My Little Photo Essay: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Photography

Here are two questions to ask yourself:

  • What’s my role as a photographer?
  • How do I define success in that role?

For the first question, there are a probably a small number of common answers. There are numerous possible answers, of course (life is complicated!), but I wager that most people who practice photography would categorize themselves into one or more of the following roles:

  • “I am a photo hobbyist, and I like to take pictures in order to share the experiences and visions that I have experienced with others”
  • “I am an archivist, and I like to take photographs of certain things for myself so that I can capture details that I don’t want to forget”
  • “I am a professional, and I make images that are compelling or valuable enough to others so that they are willing to pay me to capture them”
  • “I am just a regular human, and I take pictures in order to capture moments of my personal or family life that I think are special enough to remember”

These roles might typically define success like this:

  • Photo hobbyist: Do people connect with my work in a way that causes them to have an emotional reaction?
  • Archivist: Have I captured sufficient detail to help me remember what I might have otherwise forgotten?
  • Professional: Do my photographs provide a compelling enough value or response to make people feel like the money they have paid me for them was worthwhile?
  • Regular human: Do my pictures elicit an emotional response to my family or friends in such a manner that they feel glad that I took them?

If you look carefully and critically at the factors that define photographic success for these roles, the common element of success seems to be: Have I captured an image that satisfies my goal to elicit the desired response from my intended audience?

The notion of audience is a key one, because for most photographers in the most common roles, photographs are typically created to share information with other people in one way or another – even if the audience for the photograph is the photographer himself. For example, the archivist who takes photographs for personal reference is likely to use the details of those photographs to directly or indirectly communicate information to other people about a topic relating to those photos.

In other words, photography is generally used to capture information that is meant to be shared with others, whether for artistic purposes, or something else that is more, say, practical.

Think for a moment about this: if you do not have a desire to share something with other people, then why would you take a picture of it? After all, nothing can be as beautiful, accurate, and high resolution as the original view that fleetingly sits before you. Unless you think there is some reason to record it, why not just live the moment and take it in for yourself? We do that all the time – even most of the time – of course. Photos are typically taken only during moments that are driven by our roles and their related success factors.

To this end, photographers of all sorts seek tools that help ensure their success (since, after all, tools are required for photography). Whether that means tools that are portable . . . tools that provide superior color, contrast, resolution, speed, or responsiveness . . . tools that are easy to use . . . or tools that are affordable . . . photographers of all sorts have a long history of trying to choose tools that lead to success.

For photographers whose success factors depend upon presenting their work to other people (which is generally the case for all but the archivist), there some pertinent questions whose answers significantly guide the tool selection process:

How do I anticipate my photos will be presented?

Will they be printed?

If so, what size will they be?
How far away will people view them from?
What is the printing method? (Standard print, newspaper , etc.)

Will they be projected?

If so, how big will the screen be, and how far away will my audience be?

Will they be viewed on a computer screen?

If so, will people need to zoom in to see more details?

Photographers assemble their arsenal of tools based, in no small part, on the answers to these questions. And attempting to arrive at these answers is almost a fool’s errand, because, after all, how can we possibly anticipate everything we might want to shoot and present?

From these answers that are arrived at with no small amount of angst, photographers generally try to select and transport the least amount of equipment possible in order to achieve their ends. Equipment is not only cumbersome and/or expensive to ship or carry; a photographer can only use so much equipment at one time!

It is this last point that drives much of the passionate decision-making that underlies the hobby and profession of photography. While many photographers would love to have a field camera . . . a medium format body . . . a quiet and portable Leica rangefinder . . . and a stealthy Minox at their disposal at all times, a single camera that could all of these things would be a dream come true. So photographers learn to compromise.

What’s quite remarkable about photography today is that we are closer to that nirvana than people thought possible not too long ago. This means that today, one person with one camera and a relatively few lenses can usually achieve success with the following:

  • Action photography where a camera can help focus, expose, and shoot a burst of photos in a way that increases the likelihood of capturing something that conveys the feeling of the moment
  • Documentary photography where a camera captures the reality of a situation in unpredictable light
  • Large format, high resolution archival or art photography: (This would include architecture and landscape photography) Rather than conveying a “decisive moment” (with the exception of decisive light), such capabilities are more accessible than ever due to the ability for a computer to stitch together multiple photographs into a large composite even from cameras with relatively low megapixel counts

One fortunate thing for photographers is that documentary and action photography that seeks to capture a “decisive moment” generally need not benefit from extremely high resolution that is required for archival or art photography. Think about this:

How many “decisive moments” that have achieved fame have not been enjoyable for people within the confines of a magazine page? A page of Look or Life magazine used to be 11x14 inches. At 300 dots per inch, that’s a 13.8 megapixel image from one of today’s digital cameras. And as has been discovered in recent years, 13.8 megapixels typically contain a greater amount of clear photographic information than the film that was used when Life was that size. Yet that amount of information was used to successfully convey – to millions of people – many of the most important images of the photographic era.

Think about that for a minute – and then think about the fact that countless other magazines conveyed countless other decisive moments in far smaller formats. National Geographic . . . Time . . . Sports Illustrated . . . the list goes on.

In other words, to regular human beings who view photos, a good picture is a good picture, no matter what the size. Success? You bet!

Are there photos that cannot be enjoyed or appreciated at small sizes? Absolutely. Typically, these are photos that contain myriad details in a way that invites long, involved inspection: Large-format, high resolution archival or art photographs. With very rare exceptions, though, there is no Venn diagram-type overlap between “decisive moments” and these kinds of images, because decisive moments generally involve only a handful of noticeable details captured in a somewhat serendipitous manner.

Yet today it’s possible with computers to take all of these kinds of pictures with one camera, from single-frame decisive moments to multiple-frame high resolution composites.

That said, how many successful photographs can you think of that were successful primarily because of their incredible resolution? Maybe think about it this way: how many pictures have you seen where every pixel has mattered?

The recent “gigapixel” projects that have been made possible through the use of computers to assemble and present immersive details are probably the closest thing to that kind of success. The irony of gigapixel photography, though, is that just about any digital camera is capable of doing it, so long as the photographer has a little (or a lot, in some cases) of time, forethought, and patience.

But in most cases for most people, not every pixel matters.

If you want proof of this, take a careful look at the incredibly popular magazines from the American magazine publisher, Reiman Media Group. Many of these magazines (Reminisce, Birds & Blooms, Country, Farm & Ranch, Taste of Home) include one or more photographs in each issue that have a simple (typically black) image hidden in them. Readers scour the pages to find these images and report their findings to be eligible for a monthly drawing.

The operative word here is scour. It often takes several complete examinations of every page of the magazine for people to find these images. The photographs in which these images are found are typically beautiful ones – some commissioned for the magazines, and some purchased from stock agencies – all good enough to provide a compelling publication that people are willing to pay to view each month.

A typical issue of one of these magazines has 60-70 pages. Let’s assume that there are an average of 3 photos per page; this means that there might be 180-210 photos per magazine. Now, we photographers are pretty picky about aberrations, aren’t we? Well, imagine that one out of every 200 of your best, publication-quality photographs has a random black shape placed somewhere in within. Ask yourself: why would you care?

You can be sure that the millions of people who read Reiman’s magazines each month don’t complain to the publisher about how these “hidden” images have interfered with their ability to enjoy the photographs. Why? Because great images of this type are great images, whether they are partially obscured by a graphic or not. Success in these cases is determined here not by lack of aberrations, but rather by what is essentially conveyed.

So why do we obsess so much over resolution and aberrations when it’s likely that our intended audience won’t ever notice these things in the places in which our photographs are most likely to be seen?

It’s all too easy for photographers to miss this point. In our never-ending quest to find the most perfect tools for our work, the tools we dream of are the tools we probably already have. Success – no matter what your role – is mostly governed by how you use the tools that you have.

Most of the greatest photographers – Adams, Avedon, Cartier-Bresson, you name them – all achieved their success by creating images that could be appreciated in a lowly book or magazine, printed using offset techniques. Yes, their work looks even better when properly printed, displayed, and viewed in person. But they achieved success without requiring such a syzygy of perfect conditions.

What is your role? Have you achieved success? I am betting that you have. But if not, given the tools that are available to the average photographer today, what’s your excuse? 

All of this said, I thought it would be useful to share my role, and how I define success:

Although I get paid occasionally to take and make pictures, I am predominately a regular human: I take pictures in order to capture moments of my personal or family life that I think are special enough to remember. I measure my success by how well my pictures elicit an emotional response to my family or friends in such a manner that they feel glad that I took them.

When I spend time pondering my toolset, I remind myself of some of the images that have evoked the most intense responses from my family and friends. One that often comes to mind is this photograph of my brother’s late Boston Terrier:

A simple image that strikes a chord. Although I love the photo, other people generally think more highly of it than I do, even in its original, uncropped form (seen here).

Does resolution matter in this shot? Not particularly.

What’s quite interesting to me is not only that this image continues to evoke emotion in new people who see it; it’s that other photographs from this series – which was really just an exercise in capturing some fun with my brother’s dog – were deemed compelling enough to become the basis for a work in Laura Wilder’s official dog portrait series for the Roycroft Renaissance community.

To me, that’s success beyond my wildest imagination. How do you define yours?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by or any affiliated companies.


Total comments: 17
Paul B Jones
By Paul B Jones (7 months ago)

Great article. Images that I have cringed to show others because of perceived technical flaws have become among my most popular photos.

By fyngyrz (11 months ago)

I shoot to reveal things that otherwise cannot be seen at all. Low light auroras that at best, are a vague glow to us, come forth in brilliant color when exposed for time; deep space nebulas burst with glory when many high ISO images are stacked, or a tracking mount is used; Macro images reveal microscopic details that otherwise elude us; shots of martial arts in motion freeze skills in time that are executed so fast as to be lost to our perceptions other than by photography. I use the camera as a sense-multiplier, forcing open doors to things that are otherwise hidden from me. That is success.

By InterestedParty (Aug 18, 2012)

Thank you for the thoughtful piece. But I find it interesting that “I am an artist, I make images to strip away the surface features of reality to expose its deeper significance, and I do that for its own sweet self.” didn't make the list.

Not that I can do that.

Drew Saur
By Drew Saur (Aug 31, 2012)

That's a good addition. I will keep this in mind for a followup to this article!


Drew Saur
By Drew Saur (Sep 2, 2012)

On second thought, the artist is somewhere between the archivist and the hobbiest!


By robonrome (Aug 17, 2012)

Nice piece with some very sharp observations - I need to bookmark this and come and read everytime my gear lust rears it's head to secure the next great thing!

Osvaldo Cristo
By Osvaldo Cristo (Jul 3, 2012)

I am an hobbyst, but my main purpose in Photography is to see. When making photography I change my point of view and perception. My main reward is to see more and deeper.
To have some of them printed is a plus.
In the worst case, I could lose all my pics and even in this situation my main gain would be not lost: I never will lose my experience to see the world differently from my ordinary way.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
1 upvote
By Antonstef (Jun 11, 2012)

Thanks for your thought provoking article Drew.
I have come to realise that I am expending my energies to take photos that primarily please me. I am coming to accept that recipients of my countless photos of family/friends & events have become blase & no longer respond with the acknowledgement that would encourage me to do even more.
I assume that they appreciate receiving the images, but because they come with a little frequency, the novelty of responding with some form of appreciation & encouragement has passed.
Nonetheless, I will continue to take the shots that I think are important & would be appreciated, & then circulate them.
Your article will help me to focus on why I make the effort to take that shot in the first place - because I enjoy the challenge of trying & the pleasure of succeeding, most times!

Gearóid Ó Laoi, Garry Lee

I agree about the obsession with resolution and sharpness etc.
What most motivates me is the 5yr+ old photo. These are the great photos because they are there. An ordinary 20 year old photo of a neighbourhood, people, friends etc. is much much more interesting than lovely pictures of bowls of flowers.
I shoot a lot of ordinary stuff, stuff that will change or will be gone. People love my old stuff, but I don't do it for them. I do it for me!

By &i (Apr 23, 2012)

This hits the spot.

While it can be fun and interesting, contemplating and researching the next purchase (for which is useful), the ultimate goal needs to be kept firmly in view.

Thanks for the article.

By citizenlouie (Apr 12, 2012)

Nice article. :-) Very insightful and very helpful to everyone. It's something everyone should at least think about when they take photos.

I think stopped caring my audience though. :-( They're a diverse group of people. If I satisfied everyone, I would stop having fun taking photos and might get too frustrated when someone doesn't like them, which is something to think about also: it is totally okay if someone doesn't like your photos....

1 upvote
By jeffsvisions (Mar 24, 2012)

Thank you for writing this essay you opened my eyes for me. The part of photography that I love and have always loved is the going out and taking photos,.the walking around . Looking at beautiful thing and places. Not the should I shoot in jpeg or raw and the PP . I find to many people get caught up in PP and pix peep that they forget the real beauty of taking the photos. So for me its back to jpeg minimal PP and enjoy. By the way i'm a Photo hobbyist

By AnandaSim (Mar 24, 2012)

I like your viewpoints as it coincides with mine. However the language used is long winded and the intent can be better summarised for people who have a short attention span

By LMCasey (Mar 18, 2012)

Subject matter and composition are most important IMO. The sooner you can accept that the capture may have some imperfections, and enjoy the evoked feelings a photo can bring, the sooner you will feel at ease and exhilarated with this pursuit.

By Ben_Egbert (Mar 16, 2012)

Good article.

I am not sure where I fit. I used to think I wanted validation from others, but recently decided I did not. I must be an archivist, but I have some other purposes I did not see mentioned.

Photography is first and foremost an intellectual challenge, like working a Suduko. It is something that occupies my free time and presents a challenge not unlike the one I had before retirement.

I do want to record certain scenes and print them. I will hang them on my walls and some may view them, but if they don't, it will not matter. I am a hermit anyway. My wife likes them and maybe my daughter. But often nobody likes my favorites but me.

That's the the next problem. If I shoot what I like and nobody liked it, does that mean I need to shoot stuff I don't like? I think not.

I strive for best possible quality within the limits of my equipment and means and skills. The satisfaction is when I head out for a specific image and come home with what I had intended.

By Tidewater (Aug 25, 2012)

You are not an ordinary archivist. Your work tells me you love those mountains, you enjoy the light, and you are committed to doing it very very well, even if no one looks, but they do.
I believe the great Dutch artists were archivists, illustrators if you will. But so skillful that their work endured.
The categories of photographer types mentioned here are all really the same except for the professional and I include myself in them all. I do it much more casually than you do but i am still inspired and pleased by your level of work.

By AlbertoGarcia (Mar 14, 2012)

great essay - now I wonder what kind of photographer I want to be...
you would as well produce a book on this - including some historical references (from initial documentary experiments to point-and-shoot iPhone regular? users...
...And you forgot the Internet. Best place for exhibitionist-archivists and voyeurs...
but you hit the topic. I will go take some pictures now :)

Total comments: 17