Good? Bad? Good Enough?

Lake Superior from Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, MI. June 2019. Photo by Rob Salem. Copyright © 2019.

I’m currently working on a project that involves going through the several thousand photos I’ve taken the last few years and figuring out which ones I like enough for commercial use while keeping in mind the purpose of the end product and the probable consumer demographic. It’s a project that’s been on the back burner for several months, but has needed to happen for various reasons, not including the commercial aspect.

In its own way, it’s become sort of a portfolio review, as well as a journey from when people thought I was a good photographer to me actually becoming a (sometimes) good photographer.

It is in many ways simultaneously embarrassing, motivating, and frustrating.

It’s embarrassing because there’s a lot of “WTF was I thinking?!?” There are so many photos that are just bad. From no composition to being over-edited to not having a clear subject to not telling a story and so on, I can look at a lot of my images (past and present, if I’m being fair) and know that in the moment I was probably thinking, “I should take a pic of this!” or “Wow, this will be a cool photo!” but looking at them now have no idea what I was taking a picture of or why. Sometimes I know what I was going for, but at the time didn’t recognize that I failed to capture it. The worst part? More than a few of those photos got released into the wild for public consumption. I’m sure that at least a few netted me a client or two, or some internet points. I’m even more sure that more than a few cost me a client or two.

It’s motivating because I can see a marked difference in my skill over the course of just this past year, never mind the progress I’ve made over the 5-ish years I’ve been doing photography seriously. And it encourages me to keep going, to keep shooting, to keep learning, and to keep getting better. Because I’ve turned out some stuff that I -know- is good (if it was good enough for NatGeo, it was good… right?), and if I can figure out how to do it even better…. I can’t wait to see what I capture in my next 10,000 shutter actuations.

And it’s frustrating because there’s some stuff in my files that I know is good, but I can’t seem to be able to gain traction in the public space with. Which of course makes me question just how good some of these photos really are. (This is the part that comes across like another artist complaining about not building a following on social media despite feeling like I’m as good or better than some “creators” or “influencers” who have massive followings and make their living solely by their internet presence…)

For me, the easiest way to tell if something is good—and this applies to most, if not all, forms of art—is being able to recognize its quality regardless of if I like it or not. This is where I think the notion that “good” in reference to art is a term that is subjective to the consumer is misleading. Preference is subjective, but I think that what’s good—whether photography, painting, music, or any other medium—is objective, at least in so far as that a piece’s ability to not just move a person, but to influence them and make them think is critical.

In short, a “good” photo can be measured by certain technical aspects, but it is more than just pretty colors, good contrasts, interesting subjects, good lighting, and nice compositions. It’s the story captured in a single frame that you -feel- because you either relate to it or ask questions about it. It’s an image that makes you stop and catch your breath and draws you in. Of course, “good” -is- subjective to the viewer, since we each are going to be moved by different things. Which, in turn, means that sometimes something that is a technical disaster is good to someone experiencing or interacting with it. I won’t even discuss here the “rules”, and whether or not a piece is good because it follows them or purposefully breaks them. Guess I’ve got another thought for a later blog post, eh?

A good photo isn’t just a fleeting thought. It’s a feeling—sometimes it’s a feeling that the photographer asks the viewer to feel, sometimes it’s whatever feeling the image moves the viewer to because of their own life experiences. It’s a single frame of a thousand words that never need be uttered or written down—and maybe the picture was the only pure way to capture a moment because there weren’t words for it. It’s the stopping of time not just in the moment captured, but also for the person viewing it—it takes the viewer out of the time and place they’re in and invites them into the time and place they’re viewing.

There are a lot of photos I wish I could go back and have a second chance at taking, and since none of them are studio photos, I’ll never be able to. That’s both a bit of a bummer but also what makes the photo itself special, regardless of what I see wrong with it. But there are a lot photos in my portfolio that I’m very happy with and wouldn’t change at all. And I like to think that I’m wise enough to know that my present situation of being simultaneously embarrassed, motivated, and frustrated by a review of my work is going to be a perpetual situation.

At least it will be for as long as I continue to work to be better than I am.

And now I’m off to review my portfolio and see if it holds up against what I’ve just written, while also pondering the question of “What makes a good portfolio?”

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