If you wanted to name the biggest complaint of professional photographers in the digital age, you’d have a lot to choose from. Demand is falling. Prices are dropping. Photography schools are growing just as jobs are disappearing. If it was always difficult to make a living taking pictures, it’s safe to say that times are particularly hard now.
All of those are good reasons to grumble but there’s one complaint that stands out above all the others:
Everyone thinks they’re a photographer now.
It’s the inevitable result of cameras that are cleverer than the people who sell them and editing software that was once only found on the desks of professional graphic designers now available for free online.
Give anyone a decent digital camera and a good view, and after an hour or two, almost inevitably, you’ll end up with a selection of attractive images and someone who thinks they’re Annie Leibovitz.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t though.
Talent is spread unevenly and not everyone discovers their abilities early. There are plenty of amateurs who could have made successful professionals had they picked up a camera earlier, chosen a different career path or who weren’t enjoying what they’re doing full-time now.
But there’s a difference between an attractive image and an exceptional one, and the wrong person to ask about the quality of an image is always the person who took it. So how can you tell if your photography really is as good as you think it is?
“Nice capture”… not!
What you shouldn’t do is trust what you read under your photos on Flickr. The photo-sharing site has no shortage of mediocre images with long pages of positive comments. That’s because offering a compliment is a good way of receiving one, and contributing is a powerful form of Flickr marketing.
Better then to join a group and ask for constructive criticism. That might be harder to take – it’s likely to be less complimentary – but it should show you how close you came to shooting a perfect picture, and the advice will help you to get even closer next time.
Better still, because group members are selective there’s a greater chance that the people offering the comments will actually understand what they’re looking at. Choose a group used by both professionals and amateurs, and your viewers will be able to see where you want wrong, understand how you made the mistake, tell you how to put it right… and appreciate all things that you did so well.
A compliment is always worth more when it comes from someone who really can tell a bad image from a good one.
Take a Prize
You could also try submitting one of your images to a competition. There are plenty of these on the Internet these days, so you have to choose carefully. A weekly contest held by a site with 30 users a month might not be worth winning. Getting your pictures shown on the BBC’s website might not deliver any prizes but it is free to enter, highly competitive and a good sign that you’re better than average.
You could also try submitting your photos to a peer-reviewed photography publication like JPG Magazine. Although the final choice won’t be solely down to other photography lovers – the editors have the last word – being chosen is still a good sign that you have something that most people don’t.
Return to the Stone Age
A tougher test of your talent though would be to strip down. Ditch all the hi-tech wizardry that makes shooting easy, turn off the camera’s automatic features, deny yourself the benefits of post-production and see how you do with nothing but the bare camera essentials.
It’s how photographers used to learn their trade, and it would be a good test of how much you know as well how much you can do. You don’t have to go analog – do photographers still need darkroom skills? – but photography talent isn’t just about framing and composition. It also involves an understanding of light, shadow, focus and depth. How much do your images owe to your talent and how much to your camera’s features?
Ultimately though, the biggest test of your talent is also the most satisfying. When someone is prepared to pay for one of your pictures, you know you’ve got something valuable.