Seeking Satisfaction

I had a conversation last week with a photographer friend. We swapped stories about our most recent photographic trips, our expectations, and the final results.

During the conversation, one thing became clear — we both find it difficult to become completely satisfied with our own photography.

This is a feeling I’ve had for quite some time, and it was nice to hear that I wasn’t the only one in this predicament.

This raises several questions regarding the satisfaction of one’s work versus the continual learning process of photography. The self proclaimed “master photographers” need not read further, since this doesn’t apply to you — but for the rest of us that believe photography is an endless process of learning, please keep reading.

I can honestly say that I have 2 or 3 photos that I am truly satisfied with. When viewed as a print, they trigger a sensation in my mind that makes me feel calm and at ease. This is not to say that these images are perfect. That assertion does not exist — nor would I want it to. It is merely a statement that I would do nothing to change the image, even if I had a chance to go back in time and re-shoot it.

There are certain aspects of the human experience that play a big role in photography. The more we work for something, the more we appreciate it. In the days or weeks after I take a photo — when the experience is still fresh in my mind — my perception of the image is often skewed by the amount of work it took to shoot it. This of course means nothing to the viewer. They have no interest in hanging a photo on their wall simply because I hiked 10 miles to take it. We must separate our own perception from our photography.

Strangely enough, the images I am most satisfied with are those that I captured long ago. The effort it took to take the photo is no longer in the forefront of my mind. I don’t remember how cold it was that morning, how many miles I hiked, or the number of previous attempts it took to get the image.

When I pick-up my film from the lab, I am often times disappointed with my own work. Perhaps the composition isn’t quite right, or the exposure is off. In any case, the vast majority of my shots are carelessly tossed into the “crap” pile. Fast forward a few days, and my perception of the images has changed. Maybe one or two images are rescued from the reject pile. Give it a few months, and those images will be a part of my portfolio.

I’m curious what this means. How has a detachment from image capture led to a greater level of satisfaction? This is a clear departure from past feelings about my own work — where I grew weary of my own images as time passed.

I have come to the realization that this level of satisfaction is attributed to my own fading memory of the scene. I strive to produce photos that are simple, dynamic, and most of all — realistic. The frustration with my own work often stems from not being able to accurately depict the true essence of a location. As my memory fades of the original scene, my photo becomes that reality — almost guaranteeing some degree of personal satisfaction.

I sometimes worry that the personal satisfaction I’ve gleaned from those select images is a sign that my own photographic abilities are stagnant — but I know that is not true. I continue to break through my own personal barriers, and am learning to shoot the 8×10 in increasingly difficult situations.

16 Responses to “Seeking Satisfaction”

  1. Al Griffin Says:

    That is why writers let the work get very cold before they reread for editing. One month, six months or more in a drawer. It is no longer our child, our precious. We can take a cold, analytical eye and slash away with a blue pencil. Also, I have found that another set of eyes on the first draft is of paramount importance. And yes, I will admit I am married to an editor. Thirty years living with her has taught me a few things. Mostly, let the work get cold and trust someone that you trust.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      I can definitely see how this is very similar to writing. It is very interesting how time can make us view things differently. I’ve also learned to appreciate past work when I re-visit a location that I’ve shot before, and realize that the photo I captured did indeed capture the true feeling of the location.

  2. Lewis Says:

    I ofter have the same thoughts. I shoot digital only (for the time being at least) and some of my favourite shots only make it out of the archives 6 months – 2 years after they’ve been shot. Sometimes they are just overlooked and other times I’ve looked at them and thought “average”, but give it a while and the average shot usually blows the ones I processed at the time out of the water.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Sometimes it takes time for the true feel of a location — the subtle nuance — to become more obvious. Though we are often taught that our first instinct is best, I’m not so sure about that. Otherwise we’d all get the “the shot” on our first visit to a location wouldn’t we?

  3. Steve Perry Says:

    Wow – you just described me Ben!

    I have the same problems – I’m never truly thrilled with most of my stuff – especially when I first shoot it. I probably only have a handful of photos that I shot and knew they were a slam dunk at the time.

    It’s funny how many times, like you, I end up putting my stuff aside from a trip, only to find a gem sometime later. I have one image that I skipped over on the first edit only to process it a couple years later. That image has been a great seller, has been published in Outdoor Photographer, and has become one of my favorites. Just didn’t see it at the time.

    I guess it’s a photographer thing, glad I’m not alone!

    • Ben Horne Says:

      The other day, I used my GoPro camera to record my commute home from work. The camera has about as wide of angle as we as humans can see. It was interesting watching the video, and noticing all sorts of other things that I wasn’t aware of because I was focused on driving.

      While taking photos, our mind is focused on certain aspects of the image — the big things. We make decisions based on preconceived images, and have certain goals of what we want to capture. This preoccupation can be blinding at times, and the nuances can go undiscovered until we are separated from the scene with time.

      It’s interesting stuff really…

  4. Ron Carroll Says:

    Nice post, Ben. I really enjoyed reading it.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks as always Ron. I have some other thoughts on photography I hope to post in the near future.

  5. rickholliday Says:

    I totally resonate with this post, Ben. I don’t think I will ever reach “master photographer” status and, frankly, I don’t know that I want to. I simply enjoy the process of learning and honing my craft. I don’t ever want to be “done” with that process.
    Thanks for a brilliant post. I look forward to seeing your images.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Rick. Just like you, I also love the learning process of photography, and I never hope to be “done” with it either.

  6. gdanmitchell Says:

    Ben, this is a really great post, and I can identify with much of what you say. I could easily write a response that would be longer than your post – but I’ll refrain!

    But you touch on a whole bunch of truths (in my view) about making photographs. These include the experience of not fully understanding the way an image works right away and only discovering it with some distance, the acceptance of the fact that making a few very good photographs requires making a lot of less good ones and a ton of very mediocre photographs, the recognition of this as a continuous process of growth and change, and to some extent the difference between how we can “see” our own work and how we cannot “see” it the way others do.


    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks for the comment Dan. I’ve been thinking about this subject for quite some time, but I have always found it difficult to articulate. I’m glad to hear that other people have a very similar experience.

  7. Steve Sieren Says:

    If the imagination suddenly ceased to exist then I may partially satisfied but our minds are too full of ideas… . .

    • Ben Horne Says:

      I like that viewpoint Steve. A camera is essentially a tool with endless possibilities. We are only limited by what I minds can envision.

  8. Arjen Duinhouwer Says:

    Ben, you’re just blessed with a good portion of selfcriticism that motivates you to grow as a person and as a photographer. Enjoy that feeling and appreciate it, it is that funny feeling what appears when you just shot a beautiful image, or when you’re waiting for that one shot for days…

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Arjen. The motivation to create photos is an interesting force. It can lead us to all corners of the globe just to capture an image. I’m sure many of the things we do as photographers would be considered quite strange if we didn’t have a camera in hand. 🙂

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