How to Fight Growing Pains as a Photographer
Growing up as an artist isn’t always fun. But being the best performer you can be requires you to lean into growing pains to reach your full potential.
An interesting phenomenon has occurred on the majority of my photo shoots over the past year. This is not the first time this has happened in my life. And it won’t be the last. The phenomenon itself is difficult to explain. Neither particularly good nor bad. Just a fact. But at some point during what seems like all of my recent photoshoots, I found myself incredibly annoyed. Not about. Not at the customer. Not even really against myself. Rather just a general malaise that invades me turning. A feeling that I want more.
Now, to be clear, I have no qualms about the end result. Strangely, I’m happier than ever with what I create. In fact, the increasing number of times I walk away from set with a grumpy expression only to find myself hours later sitting in front of the final footage and thinking, “wow, these are actually pretty good,” becomes kind of a gimmick. with me. It’s almost like I feel less satisfied on set, the more I end up being satisfied with the end result.
It’s a bit strange feeling for me. I’m a pretty laid back person, on set and off. I like to go with the flow, take what life has to offer and make lemonade out of lemons. So feeling the slightest hint of frustration, beyond the basic logistical hurdles of photography, is generally not my modus operandi. Still, it’s happened so many times lately that I’ve had no choice but to examine the sentiment to try and gauge its meaning. Am I photographing the wrong subjects? Am I technically missing something? Did I completely fall in love with photography? Has it finally become a simple job?
The answers to the first two questions can change with the wind. But, fortunately, the answer to the second set of questions is a resounding no. I still love photography. And, even though that’s how I make a living, I don’t think it can ever be just a job for me. And it’s that last bit that I think is contributing to my recent flurry of frustration on set.
Yes, photography is my profession. Yes, I am a commercial photographer. This means that the vast majority of my commissioned work is done in collaboration with a client team, an advertising agency and a host of other collaborators on and off camera. There are therefore many cooks in the kitchen and a job does not necessarily always consist in satisfying my slightest creative whims. Fortunately, I was careful early in my career to carve out a niche that would attract the kind of clients who pay for what I do. I never spent too much time trying to adapt my shooting style to the market. It tends to just make his work a carbon copy of everyone else. And the carbon copies are easily replaceable. Rather, I’ve built my career by creating the kind of work I’m passionate about, regardless of salary, and by focusing my marketing efforts on clients who will appreciate that approach.
The result has been a meaningful career where I can be as proud of the images I create as an artist as I am proud to run a profitable business as an entrepreneur. I rarely feel like I’m just doing it for the money. In fact, maybe sometimes I should do more things just for the money. My accountant would like that. But, instead, I learned long ago that what really matters to me most is that I’m happy with the art. I know that we all need to eat. But, when it comes to money, as they say, you can’t take it with you. The art you create, on the other hand, can live well beyond your years. All this to say that no, photography has not become a simple job for me.
So why this growing frustration? Quite simply, I think it’s the same element of my nature, always putting art first, that got me where I am and currently drives me crazy.
Allow me a little detour to explain. Think for a moment of your parents or anyone from a previous generation. Without being specific, chances are they have at least one or two strongly held beliefs that you find objectionable. Maybe when you were younger it didn’t seem so extreme. But as they get older, they seem to have sunk into one view or another, and absolutely nothing you say will get them out of that particular rostrum. It is not unique. Each successive generation will have fundamental divisions with the one that preceded it. Your parents had a similar feeling about your grandparents, of course. And while right now you might think it’s just them, once you start to age things can take on a whole new perspective.
You, too, will find yourself increasingly insistent on particular viewpoints. After all, as you get older, you increasingly have a lifetime of personal experience to back up that view, which only confirms that you’re absolutely right, and that anyone who isn’t agreement are absolutely wrong. This does not mean that you are, in fact, right to be right. It’s just that our brain has a funny way of tricking us into distinguishing facts from beliefs. That doesn’t make us bad people. It’s part of human nature. And, as long as we take the time to fully re-examine our beliefs over time, it’s a healthy part of increasing our wisdom as we mature.
What does this have to do with the development of his point of view as an artist? Well, one of the best parts of getting old is focusing on what you believe in. Explore the endless aspects of life and determine which are most important to you. Conversely, this process also leads you to remove certain elements of life from your depth of field. Like a photograph, it is impossible to focus on everything everywhere at once. You have to figure out where you want to look. And, as we hone our creative eye, we often find that our depth of focus diminishes as we narrow our line of sight to what ignites our hearts the most.
It’s natural. And I think that natural selection is a big part of why filming for me over the last few years has started to feel a little bit different. Quite simply, I want more of my images now than five years ago. I have a more definitive opinion on what I feel good about my work and I insist more and more that the images I create rise to the level of this specific vision.
It’s not that I suddenly think all the shots I’ve taken in the past are absolute rubbish. I like those too. I just don’t have any particular desire to recreate them. So, while I might have been very happy to go home with a certain type of image a few years ago. Now I find that my taste is much more particular. As expected, these new tastes are harder to produce artistically and demand more of me as an artist. If you want more, you have to give more. There’s no two ways about it.
So that means each shot takes a bit longer to create. Each shoot just takes a little longer to plan. Every time I review an image I’ve created, I scan it with an even more critical eye. I admit it’s not as fun as it used to be. But then I see the end result and I can’t say it’s much better than I could have imagined.
Now, to be clear, this growing ambition and gain is only relative to my own creative journey. This story is not meant to suggest that I am the finished article or have reached a higher level of consciousness as an artist. Rather, it is a recognition that part of growing as an artist is the constant questioning of your own art. It’s finding what’s in your work that gives you meaning. It continues to follow your ever-changing passions as your career continues to grow. Humans continue to develop from the day we were born until our last days on Earth. As an artist, you will always continue to grow as well. Or, at least, that should be your goal. And just like the sore knees that accompanied my college growth spurt, progress sometimes comes with growing pains. But, like most things in life, on the other side of that pain often comes a great reward.