How do you judge your own photographs?

Written on 28th April 2019 | No Comments

Morning light illuminates the top of Craig Cau during a cloud inversion that was photographed from the top of Cadair Idris in Snowdonia. View a bigger version of this photo.

Before reading on have a look at the photo above and note what you think of it. I’ll come back to it later.

One of the most challenging aspects of being a photographer – in any genre, not just landscape photography – is judging the success of your own work. I find it difficult because I often spend a lot of time immersed in research and planning before I even go near my camera. I feel an attachment to my photos because of the time and effort I invest in them. This often makes it hard to judge how successful my photos are. I was reminded of this conflict after a trip to Snowdonia where I took the photo above which I was particularly satisfied with. Before I explain why, I’ll take you back a few years to begin the story.

Planning a landscape photograph of Cadair Idris

For some time I’d wanted to photograph Cadair Idris, a mountain in Snowdonia. I put together a plan to photograph the view from the peak of the mountain. I spent a lot of time considered what time of year to visit, what route to approach from, what time of day to take photos and so on. By the time my plan was complete I had imagined the process of photographing the mountain many times over. I had rehearsed the shoot much like an actor would rehearse a performance. Hopes and expectations started to build in my mind about what the weather might do, what the light might be like and what might go wrong. I filed the plan away, hoping to put it into action soon.

Alas, months passed and I didn’t return to the Cadair Idris plan for quite some time. Work commitments left little space to fit the trip in. Roughly two years went by before I decided that enough was enough, so I blocked a week in October out of my diary to put the plan into action.

I decided to walk up Cadair Idris in time for sunrise, which meant that I would need to set off at 3:30am to reach the peak. Following the easy ‘Pony Path’ to the top, I set off under a starry sky lit by a nearly full moon. As I heaved myself along the path my warm breath created little puffs of mist in the freezing air. The moonlight was eerie, with dappled shadows cast from the trees overhead spilling across my path. Sunrise was a way off but it felt quite light already and an amazing array of stars were glinting in the sky above. It was a memorable experience already.

After walking for a couple of hours I reached the peak which was shrouded by hill fog. I was surrounded by a cold grey veil and dramatic rock formations loomed in the shadows like something out of the Lord of the Rings. I knew that somewhere in front of me would be the view I’d seen during my research. There would be a lake stretched out below with a triangular peak towering above. But for the moment that existed only in my mind’s eye so I sat and waited.

This kind of wait is horrible. It’s something I’ve done many times, often while surrounded by hill fog, often with the looming deadline of sunrise on my mind. The golden first light of the sun lasts a very short time and it’s often the most precious and photogenic moment because of its fleetingness and the uniquely warm colour of the light. The knowledge that there may be no second chance of capturing it for days, weeks, months or years adds to the pressure.

The imaginary dice I rolled that morning were good. The fog cleared just in time and I could see glimpses of a view. There was a temperature inversion and I was looking out over a sea of clouds. It was no wonder that I couldn’t see anything, I had been trapped inside a bank of hill fog that stretched along the mountain range.

My heart was racing and I was so excited to be able to take a photo at last. It didn’t feel like I was just taking a photo though, it felt like I was encapsulating two years worth of thinking, imagining and waiting. It was the luck of getting a clear sky and seeing a cloud inversion. It was the thrill of the chase and the elation of reaching the finish line.

Back to present day

Now I ask you, dear viewer, to look at the photo again and compare your reaction to it. What did you see before you read this backstory? What do you see now? Is there any difference between the two?

After getting home I left the photo alone for a while, returning to it occasionally over the course of the next week or two. I felt pleased with the photo but I wondered how much of that was down to the work involved beforehand and the luck I’d had on the day. Was my impression of it so caught up in my emotions and sense of achievement that I’d elevated it to Five Star status unduly?

It’s what’s in the frame that counts

There are some important considerations here. Photos are, in most cases, given no backstory. We judge them on what appears within the frame and little else. If my photo of Cadair Idris had been taken using a drone that was flown to the peak from ground level while I was standing next to my car, would it have made any difference to your impression of the image? Perhaps I invented the story above and I had in fact used a drone. Perhaps I’d taken the photo without doing any planning beforehand. Do any of these details matter to the viewer?

My attachment to this photo is a mixture of all of the emotions and thoughts I’ve described in this story, starting a couple of years ago and continuing today. When I look at it I can recall how anxious I felt beforehand, how stunning that morning’s starry sky was, how cold the wind felt and how delighted I was when the fog cleared. Without the help of a hypnotist or brainwashing device I can’t separate that experience from the photo.

Separating your self from your photos

I feel that it’s important to be in the moment while taking photos. ‘Mindful’ is perhaps the zeitgeist term for this philosophy. It’s about concentrating on the image and trying not to be distracted by events leading to the moment of pressing the shutter. In my case the experience of standing on the mountain above a cloud inversion might have been awesome but it didn’t mean that my photos of it would automatically be stunning.

When I am out with my camera, regardless of the amount of planning I’ve done beforehand, I try to empty my mind of anything that has come before. I concentrate on what I’m seeing through the viewfinder and I try to forget everything else. At Cadair Idris I was somewhat successful in this approach but it was rather hard not to feel excited while taking photos.

At home I try to continue this measured mindset by leaving photos unprocessed for a while. The immediate pleasure or disappointment of the photography trip fades slightly and I can start to see the photos from a more neutral perspective. Sometimes a break of a month helps, other times it takes longer.

So what do I think of the photo of Cadair Idris now, six months later? I still feel fond of it. When I look at it I can still feel the windchill and smell the clean air but I am also able to set aside those memories somewhat and judge the result more objectively. The photo doesn’t strike me quite as much as when it was fresh but I still enjoy looking at it. Maybe that’s all that matters?

While I was in Snowdonia I photographed some other places besides Cadair Idris. You can see other photos from the trip in my Hills, Moors and Lakes gallery.

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