We all get lost in the Internet from time to time, and some of us way too much. We see a great photo online, or perhaps read an interview with a successful photographer, and then Google them and spend time pouring through their portfolio and blog. “How did they do it?" "I wonder what type of lighting that is?" "Where did they take that?" Half an hour and a cup of coffee later we close our laptop relatively depressed and completely diverted from our own path as unique and creative individuals. We start to scroll through our Lightroom catalogs in search of an amazing image we may have forgotten about that competes with what we just saw, or look at our measly social media following and wonder what we did (or are doing) wrong.
I noticed this pattern in my own personal life starting to creep up about a year and a half ago. It was a long, cold, and slow winter, and I just got sucked into constantly looking at other photographers' work. What started as simply looking for some inspiration and seeing what industry peers were doing, quickly became an escape from doing my own work and procrastinating. I started comparing myself to people I didn’t know, that had been shooting way longer than me, and had an entire production staff to help them. Every time I discovered a new photographer all I could think was, “If I change my style and shoot like that, I’ll be more creative, noticeable, and gain new clients.”
By spring time I was completely depressed and had no idea who I was as an image-maker. I wanted to start on some new personal projects to push myself creatively, and update my portfolio with some new work, but I had no idea where to begin. I had looked at so much amazing and different photography that I didn’t know what my own vision was, what I wanted to achieve, and was sure of failure because I could never stand up to all of these great photographers I had been studying.
The few ideas that I had for personal projects I would talk myself out of before starting because of having already seen something similar to it. Even when someone would compliment me on some of my images, thoughts like, “Spend some time on the Internet dude, I suck compared to everyone else,” would race through my mind. One day someone asked me about some of my goals and long-term vision with photography, and I literally had no answer. It was kind of like a punch in the stomach, but realized I needed to make some big changes with my time habits and how I was being influenced.
I realized that I was taking in more than I was putting out, and my thoughts were becoming bloated and clouded. I could not separate what others had done from what I wanted to do. That weekend I decided to just straight up quit looking at other photographers' work. I stopped checking blogs, following social media, and pouring through their work online every day.
Over the next couple of months, I really started to notice changes in both my professional and personal life. I put a personal project into motion I had been dwelling on, and got back to actually being a photographer and taking pictures. I felt much more free to shoot pictures however I wanted which in turn led to better images all around. I started finishing projects and being OK with learning from my own successes and mistakes, rather than feeling like I had to see what everyone else had done first rather than just trying it.
My mood at home and around my wife was much better, and I even started being able to enjoy downtime and taking days off without feeling guilty for working on something. The best part is, work started to pick up for me, and I gained a couple of dream clients during that year. Most importantly, I stopped competing in my head with other photographers.
My point in all of this isn’t that we should get off the Internet or completely cut out online peer interaction and educational opportunities. Instead I pose the question, as creators — image-makers, filmmakers, storytellers, retouchers, editors — how are we spending our time and resources? Are we putting out more than we take in? Are we pursuing our own dreams and living up to our fullest potentials, or just living vicariously through others due to fear or procrastination?
Completely cutting all that out can be awkward at first. You have to learn to hear yourself think, let your own thoughts flow, and practice seeing the world for yourself. You have to learn to be OK with making mistakes and failing, believing the end result is far more valuable than just reading about someone else’s experience. Over the past year I have incorporated looking at other photographers' work back into my Internet diet, but it is a lot more controlled now. Having a sense of what’s going on in the industry, setting some goals, and staying informed is really important so long as it doesn’t control us.
I have narrowed it down to just a handful of really solid photographers that I look up to. They are all people I respect equally for their image-making, personal lives, and dedication to the craft. I also regularly check my two favorite blog sites, Fstoppers and A Photo Editor for their solid combination of news, business tips, and educational resources. The difference is that I determine my own decisions and craft. Finding a balance between being informed by others' experiences and knowledge, but still cutting your own path is absolutely invaluable as a photographer.
Guess what? Everything has already been done; every image shot, every pose, lighting scenario, every lens, every location, every personal project, every story. The only variable is ourselves. The way we see, interpret, and share the world around us. How do our past experiences and future hopes and dreams impact the project at hand? That is all we should worry about. Refining our own vision, and leaving our mark. As creatives, let’s all step out and make the image or story we have always had in our head, accepting that failure is not only possible, but also equally as valuable to success. Is that not what drew us to capturing images and telling stories in the first place?