Photography projects versus single images

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For the last seven years I have been making pictures and posting them online, one by one.
I get a good satisfaction from making pictures. Then when I captured a decent photograph, I usually rushed home and imported that picture to my computer – then quickly post-processed it and uploaded it on Flickr, 500px, DeviantArt, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, on the blog, on Linkedin… I probably forgot to mention a few websites but you probably get my point.

I guess we’ve all experienced this to a certain degree? Then after the image upload and publishing is done – the process of just sitting there by the computer and waiting for the comments, the ratings, the favorites and the “great shot” and “voted !!!” comments fly in as you refresh your web browser. Oh yes, job well done! The photograph was great! … Or was it?

It was probably a decent photograph – but would it be a better photograph if it was shown in a set with several images that together tell a story, shows an entire event, or in a complete album of that specific travel or place? Most probably.

After I attended the Street Photography Workshop with Eric Kim and Adam Marelli a few months ago I decided to stop publishing as many single images as I had done previously. The main reason behind this change is thanks to Eric Kim and Adam Marelli. They encouraged every participant of the workshop to work with projects rather than single images, and to use a long time to edit the photographs and decide which images should be published and which shouldn’t.

I decided to make my first try at a project from the material I gathered at the street photography workshop. We were in Venice, Verona, Negrar and Lazise over a period of one week. During this week I took about 1500 street photographs. After the workshop was finished we got one last assignment – pick your 3 best photographs from the entire workshop and send them in to us so we can evaluate them. I sat there and like… Heh huh? 3 out of 1500? Ok… This is going to take a while.

Using Adobe Lightroom I browsed through all the photographs and flagged every photograph that I thought was good for further editing. After going through all the 1500 photographs I had 556 (a number I won’t forget for a while) pictures flagged for further processing. And I needed the 3 best. I did another sweep of those 556 shots and got the collection down to 512 images. This is by far the most difficult task I have had to do in my seven years of having photography as a hobby. After about a week I had my three shots but I was very unsure if those shots were actually my 3 best. They could be the 3 best for me personally but not for others. Not for other people who wasn’t there and didn’t experience the scene as I did.

One of the main reasons that I found the selection part of the editing process so difficult was also because I hadn’t really done much street photography prior to attending the workshop. So for me every image was different, good and unique compared to what I had done before. The experience of the workshop was still very fresh in my mind as well, and that also influenced my editing and selection process.

I sent my 3 selected photographs to Adam and Eric and the day after I already regretted it and wished I sent some other photographs instead. I then decided that I needed to do a first attempt at a bigger project, so I decided to make a project / set called The People of Veneto and that this set should contain 36 selected images – to mimic the amount of images that fit on a roll of 35mm film. With 36 images it should be easy to pick the best images and present these as a set online, right? Wrong.

I spent weeks editing this set and deciding which images it should contain, which images should be color or black and white, and the order of the images. I decided to publish all the images to Flickr and 500px at once and I was expecting the comments, favorites, ratings and so on to fly in at an alarming rate… But no. Actually I had never had so little feedback on my uploads for a very long time. The reason? I did not add any images to any groups on Flickr, nor did I link any of the images to other websites. 500px is very single-image focused (much more so than Flickr which is also focused around single images rather than projects) so I guess nobody bothered to view 1/10 of the images that I uploaded at the same time.

You can find my entire first project / set here: The People of Veneto

I was very disappointed and immediately decided to delete my entire set on 500px. I kept it on Flickr since I see Flickr more as an archive for my photographs rather than a representation of my best work. I then decided to re-upload the set to 500px but this time I decided to upload one of the 36 images each day. This way I had 36 images – over a months worth of uploads – all prepared. And what happened? When I uploaded one and one image each day every image got a very decent amount of views, ratings, favorites, likes and so on. But when I uploaded them as a complete set I didn’t get any response. This didn’t make any sense to me, and the “great shot” comments started to become more and more meaningless once I realized that most people wasn’t really interested in the story of the entire set, but rather the technical presentation of one single image. And I realized that 70% of the comments are probably comments left by people that only leave comments on others work to get feedback on their own uploads.

At the same time I stopped uploading single images to other services as well. I stopped being interested in the feedback from every upload, everywhere. I noticed that many people wrote “great shot” or “voted !!!” or “check my image too” or something similar in my comment sections. What did that feedback give me? Well nothing basically. Whenever I leave a comment on an image I make sure to give constructive criticism and a good feedback which is related to that specific image. And I want the same back. The solution? Stop giving feedback, favorites, likes and what-not to the ones that don’t give proper feedback in return. This change was a very good change, as it freed up alot of my personal time. I didn’t get as much feedback on my own images, but did that matter? No. I don’t make images for other people – I make images mainly for myself – and everyone is free to think and mean what they want of my images.

After about 15 days into uploading my set as single images on 500px I started having second thoughts again. Did I pick the right shots to represent this project? The same doubt I got a few days after sending the best 3 shots to Eric and Adam reappeared. But I decided to stick with my selection even though I would have made some changes to my selection today, and I would also sort the images differently and probably decide to either keep the entire set as color or as black and white – and not mixed. But I learned a lot from this experience. Most importantly that I should be patient before I publish images in the future and even if I am done with a project I should still wait before I publish it. The images won’t go away – so why rush the editing and publishing process?

“You don’t understand, you should have been there”.

Seeing your images with fresh eyes is the most important thing in the editing process. And you will probably not be able to see your images with fresh eyes until at least one month after you made the images. We photographers tend to be influenced by our feelings when we pick our best photographs, but we really shouldn’t be. Even if the image means a lot to you personally it doesn’t mean that the rest of the world will see or feel what you see and feel once you publish your image. Simply put – your image might be uninteresting for others even though it really appeals to you.

Personally I have started to work on several projects this winter and I won’t publish any of the images until spring or summer next year – or until I am satisfied with the projects. I will keep publishing regular photographs that is not a part of my projects however – on my blog, 500px and flickr mainly – but I won’t publish these images to get any feedback and attention. These images will only be published simply because I want to share them with friends, family, contacts and “the world”. If someone likes them or gives me some good feedback I’ll truely appreciate it but that won’t be my main reason to share the images.

As you might know – working on single images can be very stressful, especially if you want a lot of feedback and attention. You basically have to work the social media to get the attention that you feel that you want and deserve. Personally I found this to be very exhausting after a while, and it made my interest in photography fade away – simply because it got very tiring to ride the social media wave from day-to-day. I spent more time commenting, fav’ing, liking and reading articles on the net than being out photographing. Lately I changed this. I almost never check the “Popular” lists on Flickr or 500px any more – I only follow the people that actually produce images that interest me. The shiny and technical perfect photographs on the “Popular” sections are rarely interesting. Yes, they are pretty to look at. But also quite often very empty and soulless. And I have seen thousands of squirrls now. It’s enough.

I challenge you to try working on projects yourself. It is very rewarding, and you will learn a lot from the editing process. The images won’t disappear even if you don’t upload them the same day or a few days after. The world won’t think less of the images either. Most probably you will end up being more happy with your work the longer you wait.

I also want to encourage everyone to spend less time on the social photography sites (flickr, 500px, etc) and spend more time out making photographs instead. I also find reading photography books a lot more inspiring than browsing images on the internet. You can find some incredible deals on photography books on Amazon, and there are many good photography books available on the iPad via the iBookStore and AppStore as well. If you want a list of recommendations – please feel free to contact me (see my Contact page) and I’ll send you my list.

If you have any thoughts or ideas about working with projects versus single images please leave a comment. I’d be interested to hear what your experience is.

Images: some random landscape captures from my hometown.