Matt Payne Photography | Five of the toughest lessons a photographer can learn

Five of the toughest lessons a photographer can learn

January 14, 2014  •  16 Comments

Photography is a tough business.

Everyone and their mom has picked up a DSLR and now calls themselves a photographer. I don't actually have a problem with that - we need more art in this world; however, as the market becomes more and more saturated, it becomes increasingly difficult to stand out in a crowded sea of photographers. I'm ok with that, too - I see it as a challenge and embrace it with a willingness to learn more skills and techniques and make myself a better artist. As the pressure increases to stand out, so too do the mental mistakes and head-games we fall victim to. As we walk this journey as photographers, whether it be novice, amateur or professional (and everything in between), we often fall into traps that can really hamper the artistic process and make the whole endeavor more painful than it needs to be.

Over the past few years I've fallen victim of my own thinking and it has cost me a lot of time and energy that was purely wasted, which could have been spent taking photos or learning techniques, etc. I've spent a lot of time thinking about these situations and pitfalls and hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.

Panoramic from the Roof of the RockiesPanoramic from the Roof of the RockiesThis 360 degree panoramic photo was taken from the summit of Windom Peak - one of Colorado's more rugged and remote 14ers. The early morning light casts long shadows on valleys below. One of the best views in Colorado.

1. Stop comparing yourself to other photographers.

If you only take one thing from this article,I hope this is it! This is probably the most common and wasteful thing you can do as a photographer, regardless of your skills and where you're at with your progression in the field. I found myself doing this constantly and where it led me as a human being was not a pretty place. Here's the truth - you're always going to find someone that's better than you. You're always going to find someone that has mastered a technique that you struggle with. You're always going to find someone who has more Facebook fans or Twitter followers or gets more shares/likes/comments than you. You're always going to find someone that has been to more places and has more gear and... you get the idea. This form of thinking is poisonous to the artistic process and will only make you look like a complete jerk. Stop wasting all that mental energy on others and focus on your own art, technique and work. Better yet, learn from what these photographers are doing and try to improve upon your own talents.

2. Stop measuring success through the eyes of others.

This was a tough one for me and it is related to the first one above. Success is a funny thing and often a healthy dose of perspective can go a long way to give yourself a good measurement of success. First of all, stop measuring success as a numerator to someone else's denominator. Just because so-and-so sold x number or prints or booked x number of shoots does not mean they were more successful than you. Is money how you measure success? I hope not, as this business is far too fickle to hang your hat on a constant stream of income for most. I'm sure there will be those that disagree, but the phrase "starving artist" exists for a reason. I think it makes more sense to measure success as a personal goal that is tied to your artwork. Sure, we need money to pay the bills, but I'd rather be a poor photographer with images that convey something and mean something to not only myself but the viewer than be a rich photographer with a boring portfolio of images that only did well because they were "popular." Measure success as a function of your personal satisfaction with your work.

Lastly, and quite possibly most importantly, stop caring what other people think about your artwork. Art is subjective, and it is totally OK if someone hates your photo. Chances are, someone else loves it.

Mount Sneffels Autumn PanoramaMount Sneffels Autumn PanoramaThis was one of my favorite panoramas I've taken. This is the infamous Mount Sneffels and his great neighbors including Teakettle Mountain. The fall colors were really jaw-dropping here and I just love the layers in the scene.

3. Don't get caught up in the Social Media hustle.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a social media freak myself. I love Facebook, Twitter, Google +, etc. They are fantastic ways to reach an audience and to share your artwork. They can be highly impactful ways to cultivate fans and grow a customer base. Social media can also be a poisonous rat race that consumes your life. I've found myself in this race all too often and it can drain your passion and purpose and shift it away from why you're a photographer in the first place. Find balance in your social media presence and don't sweat the numbers. If you have a small, loyal fan-base of a few hundred or thousand fans, but don't have 100,000 followers and a billion shares everytime your photo is posted, that's totally OK. I'd rather have 10 awesome fans that love my work than 100,000 people I don't know that have clicked "like." Use social media in moderation and keep your goals there in perspective.

4. Stop thinking that you're done learning, you're not.

There's a pretty awesome graph that's been around for years that shows the stages of a photographer. Try as I might, I could not find the author to credit them, but it is pretty much right-on:

I remember a couple years ago when I was in my "HDR EVERYTHING BECAUSE IT LOOKS SO AWESOME" phase, I used to get so much praise for my work and I felt like I was just the most bad-ass photographer there was - I had arrived! The truth was, my photos were gawdy, ugly and for the most part, looked totally fake. I know quite a few photographers stuck in this phase and it always is painful to see their pages get huge amounts of praise and likes and shares etc. (refer to item #1 above) - but when it comes down to it, we've all been there, and that's OK! Just remember, there's always something new to learn and a little humility goes a long way to keeping you grounded not only as a photographer but as a human being.

5. Owning more gear does not always make you a better photographer, despite what you keep telling your significant other.

I know, I know, this one is a tough one. Who doesn't want more gear!? I love gear. Lenses, tripods, camera bags, timers, cameras, filters, etc. Give me more! This is a terrible trap to fall into and an expensive one to boot. Before going out and buying that new lens, ask yourself, have you mastered your current gear? Have you really maximized your potential using your current equipment? Is that extra f-stop really going to give you a competitive edge? Maybe. But until you have really, truly and honestly answered the above questions, chances are, you really don't need that new toy. So, stop comparing your gear with your buddy's gear. Gear envy can poison your passion and can really take your eye off the prize - your artwork.

I hope you found this list helpful, and I hope I stirred a reaction in you - what thoughts do you have? Agree? Disagree? Totally missed the mark?


Matt Payne Photography
You certainly ask some good questions Egon. Thanks for stopping in. I think a good photo can be achieved without much gear and without much processing, but the key I think is to find your area of comfort and go with it. Shoot for yourself, not others.
Egon Zitter(non-registered)
I liked the "HDR Everything "part a lot ! What is the next phase ? Fixing these pics ,by removing the halos and excessive noise or just sell all your stuff, buy a Leica with fixed lens and shoot in black and white. Never ever use photo-editing software in the future.Saves you lots of time and kilo's to carry all the heavy gear, Forget about social media by sharing your pictures.Nobody will notice or......... ???? What is a good picture or a good photographer anyway ? Can you make a stunning picture without RAW editing , straight out off the camera, with or without HDR ?? I am sure people can,sometimes a lucky shot ,but most of the time its all digital altered nowadays. If you like it or not, if you think its fair or not.
Evon Kurtz(non-registered)
Ha, that chart is right on! I went thru the HDR phase got all the compliments etc. i have been looking at them and tempted to delete those ugly shots. I even had many ask for prints of one. Boy was I deflated when someone looked at the print that was so popular and said it looked fake like i stuck / pasted the subject in. I Dont have the money to fall into the gear thing. But am going thru all those phases. I am Getting away from HDR and now into paintings, effects post editing those crappy shots to make them better than the original. On occassion the originals don't look good edited and this is the barometer i am using to measure if my shots are quality. Thank you for this great article. Enlightening!
Mikko Luoto(non-registered)
Hello and windy greetings from Finland. Great writing, very healthy notes for e.g. someone with my ego and skills, that may not always be in scale with each other :)
My comment is on your photo where the stars look as if they are falling. I took some like that and my first reaction was to delete them from my card. But I stopped and thought about it! I decided to take a good look at them in Bridge and take note of the settings for what "not" to do next time I take night scenes, i.e., a very good tool to teach myself.

I haven't done that yet because I'm in the middle of a Mastering Photoshop CC class and also a class on landscapes, but it's first on my agenda as soon as those are done. I even made a up a spread sheet to record good and bad as a baseline reference for myself.

I found your blog by accident but I'm really enjoying it! Natasha was right, that graph is funny, though my journey didn't follow any of those paths. I am proud to say that one of my photos took first prize at a contest at The Buffalo News. I've always loved photography and have many of my photos enlarged and on my walls and I've finally decided to take it serious and do something with my talent. I've had the equipment for years and now I'm actually utilizing it!

Thanks for the great blog site. I've bookmarked it!
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