Behind the Camera: Photography, Expectation vs Reality

· Reading Time: 17 minutes

Welcome back to another edition of my Behind the Camera series, where I choose a topic that has come up during the previous month to talk a little more in depth about.  The last three months have been quite easy to pick a topic which has spoiled me a little to tell the truth.  This month I struggled a little bit and had to pose a question on Facebook in order to get a little inspiration for this piece.  I can always do a tips and tricks entry, but for this feature, I want to appeal as much to the non-photographer as to the photographer.  I try to pick things that are personal to me which have had an impact on my photography.  The answer came in the form of the first comment on my question minutes after I posted it.  It was simple, yet had so much area to talk and related so much to my personal experiences as well as a universal connection between photographers.  The topic suggested was “Photography: Expectation vs Reality” courtesy of Nicholas.

Photography is a bit of a fantasy representation of life.  Wait….what?  Photography is the exact documentation of something in front of the lens, how can this be fantasy?  Even in the most straight forward editorial style photography, the photographer is picking out the parts that they want you to see.  They put the exact context on the image that fits with what they are trying to convey.  Yes, a true editorial image will be true to life and unmanipulated, but you still don’t get the whole story that comes from the surrounding scene, the smells, and the sounds.  Take that in a different direction and you get the artistic photography that my style identifies with.  I’m not looking to document events, but rather capture an artistic representation of our world around us.  That really puts the emphasis on presentation of an image.

No matter what types of photography you do, there will always be an expectation of the final product.  There will also be a reality of the end result.  Rarely will these two things match up perfectly.  This is not to say that the reality can’t exceed the expectation though.  In my experience as a photographer, I have seen all combinations of expectation and reality.  It has been a great teacher for me, and I have learned how to roll with the punches.  I have learned to appreciate images that failed to live up to my expectations because the reality of the image was just in a different direction than my preconceived notion of the image.  It takes a little time to re-calibrate my own expectation of an image, but I have often been very pleased with images that looked nothing like my expectation.

I started to learn about not meeting expectations early on when I was learning photography.  I thought that since I had a camera, I would be able to go out and shoot images like I had seen others shoot.  I was all excited to go out to the mountains and click away.  I was totally excited about how this masterpiece was going to turn out…until I got home.  When I saw it on the computer my expectations were quickly replaced with reality.  This was not a good image…it was boring and uninspired.  My expectation of being a photographer was not quite accurate.  The reality was, I was a guy with a camera that had a lot to learn before calling himself a photographer.  Years went by, and I learned a lot of tricks of the trade.  These days, I am much better at my craft, and my expectation has become every time I go out with a camera I will come back with awesome images that inspire everyone who sees them.  In my mind, I am a well known photographer with folks hungering for my next images.  The reality of it is, I am decent photographer (even that is up for debate) that gets lucky a small percentage of the time and shoots an occasional image that is well received.  The reality of photography is, you will never be defined by a single image no matter how good it is.  What defines a photographer is the body of work over a long period of time.


An extreme example in my photography where my expectations didn’t live up to reality was back in 2011.  It was at this point, after six years of learning photography, that I still was very unhappy with the printed images that I was creating.  I couldn’t figure it out, and decided that it was just not meant for me to be a photographer.  I had the gear, I had the look, I knew the places to go…but yet the images that I was producing in my test prints were nowhere near what my expectations were during the creative process.  I just gave it all up and sold everything with the expectation of becoming a top notch cyclist.  The reality there, ironically, was that I actually achieved that.  However, I missed the photography and ultimately chose to dive back in with the expectation of creating the images that I had in my mind once again.

Well, it was a long hard battle, but I have finally started to meet some of my expectations with a camera.  I worked out the printing issue which turned out to be a real simple fix (still kicking myself as it cost me a large format printer).  Now my output is matching what I am creating with the camera.  I’m not out of the woods yet, and doubt that I ever will be.  You see, up till now, I’ve been talking about the broad expectations of being a photographer.  Here is the part of any art that is a universal truth;  You are your own worst critic and expectations and reality will rarely meet in individual examples.


With the Curve

As an example of how the reality vs expectation dichotomy still affects me, I would like to share my experience at Pot Branch Falls a few months ago.  I had never been to this waterfall before, and had seen pictures of it only.  I knew that there were some great craters in the rocks next to the waterfall and that was what I wanted to capture.  I drove about two hours to get to this waterfall, if memory serves, and hiked down the trail.  I had previsualized everything with this location and knew how I wanted to shoot it down to the lens.  My expectations were that this was going to be one of my standout waterfall images and it was going to look otherworldly for sure.  The weather was forecasted to be nice and gloomy which it had been for the entire drive to the location.  However, the closer I got, the more I lost the weather conditions and found that the sun was poking out, and eventually the sky was totally clear.  When I arrived at the waterfall, I saw that a tree had recently fallen, blocking the actual waterfall from view.  My only option was to shoot the top section which was only a few little cascades….nothing like the main drop.  Nothing that I had anticipated happening took place on this shoot.  The resulting images were much less dramatic than what I was expecting, and the reality of this trip was very much a let down.  The images turned out fine, and they managed to salvage the day, but they were nothing at all like my expectations.

This is how this normally turns out.  You have a great idea for a shoot, and you pick the conditions that will fit it perfectly only to find that the resulting images fail to live up to the hype in your mind.  There is a reason for this many times.  Your mind and eyes have a great relationship set up to where the mind will only focus on a certain element in a scene.  Effectively, you become blind to certain parts of what you are looking at which have nothing to do with why you are looking there.  For instance, I’ve looked at plenty of barns and thought that they would make excellent subjects only to set up the camera and find that there are trees in the way, or tall grasses that obstruct the shot.  Things that I never saw driving by originally.  The camera doesn’t have the same agreement going on and will just represent the scene as it is in two dimensions.  In order to capture images the way you see them with your eyes, you have to force elements out of the scene with positioning and composition.  The resulting image will be different from what you initially saw even though it only includes the elements that you were seeing to begin with.

No Tell Motel

An example of this is this shot from the Grogan’s Motel that I shot about a year or so ago.  It was one of those scenes where I happened to pass by in my travels and it caught my eye.  I could see the vines on the side of the building, the aged stone, and the boarded up windows and doors.  This was a gem of a find and something that I immediately got excited to photograph.  My expectation was a dark and grungy presentation of this old motel as a whole, showing the age and decaying nature of the facade.  The clouds were pretty decent for the mood I was wanting so it was the best time to make the shots.  I got set up and started to work compositions and found that with essentially a flat faced building I was having a very hard time getting any depth in my images.  Also, the surrounding landscape didn’t really support the full on shot that I had envisioned, especially with the anchor point being a rather bland gray walled section.  I tried everything that I knew to try and felt that I had captured it the best I could by getting isolations of the doors, windows, and smaller sections of the whole.  I was excited about these shots as it was a subject I had never photographed before, but when I started to look at them on the monitor at home, the reality of the images didn’t meet the expectation.  I had to adjust my expectations in order to pick out what images I liked, and did find a bunch that conveyed what I wanted to convey.  Unfortunately, they were not the stellar images I had seen in my head driving by.

Sadly, this happens a lot with my images.  I have a grand plan for an image, but when it finally reaches the editing stage, it just doesn’t quite meet that goal.  Either I adjust my expectations for the image or I trash it.  Most of the time, the images are trashed.  My average hit rate on a typical day shooting is only 10%, which means 90 of every 100 images that I shoot will get deleted within a few hours of the shoot.  That was really hard to do in the beginning stages of being a photographer as I wanted to keep all of my creations.  That just isn’t a viable possibility and many times the differences come down to minuscule details and it is pointless to keep the ones that have the flaws.  To help put this in perspective on each shoot, I will usually tell how many frames I shot on a Trek vs how many I deemed good enough to keep.  I don’t want anyone thinking that every time I press the button something great happens.  Only when the reality comes close to the expectation will I keep an image.

End of Days

There are times when the reality of a shoot meets expectations, although this is usually a rare occurrence.  When it happens, it becomes a special image for me.  Case in point is this image which was my top image from 2018.  As you know, I always have a vision of what I want before I go out to get the shot.  This is the beach image that I have been looking for over the course of many years.  The dunes, the grass, the multicolored sky, with a hint of blue, and a calm feeling.  Whenever I go out to shoot sunrises, this is what I have in mind, but always fail to quite hit the right combination.  Ironically enough, this image was shot at sunset which I am usually not out for (maybe that is my problem).  I had picked the location out prior to the sun going down and worked out the composition probably 45 minutes before the sun would be low enough to really shoot it.  The clouds were changing quickly, and when it came time to make the image, this scene erupted in front of me.  I knew I had something special when I saw the image in the LCD, but when I started to process it a couple of days later, I knew that this one nailed my expectations.  It had everything that I was after in the image, and the wind even died down long enough so that the grass remained sharp.

Off Sides

One more example of when an image actually met my expectations is this one from Doughton Park last year.  The sunrise was not all that great and there was no color in the sky.  I had started to look for other images to capture, in essence changing my expectations for the morning’s shoot.  I have photographed this particular tree on a number of occasions and know its personality.  With the leaves off of it, and only the skeleton remaining, I knew I had a good chance at getting a great silhouette of the tree.  My only problem was there was no color in the sky, and no clouds behind it from the position I was shooting it from.  Looking at the scene, I adapted my expectation and saw a very simple black and white image in my head.  It would be high key and really focus on the details of the branches.  I framed up the shot and exposed it knowing that the background would go white and lose all color.  I wasn’t sure how it turned out looking in the LCD, I only knew that I had a very divided histogram which was a good sign.  When I got home and started the processing stage I quickly got excited with this image.  It was exactly how I had envisioned it before the capture.  With very few adjustments I was able to render one of the most beautifully simple black and white images I had ever shot.  I had high expectations for this shot, and I managed to realize them all.

The funny thing about expectations is, you always start out the day thinking that today is going to be the day.  This will be the day that you shoot the iconic image that will make you stand apart from the rest of the crowd.  I started out a day this past Spring just like that.  I had been to Groundhog Mountain in Virginia a couple of times before, but had never shot anything there.  I had been looking at pictures and knew what I wanted to do, and knew that I needed some great color in the sky to make it work.  The plan was to shoot the old fire tower with the sky on fire behind it.  The image in my mind was beautiful and I was so excited about it.  I had been watching the weather closely and found the perfect morning to go where conditions would be favorable for the sunrise that I was after.  After a few hours on the road, I arrived well before sunrise and got set up where I wanted to be.  It was not looking promising as there were only a few clouds in the sky which meant that color would be really limited….but then it happened.

No, the sky didn’t fill with clouds. The clouds enveloped the entire park and visibility was cut to almost nothing.  I gave up on my preconceived notion of how this shoot was going to go and ended up changing directions completely thinking about shooting moody monochrome images.  My expectations were actually kind of low at this point and I was thinking that I would get a few of the trees isolated against the fog.  It was worth being here, but nothing like what I had come for.

Serrated Barricade

With my expectations crushed, I tried to recover the day with some different shots.  By the end of my hour or so stay in the clouds the reality had far exceeded my expectation.  In fact, this change of fortune allowed me to get so many more images than I would have gotten with just a simple sunrise.  It was nothing like I had expected, but I was in the right place at the right time to capture images that I had not been able to consider up to that point.  Here we have an example of one of the images from that morning.  The trees were all fantastic and the fence added so much texture and a repeating pattern to the image.  It captured the mood I was after, and as a bonus took me back to civil war pictures which immediately sent my mind spinning about stories surrounding the scenes.  It really is a great thing when reality exceeds your expectations.  In fact, it is moments like these where it becomes so worth it to be a landscape photographer.

A more recent example of how the reality can sometimes exceed expectations came from a shoot this past weekend.  I stayed local and was more messing around than anything.  My expectations were low for this day and it was more just an opportunity to get out with the camera more than anything.  I had picked a secondary location of an old store in Kernersville which I had driven by more times that I could count over the years.  The storefront was very interesting to me, but there were just so many things about the surrounding landscape that turned me off.  It was below the road level which it was very close to, there were other structures really close to it, and a fence that ran across the front.  I never really could pull together a composition in my head that would work to achieve the look I wanted.  I figured that this time going out, I would at least give it a try if the sky had any interest in it at all.

Wayne Feeds, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

When I got there, the sky was decent but not awe-inspiring.  The lighting was really good on the building though from the sun shining through the thin clouds.  All that was left was for me to find a way to shoot the building that made sense and only showed what I wanted to convey.  There was no way to shoot it close up, and I really wanted to capture the tree behind it as well.  I ran across the street to see if I could get the perspective I wanted from there and I saw some potential.  I got things set up and started to shoot some images with slightly different compositions.  I wasn’t all that happy with what I was seeing on the LCD since it was washed out, and I could see no detail in the sky.  The histogram looked good, so I had hope for the images.  I just wasn’t expecting much of anything to really turn out.

The reality hit as I started to process the image.  I was actually very impressed with how this was turning out.  I did a slight crop on it to reduce the overall height of the image to bring more of the focus onto the store and that hit the sweet spot for a composition.  By recovering the highlights in the sky, I managed to pull out the detail that I had seen in the thin clouds.  The warm sunlight on the storefront made the patina pop and really showcased the weathered look of the building.  The more I worked on the image, the more I loved it.  In the end, this turned out to be my favorite image from the day by far.  My expectation was that this was going to be a few shots of a building that were never going to go much further than social media.  The reality is this image has staying power and has been added to my gallery where I expect it to stay for a while.


Expectation vs Reality…It is a universal truth in life.  Anyone that creates anything will always battle with these two elements.  It can be a source of profound frustration and drive you to get on a bike and pedal 200 miles in a day.  However, if you step back and look at it differently, you can change that frustration to a chance to better yourself in so many different ways.  We have looked at examples where the reality didn’t quite meet the expectation, although I have learned to adjust my expectations based on the conditions presented to me.  It is a real treat when the reality just meets the expectations, but that is actually one of the least beneficial ways to progress in an art form.  That is when you are content and not wanting to grow, and no longer able to grow.  If you are fighting to make your reality reach your expectations, you are constantly trying to lean and better yourself.  Or maybe learning to interpret the situations differently.  In those off opportunities when you impress yourself by exceeding your expectations, you are still learning.  What I mean by that is, you didn’t give yourself enough at the time and your skill set has allowed you to surpass your own expectations.  After you pat yourself on the back, it is time to re-calibrate your own expectations of your work.  You now know what you can produce, and you will find yourself failing to meet expectations more often once again.  This is the growth of an artist, and by constantly raising your own expectations based on your own work, not the comparisons to another’s, you will always find improvement.  I’ve learned to embrace the disparity between expectation and reality and have harnessed it in just this way.  That is not to say that I don’t get disappointed or frustrated…Oh no, those are constant companions of mine every time I go out on a shoot.  It is just that moment when the captured image is exactly what you imagined (thinking that it would never turn out that way) that you know you are doing something right.

Menacing Attitude, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, B+W Polarizer, Singh-Ray Galen Rowell 2 and 3 stop soft ND Grads