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Hello from Whidbey Island, WA, USA! I’m a fine-art photographer and long-time fan of Scott Kelby. I became a fine-art photographer because it allows me to follow my interests and passions down pretty much any rabbit hole. I’m particularly passionate about alternative and historical processes and combining those processes into modern workflows. In addition to being a photographer, I am a core faculty member at the Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle. I teach all sorts of classes on black and white film, Photoshop and Lightroom, Visual Literacy, and alternative and historical processes.

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When Brad reached out to me about guest blogging, I spent several days thinking about what to write. At first I thought about sharing some great Photoshop techniques for editing or printing, but then I thought about how this is Scott’s blog and what could I possibly share that’s new? Scott has literally written tons of books about Photoshop, Lightroom, and Photography. Then I thought about walking through one of my shoots and post-processing processes. But again, those thoughts of self doubt crept in. So now I sit staring at a blank screen unable to shut off the voice inside my head telling me that I don’t have anything unique and important to say.

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I have a love/hate/more hate relationship with that voice of self doubt. Truth be told, I find it to be a demon. And while there is some comfort in my belief that everyone has that demon-within voice, that knowledge alone doesn’t help me deal with it. Sure, at times it keeps me safe: sometimes making sure I don’t do something dumb, crazy, or too far outside the lines. In some cases, that voice is really valuable. It keeps me from jumping from a second-floor deck into the pool after a few margaritas (mostly not a true story). But for the creative soul, risk and outside the lines are what life is all about.

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As I continued to sit lost in my self doubt, my dog came in to see what was happening in my office. She sniffed around, stopped, looked at me not typing, and dropped her ball as if to say “Well, if you’re not going to work, then it’s playtime!” She has the most enviable of all gifts: she can stay in the present moment. She’s never stuck in the stories of the past and doesn’t worry about the future. Walking on the beach equals awesome. Finding a stick equals awesome. Chasing a stick equals awesome. Getting in the car equals awesome. Coming  home equals awesome. There isn’t any worry about finding out that the world doesn’t have sticks at the beach. There isn’t worry that there will be rain tomorrow. There is only the joy of playing in the right now.

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Art is a lot like that. There is awesomeness in being centered and present when we’re working on our craft and art. When we are present behind the camera, those moments behind the camera become as unique and special as the subjects in front of the camera. The decisive moment was never about catching that perfect moment in life; it was about being present enough to know that you were part of a specific moment in life. My demon often tells me that I can’t see those moments. When I listen, it’s right. I am no longer present. I am off elsewhere in my head. The world passes without so much as a click.

It is always safer to not use the camera.

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This is one of the core struggles of work in a creative life. There are always going to be doubts, fears, and reasons to not step up and click the shutter. That demon is oh so creative and is consistently coming up with new tactics. You need more skills. You need to be better prepared. You need to find your voice. Your vision. Your style. You need a new camera. You need a different lens. You aren’t worth what you’re charging. This client will never hire you again. You’re not a real photographer: you’re a fraud.

It is always safer to not use the camera.

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Eventually, it might show up in an entirely different way and tell you that you won. You are a great artist and photographer! You’re happy. Your clients are happy. Your demon tells you how good you are. You agree. Then it tells you that you should work on a million different things that aren’t actually photography now: a new book, a new class, or a new gallery show. So you and your new best friend start to talk about paper stocks, book topics, covers. You start to play in Lightroom’s book module for the first time. You take a class on book editing. At times, you glance longingly over at your camera, but you’re doing great. Sure, you are a photographer who isn’t taking pictures, but that’s just because you are so good at taking pictures that you need to focus on all these other things. Right?

It is always safer to not use the camera.

In the end, we have to learn to embrace that voice. We have to figure out how to co-exist. I mentioned that I work a lot with historical processes and combining digital and analog photography. When you work with historical processes, failure is the norm. There are not Undo commands. No saved files or backups. Each image is unique, and at any step, it can go south for any reason. Every day is riddled with failure. Sure each failure is a chance to learn and grow but that internal voice keeps pushing and beating the drum.

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When my demon tells me how bad I am failing, I remind it that failure is normal in the process. It disagrees. I argue and push back. There is so much resistance. So I let the voice win. “Fine. I suck! You’re right. Lots crappy photos today. Wasted money and time. No one will like these photos.” There is silence.

In the silence, I find acceptance. The devil has nothing left to say. Sure, it will be back later. It always comes back (so far), but for today from within the silence comes this amazing creative energy. Energy born from letting go of the resistance. I don’t have to fight anymore. I can  just be present. I can just be me. I can just take a risk behind the camera. All those stories of doubt and angst can drop to white noise. I can tell my story. I can try out and fail at new processes and techniques. I can take bad photos. I can take great photos.

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There is so much behind the camera that can happen when you let go of resistance. Working with a model rather than against them. Finding a balance with a gallery owner or an art director rather than trying to steamroll or be steamrolled. Maybe you should use natural light rather than strobes or vice versa. Don’t force it. Not every moment needs a hammer. On this day, my demon, and my dog, inadvertently ended up giving me one of my greatest gifts. They reminded me that while it is always safer to not use the camera, there is no greater way to be than present, in the moment, behind the camera.

Thank you, Scott and Brad, for allowing me to work through some personal issues here. Maybe in the Comments section below we can do a little group therapy. Everyone has their demons to slay, and there is nothing like community to fuel your passion, pick you up when you fall, and let you know that you’re not alone.

I hope everyone has a great week behind the camera. Go photograph something you find amazing.

Daniel

P.S. Just a quick note about the photos in this blog post. Half of the images in the post are from a series on metal. They are digitally captured, converted to a digital negative, and contact printed in platinum/palladium. The other half are from a series on fall decay. They are one-of-a-kind wet-plate collodion tintypes. They were taken with a 4×5 large-format camera.

Daniel j Gregory is a Whidbey Island, Wa based fine-art photographer and educator who often creates images using modern digital tools and historical processes. You can see more of his work at DanielJGregory.com, check out his KelbyOne class Visual Literacy, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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9 Comments

  1. What a great phrase “It is always safer to not use the camera” and such an inspirational post which can apply to life beyond photography.

  2. I love what you wrote here Daniel, and it was great seeing you in Vegas last month! Your work is awesome, and your dog definitely has the right attitude.
    Rock On Buddy!!!

  3. Daniel, this is so right on. Sometimes I just tell myself to put down the camera, but then, I pick it back up and start clicking again. Thanks, this was a great post

  4. great writing here Daniel, all so very true in so many ways

  5. Thanks for discussing this all-too-familiar demon; I try to ignore him as often as possible, and if I ever forget to take my camera with me I feel more naked than if I’d left the house without pants. When I’m looking through the lens it feels like I can see the real essence of life. I’m not always successful at capturing it, but it’s the trying that becomes art.

  6. Daniel, I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this article and your class on KelbyOne. The issue of self doubt is something that I never understood how to deal with or even that one could overcome it. I just thought it was something I had to live with. Since learning about this from you I have been trying to let go of the resistance and let creativity flow. It’s not easy, but it is so invigorating to feel a little progress and know that others have similar feelings.

    Also, I’d like to add that the concept you mentioned in your class of creating a vocabulary to describe your own work opened a whole new door for me as well. Talk about stretching and bending one’s brain in a whole new way! I’ve watched the class a couple of times and I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to identify the vocabulary for my own work. Again, this is not easy but I feel like I have an amazing new way to find out where I should be focusing my energy to create work that truly reflects my vision as an artist.

    Thank you so much. I really hope that you continue to contribute to Scott’s blog or present additional classes to help keep this amazing creative fuel flowing.

    Best regards,

    Eric

  7. Goodness. This is reminding me of a play-through I watched a few days ago of a videogame called “Beginner’s Guide”. It was sort of an outsider’s take on how artists are perceived, and how consumers are often struggling with their own demons while trying to ascertain if the artist who’s work they are consuming matches up to what they see in the art itself. Bit of a head trip, but life does that to all of us, and it is refreshing for me to read blogs like this where that universal struggle is faced with courage and a message of hope is passed along. Thanks, Daniel.

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