How Many Good Photos from a Trip Is a Success?

Tips & Techniques

I’ve gone on two photography trips recently with very different results.  The first trip led mostly to duds, aside from a single portfolio-quality image. The second led to dozens of publishable shots and multiple for my portfolio. It made me wonder what counts as a successful photography trip at all.

Before I answer that question directly, let me share one of my favorite photography quotes. It’s when Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photos in any one year is a good crop.”

That seems like a rather low standard for one of the most gifted photographers of all time. Just one good photo per month? But even looking at Ansel Adams’s own work, it holds true. The book 400 Photographs is a portfolio from about 48 years of his professional work, which means it features an average of just over eight photos a year. That’s obviously less than one per month and shows that even the greats didn’t churn out masterpieces every day. (Further, despite the huge number of impactful photos in the book, calling all 400 of them significant is probably a stretch.)

Ansel Adams - Snake River Teton
Ansel Adams – The Tetons and the Snake River; Public Domain

But the world has gotten faster since Ansel Adams’s day. The new gold standard is to post one great image on Instagram per day if you want to keep the algorithm well-fed and your audience interested. Almost all of the most famous photographers on that platform – which, despite its endless flaws, is still the place where photographers gather – meet the standard.

It’s also true, and not just in photography, that clients have been demanding dramatically more quantity and speed over time. (Quality demands do not show the same trend.) As a photographer, you’ll run into this mindset no matter what subject you capture, if you shoot for clients.

And that brings me to the two trips I took recently. The second – where I captured the greater number of successful shots – was the UAE/Jordan/Turkey workshop that we run at Photography Life. It’s probably not a surprise to get a high volume of publishable images from a trip that covers so much ground. But this time, there was also the factor of a client’s requirements.

To be specific, we work with the Jordan Tourism Board each year of the workshop, and part of our agreement is to provide them high-quality photos at the end of the trip. This year, they wanted about 50 images. (Not to put too fine a point on things, but that’s about 200 times the pace Ansel Adams would have preferred.) During the trip, I found myself jumping constantly to different subjects, one after the other, so that the 50 photos wouldn’t all be variations of the same mountain.

It would suit this article to say that my photos from Jordan had good breadth but lower quality per photo. The truth is a bit more nuanced, since I’m still happy with many of them and consider some to be portfolio worthy. Even so, instead of refining those 4-5 photos to the maximum (which is my favorite method of taking better photos), I tended to move on quickly to the next subject. I think that left subtle room for improvements in each of the portfolio shots, beyond what I actually captured.

Dead Sea Jordan salt formations with dramatic light at sunset
Sony A1 + FE 35mm F1.8 @ 35mm, ISO 100, 1/40, f/16.0
Petra By Night in Jordan
Sony A1 + FE 20mm F1.8 G @ 20mm, ISO 200, 30 seconds, f/5.6
Wadi Rum Rock Formation Textures Sunrise
Sony A1 + FE 20mm F1.8 G @ 20mm, ISO 100, 1/3, f/16.0
Vertical Wadi Rum Rock Formation Arch Sunset
Sony A1 + FE 20mm F1.8 G @ 20mm, ISO 100, 1/15, f/16.0
Wadi Rum Overlook Jordan Sunrise
Sony A1 + FE 20mm F1.8 G @ 20mm, ISO 100, 1/40, f/16.0

Those are my five favorite photographs from the Jordan portion of the workshop, and I feel good about them for the client and my own display. For a week of shooting, that’s a bigger haul than usual for me.

Meanwhile, the other trip I mentioned is the one I wrote about earlier, where I (foolishly?) went to Iceland in the winter with two of my closest friends to celebrate some big events in their lives. That was a completely personal trip, no clients in mind, so I was free to move slower, use my 4×5 instead of something digital, and shoot for myself.

As a side note, I’ve found this to be my favorite thing about shooting with large format film. It’s not the detail or colors of the images, or even the flexibility of lens movements, but the thinking process that I like the most. Every image I take with the wooden camera is scouted, thought over, and created, with more attention to detail than I can usually manage with digital. I only took one image that I love from that trip, but it’s a very important one to me.

Iceland Landscape in Winter Stokksnes
Chamonix 45F-2, Nikkor SW 90mm f/8 @ f/30, 1/4 second, Kodak Portra 160, Front standard fall, Polarizer

I did get a few other publishable shots from the week – and no doubt exhausted all of them in my post about the trip – but this is the only one that merits printing or displaying in my portfolio. To me, it captures the feeling of the trip and matches my artistic intent very closely (more so than the other photos I’ve taken this year). This image is what crystalized my belief that if you’ve taken a photo you like – even if you missed some opportunities and felt frustrated along the way – you’ve done well.

So, how many good photos from a trip is a success? One. That’s all.

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