is always something I want to improve, but I don’t get hung up about it or anything.
That sounds about right! I try to aim for “perfecting the variables I can control” – from composition to post-processing. It’s an impossible goal, and even if I met it, the photo would have flaws outside of my control. But it helps to have a target.