Things to think about when your work seems worthless.


Spoiler Alert:  Although this post begins on a down note, everything will work out.  Also, no pictures; just observations and thoughts.

In the summer of 2012 and again this summer (2013) I was in a photography funk.  I became reluctant to get out and shoot.  I thought that the world didn’t need another image of the ocean or the dunes, let alone another blog post on that subject.  I had doubts about the worth of my work in general, thinking of it as a lot of banal images….another sunset/sunrise, waterfall, flower scene, mountain stream, sea birds, and of course jetties, beaches and waves.

Part of the problem is that I tend to work only a couple of small farms:  the Medford Leas campus and the Beach Haven shore.  It seemed to me that those cows are giving less and less milk.  Colleagues have ventured to other locales from coast to coast and to other continents, and returned with dramatic and beautiful images.  The great landscape photographers are beating the bushes of Iceland, Patagonia, and Namibia in search of new scenes, and returning with exquisite work.  I haven’t done anything like that for three years, and the idea of packing and transporting to such locales becomes less and less appealing because of my age.  Ennui has arrived.

I look at the work of distinguished landscape/nature photographers with some of whom I have done productive and enjoyable workshops.  Magnificent as it is, I see a sameness in their work.  We’ve all seen the dramatic (sunrise) (sunset) behind magnificent mountains with (rocks) (flowers) in the foreground.  We’ve all seen the dramatic (sunrise) (sunset) behind awesome rocks emerging from the far sea while the tide rushes silkily over the (beach) (small rocks) in the foreground.   A few weeks ago I received an email  touting the sender’s workshops with four superb images but they were all of the type I’ve just described.  I’ve made the point; to go further would invite having a contract placed on me.

So, I’m doing the same old thing and others are doing the same old thing.  What’s to be done? First I did a hard review of my work.  Over the past 14 years of digital photography I have set aside images which I liked very, very much.  I went through them again, individually, and culled some more.  Then I grouped them in categories.  I found that a third were of beaches, bay scenes, jetties, sailing and water birds.  Yep, too much time on the beach.  Next were sun/moon rises/sets at 15% and flowers, shrubs and trees at 14%.  Lakes, streams and waterfalls trailed at 6% and landscapes were only 5%.  This was not the result of careful planning over 14 years; it just happened that way.

Be they as they may, I enjoyed looking at the images, and I began to feel that I have done some very nice work over the years.  There are several club-competition award winners.  Not a lot because I’m still learning how to shoot and post-process for judges.  There are several that have won awards in other competitions.  There’s the one biggie that was one of 25 runners-up in a competition with 10,000 entries.  Felt good about that.  Maybe I should continue shooting.

But what?  There’s still that nagging question:  does the world need another sunrise over the ocean, or high fall clouds over the beach, or a silky waterfall rushing thru moss-covered rocks past a blooming trillium, or another Great Blue Heron pose?  Well, I decided, the world probably doesn’t need it, but I do!   I need the joy of capturing something that I see as beautiful or graceful or stirring or peaceful or dramatic.  It also occurred to me that if the great landscape painters, e.g. the Hudson Valley School, had quit after their first painting of the valley there would be a great void of enjoyable scenes.

So, having become my own cheerleader it was time to damn the ennui and get out there!  I opted to return to the mountains, Bear Mountain, the Catskills, and then the Adirondacks.  I drove off with trepidation in the car with me.  I was going back to things I’ve photographed before.  Would it be more of the same thing?  Well, by the first hour atop Bear Mountain, shooting a five-image, wide-angle panorama of the Hudson, Bergie was back.  The rest of the week was just as much fun and just as satisfying.  Yes, I went back to a waterfall in the Catskills that I and other club members have tried to capture many times.  I did again and it was a pleasure.  Best shot ever!  Then off to Ausable Chasm and the hike through the chasm and the ride down the white water, just as the family and I had done over forty years ago.  Then to my favorite spot (4th time) at Lake Placid for some great sunsets over the lake, and great views from Whiteface Mountain.  Great fun, great shots.

Now, right near the end of writing this essay  (yes, right here) came the last stage of my recovery.  I looked out and saw the fog begin to creep across the bay and marshes.  Down at the club this weekend were the “big boats”, the large cat-boats referred to as A-cats.  I wondered what they’d look like in the morning fog, and I drove there and found out.  I was excited, and happy with the results!  Did I capture any prize winners?  I doubt it.  Is there one that might sell to a lover of these historic boats?  Maybe.  But the point is that    don’t   care.    The thing was worth doing for itself.  I’ll enjoy looking at the images and remembering the moment, and I hope some others will enjoy them when I put them on-line.

Memo To Me:  (1) Study the work of others; work to learn and improve but have confidence in yourself,  (2) Get out there and shoot and go back again and shoot it again because the more perfect image can still be made, and (3) Enjoy what you’re doing or get a new avocation.

OK, one image at least.

_MG_6934 400


 Excelsior, and Damn the Ennui!



  1. Diane Morton Says:

    You are spot on Ralph! I will email you my thoughts later…. and thanks for sharing!

  2. Ken Curtis Says:

    Hi Ralph. A very interesting introspective. I was glad to read your revival at the end, it is the right attitude, get out there and just do it.

    I imagine we all go through low periods where we think our work is redundant to others, not the fine art we strive for, or just not “perfect” yet. I know that I am somewhat in one of those stages myself, and clawing my way out. I would be willing to bet that every one of the fine photographers you’ve read about or know has gone through similar feelings, thoughts and stages in their photography life. I found your writing interesting because it helped me know that I am not alone.

    If your growth as a photographer is anything similar to mine, then you know that your work increments in plateaus. It isn’t a linear curve that always rises higher as time goes by, but increases, then stabilizes until some time in the future when you have another eureka moment.

    I too have noticed the proliferation of similar photographs, no matter where you look, magazines, club competitions, Internet, Facebook, etc. It means we are no longer exclusive as more and more people take up photography as a hobby or possibly a career. I think the impact is that we need to keep trying to find unique opportunities to keep a step ahead, whether it is unique lighting on an old familiar scene or a new place to go explore.

    If I were you, I would give up worrying about winning any camera club competitions. I’m not saying do not enter them with your best work, but I am saying don’t worry if you do not get an award. As much as I enjoy our camera club, the most benefit is from the friends I’ve developed over the years, and picking up a tip now and then. You know very well that you can not please all the judges all the time. Every one of them has their own biases. There is no right or wrong in this game. I’ve also found judges who concentrate on the rules more than the art, and vice versa. So why try to please them. Take satisfaction in your work, and consider any awards won as a bonus.

    There are a lot of good photographers out there in the world. From what I’ve seen of your work, you are one of them. Take pleasure in knowing you may not be valedictorian, but you are at the top of your class!

    My two cents worth.

  3. fiebs Says:

    There is always so much beauty and wisdom in your images and your posts. Thank you for this. It’s one I know I’ll come back to again when I feel myself sliding into the creative slump I think all artists must experience. Excelsior!

  4. Bonnie Says:

    I agree with so much you have said here it is scary! I am always looking for new things to shoot, something no one else has seen first, but I often find that I often end up shooting a nature shot of some sort. You made me think about it and I realize it’s because I love nature. When I see a shot of a beautiful sunset or sunrise, I don’t think ‘just another shot of the same thing’. Knowing that the colors I see actually do exist, it makes me happy. Birds and critter flying and romping make me happy. Beautiful landscape shots amaze me. I will always be looking for that perfect shot, but in the meantime, I am just going to enjoy the life around me. Glad you are too.

  5. Pat Worley Says:

    Hi Ralph,

    We have all been where you are now. Bored, unfulfilled in our work, looking for the next exciting location. Sometimes, I think if I shoot another picture of a flower I am going to explode. But then…I do take another shot of a flower and feel satisfied… and I think I know why.

    What I have found out about myself is that my favorite part of photography is taking the photo. I process images only when I have to; for competitions, exhibits, because my daughter is bugging me. The act of capturing an image is very therapeutic for me. Since time can be limited and I need my therapy on a regular basis, I find myself going to the same places over and over again. I try to come up with different ways to capture the same scene. I will often set little goals for myself; use a different lens, shoot from a different perspective or try a new technique. But since nature is nature, the ‘flower’ is different every time anyway. It may be in a new phase, the colors may have changed or the weather is different. Thus, making the old seem new again.

    So continue to go to your favorite places and don’t feel bad about not venturing off to new and exotic places. Focus what makes you happy when the camera is in your hand and each outing will become a new adventure!

  6. Terry Wilson Says:

    Great essay, and echoes my thoughts exactly. I’ve recently leased office space and now have tons of wall space. I can’t wait to fill it with black frames of photos that I can switch out from time to time. Maybe I don’t win awards and maybe my favorite shots have only sold once (if ever) on iStock. But I took them because I thought the subject was beautiful. I took them for me. They’ll go on my wall now and I can remember being there and can share with anyone who comes over.

  7. MikeP Says:

    Whoa… had me worried at first…. glad you included that first statement. I almost do not know how to respond, I had to let it sink in more. Been there many times… I actually have to overcome these feelings when I go on a trip or first start to shoot. I try not to think in terms of how to shoot it differently or better because then the photo demons can really rest on your shoulders. Thanks to you and Denise, the exposure and ws on blogs came at the right time. I needed to share my work, and not 1 pic at a time. Our club provides me with an outlet but I only get to show a small fraction of what I shoot yearly. Lately… meet-up groups have given me more amps in my battery. I see what interests me and I go with them to shoot it…. not a perfect fix but then again what drug is 🙂
    Thanks Ralph for being there when I fall of the wagon!!!!

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