Nobody wants to fail at photography, do they? Success and failure are both achievable, although the latter is easier. This is how to set about failing and, therefore, succeeding.
Why do you take photos? What is your motivation? I suspect your answer will be very different from the next person’s. One person may consider it solely a way of earning money. Others enjoy socializing at a camera club or even online in the comments of a photographic community. Some photographers love the technical aspects of it, and others the art. Some want to be out in nature, and photography comes second to that. Many use their cameras just to record their lives. For many, it combines all those factors.
Maybe the whole process, from planning the shot to producing a print, is important to you. Or, you enjoyed the clicking, but the images stay on your memory card because you cannot face spending hours in front of the computer screen developing the photos.
Whatever their motivation, few photographers argue that the bits they enjoy most are the creative ones. Those moments when you hold your camera to your eye and press the shutter button, knowing you’ve got a photo worth saving, are more special than any other. It’s those good bits that are the doorway to success.
Gear Acquisition Syndrome and the Road to Failure
Yet, it’s curious that when writers produce an article about gear, it is read far more times than, say, a piece that helps the photographer hone their techniques. Similarly, when I look at my Google news feed on my phone, most photography articles it shows me are about equipment. The world seems obsessed with buying stuff. Yet, it’s widely acknowledged that the joy brought by buying things is short-lived and is often followed by a downturn in mood. Likewise, comparing our belongings against others is a sure way to poor mental health.
There are times when we need to upgrade our kit. However, while having a poor-quality camera might hold you back, having the latest $3,000 Sonikanon D1d Mark III isn’t going to transform you into a successful photographer. So, if you want to fail, buy lots of shiny new camera gear and forget everything else.
The Mindset of Failure
As with life, success in any creative art needs a balance between self-confidence and self-awareness. When these are out of kilter, failure is easy to achieve.
You’ve probably met someone who considers themselves particularly good at photography. They boast about owning the latest gear and are quick to criticize other people’s work. How often have you rolled your eyes at the same person who spends their whole life making negative comments in photography forums? Looking at their gallery, do you ever think their time would be better spent improving their techniques instead of raging at the world and being mean to others?
Many years ago, I knew someone just like that. Eric (not his real name) was a well-balanced soul who had a chip on both shoulders. He thundered and fumed about other people’s photography, trying to pick holes in everything to make himself feel superior. Instead of improving his photography, he tried to put others down. Meanwhile, he thought he was the camera king. He used to hire models to photograph for publicity and unsuccessfully attempted to get customers to pay him to photograph them. Meanwhile, he continued making his living from his menial nine-to-five job, at which he never got promoted. That was something else he was angry about.
The truth was, Eric’s photography wasn’t that great, and his model shots looked, at best, sleazy. But he was so convinced that he was the next David Bailey that he never reviewed his own performance.
Eric could have become a good photographer if he had tried. But instead of continuously learning, he didn’t ever get anywhere because he spent his time picking holes in other people’s work, trying to knock them back.
Offering positive encouragement and praise improves your mind and creativity, whereas sharing constant bile with the world does the opposite. Trying to knock others down adversely affects both your own thoughts and what others think of you.
Coming to Terms With Imposter Syndrome
Around the same time, I got to know a fabulous photographer, Sarah (not her real name either.) She had natural talent. Yet, although she loved taking photographs and was good at it, she failed to appreciate her own creativity. She had a clear case of imposter syndrome, where an individual feels undeserving of their talents, skills, or achievements. Sufferers have a fear of being exposed as frauds and they struggle to accept praise too. Sarah felt both fear and guilt when she was successful.
Some mistake imposter syndrome for self-doubt, but it is far more than that. Despite her successes, Sarah was debilitated by her lack of belief in her talents. It’s natural to doubt oneself, but if that doubt becomes overwhelming, one needs help to overcome it.
Of course, now, there are those who falsely claim imposter syndrome as a medal of merit, as if it gives them a badge of authority because of this syllogism: “I’ve got imposter syndrome. Those with imposter syndrome are good at what they do. Therefore, I must be good.” They are easy to spot because imposter syndrome occurs among high achievers, and those who falsely claim they have it invariably fail to fit that description. If someone openly proclaims to the world that they have it, they probably don’t.
If you genuinely suffer from it, it is important to acknowledge those feelings and, if they seem unsurmountable, seek support from a trusted colleague, a business mentor, or, better still, a professional therapist. Ask for genuine feedback and talk about how you can improve your work. The most skilled and respected photographers are always continuously improving.
Those people you choose to help you should help you turn away from negative thoughts, focus on past accomplishments, and help you set achievable goals that will give you confidence when you achieve them. Take note of how you have improved and compare yourself solely to where you were before, and not to others.
If You Want to Fail, Be Lazy
Like anything in life, it takes hard work and perseverance to become good enough at this art. Many people expect instant success in photography as if it is an entitlement. Social media is to blame for this. Because of it, we see seemingly untalented people becoming popular.
However, many don’t understand the hard work and dedication that went behind their success. Moreover, the worldview offered by social media is not only rose-tinted but extremely biased towards a false idea of perfection, which gives our own self-confidence a knock. We look at people’s Instagram feeds and see some amazing photos but don’t see the hundreds of pictures consigned to the recycle bit. Instagram does not reflect what is truly happening in people’s lives.
Doug Chiang and the Art of Success
I recently finished watching the series on Disney Plus called Light and Magic. The last episode showed a section with the artist Doug Chiang. Apart from various Star Wars productions, he worked on movies as diverse as Ghost, The Mask, Beowulf, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and Forrest Gump. He was determined to work on a Star Wars film, but he felt his skills needed to improve. So, he gave himself an assignment every day for a week. He thought he would produce good enough work by the end of the week. He ended up doing that for a whole year and, indeed, became employed to head up the art department for the prequel films. If you want to become the best, it requires that level of commitment and determination. If you want to fail, do the opposite.
Anyone making a living from photography or any creative skill is putting in that level of commitment. They experiment all the time and continuously hone their skills. They are invariably supportive of others, too. The overriding message from that series was how the entire team at Industrial Light and Magic worked together and helped one another to succeed.
Common Traits of Successful Photographers
Like everything in life, besides hard work, there are traits that successful photographers have in common. Succeeding in photography has everything to do with a deep enthusiasm for the art and the ability to approach work and the challenges it brings with confidence. Of course, things will go wrong, and there needs to be resilience and the ability to bounce back from setbacks.
You should also set clear goals, knowing what you want to achieve. Otherwise, you wander aimlessly and achieve nothing. Those goals need to have a purpose. For example, you may have decided to photograph a tree once a week all through one year, but why do you want to do that? If there is no purpose, there is no reason to do something, and the enthusiasm will be lost. Knowing that the project will be featured in a magazine or that it will help you win an award will motivate you to keep at it. Setting targets and a schedule for achieving those goals is an excellent way of organizing and managing your time.
Another essential feature of success in photography is adaptability. The road to being a successful photographer often means changing course from the one you set out on. When I ask professional photographers to look back at their original business plan, what they are doing now rarely looks like that model; mine certainly doesn't.
Finally, if you want success, build strong, positive relationships with other photographers.
There are times on the road to success when you will have challenges and things will go wrong. But this isn't failure, it's just things not going to plan, like the photos I used to illustrate this article.
If you want to always fail at photography, be lazy and indifferent. When things go wrong, give up. Don’t take any interest in every aspect of the art. Follow a narrow path and don’t be distracted by better opportunities, and treat other photographers like dirt.
(If you are worried, the young woman survived the soaking she got in these waves. Please don't put yourself in danger like this. Sadly, the incident that was shot many years ago, took me by surprise, and I wasn't set up and ready for it. These are the failed photos that I would otherwise have consigned to the recycle bin, but thought they would be useful one day.)
I appreciate these words: "Take note of how you have improved and compare yourself solely to where you were before, and not to others."
Thank you Jason.
As usual, nicely put to the point.
Another very nice article , and in my opinion you’re absolutely right. When I started my photography I watched every photo gear related video on YouTube. But that wears thin very soon and I discovered that I learned much more , and got more enjoyment out off, videos from Thomas Heaton, Ben Horne, Adam Gibbs and Sean Tucker.
Hi, Rudd. There are certainly some really good video tutorials out there. One of the things I always liked about Fstoppers was that it finds and highlights those videos worth watching. Also, the readers make recommendations too. Thanks for the nice comment.
The Photographic Eye and T. Hopper are another two YouTube Channels I regularly watch for decent non-gear related information.
I'm a smartphone (Galaxy S10) & drone photographer. I take mostly stills in landscape mode. I edit in Snapseed on my phone & Photoscape X on a laptop for the pics taken with my humble DJI Mini 2. I decided to challenge myself by branching-out to vertical video.
I watched alot of vertical videos to see what worked & what didn't, & realized the better ones were done on a slider. So I bought a PROAIM Sway, a manual slider which fits on a single tripod and has 40 cm of horizontal movement. It's fun to experiment & figure out what works & what doesn't (the closer to your subject & having a foreground helps). I'm having fun & will get better with practice I know!
if they taught you something, are they really failed photos?
Couldn't agree more, Ivan. When people ask me how I started my portrait business, I always tell them that it began with my mindset. For a long time I would mope around wishing I was some other photographer but the moment I changed my mindset and realized that I could do it, things began to change. Once I changed my mindset, I was motivated to put in the necessary work.
That's often all that's necessary. It's certainly worked for you!
Good stuff, thank you.