Welcome to the twelfth in a 12 part series about how to improve your nature photography.
Step #12 – Edit, Share, and Compare.
For most of us, photography is a social activity. I might be alone when I take an animal’s picture, but I’m not taking that picture just for me. I photograph wildlife because I want to share the beauty and wonder of the natural world. There are few things more exciting than coming face to face with a wild animal and interacting with it on a personal level. I take photographs because I want to share those experiences. It doesn’t matter how good of a photographer I am or how many great images I have captured. If my images never move beyond my computer it is as if they don’t exist.
Before you show a single image to anyone, edit your work. After two weeks of photographing in Africa, I usually come home with between 5,000 and 10,000 images. From these I narrow the number down to the best 100 images. Sounds hard, but it isn’t. The key is to accept that everyone takes bad pictures. The difference between bad and good photographers is the ability to let go of the bad images and only show the good ones. There is a running joke that the difference between a professional and amateur photographer is the size of their trash can. The professional’s trash can is bigger and it gets used a lot.
When I edit my work, I do a first run through and throw away any images that don’t make a basic quality cut. Anything that is out of focus, poorly exposed, or shows bad composition gets tossed. After 19 years I still get shots of tail feathers as the bird flies out of the frame. It doesn’t matter how good you are. If you never take a bad picture, you’re not pushing yourself and you will never get better.
Once the obviously bad images are removed, I start the second round edit. This is where I separate the wheat from the chaff. Factors like composition, critical focus, and light all come into play in deciding which images stand out. I also look at each image at 100% magnification to assess critical focus. If the eyes aren’t sharp – delete. It is painful, but I only want the best images in my files.
In the end, I end up with two different groups of “keeper” files. The first is my top image category. These are my babies. These are my go to images when someone wants to see what I can do. From a big trip, I might have 80 – 100 images in this category, but they are my best. The second group is my good but not awesome category. These are still high quality images (mediocre and bad images got thrown out during editing), but they are a notch below the top shots. They also might number between 2,000 and 3,000. Why do I keep these? As a stock and editorial photographer, I often have a need for images that help to tell or complete a story. These images help to fill out the story. They might not be show stoppers, but they are solid images that show subjects that are often in demand.
Before you start sharing, you need to determin which images are worth sharing. Not just which images, but how many. We all dread the words, “Want to see a slideshow of my vacation?” What usually follows is hundreds of boring images that make you want to move to a distant land where they have never heard of slideshows. Don’t be that person. If you give a slideshow, blow the audience away. Make them beg for more. Remember, 20 pictures of you sitting on a beach might bring back great memories, but they will end your future chances of a social life. Do your audience a favor, keep it short. If you can’t say it with 30 to 40 images, you need to refine your message.
It goes back to editing. Not only do you need to select quality images, but the image you pick need to be assembled so they tell a story. Not just any story. It needs to be a story that your audience actually wants to hear.
In today’s digital world, image sharing has come a long way from the slideshow. Online photographic sites like NatureScapes, BirdPhotographers.net, and Flickr offer opportunities to post images for review and critique. Short of a photographic workshop, online communities are probably the fastest way to become a better photographer. Pick your specialty, find a group, sign up, start posting, and listen to what people have to say. For those looking for a more personal touch, there are many local area camera clubs that run monthly competitions and workshops. These can also be outstanding venues for photographers looking to share their work and improve on what they are doing.
Beyond showing off, sharing my photography gets me excited about what I do. As a wildlife photographer it is easy to be isolated. Sharing my work gets what I am doing out in front of others and reaffirms the value of what I am doing. In the case of my students, it has the added benefit of getting them excited about something I am passionate about.
One of the best ways to develop as a photographer is to expose yourself to the work of other photographers. Check out what others are doing and compare it to your own work. How do your images measure up? Are your images better? If so, fantastic. Now go out and find a photographer who is better then you. Trust me, they are out there. If not, don’t get depressed. Every industry has its stars and there is nothing wrong with looking at their work with envy. The problem comes when that is all you do.
When you find a photographer whose work you truly admire, ask yourself what it is about the work that draws you. Is it their use of light? Their unique camera angles? Their post processing technique? Once you identify the key factor (or factors), ask yourself what it will take for you to start producing images of that quality. Then get to work.
Too often photographers obtain a basic level of competence in their craft and then stop developing. Comparing your work to that of other photographers and pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone will assist you in evolving yours photography.