How do you measure your success as a photographer?

I hadn’t thought about this for quite a while. A couple of days ago I was reading a blog by a fellow Albertan, Cindy Kilpatrick. Briefly, she wrote that when she started posting photos on Flickr, and one of her photos made it to the front or the Explore page, (which usually results in lots of page views), it was deemed to be one of the best or most interesting. She, like almost all of  us, got caught up in trying to figure out the magic combination to remain in Explore. She quickly figured out that being the Explore photo for the day or the hour was NOT what interested and motivated her. What motivated her was to become a better photographer.

I’ve been involved in photography professionally in one way or another since the early seventies. From first seeking   approval from family members and friends to photography instructors to art directors and then finally to editors, I realized that the most important opinion of my work was mine. It was a eureka moment that happened early on. Even in photo school I could see that I often disagreed with my instructors when they were critiquing photos. If I disagreed with how they loved a fellow classmates photo, which I didn’t think was all that great, why would I value their opinion when they gave my photos that same love? It had dawned on me that there was no definitive right or wrong when taking photos.

Everyone wants to be liked and popular in real life. In the cyber world of photography forums, it’s no different.

During my first year on Flickr, many, probably too many of my photos made the Explore page. My page views soared. I was receiving hundreds of views and dozens of comments daily. Today, my page views are a fraction of what they used to be. What gives? I think that my photos are better and more interesting. It’s not like there are less people on that website these days.

I still see some photographers receiving hundreds of views and comments daily. Is my taste in photography that bad or that different from the rest? Truthfully, I don’t think so.

There are a couple of things going on. The first is how you shoot. The easiest thing in photo school for me was to ace an assignment by shooting the way that I knew my instructor liked. It was formulaic really. If I jumped through the hoops and did things the way my instructor liked, I was almost guaranteed a 95 per cent on my assignment. Note: he never handed out 100 per cent marks as he believed that no photograph was perfect. LOL

How do you do that with landscape photos? Well, you pick out the most cliched and overdone places and with the right light and weather, BINGO! Oh yeah, what you also want to do is have over the top colors and processing. The more punch a photo has the better it will be received by the masses. There are a hand of people who travel extensively across western North America photographing only the popular places. They’ve all done Vermillion Lakes in Banff or Palouse Falls in Washington state. Doing that is akin to shooting fashion. You take the picture, the lights, camera and setting are all the same. Your first model is me. Your second model is Gisele Bundchen. Which set of photos will look the best? It works that way with landscapes. You can stack the cards in your favor.

The second way to become popular is by cultivating hits. Join the most popular groups and then comment, comment, comment and add friends to your account. Do you have four or five thousand friends on Flickr? If so why and more importantly, how do you keep track of your five thousand closest friends photos if they each post one photo a week?

There is kind of an unwritten rule of etiquette which I NEVER follow. When someone adds your photo as a favorite, adds you as a friend or comments on your photo, reciprocate. Yeah, I know that takes a lot of work but it takes work to be popular. It doesn’t happen by chance. If you think that only rookie amateur photographers do this, you’re being naive. I see some of the best semi-professional photographers posting over and over again on a dozen different photo sharing websites. It’s a great feeling being the big fish in a small pond. You get to travel to the lake on the weekend an hour from your place and they’ve just returned from Iceland or Patagonia. LOL Which photo will probably garner the most views? I laugh as I write this because it does seem hilarious. :)

Here’s how I see it and I am just one small voice in the wilderness. My photos are tied into part of my ego. Am I disappointed when a photo that I am particularly proud of gets only sixty views on Flickr? Honestly? Yeah, a little. Is that why I post my photos? Nope, at least not now. It might have been part of the reason early on.

Why do I post my photos? Exposure.

Firstly, I love to share what I have done with others as much as I enjoy viewing what others have created. It’s by sharing our visions that we all grow creatively and artistically. That is probably the MOST important reason.

The second most important reason? Money. As a happy accident, my landscapes earn me a fair annual income. Art directors and agencies are becoming less reliant on the giant photo agencies. The percentage of money that I earn from stock photo sales from agencies versus direct sales is changing. The way to get your photos seen by potential clients is by keywording your photos on the various websites. Keywording allows customer to meet client.

Getty Images is aware of that. They’re the giant in the stock photo business for a reason. Let a customer find a photo on Flickr and they’ll contact Getty to buy your photo. That sounds great until you see the EIGHTY PER CENT of the sale that Getty takes. They get that for doing nothing really. The photo doesn’t even have to be in their system.

I’ve had photos sell for six thousand dollars. Do you know what eighty per cent of six thousand is? Why should Getty be getting that for really doing NOTHING. Without the photographer, they are nothing. Sadly, there is a greater supply than demand but still, my website generates sales for me despite the overabundance of landscapes on the internet.

But are sales a sign of success? Nope. Never have been and never will. Success for me is when I come back from a shoot in the morning, do a rough edit and BINGO, there is one I am happy with. It matters not what anyone says about it or if it sells. Success is when that photo makes a connection with me. It always has been that way and always will.

Happy shooting,


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~ by Dan Jurak on August 10, 2012.

15 Responses to “How do you measure your success as a photographer?”

  1. Very interesting commentary, Dan. I have had a lifelong passion for photography but despite encouraging comments from family and friends, have never wanted to go pro. I just want to keep making photographs for the pure joy of it. I started a blog in the last year simply because publicly sharing my images helps me stay on the edge a bit more… there’s something about having an audience–even if it’s just 100 followers– that forces me to more closely critique my work and hopefully improve it as well. Sure it’s nice when followers offer positive comments–no one’s immune to that. But comments or no comments… i am proud of what I post, just for myself.

  2. Awesome commentary Dan! Love it!

  3. Success is such a loaded word. Progress, I can deal with – so far. :) I haven’t tried to sell my photos; I’ve never taken the time to figure out stock agencies. I haven’t felt ready. My little book is doing well and has given me the confidence to delve a little deeper into possibly doing more with my work. Thanks for the heads-up about Getty. 80%! How is that fair? Or do they hard-sell them somehow? As for Flickr, as you read in my post (and thanks for the mention), the greatest value for me is still the inspiration and motivation it gives me to keep shooting. I don’t have the time to ‘market’ my photos but I have seen as you mention those that fish for views and I don’t like it at all. There is a fine line between polite reciprocation and crass attention-seeking. Even if I had that time, I wouldn’t want to be that person.

  4. Wonderful post! Very insightful.

  5. It’s pretty simple for me. I shoot for me first, and when an image makes me happy, I know I’ve been successful. I’m not in it for the popularity, or depend on sales. My goal is to be respected as someone who takes nice pictures. Nice series of fog images, by the way. I can’t wait to be retired, haha!

  6. @ 1107photography, the measure of success has nothing to do with sales or comments or followers. I think that the measure of success is how well the photo works for the one who created it.

  7. @ Brandon, thank you. Now how about more of your great storm photos? :)

  8. Great article. Success for me is seeing & feeling my shot making has improved. Success is when my wife tells me she like a image. Finally, success landed when a gallery sought me out and I was the feature photographer for 2 months.

  9. I wish I could agree. Well I guess I am too narcissistic to be happy all by myself. Of course I like big attention at flickr and I am soaking up every comment others make about my photos. Some really help me to become better, but most of them just just pleasing my ego.
    I would love to be able to live from my photos and travel all the nice places to shoot great fotos. I had such a great time in tuscany shooting. Everything there is so beautiful, you just have to point the camera. And yes, I like to pimp my photos with photoshop, to make them pop even more.
    I like good pictures. And I am not a purist: look no post processing! does not work for me.
    But I agree, there are some of my photos, that really make me happy, that got only a few views in flickr. but that will not pay my rent…
    so I guess it is a bit of both. some pics are for me and some are for all the folks on flickr.
    i wish I had your peace of mind. :)

  10. @ 5-minutes-away, the ego stroking wears off pretty quickly at least it did for me. I am past the point of trying to earn a living from photography. All my earnings are incidental, that is, I shoot for myself and they happen to sell.

    We never stay the same and are constantly evolving. I don’t expect that you’ll feel the same way five years from now and neither will I.

    Thank you for visiting and commenting,

  11. @ Rick, I hear you. The most honest and harshest critics of my photos are believe it or not, my kids. They were raised to be brutally but in a considerate way, honest. If they don’t think that a photo works they won’t pussyfoot around it. They’ll say so and say why. I expect that your wife is the same. :)

  12. Hi Dan,
    you are soooo right ! I sucked your article ! I just have posted something similar in German, a few days ago. It’s about photo critism. When I started with my photos, to post them in Forums, I was pleased to hear : wow, ah, super, 1 A etc. But I have noticed soon, these comments don’t push me on the way to become a better photographer ! And you are sooo right, just take a photo of the Taj Mahal in India with a bit good light and lots of clicks in Photoshop and you get lots of comments like: ahhh, super, great, cool.
    Do you take a simple photo from a tree, a path in the wilderness etc, you might get 5 comments.

    I’m at the point now, better to have only a few real friends to get inputs what can I do better than thousand friends with wow’s and oh’s :-)

    I always enjoy to read your informativ articles. And btw, I will take off tomorrow to come again to visit beautiful Canada, this time the Maritimes.

    Keep on with your great articles. regards from Switzerland, Thee

  13. @ Thee, I see that we agree on critiques. Not everybody feels that way. Some photographers look forward to the criticism and use that as a guide. Others use the critique forums as a way to boost their profile or their egos.
    Enjoy your visit to Canada. You will be many thousands of kilometers away from Alberta. The Maritimes are a very beautiful part of Canada.

    Thank you for visiting and commenting,

  14. Another good read. I began shooting images for the pats-on-the-back. Not sure when all that shifted and I now shoot more for myself. Something I’ve noticed over the past few years are the positive response from images that I think are so-so and the lack of interest in images I like. And, you’ve offered another quote for me, “Success is when that photo makes a connection with me. “

  15. Wise words, my friend.

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