I look back at past work to see how I've come as a photographer and wonder: what's changed in the 15 years since I started taking photographs professionally? How can I use my previous body of work to improve and give me confidence for what is to come?
This might sound like a cryptic title, so let me just give you a little context. Recently, a previous wedding client contacted me to tell me that, sadly, her grandfather had passed away. She asked if I had any other pictures of him from her wedding that they could use to remember him and show at his funeral. I duly looked through my wedding backups, found the event in the 2016 folder, and as I’d saved all the raw, unedited images both on my NAS and in the cloud in addition to those edited and delivered, I proceeded to send the client a few newly edited, previously unseen images of her beloved grandfather. She was delighted, and I was happy that images previously kept in storage has the opportunity to be seen. Job completed, I then made the common mistake of looking through old weddings and started down the rabbit hole of analyzing my previous work from as early as 2008 onwards, with varying levels of personal embarrassment.
Doing this brought me to a funny realization. I’ve improved significantly since those photos were taken and edited, not just in my shooting and editing process and the style employed, but also my eye for detail. Images that I’d previously delivered I looked at, cringing with the “How did I miss the distraction in the background?” and “What was I thinking in terms of filters and vignettes added to these images?”
This experience also gave me a realization that having a pernicious attitude to your previous work doesn’t help you appreciate how far you’ve come on your journey as a photographer. It also made me feel motivated for the future, willing to accept change going forward, and to not be afraid of it when it pops its head up in the form of opportunity and realisation.
Why Look Back? What’s the Benefit?
For me, selecting and re-editing a handful of older images that I liked (and delivered to the client) at the time meant using my more modern style, experience, and technique. With my more learned eye for detail, I hoped for better results. I’ve included some of those with the original images in this article along with the re-edits, and I hope you’ll forgive me for my previous work. Taking into consideration that so much has changed since 2008 (I was shooting with a Canon 40D and a 400D as my backup camera, a cheap flashgun that I hardly ever used as I was a “natural light photographer,” and little to no experience).
I think I did well at the time, but almost 200 weddings later, the difference is clear to me and hopefully will be to you too. This also gave me a lot more images to use in my future advertising whether it was venues I’d previously photographed at that I hadn’t done in a while or quirky images of couples that I liked. There were a few that were worth saving.
Also, seeing how my style has changed dramatically from all those years ago was amazing. To be able to analyze it properly, I really had to question what fundamentally is style and did I even ever have it? All I can say is that for me, it is an amalgamation of everything I’ve seen, learned, experienced, and tried to replicate to varying degrees of success in my job as a photographer. Photos, training, techniques, and color palettes I liked stuck with me, and those that I’ve tried that didn’t work got left by the wayside. I now use far fewer filters, actions, and presets, and those that I do tend to use are of my own design and follow the color palette that best represents my brand portfolio, making it consistent and recognizable. I shoot with newer cameras (Canon R6 and an EOS R) and almost always use off camera flash or additional lighting when it’s needed. The only true way to define your style, in my opinion, is to read every relevant photography book and article and attempt to capture lots of different people, genres, and things, but most importantly, don’t be afraid to fail. Fail fast, fail hard, fail often. With no failure, there is no improvement.
I also try to read everything related to photography I can get my hands on, learning from others' experience.
When it comes to learning from others, I’ve found in my experience that while there are many companies out there that offer guaranteed results, you’re always better off looking for who is the best photographer in your genre and seeing if they offer training courses. I learned headshots from Peter Hurley in person and weddings from Roberto Valenzuela. Sure, it was way more expensive than some of the courses online for just £99, but I learned from someone with actual experience doing the job who would be considered a leader in their genre.
Lastly, the main reason was to see what advantage modern software and to some extent hardware has given me. With major improvements to Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom and the new masking tools being so incredibly impressiv, images that I’d previously discarded as not up to standard can now come to life and breathe with the magic of modern technology. I may even resend them to the client, but then there’s the whole debate of if the client would think that they got a substandard product in the first place. I suspect the answer to that is they got exactly what they paid for, especially as my prices have increased exponentially since I first started. I now use a calibrator and have done so since 2016, and all of my screens and workspaces are calibrated to the same color gamut. My experience has improved from all the books read and experience from weddings, commercial, and headshot work completed.
My Final Thoughts
So, my takeaway from this is if you want to feel great about what you’ve managed to achieve in your photography career and also as a measure of what you’ve learned since you started, compare your current and past work as a good gauge to demonstrate how much you’ve improved. Looking back at your past work can be a worthwhile exercise in the constant struggle for improvement.