I had an interesting interaction with a new friend on our cruise towards Antarctica last week.
We had been shooting for a few days, enjoying our time in the scenic Antarctic landscape with penguins, whales, and glaciers galore. We got some great shots. During breakfast one day, she asked, "where are your photos?". She was jabbing me and said, "Everyone else has shown me photos of our expeditions over the last couple of days, and we've done so much! Aren't you a photographer? Aren't photographers supposed to, you know, have photos?".
From her perspective, it made enough sense. When you meet a photographer, and you see them taking photos of the things you're also taking photos of, yet you don't see any photos from them, I can see how that could be a little bit strange—a fake photographer.
But for me, that wasn't weird at all. I had a reason for not editing any photos and thus had nothing to show. That reason was a habit that I got into at the very start of my photography journey, a habit so engrained into my workflow that I do it subconsciously, without thinking.
And that reason is emotional space.
See, photography is a lot like gambling.
You can give yourself the best odds of capturing a great shot. You can learn all the skills and set yourself up with the best gear; you can plan your entire trip to the T, you can put yourself in the best situation to get the best setup at the best time of year, but ultimately, whether or not you're successful, or at least the degree to which you might be successful is up to chance; to mother nature and whether she decides to bless you with fantastic weather or not, to the traffic and whether your model arrives at the shoot on time, to being in the right place at the right time with the right person giving you the right expression or the perfect gate of their stride, or the right timing of their movement.
But when things line up, when our preparedness meets opportunity, and we get that shot, it's magical. It's exactly how we imagined it to be or even better. We're super excited about it and stoked about how it turned out; we're high on our emotions.
I live for that feeling. It's why I'm more than happy to set my alarm for 3 am for the mere chance of getting a lovely sunrise and a decent shot from it.
But for people who care immensely about their art and craft, emotions are very individual to the person and don't necessarily translate to whether or not a piece of work is "good".
When we look at our work critically, we often forget that viewers of our images won't experience the same emotional rapture we had when we initially captured it. How could they? They weren't there.
I think it's a mistake to associate that emotional rapture we had for the capture with it being objectively "good". Just because you're stoked about it doesn't make it a good image. Not every time, at least.
That might sound a little harsh. But if your objective is to improve your photography over the long term, it is essential to discern why a particular composition might make a good photo without your emotions giving it extra points.
That's why, even though we had fantastic conditions in Antarctica and saw so many amazing things and I was SUPER stoked about some of those images, I didn't show anyone anything for days.
Rather than getting caught up in your emotions, definitely feel stoked about the shot when you take it, but rather than rushing home and into Lightroom to edit it, give it space. Let it sit for a while, let your emotions settle down and look at the image again a few days later with a clear head and an even keel. If it still looks fantastic to you a few days later without your heightened emotions, then your image just passed a significant litmus test, which probably means it will end up being good.
Developing the practice of putting just a little bit of emotional space between you and your work makes your overall work better over the long term.
And you can take this practice a step further. Rather than only using it on a micro level for your day-to-day shots, you can apply this same practice to your portfolio images that you make year-to-year.
As an artist who wants to constantly progress in my craft and grow and improve every year, new pieces will hopefully be added to my portfolio every year. But again, the emotional rapture of an image can creep its way into the opinion of a photo and taint whether or not that photo is worthy of remaining in the portfolio.
And look, we're all human. There will always be some emotion wrapped up in our images, and honestly, I’d hope you like your work enough to have some there. But when it comes to portfolio images, one of the things I do every single year is to go through my portfolio, and armed with the emotional space of an entire year, I cull some of the images that I was excited about last year, but I now perhaps don't feel so enthusiastic about anymore.
Then, as the years pass, some images will persist in your portfolio. They would have survived the gauntlet year after year. All of that emotional space. Those pieces are your best ones. Those are the pieces you know are going to follow you for a lifetime. Those pieces represent your true style and who you are as an artist.
But you only get to know them by giving your work some emotional space.
See you next week, creative.