Flaws and Self-Criticism: Recognizing Growth and Learning as a Photographer

Tink for Red Bull

Regardless of long you've been a photographer, you probably looked at images you made in the past and winced in pain. The flaws are all too obvious and we see each in excruciating clarity.

Perhaps you have this reaction to even your current work. Here's why not only should you not accept such feelings, but why you should embrace and even feel empowered by these reactions.

Astr for Red Bull

Looking at Early Work

Here's an example of looking at one's early work and seeing all too many flaws.

Recently, I was digging through my photo archive and found portrait from 2008 of the band Paramore when they performed at the festival Warped Tour. This was from my very first assignment shooting for Rolling Stone. The focus for this gig was the live performances, but I was also asked to grab as many backstage portraits as I could.

This is one such image. Paramore was the biggest band of the tour. Initially, I wasn't sure that they'd be doing any press photos, but was ecstatic when they were free (yes, in hindsight, a perk of saying, “I'm with Rolling Stone”).

Paramore for Rolling Stone. When I look at this photo now, I see a dozen things I'd change if I could. Rather than see these aspects purely as flaws, it's also a stark reminder of growth and learning.

Afraid to take up too much of the band's time, I snapped a few images in the tour's press room and rushed nervously through the shoot, but worked up the courage to ask if they'd step outside for one last shot.

When I look at this image now, I see so many things that I'd do differently if I could.

The slight Dutch angle. Use of wide angle. The bare bounced flash. The OK but not quite ideal staggering. The questionable and distracting end-of-a-hallway location. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

These things feel like flaws now, or at least aspects of the portrait that I'd change.

At the time I made this portrait, I was about two years into my journey as a music photographer. My main focus was live music photography and I was just dipping my toes into band portraits. It felt like a miracle that Rolling Stone had even come knocking in the first place. I was still learning, but I did the best I could.

For all the aspects of this portrait that make me cringe now, one has to realize that this is the embodiment of growth.

When we as photographers look at our own work, whether it's from the distant past or from last week, we all too often are keenly aware of these perceived flaws or shortcomings.

Slayer for Rolling Stone

The important thing isn't to be fixated and paralyzed by them, but to realize that they are simply an awareness of being able to do more. And that knowledge should be a gift, because it means that you know where you want to go.

Wherever you are on your photography journey, keep at it. It's easy to look at your photos and see all the flaws. They're not what define you — your ability to grow and progress are what matter.

It's not where you've been that's as important as where you're going.

Jimmy Page for iHeartRadio

Embracing Your Current Work

You might be thinking, “This is all well and good for past work. But I see flaws in all my current photos, too.”

If you ‘re a photographer who looks at their own work and sees all the angles for improvement, here's the good news. You know what you want your vision to be, even if you're not executing it just yet.

Consider this a gift in the clarity you have on how you want your work to look and feel. Many photographers only realize this in hindsight.


If you're reading this and feeling down about your work, I hope this anecdote has given you some context for your own journey as a photographer.

While I can't help but look at that Paramore image from 2009 and cringe, it makes me realize how far I've come.

In this article, I've included portraits I've made since that Paramore photo that I'm proud to include in my portfolio. They, too, have their own strengths and flaws. I'm still growing and learning as a maker of portraits, but it makes me proud of the path I'm on and that alone makes me thankful to consider where I've come from and where I have yet to go in my career.

Be well and take care.

Jason Aldean for Broken Bow Records/Maverick
Jake Owen for iHeartRadio
Dilly Dally for Nikon Japan
Disclosure for Q Magazine
Zandi Hollup for Nikon USA