Stop Looking at Other Photographers' Work

Stop Looking at Other Photographers' Work

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?

Seth Lowe's picture

Seth Lowe is a portrait and advertising photographer located in Peoria, IL. He works with a variety of clients ranging from industrial photography, to lifestyle, and editorial assignments.

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Oh the Irony, literally as I was loading the page I was thinking "I really need to get off my computer and go shoot" enter this article haha

I think you were just in a rut. I look to other photographers for inspiration. Rather than try to copy them, I might try something similar, but differently, or better. ;)

Hey Brian, I would definitely call it a rut. The important thing finding out whats causing it and learning to correct it. I wasn't shaming looking at others work for people and times, just sharing a self diagnosis that I think can often cause complacency for all of us.

Great article, it describes the same experience I've been going through.

I can totally relate to this article...

Check out Zack Arias Signal & Noise. He created a pretty good video about this kind of thing. Gets me to relax a little from time to time when things get crazy.

I have seen it, and its really solid. Definitely relate to his experience.

good article! I can relate to a lot of what you mentioned at the moment..

I agree with this article, I realized looking through other people's work crippled my creativity and imagination so I simply stopped doing it and focused solely on my own thing. It works.

Exactly. Our creativity can become so clouded, and it really takes some work to clear out our thoughts and hear our own inner voices. I connect with peers and look at others work quite often for inspiration, but I put my own thoughts and ideas first!

Agreed. I cleaned up my feed and stopped looking at wedding photogs. It's liberating! :)

I have gone through this from time to time. Looking at really good landscape photos makes me want to sell all my gear and take up knitting. However, I think the opposite problem is more common, especially amoung amateurs. If you go to a workshop or someplace else where there will be a lot of amateur photogs, start asking people who their favorite phtographers are. In my experience, most of them won't have an answer ("Ansel Adams" does not count as an answer!). Ask the same people which camera has the most megapixels, which camera company is "best" or just about any other question about cameras as opposed to photography and you will get quick answers and strong opinions.

A few years ago, I saw this behavior in myself and started really consuming photography as an art form. I went to exhibitions, galleries and museums. I bought coffee table books. I watched YouTube videos made by photographers I admire. This process moved me forward more than any gear purchase I ever made.

Hey that is a really good thought, and I would have to agree with you. I think it maybe involves looking at different styles of work to inspire you though, and less of your competition then. I went to a William Eggleston showing 3 times because it was so incredibly refreshing and exciting to see his work.

Thanks Seth. I forgot to mention in my comment that I thought it was a great and thought provoking piece. I have been seeing those Vincent Laforet helicopter shots everywhere that have been sort of making me feel like "eh, why do I even bother?". These head games are part of any creative endeavor I guess.

Great post Seth. This is something I decided to do about a year ago and it really made a big difference to my state of mind. It can be hugely demoralising seeing / comparing yourself to the work and success of others… I used to think 'Is that what I should really be doing?' when I saw an image from an other photographer rather than having confidence in my own work. Since I stopped worrying about looking at others work things have really improved. I actually find myself getting more inspiration from movies and TV nowadays rather than other photographers….. The biggest thing that helped me was quitting Facebook…

So true...almost every creative has caught this syndrome at some point!

I am not sure if it was on fstoppers or someplace else, but someone suggested the same a few months back and I wasn't convinced. Like many of you, i was all up for inspirational work and to see whats going on, as a wedding photographer. But believe me when I say, Once I adopted this, it Changed everything. It gave my work my own style. I didn't have to color tone my photos like someone, or take "Inspirational Poses" I worked on my own stuff, came up with new things, changed the whole editing style and couldn't be more happier. Thanks again for this article, totally recommend this for at least a year, create your own style.

Thats awesome, and glad you found your way and personal style through it.

I can relate to this in my early years. I too was obsessed with trying to catch up to everyone, chasing trends and of course GAS. I finally took a good hard look at my work, bought only what I needed and decided to go my own way with my own style. I do admit that it has taken a few years to develop my own style and come up with unique spins on old themes. Who cares if its already been done before. Have fun with it!

Customer confidence has risen with each commercial shoot and they really want to hear my ideas rather than deferring only to a creative director. It really helps the ideas flow when people believe in you.

The one thing I do disagree with is ignoring other photographers work. I still believe it is a good idea to keep your eye on the industry and look for inspiration. Envy and jealousy is where you get into creative trouble. :)

Hey Michael, thanks for sharing this, and I have had the same experience. I definitely don't ignore others work, but I am learning to find inspiration from my own life and not just my peers or competition.

"Stop Looking at Other Photographers' Work"

Possibly the worst advice given. Study them, study them all...but do not try to COPY them. A world of difference.