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Saturday, 02 March 2013


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What you wrote applies if you are an "art" photographer, amateur, or pro doing personal work. But if you photograph for a living, as a photojournalist, editorial, commercial or corporate photographer, your subject matter, style of shooting and the rest are pretty well determined by your "boss", the editors, clients, art directors, etc. for whom you work. That's why many years ago, I turned down the offer of a partnership in a commercial business, even though I wasn't working at the time. In my line of work, I have had to work for as many as four bosses, with different ideas and demands, on a single program. This can be a pain, but pays well. I wanted to be the boss of my own photography, to shoot what I wanted when I wanted, the way I wanted. My style? Eclectic (read none). How much I shoot? Very variable. My subject? Whatever inerests me. Who am I trying to please? Me (most of the time-there are exceptions). In other words I have the freedom to make these choices, where most photographers who work at it for a living don't.

I lean toward goal #2, but I don't set out to only do X per year. The exercise for me was to print a portfolio of 12 photographs. After my printing skills reached the point where I was proud to show my prints to anybody (only took 35 years), I went back through decades of negatives and chose 12.

Two years later I did another 12. The first portfolio may have better "images" (they were the top 12, as it were), but the second group probably has better prints.

And now, it's finally time to do #3 ...

You could do both at the same time. You could have one project that was aimed at producing 12 images a year, and others that generated more.

I do a daily photoblog where I post a photo every day. I'm the first to admit that they are not all masterpieces - but knowing that I have to post one a day makes me get out photographing as often as I can. It pushes me to take more (I don't mean 'more' as in loads - I still have a film mentality and don't like to waste shots. I can go out for a whole day and come back with only around 20 photos!).
Another thing that motivates me (and this ties in with some of your points Mike) is self-publishing zines of my work. Each zine follows a theme and therefore hones my visual skills and improves my photography.
I like to think that my approach has resulted in a fair few shots that I consider to be among my best.

I have an interesting idea about how to ease oneself into this process. Try it historically. Pick a number, your choice of 12 is a good one, and go back through your previous years' work and pick the best 12 from each year.

Sidebar: I use Lightroom, and it allows me to assign stars to my pictures. To follow this suggestion, I would assign 1-4 starts howsoever I want, but I would have to be BRUTAL in assigning 5 stars. The idea is to have 12 or fewer 5 star images in each year. I'm sure whatever image management program anybody here is using allows rating of images. And, I'm sure it also allows adjusting the size of the Thumbnails displayed, so that you can just fill the screen with the 12 five star images.

Now, I can examine my 12 best for each of the past, say, 5 years. Maybe there will be nothing to be gleaned from this, but I'd bet otherwise. Especially, if I were to examine them day after day for a while.

And now the hard part: thinking. It's time to think about how to apply what has been learned from 5 years of top 12 lists to the future. I'm hoping for help from you on this part. :- )


12 "Portfolio" shots in a year seems about right for me. Anytime I'm not busy with my bread earning day job, I am pretty much on the road making photographs and realistically, I probably shoot somewhere between 800-1200 frames in a year. And I do shoot slowly and deliberately with a view camera, elstwhile that number could very possibly be 80,000-120,000 frames in a year!

So from that, it's probably safe to say that less than 100 of these turn out to be true keepers and hopefully as many as 12 of those make the final cut. These select few would be carefully printed, then mounted and matted, and then enjoyed by me for a period of time and then finally go "Into the Box". Or maybe even the rotation on my wall, but those prints are even more rare.

To think even the best, most prolific and most well known photographers down through the history of the sport, though they may have material sufficient for many books, are often - to your point from the other day - known mainly only for a small handful, or for some even just one or two of their "most famous" images, gives me some strange level of comfort.

I guess when I think about the sheer number of actual exposures I have made in the 20-odd years of my little photographic career, I'd have to say that to have 30 or more prints that I'm truly proud of and satisfied with, amounts to fairly good progress to this point. And I can't even imagine what the ratio must look like for an equally avid digital photographer who's been at it for awhile and who's probably racked up millions and millions of exposures in total. I can't imagine the amount of sheer time spent in front of the computer editing to get those kind of numbers down to 12 final images a year!

I like the idea of portfolios. Even a dozen framed prints a year is a fair amount of expense if you're just doing work for yourself, not to mention the wall space! But a portfolio collection would let you share your best work with a number of friends/family every year. And there's something about holding a print in your hand that seems to be a different experience from looking at one displayed behind glass. It would also give you a way to "collect" some of your own favorite pieces that might be "flawed" for a lot of viewers but that you personally really liked.

I'm mostly a family memory shooter who also goes out when possible to try a little harder to get something good on my own. So like I'm guessing many folks do I have my memory pile that I hone into the many keepers over time, perhaps a couple hundred a year, more if we visit relatives. A few are standouts photographically, but not more valuable as memories. Then I have my more personal work, less keepers, not very many each year. The memory stuff is important to all of us, and the family values it as much as I do. The personal work, well, it includes "papa's boring rock photos," that sort of thing, but that's the hobby.

This seems to be answering a question I've been pondering for a while.
My work is mostly choosing one shot each day, with occasional weekend deliberate landscape hunting[0]. As such, my workflow is to keep RAW + archive JPEGs and a smattering of sidecar files, but intermediate TIFFs are discarded.
Given that I sometimes reprocess a photo a few times over the course of a couple of years, maybe I should start a directory for retaining those intermediate working-out files as well, at least for photos that look promising?

[0] Part of me rues the fact that landscape photography is maybe 9/10ths contrivance, yet in some environments photos are judged as though all arose equally from "luck".

I'd like to think I am doing option 1, but I doubt I even get 12 good shots a year...

LIke John Reizian says, "Thanks...I think." About a year and a quarter ago, I got a superseded-model Olympus Micro4/3 in a screaming good deal. I added a Lumix 25mm lens and an adaptor for my 4/3 lenses I already had. I've since shot 7800 frames... and have printed none of them. It's time to stop and really look and figure out what the keepers are and work on them. 12 really good ones is as good a goal as any and if I can't find 12 good ones among that 7800 then I have to admit, maybe it's time to stop shooting like that and try a different approach.

Thanks for that, Mike. Two ideas in it resonate with me -- freeing ourselves of the "almosts" and separating out the the record shots, etc. from artistic work.

We put such pressure on ourselves with our mental categories. Ideas like this are liberating because we then give ourselves permission to work otherwise from how we saw things previously.


It's very interesting that you selected the magic number of 12. In January I had a bit of time to overview my photos taken in 2012. I tried to select my best (or better to say favorite)photos. Somehow I also ended up with the magic number of 12. OK, I was just too reluctant to throw out two more pictures but at the end I was happy with selecting 12 instead of 10.
If somebody is interested in can find the selection here:



"Unless You Photograph What You Love, You’re Not Going to Make Good Art."
Sally Mann

Really the editing is more important than the shooting.

It's a lot easier to get a few hundred pictures a year that you are only going to show to friends and family than it is to get 10 a year that you think are good, unique, or thematically consistent enough to show to everyone.

I recently took a long trip to Hong Kong and Singapore and dutifully shot my few thousand vacation pictures out of which I picked a hundred or two "good" ones. Over the years I've started editing my vacation pictures more loosely ... so there were too many pictures here, mostly of food.

But, even if I did a tight edit down to (say) 50 pictures I still think I'd only find two or three, maybe four or five that I'd want to add to a "portfolio" of some kind.

But that's OK with me. Taking "good photographs" is only one of the reasons I take the camera along anyway. I'm mostly in the business of "good enough" photographs. But you have to be shooting to see the good one when it's in front of you.

Possibly unrelated aside: I recently had a few hundred of my old color slides scanned by an outfit that scans your film for you. Being slides, these pictures were already edited down from however many thousand shots I had taken to get them. Taking the best 20 out of those hundreds culled from thousands more, the pictures are of course *excellent* (well, excellent for me) ... and then I thought to myself "maybe I shot better with film." Of course I did not. They were just better edited.

Well, I think there's much more to this than meets the eye or expectation.

Is it really a choice between the "12" or the "1200"? I think it's a false dichotomy. Clearly focus on the work is needed, but so is letting the work dictate the process and ultimate number of works. Some projects may exhaust themselves quickly, while others may go on indefinitely and require a lot more probing. Sometimes it's about distillation, and sometimes it's about diffusion. And which it is it seems to me comes from the nature of the project itself, if one is really being true to the project.

I guess coming at this from a painting/sculpture background has me seeing this from a completely different angle----it's just common practice in those areas to have lots of preparatory sketches, studies, versions of something, and then maybe prints in various techniques on top of that. It's a big ball o' process, every aspect of which serves to uncover the idea.

So, this business of the "12" or some other low, fixed number seems to me much more an artifact of the whole "moment" thing in photography, which is significant in photography to be sure, but something I think too many photographers make too much of.


Most human beings have some creativity but being a major artist requires lots more than that. Most of us have enough sense to decide whether our photography should be the most important thing in our lives or just one of many things which makes our lives fulfilling.

Achieving "12 good photos a year" in the present context would be a meaningless target for many of us. Which, and how many, of our pictures are important to us as individuals depends a lot on circumstances year by year. And if we aren't aiming at the heights what we, and our friends and close family, judge to be "important" may well differ from what you would judge to be "good". Working at our craft skills can narrow the gap a bit as well as increasing the fun we get out of them.

I think you are absolutely right to say you haven't found any general conclusions yet. Could it be that since there are so many of us photographers and that we differ from each other in so many ways that general conclusions would be meaningless?


May I propose yet another mode of photography? Start with an idea. An objective. It need not be a big idea. In fact it shouldn't be. Just something to explore with a camera. Make it a personal assignment, give yourself a deadline, and let the job take you where need be.

I do one-day self-assignments quite often, especially during dreary months. One afternoon several years ago, for example, I set out to create small, emotionally suggestive images of flatware.

I've done similar afternoon projects with glassware, plastic wrap, and a number of other common objects. Each project produced at least one good print. Four prints from that 'sexy flatware' mini-project have decorated our kitchen for several years.

Not high-art for the Met, just good fun.

On another winter afternoon I set out to see what I could make of interesting pavement cracks, eventually creating a series of 15 images.

I'm currently working on a small project centered on packaging refuse. Very challenging, very instructive, very enjoyable.

Beyond snapping families and friends I suspect that many, maybe most, camera enthusiasts mainly just like the act of taking pictures. The feeling of the camera, the sound of the shutter, perhaps the "pose" of being a photographer and lining up shots. That's fine. Of course folks should practice photography in whatever manner they enjoy as a pastime.

But the key factor that distinguishes the pastimer from the professional or truly committed photographic artist is having an objective and sense of purpose. Staggering about looking for something to shoot is a rather weak mode of learning photography. (If you don't know where you're going how will you know when you're there?) Keeper quotas might be fine for fishing but beyond suppressing disc storage they're not directly useful in photography. The project will tell you what to keep. I guarantee that assigning yourself micro-projects will be far more productive and instructive than always simply hitting the streets and hoping for luck.

Remember, I'm the guy who asked "Why Do You Photograph?" at the beginning of the year.

Expand this to any other field of endeavor and call the goal "One Really Good Thing Per Month." For instance, a software engineer could self-assign the task of writing a piece of code that works well, breaks new ground, and which he/she would be proud to list on a resume. That has to be done along with all the workaday stuff needed just to make a living.

Viewed that way, it's a very ambitious goal.

What a thought-provoking post! My love of photography is very recent and my method has been going through some changes along the way. I stopped photographing everything about a year ago and started photographing the way I would if I used film: sparsely.
I have established three categories of photographs: editable, publishable and printable ones. The first are the ones that left me satisfied, which means about 50% (or less) of the exposures from a given session. From those I select about 10%, which I publish on Flickr. (And I believe I have the bad habit of publishing too many photos.)
And then there are those which, in my appreciation at least, deserve to be printed. From all the about 15,000 photographs I've taken so far, there are only eleven I found good enough to be printed. That's less than 0,1%. I guess you have a point.

Thanks for this and the other interesting related posts Mike. Combined, they made me go off to Flickr and make a set of my top 10 pictures from the 1400 I have on there dating back to 2006*, the criteria being that they stood out as something I wouldn't feel I had to defend if criticized: it is enough that I like them and I don't care what others think.
Anyway, all in all it was a somewhat dispiriting exercise I'm afraid. Though I came up with 11 in the end, this seems a paltry total for over six years of digital photography and I guess I need to rethink what I am doing and how I am doing it. I still love photography though, and a little part of me thinks that it is precisely this absence of success that drives me to take the next picture, and the one after that.
So, back to it...

*Just typing this makes me sigh a little.

I think it describes the approach of a lot of contemporary photographic artists, most of whom are "playing to the gallery" (pun intended) not just because that is how galleries seem to commission work these days, but also because they will be acutely aware of what other artists are up to. Nothing worse than being written off as "derivative".

It's not new though, Shore and others were doing the narrative theme decades ago, but it seems to be the norm now.

As an amateur I lack the time, talent, imagination and immersive involvement in the genre to make my work "significant" in any way. However I have had an interesting time "curating" my existing collection.

Even though I have a few tens of thousands of shots to choose from, and I only need around 10 for each theme I have chosen, I have no sooner short listed the images that fit thematically when I find they don't work together aesthetically.

In fact, I was quite shocked that I could not even find 10 images that I both liked and which worked together, so I am gradually re-shooting them - this time with the same camera and post technique - and to my surprise they look better as stand-alone images as well.

Certainly the deliberate (if retrospective) intent and a degree of pre-planning actually seems to help. Not sure I'm ready to publish just yet though - I've just realised the true extent of my limitations ;-)

If Sebastiao Salgado shot only 12 good photos a year, Africa alone would have taken him 25+ years to collect.

Different ways of working clearly work for different people.


Very, very, thought-provoking. Most times, the images I make I class as "documentation" - been there, done that, got the picture to prove it. My hard drives are like the old "Roach Motel" commercials - they check in but they never check out. And, it's sobering to review everything I've done so far in 2013, and find just ONE that I want to work on. Goal for 2013 - PRINT something, and make it as good as I can. 10 to 12 a year sounds about right.

A couple of years back I did a "P52" project, which is one of this basically kind of dumb "one picture per week" projects. I decided to call it a "Purposeful 52" and the aim was to develop a specific idea for a photograph each week, a photograph with a strong visual idea. Not a powerful and moving image, but a strong composition.

Some weeks I worked on 2 or 3 ideas for 50 or 100 exposures before picking one. Some weeks I worked up one idea over 4 exposures, and picked one. A couple of weeks I blew it off entirely.

At the end of the year, I went back and reworked each of the 50-ish photos, and picked out the best 20, and rewarded myself with a nice book from Blurb.

The result was very satisfying. I wasn't aiming to make powerful images, only strong compositions. Almost none of the images in the book move me, but I find them all appealing. Since my goal was to strengthen my sense of composition, I think it worked well.

For most of us, it's what happens before the shutter clicks that makes the most difference. The real benefit is to feel something and to understand the feeling well enough to communicate it to somebody else. If we could see with that kind of clarity twelve times a year, we'd be way ahead of the game.

How about traveling with the Beatles and shooting 6000 images in 4 years? Then 40 years later someone discovers they exist and puts 1000 in a book? http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-beatles-places-remember-book-20130302,0,3705282.story

Over the last year or so, I've become increasingly critical of my own work, and increasingly willing to discard or abandon "pretty good" pictures. I still work up a hundred or so pictures of my kids a year (out of thousands of exposures; I like to do kid pics well, but they're strictly for memories), but I've been reducing and reducing the number that I'm willing to post that I've taken for artistic reasons. Heck, I took down a couple of my own prints recently because their flaws had become too apparent.

Twelve is a good number, a good goal. Perhaps I'll try to get twelve photos this year shot, finished, printed, and mounted.

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