Have you ever spent over twenty minutes tinkering with an image only to sit back, stare at it, and still feel a prickling of frustration?
Something just isn't quite right, but you don't know what that something is. You try different filters and buy new preset packs. You mess with EVERY FLIPPIN' TOOL in Lightroom, and then you finally sigh, export it, and send it to your client, telling yourself that you sure as hell did your best.
I've been there, and I'd wager to say that it just comes with the territory of being a photographer. Sometimes you unknowingly shoot in the wrong settings. Sometimes the light just isn't quite right. Sometimes the colours just aren't flattering. But nonetheless, you're frustrated. And it seems to happen surprisingly often for new photographers (or at least, it certainly did for me).
I have a theory about this frustration loop that Ira Glass sums up really well:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
I got my first camera for Christmas when I was fifteen. It was a Nikon D60 (I didn't know yet that I was a Canon girl) and I remember the first time that I took it out: it was for my friend's birthday party. I wanted to get into documentary style photography, and I enjoyed a bit of obscure, postmodern nonsense as well: oddly framed candy wrappers, door knobs, my friend's earlobe, the back of my crush's head (Okay, maybe that one wasn't so much for the art of it. I did say I was fifteen).
And I also remember the first time I posted all of those images on Facebook (This was before the days of Instagram, guys. Feelin' old over here). Said friend whose birthday party I shot told me, point blank, that my images weren't very good. And I was a bit affronted.
Now, this isn't where you pipe in and say "Wow! I'm so sorry! What a bad friend." He wasn't a bad friend, actually. He was one of my best friends and one of only five people from high school who I still even communicate with. But, he was blunt. AND also, he was right. My little passion-filled heart was snapping away, over-saturating those images using my editing tools in iPhoto, and then uploading them to Facebook with hopefulness.
But. they. sucked.
Like, they really sucked, you guys. I was using flash in a dark room, people's skin tones were all wrong, I didn't know how to recognise good versus bad light, I couldn't frame things properly (we're talking I experimentally tilted the camera diagonally all of the dang time), and I could not edit for the life of me.
But I'll tell you what didn't suck: my taste and my determination.
So instead of being defeated by my friend's honesty, I just kept shooting. And I took professional gigs with my limited resources and skill, and I spent hours teaching myself Photoshop and Lightroom in my free time, and I stubbornly told myself that I WAS a photographer.
I told myself that I was a photographer even when I delivered photos to a client that I wasn't happy with (despite my BEST efforts and HOURS of work). I told myself that I was a photographer when I KNEW that my images NEVER turned out the way I wanted them to and yet I COULD NOT figure out why. I told myself that I was a photographer even though my entire Instagram grid just did not capture the aesthetic that I had in my head.
But in spite of all those pricking feelings of frustration, I pursued photography. I kept trying. I kept shooting. I kept taking gigs. For the pure love and fascination of it, I kept telling myself that I was a photographer. Within a few years, my composition and eye for light improved. Within a few more years, my editing skills improved. And I can honestly say that it is only within the last eighteen months that I've truly felt myself step into the kind of photographer I want to be. My images are finally starting to match the ones I always envisioned, and I feel equipped in a way that I never had before.
So I'll just do the math for you real quick: only in the last eighteen months have I started to make the work that matched my killer taste, but I started working as a photographer at the age of fifteen. That's ten years. Ten. A decade. I pray it doesn't take you as long as it's taken me, but then again, I applaud you if it does and you stick with it anyways.
But I digress.
So in all of this reflection, last night, it occurred to me that I was quietly allowing certain images to remain on my website even though I'd look at them and feel that prickling of frustration because I'd produced them two or three years ago. And I asked myself, "why on earth would I allow that work to represent me to my clients when I'm not even fully happy with it?"
I went to take them down, but then I thought... wait. Let's take another crack at this. My eye for composition has been decent for years, so I was almost certain that my frustration with these images was not because they were bad photos but because they weren't edited well.
So I re-edited them. And it blew. my. mind. It was as if all of the lingering feelings of frustration at the years I'd spent growing my craft had melted away in exchange for one big, beautiful "ah-ha" moment. Because suddenly my old images were whispering to me "we always knew you had it in you." They looked EXACTLY like I had always hoped they would. They matched the clarified style that I had carved out for myself. And they reminded me that growth is not always linear.
And with that in mind, I just wanted to list out a few things that I learned last night. Things I wish I could tell my younger photographer self, but I can't, so I'm going to tell you instead. You, young heart. You, beginner. You, with the crappy photos and the killer taste. Because I hope you know that you're doing good work, and there is growth in your future.
1) Cherish the first clients who have faith in you.
My first proper photography gig was with some clients who were family friends.They wanted a family portrait shoot. My second client was, you guessed it, a family friend. She wanted some graduation photos. My third client was a work colleague. We all have to start somewhere, but I am so, so grateful that these people had faith in me even when my work was NOT at the standard I wanted it to be. Still, those people saw something in me-- they saw the talent that simply needed honing, and they paid me to find out where that talent could lead me. They paid me to take myself seriously. They paid me to be a professional. And for that, I am so, so grateful. So wherever you're at in your journey, cherish your first few clients for believing in you. And cherish them because that's the foundation of a good business: one where service and client-love is at the centre.
My first paid shoot in 2012.
2) Save the RAW files from your shoots.
I am SO glad that I have some of the original files from past shoots-- and I'm SO frustrated with the shoots that I didn't back-up with RAWs-- Because this re-editing exercise has helped me discover new diamonds in old work. It has really affirmed how much I've grown. It's given me more content to work with when I needed it. And it's allowed me to maintain a broader portfolio that holds my current vision and style. Nothing is worse than a client finding you through one of your old weddings that doesn't reflect your style anymore. Because you don't want them hiring you for what you did three years ago; you want them hiring you for what you do now. Saving the RAWs means that you can take old work and edit it to your current style if you need to pad out your portfolio or you need something new to post to your Instagram feed. And sometimes re-editing old images is just really, really fun.
3) Don't obsess over equipment, but know when it IS time to upgrade.
I myself have told newbie photographers that one question they SHOULD NOT be asking in the very early stages is "What camera do you use?" And yet it is a question I am asked a LOT. I get it. It feels like an easy place to start, but it's not. Because if you don't know why one camera is better than the other, then its advanced features aren't going to help you. My best advice is that you REALLY get to know the features of the camera you DO have access to. Learn how to shoot manually, how to compose an image, how to manipulate light, and how aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and focal length effect your shots. If any term in that list was unfamiliar to you, then it's proof that you're not ready to upgrade your equipment yet. BUT, if you HAVE mastered and understand all of those things, then it is ABSOLUTELY OKAY to want to grow, expand, and upgrade your kit. One mistake I made was waiting TOO LONG to upgrade my lenses because I stupidly told myself that if I was a truly talented photographer, then I "should" be able to make my current kit work for me. Don't you hate it when we "should" on ourselves? Anyways, when I bought my new Sigma 35mm this year, it blew my effing mind. It was LONG overdue to expand my resources, and I will never make that mistake again. Learn your craft, listen to your intuition, and check your budget, but let yourself upgrade when it is wise to do so. This goes for editing software also. No "should-ing" over here.
4) Connect with other kind-hearted photographers.
A community of fellow photogs is so helpful when you need to vent, ask questions, or simply swap stories when you feel like you're the only one struggling to edit in bright sunlight. But I'm gonna be honest with you guys: my first experience in the photography world was pretty catty. I think there's definitely a temptation to hide our secrets and protect our value for our paid clients & students, so when a new photographer messages us with a question, we may be tempted to hold back info or even ignore the question. Now, within reason, this reluctance to share our secrets is totally fair. People do take advantage of our value, there are people who rip off techniques, and there are, unfortunately, even people who will steal images. It's a fact of life, and as a new photographer, you should absolutely be mindful of when you are asking a photographer too much info that would probably fall under some of their paid educational content. But when I was a newbie photographer, I remember messaging one of my photography heroes (who also happened to live in my town) to ask her how she captured light in such an ethereal way. A simple response could have been "I under-expose in my camera and then up the exposure in Lightroom." It is not a trade secret-- that's how you can get a more glowy light in your images. You're welcome. Anyways, instead, she went "Oh, I don't know, that's just my style" and then kind of ignored me. I didn't know if I had done something wrong or if I just wasn't in with the "cool crowd" of photographers yet. Either way, even if I had done something wrong, she could have kindly communicated that rather than ignore me. And if you come across this kind of exclusivity in the photography world, don't worry. You're not alone. But there are PLENTY of us out there who truly want to see your business grow like crazy. There are plenty who truly believe in building community, and they will support you and welcome you to the table. Find those people. Don't take advantage of them, but find them, connect with them, learn from them, and if you find them to be truly inspiring, pay for their educational content if and when you can. I'd much rather give my money to someone who was already inviting me to learn before I paid them.
A recent shoot from autumn, 2018
5) Know that your taste IS killer and growth WILL come.
If you are staring at your images and you're frustrated, I am here to tell you that it is 100% normal and a necessary part of the process. And if photography fascinates you enough to stick with it, I applaud your determination. It is so rewarding to look back, years from now, and see a visual timeline of how much you've grown. In the meantime, keep learning humbly, practicing constantly, and walking forward. Patience, grasshopper. You've got this.
If this blog post was helpful and you know someone who could use a bit of encouragement, PLEASE share this with them. And you might also like to know that I offer help beyond this blog: you can book a free discovery call with me here to learn all about my 1:1 Instagram coaching calls where we cover everything from clarifying your aesthetic, improving your photography skills, and editing your images better. And if you're not ready for a full program, you can subscribe to my newsletter here to get my free Instagram Aesthetic Method workbook. And as always, I'm available for any photography bookings if you're based in the United Kingdom. I would love to help you progress down this photography journey.