There is a vast array of skills in photography that we must work on to improve. The usual suspects that are rolled out in educational articles and videos are composition, mastery of settings, and techniques such as long exposure. But, if you are truly serious about photography, there's another pursuit that runs as an undercurrent below every other skill and morsel of knowledge: consistency.
Consistency is the beating heart of successful photographers, and it is absurdly difficult to truly achieve — that is, to be capable of creating images of the same quality, time and time again, with few to no misses. It's difficult to work on consistency other than putting in the hours, deliberate practice, and self-reflection, but there is one way.
A Great Photo Doesn't Make You a Great Photographer
In the summer of 2012, I created the above image at 3 am on a quiet road near a friend's house. The table, the phone, and the pencil sharpener on the left of the image were all antiques and accidentally ruined. The umbrella was so severely melted that it served no purpose at all after this frame, and the suit took a few hits, too. On the drive home, I had to swerve off the road to put out a fire in my car's passenger footwell after the huge wheel of steel wool I had bought caught fire again. It was a truly chaotic shoot to bring to life a chaotic idea in the form of a chaotic image.
This was the first image I took that saw any true success. It was featured in several exhibitions, including in Times Square, New York, and the Louvre, Paris. It was selected for multiple awards and features, it was plagiarized, its copyright was repeatedly infringed, and I sold limited edition prints to collectors. I do not see it as a great image, particularly not after 11 years of looking at it, but by most metrics, it probably qualifies. What's important to note here, however, is that I was not a great photographer — I'd argue I'm still not.
The image involved a reasonable amount of planning and a good idea, but most importantly, a lot of luck; I was still pretty new to photography and there were many guesses involved. In all honesty, I captured an image way above my station and couldn't replicate its originality or quality. I learned that the hallmark of a great photographer is consistently being able to create high-end results, but the hallmark of a good photographer is being able to consistently create good results, too. I knew I wasn't the former, but how could I become the latter?
Why You Should Create a Series of Photographs
If you are inexplicably a devout reader of mine and have a great memory, you may recall I have written about this some years back, but I didn't truly understand the importance. I knew that creating a series of photographs taught you valuable skills, and I even had a sense of what those skills were, but I wanted to revisit the topic with new eyes.
Creating a series of photographs means creating multiple images that share something — a theme, a subject, a style, etc. There should be something that ties all the images together, a thread that runs through them all and makes them identifiable as part of that series. This is significantly more difficult than it sounds and requires planning and forethought to pull off.
The important consideration here is that the series doesn't have to be high art, it just has to be a coherent and consistent collection. Although I was very fond of my headshot series six or seven years ago, now it looks plain and uninspiring to me. Nevertheless, it is a coherent collection where each image clearly derives from the same series, although I can find myriad faults.
I knew I had to start simple with my first series, and so I decided to do a headshot series, in macro, of insects. I got two worthy images in six months and aborted the idea, vowing to stick to true simplicity this time. I decided to create a natural-looking headshot series of people, always face-on, always neutral expressions, and always the same depth of field. After I had roped a few friends into standing in front of my camera, I realized that the consistency had to flow through everything; I had to keep the crop the same, the post-processing the same, and the mystical "feel" of the image. I soon ran into problems I hadn't even considered: to have a uniform series, I wanted to have each subject's head around the same percentage of the frame. The problem? People have vastly differently sized heads. You cannot replicate the same pose, crop at the same point below the shoulders and at the top of the head, shoot from the same distance, and have the head take up the same amount of real estate.
I learned far more from creating a relatively bland series than I had from the many other shoots I had performed. Everything had to be considered, and sloppiness led to images that didn't fit in the series (which happened a handful of times). I was no longer snapping away with a rough notion of what I wanted to capture. Instead, I was carefully trying to recreate an image over and over, in different conditions, with different subjects.
So, this is my call to all photographers, new and veteran, who have never tried to create a series of images: do it. It doesn't have to be National Geographic-worthy, or warrant its own exhibition — you don't even have to publish the results. What it teaches you is the invaluable skill of consistency and what it takes to achieve it.
If you've created a photo series, please share it in the comments below. I'd love to see them!