Let’s be honest, there are a lot of photography self-help articles out there.
There’s more than enough information available online to transform a whole generation of buddying enthusiasts into a formidable consortium of beard-stroking masters in technical photography proficiency.
However, technical and practical learning curves are not the only hurdles that can trip up aspiring and established photographers alike. In many cases it is the psychological barriers that restrict us the most. Learning to identify your fears and misconceptions is an important step toward a fulfilling profession or hobby. By equipping yourself with the right tools to challenge these, you can be free to shoot with confidence and purpose.
It’s only natural that a new photographer will make mistakes in the early stages of their careers. It isn’t unique to an individual or even significant at all, it’s just part of the learning curve. Although it is important to try to break bad habits early, or avoid them altogether.
The technology and technique behind modern cameras can be daunting at first. Many aspiring photographers find the technical jargon and seemingly complex functionality of modern cameras so overwhelming that they avoid even attempting to learn the basics. This is usually the result of an over-estimation of the likelihood and dangers of failure, combined with an under-estimation of the likelihood and value of success.
Whilst it may be discouraging, with a little time and effort every photographer can develop the innate ability to read situations, apply the right settings, focus, compose and snap a picture without really thinking about it. Photographers who learn this early will be faster, more accurate and will capture more powerful imagery by reducing distraction and staying intimately involved in their environment.
If you’ve recently bought a new camera and can’t get your head around how it works, set aside a few hours to spend some uninterrupted, quality time with your camera and manual. Familiarizing yourself with your camera’s features, capabilities and the way it feels in your hands will lay down solid, long-lasting foundations to aid your muscle memory development as you continue to hone your craft.
If you routinely avoid learning about the photography basics, like shutter speed, aperture and ISO — you are likely under-estimating and devaluing your intelligence and ability, not to mention limiting the scope of your creative expression. Furthermore, you will miss opportunities and stifle your technical and conceptual development.
It can all seem alien at first but I assure you that it will become natural with a little effort. If you’ve been putting it off, Google some articles on photography basics and spend 15 minutes a day with your camera experimenting and observing the results. If you start getting frustrated, put everything down and do something you find enjoyable and try again tomorrow.
With a little structure and practice, things will eventually just “click” and become another subconscious process, like shifting gears, or operating your espresso machine. The hardest part is actually accepting that this barrier, and the resulting stigma are merely logical errors in judgement and leftover traits from early humans’ genetic tendency to survive, manifested in unproductive avoidance behaviors.
The benefits of overcoming these will prove to be worth the introspection. You will be develop confidence in yourself and provide a good basis to achieve your personal and professional goals.
Worry and anxiety are only useful if they provoke you to take positive action or avoid an actual, realistically harmful outcome, such as remembering to wear your seatbelt or leaving a bar if a fight breaks out. When worry causes you to avoid situations that are not rationally dangerous, that’s when it becomes a problem. Don’t let it interfere with your life.
For those who really want to get to know their camera, I recommend [Gary Friedman’s guide-books](http://www.friedmanarchives.com/ebooks/index.htm) for professionals and amateurs alike. He writes comprehensive and thorough guides for most popular camera models. His straightforward, user-friendly style of writing breaks down the technical jargon of photography into simple English while providing camera-specific tips and recommendations along the way.
Strong values, determination and even a hint of perfectionism can all be vital in creating powerful artistic expressions that deeply resonate with an audience.
However, photography is as much an art form as it is a practiced technical exercise. Style, flair and personality will definitely help you carve out a niche for yourself but don’t delude yourself into thinking that your ideals are intrinsic truths.
For example, you will come across people who will proclaim with the conviction of late-night televangelists why you should or shouldn’t use a flash, as a rule. They may even provide some pretty convincing arguments. But no respected institution of photography is going to tell you that either way is inherently right or wrong. What they will do is teach you established techniques and how they are used in common situations. After receiving an education grounded in peer-accepted industry standards, you can then take it upon yourself to discover ways to bend the traditional principles for your stylistic advantage from an informed perspective.
We all have a tendency to seek, recall and approve of information that confirms our personal beliefs without logical scrutiny. This is referred to as Confirmation Bias.
For instance, I personally have a particular fondness for film over digital because I had a defining experience with film photography when I was growing up. So today, as I’m browsing photography articles, a heading like “The Allure of Film Photography” would likely catch my eye because it validates my beliefs. However, a heading like “The Benefits of Digital Photography” would be easy to ignore as I may have already established an opinion on the topic and might not be looking to challenge it. If I were particularly determined, sensitive, or just in a bad mood, a title like “Digital vs Film: Which One Is King?” may provoke me to approach the article, or comment section, from a defensive or maybe even an aggressive standpoint. If we are emotionally or otherwise invested in our opinion, we will often go to great lengths to justify it, even when presented with disconfirming factual evidence.
It’s important to approach artistic pursuits with value-based conviction but be careful not to get stuck in an ideal. Try to keep an open mind to new ideas and approaches but be skeptical of ideas that seem black-and-white. If we apply some healthy skepticism to the information we consume and in questioning our beliefs, we might avoid some simple logical errors when forming and accepting our principles.
So don’t get stuck following some restrictive, arbitrary ideology that may have been built on opinion and bias. Don’t think “primes or die”, think “prime lenses may provide certain advantages that are useful for my particular approach in a particular situation.”
At its best, perfectionism can be a driving force in achieving a high standard of work against adversity. At its worst, it sets you up for a pattern of failure and disappointment by setting unattainable goals.
One phrase you would have already heard is Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It describes a tendency for people, particularly photographers and musicians, to obsessively research and buy new gear or accessories in an attempt to perfect their kit. It’s a type of compulsive perfectionism that not only wastes time and money, but also lowers your confidence in your own ability and that of your equipment.
Marketers, amongst other social manipulators, take full advantage of this phenomena, particularly when advertising for the third party accessories market which is continuing to thrive since the release of the original iPod. In fact, most of the products available to you are redundant and only serve to complicate your process.
It is important to keep your gear up to date, but your camera body should last you at least three or four years if not more. You do not need the latest innovation in quick-release shoulder straps. You do not need a $67 memory card case. You don’t need a belt clip, a viewfinder hood, or a dust-resistant, waterproof chest-mount in case you one day decide to buy a bike.
The only things you really need for high-impact photography is a camera and a lens. Most professional commercial photographers can even get away with a small, well-considered handful of quality lenses.
If you are planning to shoot professionally or artistically but don’t have a lot of money to spend, a high-quality 50mm prime, or 24-70mm zoom may be versatile and useable options to get you through most early-career shoots.
Customizing your camera to your specific needs can also help you feel comfortable and lets you access your most used features with ease. Just be careful to not fall into the ‘tinkering’ trap. It’s just too easy to sit around wasting time trying to find that elusive “perfect” setting.
Instead, go out and use your camera in a range of situations, keeping a mental note of what features you use the most. Then sit down with it for an hour and get everything set up how you like it. After you’ve done that, try not to think about it anymore or change anything. You want to develop the muscle memory for using your camera. Excessive alterations to button layouts and settings will only make it more difficult to achieve this.
There’s always going to be something better out there, but all the time spent obsessing over the inadequacies of your gear, or researching some mythical ideal set-up could be better used to improve your technique, develop your eye for composition and gain priceless life experience.
Which is to say — you could be out there shooting.
You need to get over the idea that your camera is a fragile and expensive item that you must protect at all times. You bought it to use it and the manufacturer has designed it to be used in a variety of conditions by people with varied lifestyles. There are plenty of world class photographers using their gear in some of the most extreme conditions known to humans; from the lava spouting peaks of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, to the frozen glaciers of the Antarctic surrounded by treacherous waters.
So how do we protect our equipment? This answer is simple – Insurance.
As much as I hate to admit it, insurance will give you the peace of mind to shoot with confidence and in the unlikely event that anything bad happens, you can rest assured that your losses will be minimal.
There will always be an excuse to leave your camera at home or in its bag. What’s the point of buying a Ferrari if you’re too scared to take it out of the garage? If I ever bought one you can be damn sure I’d drive it every day.
A few specks of dust on your lens isn’t going to affect the quality of your photos either, so don’t waste energy worrying about the pollen count, save it for things that matter. Also, don’t be too concerned about swapping lenses in the field if you need to, professionals do it all the time. Just shield the wind with your body and point your camera down when switching.
You may even want to consider leaving your lens cap off. A lens hood will protect your precious glass from most major accidents without compromising image quality. Personally, unless a lens is sitting on my shelf, disconnected from its body, it won’t have a lens cap on ever — even if it’s in my bag. That way I am always ready to capture the moment.
Get out there and really use your camera. Let it get a few scuffs and scratches, at least you will know that it has lived.
We are all afraid of being negatively perceived, whether it be judgement from our peers or a negative thought of someone we don’t know. This can cause a photographer with potential to hesitate on a shot, or only visit ‘safe’ places, or even places without people. Anxiety can be debilitating and will limit your development, enjoyment, creativity and expression.
For any situation that you feel anxious, the following simple formula can help you to logically challenge your anxiety.
Over-estimation of danger
(How dangerous is it? How likely is it to occur?)
Under-estimation of your ability to cope with an outcome or the likelihood of receiving help from others
For example, if you feel apprehensive toward pulling your camera out on a busy street because people will look at you, or think you’re technique is wrong — think about how likely it is to actually occur. Firstly, people generally have better things to do. Secondly, has it ever happened to you before? And if so, how often relative to the number of times that it has not happened? Finally, how bad was the outcome really?
The chance of someone thinking something bad about you or criticizing your choice of camera is realistically very low. We could guess that a plausible worst case scenario might be that a passerby has a brief, internalized negative thought about you and seven seconds later they forget it.
Now let’s consider how damaging that thought really is. What if I ask you to sit there right now and focus all your energy into thinking something really, really terrible about me. Let’s see what happens. Go on, really let me have it.
Well, you get my point.
I have had very few negative experiences as a street photographer. The worst was being questioned by cops for 40 minutes with one of them repeatedly stating that I was a weird person to be taking photographs alone in the streets. Not bad really — and whilst this was somewhat unpleasant at the time, it has caused no long term damage and is now simply a fun story to tell. I’ve been in unseemly places at ungodly hours and in the presence of questionable characters. It’s possible that something bad could have happened, but it didn’t and I refuse to live my life around a series of maybes.
People are actually surprisingly warm and engaged when given the opportunity. I have met so many great people who I’ve approached in the street. By and large most people have actually been flattered that I saw something alluring about them enough to take a picture. Interacting with others can be a beautiful and intimate thing. Don’t hide behind the camera. Be a part of the scene and engage with the people around you.
Take your camera with you everywhere. And I mean everywhere. I can’t emphasize this enough.
Don’t wait for a reason to take it off the shelf. Instead, make sure you have your camera with you for when opportunity presents itself. And believe me, it will because if nothing else, life is surprising and spontaneous.
By having your camera with you, you will create opportunities instead of waiting for opportunities. You may even be surprised to find yourself becoming more mindful of your surroundings and being much more engaged with your experiences in general. Beautiful and interesting things will catch your eye, things you walked past a thousand times on the way to work for years without ever noticing will suddenly become vividly clear.
Buy a camera bag that is comfortable and unassuming, one you can wear for a few hours without difficulty. This won’t be a replacement for your studio backpack that holds seven lenses, three bodies, a laptop and a Yoho Diablo. This is your everyday bag. Along with your camera and favorite lens, this bag should be able to store everything you need to take to work, or elsewhere, replacing the one you currently use.
Everyone has different needs when it comes to camera bags but I recommend looking into a small shoulder or sling-bag that won’t get in your way as you go about your daily errands. The ThinkTank Retrospective Series may be a good starting point for your research as they are comfortable, adequately protective, hold a surprising amount of gear and they nearly don’t look like a camera bag. They aren’t perfect by any stretch, but it’s as close as I’ve found for my needs. Nevertheless, whichever bag you decide on, it’s important that you can get your camera in and out of it quickly and easily.
Once you have a good bag, stick your camera in it and leave it there. This is its new home. Stock up your bag with the very basics — two batteries, flash, data cables, lens cleaning kit, spare memory card, etc. Now your camera will be ready to go with you at a moment’s notice.
An overly complicated process results in unnecessary resistance and distraction. By simplifying it, you remove a pervasive barrier of avoidance by ensuring your process is practical and effortless.
Habit & Distraction
Despite the negative connotations of the word, habits can be a powerful tool in reducing the energy we spend on tasks that are valuable but don’t require any particular awareness.
When we wake up in the morning and prepare to go to work there are a variety of things that we do as part of our routine; Shower, brush our teeth, put on deodorant, shave or apply make-up, make a coffee, check emails, read the news, iron our shirt and put on our clothes, socks and shoes.
We have been taught that these are useful and necessary for us to function correctly in society. By establishing a routine around these tasks and repeating them over the course of our lives, they no longer require any real conscious effort or self-analysis. We just do them.
For example, we wear shoes for the majority of the time we spend outside our homes but we don’t think about how they feel all day or if they are supporting our arch as well as they could. We don’t constantly adjust them to see if they could be just a little bit more comfortable. We see them in a shop, buy them, spend a few minutes adjusting the laces and then start breaking them in.
This sentiment can also be applied to your camera. You should do everything you can to ensure you are comfortable with it and that using it is as close to second-nature as possible. With a little practice, you can reduce distractions and hindrances to allow yourself to focus on your creativity.
Let your camera become a part of your everyday life. Don’t let it distract you from your life.
They say that creativity lives in the edges of your comfort zone. This also applies to technical ability and social situations. If you find yourself getting lazy, taking the same style of shots, or visiting the same places, go somewhere stimulating and challenging. Somewhere you wouldn’t normally go. When you come back with some great shots you will feel a sense of achievement, a boost in your confidence in dealing with new situations and reduced anxiety in approaching new situations in the future.
Another great way to build confidence is to start getting feedback. I’m not talking about from your mother or your best friend. Start getting feedback from people who are not emotionally invested in your well-being so as to only give you praise. Positive feedback feels great, especially when it’s from your peers but critical feedback, whilst initially disheartening, will help you to identify your strengths and weaknesses.
Criticism is a reality that even professionals have to regularly face so it’s important to get accustomed to it and learn that it is actually incredibly useful in your growth. I mean, even Citizen Kane has critics.
Know your worth. Sure, you aren’t going to get top industry rates without any experience, but new photographers can easily get stuck in the “amateur rate” self-deception. A big mistake of many amateur photographers is not knowing when they are no longer an amateur photographer. When you feel you are producing a consistent quality of work and your clients change from being friends of friends to businesses, it’s time to research the industry standards of pricing structure.
Your country or state’s photographic association will most likely have a wealth of information available covering industry practices, licensing advice and guidelines for pricing.
Mindfulness & Immersion
The world of photography is filled with sublime spectacles, inspiring imagery and captivating characters. The local and international community offers a near-endless supply of innovation, inspiration and support for photographers — there really isn’t any excuse to not get involved.
A good place to start is to search for well-known, critically acclaimed photographers whose work you love. Go through their catalogue and get to know their style and approach. Join Flickr, ViewBug or any of the other social photographic communities and discover what other people are doing in the field. Really immerse yourself in photography and ensure you are constantly inspired. This will help you creatively and you will also start developing a barometer for quality and flair.
You might even consider joining a MeetUp group that holds regular get-togethers with like-minded photographers. They can be a great place to find support and provide a safe environment for learning and discussion. Most of all, you will probably have a lot of fun – humans are social creatures after all.
Are you looking to experiment with fashion photography? You don’t have to be a top-tier fashion photographer to be able to find models for a creative shoot. Check your local classifieds, or sites like Craigslist or Gumtree. There are often many aspiring models looking for photographers to help them build a body of work. These can be a great opportunity to experiment with model direction and set design if you are so inclined, not to mention the potential to add a professional edge to your portfolio.
These are just a few basic ideas to get you started. There is a whole world of potential out there so don’t waste any time — get involved in the amazing and diverse universe of photography.
In Summary: To Capture The Moment, Live In The Moment
At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you are out there shooting. Fear, doubt, anxiety and perfectionism will try their hardest to hinder your progress — just don’t listen to their rhetoric.
Stay inspired, stay open-minded and your journey to becoming a well-rounded, high-quality photographer will be filled with experiences both exciting and enjoyable.