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How Do You Know If You’re Getting Better?

Published: 28/06/2019

Author: Tony Colangelo

Here's a very interesting question from Jenny, in Prince George, BC, who asks:

I am a new real estate photographer working in a small town where agents just seem to be getting used to the idea of pro photography instead of taking their own shots. Anyway, I know this is going to seem like a dumb question but, how do I know if I’m getting better? I think I am, but I honestly don’t know how to judge. I hope that makes sense."

Hi Jenny, it's nice to be chatting with a fellow British Columbian! Actually, your question isn’t a dumb one at all. I asked that same question of myself when I started out in real estate photography and I’d guess that many shooters in our field have done so as well. Before I get into some suggestions for getting better at gauging one's improvement, I want to point out the four-step process that virtually all people go through toward achieving competence in any new endeavor. These four steps are:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: You have no idea what you're doing and you don't know what you don't know.
  2. Conscious Incompetence: You start figuring out what you don't know.
  3. Conscious Competence: You discover the things that work and you're able to apply them consistently, and
  4. Unconscious Competence: You know what you're doing to the point of it being second-nature.

The reason that I mention this adult learning principle is that for many people, just being able to spot where you’re at, within these stages, helps to normalize our development and as such, it can help us to be more patient with ourselves.

That said, there are a number of things you can do to begin to see that you’re actually getting better. One of the best ways is to get a mentor. I was very fortunate to find someone locally who agreed to help me out. I bought him a coffee every few weeks, for the first 12-18 months of my photography career and we talked shop for about 60-90 minutes at each get-together. Each of those conversations seemed to open my eyes to a new "nugget" that I could use at my next shoot and if I was able to pull it off (or even somewhat pull it off), then I could clearly see that I was improving.

If finding a local, in-person mentor isn't feasible/desirable for you, another great resource to check out is the PFRE coaches roster. As you’ll see, each coach lists their areas of specialty, which should help you in your selection process. As you begin to learn new things within the coaching process, you’ll naturally have more knowledge that you can use to establish benchmarks to assess your own growth in very specific areas such as composition, lighting, and editing.

Finally, one of the very best things you can do to help you learn how to see your improvement is to participate regularly in the PFRE Flickr group. If you haven't already registered, then simply go to Flickr.com and in the "search" field, type: photography for real estate. Posting your photos there will typically get folks commenting on what they like about your images and where there might be room for improvement. It won't take long for themes to become evident, which you can then use as a yardstick by which to measure your improvement.

I’m confident others in our community will chime in with their own suggestions. In any case, please keep at it, Jenny!

Tony Colangelo is a residential and commercial photographer, as well as a photography coach based in Victoria, BC, Canada. He is a long-time contributor to PFRE and is the creator of The Art & Science of Great Composition tutorial series.

4 comments on “How Do You Know If You’re Getting Better?”

  1. The indicator for me that I was truly getting better was when I started bringing back many fewer frames from a job. When I started it was more "spray and pray" and return to spend way too much time culling and editing with a fear that I wouldn't have what I needed to deliver a set of good images to a customer. Confidence is the first hurdle. You need to visualize the images you want to deliver from a job and then know that you have the tools/knowledge to create them. A good way to calibrate your benchmark is to look at the contest photos here on PFRE and go over the comments on what the judges felt were the key elements that made the images winners (and runner's up). If you aren't happy with your images, you need to know exactly what you don't like about them. A mentor can be helpful if you can find somebody that isn't going to pull punches.

    Talk yourself through each image on a job. What are going to be problem spots and what can you bring to bear to solve the issues? When you get a vacant home where you are letting yourself it, use the chance to practice several techniques such as single flash, multiple flashes, exposure bracketing all on one room/composition. I prefer to try out new techniques this way as I'm too familiar with how my home photographs. The challenge of photographing a home cold is good practice. Once you have edited each technique to a finished image, evaluate which version looks the best and how much time each version was to shoot and process. Compare the best photo in this latest batch with something you have done previously and beat yourself up.

    I just shudder when I look at images I delivered 2 years ago. I can see how far I've come since then. Looking at many other photographer's work, I see how far I still have to go. Image quality is not my only metric. I'm also trying to find ways to make images faster without impacting quality. I also analyze whether a workflow is fast on site, but slow in post or vice versa. There are times when I need to get in and out of a property quickly. There are also times when getting the images delivered as quickly as possible is a priority for the customer and I have to know what workflow takes the least time per image. My final test is whether my customers are happy. If they aren't, I'm missing something and it may have nothing to do with the images.

    Every time you do a job, ask yourself if you learned something new. Ask yourself if you identified a problem and a way to fix it. Start to worry when you aren't finding issues with your images or in the way you work. If you get to that point and aren't winning the monthly PFRE contests, there are still things to work on.

  2. "How Do You Know If You’re Getting Better?"
    Just open your eyes...

    Look at what your competition is doing, what the contests here produce, marketing material in your genre, etc.. AND compare with your work. Then if your reaction is that you need a lot more training and you are feeling down, take a look at your previous work a year or two earlier...that SHOULD make you feel better and that you are heading in the right direction.

    Like any other business, there is always room for improvement.

  3. I beat myself up. If I take an image that I think is really good, I pat myself on the back for 5 minutes, then go out on Flickr and look at other's work to remind myself that, while I'm not at the back of the line, I'm also nowhere near the front.

    I also post a lot to Facebook because I have a lot of Realtor friends, and I cringe when I see what I did even 2 years ago.

  4. One useful approach for staying focused on technical and aesthetic growth is to teach your self how to be an objective critic of your own work.
    I've read several places, including, I think. one of Tony's posts, that keeping your front page portfolio to 10 images that are "rappers" is preferable to a large number of so-so images.

    So, first task, work hard to find the 10 images that you think are your best. Then, every month or so, review those 10 against your most recent "portfolio" shots to arrive at the latest 10 best.

    To have the new portfolio shots means having to focus on getting one or more "portfolio worthy" shots on each job. It won't happen but making the effort will teach you a lot about looking critically at the back of the camera before pressing the shutter.

    I used to have a sign below my camera LCD "make art". Sold the camera. Thinking about it now, I'm going to find the label maker and make new ones. 🙂

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