Ever so often it happens. You don't call it, it comes to you. You feel like it's no use, you think your photography sucks and you feel discouraged. I've been there and still get there many times myself, here's 10 tips to overcome photographic discouragement
1) You are not alone
Here's the first thing: Everybody gets discouraged. Everybody has their moments of doubt, depression and or burnout. That includes me, that includes you, that includes whoever you are looking up to. It happens when I look at some shots of other photographers and I'm like “I wish I took that!!!” and immediately feel bad for myself.
It has always helped me to realize that that person too feels the same way about another's work, and so on and so on….. Everybody feels like they are inferior to someone else and them to somebody else. So if you feel discouraged, well join the club….you are not the only one, it happens to the very people you think are immune to it.
The world we live in….is very much about appearances, it's where every one makes it look like they have their lives together while in the background nothing is further from the truth. Why do they try to show a façade of all-is-well? Because it's terribly attractive and somewhere in our hearts we all want that. but think Britney Spears, she seemed to have everything, every teen wanted to be her, but inside, she was a mess.
Every one you look up to…..they don't have it all together, because they, just like you and I are human. And if you want a REAL secret, they also fart like everyone else. Some people are just more keen to share their insecurities like Madonna, she says it comes every 5 minutes. Guess I am much better than her in that respect!
2) Discouragement is good
Whhhattt? Actually, no it's bad. But it's also good. It's badly good? Seriously tough, I believe the universe is designed a certain way, and that it has a built in reward system. For starters it only rewards the hard workers: nothing great has been achieved without hard work, it's just the way the universe is built. Discouragement is bad because it can eat you alive if you let it, but it can be good because it's a sign in a road that says “Are you SURE you want to go there?”.
I believe anybody can be great, but not everybody will be great because things like discouragement and burnout are thrown at you in order to filter the great from the rest. You see, I believe discouragement is a built in filter to automatically segment those who will do something great to the would-have-beens.
Discouragement, burnout is good, it simply tests your character. It slaps you and spits in your face in order to test if you will take it in, or if you are going to fight back. I don't know about you but I fight back. I asked so many times for a regular photography job but could not get one. It's weird. I event went so far as to design a custom PDF on how much I would be an asset to a photography company. It happened multiple times, always got turn down, with a smile mind you!, I felt discouraged.
So often was I turned down that my wife told me to stop, if I didn't feel bad about myself she felt bad for me. Ouch. But look at me now, on my two feet because every time discouragement came my way I said : Yes sir, I want it!!! And picked myself up and tried again. All that I am, I'm a product of never giving up to discouragement. When it comes your way, embrace it, it's nothing personal, it's just there to determine if you are going to achieve anything or not. Think of discouragement think of it as either a tonic or a deterrent to the path of a huge treasure. No one said being a photographer was easy.
3) Comparing apples and oranges
Nothing is easier than to get discouraged by photography. Why? Because of it's selective nature. Selection is a frightening tool, depending on how you sequence and select frames you can tell a completely different story. Selection is there to make you see something specific. Most of what you see online and in books is a selection of photography, geared towards making the photographer look good.
Pick up any book by any famous photographer, they only have a few jaw dropping images, that you've most likely seen more than once, the other stuff is quite frankly average at best. The point is this: When you look at a photographer's work and you are amazed, it's always helpful to realize that what you are seeing is a selection of frames, not the complete picture.
Every photographer, even the masters did not fart good pictures 24-7. It's easy to feel bad for yourself when you see a concentrate (the selection or portfolio) of the photographer's best work because….it's their best work!!!! Talk about comparing apples and oranges! Now span these photographs in the context of a lifetime and you have a more complete picture.
When you never see photographers in their weakest (their whole catalog), how can you not feel bad when they show you their best? I'm not saying people who are good photographers are that way because they are highly selective on what they show, all that I know is that an amateur can look like a pro if he or she selects what to show. So….don't compare your whole life against a tightly selected group of photos that are purposefully selected to because they are the BEST work.
4) Don't look at the mountain but the road
How would you tackle Mount Everest? If you look at the top of the mountain, you'll despair without having climbed one inch. “It's too high”, “I'll never make it”, “I can't possibly do it”. Humans are complacent as is, and looking at the masters of photography or someone that's already well off is a good excuse to give up without even getting the feet wet photographically speaking. It's like going to the gym, barely able to make one push-up only to see a guy doing 50 push-ups with one hand.
I personally only needed to see the work of Eugene Smith or others like James Natchwey, to go dig a whole in the ground to stick my head in. Dang these guys are good. One thing that has helped me is to stop focusing on where I need to, be an start focusing on the road to get there. At night, the only thing you need to make it to a destination are the mile markers, no need to focus on the road ahead. Focusing on doing a little photography everyday (shooting, editing, studying and reading Inspired Eye 🙂 ) will eventually get you wherever you want to be, one step at a time. Time flies fast when all you focus on is doing a little bit everyday. Take a cue from water, it can eat whole coastlines by scraping iotas of land everyday.
5) Focus on what you are doing
If there's one thing I can guarantee that will transform your photography it is this. I got so much better, and feel so much better about myself once I stopped focusing at what others are doing and started looking at my own work. I'm not saying I stopped looking at other's work, Inspiration is good and I think everyone needs it, but there was time where I was simply absorbed. The weird part is, once you start focusing on your own work it will give you a better appreciation for other's photography. I used to lament on how good other's work was, while not paying attention to my work.
It's a lesson I learned as a gear addict: Instead of focusing on photography, I focused on gear. Whether the focus is on other's work or gear, it keeps us from our own work. It's like looking up to some wealthy dude for example….oh how much it would great to have his car, his boat or whatever…..while our own home is not being taken care of. Focusing on how well others are doing photography does not help your own. I realized this a bit late, I could have been way better. Focus on what you are doing, your work will get better. Pinky Swear.
6) Look back at the previous work
One of the nasty self talk I found myself saying is “Hey Olivier you're worthless”. Ok it happens a lot I admit. That's pretty disarming and makes it appear that I never did anything photographically. I always find it a good exercise to look at past work to breathe in, it shows your track record in an objective way. It helps me focus on what I already did to focus on where I am going. It tells me that I've done stuff, and if I continue a certain way, I'll be even better.
If you don't have anything like a portfolio or something, still look back at your work, and look for your improvements, how better you are now than before. Discouragement is a feeling, and sometimes to fight it you need some objective proof (past work) that shows that you have a good photographic track record and you are not just fooling yourself.
7) Create something with your work
Do something with your work. Create a website, a blog or even better, get some nice frames, print your work (test prints above!) and showcase them at your place. I did all of these. Nothing helps appreciating your own stuff than having it printed or laid out nicely on a website you made. Basically you have to treat your work right, you have to show it some respect by doing something with it. My work was rotting on a hard drive for a while until I decided to do something with it, I got a newfound appreciation for it, I must say. You don't see it the same way once you start doing things with it, print it, or create a website, you will see.
Printing your own stuff is quite complicated I admit, and you need to know ICC Profiling, Color Spaces and all….but printing doesn't have to be fancy!!! At the very least you can go to Walgreens or similar to get your pictures printed, more than enough for most people. If you want higher quality and nice Matte Paper, that's Mpix.com. For frames I LOVE Ikea frames, nice black, simple wood, or you can buy it from Mpix already mounted and all. Websites and blogs can be done for free. Popular options are wordpress.com and blogger.com.
8) A quick, instant remedy
One no fail remedy I know when I start feeling down about my photography is to simply go out and shoot. The unspoken words when I start feeling bad when looking at other's work is that these people are doing something with their photography, and I'm not…….Going out and shoot will:
– Make you feel like you are actually doing something with your photography (you are!!!)
– Makes you one step closer to your photographic goals
– Forces you to focus on your work
It's simple, when you see others working hard on their photography, work on your own and you will feel better about yourself. You have a nasty side to yourself that always want to nag you “Loooook. This person is taking great pictures, what are YOU doing, huh? huh? huh?” Going out to shoot will remove this nag because you will be working on your own stuff, and you will improve. My partner Don goes out to shoot at least 3-4 times per week. Imagine the benefits.
9) Simply ride the wave
Sometimes, you are so discouraged you just don't want to do anything. I would recommend you stick it to discouragement and go out and shoot, but sometimes you just need to rest. Ride the wave, know it's not forever but for a short season. It might be that you just need to let the match burn to pick up another one…simply let it pass like a cold. There's a danger that discouragement can start sucking your life out and being stuck there. I wouldn't let the day pass without doing something to fight it.
Nothing beats a good movie, or a good game. Enjoy yourself in something else, renew your batteries. Read, write, play, whatever. But make sure you go back to photography recharged and not emptied. I was a good deal discouraged Yesterday (Not about photography but point is still the same) and I watched Elysium. Dang good movie. Now I'm back on track and ready to fight once more. You can also indulge yourself, not because you feel sorry for yourself but because you just want to please yourself. For me that usually means Skinny Mocha at Starbucks.
10) Diligence trumps talent
Do you think I'm a good photographer? If not, join my wife who doesn't like it much. If you do, thanks! I'll tell you that it's nothing more than being diligent at it. Keep on shooting and learning, you'll get good at it. My Graphic Design teacher….she used to come back from Art class in tears….her classmate never worked at her art and she was just SO good at drawing it made my teacher cry because she felt sorry for herself. Everyday. But my teacher worked diligently, she drew everyday, she got better everyday until…..she was better than that classmate.
That happened to me in Design too. There was this guy, had lots of design skills, I did feel sorry for myself because he was 3 years younger than me. I kept at it, and now me, along with other friends who worked hard, have a better design sense than him. Few people are born talented, for the rest of us it's hard work. Hard work with the compounded effect of everyday of every year is a force to be reckoned with. By the way, today is called the present because it's a gift….use it wisely, the present is the most powerful tool to shape our destinies.
11) Bonus: We are born originals
There's no two like you, there is no two like me. Yes! That means I can't take pictures like you and you can't take pictures like me. I find great comfort in knowing that no one can do what I do the way I do it. It means it's priceless because it's unique. So while another photographer might be super skilled, they can't have what I have. Reminding myself that usually ends discouragement and replaces it with a wave of gratefulness.
Only I can shoot the way I do. Priceless. No need to be discouraged because no one can replace you or me when it comes to photography. I think this is a deep longing as photographers to know that what we do matters. It does because it's unique and irreplaceable, because we are.
It's 5 times as easy for me to get discouraged because I can get attacked from many angles. I can get discouraged as a family man, entrepreneur, photographer, freelancer, etc. Sometimes I get 2-3 areas of discouragement at the same time. The key is to take it one step at a time, one day at a time..and go trough the steps above…slowly but surely. Even better is relying on your Faith. If you are a discouraged as a photographer, I've been there, and I still get hit very often….just focus on the thing that you can do today that will get you closer to your goal, Forget others work, forget tomorrow, just today……. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.
Article originally published in August 12, 2013, now revised and updated