Photographer Paul Strand said, “Your photography is a record of your living for anyone who really sees.” How do you see your photography? Where? How often? What ways? Why?
Performing an annual review of your images is one way to see your photography over and through time. When you do this, it’s useful to make a record of your observations. Consider both the selection of images and the observations you make about your selection a journal. It’s one of many different kinds of journals I keep. Like a journal, to get the maximum benefit, you need to make multiple entries at different times. The frequency with which you do this is up to you. I find I get the most out of this exercise when I do it annually.
An annual review or your images is useful in so many ways. It brings you more clarity. It helps you see what you accomplished. It shows you what is missing or left undone. It reveals new possibilities. It gives you more choices. It helps you set goals for the future. It increases productivity. It leads to greater fulfillment. While it takes discipline and effort to do, the results it produces feel great.
Annual reviews are not a waste of time. Quite the opposite, annual reviews help you spend the limited time you have before you more effectively. Annual reviews can even drive you to greater productivity. Knowing that you’ve got one coming up you may start working earlier, chart your progress over time towards a goal, and/or make a last-minute sprint to the finish line to achieve your vision of success.
Record Your Observations In The Right Form
What’s the right form to record your observations in? The one you’ll use the most often. You could use someone else’s system or come up with a complex system of your own, but if it’s not practical and meaningful you won’t use it, so you might as well not have it. Remember what Albert Einstein said, “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
You could keep this process as simple as making a selection of images. Create a collection in Lightroom for fast access and flexible updating. And/or print out thumbnails for a durable record that can be displayed for as long as you like. If you want to share your selection with others consider making a blog post, an ebook, or a print-on-demand book. Giving these types of activities a social dimension can encourage us to maintain them. Sometimes we get valuable feedback when other people see our selections. When, where, and how much you share is entirely up to you.
This process becomes even more valuable when you use words to state the reasons for your selections (inclusion and exclusion) and your observations about your new collections on their own and in comparison to past collections. In this way, what starts intuitively becomes clearer and more actionable, something you can use not just feel.
There are many ways you can record your observations video, audio, and writing. It might be fascinating to look back at and hear your younger self at some future date. Still, for quick retrieval of information, I find nothing beats text, especially when it’s flexible digital text. You can even use the search function to find an item quickly or to find connections between different items.
After you make your selections of and comments about new images, look back at your past selections and comments. The comparisons and contrasts you make between years can be very revealing. Doing this can reveal much more than a personal history of events. Looking back at past successes can reveal changes in level of skill, consistency of results, frequency of experimentation, clarity of vision, development of style, changes in subject matter and theme, shifts in goals and your definition of success, new opportunities, and so much more. In short, it can show you how your vision has developed, where you are now, and where you are most likely to go next.
Missed a few years? While your current perspective will never be the same as your past perspective, it’s never to late to create these kinds of collections. You may find that you will want to revise past selections and make new comments. Keep your old selections and comments for comparison at a later date, either in the same or in a separate location.
Find The Right Images
Select only your best images. What’s best? That depends on what you’re trying to do with your images. While it can be useful to select images based on what gets a strong reaction from other people, that’s only one kind of selection that offers specific kinds of insights. There are many others. Make time and space for yourself. Define what success means to you before you start your selection process. How you define success will change your results. Remember. It’s your process. They’re your images. You’re doing this review for yourself.
The collections you create from annual reviews are often very different than the collections of images you make to develop a project. When performing annual reviews the images you select tends to be more varied and divergent, share fewer similarities, and contain little or no flow between them. You see core qualities but lose the narrative arc that drives your story forward or the connective tissue that makes it hang together. Subtler, more complex, sometimes contradictory or not fully resolved elements are often eliminated. Often, significant details are lost in this mix. The bigger picture may become clearer.
Select The Right Number Of Images
A very different kind of benefit is gained by looking at all of your images simultaneously. When you become more selective, you cut right to what’s essential. Limitations become useful. I recommend you select your top image (The apex is the bottom.), your top two or three images (Create a generative tension.), and your top twelve images (Confirm your vision and style.). (Read more about this in The Benefits Of Selecting Your Top Images.) There’s nothing special about the number twelve. With fewer than twelve images it becomes more challenging to fully see both the variety and the connections within images. If you choose more than twelve images make sure you don’t set the number so high that you can no longer see the larger patterns at work in your images.
Ask The Right Questions
They say that ninety percent of a solution lies in asking the right questions in the right ways. Not sure where to start? Get the ball rolling with these questions. Are there frequent technical deficiencies you’d like to correct? Are there past technical deficiencies you have corrected? Of all the new skills you’d like to acquire, which would be the most beneficial to invest your time in now? What kinds of images were produced? What common qualities do they share? What would you like to do more of? What project(s) would benefit from more sustained attention? What’s the easiest project to complete? What’s the most important project to complete? What haven’t you done yet? What missing? From these images, how many directions could you go in? How would you rate your overall progress? How would you rate your overall progress technically, compositionally, narratively, emotionally, and conceptually?
While there are some classic questions that we would all benefit from answering, only you can determine what the most useful questions are because only you know your true goals. It’s a healthy sign when you find that you need to ask other questions that are unique to you and your images. Engage the process of asking useful questions fully and repeatedly you will be guaranteed to make important discoveries.
When it comes to answering the questions you ask, remember that in this arena your audience is you. Use the language that you think the most fluidly in and the words that mean the most to you. Do challenge yourself to go deeper and achieve greater clarity. (Exactly what does that mean – to me?) Don’t censor yourself and don’t change your answers to please someone else. How much you choose to share with others in completely up to you. Do it if it’s useful. Don’t do it if it’s not.
Things change over time. So do we. And, so do our images. Nothing else records the change itself like a journal. Records of how our images change (and don’t change) can offer us (and others) valuable insights into both our creative lives and ourselves. Most importantly, we can learn from our past to make our future more like the life we want to live.