You can't get there from here if you don't know where here and there are
Seems like a simple question, doesn't it? What's your goal?
Amazingly, many of the photographers I talk to—both amateur and pro—don't really know the answer to that question. So let me ask it a little more specifically: what's your photographic goal?
Let me tell you mine for the coming year [editor’s note: this was a couple of years ago]: take six photographs that I'll print at 24" and sell in limited quantity as signed prints. That's it. Take six photographs. Take six photographs that'll withstand being pushed to 24" with current print technologies. Take six photographs that'll withstand being pushed to 24" with current print technologies and which some number of people will find good enough to pay significant money to get one of those signed, limited edition prints. Take six photographs that'll withstand being pushed to 24" with current print technologies and which some number of people will find good enough to pay significant money to get and which I'll be proud to say represent some of my best work ever.
Notice anything about my answer? Well, I added specificity to it after stating it simply. Indeed, given that I've taken somewhere over 100,000 images in my lifetime (I'm afraid to even estimate the actual number, let alone count; Lightroom tells me that I took 782 images over the last two weeks that I decided to keep), that very last statement (in italics) actually represents a very significant specification. Moreover, I've got some measurement capabilities to determine if I meet my goal:
- Did I take six photographs that became prints? This is a yes or no proposition. Taking six photographs is easy enough (less than a second on my camera ;~). But they have to make it through my critical editing process and they have to be printable at 24".
- Did my limited edition sell out? Another yes or no proposition, though we've got some other variables here to consider. I could, for example, price the prints too high, in which case people may like them, but not buy them. I could also price them too low, in which case the edition would probably sell out because there's so many of you who'd like to just see my work, regardless of how good it is.
- Do I think it's my best work yet? Obviously a subjective measurement, and I suppose I could just thump my chest like Tarzan and say "me good." But those of you who know me already have guessed that it's much more likely I'd do the opposite (e.g. crawl up in to the fetal position, weep inconsolably and say "me bad").
In reality, I'll probably partially meet my goal (I set high goals; you should too, but more on that in a bit). Perhaps I'll only manage five shots that meet my parameters. Perhaps I won't be able to get everything done in a year. I might not be 100% sure it represents my best work yet. Or maybe some combination or all of the above. Still, at the end of the process I'll take the time to look again at my goal, how well I achieved it, and what that implies for my next goal. I'll have more to say about my goals at a later date. I also intend to make this particular goal pursuit visible in extreme detail to everyone, warts and all, and they'll be a lot more specificity to it when I do that. But that's another article for another day. Today we're going to get you started. I've used a simplification of one of my 2013 goals simply to get the discussion kicked off. If you think you're going to be able to hide back there in the back of the class, guess again.
So let's get back to you. What's your photographic goal? Let's separate you readers into a few groups:
- The pros. If you're a professional photographer, you absolutely need to be setting goals. And quite a few of them, actually. You need business goals (sales, profits, clients, etc.). You need quality goals (no botched assignments, no missed deadlines, etc.). You need personal goals (growth in your visual skills, better understanding of the technologies and software you use, etc.). Not setting goals means you're taking a random walk through your profession. It also means that you have no way of evaluating whether you're making any progress or not. Believe me, your competitors are setting goals and making progress, so you'd better be, too.
- Serious amateurs. You bought the best equipment and software because you're ready to see just how far you can stretch your wings. Perhaps you aspire to cross the line into professionalism (and putting a few frames on a royalty-free stock list and getting a few dollars in sales doesn't count; professionals try to maximize their revenue, not generate a few dollars here and there). Perhaps you just want some images on your walls that your friends and neighbors ooh and aah over. Maybe you want to be ready to shoot some family event and distribute photos to the participants that'll catch their attention. But more often than not, people in this category bite off very specific goals ("learn Photoshop," "take a workshop from a pro I've admired," "get a desktop photo printer and get it configured right," etc.). These goals are specific and finite because you have a day job, a family, and photography is a time-constrained hobby for you. (Perhaps your initial goal should be "spend two hours a week photographing and editing images.")
- The snapshooter. Really? The snapshooter needs goals? Sure. Generally the snapshooter's goals aren't so much the quality of the actual photo (though better is still better!), but the sharing of those images. Pictures taken by a snapshooter represent life events, memories, travels, and social occasions. The important thing to the snapshooter is that they were there to take the images, coupled with what happens to them after the photos have been taken. If you fall in this category, you have one set of interlocking things to define: who is going to see your images, when, and how? Now your goal is easy: make sure that they see your images! Note that you may be the only one that sees your images, but you still need to do the homework: when and how are you going to see the results of your snapshooting? So consider making a photo book project, doing a slideshow (please, not 4000 photos that take hours to view!), or volunteering to do photos for an event or organization and email them to the participants.
I've already mentioned some goals, but let's build them into types of goals. The ambitious amongst you should have multiple goals, and preferably ones of every type:
- Knowledge goals. Your knowledge of photography is currently at Level X. Raise it to Level Y. Or Z. Or even higher. With digital photography, we have so many different types of knowledge we need to master: staying current with the state-of-the-art in equipment (that doesn't mean buying it, it means knowing what you have and how the latest and greatest really compares, so you can make intelligent upgrading decisions); computer skills, including proper set up, use, and maintenance; software skills, specifically products like Lightroom, Photoshop, and other digital photography-specific products that can expand your imaging ability; printing skills, especially getting prints to match what you saw and what you edited; and not to forget, shooting skills. Do you really know what hyperfocal distances are, when and why you use them? It also wouldn't hurt to spend time learning about those that have come before you, from Brady to Adams to Wolfe. That, too, is knowledge.
- Technique goals. This is about applying knowledge. It's one thing to read about and understand what hyperfocal distance is. But can you apply it properly and consistently in your photography? Obviously, there are times when you wouldn't use it, but what are those, and how do you recognize them? Technique goals have you out shooting, thus there is usually an "I need to shoot this much and this often and get this much right" type of measurement that you can apply to testing whether you meet such goals.
- Quality goals. The most subjective of all, but photography is made to be viewed, so unless you're consistently getting those oohs and aahs from every shot you take, your audience is telling you that you might not be as good as you think you are. Quality goals are hard to set, but here's the hint: use comparisons. If there's a picture your spouse loves that you took, see if you can top that (i.e. shoot something he/she loves better). If you've not gotten above honorable mention in photo competitions, shoot higher (I recommend a shot right between the judge's eyes; just kidding). If five people asked for a copy of your shot from the last family shindig, you'll know you've reached a higher quality if ten ask next time. In other words, in order to set a quality goal you need to first be able to pinpoint where you are (that in itself is a useful goal, by the way).
- Quantity goals. The easiest to make and count (usually). Still, it's important. One reason why pros shoot so well is that they shoot often. How do you get to the art gallery? Practice, practice, practice. How do you get published? Practice, practice, practice (and then sell, sell, sell). Quantity goals work best when there's quality of some sort attached to them. Anyone can say, "well, I shot 5000 images this year, next year I'll shoot for 10,000." It's a little different to say "I got three honorable mentions this year, next year I'll shoot for six honorable mentions and higher."
I'm going to suggest one other type of goal that extends over multiple types: the fix my weakness goal. Do you take photos that are technically competent but lack emotion? Or do you take pictures that immediately evoke a reaction but are technically deficient? If you fall into one of those two camps, make a goal of keeping the part that works and elevating your capability on the other.
One question I sometimes ask at workshops is "why do you take pictures?" Seems like an ice breaker question, right? Well, it isn't. It's actually something that links to all of the above. Most of the time I get vague answers or even outright silence, usually because the participant has never really confronted the question before and has no specific photographic goals. Sometimes I get parroted answers, like the Galen-esque "I want to communicate what I experienced in this place to the rest of the world." Do you know what your answer is? It actually makes a difference to your goal(s), doesn't it?
To be useful, goals should:
- Be specific. "Take six photos." A specific count. "Print them at two-feet." A specific action with a specific parameter. "Sell them." Another specific action. "Be better than before." The word "better" in this context is not terribly specific. By the time I actually get the process under way I'll have defined that word to be much more specific.
- Have a time limit. Goals with no fixed time period have a way of being unmet. Perpetually. It's easy to say, "oh, I'll get to that next week" if you don't have a deadline. Next week never arrives, at least for your goal.
- Be measurable. Did I take six photos or five? In a year or two years? Did I print them at two feet or 19"? Did I break down and have a lab print them or did I do it myself? Did I sell all the prints I made at the price I set or did I have some left over or perhaps have to reduce the price to sell out? Did I match the specifics I gave to the word "better" or did I fall short? The only way you know if you attained a goal is if you can measure against it (keep reading).
- Be communicated. Not communicating a goal to at least one other person is like making a prediction on the future but not telling anyone. It doesn't count when your prediction comes true, because no one knew you predicted it. Likewise, goals tend to be the same. The coward's way out is to not communicate your goals to anyone else. This gives you wiggle room to save face if you don't meet them. But you're making a classic mistake if you do this: you're making the assumption that not meeting a goal is somehow a badge of shame. No, it just means you didn't meet the goal. Either you keep trying to meet that goal, or you set a slightly less ambitious goal next time. The fate of the world doesn't rest on whether you meet your photographic goal, so there's no shame in not meeting it. Indeed, there's a lot to be learned by not meeting it. You may have thought you could progress faster than you can, now you have a better sense of the rate at which you can. You may have underestimated the task, next time you won't. Many "overnight sensations" failed miserably for quite some time before they finally broke through. It's better to earn your 15 minutes of fame than to luck into it. That's because it might last more than 15 minutes if you worked at achieving it.
- Be ambitious. It's not only okay to set your goal high, but it's also important to the whole process. It's only when your goals are above what you're comfortable of achieving that you progress. Say your goal was to wake up every morning and eat breakfast. Not a very high goal, is it (and when you fail, so what, you won't be around to take the blame ;~)? Everyone reading this has achieved at least half that goal every day so far, so why would tomorrow be any different? Now if the goal were to get up an hour earlier than usual and use that extra time to write the next great novel, now we're getting somewhere. Very few people achieve higher than they aspire. Read that again. Very few people achieve higher than they aspire. The very best achieve almost as high as they aspire, and they aspire higher than the rest of us. Those without goals or with goals that aren't ambitious enough, will constantly be frustrated at not achieving what they aspire.
- Be realistic. While I just said set your goals high, they also need to be within the realm of achievable or else you'll eventually get frustrated and just give up. The monkey has to see the banana to reach for it. Don't put your banana in a locked room underwater miles offshore unless you're a Navy Seal by the name of Houdini.
- Be evaluated. At the end of your time limit, you look at whether you met the measurements and specifics you set. This is a pass/fail class that is repeatable without penalty, so don't be afraid. If you met your goals, great, you set them too low and can be more ambitious next time (congratulations on making it another rung up the ladder). If you partially met your goals, you're doing fine, and you know that you set them about right (congratulations on getting partway up the ladder). If you didn't meet your goals, you're still doing okay because now you know that you tackled more than you could handle and you'll either have to dedicate more time and energy to the effort or set slightly less ambitious goals that you can achieve with the resources you can throw at them (congratulations on finding the ladder and trying to climb it). It's okay to climb the ladder slowly and rung by rung. It's the old tale of the hare and the tortoise: sheer speed isn't necessarily the winner.
So what are you doing still reading this article? You've got some goal-tending to do. Start with some easy, short-term, and small-scale goals ("Learn the Lightroom shortcut keys this week"). With just a little bit of brain-grease you should quickly produce a longish list of that type of goal you can set deadlines and measurements for. Pick a couple and start.
Meanwhile, be looking for medium-scale ("Get all my existing images keyworded and metatagged in Lightroom before the next big shoot") and large-scale ("Talk National Geographic into a photo assignment this year and nail it") goals. You'll be surprised at how focused and sharp you become as a photographer (yes, I know there are puns and word twists all over this article; live with it, as it's getting late tonight and I have a goal of finishing this piece before...).