For starters, this is not your typical ‘how to improve a specific thing in your photography' type of article. I do feel strongly, however, that this topic is one that is very important for creatives of all sorts to wrestle with, so I decided to go out on a limb, and share an experience from a few weeks ago where I thought I had really fallen short as a photographer. The speed with which I doubted myself, and let fear settle into my thinking was a big surprise! It has been on my mind an awful lot since that day, so I offer a few thoughts on the topic of fear.
Fear is an intrinsic element inside nearly every human psyche. I personally have been blessed or cursed (depending on how you want to view it), with a very strong and healthy ego. I have a very deep sense of competence and assurance in myself, and at the root of my personality, I believe that through hard work and commitment to my craft, I will continually produce an improving body of work. At least that is how I have always believed myself to be.
Three weeks ago I second-shot for a veteran wedding photography in one of the most affluent suburbs of Philly. I felt completely ready for this task. I have shot several of my ‘own' wedding gigs. I have done tons and tons and tons of portrait sessions, and I really feel completely confident in my ability to take great quality images. I showed up, and the clients LOVED me. Everything was absolutely picture perfect (no pun intended.)
I headed out after the wedding with nothing but the utmost positive vibes and energy from my experience. I also felt very reassured that what I have been doing with wedding photography as I am starting my wedding photography business is very much on track and comparable to someone who charges three times as much as I do.
And then it happened…
Two days after depositing the check for the gig, I received word that the check was returned. Now this is a VERY affluent area, and I just knew that there was no way that a check for a few hundred dollars would bounce. In my head, I instantly knew what had happened. The lead photographer saw my work, and they decided that my work was trash. They saw the RAW images, and they realized that I was just not deserving of our agreed upon fee. What I thought was a job done wonderfully was in fact somehow way off the mark, and I was delusional and should have never taken a second shooter gig at such a high profile venue, with such a high profile photographer.
After I got word from the bank, I texted the photographer, and asked if everything was alright. I mean… I wanted to continue to project confidence and self-assurance, but at the same time, I just knew that I had screwed things up, and somehow damaged my reputation, my standing with this person. I received no reply for the longest time. And then I got the most touching, sweet text. My photos were great, the grooms mother ADORED me, everything was perfect, they gave me a huge tip after I had left, and it was in the mail. The bounced check was due to income tax day, the photographer's taxes had been debited out of their account, and they needed to transfer money over. It was all just a mistake.
Sorry for a really long introduction, but the fear and second-guessing that filled my heart and soul for the few hours before I found out what happened was incredibly eye-opening. Here I am, a guy with arguably too much confidence… too much ego, and yet somewhere just barely below the surface is this obvious fear of being inadequate. I have spent the last few weeks really thinking about fear, and the various ways in which it can really get in the way of an artist's creativity.
Fear of Looking Foolish
Taking a risk in terms of creativity requires a healthy self-image. When you really push an envelope and try something out of your ‘comfort zone,' you run an increased risk of things not going well. The flip side of that, however, is that EVERY opportunity for growth will have to involve that risk of looking foolish while you hone your new skills. Now as a professional, it is arguably best to do the more esoteric learning while working on personal projects, not for paid work. As a photographer, we generally have control over what we share out to the world. if something is our own project, and we aren't happy with the results, we can simply withhold those results from public view, and just keep things to ourselves. In the case that I described above, the evaluation of my work was based on RAW files on a memory card. I had never second-shot before, so I was not prepared for the vulnerable feeling of having a more experienced photographer looking through the EXIF data of my images, making evaluations on how I handled each and every situation. But you know what? As soon as I was afraid that the work was not being received well, I went back through and REALLY evaluated what I had done throughout that day. I shoot in full manual, and I went back through the images to evaluate if my settings were logical. Nobody is perfect, but after some very careful retrospective examination … yeah, I made very logical choices! I have to admit, it was the very first time that I had presented my RAW images to a photographer for their use, and it was definitely not in my comfort zone.
2. Fear of Losing Control
Collaboration can be the genesis for a lot of growth. It can take your work in a new and different direction. It can open your eyes to different options and possibilities. The fear here is that handing over RAW files to another photographer means you lose control of post processing. Entering into a collaboration means that you are losing the right to be the totalitarian ruler over your end product. The little bit of each person that is an ego-maniac and a control freak has to be put in its place if you are going to truly collaborate with another photographer in a creative project. The opposite of that fear, though, is a the opportunity to develop the kind of trust and professional connections that take place between creatives of all types.
3. Fear of Failure
This is probably the greatest inhibitor of learning and growth of all. My day job is being a music teacher. I teach 6th, 7th and 8th grade students how to create and express themselves on musical instruments. At the very core of that job needs to be the understanding that human beings naturally fear failing at things. That fear gets magnified when the thing being learned is something that is emotionally significant. Music, art and photography are all VERY near to the hearts of the people that are compelled to create them. So from both an artistic and a business standpoint, it is incredibly easy to hold back. I watch students work through that anxiety every day! It was a very interesting moment of self-reflection when I had to stop and analyze my own fear that another photographer would judge my work negatively. In reality, constructive criticism is at the root of any improvement. If there had been an issue with my work, the conversation about how it fell short would be a tremendously helpful thing! It is truly a matter of perspective, but accepting some carefully thought-out or specific words of criticism will help any artist advance and progress at their craft. Oddly enough, I have spent a lifetime studying music with some of the most elite performers in the nation. My formal education on my primary instrument includes work with most of the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra trombone section, and some of the New York Philharmonic trombone section. This isn't just a fairly decent group of professionals, these are literally the very finest (and pickiest) artist in what I would contend is one of the most restrictive and judgmental corners of that art world. Classical music often has a “right way” to be performed, and there is very little latitude for deviations from that standard. With photography, there is a vastly wider net of “acceptable” professional work. There is a lot more subjective disagreement about what is “good” photography. One would think that having comfortably withstanding the highest levels of artistic instruction and criticism for decades, I would have been more equipped to deal with someone not liking some photos that I had taken. But something here was very different. The photography work either means more to my ego than my music has, or perhaps I simply lack the underpinning of confidence in photography that I have in the subject where I hold multiple degrees, and countless hours of formal study.
4. Paralysis by Perfectionism
The forth way in which fear impacts creatives is the struggle for perfection. When I go on 500px and look up my favorite photographer's page, I am seeing the absolute pinnacle of their creative capabilities. I'm seeing their masterpieces. When I look at my own work, I see every stage of the process. I see the trial and errors. Comparing my own work in all of its varying degrees of success against the absolute peak output of more experienced photographers is simply not a rational or logical comparison. Where I watch students get hung up time and time again is the notion that since it isn't likely to be perfect, perhaps it's easier not to try. I watch my music students struggle with the notion that they NEVER hear a wrong note in a piece of recorded music. The fact is, modern recording technology allows for so much pitch correction and error correction that the stuff we hear on the radio is quite often not even close to a ‘fair' presentation of a given artist's abilities. The same is true with photography. One conversation I remember hearing (most likely on an Improve Photography Podcast!) is the notion that a magnificent photographic composition with compelling emotion and story-telling properties will still be a great image, even if there is a technical flaw. The biggest example I can think of here is graininess or digital noise in a photo. We all wish we had ISO 1,000,000 cameras that had NO distortion. But, when I think back to my film days, we would actually seek out various types of film in order to create various types of grain! That isn't to say that digital noise is a good thing – but I definitely would like to make the argument that you need to be willing to take a shot in low light, even if you are pushing the ISO on your camera farther than what you want. That “imperfect” image may just be magnificent.
5. Questioning the Validity of your Own Point of View
As we move forward as artists and creators, we also need to be willing to defend our own points of view with our own work. It's absolutely fine to have a differing opinion than other photographers. It's very important to also be willing to acknowledge that if EVERYONE is telling you there is some major weaknesses in your work, then there is something to be addressed. Seeking out the critical analysis of someone that you deeply respect and getting honest feedback is precious information. I'll take this opportunity to mention the absolutely amazing opportunity through Improve Photography Plus to work with a mentor from amongst the Improve Photography podcast team. I am participating in the mentor program, and Erica Kay is my mentor. In the first week of our mentorship, we were asked to submit roughly ten images for a portfolio review. Obviously when you submit your work for a portfolio review, you are not seeking “awww jeez!!! That's just so pretty! You must have a very good camera!” When you are seeking feedback from someone who is clearly more experienced and knowledgable than you, it's very important to have the humility and willingness to take that advice to heart. But, let's talk about the normal every-day types of opinions that can often be brought to bare on our work. The internet can be a very hostile place. Part of the maturing process of being a photographer is to develop a clear vision of what you are trying to convey, and then the conviction to stand behind that artistic statement. So on the topic of your own point of view, I suppose my opinion is that you need to develop a confident voice, while also remaining open to knowledgable insights.
The moral of the story…
The situation that got me thinking about this topic is still quite fresh. I definitely need to continue to figure out why I so suddenly felt that my work did not hold up to expectations. My fear was not rational, nor was it correct; but it was very powerful. As I keep progressing and developing, I will certainly try to manage my own reactions better. I will certainly eventually have a dissatisfied client. (Thankfully that has not happened yet – but that is impossible to maintain in ANY business.) Eventually I will legitimately really screw something up! Eventually someone will think that I underperformed, even when I did a decent job. The bottom line is, as an entrepreneur and as an artist, those are necessary truths. I need to try to develop some thicker skin for the time when some sort of negative circumstance arises. I hope by sharing the thought process as I work through this stuff, that hopefully other aspiring photographers can really benefit from my thoughts as a jumping off point.