Photography Is Difficult

I stand behind my headline here. Plain and simple, photography is hard. Certainly for me it is, and I do it full-time. So when does it become easy? If am brutally honest, I don't think it ever will. Allow me to explain.

First off, this is not to say that it won't be fun, or interesting. I'm not saying you cannot be inspired, motivated and excited about your photography work. In fact, that's why we do it to begin with, despite it being challenging. But why do I say photography is difficult? Well, let me remind you of a few things I am certain you already know.

Photography Is Something That Literally Everybody Does

There's no subtle way around this, so I'll just say it: Almost every human in industrialized countries owns a camera and takes pictures. Hell, everyone at least has a smartphone that of course has a camera. 5th graders have smartphones, and they too are taking pictures daily. Your mom takes pictures. Your little brother, your friends from high school, your grandfather, that weird guy who lives down the street - they all take pictures. Of their pets, of their food, of their families, of the sky, trees, animals and more, and some take pictures of themselves in the mirror. 

Note that I said takes pictures to all of the above. Which is what I would consider the appropriate term for what they are doing. If you own an image capturing device of some kind, and you arbitrarily point it at things and push the button, you are taking pictures. Which is all of course perfectly fine. We've all done it, we all do it with some regularity, and taking pictures has been standard procedure for decades. From vacations to family gatherings and birthday parties to snapping pics of our old living room furniture for classified ads and Craigslist, we not only like to take pictures, we simply need to. Per capita, there are many, many more people who own and use cameras than there are people who play a musical instrument or partake in oil painting. Or singing. Or like, I dunno, rock climbing or skydiving maybe. I have done exactly zero research on these statistics, but if you want proof of my assertion here, visit 20 of your neighbors (be it down the street or in your apartments) and ask them each if they have anything in their homes that takes pictures. At the same time, ask them if there are any musical instruments, oil painting supplies, or rock climbing or skydiving gear in their dwellings. I think we both know you will be 20 for 20 on the question of photo devices, and decidedly less successful on everything else.

So, when you decide you're going to be a photographer, when do you crossover, if you will, into the realm of image crafting and not just taking pictures? When are you an artist and not just another person with a camera? Honestly, that is a very difficult concept to define in a finite manner. And it is because every-freaking-body (just about) has some way to take pictures, and does so. Often rather frequently. The novelty factor of "I take pictures!" is immediately irrelevant in the public eye, so you have a considerable challenge ahead of you if you want to be taken seriously as a photographer and, perhaps, get paid be one. Not to mention the general public's idea that creating great images happens because of a "really nice camera".

This is a snapshot, taken by an associate of mine during a retouching class I was giving in Houston back in 2013. He shot it on his pro-grade DSLR, with requisite wide angle glass he had on it at the time. He pointed, he pushed the button, and a behind-the-scenes shot was created. Quick and arbitrary. As a BTS shot, it works perfectly. But is this an intentionally crafted photographic work? No, obviously it is not. This, and countless other snapshots, are definitive proof that gear does not make a shot.

In short: A significant percentage of the public is not impressed that you take pictures or that you own photography equipment. Inversely, someone learning to skydive is immediately interesting to others. That is a dangerous and exciting thing to do from your very first jump. But, someone who just bought their first DSLR and is snapping pics of flowers in their yard, not so much. How do you get noticed, or make people care? Without trying to answer that, I'll move on to the next subject.

Photography Is Technically Complex

Do you know what your DSLR really is? It's a computer. Your lenses? Slightly more basic computers with advanced optics. They are both chock full of microprocessors and absurdly complicated digital technology. And this "problem" is just getting worse every year, as newer and better cameras are being developed constantly, each more complex than the last. You cannot pretend to ignore the technical aspect of photography if you intend to be any good at it. 

Without trying to over-simplify what an oil painter does, the fact is, you can be handed brand new fine artist's brushes, tubes of oil paint and a canvas at random, and I would wager that you would able to manage to get paint on a brush and slap it on the canvas, all on your own without much analysis, training or effort. Your effort won't be a visually appealing stroke of genius to most people, in fact it will likely look like a kindergarten painting, but you would at least manage to get paint on a brush and then the brush on the canvas. Inversely, if you handed a brand new D810 and 70-200 2.8, right out of the box, to any random person, I would wager that, without any instruction of any kind, they would not be able to take a picture at all. Basically, you cannot make a DSLR perform its function strictly by dumb luck.

(Before I receive the wrath of Bob Ross disciples, I will add that advanced oil painting techniques are hardly simple, and require practice, study, and ideally mentoring to properly master. Years of effort are involved in becoming a proper oil painter. The same, however, can be said for a photographer. I simply mean that one is simpler to start on than the other.) 

"But I just want to take photos!" you cry out in vain, hoping you can achieve the results you see in your head without having to learn the technical aspects of image crafting. But the fact is, you can't. If you consistently remain recalcitrant about learning the technical details of how to make your camera equipment work, you are shooting yourself in the foot right at the start of the race.

And I haven't even mentioned lighting equipment yet. Or retouching. And that's to say nothing about Gear Acquisition Syndrome, a common problem among all experience levels of photography. It is very easy to drown yourself in the technical, especially as there is so much out there to be distracted by. You often have to peel back the gear, and strip it down, to go forward.

Buttons, wheels, LCD read outs, LED displays, settings, menus, connectors, ports, oh my! You may not need to use them all for what you want to accomplish in your work, but ignoring them is professional suicide.

For me, the technical aspect of photography is hard. It is. I often loathe having to deal with settings and adjustments, occasionally metering, calculating crap in my head about depth of field or ISO and shutter, etc. I arrive on a set, and I want to craft images, not jack around with all the technical mumbo jumbo that is required to create the images I see in my head. And often, I hit brick walls, I get frustrated, and I even want to up and quit when it all becomes too much. I'll always be a technical shooter, as that is where my interest mostly lies, but it is a double edged sword, a catch 22, and is as nourishing as it is poisonous. I want that perfect exposure, perfect DOF, perfect color balance, perfect focal length, perfect subject distance, perfect light angles, perfect pose, perfect location - I want it all. Every time. But damn if sometimes I don't want to mess with it. It's a constant source of total awesome and total suck for me, at almost every shoot. Not to mention how I feel when I am at the computer, about to start retouching several sets. I want to, but I also don't want to. If that makes sense.

Bemoan it as I may, I cannot avoid it or get around it. I either accept the technical challenges, or quit. It's that simple.

Photography Is Art

And because it is regarded as art by many, it is as hugely subjective as any art discipline can be. This makes defining an image as either art or a dismissible snapshot often difficult, because, frankly, everyone has a different opinion. Said another way, one person's art is another person's mirror selfie. (Ok that may be pushing it.)  

So, to reference what I stated above, how do you know when you're an artist and no longer a person with an image capturing device? If you know the answer to this, you're doing better than I am. I still don't consider what I do in my photography to be art, and struggle to this day with trying to determine when, and if (or ever), I will be comfortable referring to myself as an artist. With my profound love-hate relationship with the technical dominating what I do in my work, I have yet to be able to define what it is I do as art. After all of the effort I put into an image is said and done, I sometimes find myself annoyed with the final image. I've been thinking about it, planning, executing it, and finalizing it for so long, I'm simply sick of looking at it. Whereas an image I stumble on shot by an amazing photographer is a new, exciting, fresh and inspiring moment. My own images cannot bring out those feelings of awe and excitement in me that others' work can, so I am always in a state of doubt and fear - fear that I am wasting my time.

See how confused and self-deprecating I sound? It's not fun living like that, but it is the most honest self-assessment I have been able to muster. Especially as what I shoot seems to often be cause for controversy.

So while you're struggling to understand just what the hell all those buttons and settings and menus on your camera do, you also get to contend with trying to define what you do with all of it. In photography, you are a forced to absorb the technical and the artistic if you intend to create the images you see in your head. This is an inescapable fact.

I love this stuff. And I hate this stuff. There is pure joy in setting up lights, and balancing them, and getting all the settings right in camera, when I go on set. But there is often an immense frustration in having to deal with all of this when I go into a project. I love the end results, usually, but I am enjoying the process less and less as time goes on.

Finding your balance of artistry and technical is, of course, vital in determining what motivates you and what produces the work you want to create. You may need deep knowledge of a lot of technical things, or perhaps just a few key settings, to create your work. But neither side can, or should, be ignored, if you want to go forward with photography. (That's to say nothing yet about marketing and business savvy, which is a whole different can of very squiggly worms.)


Want to succeed as a photographer? Then you need to be unique, technical and artistic. There is no way around it. You cannot succeed as a skydiver if you have a profound and unwavering fear of falling. You have to be a computer nerd and a bonkers artiste, a scientist and a poet, a researcher and a bohemian, if you want to make it all work for you the way you hope it will. Don't discount either side, and don't lose hope. Perhaps you may be in disequilibrium right now, but you will balance out soon if you keep at it.  

"Which focal length? I think the 16-35 here. What sort of depth of field do I want? Better make it fat, I need to do a composite on this. Subject distance to the car? What does my backing plate look like? Oh, better use the tripod for sure. Now, what angle should I be at? Should I underexpose to try to preserve some highlights? Probably a good idea. Better check the strobe settings as well. I probably should have light painted this. Nah, this will work. My trigger battery is low. Do I still have spares? I'll check in a bit. I wonder if I am low enough. Maybe I should also do some thin shots with the 85mm, too? Is my horizon straight? Ah, who cares on this one. I wish I brought my 35mm prime though. Next time then. I'd give my left nut for a faster sync speed on this - damn windows being that hot. Is the shutter slipping? Geez, I haven't sent it in for a reconditioning yet. That sucks. I am gonna try some at 2.8, I think, but please, 16-35, no back focusing. I calibrated just last week. Oh man, what am I trying to convey with this shot?" It never ends.


How do you find your balance? And which side of the balance do you struggle with the most?


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Alex Cooke's picture

Great article on the unique combination of factors that make photography difficult. On an unrelated note, I'm trying to imagine a situation where one shoots at 1/4000, ISO 25,600, per the 6D photo. :P

Nino Batista's picture

Capturing action in available light at nearly dusk? hahahaha. Oh, those pesky PR images...

And thanks.

Ralph Hightower's picture

To me, this seems more like a personal rant. Okay, I am not professional photographer since that is not my income source, computer programming is my occupation which I also enjoy besides photography. I don't know if I would want to have photography as my primary income because it may become "That Soul Stealing Job" that sucks the enjoyment of life away.
I bought my first SLR camera in 1980 and at the time, the Canon A-1 was "State of the Art" with aperture-priority, shutter-priority, program modes, besides manual mode. I still shoot film with that A-1. I don't think it had a microprocessor in it since "state of the art" in microprocessor technology was the Intel 8080 8-bit chip; but Canon probably used an ASIC (application specific integrated chip) to control the camera functions.
In my early days, I bought photography books; I understand the exposure triangle. November or December 2011, I decided to photograph the year 2012 exclusively using B&W film. This was a year of growth for me to experiment with different B&W contrast filters. It wasn't until March before I started to visualize scenes in B&W. I had two personal projects for 2012: 1) photograph the sunrise on the equinoxes and solstices; 2) photograph the full moons.
Color temperature is baked into the film. Now, with my 5D Mk III there's auto-everything: shutter, aperture, ISO, white balance, and focus.. My A-1 and F-1N are much simpler to operate although I do love the auto-focus of the 5D and 24-105 f4L.

Spy Black's picture

"So, when you decide you're going to be a photographer, when do you crossover, if you will, into the realm of image crafting and not just taking pictures?"

I dunno, just because a given image is "taken",doesn't mean it isn't without a purpose. You BTS shot is a perfect example. What else did the photographer really need to do to achieve the objective?

"For me, the technical aspect of photography is hard. It is. I often loathe having to deal with settings and adjustments, occasionally metering, calculating crap in my head about depth of field or ISO and shutter, etc."

Coming from a professional photographer, I find this rather odd. I never bat an eye at these things, I examine a situation and deduct how it needs to be shot and proceed to shoot it. Once you understand the specifics of photographic techniques, you simply apply them. I can't say I'm really understanding the point here.

"So, to reference what I stated above, how do you know when you're an artist and no longer a person with an image capturing device? If you know the answer to this, you're doing better than I am."

I would say, in short, when you're not concerning yourself as to what anyone else is considering your work to be. You make your work, "art" or otherwise, as you feel it needs to be, and that, my friend, is that!

Junior Robles's picture

Good read. I wish you had touched a little bit of the business side of photography too.

Will Hoffman's picture

Life is hard, that's what makes it interesting, but I try not to over think it.

Sebastian Slight's picture

" After all of the effort I put into an image is said and done, I sometimes find myself annoyed with the final image. I've been thinking about it, planning, executing it, and finalizing it for so long, I'm simply sick of looking at it. Whereas an image I stumble on shot by an amazing photographer is a new, exciting, fresh and inspiring moment. My own images cannot bring out those feelings of awe and excitement in me that others' work can, so I am always in a state of doubt and fear - fear that I am wasting my time."

So I guess I'm not the only one?

José Rozón's picture

I have the exact same feeling.

After getting my hands in a camera and raw files, I cannot live without lightroom and the contrast, exposure, shadow slider (when not working with strobes).
I love photography tho, I enjoy the process and it's always fascinating to see the world with this magnifying glass called composition.

Nick Viton's picture

. ( how do i delete my post?... )

Nino Batista's picture

Which one? Whats wrong?

Nick Viton's picture

Just this one that says . ( how do i delete my post?..). I had posted a link to a picture of my friend wearing a "Nino Batista Photo Workshops" shirt, then decided it really has nothing to do with your article. Sorry about that!

Nino Batista's picture

haha nah thats fine! That would hardly be considered spam or anything like that. Would have been fun to see. I always end up surprised where my event shirts end up!

Jason Ranalli's picture

Great read. I like this part especially because I feel it in a lot of the things I do: "Whereas an image I stumble on shot by an amazing photographer is a new, exciting, fresh and inspiring moment. My own images cannot bring out those feelings of awe and excitement in me that others' work can, so I am always in a state of doubt and fear - fear that I am wasting my time."

Tim McBroome's picture

That was an excellent article, thank you.

David Vaughn's picture

Great article. I'm at the same kind of place. I don't consider most of my images art because most of them are chance either as a spontaneous moment or as a "I don't know what I'm doing but let's try this" sort of way. And I know that most artists will say that they often employ the latter approach when creating images, but it's different in that often times it's an experiment I can't replicate. I don't know what I did but it worked.

My consistency sucks, but not for want of trying. I'm just really not very good at it.

Ralph Berrett's picture

I think you hit several good points on this opinion that I agree with. One of my favorite questions I get asked on a regular basis is what camera should I buy to become a professional shooter. I usually end up recommending they take a couple of photo classes before buying a camera.

We are in one of the few professions that has no requirements to call yourself a professional. I remember watching the great gold rush of becoming a wedding shooter when the great Great Recession of 2007 hit. When every person who had a camera decided to become wedding shooters no matter how little experience or skill they had. During this time TWIP had more shows on shooting weddings than I care to remember. The side effect was watching the prices fall for Good shooters or far less jobs.

Imagine if all you had to do was buy a white lab coat to become a doctor that is what the photo industry is today. Even when talking to other shooters there are some very touchy subjects such as education, being able to shoot manually and being able to figure out an exposure, with ISO, shutter speeds and f/stops. It is almost a forbidden topic to talk to talk about work, the knowledge and practice it takes to be a good professional shooter.

In many ways we are seeing the fallout from the death of the alchemy of darkroom. One of reasons people did hold in awe photography was the magic of the darkroom. When that died it was like the revealing of the Great Oz behind the curtain. There seemed to be a little less magic in the image and the profession.

David Adamson's picture

As a retired photographer I completely agree. It is hard to stand out especially in the digital age with so many "wanna be" photographers trying to be a photographer with no experience or training.
With all the post tools available so many amateur and professional take things too far forgetting the realities and greatness of film.

John Pyle's picture

Business is hard. People can be difficult. Social media and marketing is trying. The best thing and arguably easiest thing I do in my portrait business is actual photography.

Matt BuckShots's picture

Nice article. And I agree that photography is difficult.

It is very difficult for me because of my desire to research, seek out, and then capture what I believe is the absolute best moment for what I want to capture. Personally I feel being a photographer means that you are obsessed with capturing the best moment and the best light for which ever situation or subject you are shooting. I do alot of landscape photography (with alot to learn) but I have this burning desire and need for capturing the perfect moment. Just think about how fast natural light changes when scoping out a shot. Knowing you could take 1000 shots of the same landscape and get 1000 different results is frustrating yet exciting. And then add in some speedlights set up over there, and here, and behind that big rock, or up over near that tree, its like the possibilities are freaking endless!

Ok, say there a great sunset happening over a nice stream, and the way the light is draping your frame is gorgeous, but now add a light coating of fog, and SHAZAM! AMAZING! I want to capture that moment knowing it will exist, and has existed before! Its just a matter of being there for it. There is almost a good amount of luck involved in it as well. I dont want to settle for the "ya thats pretty sweet" I want the "Dude, that is so much more then amazing". Its a constant strive for better, while maintaining happiness with what you are getting. Because if none of its fun, than why bother. In fact, if pure photographic perfection is achieved, I almost feel that the relentless search for it is more fulfilling then succeeding at it.

I feel what separates photographers that live, eat, and breath photography from those who dont is not settling for the good captures, but trying relentlessly to capture the great ones.

(I am not a fashion photographer so some of what I said I feel could be related to studio shooting, but please dont take what I said and think it applies directly to the studio environment)

Randy Butters's picture

I like this piece. Much of it resonates with me. I know many will find reasons to object. This is tricky business: trying to comment on the idea of what separates those who take pictures and those who 'are' photographers. This is the first article I have read that has addressed that question, or one like it, without being offensive in some way.

"You don’t take a photograph, you make it." - Ansel Adams

Steve Bryan's picture

Sorry but this article is far more rant than substance.

Photography isn't any different than any other profession. You must understand business principles and how to run a business if you wish to succeed. It isn't all about taking pretty pictures, it's about being able to deliver what a client needs, how the client wants it, when the clients want it.

Yes, there will always be people who believe that photographers only press a button. Yes, there are some people who will always believe that photography is not a real art. Yes, everyone owns a camera of some sort.

Owning a camera does not make you a photographer. I own a hammer, that does not make me a carpenter.

Being able to take pretty pictures also does not make you a photographer. I can install a toilet, that does not make me a plumber.

A camera is simply one tool that a photographer uses to complete his job and in the right hands amazing things can happen.

Nino Batista's picture

It is absolutely a rant, which was the intended purpose. I was also fascinated by the fact that I feel the way I described even at this point in my career. Why? Because it was how I felt when I first started. Don't misunderstand, I am immensely confident in my abilities, but to pretend that challenges, doubts, fears and of course failures don't happen, well, that's not just being honest. Woke up that morning, with this on my mind, and knocked out my rant in about 30 min.

Keep in mind, if you bought a camera last month, and are just starting to figure all this out, you may easily be intimidated and/or ready to give up right now. There is something so profound about starting at something new, where everything is a mystery and a questions, and frustration is at every corner. If this article speaks to those beginners, then here's hoping they stick to it and not give up.

As for photography being "easy", or "simple", as other commenters have inferred, keep in mind that just because you know how to do something very well does not mean it is easy to do. A 20 year experienced brain surgeon would probably not tell you brain surgery is easy or simple.

Fstoppers is loaded with articles about how to do things, and of course beginners generally appreciate such content. In the case of this rant, I was simply trying to convey that everyone gets this feeling at times.

I do appreciate your feedback, Steve!

Tony Blake's picture

I like to make photographs.
Nothing in life worth having is going to be easy.
I'm learning everyday and tying to keep up with the times.
I miss the darkroom and the smell of film...

Wayne Du Bruyn's picture

This hit so close to home , read it again today , find it interesting that someone on your esteemed level feels this way , makes me feel better about the demons that plague me . Big Fan

Lucia Gencanska's picture

I love this article...It's depressing but inspiring at the same time :-D But I feel the point was simple...if you want to be great photographer, you need to learn more, get better. As in any other profession you choose. Owning good camera is just like having a sharp scalpel. If you're not a surgeon and don't know how to use it, you will just bleed out.

Greg Callen's picture

Really? I have seen women just buy a new DSLr and within a few months get hired to photograph events and portraits and all of it looks pretty damn generic and yet they are still given the job of photographer. Some of them used the "I worked in front of the camera as a model so I learned a lot" doesn't cut it for guys in the film industry and shouldn't for the women in modeling. Hell, someone with no training or experience got paid to be a photographer at a Formula Drift event. Now maybe things are different for the guys but crap you really are making this seem harder than it really is (as someone who has grown up and used disposable film cameras to high end Sony Alphas).