Photography projects versus single images

For the last seven years I have been making pictures and posting them online, one by one.
I get a good satisfaction from making pictures. Then when I captured a decent photograph, I usually rushed home and imported that picture to my computer – then quickly post-processed it and uploaded it on Flickr, 500px, DeviantArt, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, on the blog, on Linkedin… I probably forgot to mention a few websites but you probably get my point.

I guess we’ve all experienced this to a certain degree? Then after the image upload and publishing is done – the process of just sitting there by the computer and waiting for the comments, the ratings, the favorites and the “great shot” and “voted !!!” comments fly in as you refresh your web browser. Oh yes, job well done! The photograph was great! … Or was it?

It was probably a decent photograph – but would it be a better photograph if it was shown in a set with several images that together tell a story, shows an entire event, or in a complete album of that specific travel or place? Most probably.

After I attended the Street Photography Workshop with Eric Kim and Adam Marelli a few months ago I decided to stop publishing as many single images as I had done previously. The main reason behind this change is thanks to Eric Kim and Adam Marelli. They encouraged every participant of the workshop to work with projects rather than single images, and to use a long time to edit the photographs and decide which images should be published and which shouldn’t.

I decided to make my first try at a project from the material I gathered at the street photography workshop. We were in Venice, Verona, Negrar and Lazise over a period of one week. During this week I took about 1500 street photographs. After the workshop was finished we got one last assignment – pick your 3 best photographs from the entire workshop and send them in to us so we can evaluate them. I sat there and like… Heh huh? 3 out of 1500? Ok… This is going to take a while.

Using Adobe Lightroom I browsed through all the photographs and flagged every photograph that I thought was good for further editing. After going through all the 1500 photographs I had 556 (a number I won’t forget for a while) pictures flagged for further processing. And I needed the 3 best. I did another sweep of those 556 shots and got the collection down to 512 images. This is by far the most difficult task I have had to do in my seven years of having photography as a hobby. After about a week I had my three shots but I was very unsure if those shots were actually my 3 best. They could be the 3 best for me personally but not for others. Not for other people who wasn’t there and didn’t experience the scene as I did.

One of the main reasons that I found the selection part of the editing process so difficult was also because I hadn’t really done much street photography prior to attending the workshop. So for me every image was different, good and unique compared to what I had done before. The experience of the workshop was still very fresh in my mind as well, and that also influenced my editing and selection process.

I sent my 3 selected photographs to Adam and Eric and the day after I already regretted it and wished I sent some other photographs instead. I then decided that I needed to do a first attempt at a bigger project, so I decided to make a project / set called The People of Veneto and that this set should contain 36 selected images – to mimic the amount of images that fit on a roll of 35mm film. With 36 images it should be easy to pick the best images and present these as a set online, right? Wrong.

I spent weeks editing this set and deciding which images it should contain, which images should be color or black and white, and the order of the images. I decided to publish all the images to Flickr and 500px at once and I was expecting the comments, favorites, ratings and so on to fly in at an alarming rate… But no. Actually I had never had so little feedback on my uploads for a very long time. The reason? I did not add any images to any groups on Flickr, nor did I link any of the images to other websites. 500px is very single-image focused (much more so than Flickr which is also focused around single images rather than projects) so I guess nobody bothered to view 1/10 of the images that I uploaded at the same time.

You can find my entire first project / set here: The People of Veneto

I was very disappointed and immediately decided to delete my entire set on 500px. I kept it on Flickr since I see Flickr more as an archive for my photographs rather than a representation of my best work. I then decided to re-upload the set to 500px but this time I decided to upload one of the 36 images each day. This way I had 36 images – over a months worth of uploads – all prepared. And what happened? When I uploaded one and one image each day every image got a very decent amount of views, ratings, favorites, likes and so on. But when I uploaded them as a complete set I didn’t get any response. This didn’t make any sense to me, and the “great shot” comments started to become more and more meaningless once I realized that most people wasn’t really interested in the story of the entire set, but rather the technical presentation of one single image. And I realized that 70% of the comments are probably comments left by people that only leave comments on others work to get feedback on their own uploads.

At the same time I stopped uploading single images to other services as well. I stopped being interested in the feedback from every upload, everywhere. I noticed that many people wrote “great shot” or “voted !!!” or “check my image too” or something similar in my comment sections. What did that feedback give me? Well nothing basically. Whenever I leave a comment on an image I make sure to give constructive criticism and a good feedback which is related to that specific image. And I want the same back. The solution? Stop giving feedback, favorites, likes and what-not to the ones that don’t give proper feedback in return. This change was a very good change, as it freed up alot of my personal time. I didn’t get as much feedback on my own images, but did that matter? No. I don’t make images for other people – I make images mainly for myself – and everyone is free to think and mean what they want of my images.

After about 15 days into uploading my set as single images on 500px I started having second thoughts again. Did I pick the right shots to represent this project? The same doubt I got a few days after sending the best 3 shots to Eric and Adam reappeared. But I decided to stick with my selection even though I would have made some changes to my selection today, and I would also sort the images differently and probably decide to either keep the entire set as color or as black and white – and not mixed. But I learned a lot from this experience. Most importantly that I should be patient before I publish images in the future and even if I am done with a project I should still wait before I publish it. The images won’t go away – so why rush the editing and publishing process?

“You don’t understand, you should have been there”.

Seeing your images with fresh eyes is the most important thing in the editing process. And you will probably not be able to see your images with fresh eyes until at least one month after you made the images. We photographers tend to be influenced by our feelings when we pick our best photographs, but we really shouldn’t be. Even if the image means a lot to you personally it doesn’t mean that the rest of the world will see or feel what you see and feel once you publish your image. Simply put – your image might be uninteresting for others even though it really appeals to you.

Personally I have started to work on several projects this winter and I won’t publish any of the images until spring or summer next year – or until I am satisfied with the projects. I will keep publishing regular photographs that is not a part of my projects however – on my blog, 500px and flickr mainly – but I won’t publish these images to get any feedback and attention. These images will only be published simply because I want to share them with friends, family, contacts and “the world”. If someone likes them or gives me some good feedback I’ll truely appreciate it but that won’t be my main reason to share the images.

As you might know – working on single images can be very stressful, especially if you want a lot of feedback and attention. You basically have to work the social media to get the attention that you feel that you want and deserve. Personally I found this to be very exhausting after a while, and it made my interest in photography fade away – simply because it got very tiring to ride the social media wave from day-to-day. I spent more time commenting, fav’ing, liking and reading articles on the net than being out photographing. Lately I changed this. I almost never check the “Popular” lists on Flickr or 500px any more – I only follow the people that actually produce images that interest me. The shiny and technical perfect photographs on the “Popular” sections are rarely interesting. Yes, they are pretty to look at. But also quite often very empty and soulless. And I have seen thousands of squirrls now. It’s enough.

I challenge you to try working on projects yourself. It is very rewarding, and you will learn a lot from the editing process. The images won’t disappear even if you don’t upload them the same day or a few days after. The world won’t think less of the images either. Most probably you will end up being more happy with your work the longer you wait.

I also want to encourage everyone to spend less time on the social photography sites (flickr, 500px, etc) and spend more time out making photographs instead. I also find reading photography books a lot more inspiring than browsing images on the internet. You can find some incredible deals on photography books on Amazon, and there are many good photography books available on the iPad via the iBookStore and AppStore as well. If you want a list of recommendations – please feel free to contact me (see my Contact page) and I’ll send you my list.

If you have any thoughts or ideas about working with projects versus single images please leave a comment. I’d be interested to hear what your experience is.

Images: some random landscape captures from my hometown.

  • rick peterson

    if i ‘publish’ any photo, it is normally a single image on the LUF (leica users forum), either to start a thread or to add my 2 cents to an existing, long-running thread. one of the few times i posted 5-6 photos from a specific event – early sunday morning at the hamburger fish market – the response was far better, from all corners of germany, and kept the thread running for weeks.

    i like your idea of project or theme-based sets of photos rather than singles, but believe it is better to get your story started with 5+ photos to catch attention, then post additional photos as interest builds.

    i look at flickr, mostly for posted results from a lens which interests me, but haven’t yet posted any of my own. thanks for the good ideas and ‘push’ in the right direction.

    greetings from hamburg


    • Hi Rick,
      I haven’t posted to forums yet. I have mostly only used 500px and Flickr. Forums might actually be a better place to post images for good feedback indeed.

  • Great post, quite thought provoking for me as I tend to publish single “daily photos”. I particularly like your lighthouse shot 🙂

    • Thanks Ben,
      Yep, it’s a big provoking change for me as well 🙂 I guess it depends on how we prefer to work. I like the idea of projects that contain images which are connected to each other however.

      • Indeed…it requires a large amount of time however…I’m not sure I have the time alongside my studies unfortunately :/ Do you prefer b&w? Because a lots of your photos seem to be in b&w 🙂

        • Yes I really prefer black and white. My current camera (and only camera except my analog film camera) can only record images in black and white as well. So I don’t really have a choice 🙂

  • Hi Borge, thank you for sharing this post. I share the same sentiment and had realised that uploading for the sake of popularity is indeed soulless and fake in nature. Also liking a photo for the sake of a return LIKE is not healthy. It works sometime but I doubt it is genuinely not appreciated.

    That’s all from me. Cheers!

    • I totally agree with you Sallehuddin.
      On the popular websites such as Flickr and 500px it seems like it’s more about the numbers and the popularity than the photographs. That’s why I decided to stop posting as much there as I usually did.

  • typo error – doubt it is genuinely appreciated

  • I even experienced as you with the editing. I work in argentic, and to clean my eyes, I leave films 3 in 6 months on the table before developing them. Delighted to follow you.

    • Thank you, delighted to follow you as well. 3-6 months is probably a very nice time to wait to develop your films. I actually really like shooting with film myself – simply because I won’t be able to see the photographs immediately. I feel that this really helps me in the editing process. I have a bunch of films in my fridge that needs to be developed, and they have been there for like 4-5 months now 🙂 And I’m really looking forward to having them developed.

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  • Interesting post. I feel I can identify with most of your thoughts.
    Perhaps it’s a valuable thought process to consider how you view series/projects that others put onto the web. In this context, I wonder if we must also consider how people tend to browse photography. Personally, I never spend much more than a few minutes at a single sitting to look at photographs, though I may do this several times during the day. I tend to snatch moments, if you get my drift. As a consequence, I could never do justice to somebody’s project – I would be loathe to provide feedback on a set of images without fair consideration. It’s far easier (though possibly little better) for me as the viewer to provide feedback on a single image – based on it’s instantaneous impact and any notes provided by the photographer.
    As this is how I tend to browse, I prefer to suppose others will have a similar approach and therefore are also likely to pass over large project/series of images, as they just don’t have time to look at them – so I tend to post single images.
    I would also add that if I expect feedback on my images, I would expect to give feedback to others too. For me, the big question here is how much feedback to give in proportion to the number of posts I make. Logic tells me I have to give feedback significantly more than the feedback I receive, so I try to spend more time looking at others images than loading my own.
    Giving feedback on images, or at least the type of feedback I can give on an image, is always a difficult thing for me. Should I give technical feedback? What about alternative approaches? Does the photographer welcome this type of feedback? I don’t want to upset anyone. I’ve been doing this blogging thing for a few months now and I don’t think I’ve ever seen constructive criticism on the posts I’ve looked at.
    As to actually working on a series/project, I struggle with the question, ‘Should I define the project/series before I start, or is it legitimate to continually sweep my hard drive to make new series’ up’?

    • Hi Stephen,

      Thanks for your feedback. I understand what you are saying, and I usually also just look at single images on services like 500px, flickr and similar. To view projects you basically have to know and follow a photographer that is currently doing projects or themes.

      To get feedback you also have to give feedback, I totally agree. But from my own experience, atleast on the service 500px, many people just give feedback to get feedback on their own work. Many people just paste the same “excellent capture my friend” text on many images just to get some hits themself. This is very sad in my opinion, as the comments become rather worthless – at least to me.

      I would urge you to always give technical feedback. If the photographer can’t handle having his or her’s work critiqued they should never upload their work to the internet on services where everyone can leave comments and rate images. That is my personal opinion atleast.

      As for your question about how you should define projects: Both of the approaches work. Working on a theme and looking for images that fit into a theme is a very nice experience that you learn a lot from. But a lot of your previous work can possibly also be included in projects. Work that you might have disregarded previously can suddenly become a key part of a series of images, a theme or a project. Personally I’m trying to do both.

      • I suspect that a tuning fork in my head would resonate at a very similar frequency to one in yours! 😉

  • “And I realized that 70% of the comments are probably comments left by people that only leave comments on others work to get feedback on their own uploads.”

    Bingo, you nailed the “quid pro quo” syndrome that plagues online photosharing. And the reason that I have all but abandoned flickr a few months ago. I upload to flickr and use it as cheap cloud storage, so I can link the files to my blog when I blog. But I have also ceased uploading there much either. I work on projects, and when they are done, I make books and publish them to my website as sets.

    It works for me, and allows me to focus on creating sets and projects and gets me away from the computer and helps to stop me from worrying about comments, faves, likes, etc. That’s all stupid anyway, when you really think about it.

    • Trevor, I totally agree with you. I fell in the same trap a while ago, and I actually got quite exhausted by spending all that time on a myriad of photo sharing sites. It was more about marketing than about the photographs. And as you say, favs and likes really doesn’t matter much at the end of the day. When the whole social photosharing thing started to feel like a 2nd fulltime job I decided to quit. Not worth it at all, and it allows me to work on my own projects, sets and images at my own pace and I spend a lot less time in front of the computer on my spare time.

  • Great post – a good way of thinking about things. 🙂

  • Mike Morrell

    4 years late to this party but this blog is as true today as it was when published. I’m just the change from ‘best single photos’ to projects/themes. While most courses and exhibitions emphasise projects, it’s strange that so many sites are tooled up for single images.