What makes a "successful" image? Good question. You need to start by defining "success," which means different things to different people. As somebody who makes his living with landscape images, there must be a financial consideration to my image capture, which means I can't be satisfied with a "merely" beautiful scene--there must be something that sets an image apart from all the other images of the same scene. Of course I don't always succeed, but that's a primary goal whenever I venture out with my camera.
But there's another equally important goal motivating me: to simply please myself. When I decided to make photography my livelihood, I made a very conscious decision to shoot only what I want to shoot, even if that means leaving money on the table. I see many photographers, both pros and amateurs, sap the joy from this wonderful endeavor they once loved by shooting solely to make money, or to please others. For me shooting for myself first means no people in my landscapes, no weddings, no portraits, or pretty much anything else that moves (not even wildlife).
Given that I consciously shoot to please myself, I've been very fortunate that the images that make me happy usually please others too. I think other like seeing new things, or familiar things in a new way, so much of my professional success likely stems from the fact that I get little personal satisfaction from repeating what others have done. When photographing familiar subjects I enjoy putting myself on location during unique and/or spectacular conditions, and trying to render the scene in a new and compelling way.
Finding uniqueness in a familiar setting also requires not getting so locked on the scene in front of you that you miss other things happening around you. Last January I brought my Death Valley / Mt. Whitney workshop group to the Alabama Hills to photograph the moon setting behind Mt. Whitney at sunrise. The morning was a huge success as the moon, clouds, and light converged above Mt. Whitney and delivered a truly breathtaking scene.
But what was lost to many photographing the "main event" in the west were these amazing zig-zag clouds in the southern sky just as the day's first rays skimmed the prominent granite outcrops. I called to everyone in earshot (people tend to scatter out here), then quickly exposed, composed, and squeezed off several frames before the light cooled. There really wasn't time to analyze my composition, so I let my intuitive brain take over. Not until I viewed that morning's images at home did I fully register the repeating diagonals throughout the frame--the zig-zag cloud, the distant ridges, the faint, Z-shaped outline of the road to Horseshoe Meadow, and the slanting foreground shadows--that give me the sense that what I witnessed will never be exactly duplicated.
Whether or not this image becomes a huge financial success for me, it will always be personally successful as a reminder of the thrill I experienced when I saw this. And the day I lose the ability to be thrilled by these unexpected gifts of nature is the day I need to find another profession.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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