What Constitutes Success?


On Sunday of the past weekend, I was a guest instructor on a photo day trip.  It was attended by lots of very nice people, with the expected variance in experience and confidence.  I noticed a few consistencies that I found disappointing that I wanted to share with the membership because they are destructive and invalid.  I will close with what I have learned from my mentors, peers, professionals and coaches about what makes for success, that the reader may find useful.

#1 YouTube as a valid training source

What are those phrases about needles in haystacks and the like?  While there are some decent tutorials on YouTube they are completely outweighed by utter garbage. The problems are the numerous posts that are factually and technically completely incorrect.  

Unless you are very careful, and the source is well experienced, and perhaps even externally curated, be very cautious about what you believe, because most of it will lead you in the wrong direction.  One of the attendees, a very nice fellow, seemed to have been trained entirely by YouTube.  The best advice we could give him was to dump it all and start fresh.  His lack of experience did not give him the tools to discern between useful YouTube videos and the plethora of beef generated fertilizer.

A credible alternative is to attend an accredited class at your local camera shop, go to a night class at a reputable college, find a mentor with good references or join a service such as KelbyOne where the quality standards are very high.  These will not be free and as consequence your odds of getting something worthwhile improve dramatically.

#2 If I Just Get This Camera or This Lens, I Will Be a Better Photographer

No.  You will not.  You may get a newer, faster, higher resolution platform and this will do nothing in any way, shape or form to make you a better photographer.  Most folks that I meet at the beginner and intermediate levels have not even taken the time to learn what the tools that they own are capable of, and sadly get hooked by messages that they are missing something.  Often what they think that they are missing, they already have.  

If all you want is to take nice pictures, use your smart phone.  It will take nice pictures.  It will not help you make better photographs.  The least expensive mirrorless or DSLR camera has more capability for growth and learning than any smart phone.  You can take pictures with it, but you can also use one to make photographs.  Until you invest your time to learn the techniques and to learn to operate your camera, you're still basically using a heavy smartphone.  Find your manual and read it, and I understand that it may be poorly written.  Make it a point to read one page a day, every day, over and over until you know the tool inside out and can use it to complement, not drive your creative vision.

#3 I Get Lots of Likes on Facebook

What does this mean?  Sadly, it means nothing.  Who follows you on Facebook?  Friends and family?  Do they have the skills or credibility to say whether the image is good or not?

On a forum that I moderate, one of the participants said that all opinions are valid.  This could not be farther from reality.  I might have an opinion on biophysics.  My opinion might be valid to me, but it is worth less than zero to anyone who is actually educated on the subject.  

Likes, thumbs up and the rest of that social media brain numbing BS do not help you grow as a photographer.  I meet a lot of "photographers" whose entire goal is to get that image right away onto Instagram or Facebook, where it will be seen for a few seconds and then disappear into the miasma of glop that fills the Internet.  

If you want to know if you are being successful, you have to know why you squeezed the shutter in the first place, what your goals were and to be able to self assess whether you succeeded or not.  Whatever you decide, you're right.  

Social media as a means of self-validation is the acceptance that your own judgement has no value.  What a sad position to be in.

#4 Post Processing is Cheating

I hear this a lot from folks who are still building skills.  Post processing has always been part of the photographic and videographic processes, just for many people, they never had the chance to do any.  Don't confuse personal development with presets, actions, filters and the rest of the so called "time-saving" birdcage linings out there.  On their best days, they are starting points only, and if they are all you use, well fair enough, your work now looks like the work by the creator.  Lazy.

Post processing is integral to great photography.  Your camera, however good it is, will never give you precisely what your eye saw, no matter how hard you work to get the shot right in camera.  Take a class in learning Lightroom or Luminar or ON1 or any of the basic photo processing tools.  

#5 Shooting in Manual Makes Me a Better Photographer

Bullshit.  I will sacrifice my "clean" rating for this post because this line of thinking is such a heap of foul smelling offal that anyone who believes it needs to put the camera down.  If you are following the camera meter to make an exposure and are shooting in Manual, the only thing you gain are lost opportunities because Unicorns, Elves and other Seelie folk who show up to be photographed get tired while you futz around with settings and conclude that humans are basically idiots.

Shooting Manual has its place, just like any mode, but will NEVER make you a better photographer.  I have worked with lots of beginners who were sold this line of tripe wherever they bought their camera, who are despondent because the photos "aren't as good as on their iPhone".  I set the camera to Program and tell them to have at it and check back later.  100% of the time, the person is happier overall, and now starts to actually look at the images and ask good questions about what they might do to get a different result in terms of motion, blur, depth of field or image noise.  

I do shoot in Manual.  When I am in the studio and nothing is changing, Manual works very well, particularly when I am shooting with a large number of studio strobes firing simultaneously.  But then, I am making the image, not the camera or the shooting mode.

#6 Underexpose Overly White Subjects and Overexpose Overly Black Subjects

This is one of those guidelines that should be dead, but still walks the earth like some brain-ravaged zombie.  It's wrong.  Completely wrong.  Your camera meter reads the entire scene to produce a recommended exposure that will average to middle grey.  But what if your subject is predominantly white?  Such as a bride in a wedding dress.  I see it all the time and hear the question, "why isn't the dress white?  It's kind of grey"  The camera did precisely what it is designed to do.  When you see a predominance of white, you must OVERexpose to make the whites white.  The same thing is true for something that is predominantly black.  The meter will try to make an exposure that makes the black grey.  I want the blacks to be black so I will underexpose to make that happen.  I would rather use local adjustments in post processing to add detail to whites or blacks using the standard dodge and burn practices that have existed for decades.  

This is often misunderstood because of dependency on the blinkies or the highlight warning indicators on the camera LCD.  The blinkies can tell you if clipping of whites or sometimes blacks is occurring but only at the level of a small JPEG which is of very low resolution.  

I encourage people to display the in camera histogram in playback. The histogram shows you the luminosity that the camera captured which may not match what your eye saw.  There is no correct histogram but learning to read the histogram, the topic of posts and podcasts here, is a huge advantage, but please avoid the YouTube explanations for most of them are junk science.  The histogram will also help you compensate for a rear camera LCD that is set too bright (most are).  Also if you are going to use the rear LCD for focus checking and histogram inspection ( you should) you need a loupe because the glare off the display surface in any light reduces contrast and leads to bad decisions.  Just keep it tied to you so it doesn't vanish or get walked away.

On Finding Success

As you may imagine, I could go on with thoughts and concepts that you should avoid or that are utter rubbish.  Time to move on.

Success is what you make it.  When I was younger, I asked the local professionals, my teachers and my mentors what made for an acceptable image.  They told me that first and foremost it had to be an image that pleased themselves, because an images that was not self-pleasing would never be acceptable to present to a client, a photo editor or a gallery owner.  They told me that an image had to evoke an emotion, that a technically perfect image bereft of emotion had no value in the long term, except as a boring demonstration of technical competence.  They told me that an image that did not evoke a memory was not successful.  In the years that have followed, I can say without halting, that this guidance has been right 100% of the time.  When we all shot film in Manual mode, the pros jumped all over Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Program because they knew that the technical was much less important than the emotion.  

When I approached one of my mentors about my choice not to be really visible with my work on social media, he asked me what difference it would make to my work if I was.  I said I might get more work.  He agreed and then asked if I would get more work this way than by taking a portfolio of prints with me to potential clients.  I didn't know so he encouraged me to experiment.  For what I do, the portfolio is the winner by light years because I focus it on the client's needs and wants and I don't care about likes, dislikes or unsolicited critiques because they don't have manifest value.  I certainly appreciate folks who say kind things, to do otherwise would be rude, but these kindnesses do not change what I do.

When we look at portfolios and online we see beautiful images.  Sometimes we see images that are not so compelling, but this rarely happens with true professionals.  First, less is more.  Only put your very best in your portfolio and never more than 20 images (according to Stella Kramer, a foremost expert on the subject).  Never show less than five star images.  The bar you set regarding how your work is seen, is not by the best image , but by the worst image that you share..  "Sharing is caring" is social bullcrap.  Share only your very best, it's the only way to elevate from the norm.

When we shoot, how many keepers should we have?  Many folks seem to think that a good camera should give us 80% to 90% keep ratios.  That's like presuming that a good scalpel will give a surgeon an 80% to 90% success rate.  It's utter bohunk.

I've asked this hard question dozens of times.  For professional studio photographers, the number is as high as 15%.  The technical elements are in solid control, the success is determined by the photographer's ability to get what he or she needs out of the image.  That can be facial expression, posture, body position, light vs shadow, all the elements that are artistic not a setting.  When we get to field work, the average is much closer to a 6% keep rate.  That means that you feel that 6 out of 100 are really exemplary.  The rest are not necessarily awful, but they aren't five star images.

Can you come back from an all day shoot making hundreds of images and in the end have nothing?  Yes.  And sadly if you say, no, I always have a five star you should stop lying to yourself or step back and check your standards.  Proper exposure does not make a five star image.  Exposure is two stars at best and you need to like it.  Focus is at most three stars.  The higher counts are story, emotional commotion and the ability to make yourself and others feel.


Success is self-defined, never defined by another person, group or meme.  If you make your work look exactly like someone else's that can be an interesting training exercise, and is a good thing to do from time to time, but this work is not differentiating you.  It screams "me too" and in such cases, why would anyone go with someone other than the original.

Success is not about technical settings.  It's not about a look.  It's not about social media validation.  It's not about anything other than what you see.  You can certainly take a different approach, it's your life and your work, do what you will.  However, if you want to feel success, look inwards rather than outward.  Remember, all the critics of the day thought Vincent Van Gogh was a complete incompetent.  


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I'm Ross Chevalier, thanks for reading, and until next time, peace.