Does This Bias Stop You From Being a Better Photographer?

Does This Bias Stop You From Being a Better Photographer?

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.

Amazed by HDR, I could only see the obvious flaws of this photograph with the help of others

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.

I almost over-edited this image, until I realized that the colors are strong enough anyway.

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.

Overconfidence can help us experiment and develop.

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.

One of my favourite images, from the time I started seriously considering becoming an advanced photographer. Mostly, I was lucky to find myself in this situation. The settings were right by default.

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.

Nils Heininger's picture

Nils Heininger is a photographer on the road. He loves long rides on motorbikes, camels and old trains. While discovering the world, he uses his camera to share stories from people across the globe. With a Micro-four thirds in his pocket and a full-frame in his bag, he's always ready for new adventures.

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"We're all overconfident" *Laughs in crippling anxiety.*

Me too. I get sweats at night.

I honestly try to be kind and constructive in groups. But there's that one combination... photographer asks everyone to agree about how good his/her shot is, and the picture is truly horrid. Those... I just quietly pass by.

This is true Ms. Shea, but remember that that one 'horrid' photo to you could possibly be the most beatiful shot ever seen by someone else. This is why I never judge someone's photo and will never enter any of mine in a contest. Photography is subjective, to the eye, heart and spirit of whomever views them.

Certainly not a debatable topic in the realm of personal opinion. However... in the classroom, for a degree in photography... there would be judging involved. It is one thing for a parent to say nice photo, son. However, that compliment does nothing to advance his knowledge of the craft.

I respect your difference of opinion, Mr. Gasper. Congratulations on setting a healthy boundary for yourself with regard to contests.'s not a difference. I believe we can all agree about photography in a classroom setting and that it needs to be judged and/or critiqued in order to help yhe student progress. Otherwise, the idea holds true in real life....where instructors aren't part of the equation of what is horrid or beautiful. Once I saw a photo of a tree in the wilderness that everyone was "not paying homage to", but to me it was very interesting and I liked it a lot. Mostly because it reminded me of a place and time. I believe this could happen with nearly anything that has been photographed. But that's just what I feel. I know that you have seen several if not many things which has taken you somewhere, some time or to some one. But as for the classroom....well that's understood. Thank you though.

In the context of a Facebook world there is room for the veil of praise of an over-exposed, thumb ghost shot of part of Great Aunt Judy's head alongside what could only be a guess at maybe the doorway to the kitchen? Who in their right mind would suggest the photographer's skills of composition could be improved?
That I hold the opinion of it not being worthy of hanging in a gallery is my own private thought.

The beauty of human opinion is I view Fstoppers not as a stop-off between FB and Instagram, rather as a place where photographers choose to come to improve upon their craft.

I' m not sure what point you're trying to make. Your statement..."That I hold the opinion of it not being worthy...." validates the point I made. YOU may not hold it worthy, but someone else might. As for 'where photographers choose to come to improve their craft'. That never once entered my mind. At 68 a disabled veteran and retired, I am not interested in reading articles for that purpose. I am just biding my time, engaging my mind to keep it active and aware and enjoy reading articles. As for facebook...not interested in the least. My needs are very simple these days. By the way...what the hell were we talking about?

"I' m not sure what point you're trying to make."

That makes two of us.

Congratulations on the disabled veteran status. Not sure how that applies to the conversation. But we share the disabled veteran status. Only difference, you're considerably older than me.

"Congratulations on the disabled veteran status." Jesus Christ....sounds like things I've heard 47 years ago. Nothing's changed...only the names of those "gifting" them to us. Please, don'y write to me again.


That's why I find it difficult to critique images I don't like. I've posted work that I thought was, "Meh, ok" and gotten high praise. Then, there was the flip side to that. If I don't like or understand an image, I don't criticize it negatively because it could just be my own lack of fully grasping the "art of it": the "it" meaning the work, the genre, photography, etc.

Yes sir and thank you. I never critique anyones' photos. I just look at them and if I like it....I like it. And it's not even the point of your last statement. Has nothing to do with 'your lack of fully grasping the art of it...' It's not neccessary to grasp anything. It has to do only with what appeals to you, what draws you to that photo. And it could be many things.

This is the number one thing I’m trying to incorporate into my photography, the trouble is it’s hard sorting out the proper feedback from the pointless stuff. In the meantime I’m happy to just keep learning.

"We're all overconfident". Perhaps you should reconsider this statement? Unless, of course, you know every single photographer. I'm just curious what makes people say such blanket statements, seriously.

Because by the very nature of humans people are over confident in some way shape or form. We all lack knowledge in varying subjects, and by that alone, it makes an individual over confident in those areas. There was a study done, I forget by which university, but it showed that the lower a person's IQ the more confident they were in a broader range of subjects. It's just human nature mixed with the limits of our minds.

Yet another blanket statement. I have never been over confident in anything...period. I know myself very well and have, over my 68 years here, become self-actualized. As for studies, they mean very little. They only touch upon that ratio of people who participated. My grandmaster from China was never over confident either. He told me it only leaves one in a puffed-up state and with a sense of false security. So, I don't care how many times someone tries to ram this down my throat, you're dead wrong in making such an assinine assumption. The end

The irony of making such a grandiose and over confident statement about your ability to never be over confident is astounding. You are correct, it is the end of this convo.

Perhaps you should work on becoming self-actualized. It's one thing to be over confident, but if there is no over confidence to begin with then it is just a statement of fact, not being grandiose. To believe that someone is over confident about not being over confident is far beyond laughable. If Joe Blow says,"I am a smart person." It doesn't mean he's saying he's the smartest bulb in the package. That's all. By me saying I am not over confident is not to be boastful in any way. Sure, I am confident in the things I know I CAN do, but only to that limit. I will never claim that I can do something or to know something I truly can't do or don't know for sure. I am not that kind of person. So...yes...I can say that I am not an over confident person. I know my limits, but also strive to learn more and do better. There's nothing wrong with this. I believe it is what everyone does.

I can honestly say I am not overconfident in my photography and never have been. Even with the one or two shots that other people (including strangers) have liked now and then I'm acutely aware that I lack any talent. I have superb equipment so I don't even have any excuses.

I'm also aware that I could get better by practising more, which I'm working on. I've attended a couple of street photography workshops recently and the results from the second one were better than from the first one. They were better, but that did not make them "good".

I liked a couple of the shots I took, but I can see my own failings after the event. What I can't seem to do is be aware of them just before taking the photo.

I haven't spoken to huge numbers of photographers over the years. In the various camera clubs I've been a member of I've probably only had much conversation with a dozen. Only a couple were overconfident. In fact the best photographer I knew personally was never confident that he had nailed a photo.

This article is an interesting read of one man's view and journey of growth, but I honestly can't see that it's so applicable to *most* photographers. I'm be more inclined to believe the opposite.

"I'm also aware that I could get better by practising more" is where I am! I'd love to shoot every day. But, that's just not practical for me right now. So, I shoot when I can. With the holidays coming up, I'll be shooting/experimenting a lot.

I'm trying to find more time myself for getting out and taking photos. I'm pretty much confined to weekends when family issues allow me the time. It's always nice when you can sneak a few hours of "me" time :)

I just checked out your portfolio on here. Wow, some great images on there. I'd be happy to take just one that good.

What an interesting point of view. After thinking about it I guess I am kind of underconfident. That is a problem too. I see all those great photographer's images and think: Why do I even try? But then, I don't do it for the big audience and try anyway. To overcome overconfidence is quite easy: Read about great artists, read about their education or their outstanding talent (which you and I in most cases won't have) or their hard work. - To get underconfidence just do the same.
The hardest thing in photography is: The transition of the image in your head to the photography on the wall. You'll now if you succeeded. Btw: post (over)processing never turns a mediocre image into a good one.

Pretty much just described why Instagram is a shit show.
"Look at me, I'm great!"
-"Yes, you are!"