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Dealing With Fear as a Photographer

Photography is a challenging career, particularly since it does not have the sort of well-established stable path that something like a more traditional job does. Fear is a natural thing to arise from that experience, and as such, it is important to be prepared for it and ready to handle it in a healthy manner. This great video essay features an experienced pro discussing the issue and how to cope with fear. 

Coming to you from Scott Choucino of Tin House Studio, this excellent video essay discusses the issue of experiencing fear as a photographer and how to cope with it. I think it is important to not try to avoid the feeling or pretend it will not present itself. After all, fear is our mind's natural way of indicating a risk to us, and a career in photography can be a risky thing. And when it comes to fear, as illogical as it might seem, understanding its presence and what causes it can actually help to reduce its intensity, whereas trying to avoid it can actually cause it to come back in unpredictable and unhealthy ways that can cause issues. Check out the video above for the full rundown from Choucino. 

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Same fear every year. Last year started early so it was an exception. This year second part of February. I've made it up since but it's the same winter stress since 2005... Then an old client who worked for a jeweler over ten years ago calls me for a small job for her new employer and the employer who I never met wrote me a nice short letter.

Fear and anxiety are nearly universal. Regardless of occupation, where you live, how old you are, financial status, or what sort of family you have... anxiety is rooted in the unknown. And since nobody knows precisely what lies ahead, it's a problem that everyone must face.

You make a couple valid points. First of all, a life spent working for oneself has numerous rewards. I've been at it now for 43 years, and can't think of a better way to have spent those years. No bosses demanding reports, no corporate quotas, no alarm clocks. Of course I occasionally second guess whether I could have made more money working for a large corporation, but that sort of mental calculation is a waste of time and energy. I can't relive my past... my biggest problem is how to deal with the future and adapt to an ever changing working environment.

My career has been decimated at least twice, and maybe on the verge of a third if AI replaces me. I started working in 1976 in the business forms printing industry, which was virtually eliminated by the laser printer. With the invention of the Macintosh computer and Photoshop, I moved into color printing and design of color brochure and catalogs. That lasted until the internet wiped out most of the need for print products. Rather than transition into website design, I felt the most enjoyable work was with a camera... exactly like yourself.

So now I worry about being replaced by a robot, or some such AI application which turns keywords into pictures. Good grief... it never ends. Honestly, I have great concerns over life as we've known it. Global warming, gun violence, political dysfunction... it all just gives me a big headache. So if you didn't have enough to worry about already, I've piled more on the list. But I can't do much about all of those things which I can't control. I can only do something about myself. Which leads me to the second of your suggestions that you alluded to....

Stay busy and stay focused. Too many people my age have nothing to do and end up spending their life complaining about one thing or another. Everyone, young or old, needs a purpose in life. And to the extent that downturns in work load are a major source of anxiety, I try to take a proactive role in keeping new jobs coming in. The one common thing between 1976 and 2023 is that people still like having interest shown in them... I think. So I try to spend a little time on a regular basis reaching out with a phone call to prospective customers. I would hate to rely totally on an agent or some other person to sell my work. I tried selling art photography through interior designers for awhile, but it was like working in a fog. The actual buyers (their clients) were a step removed so I never had any connection, control, or input into the actual sale. My day was just waiting for the phone to ring, and that's too passive for my tastes. So my point is that to relieve anxiety about our next job, find a way to connect directly with prospective clients. It's simply part of the process you're describing.

And most importantly, as you said... appreciate what you have. Take time to do what really gives you enjoyment (besides photography), whether it be eating a whole pepperoni pizza in front of binge watching Netflix, or whatever. Laugh, and remember what it was like being a little child. Back in my college days, the mantra was "if it feels good, do it." Baby boomers are probably lucky to have survived that era, but humanity seems way too serious these days. So much of the world is hopelessly depressed, if not threatened for their physical safety every moment of every day. We are incredibly fortunate to have the minimal problems that we have.

Interesting post. I like reading from people that have experienced major changes before.

Ai doesn't feel fear or anxiety.

It's notable that photography Youtubers are starting to sound like motivational speakers. It's a racket because they endlessly sell the idea that everybody can be a pro and when that doesn't work out they make self help videos to deal with the emotional damage related to the failure. The Youtubers are the only ones that profit from the cycle of providing false hope and then providing self help. But it's possible that something more sinister is taking place that the Youtubers aren't even aware is happening...

Money is the reason people feel like failures. They are equating their personal identity to how much money they earn. But now AI is getting ready to wipe out the whole commercial photography industry, so everybody that was pinning their hopes and dreams on making money with a camera are going to start questioning their self worth. The sinister part is that fear and anxiety are emotions and AI can't feel them, so one of the only ways that all of these failed photographers can actually compete with AI is by feeling an emotion. Ironically, stressing out is a way that Youtubers can monetize emotions. Now, there is actually a capitalist incentive to have an audience full of people that feel like shit! My guess is that we can expect a lot more self help photography gurus to start popping up from now on to profit on the distress of being a human that's losing to a machine.

AI is not all bad, but the copyright infringement is. It's like Napster x 1000.... where the number of zeros behind doesn't matter anymore already. It's affecting too many industries to not get seriously hit by major lawsuits. That's the part that's not going to fade away anytime soon. In fact the entire photography equipment manufacturing industry is at risk to lose a lot if they don't eventually get involved. Already Sony has removed a grand prize winner from its 2023 contest due to AI. Anyone wants to enter next year's contest? Sony probably could find it worth to put their advertising money somewhere else within a few years.

Excellent points...especially about the connection between copyright protection and the camera industry itself. I hadn't thought of that before and you're right. The fact that a generated image won a major competition is kind of embarassing for all of us.

I do think there are some advantages to copyright infringement. I used to be a content producer and was never able to stop piracy. In fact, I routinely see images of mine taken over 20 years ago still being posted at places like reddit. I learned to leverage the piracy to increase my standing with search engines. The point is that even piracy can be leveraged and I had some of the best conversion ratios for traffic in the industry at the time those images were originally shot.

Have you seen some of the spreadsheets created by Midjourney users to organize prompts for copying a photographer's style? Ironically, those people using the prompts are learning the names of the photographers and increasing the photographer's individual standing everytime a search is made for their name. Believe it or not, that can be an amazing source of promotion. It reminds me of the old saying that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

There is this link where you can enter your name or a photo to check if someone trained AI with your photos. Not sure how reliable this is.


Awesome... thanks!

If I were a minimalist food photographer right now then I'd probably be making youtube videos about fear too. I'm less than a newbie at Ai generation, but I was still able to put together these images in about an hour and a half after dinnertime using just basic photo prompts.

a few more

last one

I see a signature at the bottom right of your fork image which is a contradiction since you said the image was made with AI, therefore can't be copyrighted. You may want to consider removing the image or alter it if this signature is not yours.

I knew that it was there and left it in on purpose. How do we know if that's a real watermark connected to a real image or not? Everything is fake so why can't the gibberish watermarks be fake too?

If you look closely at all of the images as a set, the image of the fork is different than the rest. It's the only one with a diffuse shadow and the others have a hard shadow. It also happened to be the only one that generated with the gibberish watermark. This is weird to me because the original image I was working with had no text at the bottom until I prompted it to diffuse the shadow and add a highlight on the fork. So I can't be sure where the watermak could have even come from since it didn't appear until several prompts in on the base image. I know that it's easy to fix with a prompt remove, but what's to stop me from adding fake watermarks if I want to? I would love it if some photographer could come along and show me his original image that matches that shot, but right now we can't know real from fake.

It's hard to believe that any photographers think that watermarking their images give any protection at all. That is so 1990's.... it didn't work then and it won't work now. If photographers think that copyright matters at all anymore then they're going to "cease and desist" themselves right out of business. I shot a few female models in the past that became a little bit famous and their images ended up in porn generators that turned them into transexuals. What am I going to do about it? Cease and desist! Get that penis outta my picture! Seriously though... with the exception of a few rare circumstances photographers can't afford the legal costs associated with a copyright infringement lawsuit and most of the violators they'd try to sue don't have any money anyway. The pirates know this and there's no real practical way to fight it.

Did we just find another fear topic to vlog about? Is Ai going to keep photographers up at night worrying about copyright? My feeling is don't worry and learn to love the piracy. In fact, we should feel sorry for the photographers that don't get their work stolen because that probably means that they suck.

I generated this image with a watermark attached and know for certain that it does not exist because I've extensively hiked the area that it's supposed to represent. It just simply contains features that are similar to the actual location. There's no way anybody could have taken this picture. It's literally not possible to photograph.

To me watermark use is mainly for recognition. It can be a tool used for a law suit, but the primary purpose is much broader than legal. For example, a watermark can have historical value revealing the name of a totally unknown photographer way past his/her death. And it’s also an advertising tool, but the basic idea is to trace the author. AI is not an author nor does the person who create an image as realistic as a true photograph can be when using AI. Personally I don’t think it’s in these AI companies interest to leave watermarks on sections of images they have collected without asking and then produce something new. Creating fake watermark of course is a possibility but what’s the real point beside adding confusion?
The reason Tom Brady is threatening to sue two comedians is not because they imitated his voice. They actually did not. They used AI but pretend the result is the same as if they did themselves. They can demonstrate if they did actually imitate by using their own voice on a live performance and compare how close they are to Brady's voice vs what they made AI create. It’s no surprise they removed the piece since receiving a cease and desist letter. I’m not into football but I can see the danger of playing a phony message using his voice without approval.

Benoit, have you noticed that we're back to talking about money? Lawsuits and promotion etc are all money issues. My first post was terse but that's because I see the pursuit of money as being the root of people's fears and also ironically the reason that they'll fail in commercial.

It may seem like we're disagreeing but I actually agree with you about Ai in the sense that it's a total copy of a copy and nothing is real about it. Yes, it's ripping everyone off and it's also filled with cliches and it's probably not really a creative tool at all. But I also know that it cannot be stopped and it has basically replaced commercial photography although it will still take some time for the big changes to be noticeable.

People fear because they worry about money and too many people are in photography for the dream of making money. The bloggers relentlessly push the "you can be a pro" nonsense and at the same time claim you don't need school or assisting experience, but here's where the money problem really shows itself. Nobody that I knew in school or as an assistant got into photography for the money. We all started off assuming we'd be poor. If I had wanted to make money then I would have been an accountant, a doctor or a lawyer. The fact that we didn't care about money was ironically the reason some of us were able to make money because it took an irrational passionate drive for the arts to survive the pitfalls. People that pursue money are practical and not idealistic enough to make serious sacrifices.

These bloggers have audiences of 40k, 500k, and over a million subscribers made up of people that aren't making any sacrifices at all. It's just entertainment and it's starting to really hurt them because they're not able to get the validation that they'd hoped selling their work would provide. The great tragedy is that Ai may produce utter crap but it's cheap and easy so it's going to win in the end. People that only care about money always take the easiest route. Commercial clients are notoriously practical and all of their decisions are based on the bottom line instead of a love for the arts.

If photographers don't start pursuing photography for the love of it instead of the validation through money, then their fearful situations are only going to continue to get worse.

I don’t think we disagree, we just have a conversation while ignoring the new norm of screaming at each other. But you make a good point, to many, not having the same view 100%, translates into they hate each other. They need to get lost. I know enough of those, they bore me with their need to agree to groups and feeling locked in when they realize it’s not what they thought it was. I feel the pain and frustration they endure carrying that weight but it’s kind of self inflicted.

There were some stats on another site recently revealing that 65% of photographers have been doing it for 10 or more years. The largest group of photographers is in the 50-59 group. Where it comes to make a living, the 19-29 year old group about is 1/6 of the 40-59 group. In fact the 70-79 group alone is much larger than the youngest group. 40-69 group is about 2.25 time bigger than any other age combined. If you combine 19-49 year old to the 50-69 age group, the latter is 35% larger. What ever YouTubers do, they sure don't reach the young crowd effectively to convince them to enter the field. A lot of dream and puff may be.

I don’t provide video or any “creative services”, just one focus, photography. My favorite part is being challenged to make things happen, not to fit in a specific style even if I do kind of specialize somewhat. I am reliable in rgb but also very knowledgeable in color separation to cmyk and prints. Not that cmyk is big today but it’s far from dead and my full lighting system allows me to take nearly any job plus I have my warehouse that serves as a studio. It really doesn’t matter what I use, what count is thatI have solutions and tools and experience for a very wide range of photography. In advertising that is a necessity unless you ultra specialize. Yes, someone can make peanuts all days and night long in AI, but if you sell peanuts in plastic bags and want to show your product on the web or display, AI won’t know what to do. I have experience and I will know how to control the reflections. Now if the bag has a clear window and the AI generated peanuts outside the bag look nothing like what’s inside the bag the client may not be impressed and if its’ a first time client, it’s like taking a big chance. We all want regular accounts in advertising. Now there is waist of time for both parties and the need for new instructions to the AI generator. Time, time, time… and if the guy doesn’t charge much for AI, he won’t pay his bills and taxes. A big brand will do it in CGI, but the average small business will not.

Just a few years ago it was all about CGI will take your job. I haven't seen any new article on CGI since and it seem to be a market that is mostly profitable to eastern European companies that may even have expanded to India or even further east, who knows?

Regarding money, the thing about AI, is that you have to know how to sell your images just like we do in photography. If it’s freebie then no one can compete. But the tools are already turning into pay systems and when paid subscription come around, lots of people will drop. And then there will be the inevitable accidents where juicy lawsuits will make more than one think about it. Stock already cost barely anything so typing for images may actually cost more time for a creative to generate something they like because you will always take more time wanting a better image than picking from a limited but nice choice. Then when employees quit, you always take a chance on the next one. I have 3 clients I’ve had since 1999. They have power to do what they want but I imagine they like consistency and service for a reason. Everybody answers to a boss, so to keep a job, sometimes it pays to be smart as long as the service provider keeps up with delivering what is expected.

I din’t really think about money or future either when I started. I studied photography within an art school and progressed the way you describe. I have been making a living 100% from it since 1992. I don’t see it being worst than working for companies that go through firing cycles and a very large number of industries do. I know we are seen as a high risk dream industry, but with strong knowledge and good strategy, many people can make it happen. The rush to get there is what is mostly destructive in my opinion.

Those are great stats! I've been wondering if the Millennials are over-represented on YT and so what I'm seeing is probably an exaggeration. I noticed that the youngest people don't seem to be paying attention to it anymore. I'm most concerned with the art market and 50 is the average age of a profitable artist. But that might be changing with NfTs and a lot of get rich quick types are probably going to be plying their trades there too.

You're right about CGI. I used to use that term all of the time and now I hardly hear it anymore. Maybe the key word is really "generation" in computer generated imagery. Ai images are "generated" too.

I guess I'm a little more cynical when it comes to quality because my experience is that clients always get accustomed to lower standards when new technology enters the scene. My sense is that with a little more time working with Ai I could probably create just about any ad using only a cel phone camera and Midjourney v5. I don't think every client would think it was quality, but I think they would accept it. Digital, especially in the early days, was always lower quality than film scans and clients had no problem accepting it. Cheaper, faster and newer always wins in the end IMHO and I guess that's why I see the rise of Ai as inevitable. It's deja vu all over again for me.

It's awesome that you're good at cmyk and color. Color separation and color printing have always been my blind spots. I'm only good at color at the camera. Just some thoughts it's been great discussing with you.