The white cliffs of Dover in gently evening light.
How good a photographer do you really want to be? Where should you set your sights?
The first rule of setting a goal is that it has to be realistic and achievable within a given timescale. It should also be measurable but that's fairly tough in such a subjective field. How do you measure how good you are as a photographer- sales, awards, praise, response to exhibitions, the opinions of critics or your peers? All of these methods are influenced by factors other than the pure quality and aesthetics of your images. You'll have to to decide on which measure works for you.
One traditional way of trying to establish where you are in the vast range from novice to acknowledged master is to actually look at the work of successful photographers in their respective fields. How do your images measure up?
If you're interested in portrait photography, find out who's hot and have a long think about what makes their work better than yours. Then try to do something about the areas where you think your weaknesses lie eg lighting, composition, relationship with the sitter etc. The same applies to landscape, wildlife or any other photographic genre. Each genre will have its own set of challenges.
Looking at who's really hot works in every field except perhaps art photography. When I look at some of the photographs that are called art and hung in galleries, I cringe. Not for all of it of course! But some of the stuff you see is such utter rubbish, totally uninteresting and not even original. So I guess if you want to be an art photographer anything goes so long as some sucker is prepared to pay for it.
The toughest arena to succeed in is professional photography. However I think it is fair to comment that as with any profession there is a huge difference in the quality of the work produced by the professionals; for example the snapper in the supermarket taking portraits of toddlers and a top editorial photographer taking portraits for a prestigious glossy magazine are worlds apart. I am not knocking the abilities of the store photographer.
As a professional photographer you play the cards that are dealt to you and you try to do the best job possible under any given set of circumstance. Today you may be photographing toddlers in the supermarket, or churning out portraits for some commercial chain but who knows what the future will bring if you set your goals and aim high.
If you're an amateur then comparing your photography to that of other amateur photographers on sites like Flickr is probably not a good way to set the standard for yourself. Social photography sites are great fun but overall the quality of the photography reflects the general standard of amateur photography which is not very high. There are of course many exceptionally talented amateurs.
I'll probably be standing on toes here so let me explain my measuring scale. If you have a graph with ratings from 1-10, with 1 being clueless and 10 the best in the world; then I would say the peak of the curve for amateurs is between 3-4. The average professional is a 7. The best in the world at what they do are 10s. For me James Nachtwey is a 10. The measure can only applied to a whole body of work by the photographer, not an individual image. Anyone can take one or two brilliant images.
You may say, "I'm perfectly happy doing what I do and just enjoying it. I have no ambition to be a master photographer." That's fine. You've set your standards and know what you want to achieve.
If you really want to improve your photography and set high standards for your work then you should spend time looking at the work of the best professional photographers. I reached into my bookmarks and grabbed a few links to some of the photographers who've caught my eye. No particular ranking or order is intended. Hopefully you will be inspired.
Andrew Eccles Photography
Greg Gorman Photography
Jeanette Hägglund (Swedish photographer friend who is making a name for herself)
Joe Buissink (weddings)
Steve Bloom (wild life)
Obie Oberholzer (my first photography teacher who is represented by Bilderberg I will forever be grateful to him for his mentoring and pointing me in the right direction)
Sheila King Photographers (lots of good photographers represented by this agency)
Noelle represents (another good agency)
karin taylor (still lives)
BOB MARTIN Sports Photography
Pep Bonet Photographer
Grant Pritchard (a friend and excellent all round photographer)
Magda Indigo (my wife and inspiration)
There are so many more but that lot should keep you busy for a while.