When successes break the rules

I write this entry without necessarily coming from the greatest position of strength within the photographic world. Everlook photography is well known enough to have a voice in the photographic community without being one that is ‘revered’ or considered ‘big shot’. I feel that we still rely on rules to convey images in an aesthetically pleasing manner. I do however , write this piece from a position in my ‘real’ profession where the importance of being a good role model has far more at stake than in the photographic world. The questions I would like you to raise today regarding photography are these. What constitutes success  for you? What importance do you place on following rules? And lastly, how much do you care about what kind of role model you are?

First place in 2010 according to art of nature. Far from first place in my mind.

Success is such a vague and varied term in any field let alone an artistic one. For me success comes at many levels. Firstly, there is  success defined by a personal sense of satisfaction that one has created a work of art. It doesn’t have to be a one that others will necessarily appreciate but quite often is. This type of success tends to give one an internal feeling of pride but when not matched with popularity, can also be a source of angst for some. Particularly those with a fragile self esteem. Then, there is  success as defined by popular acclaim such on social media sharing sites. This type success is often claimed to be ‘meaningless’ and phrases such as ‘selling out’ and ‘caving to masses’ start to come into play. Predictably, these claims tend to be made from peer review and those within the industry rather than external consumers eg. novice photographers and general public viewing these ‘successful’ images.  Then there is success as judged by one’s own peers in a discipline. This level of success is prone to certain trends and also tends to push photographers into practices such as not publishing their best works or modifying images to suit certain competitions.

A modified image for 2011 Better Photography competition

At a photographic level, it is often the intimate detailed takes on a scene that one derives the most satisfaction from creating . The bold, dramatic , very polished and processed images tend to attract the most popular attention. While lastly, the peer reviewed success tend to be at the whim of the flavour of the month within judging circles. Do all three sources of success align? Most certainly at times. Do they need to be mutually exclusive? Certainly not! Over and above this, most people place varying degrees of emphasis on each type of success and some will ardently argue the point about one being more important than the other. For me, internal and popular successes are more important than critical acclaim. When critical acclaim comes, we naturally still lap it up! What balance you choose is entirely up to your own internal need for fulfilment. Unfortunately, I find that many of the more successful photographers tend to relate to successes as it applies to them rather than those who are following and reading their every word. Discussions are quite often  for the ‘already’ successful and often not as applicable to those seeking success or a role model to emulate.

An icon, as formulaic as it gets but I still like the image more than at other attempts to vary .

There are many rules in photography ranging from compositional aids, to using methods of focusing, using appropriate apertures, the ‘right’ way to blend exposures etc etc. Are these important? To a photographer learning the trade who may not have a natural eye to begin with, and with limited post processing experience – almost certainly. While this leads to rather ‘formulaic’ compositions of foreground object of interest with leading lines to a dramatic backdrop with wide angled compositions (as an example) there’s nothing wrong with this type of image depending on how one judges success. Currently, at the stage I am at, I am sentient enough to realise that this type of image will likely be popular if processed in the right way (with certain other popular techniques) but will be an image that I silently ‘ho hum’ at simply because I haven’t felt as though I have achieved anything personally. I may have not achieved one level of success internally but externally, popular success is still a driving factor to keep  me spending my free time exploring and shooting. There , I’ve admitted it and to phrase this alternatively,  “Hi there, my name is Dylan Toh and I have played the popularity game on flickr, what’s your story?”. So, should I be actively avoiding ‘rules’ in order to create something original and should that be my only aim? My answer is no for this one reason: formula and internal success are still not mutually exclusive. There are many scenes where I feel I can break from the usual wide angle composition and have been doing so with more confidence. But likewise there are many scenes where the tried and true formulas still result in the most pleasing result even to my own internal ‘success’ meter. It’s one thing to consider alternatives to the norm, another to exclude them from consideration entirely for the sake of excluding them.

Shooting at longer focal length gave me a great sense of satisfaction AND it happened to be a popular image too 😉 Win win!

My last point of discussion relates to the inevitable transition to becoming a willing or unwilling mentor if success occurs. I don’t take any personal issue with those who feel confident enough in their work to be making bold statements along the lines of composition meaning nothing , or that formulas should not be followed. In fact these statements are made from a position of great strength and are usually backed up by incredible portfolios which speak true. But, remember that those reading the posts are usually far from that level of proficiency and the message may well be interpreted in a different manner. Many readers are the stage of ‘portfolio building’ and are trying to achieve a form of success through emulation. A degree of ‘idol worship’ mindset occurs whereby anything that one’s idol states is affirmed with comments of adulation and adoration. To this day, I feel that neither Marianne nor I have achieved a level of photographic success which leaves us satisfied but we do realise that we have a fan base of sorts. To that degree, I feel there is some responsibility on our part to speak to those following us at all levels of proficiency.

A personal favourite but not an image I expect to be popular.

My final messages of advice are these: Firstly, in order to arrive at the point of breaking rules successfully, one needs to first be familiar with the basic rules from which the successes were built in the first place.  Secondly, for those who are already proficient and do not require a conscious application of photographic rules, there’s no reason why a formula might not ‘still’ be the most effective way to capture a scene.

I look forward to some discussion ! If you have any thoughts , please share below in the comments.



Posted on February 14, 2014, in How we..., Photography, Random Musings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Well-written and thoughtful article, Dylan. What I am missing there (and perhaps it is implied) is where the photography, art, or creativity is actually coming from. So many artists (and photography is probably the most rapidly growing art in popularity) are seeking to achieve either popular acclaim or commercial success, and tailor their efforts to these aims. Not only in following rules or formula, but even to copying compositions, and treading very worn paths to over-photographed iconic locations (Iceland springs to mind). Rather than embarking on an inner journey in tandem with an outer one, to explore a connection at a deep level, with the natural world….like for instance the work of Murray Fredericks Photographer, whose “photographs are not just sublime pictures of a remote and surreal location – they are still points that punctuate a journey of the mind and spirit.” To me at least, the latter path is more personally rewarding, more authentic, has more artistic validity, and overflows with incredible power.

    • Thanks for commenting here Hillary 🙂 I find I derive the muse for all manner of artistic things when there is a deep chord struck somewhere. In photography, I feel my best work is from the hikes we’ve done and not ‘touristic’ icons. That’s probably because in some way, the energy I’m feeling from the scene is translated on a screen. While others may find different images appealing, those I mentioned will always be more precious to me (eg. Lake Mackenzie, Angelus Hut, Motukiekie)

    • Everyone explores their creativity in their own way, it is as unique an act as the way we carry ourselves as human beings, our thoughts and mannerisms. So what if an artist walks down a trodden path? Ultimately they’ll find something they’re looking for, it’s about it being the personal journey, to do what satisfies you.

      In response to Dylan, success for most is measured on how well-known they are, or the monetary aspects. I myself find that success is based on a fluctuating idealism for my creative practice, encompassing both my written work and my visual images, based on how content I feel at the time with my growing portfolio. My practice is my escapism, the seeking out of a zen-like state. My mon-fri is a stressful stirring pot of demanding people, so when I can, I escape into the wilderness to be alone with my camera.

      Of course, there needs to be a following to justify the reasons I do what I do. Having that means it’s not just egotistical. Whatever reason, as human’s we’re hard wired to want to win friends or esteem, in our chosen fields.

      • Mel, I think the sooner we realise that ‘hard wiring’ you mention and recognise it for it’s good points (driving us to succeed) and its bad points (obsession, losing focus etc), the more we can head in the direction we initially intended. I’m in your shoes with the M-F stress and release photographically on weekends and vacations. Others however, need to make it their muse day in day out and their point of view would be probably be more aligned with how we view our M-F jobs I suspect.

  2. Hi Dylan,

    Very well-considered and thoughtful points that you make.

    In modern success stories much more is often made of the maverick – the individual who bucked the system, broke the rules and achieved success.
    However little is made of the fact that these people, while they certainly exist, are the exception rather than the commonplace story. And even for those people it is often possible to see how their success is often as much a product of the environment, time period or situation that they developed in as themselves (I’m thinking Jobs & Gates for example).

    I also suspect that in many circumstances that too much is made of innate talent (after all if you are ‘special’ and/or ‘gifted’, then surely you won’t need to do any hard work to succeed) – but any sportsperson, artist or scholar can tell you that innate talent will only get you started. The world is full of talented but unsuccessful people, who lacked the drive or willingness to develop their innate talents.

    What gets you over that success finish line, more often than not, is the work that you put into developing any talent that you have. The ‘10,000 hour’ rule really does exist and as that rule states, it takes sustained and focused time, effort and practice to achieve lasting success in your chosen field (and frankly more than a little luck as well sometimes).


    • No substitute for hard work except for the freakishly talented and the incredibly lucky! Even then, the work to maintain standards is required. For the rest of us mere mortals, working hard to get there through a sound base is what we have to live with 🙂 Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Thanks for the post it was a good read Dylan.

  4. once again, amazing

  5. You certainly have put a lot of thought into it, a lot more than myself anyways (not a bad or good thing). I guess my perspective of what “successful” is – is a more selfish one. I’ve never taken any formal photography courses/lessons and learned everything on my own. In fact, what drives me in photography is the passion to be outdoors, and see and been in beautiful places on our planet. I also have a passion for trying to capture that scene, and I am lucky enough that people buy my work (in the form of prints), and that has grown to the point where I was able to quit my full time job (and career of 17 years) in IT. It supports my wife and two kids, mortgage, and enables me to spend full time – getting out to do what I love: being outside in beautiful landscapes and capturing them. I honestly don’t go by any “rules” – I go, shoot, and share, print and sell. Some people like it, others don’t, and I don’t really care if they don’t. I mean, who makes the “rules” anyways? Especially when it comes to the stuff like “selling out” or what other photographers think – I don’t care. How can it affect my life anyways – what someone else I don’t know thinks of my composition style and light? So by the most part, I just ignore them and focus more on what I love doing. Getting awards, etc, to me is part of the marketing aspect of the support system (the business) which enables me to do what I love. There is a lot of hard work too to make it a business and earn revenue, don’t get me wrong. Building social media is the same – marketing and business. So at the end of the day, instead of working in an office (which I did for almost two decades), my office is the outdoors, and I can support my family while doing that. Perhaps that is selfish? Perhaps, but hey, it’s better to me than the alternative.

    So my perspective and opinion is: go out and enjoy what you do. Follow your passion and don’t give two #$@SS about what others think. There are no “rules” because the “rules” are based on opinion anyways so do they have any real meaning? There will always be whiners, complainers and naysayers – just ignore them.


  6. hey

    love the shot with the leaf in the foreground. stunning

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: