Updated: Oct 30, 2018
Author Jenn Mishra
I was participating in a mentoring class this week and another participant wrote a comment that just broke my heart because I completely understand the feeling and remember not too long in the past feeling exactly the same way:
“It's difficult not to compare myself to other photographers and even more challenging to not view my work as inferior. In my head, I know I'm really just starting, but in my heart I wonder if I'll ever get there. I understand that it isn't about the end destination because that is a changing "place" as we grow. I know it's more about the journey and who you become as you travel. For those of you out there posting these incredible images, did you ever feel this way? Tips for overcoming this feeling?”
It’s such a familiar place to be for many of us. When I was in Cuba, I started calling this feeling “Photo Envy”. I was happy that my fellow photographers were getting good shots, but they sometimes got shots that I wish I’d made. I’d feel a little tang of photo envy creeping in. Since that trip, I’ve been working on how I can more productively approach and minimize this feeling.
Don’t think I have everything worked out and have completely conquered my photo envy, I haven’t! But I have a couple of tips that have helped me minimize it and helped me accept my photography where it currently is and myself.
Tip #1: Compare Like-with-Like
When I first started my Flickr account, I was amazed that I got to look at all these terrific photos for free! But as my skills improved, I started comparing my own photographs with those I loved.
Some photographs seemed so good and so unattainable that it might make have made me want to give up photography because I’ll never be that good.
But I had to step back at some point and look hard at the comparison I was making. We all put our best foot forward on our social media accounts. We post our best photos, the ones we are most proud of.
I was usually looking at the best of the best from these photographers and I was never seeing their mistakes. On the other hand, I see all of my photos – the ones that work and the ones that don’t. The don’ts never see the light of day and if they’re really bad, I put them straight into the trash. If I take 100 photos of a scene, I may only post 1 or 2 – that seems like a low percentage! But this is what most photographers do. We take a lot of photos to get that one perfect shot. This is not a problem; it’s the way we work.
I had to stop comparing my working photos with other’s highlight reels.
Tip #2: Accept the Photos I Can Make
I also had to consider the circumstances behind the photos I was drooling over. I’m taking a class with David DuChamin and one of the things he talks about is spending a lot of time in a place to get to know it. I love his photos, but he’s spending a week in one place. If I only spend a day in the same place, he’s likely to get better photos.
My best photos from Cuba are on day 6 of our trip. This isn’t an accident. By the time I’d been in Cuba a week, I was seeing the place better and I knew better what to expect of a scene. I was more comfortable and some of the newness of the place had worn off. I could see past the obvious and look closer at the details.
Those landscape photographers I admire like Thomas Heaton spend a great deal of time and effort to get to the places that they photograph and once they are there, they don’t shoot and run, but spend a lot of time waiting for the right light and finding the right composition.
I can’t always spend that much time creating a photograph and that’s ok – my life is different and has different responsibilities, so I shouldn’t get down on myself when they got the shot and I didn’t.
But it’s not just about the time – though I think we sometimes underestimate how much time, including practice time, goes into making a great photograph – it’s about how we see the world.
Tip #3: Accept How I See the World
Photography isn’t about seeing – it’s about perceiving. So much of ourselves and our worldview goes into making a photograph. We don’t often appreciate this unless we’re on a photo walk where we’re standing next to other photographers looking at the same scene. We might all be looking at the same thing, but our photos will look completely different.
Our vision comes from all of our past experiences, good and bad, positive and negative. We see the world in our own unique way. It’s true that you’ll never see the world as another photographer sees it – even if you really, really want to, but rather than taking that as a negative, remember that no one will see the world as you see it either.
You see the world in your own way and you can share this view with others through your photography – it’s sort of your superpower.
When we view photographs of others, we’re seeing the world through their eyes. We sometimes love the photograph, not because of the photograph itself, but because we want to be able to see the world this way.
Appreciate this alternative worldview, but accept that it’s not your own.
We will tend to gravitate either towards images that fit in with our own view or ones that are completely different – usually depending on the day.
It’s sort of like choosing music. Some days we want to listen to music that fits with our mood – we’ll put on a tune with a great beat when we’re happy and want to dance or a sad tune on a rainy day. Other days we’ll choose music that may help us change our mood – loud music when we’re waking up to help us get our day started or keep us a wake when we’re tired and driving.
I try to look at a photograph and appreciate it for what it is. It may be a way of looking at the world that I will only see in the photograph – I will never be able to recreate the photograph.
The trick is to separate the characteristics in other people’s photos that you appreciate because you connect with them because they are like your view of the world and those characteristics in others people’s photos that you appreciate because they are different and you appreciate because they see the world differently.
I would love to make photos like Chinese street photographer Fan Ho, but my world view and living situation are so completely different from his. But I can appreciate his use of light and shadow and try to learn from his work and make it my own.
Tip #4: Accept the Photographic Journey
We’re all on a journey in our photography. Some have been on the road a long time others have just joined us. Photo envy is a signal that we’re not accepting where we are on our photographic journey.
We move along the path through experience – getting out there and doing photography. We struggle with our vision, figuring out what we like in our photography and what we don’t. We learn techniques and take the time to practice these techniques.
Comparing myself with photographers who have been on the journey a long time isn’t productive. I am where I am and they are where they are. We may all be striving to improve our photography and in one sense we’re all in the same place – where we are right now. From here, we set off.
There’s a sea of “better” photographers out there and no matter how much I improve my photography, there will always be a sea of better photographers out there. It’s the nature of the journey.
It’s how we deal with this knowledge that matters. Incredible photos can paralyze us or motivate us.
“Good” photography isn’t a final destination.
We’re all growing and changing. As my fellow group participant noted, it’s all about the journey.
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Article Written by Jennifer Mishra
Jennifer Mishra is an American travel photographer born in Colorado and based in the St. Louis metro area. She has a background in classical music and academia. She is the founder of PhotoYoga. Her photos are published at Wits End Photography or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
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