“Cloud Lines” / Hudson River, NY
At a recent workshop I was asked about self-criticism and how it affects my decisions as a photographer. Namely, how do I choose the keepers from the rest? How do I know when I’ve succeeded and when I’ve failed? How do I manage frustration?
I am my own worst critic for sure, and these are all questions I’ve had to deal with for a long time. There have been many soul-searching nights when I couldn’t get to sleep because of the constant doubt. I’ve also had to ask myself the most difficult question of all: “Why am I doing this?” And therein lies the key.
Over the years I’ve learned lots of things, but probably the most important lesson I’ve taken to heart is to worry less about results. Life is too short, and how I spend my time is what matters most. The mindset and approach I adopt every day is one of valuing time well spent, and letting results happen naturally. We are all a product of our habits, and consistent habits eventually reap consistent rewards.
If I go out for a photo shoot and return with no usable images, that’s ok. The question that really matters is did I make the most of that opportunity? Did I notice something I wouldn’t have noticed before? Did I feel excited about the moment? Did I feel inspired?
The actual results may or may not reflect that, but eventually they will. That’s because hopefully I’ve come away from the experience with a deeper sense of what matters to me and how I want to share that with others.
“Walls of Rock” / Canyonlands NP, Utah
Conveying the feelings you feel about what you photograph comes from feeding your creative voice. It radiates out as a result of how you nurture that voice and allow it to develop. You need to make space and time for that to happen. If you get lost in the habitual need to justify the time, money, or energy you spend on photography, the real gifts will never materialize.
So how does that look like in the real world? Here are a few suggestions you can try.
- Photograph with a deep sense of gratitude – When you think of landscape photography as more than just pressing the shutter button, you open yourself to moments of awareness that can inspire you creatively and emotionally. Every moment you spend in nature is an opportunity to notice, to see something new, something you didn’t notice before, something that changes your vision and perception. This happens very gradually over time, but it has profound effects both visually and creatively. Don’t think about what you want to photograph, feel it. And you can’t do that if you’re concerned with camera settings, fixated on making a specific image, or lost in thought that take you completely out of the moment. Yes you can still make lots of images – you need to in order to improve. But it’s about why rather than what or how.
- Think long term – Either you photograph because it gives you something in return that you find worthwhile, or you will burn out because you are too focused on some imaginary finish line. There is no finish line in art. You develop and grow every time you make an image. And if you approach making an image as a whole process that involves gratitude, you are moving forward in ways that will nourish your creative voice for a lifetime. It’s a compounding effect, because we just don’t add to our knowledge, we make new creative connections. That makes me excited because I can’t wait to see what sorts of images I will make ten years from now. I’m in no rush, and neither should you.
- Seek feedback and guidance from those who inspire you – Every great and successful person has benefited from the help of others. There are countless examples of this throughout history, from Da Vinci to Steve Jobs. The key is to find people that not only inspire you, but that share your ideals. Feedback and criticism is good, but not at the expense of your inner creative flame. If your goal is to win photo club competitions, then someone who avoids creative risks may be a good fit. But if your goal is to go beyond what you may have imagined possible, then someone who values personal expression over popularity is what you want. (I assume that’s why you’re reading this blog post, and why I continue to write about difficult topics. It’s harder, but more rewarding.)
- Practice deliberately – Instead of going out to make pictures, go out with an open mindset that values discovery and curiosity above all. Nature can only speak to you if you listen. Find joy in the details, in the light, in the shadows, in the air. The camera will be there along side of you, but not in front of you, blocking your connection to nature.
“Simple Yellow” / Hudson Valley, NY
It must be an investment in yourself and your creative spirit. I’m not talking about something supernatural, but rather the thing inside of you that imagines, that feels, that dreams.
Feedback or questions, please share them below. I’m always eager to learn. Know someone who might enjoy this? Please share!