Sometimes, we love our images a little too much. Overconfidence can hinder you becoming a better photographer. Where does this confidence come from? What do we do about it?
When we show our images to others, we expect good feedback and are disappointed if we don’t experience full excitement. After all, a lot of effort and time went into each and every production. Bad feedback often has its reasons, and to avoid stagnation in photography, it sometimes helps to listen to others more than only listening to ourselves.
How I Learned Photography
I have learned photography completely on my own. Having started with a range of photography books from different areas, I went on with more detailed videos and articles online. I sucked up all the available information, and while I was mainly working and studying, I occasionally took out my camera and tried to adapt what I read. My reading-shooting ratio was about 10:1, which I call embarrassing today.
As I was quite amazed by the technology and the information, I soon thought I was an expert. In Facebook groups, I’d love to discuss images of others and present my own small portfolio. Some of the photographs were really good, while others weren’t. Whenever I got criticized, I tried to work on my images and implement the nice tips. The online community was very supportive and friendly.
Whenever I talked to friends, however, I acted like a d**k. Of course, I would never let a layman or -woman judge my images. I expected them to be amazed! How could they dare not see the art I was creating? Of course, as amateurs, they simply couldn’t know about the effort the shoot took and also were unaware of the amount of time for post-processing the image. I forgave them, but didn’t take them seriously. What a mistake to make.
Looking back at the images today, I see how right they were. How often was I fascinated by the possibilities that Lightroom and Photoshop put into my eager hands? Continuing to think that a photographer is good, because he or she knew things and techniques that others don’t know, I used every tool I could. “The more you use them, the more advanced you are,” I thought. Retrospectively, my pictures got worse for a while.
Self-Criticism Is Key for Learning Photography
Of course, I was wrong. I still tend to post-process a little too much, and whenever I am told that I did it, I humbly go back to my computer and pull a few sliders.
The one thing that I learned is that we are often blinded by our own assumptions and needs. Whenever I feel the need to create an image that I want to post on Instagram, I run the risk of creating an oversaturated sky, with a lot of reds in it, not because that’s my artistic vision, simply because I know it’ll get more attention. When I learn a new technique, I will use it too much.
By this time, I learned these things and when to listen to others and also when I shouldn’t. Self-criticism doesn’t mean that you have to listen to everyone. It rather means that you should consider that you might be wrong. Often enough, people criticize my images for something. I consider their thoughts, try not to get disappointed, and then make a decision. If, after a period of consideration, I still think I did the right thing, I will be happy with what I got. If not, I will learn my lesson from it.
We’re All Overconfident
Of course, criticism always hurts a bit. Yet, it also has its good parts. For opening your mind to others’ suggestions, it might be useful to understand why humans often act overconfidently.
In behavioral sciences, many studies have been made about the overconfidence effect, a term which has become popular through the Nobelist Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. These two psychologists tried to find out why humans act in this way. Overconfidence was one of their areas of research. For example, if you think of yourself being among the top 30% of skilled car-drivers, you’re not alone: 80% of the people actually think they are. It might be the same in photography. Maybe even higher.
Overconfidence helps us cope with the world and keeps us acting. We go out and shoot because we think we are amazing. Optimism keeps us working, and self-confidence protects us from harmful doubts. On the other hand, overconfidence can harm our own personal development, because we think we’re better than we are and hence don’t see what we can still learn and where we are mistaken.
We can only deal with this bias by rationally questioning ourselves every now and then, especially because there is no such thing as a natural underconfidence bias.
The Less We Know, the Better We Think We Are
A quite popular form of overconfidence is called the Dunning-Kruger-Effect, named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who described this phenomenon in 1999. Their findings were that beginners in particular tend to overestimate their skills in those areas, which are highly complex.
I felt this was very true in my own history of learning photography. When I started photography as a hobby, I thought it was quite simple: an 85mm lens at f/1.8, and the portrait’s done. It seems that easy first, but once you really went down the rabbit hole of photography, you will discover a whole new world, which you didn’t expect before.
Sometimes, beginners make amazing photography, too. Yet, they might have been lucky. Another factor of overconfidence: people overestimate their own role in case of success and forget the influence of other circumstances. By the way, all of this applies to men a little more than to women.
How to Practice Self-Criticism
To me, the best way to deal with criticism is distancing myself from it. Whenever I’m criticized, I will try to control my emotions, but don’t avoid the “attack.” Yet, I will try to defend myself at first, not for winning an argument, but to tease out the full argument of the other, and also their motivation for the critique, which can often be quite personal.
Ending the discussion with a “maybe you’re right,” I will try to attack myself with the argument again and see if it holds a rational battle in my mind. If it does, I might even approach the other person again and say, “thank you.” Or maybe I’ll just leave it, because I am too proud and overconfident to throw in the towel. At least I learned a lot during the process.