Tripping Over Hurdles – Mental Obstacles That Prevent Us From Being Better Photographers
I have issues.
There are several obstacles —either real or imagined — that mentally prevent us from excelling as photographers. Many of us are guilty of at least some of these deadly sins, when it comes to our creativity.
I am a fearful person by nature. When I was a child, I can remember being absolutely terrified of two things: thunderstorms and trains. Strangely enough, I now go on annual storm chasing trips, and I am a locomotive engineer. I don’t know what it is about me that compels me to face my fears. I try to face them head on, whenever they come up. But the fear is always there, especially when it comes to my photography.
So, what do we fear when it comes to photography? For me, it’s a fear of being judged, a fear of failure, and even a fear of success. I don’t think anyone likes to be judged and no one wants to fail; Those are easy ones. But to be fearful of success? For me, I think the idea of success connects to having to perform, and possibly disappointing the viewer. People will want things from me, and that tends to overwhelm me. So I often want to put myself in a position to fail, so that I won’t have to succeed and face the challenges that coincide with success.
So, how do we overcome the fear? I’m not sure you ever overcome fear. I think you learn to manage it. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I try to break the fear into little pieces and handle it on a macro level (no pun intended).
When it comes to shooting, I fail hard and often. I have floral shoots that last for hours and I walk away with no good shots. I hate that. I mean, if I’m going to spend five hours shooting, I deserve to have at least 50 keepers, right? But unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Now, how does one deal with a fear of success? I have to sit down and have a talk with myself every time something potentially positive happens. Instead of running from success, I have learned to take it as it comes, like a wave in the ocean. Let the wave lift you up and take you to shore. It might crash you into the sand and break your neck. Or it could gently place you back on land, where you can be replenished with energy, so you can head back out again and catch the next wave.
I am a lazy photographer. I mean super lazy. I want to get the shot, but I will take the shortest route possible to achieve it. If I am focus stacking and I need to take 20 stacked shots, I usually do half of that. I won’t climb a mountain at 2am in order to get that amazing sunrise shot. I cut corners where I can. And that means I’m not getting shots that I would be getting, if I weren’t so lazy.
I can be lazy and cut corners with my floral shoots, as well, but I get the shots that I’m looking for, so that laziness doesn’t negatively affect me. But, when my shoot is complete, and I upload my data card with 1000+ images to the computer… there the photographs sit. Unculled. Unedited. Sometimes for weeks or even months.
I’m overwhelmed by the gargantuan task of culling all of those images and then having to edit them. I dread it. So I avoid it and I call it laziness. I’m so lazy, right? Well, maybe not. I think I have realized that it’s not necessarily laziness that is paralyzing me, but that I actually feel burdened by the chore. But again, I think it all goes back to fear, fear of feeling overwhelmed, fear of anxiety. So I force myself to sit at the computer and cull those images. I try to do it at least once every couple of weeks.
If you find yourself avoiding the work, have an honest talk with yourself and find out why you’re avoiding the work. What are you using as an excuse not to do the work? Are you finding things to do in order to avoid the work? See if fear or anxiety has anything to do with it.
The “I’M A GREAT PHOTOGRAPHER!” Mentality
I personally don’t have this issue. I think that my work sucks most of the time. I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my photography, but I think it comes from fear of being judged. But I see this “I’m awesome” mentality from other photographers all of the time. I’ll see people post their images that are clearly lacking in technical or creative ability, yet they think that their work is stellar. When you think that you’re amazing, you can never move past that stage in your photography. You’ll never get better. You stay stuck at that level because you don’t open yourself up to learning new techniques. And this is all because you can’t admit to yourself that maybe you’re not that great.
This mentality goes hand in hand with accepting critique. If you are posting an image of someone that was taken in a park under a tree and the subject has dappled light all over their face, please don’t say “I wanted it that way.” No, you didn’t. You are just closed off to hearing that the image could be better. Don’t block yourself off from being better. There are many photographers out there who are great. Are you sure that you’re one of them?
BEING CLOSED OFF TO CRITIQUE
And that leads me to one of my favorite things in the world: Critique. When I first started shooting in 2005, there was a great, now-defunct critique website called PhotoSig.com. It was a clunky, behind-the-times website that was limited in its web functionality. But this site was where I learned the most about how to become a better photographer.
Here are two of my very early images, shot on film, circa 2005 (cropped here to save space):
Pretty horrible images, right? Well, I posted these on PhotoSig. You would post your image and people would vote on your image with various degrees of thumbs up or thumbs down. That doesn’t help you learn, necessarily. But where you learned was when people explained why they voted the way that they did.
“Your horizon is crooked.”
“That person’s face is overexposed.”
“You have your subject dead-center in the frame.”
“It looks like you shot this at high noon in July.”
Now, at the beginning, I was devastated at the brutally honest critique that I received. “What do you mean my image isn’t stunningly amazing?! My images are on par with Stieglitz and Cartier-Bresson!” But once I got over the overwhelming discomfort of being judged, I was able to actually hear what they were saying.
They were right; my images were seriously lacking. Once I opened myself up to judgement ( a/k/a other peoples’ opinions), I started learning. I became a sponge. And not only did it help me to see what I was doing wrong, it made me want to become a better photographer. It made me want to elevate my game, big time. Every time someone would give me brutal critique/feedback on an image, I would look at that image with a different set of eyes. Then, when I would shoot the next time, I would try and apply what someone else was kind enough to take the time to teach me.
So, I encourage you to be open to others’ feedback. Maybe they won’t say it gently, but they might give you some great insight. They will see things that you don’t see. They will help you become a better photographer.
WORRYING ABOUT WHAT OTHERS THINK
Remember in the last paragraph how I told you that you should worry about what other people think? Well, watch me totally contradict myself. There comes a time while getting critiqued where you have to have to take some things that are said with a grain of salt. Not every critique that you get will be of great value to you. Some of it will be based in their opinion (“This photo is boring”), versus being based on technical information (“Your horizon is crooked”). I have learned to take what I want from constructive critique and leave the rest behind.
I still to this day ask for ‘brutal critique’ when posting in photography forums. I want to know if I’m missing something that others can see but that I am somehow missing. Sometimes you stare at an image for so long, you can’t see the forest for the trees. However, sometimes I find myself changing the aesthetics of an image, based on feedback that I have received because I worry too much that the masses will not like the image. What we should do, however, is be true to our artistic vision. If you feel like something is really working aesthetically, then own it. Love it. Wrap yourself in it. When I find myself being wishy-washy about an image, that’s when I allow myself to be swayed by other people’s opinions. The truth is, their opinions don’t matter, not really. What matters is your art and how you feel when you create it and every time you look at it. If others don’t love it and you do love it, does it really matter? Well, I guess it matters if you’re a professional photographer, which leads me to our last section…..
FEELING the NEED to go PRO
When most of us start out as photographers, we do it for the fun of it. We’re not trying to make it into a career. We shoot what we love and we shoot because we love the creative process. At some point, most of us feel the need to earn money from our love of photography. Maybe you just want to make enough money to pay for new gear or maybe you want to make a full-time career out of your hobby.
I’ve had numerous requests to do paid shoots for people, whether it be portrait sessions, family sessions or even architectural shoots. And I’ve done them here and there, albeit reluctantly. But here’s the thing: When I do a paid shoot, it sucks all of the fun out of photography for me. I now feel the need to create someone else’s idea of what is beautiful, instead of what I want to shoot. And I put immense pressure on myself to deliver. It makes me miserable. If someone doesn’t like my floral photography, then meh, who really cares? I love them. But when someone is paying me for images that they want, I need them to love the photographs and I would hate it if they didn’t. That is just way too much pressure for me to handle.
So, I made a decision a while back to not do paid shoots. I want to continue to love photography and not have it tied to making money. So I’m about to use a dirty word here, and I hope I don’t offend anyone. It’s the H word…. Hobbyist. It is okay to remain a hobbyist and never go pro. Don’t allow people to pressure you into doing a shoot for money if you don’t want to do it. Now, if people want to pay you for images that you’ve already taken, then that’s terrific! I’m not saying that you should turn that down, but don’t feel the need to agree to create on other peoples’ dimes, if you don’t want to do it. If you want to go pro, have at it! But it’s okay to remain a hobbyist.
I encourage you to try and spot these mental pitfalls before you trip head first into them. And for the record, I still often trip into them. I was even afraid to write this blog post. The bottom line is, it’s okay to be afraid, but don’t let it beat you. Are you being lazy, or is fear once again holding you back from doing what you want to do? Try to always be open-minded to learning. Don’t fear critique; Embrace it. Don’t allow yourself to be pressured into ‘going pro,’ if you really just want to be creative. And above all, keep shooting!
Melanie is a KelbyOne instructor and a winner of the Gallery at KelbyOne Photography Competition. You can see all of Melanie’s images at MKFphotos.com, and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. and 500px.