A Photographer’s Decision: Take the Freeway or the Road Less Traveled?

Recently there has been some buzz about how to get noticed as a photographer. And more and more I see photographers doing images that look for all the world like some other guy’s images that looks like a woman he really admires’ images. And her work was copied from someone she saw on Flickr who was enamored of this other guy.

I am reminded of a comment Heather Morton made in the book “No Plastic Sleeves” (reviewed here) on page 199 “I think it is important to ask what the fifth portrait of a dower 20-something in studio tells me about your abilities – it’s redundant”

Yeah, and we see so much of the same thing over and over again. Sometimes it isn’t redundant at all. And sometimes it is. Avedon’s portraits, all on white, “In the American West” were most definitely not.

The question I ask is “are you responding to your vision, or responding to your comment count?”

New sites for photographers and the ‘sharing’ of images are popping up every week it seems. And now some of them have added ‘ratings’ to their your image. People can not only see your image, they can ‘rate it’ for the whole world to see. And that is fine for some folks, I just wonder what effect it has on those who are trying to find their own voice.

It may be cool to ‘share’ your image and see how many comments you get on Flickr, but is that comment count what drives you? Since the vast majority of Flickr users are hobbyists at best, what are you really getting from that comment count? I wonder if the crowd could really discern true vision or if they want to see the safe and easy stuff that looks like their heroes?. Do we as photographers want any old criticism or do we need to have valued and studied criticism? Does the person with the most comments have the best photographs?

I don’t think so, and you don’t think so either. There are way too many examples of terrible photos with high hit counts.

EDIT: Rob D reminded me of this little Gem. One of the highest regarded images in the world gets voted “thumbs down” on Flickr. I mean… really? Thanks Rob.

I wonder how many “likes” Stephen Shore would have gotten? Or Eggleston? Would a simple, natural light portrait by Elgort have received as many comments as something shot with 20 speedlights?

Photography is quickly becoming balkanized with amateurs and ‘fun’ photographers on one side, commercial shooters on another side and fine art shooters on another side. All claiming ‘photography’ as theirs.

And it is. It absolutely is. Photography is a wonderful art, a great career, and a blast of a hobby.

However, a serious photographer can lose their way looking for the path that will take them to the top of the splinter genre they have chosen. We even have new terms to contend with. No longer is being a photographer enough, there are factions that define themselves by their gear, their lighting choice, what kind of post-processing software they use and more.

Beware that man behind the curtain, he may have no clue about what he is doing – or saying about your work.

It becomes harder to discern ones work from another’s if we allow ourselves to be driven by what we think will draw visitors instead of searching for that vision that is ours. We see some technique that is all the rage and think – “Hey, I gotta do that now”.

No. You really don’t.

You gotta get your own thing going, your own vision to drive you. A healthy dose of self confidence to allow you to move in the direction you really want to go helps too.

I was reminded of this while reading about Edward Fella, a designer who has done it his own way for an entire career. His work was way outside the mainstream for years, then his work became nearly mainstream itself. The photographer Stephen Shore (images) was maligned for many years, but he stayed true to what he saw as his vision. Today he is regarded as one of our great living art photographers. David Carson (work) went totally his own way, and ended up being one of the most influential designers of our day.

In the workshops I generally use this quote by Clark Terry, a wonderful jazz trumpet player; “Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.” Terry is telling us to copy the greats to get the techniques down. Then we assimilate those techniques until they become second nature… we get the chops. Now it is incumbent on us to innovate. Take those chops we have mastered and create something that is our own.

And many times that is not only a road less traveled, we may be blazing our own trail. One that is as scary as it is exciting, as fraught with potholes as it is paved with gold.

Follow me on Twitter, find more information on the workshops here, LIKE my Facebook Page, learn more About.Me, and check out my new book at Amazon.

Print Friendly


  1. Amen. I feel the allure of those comments/ratings, but I still love my publicly unappreciated work. Hope Imitate-Assimilate-Innovate isn’t meant to be strictly linear, ’cause I bounce between them frequently. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • A friend told me I should be involved at 500Pixels. but it has some sort of ‘ratings’ thing that takes the seriousness out of the experience and makes it a popularity contest.

      I am bitterly tired of the silliness that surrounds photography.

  2. Great Post Don, so true that too many people on flickr and other sites are so enamored with getting their photos on Explore or high ratings on 500Pixels, I am not one of them and never have been thank goodness. Back a few years ago when I first joined Flickr I posted a long exposure of the Phoenix skyline (if you want to call it that) and it hit Explore and I was baffled it was one of the weakest shots in my photostream. I left Flickr for about a year because I was just tired of the same old thing, just like the quote from Clark Terry my friend told me one day after I was just feeling so frustrated with my work, it’s your Art you are the only one that HAS to love it. Hit home and allowed me to forget about trying to keep up with the jonses of Flickr and all the other sites and just try to find myself and my style and stick with it, now to just keep growing.

    Love it when you get fired up, your posts are so dead on and when you give criticism or critique on a photo it is more than just “great shot, good job and keep up the good work” you are able to point out those subtle little details that make people become a better photographer.

    Thanks again for the post and apologize for the long winded response but this hit home.

    • Thanks Charles.

  3. I assume you are familiar with this story, Don:

    To me it illustrates the lack of knowledge on Flickr. If someone doesn’t care for the image, fine. However, to tear it apart without recognizing such an iconic shot. . . well, people need to study history.

    Regarding 500px – perhaps I’m missing something, but it seems to be a gathering place for a lot of people with a similar vision. I’m not very enthralled. The quality is higher than Flickr but most of the shots look so similar to me.

    • I started a 500px thing, but I am not feelin’ any sort of interest in it.
      Seems so much like the rest of them.
      Maybe I am getting ‘sharing’ burnout – but then I do like Google +


  4. Good post.

    I think the answer depends somewhat on why you are into photography.

    If you take photographs primarily as an artist, blazing that amazing trail of your unique vision may be the right thing to do. If few folks appreciate it, you can still claim to be an artist, show in a gallery, and life is good.

    If you have 9-5 and this is really just your ego boost and stress relief, by all means chase the comment count, and shoot what drives comments, because that’s what it’s all about.

    If on the other side you try to make a living, you have to find that middle ground that gets you noticed by clients and art buyers, makes you the guy to hire, yet your work also has to be commercially relevant. If it’s too eccentric the pool of potential clients may be too small to survive. That’s a tricky balancing act, because most of what is commercially relevant has been done before, but there are always those few exceptional photographers that hit it right on.

    In my mind what is a much better measure than a comment on a website, is when you catch up with someone and they tell you that they remembered a certain image of yours. Or you talk to an AD and they recall what is in your portfolio. That’s the type of recall that shows that your work reached a relevant audience.

    As comments on photo sharing sites go, unless you’re in for the ego boost, they don’t matter. However, comments on your FB pages do matter, because they control how much of your content shows up in people’s streams (similar to SEO). So having more comments, even if they don’t matter directly, could have an indirect impact on making your work visible to those who may refer you to a real paying client.

    • Good points.

      Agree that commercial is bit of a middle ground, but it is still important to shoot your own vision. It pays off in the long run… even though we must be aware of the short run.

      And as far as Facebook goes, yes.. in agreement. However, I do not see the kind of comments on FB that I see on Twitter and 500P and such. More of a friend complimenting a good shot on FB instead of someone simply commenting with either a good or inane post.

  5. With so many of these sites, things like ratings (and the “mate ratings that go along with it), Explore, the quest for comments tend to create photographers who strive to appeal to the masses, usually taking them down the road of competent mediocrity. It’s so easy to get lost in technique and lose sight of subject. Actually, it’s almost a necessity if you want to play the popularity game.

    Give me a straight forward image of an interesting subject and a perspective/compsition that tells me something about the photographer, NOT a photo that’s been processed with the Photoshop action de jour or the overused lighting formula that is more about the lights and forgets the subject.

    This probably will make me very unpopular but I’ve seen more than my fair share of over HDRd images. Frankly, if the first thing that pops in my mind when viewing a photo is “HDR”, it’s overdone. I’m on the brink of nausea with them. Please. Somebody make it stop! Of course, this is my personal opinion and should be taken as such. If HDR matches your personal vision, go for it. I will avert my eyes.

    • “It’s so easy to get lost in technique and lose sight of subject. Actually, it’s almost a necessity if you want to play the popularity game.”

      Yes. And that is such a shame. However, it is also the easiest thing to do.
      If technique is the defining edge to the image, then learning that technique means that is all that is needed.
      All that is needed to ‘feel’ like something is getting done, like progress is being made.

      Photography is by its nature one of the hardest art forms to master. That is because it is one of the easiest art forms to ‘sorta’ master.

      Taking a well exposed image with a very wide angle lens, running it through a $60 plugin and ending up with stuff that looks just like that other guy who did the same thing… well, that is mimicry.
      I am not even sure it rises to the level of ‘imitate’ that Clark Terry was discussing.

      The devil of photography is that it is indeed easy to go to the edge of the hocky stick upturn. At that point, it becomes so much harder.

      And thus, so much more rewarding.

      “Please. Somebody make it stop!”

      OK, as soon as the voices tell me its OK… 😉

  6. As a keen hobbyist, I like that I can use Flickr as a means to show some of my work. BUT it’s absolutely the last place I would ever consider going to seek out critique because there is no way to know if the person critiquing has any idea what the hell they’re talking about. Odds are good that they don’t.

    That does raise an interesting question for me: how does the keen hobbyist get decent critique from people who *do* know what they’re talking about? Best critique I’ve had was when I entered a local photo contest a couple of years ago, I learned more from those 3 photos than I’ve learned from hundreds posted to Flickr. But the value of that might even be doubtful now, whoever judged this year awarded “best of show” to one of the most garishly overdone HDR shots I’ve ever seen. I mean, really?

    • “That does raise an interesting question for me: how does the keen hobbyist get decent critique from people who *do* know what they’re talking about?”

      Well, ahem, there is always Project 52 and the accompanying Flickr Forum where things like that happen every week. Check out the level of work on the assignments. Assignments are given out every Sunday, and due 2 weeks and three days away. We do critiques and record them. The Project 52 site has a lot of the recorded critiques. Just sayin’…

      But I am with you on the camera club thing. That can be wonderful or a disaster and one doesn’t know going in.

  7. Ahhh, so true! Your second to last paragraph is exactly what I was gonna say. You copy the work of others until you get so sick of it, you start tweaking it and making it your own. Musicians do it, and there is nothing wrong with photographers doing it. Once we do come up with our own style, those we copied before will become our “influences.”

    I stopped posting to Flickr long ago, except silly, fun personal stuff. I learned awhile back that no matter how good your image might be, the masses will not give the photo positive comments, or pay attention to it at all, unless someone important points that image out as being special–the masses can’t think for themselves, they have to be told something is good.

    Sadly, I couldn’t find it but there is another post of past master’s photographs where newbs critiqued the shots and made themselves look like fools.

    • “Once we do come up with our own style, those we copied before will become our “influences.” “


      That is the ebb and flow of it.

      The master teaches the apprentice until the apprentice becomes a master.

  8. Thanks for another great post when I need it most! I find myself falling into that trap often. I sometimes think that I don’t want to know what everyone thinks because it can jade me and my vision and direction in all this. It is so easy for us to want hear kudos that we can lose sight of where we need to go in our hearts.

    Photography is so similar to what music was for me for many years as a guitarist, only it’s silent. I need to always remember that my photos need to voice what is felt within.

    • Photography and music are joined at the hip in my mind. Transitory, moment driven, one is saved – the other is ethereally placed in our reality – and neither represents the truth at any given moment.

  9. Great article! In this age of instant gratification, dramatic images with the most ‘pop’ usually get the highest comment counts. Not enough people are slowing down to savor images with deeper qualities.


  1. panarukan[dot]net - [...] : http://www.lighting-essentials.com/a-photographers-decision-take-the-freeway-or-the-road-less-travel... Posts Related to A Photographer’s Decision: Take the Freeway or the Road Less Traveled? [...]