8 Signs I’ve Used to Track My Growth as a Photographer

Photography is subjective, just like any other art. One of the most frequent questions I get from people who are just starting out in photography is, “How do I know when my work is getting better?” Although the idea of a photographer becoming better is partly subjective, it is something that every photographer strives to achieve. There are many ways that we can measure our own growth.
This isn’t a complete list. But it’s a list of things I have noticed has helped me improve as a photographer. This is a heads-up: “You gain large social media followings”, which I will cover after the list. Skip to the end if your goal is to hear an old man shout at a cloud.

1. You can see the flaws in your current work

It’s a common saying that “If you don’t have your worst critic, you are your worst enemy.” For photographers just starting out, it can be difficult to look at their work objectively. After all, there is no reference point to compare our work to.

When you are just starting out, constructive feedback from other people can help you improve your work. Then, use this advice to improve your next shoot. There comes a time when your work isn’t as flawed as you think.

It’s one of your best indicators of growth as a photographer when you can begin to understand what works and what doesn’t in your images. Although what works and what doesn’t is subjective, it is an objective indicator of your growth.

2. You can outgrow your old work

Everybody has experienced that moment when they think, “This is my best ever photo.” It’s an amazing feeling. This feeling has happened many times.

It was 2017 when I took my first photograph of Mount Fuji. I remember being so excited that I nearly threw my tripod and camera into the lake where I stood. But, your “best ever photo” becomes less memorable and even worse.

It almost makes me cringe to look at the photo now that I have remembranced how proud I was of it being used as my Facebook cover photo, showing every Harry, Dick, and Tom. This is a sign of your growth as a photographer. Although it isn’t the most beautiful image, it is not my best. It wouldn’t make it to my Instagram or my portfolio. This photo made me feel like I was in the top of the world back in 2017.

This is all to say that if you find yourself falling in love with old photos, it’s a sign you have grown as a photographer. Instead of dwelling on it, harness that energy to create better work that makes you proud.

A photographer with a tripod photographing Mount Fuji in Japan

3. You outgrow your gear

This is where I will be controversial. Grab some chamomile tea (unless allergic), your favorite soft fuzzy cat (unless allergic), or your favourite comfort blanket (unless allergic). Take a deep, calming breath. It is exaggerated to say that “your gear doesn’t really matter”. Okay, I’m done booing. Let me now explain.

While I don’t think you can’t get a great photo with any lens or camera, there is a limit to what you can do with the gear that you have.

In recent years, I have been taking more panoramic photos. The built-in digital level makes it easy with the D850. Could I have just bought an attachable level to use with my D5500 instead? Yes, it is possible. However, I didn’t find the interface intuitive enough to my liking.

It’s almost like a digital clock and an analog clock to me. Both can be read, but analog takes me longer and requires more focus to make things exact. Precision can make the difference between a great panoramic image and one that is missed.

If your equipment stops you from taking the photos that you want at the quality you want, this is a sign you might want to upgrade or add to your gear. This is a great way to answer the question, “When do I upgrade my equipment?”

4. You become more selective about what you shoot

It’s natural to want to capture everything and anything when you first pick up a camera, either your own or borrowed. In 2008, I purchased my first point and shoot camera. After hours spent waiting in line, I was able to get home and shoot literally everything and anything. In my first month with a camera, I took probably more photos than I have taken in the last year.

This is a great way to get to know your camera and to practice composition. However, you will eventually stop taking photos. Before the camera is even out, you start to consider things “photo-worthy” or “not worthy”. While this may be subjective, as one photographer’s boring scene might be another photographer’s winning photo spot, it is a sign you are improving your photography skills and that you now understand what subjects or locations you can use to create a photograph.

It’s not a bad idea to experiment, but it is important to know what you can do with the subject or scene before you click the shutter. This is an important step in your journey to becoming a better photographer.

5. You can feel confident in your instincts

Even if you are an experienced photographer, it can be daunting to pick up a new camera. As a beginner photographer, it is important to not only learn the functions of each button on your camera but also how to use them.

Many new photographers ask questions about how to make decisions regarding focal length, composition, aperture and other important aspects of photography. After learning about the exposure triangle, I found myself often taking multiple photos of the exact same scene, with slightly different settings and compositions, in an attempt to find the right combination. There comes a point when you can stop worrying and go with your gut.

Although it might not work every time, you will soon learn to trust your instincts and choose the right settings, focal length, composition, and lighting for each scene. Nowadays, I rarely take more than one lens with me. After researching a location online I am confident enough to know which lenses I will need for the shot I want to make.

However, following your instincts doesn’t stop there. These same instincts will assist you as you become a better photographer and editor.

A tripod in a snowy landscape

6. You can be more selective about what you keep

Everything was saved when I first bought my camera. I didn’t care if the images weren’t sharp, blurry, out-of-focus, overexposed or boring. I shared everything online to attack other people’s retinas. Things started to change as I continued to edit and shoot more photos. I started to lose more photos, less photos were saved, and fewer photos were edited. And even fewer photos were shared.

All of us have felt the frustration of coming home from a shoot and finding that we can’t transfer files to our computers. Although it’s not pleasant, this is a sign you are improving as a photographer. You will begin to see the value in editing and the limitations of your work.

It doesn’t mean that all the photos you don’t like should be thrown away, but being able to quickly identify which images are worth your time can make it easier to manage your time.

7. Approval Becomes Less Important

I was a beginner photographer and nothing brought me more joy then receiving praise. It was crushing to me when no one commented or liked a photo I took. While I wasn’t updating my Instagram activity feed, looking for new likes and comments, I was scrolling through the Instagram feeds of other “worse” photographers who had more followers and were receiving more attention. As time passes, I have stopped comparing myself with others and spent less time worrying about how many engagements each photo gets.

I have been known to go for up to four days without thinking about social media. While this is not to suggest that you shouldn’t be open to getting more engagement, it is important to recognize that the quality of your photos is not directly related to how many Internet points they receive.

Nowadays, the quality or worth of a photograph is directly related to how I feel about it or the experience of taking it. While some photos get more attention, sell better, or get more international recognition, none of these factors affect how I feel about the images I have taken.

My favorite images from the past two years have not received much engagement online, have never sold anything, and have never been awarded an honorable mention. But they are the photos that I love the most and I hang them on my walls. This change can result in you taking more photos for yourself and less to be noticed online. This can lead to unique work.

8. Your skin will become more supple

This one, while it is similar to number 7, applies more to the way you handle negative feedback. When I started to learn about photography, I noticed a significant increase in the quality and quantity of my images. That confidence gave me the confidence to share my work with others.

I had mastered the exposure triangle and my understanding of composition was improved. My appreciation for light was also at an all time high. One problem was that I had never received praise. This left me completely unprepared for the harsh realities I was about face. I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone that my skin was so thin from only receiving praise for mediocre photographs that it could make one-ply toilet tissue blush.

This may sound pathetic, but I was annoyed by some comments that kept me awake at night. In terms of photography, this was a very dark time for me. I spent much of my time ignoring my fellow photographers and assuming they couldn’t see the genius in my work. Instead of actually trying to improve, it was an extremely difficult period.

We often associate photography with time spent editing photos or using software to improve our craft. Learning how to deal with criticism is a sign you have grown as a photographer and as a person. Needless to mention, I now get more sleep than I used to.

Silhouette of a man on a cliff watching the sea

One thing I haven’t used to track my growth

Although the signs of growth can vary from photographer to photographer and vice versa, these are the ones that I have used to track my own personal growth as an amateur photographer. For a few reasons, the “You Gain Large Social Media Followers” category isn’t on this list. First, I have yet to build a large social media following so I cannot attest to its connection with growth. It’s also a bit more complicated than Kevin Costner’s “If you build, he will follow” approach.

How much time you put into gaining followers is directly related to your success. In my first year of Instagram, I had more followers than in any subsequent three years. It’s not because my work got worse (as far I know), but because I stopped spending endless hours trying to get noticed.

My introverted nature means that I am terrible at social media. In the past three years, I have probably left 15 comments on other photos on Instagram. Today, I post something, scroll through my feed for 45 seconds, then close the app, and forget it for three to four days. While better images will not gain you more followers, it is true that you won’t get a larger following if you only post better images.

All of this is in the knowledge that people will search for my Instagram and see my numbers. He doesn’t have X followers, which kind of ignores my point. My social media followers were once a sign of my self-worth as an artist and photographer. My recent decline in followers can be attributed to my lack of interest in social media and my poor self-promotion skills.

While I am sure that there will be some who disagree with me, I believe that it is important for new photographers to understand that the quality of your work is not necessarily measured by how many people follow you on social media.

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