A photographer (or any artist)’s most common frustration is Self doubt. We’ve all been there. Heck, I suffered it for many many years (and I still doubt myself every single day… just not half as bad as before.) The struggle to perfection, the feeling of insecurity, the seemingly endless quest to create perfect photograph. To be a good photographer.
Here’s the good news guys: It’s okay to feel that way. It is a good sign actually. It shows that you have a strong self-evaluation and it is perfectly humane and fine.
However, when it becomes toxic to your mind, then it’s definitely not okay. I guess the biggest question now is how to determine when your self-evaluation/self-doubting act becomes toxic to your development.
I posted another fun Q&A session on instagram a week ago, and this question was one of the many that was asked:
“Hi, I’ve been a big fan of your work for quite a while now. Do you set any standards for your own self or things like that when it comes to keeping your style? Cause I started liking photography as a hobby but it started to burden me as I always strive for perfection and there’s this constant expectation for myself that is hard to keep up with and I feel like it is toxic for my mind. Thanks!”
As I took my time to answer it, I remembered about how much stress I had many years ago regarding this feeling. Just like many other aspiring photographers, I had big ideas and big concept. I invested all the time, money and energy to create; but when the end result wasn’t even close to what I had in mind, I was thrown into despair. Maybe I just suck at this. Maybe I should just consider other career options -gardening?
But as I mentioned above, I think I’ve grown better and -hopefully- more mature in facing it. I mean, the level of satisfaction when I see my work is still far from high, but I’ve learnt to embrace my insecurity, to learn more from my mistakes, and to grow further. Sounds easier to say that do right? Then let’s get you started on this self help journal. If it worked on me, hopefully it worked for you too, young Padawans.
First thing first. Identify the root of the problem: “Why are we constantly feeling insecure about our work?”
Because of who we are as human. We have expectations on ourselves. When our work don’t match that expectation, it affects our mood. Photography as an art is a very psychological thing. It’s a highly mood-driven and soul-pouring process.
In our minds, we have standards of the way our final creation should look or feel in specific details; and despite our years and years of experience, it’s difficult to create something the way we imagine it. This standard will constantly change over time, the more we’re aware of our own taste and limitations.
Back in the early start of my career, being a photographer is not something considered as a real career. I was, like many others, under heavy disapproval of my parents by choosing this path. Naturally it led me to be super critical about what I did, because I just needed to prove to others and to myself, that this could be a real profession. I had high expectations on my photos and my business, and those often led me to frustration.
Peer pressure might be another scenario that creates this problem. And that’s understandable.
Second question: “Is this self-doubt dangerous?”
It’s perfectly normal, and with the right leverage it will encourage you to challenge yourself to grow further and better. However, when it becomes too obsessive, this feeling of self-doubt is highly destructive. Here is some signs when it becomes worrying:
- You keep comparing your work to others
- You can’t accept constructive criticism
- You feel that your photos never improve
- You are constantly seeking reassurance/approval from others
- You feel that everyone is your competitor
- You can’t be happy for your fellow photographers’ success
- You only rely on your external values (big studio, client list, instagram success) for your sense of self-worth
When you’re not strong enough, or too stubborn to learn, then it will eventually tempt you to quit. If you want to give up, by all means, do it. It’s your life. But if you: (a) are really serious about considering photography as your career, or (b) truly find solace and passion in photography, then please guys, just don’t. Regardless on how much you think your work suck, do not ever give up.
Third question: “I don’t want to quit! I love doing photography! What is the possible cure/solution of this problem?”
There is no instant remedy, I hate to be the one who break that news for you. The feeling will be there for many years, sometimes you’ll have a better day, other times you might want to scrape all your work and sell all your equipment.
Also for sure, Success is not the cure. I’ve seen many photographers/artists that I considered very, very successful, enviable and on the top of their career and they still feel very insecure.
The cure comes within you; when you learn to be kinder to yourself, not getting obsessed by other people’s approval and accepting the fact that you still have so many things to learn. #zen.
Live With It
Give yourself permission to feel insecure. Accept the fact that this happens to everyone, every single person on the planet. People you perceive to be better and more successful than you have their own insecurities. Don’t try to end it, but learn to live with it.
Don’t try to fight it in a day. Sure, fighting insecurity while keep working hard is not easy, that’s exactly why many people give up. But by not rushing it, you’ll avoid giving up too early. Do not race against time. Do not race against your art.
Be Kind to Yourself
Stop beating yourself up and stop blaming your lack of inspirations, technical knowledge, good taste, etc. You might experiment with different kind of lighting and you’ll fail… and that’s okay! When you know it’s not good, then you know what to fix, and what’s not to do in the future. As cliche as the old saying sounds: Practise makes perfect. If you want quality photos, be sure to do lots of quantity shoots. Do that same lighting five, ten; heck, twenty more times, and you’ll get the hang of it. In the process, you might fail some other thing, and that’s ok, because you’ll learn a new thing again.
Set a goal, like what you want to achieve within one, three or six months. Just remember to make the goals realistic, or you’ll end up feeling down again.
Encourage yourself with the right positivity. Remember that if you say something too often, your soul will reach out to it, and you’ll end up believing it, and guess what: it will happen. Your words and thoughts create your reality. So which one do you want to program yourself to say: “I will never be good at this”, “I hate my work” and “Maybe I should just quit”, or “This sure didn’t turn out like how I wanted it to be, but I had much fun in the process and will definitely try it again“?
Remember that Low Self Esteem is not sexy
There’s a line between being low-profile and having low self esteem. Being low profile is genuinely humbled when doing and showing your work to others, because you’re aware of the fact that photography is a constant learning and one good work doesn’t make you the top of the world. However, having low self esteem is notably shown by constantly complaining about your work and how you feel you’re never good enough, sometimes just to attract sympathy or validation from others.
Real story: Everytime one of my younger associate showed me his portfolio for a review, I will give my honest opinion; if it’s good, I will give genuine compliment, and conversely a constructive criticism when it’s lacking something.
But when he keeps complaining about he hates the work and he feels he’s not good enough #stubborn, I’d say, “Dude stahp. Then scrape it. Go do something else that’s easier than photography.” *cue Coldplay song The Scientist* -because, seeking for compliments to make you feel good about your work is not sexy, which brings me to the next point:
Don’t Get too Obsessed by Other People Approval
In the realm of digital age, particularly in social media, we are easily affected by the “likes” and “comments” from others to the work we just published. When you don’t get enough social media approval, you’ll feel that your work is not interesting enough and you begin second guessing yourself again.
Professionals get to where they are now with persistence, resilience and the thirst to keep learning. The “2 likes” and “0 comments” never stop them from creating and loving what they do. Do your art because of your love to create, not because you need validation of others. If you do it for the social media approval, you won’t ever enjoy what you do.
Also feedback can be either constructive or destructive (but just remember to swallow your pride and master the emotional maturity before you are asking for one.) However, when you can’t take too much criticism yet, then only show your work to a closer community; people who have been following your journey. Who understand your efforts and history. If you just started photography for one month and try to seek validation from a top photographer who didn’t know about it, you’ll might be crushed by his/her too honest opinion.
Unless you are a working, Professional Photographer who do assignment for clients, remember that you create your art for yourself, not for others.
Stop comparing yourself to others.
You might start photography together with a friend, then during the process he/she might grow faster/better than you. Don’t despair; as there are many factors that can cause this. Everyone has a different pace on progress, learn to accept it. If you only focus on how much they outgrow you, you will miss your own improvement and self worth.
Earlier I was talking about self worth. This is important. Your own self worth comes from within yourself, and it’s devoid of other external measurements; not how big your studio is, not how impressive your client list is and definitely NOT how many Instagram likes you have. Those things are wonderful, but none defines your value as a person.
Be grateful of your own gifts and purposes in life, and the love from the ones closest to you. Those are your internal measurements.
I’ve heard a young photographer comparing himself to his friend who “still got support from his folks” and thinking of how unfair it is and “of course his work is good, he can shoot whatever he wants, while I have to struggle paying my bills.”
Let me tell you that, in the creation process, I’ve never heard of anything this irrelevant.
Judging others by what he/she has and completely ignoring his/her other parts of the struggle already makes you unfair, doesn’t it? But let’s not dwell on it. It’s all just excuses you’re giving yourself to not make further progress. Constantly feeling unfair about what we have and don’t have and endlessly making comparison is probably the sign that you’re not ready to be a Professional. I know we are all human and we can’t fight the natural jealousy, but only use it to improve your arts. Drowning in jealousy does not only give you a bad vibe in living your life, it will also kill your passion much faster.
Focus on how to support each other, rather than being too competitive and negative thus destroy yourself.
If you think of success as only a whole apple pie, you’ll get scared and frustrated when someone comes along and takes a piece of it. Instead of having the competition mentality (because trust me, it will never end), choose to focus on the fact that you and everyone else have unlimited potential for success. Rather than viewing them as competitors, look at them as fellow artist who can inspire and teach you to become better. Your success is their success, and the other way around.
Keep on Shooting
The most beautiful thing about photography that keeps drawing me to dedicate my whole life in it is: you can never ever master it. You’ll constantly learning new things: the concept of composition, lighting, camera technicalities, and so on. And yes, even when you’re on top of the game, a professional photographer with high paying jobs and impressive clienteles; at any stage you are still learning.
Photography is an endless learning process, so if you don’t have the penchant to be a forever student and to keep conquering challenges, then it’s not for you. There. Is. No. Finish. Line.
Yes, it will get better eventually. Yes, you will actually improve. Trust me.
Just don’t race it. Enjoy the journey.29