Reaching Your Potential

Have you ever had the feeling that you are not being the photographer you could be (or painter, or musician, or writer, or whatever—put in the right word for you)? That you are not making the best photographs you could make? In other words, that you are not living up to your potential as a photographer (or whatever artist you are)?

It’s nothing out of the ordinary. On the contrary. This is a feeling we photographers have all had. Sometimes we may feel on the top of the world, and then the next day we just feel we can’t capture anything worth saving. Reaching our potential is a constant struggle, to become better, to overcome the fear that creative work always gives rise to, to step out of the box, to not succumb to old and proven routines. Here in this blog, I try to give snippets of thoughts on how to keep developing and getting closer to that potential that inherently lies within all of us. Moreover, my workshops, if anything, are all about helping the participants be the best photographers that they can be.

Throughout the years and many posts in this blog, I have pointed to the importance of doing the work, to challenge yourself, to work with passion, to be willing to learn—to mention a few things you need to do to be able reach your potential as a photographer. For a little summery of how to develop your creativity and become a better photographer; look up posts like A Path to Creative Life or Become a Better Photographer. Nobody said it would be easy, but as with everything in life, the purpose of the creative travel is not the end goal, but the road to the goal.

One aspect I have not written a lot about is constantly evaluating your own work and yourself as a photographer. On a regular basis, take stock of yourself. Where do you stand as a photographer right now? And how can you improve yourself so your photography will become better? In my personal experience, and as I have learned from talking with students in my workshops, one of the biggest things that hold us back is the feeling of vagueness and lack of clarity about how to get better. If we wander day by day with no sense of direction or movement, then we are easy pray for the forces of resistance—the internal and external forces that try to stop us from being creative and living the life we want.

When you evaluate yourself, don’t only look to your technical skill level. We should never lose sight of the fact that becoming a good photographer, like becoming a good artist in any medium, involves heart and soul in addition to craft and technique. A technically perfect photo can be banal, and a very imperfect photo from a technical perspective can touch something deep within us. This implies that discovery about how to improve our photography is an emotional and transformative journey in the psychological and spiritual domains, and that mastering of technique is but the barrier to entry. So when evaluating your present state as a photographer and where to go from there, you need to look at both aspects.

Evaluating yourself and your own work is difficult. Sometimes we need the help from others. We turn to family, friends, Flickr, photo clubs, or submit photos to competitions, or attend workshops. All good, but we also have to keep in mind that not all «help» is necessarily helpful. Obviously, the quality of this kind of evaluative response varies, and depends greatly on who is doing the evaluation. However, while we should keep in mind this truth, valid and useful feedback is important, and can come from many sources.

Ultimately, though, it is extremely important to develop the ability to evaluate you own work, no matter how difficult it is to do so. Almost every good artistic vision is individual, and not the result of a committee. External opinions can be noise on the line, and pull in many different directions. Learning to evaluate yourself and your work, is about practising. Do it on a regular basis and it will slowly by slowly become easier. Maybe you need some help in the beginning. Well, participate in a workshop where evaluation in most cases is an important part of the experience. Or look to literature. For one, I can recommend the book, Achieving Your Potential as a Photographer, by Harold Davis.

Are you trying to reach your potential as a photographer? Are you working as hard as you can to encourage your own development? You know, often in my travels to troubled areas, I meet kids that have nothing, may live on the street, have lost their family, or seek shelter in refugee camps. I can’t let go of thinking about the potential that lies within them. What could they have grown up to become in a better world, with better opportunities, with some guidance by mentors or parents?

60 thoughts on “Reaching Your Potential

  1. Valuable article, I feel very much that you have to be honest to yourself about what you produce, emulate the best…but stay not copy…Over time we all learn and get bettter and you just have to get used to the idea there is always somebody better than you are!! Boring but true! Which makes it even more important that you have to listen to what you heart tells you to do in anything, also photography..then it is you and the BEST!! at that moment. IMO. and I have done a lot of teaching in my life!!

    1. If you turn it around; the fact that somebody always will be better than you, is actually encouraging, because it means that you have always a potential to develop further. 🙂

  2. I like to look back at photos from past years, and I can honestly think to myself if they are better or not. I do try to improve, and I do like to push myself forward. I think we all have to, no matter the medium.

  3. Another good post Otto, thanks! In order to improve I try sometimes to work on project, which could be oft mini-project. If I go out with friend, not necessary photographer for an excursion to a town we do not know the mini project could be to come back with 6 photos illustrating the town, places, people, shops…or maybe on a different route just come back with a few ambient light portraits of the friends I’m with.
    And than comes the critical part, evaluation…hmmm not easy but practicing is the key…

  4. Good points, Otto….I am at a creative low at present, and I have been considering doing a bit of critical assessment of some recent images, trying to work out what is missing – but of course, I’m probably not in the right mood for it!

  5. Hi Otto! This is an excellent article and it has given me some points and new perspectives to think about on my road to becoming a professional photographer. It is also very timely as I am taking a portrait course at Central Saint Martins University of the Arts in London this week, which is really pushing me in good ways outside of my “comfort zone”. Thank you so much again for all of your ideas which are a huge inspiration and encouragement to me on my artistic path. Have a great week! Jacqueline

    1. I am glad the post feels relevant to you. Sounds like great fun with the portrait course. It’s always good to push yourself out of the comfort zone. Enjoy the workshop, Jacqueline.

  6. Very good information and insight with this post Otto, it is always hard to take a long/hard look at one’s work and see where we may be lacking, but doing so can help define where an artist needs to improve and to develop a personal style. As you eloquently state: “Almost every good artistic vision is individual, and not the result of a committee…”

    1. It is hard to evaluate one’s own work, if nothing else because it’s hard to distance yourself from the emotional attachment to the moment of capture. But as you point out, doing so does really define how you as an artist can improve. Thank you for your poignant comment, Randall.

  7. The picture above is awesome. I just like it. For some reason, it packs of emotion , almost alive.

    What you wrote here are exactly what occur to me. I am not even considered a photographer and mostly I feel I do not capture anything worth keeping 😦

  8. yes, if only the sick and poor were in a better position to realize their potential… me? i’m sick, and my days are spent trying to survive, with a bit of photography thrown in there for enjoyment… yes i can analyze my own photography, but it’s for what I WANT not what somebody else might deem as ‘good photography’… luckily i got my education in photography many years ago on film, or i would have to work harder in this day and age, no doubt. even though i jealously look at how easy it is to just push a button on a phone these days lol

    1. Easy doesn’t necessarily make good. And what you say about you wanting and not what other might think is good, is very important. We should always work from our heart and soul, not from what others think or say. 🙂

      1. i think once we reach a certain age, then there is no point in caring what other people think of what we create… for if we did it would kill our creativity stone dead! so yeah, “give a little bit of heart and soul, give a little bit of love to grow, give a little bit of heart and soul now don’t you make me beg for more”… 🙂 lyrics by t’pau

  9. Thank you for the inspiring and thoughtful text Otto. It is so tempting to become complacent, indeed it is the journey not the destination. I was particularly moved by the your last paragraph, I am sure so much potential is lost in poverty, war, robbing our young of the future and generations of what might have been. Thank you dear Otto, enjoyed as always.

  10. Interesting points Otto. I have often found in creative work it is not difficult to appreciate when something is not right in your own work, but identifying exactly what change is needed to rectify the problem is not always easy. It is not sufficient for your ‘helper’ to be technically competent, he or she must also understand what you are trying to say

    1. The technical part is always the easy part to assess. It’s much harder to understand the emotional and visual aspect and give valuable feedback. I completely agree with you, Louis.

  11. Mycket intressant och aktuellt i allra högsta grad för mig just nu. Kan skilja bättre på känslan/upplevelsen vid fototillfället och resultatet nu än när jag började fota. Svårt att utvärdera mina egna bilder i det stora hela och tror på seriös feedback för egen del.

    1. Seriøs feedback er utrolig bra for å hjelpe en på vei, men det er viktig også å utvilke evnen til å se sine egne bilder med “avstandsbriller” og kunne evaluere dem. 🙂

  12. Another thought-provoking article, Otto. It’s a challenge to get out of one’s bubble, step back and evaluate work. I like what you said about how hard it is to separate yourself from the experience of taking the photo– it is a total package of emotion and creativity. When I find an image – my own or others- exciting or enthralling, I force myself to stop and ask why. Your portrait of this young boy did just that. (lighting, expression, color, angle of shirt…) Great post.

    1. Thank you, Jane. It often helps to let some distance and time pass before evaluating one’s own work, simply because the emotional attachment to the experience have been pushed a little more into the subconsciousness.

  13. Such a wonderful portrait Otto. It must be so hard to witness all that you do on your travels though I’m sure there are many moments that fill you with hope at the indefatigable nature of the human spirit.
    A good photograph of course needs to illicit an emotional response in the viewer. This photograph does that brilliantly. Evaluating whether your own work is going to do that can be so hard as we are of course very attached to our work. I read a quote from a quite eminent critic/curator who said he didn’t know what made a good photograph but he knew it when he saw it. This hints at the difficulty of of creating a prescriptive list of the elements required because there is always that elusive x factor and it’s simply not possible to say exactly what that is.
    One of the reasons I started my blog was to get feedback on my work. I started on the Royal Photographic distinction process and have entered competitions for the same reason but ultimately, as you say Otto, we need to be able to evaluate our own work, to try and step back and be objective, not easy, one does have to work at it but with practice we can become our own best critic.
    As always an excellent thought provoking article on a very important aspect of what we do. 🙂

    1. As you so poignantly point out, it is indeed very difficult to evaluate photographic work, because there is always this in-descriptive factor that touches our heart—or not. This is particularly true when it comes to evaluating our own photos. But it’s still a matter of practice. I see from my own workshops that the more I talk about photos, the easier it is to make valuable evaluations.

  14. It’s important to remember that evaluating our own work doesn’t only mean looking for flaws, or picking it apart. It also means trusting our own response to our work, recognizing what is good, and being willing to defend it against outside critics.

    I don’t have the experience often, but often enough I read something I’ve written, or look at a photo, and think, “Yes. That’s exactly right.” There are times when a photo isn’t technically perfect, but the response to it is tremendous. I’m thinking of one in particular you may remember; the man in his little boat, on the golden water. It wasn’t perfectly focused, and I had to crop it a bit more than I would have liked, but I knew it was good — and the response of others confirmed that it spoke to them, too.

    1. Good point, Linda. It’s not only about being critical but also looking for what is actually working in a photo. No matter good or bad, it’s a learning process. Furthermore, you are right in that technical perfection is never enough, and not even necessary if a photo touches us. The photo you mention is exactly a good example of that.

  15. I simply like to feel challenged. Whether it’s cooking, practicing the piano or enjoying amateur photography, I do like to think that I’m always reaching for something a little higher than my current level of accomplishment. I try to be both realistic in my expectations and honest to know where I most need to improve in order to assess a measurement and experience growth potential. The wonderful thing about learning and perfecting any craft is realizing that we can continue to grow across the lifespan!

    1. And it’s exactly that which makes life so wonderful; we can always develop and grow. And I think you have a great approach by always reaching a little higher. We can all learn from your example, Debra.

  16. Hmmm, what IS my potential? Good question. Reading other’s blogs, like yours, inspire me to think about what I do. Also belonging to a camera club with LOTS of talent really challenges me. And then…practice seeing, practise different approaches, try cropping in-camera, play with shutter speeds and apertures…and ENJOY! Going through my old photos to cull them makes a difference. The more time has passed, the more I can cull.And, I raise the bar. For instance, at first I was happy to get a bird, or part of a bird, in the view-finder. As I have grown in skill, I usually want as little interference with twigs, etc. as possible, no blown-out spots in the background, a glint of light in the eye, and good focus on all of the bird.For the most part, there are always exceptions.Your photo grabs me, it is the tones in his skin and in the door. Then how his shirt drapes across his shoulders. I see beauty.

    1. I don’t think it’s possible to define one’s potential. It will always be higher than one thinks. So doing as you, always trying to reach higher, learn and evaluate is the way to go.

  17. Yes, looking back every once in a while and measuring one’s progress can be either encouraging or frustrating. It is important not to get stuck in a rut. Once one has reached a certain level of technical proficiency and the selection of camera settings has become mostly automatic one can immerse oneself more fully in the art of photography. That’s when the magic happens. Sooner or later one stumbles into the spirituality in photography. This opens up a whole new dimension. I would say it is the most important one.

    1. And I would agree with you. The technical side of photography is just the means and in many ways not so important. When it sits in the backbone and one doesn’t have to think about technique, one is much freer to be creative.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s