Mike: Every time I post a picture on Instagram, I worry about how many likes I’ll get. And I always feel bad if my pictures don’t get a lot of attention. How can I stop worrying about what other people think? -Dave
Thanks for the question Dave. First, let’s get something straight: everybody cares about what other people think, especially photographers. Photographers are approval-seeking creatures by nature. We all secretly crave appreciation for our work. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be show our pictures to everyone with a pulse. We wouldn’t get joy when a photo gets 100 likes on Instagram. So it’s easy to take it personally when you put something out there… and nobody gives a damn. But when your need for approval gets out of control, you need to do some soul searching. You need to ask yourself some hard questions about your motives as a photographer, and about the work you’re creating. So let’s start with the hardest question in the world:
Do I Just Suck at Photography?
It’s perfectly okay to suck at photography, as long as you’re working to get better. Many photographers are waiting for the universe to recognize their talent. They never consider the fact that their pictures might not be very good. I know this from personal experience. Around 2011, I started taking photography very seriously, and I quickly assumed I was destined for greatness… until I took a portrait photography class with a very tough teacher. We had critiques every week, and I got my ass handed to me over and over again. He brutalized my work. I told myself he was being a jerk and a bully, which was true. But what really hurt was that I knew he was right. My pictures were crap. So I had two choices. I could stick to my guns and assume everyone else is stupid for not seeing my genius. Or I could put my headdown and work.
I chose to work, and I’m a better photographer for it. Now, how do you know if you suck at a photography? That’s a difficult question, because if you suck, you probably don’t know it. And if you don’t know you suck, you can’t really get better, can you? I suggest seeking critiques from brutally honest people that don’t care about your feelings. Your friends don’t want to be mean to you, so their opinions aren’t worth much. Next, you should ask…
Why Am I Making These Photos?
Is your photography fulfilling an internal urge or need? Is there something you want to say about the world in your pictures? Or are you only doing photography to get other people’s attention or approval? Most of us have a mix of the two, and balancing them is key. In the not-so-distant past, I was a hardcore street photographer. But I slowly grew to hate it. I had this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that I was running all over New York City shooting just to impress other street photographers.
I was getting no internal satisfaction because I was shooting to impress other people. So I gave up street photography and focused on portrait photography for 3 simple reasons:
- I crave the thrill of getting the shot
- I’m a serious introvert and it gets me out of my comfort zone
- I love looking at portraits, so it seemed silly not to make more of them myself
It seems silly saying this… but I really like my photography now!
I like shooting it, and I like looking at it. It would be nice if more people appreciated my photography. But I’m okay with creating in obscurity because I love the process. I’m having too much damn fun to stress out over other people’s opinions. Which brings me to another big question…
Do You Like Taking Pictures?
That’s right. I’m asking you (presumably a photographer) if you like taking pictures. I mean this quite literally. Do you enjoy picking up a camera (or even an iPhone) and creating photographs? The great Gregory Heisler once said:
“If your only expectation is the satisfaction of making the picture, it [photography] will never let you down.”
(watch the video below for the full extended quote — it will open your eyes)
I relate to that quote because I’m on a never-ending quest to get that satisfaction. That’s how I know I’ll be doing photography for life. I’m addicted to that satisfaction, whether I’m shooting a person, a landscape, or even just some clouds:
So are you actually having fun while you’re taking pictures? Because if you enjoy the process of making photographs, odds are you’ll care less about what other people think. And I’m not just talking about actual shooting. Maybe you love printing or working in Photoshop. That enjoyment of the process has to outweigh the struggles of getting the shot. A portrait shoot can be hellish. I’m often on the subway for 45+ minutes, schlepping 30+ pounds of gear. And since I’m focused on personal work, I’m not even getting paid most of the time. Oh yeah — did I mention that I have asthma and a bunch of recurring physical maladies? But you know what? One great shot makes it all worth it. If the struggle is not paying off… then maybe you should give it a rest. There’s no shame in stopping something you don’t enjoy. Many people buy cameras because they like the idea of being a photographer. But they don’t like the actual work. And if you don’t like doing the work, what do you have left? Other people’s approval. That’s it.
I don’t think any photographer can completely turn off the need for approval, but you can minimize it. The key is to focus on what you feel. If you feel strongly enough about the work you’re creating, what everyone else thinks just won’t matter much. And you know what? If you really believe in your photography and it’s coming from the heart, other people will notice, and they’ll appreciate it more.
This is a syndicated blog post from On Portraits.