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improve-photography-through-comparison Insights & Thoughts

Other Photographers Are Better Than You, Use Them As Fuel To Improve Your Photography

By Max Bridge on March 22nd 2016

Other photographers are better than you. That statement can hurt. Worst of all, it can set you up on a path to destruction (a.k.a giving up). I want you to come away from this article knowing other photographers are better than you BUT also knowing that’s ok. I also want you to understand that you can use them as fuel to improve your photography.

Dealing With Portfolio Envy

I am guilty of this. Big time! It can be tough seeing the outstanding work that others produce and then looking at your own, only to feel decidedly dissatisfied. On one hand, I think this comes down to personality. I’m rarely satisfied with what I produce – a true perfectionist. Whereas others are more easily proud of what they create. My mentality is potentially more damaging but both have their benefits.

The problem with portfolio envy, with comparing ourselves to superior photographers, is that it can become so consuming that it causes us to stop. To give up. I hope this article will help you transform that energy/emotion into something positive. It’s not an easy thing to do, but let’s give it a try. First things first, we need to find a portfolio to envy.

[REWIND: HOW TO GIVE & ACCEPT CRITIQUE — BE YOUR OWN ART DIRECTOR PART 4]

How To Find Admirable Photographers

There’s no secret here. The key is to simply remember to do it. On my browser, I have a folder which houses the websites of all the photographers I admire. Well, not all of them (that would be a huge folder) but, at least, the ones I am currently looking up to. At the moment, I’m trying to advance my product photography portfolio. Hence, the folder is filled with roughly 20 product photographers and counting.

Google is a fantastic way to find photographers but the ones you discover may not necessarily be the best photographers, rather the best at SEO. In fact, that’s a very important point (although mildly off topic). SEO is hugely important when it comes to being able to find you and your business online. If you’re a little hazy on the subject, take a look at this great eBook in the SLR Lounge Store click here.

Searching on Google, or your alternative search engine of choice, is a great way to start. However, you won’t be able to find all of the best photographers there. I stumble across lots of photographers as they get featured in articles across the net. When I find one I like, they go in the folder. I’ll also actively try to find out who shot a particular image I come across. I’ll often see a good photo while out and about and then try to track down the photographer.

The important takeaway here is you need to actively find good photographers. Always keep an ear to the ground and you’ll gradually build up a decent list of outstanding photographers. Don’t settle, find the best.

[Check out our Top 100 Wedding Photographers list here]

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How Does Staring At Better Work Than Mine Improve My Photography?

Having discovered a vast array of enviable photographers and stunning imagery, you’re now either thoroughly depressed, wallowing in self-pity… “They’re so much better than me; how will I ever be that good?” Whine, whine, whine. Or you’re already inspired and have an idea for your next shot in mind. If you’re that 2nd person, I hate you. I’m the 1st, wallowing in self-pity.

Even though I despise the 2nd personality described above, they also demonstrate the first way that other photographers can improve your photography. Inspiration. I challenge you to look at the work of another photographer, with an open mind, and not get inspired. Take the photo of the couple above. If you’re a wedding photographer and you don’t already incorporate the bride’s veil in a shot, I’m thinking you might give that a go now. You may even be thinking of a better way to do it.

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Another way we can use others to improve our photography is to help us identify our weak points. This requires an ability to heavily scrutinize your work and the work of others. Thankfully, it’s usually where that second personality shines. Given that I am more closely related to personality two, I am fantastic at ripping my work to shreds and analyzing the work of others.

[REWIND: BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO PHOTO CRITIQUE| USE THIS CHECKLIST BEFORE YOU UPLOAD]

When I look through the photographers I have in my admirable folder, I see a common theme. They all, without exception, incorporate many others elements within their product photography: splashes, powder, liquid, ice and so on. From this, I have now taken it upon myself to do the same. I’ve identified a couple of avenues I’d like to explore and am working hard to up my game. It is not easy; progression never is, but I’m trying to turn that envy into drive.

There are many ways we can use the work of others to inspire us and drive us forward. You could decide, upon scrutinizing the work of others, that you’d like to take your photography in an entirely different direction; or that you need to learn off camera flash, that a tilt-shift lens produces just the look you love. If you can manage to look at the work of others with an open mind, the list will go on and on.

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Don’t Run Before You Can Walk

A word of caution from my own experience; you may see an image and think that you want to give that a try, to begin incorporating that technique into your photography. Fantastic. Go for it! But, do not assume it will be easy. It may end up being something you cannot achieve with your current level of photographic knowledge and skill. In other words, if you fail, don’t let that failure discourage you.

My first step whenever I see a new technique is to find some education on that topic. For example, as I’ve said, I’m trying to master the use of splashes (and some other things of my own invention) into my product photography. Luckily, one of my favorite educators for product and still life, Photigy, has a course precisely on that topic. Once I knew I was headed in that direction, I made sure to watch it. The tips I have picked up have been invaluable.

[REWIND: PHOTOGRAPHY COURSES: 5 ESSENTIAL COURSES FOR EVERY BEGINNER]

Photigy is wonderful for product and still life photographers. For those wedding and portrait photographers amongst you, I love the content Pye and the team produce. I’m talking Lighting 101, 201 and Photography 101, click here. There’s also our new partner CreativeLive, who has some the best education around. Honestly, the options for online education these days are endless. My point is, don’t run before you can walk. When you find something you want to replicate, do your research first. Or dive straight in! I’m a research kind of guy.

Summary

I’ve said this a few times lately but I’m going to say it again. Nobody starts out knowing everything and everyone’s portfolios suck at first. It’s a valuable skill to be able to pick out elements in other people’s work which you can then use to drive your own development. It could be as simple as finding a new technique or as all-encompassing as altering your style. However you digest the work of other photographers, try and let yourself be encouraged, rather than discouraged through comparison.

About

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
Instagram: Follow Author

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ralph Hightower

    There are photographers that I admire; but it resolves to equipment or access. Two photographers that I admire are Ansel Adams and Steve McCurry.
    Access: I am tied down by my “day job” since I am not a professional photographer, nor do I work for National Geographic or the National Park Service.
    Equipment: I am a hobbyist and I am not rich. I saw a B&H Event Space video about nature photography from Arthur Morris and Denise Ippolito and they were routinely dropping lenses used: “Oh, this was shot with an 800”, “this was shot with a 500”, or “this was shot with a 600.” I wish that I could afford those Canon L lenses! Karl Taylor uses these massive softboxes and studio lighting..
    I want lenses. If I had access to studio lighting and a studio, then I could learn by doing. Watching YouTube videos without putting it into practice does nothing.
    But I use what I have; for film, I have 28mm 50mm, 80-205mm, and 400mm (not often used). For digital, I have the 24-105 f4L and I rented the 100-400 f4.5-506L for a bucket list event.

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    • William Irwin

      I don’t mean this to sound negative in any ways but take it for what it is. I can’t do some of the things that Ansel Adams does, nor do I have the equipment he has. It doesn’t stop me from doing the best I can with what I do have. I’ve read stories of photographers who became successful by focusing on what they had and using their prosumer camera until they made enough money to get what they wanted. They were smart to focus on the marketing aspect and get the business going rather than being a “gear-head”. If you play video games the same phenomenon of gear envy pops up the same way.

      I wish I had my friend’s two story studio that he has right in his back yard with all the fancy equipment. I just have speedlights and my few lenses I’ve managed to sacrifice other things to get. I scrounge out the shoots I can with what I have and build my business from that.

      For studio lighting, use speedlights. I do :) I recently shot a Bombay gin shoot for fun ( I love my dirty martinis). I was able to pull off some pro looking shots from just two speedlights and a few items from Home depot.

      Don’t think of what you don’t have, take stock of what you do have and work around it. One light setup for portraits? Done. Two lights? done… you will learn a lot by practicing.

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    • Max Bridge

      Ralph, I absolutely understand what you’re saying and, on the one hand, you’re not wrong but, on the other, what you have said could not be further from the truth.

      Firstly, yes expensive equipment helps and, on rare occasions, is absolutely necessary. However, these days there is usually a cheaper (lower quality) item which will do the job 90% as well as the £2,000-£20,000 equivalent.

      When you say access, I think time. I live in the UK and am not familiar with US national parks but I imagine there are few areas which are out of bounds to the public. That being said, not many of us have the time to explore these environments. Therefore, yes, time is a luxury afforded to the full time pro. All that really means though is that it will take you longer to build a body of work, not that your photos will be in any way inferior.

      With gear, let me give you a couple of examples. Wildlife is tricky. I photograph Deer in my local park with a full frame camera and 70-200mm lens. The deer are large, accustomed to people, and I have them as an element within the scene rather than filling the frame. You can look at some of my stuff here – https://500px.com/max_bridge

      If you did require a longer lens, then you can still do so on a budget. The new Nikon D500 will be amazing but that won’t be budget. The D5200, however, is still a very capable camera. Couple that with a decent telephoto; Nikon 300 f4, sigma 120-300 f2.8, Tamron 150-600 f5-6.3. And, boom, that crop frame camera is giving you A LOT of reach, 900mm with the Tamron. Plus, buy it 2nd hand and it is still expensive but far more achievable then some 600mm behemoth. Yes, the pro grade kit will be that 10-20% better. But I guarantee you, if you catch an amazing moment in the wild, nobody will notice. In fact, I bet nobody would notice anyway.

      This response has turned into an article itself but I really don’t like to hear people get disheartened when it comes to gear. It’s an annoyance that we cannot afford everything we want but, usually, an annoyance is all it is.

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  2. Daniel Thullen

    I hadn’t heard the term “portfolio envy” before. Perhaps that is because my background is business (which has a whole other type of “portfolio envy.”) not the arts. Max, you make some excellent points, as does Mr. Irwin. Thank you for an inspiring article.

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  3. Justin Haugen

    Facebook and Instagram are great ways to grow your admiration collection. I love going to WPPI to meet photographers with awesome portfolios too. I love meeting talented photographers it definitely helps me grow.

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    • Max Bridge

      I keep telling myself to use Instagram more but for some reason it never happens!

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  4. William Irwin

    When I was in college, I had “portfolio envy” as you call it during my first Quarter at RIT in NY. What I realized is everyone has strengths and weaknesses. That other person whose work you envy, may not be good at something that you *are* good at while your work in their area of expertise is weak. Nothing wrong with that and that realization alone made me calm down and understand that soon or later with practice, I will be just as good as them.

    In my experience that quarter, I saw a lot of great work but no one cared enough to retouch and finalize their prints for critique during our first session. My photos were retouch, finished, matted etc etc as drilled in my head from my community college professors. By the end of the quarter, most of the other students were following my example and I was increasing my skill set to meet their levels as well.

    We all start somewhere and keeping that “portfolio envy” in check is a great way to utilize what is in front of you. Learn from the best, then you will become the best someday :)

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    • Max Bridge

      Love your comment William, thanks!

      I suppose I was focusing on others quite heavily here but I’m glad you’ve mentioned celebrating our strengths. Knowing our weaknesses is important but so is knowing where we excel.

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