Comparisons

Forest scene in Acadia National Park, Maine.As photographers, we all have a challenge. There is no absolute measurement for our work. Is it good? Is it bad? We have a tendency to compare our work, and ultimately ourselves, to others for comparison. This isn't like a 100-meter dash where clearly Usiah Bolt is the winner of a particular race. Photography is not a track meet.

But sometimes we try to make it like it is such a competition. This comparison can cause us problems. I can tell you that for sure it has affected me, and often not in a good way. So often we compare ourselves to others who we think are "better" than we are. Do we measure up in terms of what we know about photography? About nature? Do we compare favorably in terms of our "art"? How well we photograph?

I often hear folks say, "I have a good eye", but this particular statement seems to be rarely said in a way that connotes pride. It is frequently said in a way that is tentative, almost like a question hoping to be confirmed, or even combative, like a shield to keep someone from knowing how we really feel (insecure). And what the heck does that mean anyway?

Comparison of your photography can take you places mentally that you really don't want to be. If your photography is true to you and comes from your heart, then your photography is also about you. When we are true to ourselves, that makes us very vulnerable. Now we compare not just our photography but also ourselves. And we can be transported back to unresolved times of our youth when we were constantly compared: What grade did you get? Your brother/sister did better/worse than you. How do you compare with the "cool" kids? Do you want to be compared to the "geeks"? Maybe you were a bit counter-culture (I tended to be that), but then you compared yourself in a negative way, "against" something, but still a comparison.

I think comparison can get in the way of our growth as photographers. The "wrong" results from our comparison can make us feel inferior, incapable, and so on. Even the "right" results can make us self-righteous and smug. None of these things help us better find our heart as a photographer. Comparison can make us feel we can never achieve what we want and it can make us even stop trying.

Comparisons-01I recently read a terrific book by Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, that gave me some great insight on how I can "dare greatly" to be a better photographer (and much more than that). She also discusses comparison and why this can be such a trap. Brown talks about how our culture can put an emphasis on comparison that can be very harmful: "Healthy competition can be beneficial, but is there constant overt or covert comparing and ranking? Has creativity suffocated? Are people held to one narrow standard rather than acknowledged for their unique gifts and contributions?" (Those of you in camera clubs – do you have leadership that encourages these things? I have seen that and it can be stifling to people's growth as photographers.)

That really fits photography and photographers. How often have you made covert comparisons of your work to other photographers and not felt good about the results? Has your creativity suffered because of a comparison you made? Mine has at times. As soon as I start thinking too much about some "competitor", my work starts in the wrong direction, away from my heart, away from what I truly care about ... because through that comparison, I am allowing that "competitor" to take charge, even if he or she has no idea this is happening.

I love that last thought of Brown's quote. Are we standing tall within our own unique gifts? Can we believe in our ability to make a unique contribution as a photographer? I believe that is possible, though it can take some work. I believe everyone of us sees the world uniquely, and with practice (it doesn't always come automatically even if our cameras are all automatic), we can hone our ability to communicate that unique vision with our photography.

Brown also says, "What we know matters, but who we are matters more." I can tell you from experience that one challenge I have long had is in feeling I had to "know it all" so that I might be "enough." Yet that is such a hollow approach to photography. What we know about photography can matter, but who we are and how we express that in our photography matters more. I am still working on that, and probably always will be. It takes practice.

But I think it is worth it. Honoring our uniqueness in our photography and our vision of nature is important. I know that I feel better about my work and myself when I am willing to do that rather than try to make a comparison with someone else. It can be hard to do. Our society wants us to be competitive, to compare, to feel that we are not "enough" in our uniqueness.

Lasal Mountains near Moab, UTIf you think about it, every time we go out in nature, there is always something different, something unique. Nature is constantly changing, and nothing in nature tries to compare itself to anything else except us. No flower worries that it is not as beautiful as some other species. It simply is itself. No bird worries that it cannot sing as well as another bird. It simply sings.

Brown says, "Being rather than knowing requires showing up and letting ourselves be seen." Can we simply be photographers who love nature and want to share that with others in our own unique and special ways? Without comparisons? I don't think that is possible all the time. We all fall back into comparisons. But I sure am going to try.

SkillfeedAd 2-19-13Black & white class link; winter photography class link.

About Rob Sheppard

I am proud of the work I have done as a photographer, author, naturalist and nature photographer, editor and videographer. I love the natural world, and that can be a native bee in my native plants garden as much as a visit to a national park. I am a husband of a beautiful and smart wife, a father to my outstanding son and daughter, and one who lived in Minnesota most of my life, but now loves the variety and very long growing season of Southern California. I have written and photographed a lot of books and magazine articles but what is most important to me about them is knowing that I have helped people become better photographers and gain a better connection to nature. I work to help people connect with photography and nature through speaking and as a workshop leader, too. All of this has gained me a Fellow award with the North American Nature Photography Association. Many people knew me as the long-time editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine and I am still connected with them as a contributing editor. A short list of some of the books I have done: Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography, The Power of Black-and-White in Nature Photography and Reports from the Field (an iBook). My website is at www.robsheppardphoto.com; my blogs are at www.natureandphotography.com and www.mirrorlessnature.com.
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30 Responses to Comparisons

  1. Hugh Nourse says:

    You have really hit a constant problem for me. Although our camera club does not have competitions, at the end of an evening I compare other works with mine and often feel overwhelmed by everyone's creativity. But then I realize that much of what they do is not what moves me. In any case it is a struggle. I have never thought of the problem the way you have presented it here. Thank you.

  2. Wayne Nelson says:

    Great post with wonderful images! We all learn from each other whether we admit it or not. That should only go so far. Ultimately 1,000 clones are of little value, while one unique photographer will aways "say" more about the natural world. Take your knowledge and show the world your own unique vision.

  3. Jan Maklak says:

    Hi Rob: What a great philosophical post. These are the things I think about and ultimately every photographer ponders during their career. Our world is about comparison. We compare camera brands, lenses, even cars and the soap we buy. It’s human nature. I have found that rather than get frustrated with my work when looking at the work of others (and usually better photographers) I am trying to channel my energy into developing and refining my own personal style. I look at the fine photography you have posted in your article and think about ways I could adapt what I like into my photography. It could be the post processing as well. I look at others as well. Certainly the first year I joined a camera club I was a bit unnerved and humbled by some of the professional quality work that members produce. There is nothing like study and competition in a club to make one a better photographer and develop your eye.
    I would have to disagree with Brown however about the constant ranking and comparison that you spoke of in your post. When I was a rank beginner a low score did hurt but it was also feedback as to my shot. I could see why my score was only about 60% while others (with much better photographs) were getting 90% or sometimes better. I vowed to myself to get better and fast. If you’re serious about your craft competition can be a great motivator. I recently was asked to judge at a local competition and I was first worried that someone would be offended with a 5/10 but you know I had to give a couple. The other shots were so much better. I hope the photographers in that case used the score to channel their energy to do better.
    In our camera club we have a night to teach about how judging works we have a night where newcomers can learn about the rules of composition and see demonstrations on lighting, Photoshop and even ask about the buttons on their camera.
    It should be said that in most judged camera club competitions there is emphasis on following compositional guidelines and the impact the photograph makes. I dare say that many great photographers, many whose work I admire would not score well in a camera club. It’s just the nature of the system. Now over to skill feed to see your vids

    Jan Maklak

  4. Awesome article, I linked it to my Facebook photography page, it is a 'must read' for photographers of any skill level and expertise.

  5. John Bradley says:

    I read; I contemplated; I am. Being versus having---Gabriel Marcel. Doing without doing. And for me at least it still back just sitting and contemplating between walking and shooting a moment.

  6. A very thoughtful post, as usual, Rob.

    "Can we simply be photographers who love nature and want to share that with others in our own unique and special ways? Without comparisons...." you ask.

    Sadly, the need to compete seems to be an endemic element of nature photography and, for many, a driving force with competitions determining the way they view nature. They inevitably copy (or as bluesmen use to say are 'influenced') often to an extent that stultifies creativity. Judges and organisers can be well behind the times in terms of the capabilities of the media used - cameras and post-production can achieve so much that is not allowable because of competition rules (white backgrounds, stacking etc) . These must change but, in some cases, there is the element of the Luddite...or maybe just ostriches, heads in sand and rears wiggling in the air! With the number of attempts to cheat caution is understandable but we live in wonderful times where the only limit is imagination - I love it!

    As someone who shares your tendency to be bit counter culture I have always moved away from competition but when people seem intent on competing (when I could not give a damn and there are far more important things) it brings out the worst in me! I know from frustrating experiences as Chairman (ex!) of severe national UK groups that this is what many want...sadly, pettiness and personal politics rule.

    There are a few things I try to get over in talks when the subject arises after trying to explain techniques to facilitate other people's unique vision and not to copy!

    a. Do what you do through a love of nature with your sense of wonder intact and learn to stop and watch.

    b. The only form of competition that is of real value is against oneself - pushing boundaries, setting personal challenges never sitting on one's laurels (or any other part of the anatomy!)

    c. Take photos because you love doing it - I do and am unrepentant, capturing moments that I can (like now in a cold spell) use to transport me to high places, flower-filled!

    d. Take photos primarily for yourself but be flexible - if ever I see a suitable cover shot I do it 'properly' and then lower the camera slightly to get more sky for the title: compositional sacrifices... but then one needs to live!

    We need people to get out there and 'see' nature in as many ways as possible to enthuse others and perhaps save some of it for our grandchildren–and their grandchildren?

    All power to your elbow, Rob!

    Paul HD

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      Thanks, Paul, for your thought-filled note! Competitions can be a pain. Certain competitions can be helpful for the pro, though they need to be entered with the idea that you are not looking for validation of your work, and with no expectation of winning. Most competitions are a lot like Las Vegas -- tons of entrants with a big number of excellent images, but only a few will win.

  7. Meghan says:

    Does the new classes B&W and Winter have closed caption or subtitles on the videos?

  8. Steve says:

    Excellent. Every one in a camera club should read this. I use to be in one and every one who competed was shooting for what they thought the judges would like and not what they themselves believe in. Judges can reject excellent work for the dumbest reasons. When one critiqued a shot of mine by saying "I don't like spiders", I knew it was time to leave and do my own thing, which eventually ended up with me signed with a stock photo agency, then another and now a third.
    If I listened to others judging my work I probably would have given it up.

  9. Gary Larsen says:

    Wow Rob... you hit a pet concern with part of an answer you posted above to Paul:

    "Most competitions are a lot like Las Vegas -- tons of entrants with a big number of excellent images, but only a few will win."

    I cannot see any personal benefit to entering most of the photo competitions because the huge volume of entries has got to make the identification of selected images like picking a snowflake from a snowstorm... the odds of a positive personally satisfying outcome are infinitesimal! Usually, they just strike me a fundraisers!

    • Rob Sheppard says:

      That is often true. I think there are some benefits to competitions if you keep them in perspective. They can help promote something important because of their impact, such as the BBC Wildlife Contest promoting fresh views of nature.

  10. Rick Brown says:

    Brilliant post Rob. Interesting the points you made about camera clubs. I have avoided some because of their complete focus on contests. I like there being one or two a year, but almost every meeting being a contest is too much. What you have to say about it here is spot on. Photography is not a competition, unless you want to say its a competition with yourself.

  11. Jack Johnson says:

    I shared this on facebook as well - very timely for one of my facebook friends today! (And timely for many of us every day!) :^D

    Thanks, Rob!

    -- Jack

  12. Tim hurley says:

    Thanks for this post, it helped me crystallize some thought I have been having regarding my own knowledge of photography and nature. I was on a photo workshop recently with a BIG NAME in nature photography. During a one on one with him he criticized me negatively for something. Reflecting on it later I realized I had not felt bad about his criticism because I was approaching the scene from an alternative perspective that suited my vision. Normally, I would have been crushed that I hadn't gotten the approval of someone I really respected. I took this moment of awareness as a milestone in my quest "to thine own self be true." One of my mottos is "onward and upward", but only we know the direction that suits us. Thanks again.

  13. Nicely said, and spot-on, Rob! It's something I constantly struggle with, too. I have to keep reminding myself that I, too, am valuable & unique -- and that each of us has a niche we fill with our lives and our art (our speaking forth), that fills a hole only we can fill for others -- some others, not all -- and, in the whole, we are each part of a really Good Thing.
    Thanks!

  14. Jeff Sinon says:

    Rob, I have been guilty of this in the past, especially when I was first starting out. You're right too in that it did affect me negatively. I spent so much time trying to photograph like the photographers I admired that I wasn't very successful in creating the kind of photographs I wanted to make. Once I started photographing only for myself did my photos start to improve.

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