Photographer Anxiety: Why It's Useful and How to Deal With It

Photographer Anxiety: Why It's Useful and How to Deal With It

I haven’t seen much on this topic, but a brief conversation with another photographer recently illuminated to me the fact that photographer anxiety is not at all uncommon. One of the reasons I believe it isn’t discussed a great deal is the general image of today’s top photographers.

People like Peter Hurley are what many of us view as the classic top photographer: confident, assertive, and a big personality. The truth is a great many creatives – perhaps even the majority of them – are far more introverted than this. I am probably somewhere between the two extremes, but I’ve had what I call "photographer anxiety" since I first started. I never thought I'd tell anyone about it truth be told, let alone very publicly announce it. I was always embarrassed that I wasn't "made of stronger stuff" or some similar falsehood, but this photographer anxiety I have become so well acquainted with as my career grows is not born of weakness; it's born of caring. I don't go into shoots anxious due to a fundamental lack of belief in myself, I go into the shoots anxious because I want to do the best work I can and to not let anyone down. I want to make my clients happy and I want to make myself proud, and that pressure evokes a response I no longer feel the need to turn away from. In fact, it's this desperation to bleed every last atom of quality from the shoot and into my clients' hands that drives me forward more than any financial incentive (there is definitely a breaking point for that statement) or inspirational quote.

Photographer Anxiety

What I mean by "photographer anxiety" isn’t nuanced or much more complicated than its face value; it’s the pre-show nerves before a shoot or a job. For me, it comes in a number of forms. Firstly, there’s that feeling that lurks in your chest and prods your organs from time to time. This then motivates me to check all of my gear several times, research the location on every image platform that’s north of the deep web, and press F5 on the weather forecast minutely. I pack my bag nice and slim-line with only the essential kit. Then, I over-pack the same bag with every piece of kit filed under the "what if" category (read: everything I own). Once my bag is unshapely and heavy enough to alter the curvature of my spine, I will of course have to unpack it to check my camera (still) has its main card and battery in it. My camera has yet to surprise me on this front, but I shan’t be caught out by silly reason and logic, and so I will always do this crucial check.

Why is it useful? Well, to say I’m prepared before a job would be like pointing out that the President is busy. I comb over every detail several times, and I systematically eliminate potential unexpected occurrences and solve problems before the butterfly has even emerged from its cocoon, let alone flapped its wings. In fact, the value of photographer anxiety and the best tool for combating it are ironically the same thing: preparation.

Dealing With Photographer Anxiety

Dealing with this breed of anxiety isn’t particularly unique from performance anxiety or any sort of anxiety really. I will start with the aforementioned "best tool" in my experience.

Preparation

If one could tell the future, anxiety wouldn’t exist. You’d either know everything is going to be fine and thus not be anxious about it, or you’d know everything is about to go terribly and your fear would be for the justifiable avoidance of pain. Photographer anxiety is simply worrying about the unknown, concern that your shoot will not go to plan and/or that you may fail. The best counter for this is to do as much preparation as humanly possible. Visit the location beforehand, create mood boards, create plans for different conditions that are out of your control (i.e. weather), work out your route to the location in advance, and so on. The fewer surprises that are can occur and catch you off guard, the safer you will feel. I like to write a list with key notes and plans on it to take with me on the day. This way, if the worst were to happen — like your key light inexplicably catching fire (this happened to me) — you have your calm and ordered thoughts down in front of you so your interior monologue consisting of one long scream doesn't derail the day.

Reason

This ought to be the most influential component in countering anxiety, but it simply isn't, or at least not for me. However, it can be very reassuring. Ask yourself, in previous shoots, have any of your biggest fears ever happened? It's almost always a no, as they're ridiculous and irrational fears. For example, I always worry before and during a big shoot that my card will corrupt and I'll lose all my important images. Has this ever happened to me? No. Has this ever happened to someone I know? No. Has this happened to anyone you even know of? No. Nevertheless, it has happened to someone, and therefore, I worry that it'll happen to me. I wish I could appreciate the statistics of how unlikely it is to happen, given the millions upon millions of shoots worldwide where memory cards don't corrupt, but it's nothing north of light reassurance for me. This does, however, harken back to how photographer anxiety is useful; I back up my photos on to a laptop and an external hard drive during a shoot, at the end of the shoot, and when I get home, I add it to a few more hard drives for luck. If I'm ever caught out by a rogue card, it'll never be through carelessness.

Accept

Do not fight or try to suppress the anxiety. The feelings are there to encourage preparation for the upcoming event and aren't manifestations of doubt and incompetence. Anxiety is part and parcel of pressure, and so I just make sure to focus on each task at hand rather than the shoot as a whole and force myself to take my time. I noticed that one common occurrence of anxiety was "rushing" things. Now, I ensure that I complete every detail carefully, even if it means slowing myself down for menial tasks I've done hundreds of times.

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9 Comments

Mike Schrengohst's picture

Heh - when we only had film to shoot with.....
That was real anxiety. You might have traveled or paid big bucks for models, etc - only to have the lab screw up your beautiful shoot - or maybe an assistant exposed a roll, etc....
Jeez - today you can see what you shoot - you can back it up before you leave the shoot. I know some guys who upload everything to a secure site before they leave a location.
Yes - you will still have some anxiety as a creative professional - but it does not measure up to the good old film daze.
Real anxiety is a 250K commercial film shoot on location - I use to use small loads and I would do multiple takes of the same scene on different loads - just in case the film lab screwed up. And I did have a few screw ups by the lab to make my back up shoots a must.
That is why I find it hilarious to see digital shoots get screwed up because a PA did not know how to transfer a card or do a check of the footage before formatting the card for more shooting. That is why I hire experienced DIT's and not PA's to do that kind of work!

Paul Watt's picture

"You kids have it easy! Back in my day...". I crap myself before shoot, digital or no and I'm ex-military.

What a great read, this is actually one of the topics I deal with in my new photography workshops as I have been through this many times before. Keep up the great articles, LUV THEM !!!

Yup, common anxieties. I am a photography enthusiast, so I don't make my living from photography; I am also a Myers-Briggs INTP where I often overanalyze.
I finally got to check off a 30 year bucket list item and the last of a lifetime event, to see a Space Shuttle launch in person. I had done research by visiting Space Shuttle photography websites, but everything in 2011, was geared for digital photography. I would be using film! I reached out to Florida Today with my gear list and got a response back with a recommendation to use ISO 100 film and underexpose by 1/3, also with a counter-intuitive tripod mounting for the launch. Finding Kodak Ektar 100 in the city turned out to be a scavenger hunt, but I bought the last two rolls.
I made an executive decision and set exposure compensation at -2/3.
Space Shuttle Atlantis placed a hold when it would take over the launch sequence; but with seconds to spare, it launched within the launch window.

I really appreciate that we are beginning to address anxiety in our profession. Thanks for starting the conversation Robert. The anxiety that you are referring to is common performance anxiety or "stage fright." The three tools you mention will, I'm sure, help those with performance anxiety. Sadly, performance anxiety is just the tip of the iceberg for some photographers who have a much more difficult time on set or on location. When performance anxiety is compounded with GAD (General or acute anxiety disorder), getting through a shoot can be a triumph in itself. Again, thanks for starting this conversation.

Junior Sams's picture

Well am an enthusiast i become a victim of this when i go out to shoot events or weddings. But after some few clicks i gain confidence i worry less... sometimes i win and sometimes i loose. thought it was just me being shy or scare of large crowds... but with this article seems that it is a global problem

Nice article. I think anxiety in any situation is all about the anticipation of the event, but it usually fades away the moment you begin to perform the task. It's difficult for the brain to concentrate on doing something while at the same time worrying about it. In photography especially the viewfinder is useful as it not only cuts out what you don't want in the shot but it focuses your mind on the job in hand and sidelines everything else. I find that physically pressing the shutter button acts almost like a mental switch as well. As for anxiety beforehand, prepare as much as you can and tell yourself you can handle it. And if it does all go wrong, well you tried your best!

Good article. Also worth noting is that there are many things you can do to minimize anxiety. Exercise, meditation. Less consumption of alcohol, nicotine and even caffeine. There's a risk that if you're in a constant condition of anxiety and stress you will develop serious depression and/or chronig fatigue syndrome(burnout). Be careful.

Rob Mynard's picture

I hear you. I'm a huge sufferer of the pre-shoot anxiety, coupled with an acute introverted shyness, so my logical career choice was wedding photographer and live musician. I know that my anxiety will never go away but when I knock on the grooms door first thing in the morning or walk on stage in front of thousands of people, I like to think that it's embracing the anxiety that pushes the fun and keeps my edge sharp.
Great article.