The state of photography is chaotic and rapidly changing. The definition of photographer is evolving, the barrier of entry is at its lowest yet, and imposter syndrome is taking hold. Let’s review the mental gear needed to shoot in this new landscape.
#1. Abandon Your Doubt
Instagram is overflowing with spectacular photographers. They’re younger than you, they’re more talented, they have ad deals, they travel the world, they are impossibly consistent, they have more followers than you could imagine, your work looks like a pile of garbage compared to them. It’s easy to fall down this rabbit hole and spiral out of control.
Compare yourself to your past self. See your progress. Know there is room for everyone who’s willing to put in the work to break in. Realize that raw talent is a small fraction of how a photographer breaks through. Humble yourself with the fact that even if you dedicate your entire life to photography, there will always be countless photographers “better” than you and countless photographers “worse” than you.
More time shooting and editing. Less time in your head.
#2. Be More Proactive
The biggest difference between a successful photographer (however you define success) and a failed photographer is their drive. The photographer that’s doomed to fail is the photographer who wants information to come to them, who wants skill to come naturally, who wants equipment to do the heavy lifting, who wants the process to be fast and easy.
A photographer that’s primed for success is the photographer who loves the process, who enjoys learning new things, who seeks out and soaks up new techniques, who reaches out when they need help, who takes advantage of the resources available to them, who fears stagnation and acts on that fear, who spends more time shooting and editing and less time in their head.
Love your photos how you love your favorite people.
#3. Crave More Criticism
Whether tactful, blunt, friendly, or harsh, honest feedback is the essential fuel to grow and improve. Even when our photography is an extension of ourselves, feel at home in a feedback session. Get excited about the opportunity for a peer to dissect it, pick it apart, and point out everything they think could be improved.
Let’s try to love our photos how we love our favorite people: with an intimate knowledge and acceptance of their strengths and their flaws, not as a fantasy with the veneer of perfection, not as a nightmare with a cloud of insecurity. Photography thrives on our willingness to self reflect on our faults.
Photography is a type of storytelling that thrives on clear objectives.
#4. Find Your Orbit
Weddings? Food? Portraits? Landscape? Documentary? Journalism? Macro? Fine Art? Travel? Street? Hobby? Every branch of photography is different to shoot, incorporates different styles and visions, requires different skills or equipment, has more vs less human interaction, and is suited to different personality types. And photography is a type of storytelling that thrives on clear objectives, even if it’s just for fun.
Haven’t found your style? Think about why you like certain looks. Don’t like one branch? Try another. Maybe the branch you’re best at isn’t the one you enjoy. Maybe the one you enjoy isn’t one you’ve tried yet. Prefer being a jack-of-all-trades or would you rather find your niche? Is your preferred genre out of reach financially? Explore what’s available to you, question your vision, experiment with form, and find what you gravitate toward.
Choose the story you want to tell. Then let your story inform your edits.
#5. Know Your Ratio
Shooting vs editing. Are you highly conceptual and enjoy distorting reality? Do you prefer a true-to-life documentary feel? Somewhere in between? Put conscious thought into why you want your photos to look a certain way. Go beyond the aesthetic trends and carefully choose what story you want your photography to tell. Then let your story inform your edits.
Iconic photographer Ansel Adams, a champion of photography as an art form in the early 20th century, helped evolve public opinion on the subject by promoting the purity of the photography process (a combination of shooting and darkroom manipulation). So no matter the ratio, photography becomes an art when it’s a mindful combination of both.
It takes courage to add clarity. Aimless photography is devoid of growth.
#6. Define Your Path
Ask yourself the big questions early, even if you change the answers later. Is it how you want to make a living? Will it be your primary source of income? Is it a side hustle for extra cash? Is it philanthropic? Is it a creative outlet? If so, what goal could you set to tell your story effectively?
Think about how photography fits into your life, about why you’re personally invested, and about how you want your work to impact others. Each direction informs the amount of time, energy, and money required to pursue it. It takes courage to add clarity. Because defining photography’s place in your life enables judgment, welcomes friends to ask for progress updates, and allows your development to be measured. Aimless photography is safe by comparison, it’s a place to hide away, a place immune to assessment, prone to stagnation, and devoid of growth.
Photography is not harmless. Photography is not immune to consequence.
#7. Understand the Ethics
Especially with regard to street, travel, and portraiture, know that your images do not exist in a vacuum. We all portray others through the lens of our own life experience. And like it or not, our life experience has a bias, an angle, and is part of the story. Sometimes these images are shown with a specific purpose (showing off, uncovering beauty, documenting travels) or sometimes we earn money from them, but rarely are they kept for ourselves.
Photography is not harmless and photography is not immune to consequence. A camera, like most technology, can be a tool used for good or a tool used for wrongdoing. It can inspire a generation like Earthrise. It can shed light on turmoil like Tiananmen Square. But it can also be used to spread propaganda, to exploit those already disadvantaged. Think outside your own experience, never trust the golden rule, listen to those who’ve been wronged, take time to seek out perspectives that are not your own, and create with consideration.
About the author: Matt Bokan is a photographer and copywriter currently based in Dubai, UAE. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Bokan’s work on his website and Instagram. This article was also published here.