Success is Subjective

By April 8, 2015Blog, General, Inspiration
High persepctive of dock and jumping kids taken in Sorento, Italy by Aura McKay photographer

Sulight bursting through the tangled branches of a tree against a blue sky photographed by Aura McKaySuccess is Subjective

I recently learned (or maybe re-learned) some valuable life lessons from participating in the national photography competition with Professional Photographers of Canada and listening to the audio image critique.

Foggy day on Vancouver sea wall at Siwash Rock with a lone figure in black & white photographed by Aura McKay

  1. The experiences starts with commitment


Just by making the decision to participate I started looking at my Lightroom catalog differently. I started consciously evaluating my work in a more critical and focused way. I looked at my processing, my compositions, my subject choices, my lighting, and considered if it would meet the high standards set by the PPOC judges. I thought about hiring a fortune teller to help me try and read the minds and hearts of the judges and anticipate what their favourite colours were and if they preferred vertical or horizontal images. I organized my images into specific categories to match the salon categories.

I was already benefiting from the experience just by deciding to enter and asking more questions about my work.

Participant in the Vancouver Polar Bear swim jumps into English Bay photographed by Aura McKay

  1. At some point you just have to let go

Or: Shoulda, Woulda, Woulda, Oughta, Mighta – DO IT!!!!


After agonizing over different options and combinations of images to submit, floundering in uncertainty and wondering SHOULD I try for a photographer of the year award by ‘playing the categories’, COULD I get away with putting a specific image in a particular category, if I OUGHT TO be more clever and creative with my titles, and whether the photograph MIGHT do better if processed or cropped differently; I realized that I had missed the early bird deadline and I was about to miss the regular deadline and maybe even the late deadline.

It was time to just enter already. To choose the images that made my heart sing and show the judges my passion and skill. I just had to let go.

Strong shadows across a graffiti wall in a Vancouver alley photographed by Aura McKay

  1. Honour, Intention, and Excellence


As I observed the hundreds of amazing images created by my peers across the country be evaluated and commented on, a few things came up:

 I felt honoured to be included amongst these masterful image makers

Setting an intention improves the visual impact

And that excellence is obvious

At first, I was a little overwhelmed by the quality of the work and started to feel a bit like an impostor, like maybe I wasn’t really good enough. But I decided to change my thinking. To focus on the fact that I am qualified to participate, that I’m ‘part of the club’, that I belong in this group of talented professionals. And I am grateful for the privilege.

I started to notice a trend in how the titles and categories really do help to set the intention and guide the viewer to pay attention to what the maker is trying to communicate in a photograph. Clever plays on words, references to movies or popular songs, simple statements of the obvious – each title had it’s own personality and affected the way I experienced the image.

Some photographs that were clearly strong compositions with great technical execution, were vigorously discussed by the judging panel as being in the wrong category. Sure, it’s a great photograph but is it really a portrait? Is it more fine art?

Other images were just as clearly a case of trying to force a silk purse from a sow’s ear by defaulting to the experimental or unclassified category and use of a clever title. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Judges are human, they have personal preferences, get swayed by emotions, and get tired just like the rest of us.

One thing was overwhelmingly apparent, excellence is obvious. Some photographs transcend categories and titles and personal preferences. They stand on their own. Their message is clear. The impact is universal. Their excellence is obvious.

Upward perspective on a fire escape photographed by Aura McKay

  1. Success is a matter of perspective

Of the four images I entered (the maximum allowed, I always commit 100%), two of the images were Not Accepted, one scored an Accepted, and one scored a Merit.

I have to admit that for a while I was really disappointed and blamed the judges, the rules, the system, the association….anyone else outside of myself. I mean one of the images that score Not Accepted had won Best in Class in the Provincial salon just 5 months ago! I still have the trophy for goodness sake! And these judges didn’t even comment on it, just 4 NA and 1A after about 15 seconds of looking at it?!?!

Even after listening to the feedback from the judges in the audio critique where they offered specific and constructive opinions and suggestions on what worked and what could be improved, I was still disgruntled and feeling bad about myself, my talent, and my skills. Many of the things they pointed out as flaws were actually the parts of the image I like the best. Maybe it was something wrong with THEM.

I started to wonder why I had bothered to enter in the first place. Thinking that because I didn’t get ALL of my images accepted that meant I was a failure as a professional photographer. I was focused on the negatives.

I took a deep breath. I remembered to ask myself WHY I had entered in the first place. I looked at my own personal definition of success. I started to focus on the positives and what I learned.

So yes, success is subjective.

Success for me is knowing that I grew personally and professionally from the experience. My reasons for entering were to stop talking and start doing, to challenge myself, to share my images with a larger audience, to let my work stand amongst the work of my peers, to learn how to listen to critique, and to continue to grow and evolve in my life and my craft. And in those ways, I was successful.

I learned that I can’t please all the people all the time. That sometimes what I love about an image will totally grate on someone else and that’s okay. Sometimes the images I make are a success for me, they are an expression of my own creative voice and my own passion. That not every image I make is an award winning image and that’s okay too.

I learned that I still have things to learn about mastering my craft. The feedback on the audio critique becomes more valuable each time I listen to it. The more open I become to receiving the message as an opinion instead of a judgment, the more I benefit from it.

I choose to focus on and celebrate the images that scored the Accepted and the Merit. Both of which are a huge honour given the caliber of competition. I choose to be inspired by the work of photographers who scored Excellence. I choose to be motivated by the experience to strive for excellence in my own work.

I choose to feel successful.

Here is a link to the images.




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