One of the greatest traps that any creative person can fall into is comparing their progress against someone else’s apparent success. It’s a common human behavior, but in the the realm of the artist, it can be incredibly self-sabotaging, leading to procrastination, paralysis and a pernicious undervaluing of one’s work.
As Zack Arias says so eloquently in his video, Transform, every one’s photographs sucked when they first picked up a camera. Great photographers who have achieved a level of public name recognition in and out of the photographic world all began with little knowledge of the difference between an f-stop and a shutter speed.
To the surprise of many, even photographers who are considered successful don’t escape the trap of comparison. Regardless of of our level of achievement, it’s hard not to gauge our success as an artist or a business by direct comparison to someone else’s achievement.
However, it’s important to have perspective and most importantly a recognition that there is no singular path. Every “successful” photographer will have a different story to tell as to how they achieved and reached their goals. From my many conversations with photographers, here are some the things I've picked up from them.
Just Make the Work
Photographers like Dan Winters and Jay Maisel are incredibly prolific. They produce images on a constant basis not because they want to, but because they need to. They live and work with the same 24 hours we all do, but they and many other photographers make their creative work a priority.
Embrace the Unfamiliar
When faced with an unfamiliar task, a great photographer doesn't use their lack of experience as a reason not to attempt to do the work. Instead, they see it as a problem that needs to be solved. They welcome such challenges as an opportunity to learn and grow.
These photographers make personal assignments a regular part of their creative lives. They take their skills and experience as image-makers to create work that allows them to explore something that they are passionate about besides photography itself. They don't just use these projects as a technical exercise.
Creating Rather than Waiting for Inspiration
Amateurs wait for inspiration, while successful creative artists know that doing the work itself will provide it. Even if they are not firing on all cylinders in the beginning, middle or end of a project, they know that it is the practice itself which is key to any success they may achieve.
Live With the Work
When working on a project, some photographers will create mood boards consisting of other people’s work to keep them inspired and focused. A photographer should do such for their work by placing prints on a board or wall in their office or studio. Living with your best work will serve as a reminder as to what you have achieved and what direction you need to go to grow.
Find a Trusted Mentor
Find someone’s opinion and whose work you respect. This doesn't have to be a professional photographer, who honestly may not have the time to provide you thoughtful critiques. Instead it can be a peer whose work you would like to aspire to. Find someone who doesn’t focus just on technique or gear, but rather someone who speaks to the content of a photograph.
Take a Photographic Vacation
Dedicating a weekend or a week that is solely dedicated to creating photographs can be a great gift to yourself. Without the distractions and obligations of family vacations, this time allows you to obsess and practice your photography in a way that you may not have the opportunity to do in your daily life.
Print Your Work
Print a portfolio of your best 20 photographs and create a PDF portfolio, magazine or book using services such as Blurb or MagCloud. This will allow you to practice editing and to separate the wheat from the chaff. Check out this TCF video help you create a PDF portfolio of your work.
Learn How to Silence the Negativity
When you hear the voice that says that you are not good enough, aren't talented enough or just too old or too young, shut it up by just making photographs. Even if it’s only making images around your home or at work during your lunch break, train your mind to respond to that voice by being creative. Don't allow such thoughts to stifle your creativity or your life.