Comparisons

June 06, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Autumn reflections Lamprey River Durham New HampshireIMPRESSIONISTICFallen leaves floating on the surface of the Lamprey River, their movement captured with a long exposure, combine with reflections of autumn color along the shoreline to create an impressionistic scene.

Near Durham, New Hampshire
When I was first starting out, I learned a great deal by studying the work of photographers whom I admired. Some of the first coffee table books I collected were, in a way, my textbooks. 

I still occasionally add books produced by favorite photographers to my collection, enjoy viewing photographic exhibitions, and am interested in seeing recent work created by people I know. There's nothing unique about that; photographers quite often look at the work of other photographers.

Comparisons being instinctive, it can be difficult to view someone else's images and not measure your own work against theirs. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. When you see a spectacular photograph, not only can you be inspired by it, but you might also learn from it.

Problems arise when productive comparison morphs into an exercise that is negative and self-defeating. If viewing someone else's work discourages you or makes you feel inadequate as a photographer, you're being too harsh with yourself. 

Try shifting your perspective. 

There is always going to be someone who is more skilled than you. Don't discredit your own work simply because you haven't yet reached the next level. Instead, when you come across a photograph that strikes a chord, actively analyze it. What elicited your emotional response? Study the lighting and compositional elements like the placement of objects within the frame and the use of negative space. Maybe techniques were used that you might experiment with. If you've tried to photograph the same type of scene - or maybe even from the same general location - but your results were lacking, what makes the image you're looking at successful? This will help identify things you can work on that will improve your own output.

Use exceptional images that resonate with you as inspiration to aim higher with your own photography, not to beat yourself up.

That said, guard against letting your admiration for someone else's work silence your voice. Don't lose what's unique about you and your vision. Appreciating another photographer's artistry and technique doesn't mean you should try to recreate their style, nor should it influence what you choose to shoot. Be yourself. 

Looking at the work of other photographers shouldn't be a negative exercise. From it you can be inspired and you can learn. Don't forget, though, to occasionally use yourself as the measuring stick. Compare your current output to images you made last year, five years ago, or ten years ago. 

If you've been shooting regularly, you are no doubt a more accomplished photographer now than you were in the past. That's a measurable achievement about which you can be proud. 

You might also discover early images that have held up quite well. This also deserves a pat on the back. Some photographs you made way back when may still be in your portfolio - not because you're a sloppy curator or a sentimentalist, but because they're good. Bravo!

Reviewing early work doesn't come without a few potential pitfalls. For example, looking at earlier images may give rise to a few feelings of regret. It does for me. There isn't always an opportunity for a "do over." I may not have the chance to revisit some of the places I worked. Some of the subject matter I shot years ago no longer exists. Like me, you might find yourself thinking, "If only I'd known _______ back then."

C'est la vie. 

Keep a productive comparison mindset, whether you're looking at someone else's work or your own previous output.

Acknowledge what you've achieved. Be inspired by the work of others. Keep learning.

 

About the Photograph

I made this abstract many years ago: pre-digital, it was shot on Ektachrome. This is, to me, the essence of autumn in New England reflected in a river not too far from where I lived at the time. The small leaves floating on the surface, gently moving water and slow shutter speed combined to create an impressionistic rendering. I've long since culled many photographs I made during that era, but this remains one of my favorites - so much so that it hangs on a wall in my house.  


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