After a discussion on choosing the right equipment I thought that it might be appropriate to look at how successful we are in creating the images we attempt.
I will often hear people talk about their “success rate” when they are out shooting, referring to it as some measure as to where they are in their journey into photography. To some extent it might be but maybe not in the way we would think!
For instance, when we are just starting out we will often be proud of creating something that merely “turned out”. I know that when I started I shot all slide film and was excited about almost everything—and I bored lots of family and friends with “unedited” slide shows of my latest. My success rate was nearly 100%.
As we progress and get more serious about what we are doing, we begin to realize that maybe our images aren’t all that great. We’ve gotten a bit of perspective on our work and are developing more sophisticated standards. Our success rate at this point might vacillate quite a bit as we try to negotiate our ego and our reality.
For most of us this stage of development means a period where we focus more on some external standard for our technical and aesthetic accomplishments—composition, exposure and maybe even an approach to our work that we see in other’s work. We are in that stage of emulation and trying to make images as “good as” those we look up to in the genre we are attempting.
As we pursue this phase of our development, we will probably start to generate more “successful” images both as to aesthetic appeal and as to our percentage of keepers. This happens because we are seeking out scenes and conditions that we know will make good photographs and often the exact ones we have seen done so well by others. This gives us something to directly gauge our success, something tangible and more objective to work towards and achieve.
This is a very important step in our development because we need to gain a level of confidence in our work and our ability to create successful images. This will allow us to photograph more freely and search out our own vision of the world. We don’t want to be worrying about whether we know “how” to make a photograph but be doing it without reservation.
This is the point where things get very complicated when it comes to success rate or the idea of “keepers”. Of course, it is complicated because not everyone has the same goals or purpose for making photographs.
My own thought is that this isn’t really something we should worry about and let it just take care of itself. But if we are worrying about it, then we should analyze the problem.
A high success rate without feeling good about the work is probably a sign that you are just shooting things you know will be good photographs. You aren’t pushing yourself like you know you should or really would like to be doing. This might be the result of wanting to please someone else or maybe just not having found your own path yet.
A low success rate is probably more normal but is likely to be what bothers people the most—often because someone else suggests how high theirs is and we don’t really know if that is good or not. As I said, everyone has different reasons for shooting and uses for their images. But I would generally be more worried about having a high percentage than a low one if it isn’t low primarily due to technical failures—which then is good, direct feedback as to what you need to work on.
My reason for saying this is that if we want to progress, we should be challenging our skills, both the technical and the aesthetic. By shooting a scene we aren’t sure how to solve, regardless of the reason, we will expand our knowledge whether it worked or not.
Another factor in favor of a low success rate is just allowing ourselves to follow our instincts. In the first video presented in the Henry Wessel post here, he suggests allowing ourselves to respond more animalistically, before we have time to think. I would suggest that often we don’t just make more common photos when we start to think but that we often will talk ourselves right out of making the exposure at all. Some of my best images were ones I was the most indifferent to when I made them—I was working beyond my conscious level and only recognized that later—sometimes that can be years later!
Maybe the most important factor in favor of a lower success rate is just becoming more discriminating in what we choose to show others. Often our photos aren’t really failures, they just don’t really measure up to what we are capable of nor do they say what we wanted them to convey. They might be “good enough” but is that actually good enough?
Bottom line, I don’t think success rate is actually something that is important in and of itself. What is important is to constantly evaluate what we are doing and where it is we want to go—are we moving in that direction?