Turn Failure and Impostor Syndrome Into Your Next Landscape Photography Breakthrough

Turn Failure and Impostor Syndrome Into Your Next Landscape Photography Breakthrough

A few days into my landscape photography trip in Oregon, I hit a creative low. While watching a disappointing sunset, I started journaling some thoughts that helped turn a series of failures into stepping stones.

“Sure, I’m a landscape photographer.” To the layperson, it sounds like I have special insights into nature and meticulously plan gorgeous shots hidden from their eyes.

But the truth is, right now I have no idea what I’m doing. Two days in a row have been a bust: I hiked 13 miles only to miss sunset, and as I watch the beautiful Mt. Hood disappear behind ugly clouds, I regret spending $9 for park entrance where I can’t find a stupid group of rocks for the foreground.

My disappointing view of Mt. Hood from Lost Lake. That is, no view.

My disappointing view of Mt. Hood from Lost Lake. That is, no view.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if I hadn’t driven two hours from my hotel to get here, or had to turn back an hour into my morning drive because the road was washed out. The shoots I spend the most time and effort on end up being a bust due to factors beyond my control; weather, tourists, a cranky travel buddy, laziness, missing crazy early sunrises (OK, maybe those last two aren’t beyond my control).

I’m a landscape photographer, and I have no idea what I’m doing.

Dealing With Impostor Syndrome

When was the last time you felt like a hack? An impostor? Like every shot you got right till now has been luck? I felt like that a couple weeks ago. I’ve always thought of impostor syndrome as something you outgrow in time, but it seems to hit me every time I go into the field.

Today, I’m taking a deep breath and I’m thinking back to how most trips start out for me: days of busts with a few scattered breakthroughs.

Great photography is riddled with failures. Because I tend to only see the successes of my peers, I expected photography to turn into a methodical, repeatable, and predictable field with practice — an expectation I formed sitting in the editing room, used to instant gratification and effortless vistas.

Alpenglow at Crater Lake

Alpenglow at Crater Lake National Park. It was the only day we got this beautiful light, but I didn’t find a good composition until the next day.

Especially in landscape photography, so many factors are outside our control, and success often comes down to persevering so that on average something turns out. Your goal is just to improve that average.

That’s why it helps to watch vlogs from my favorite landscape photographers: to hear how they spent days trying to get one shot to no avail. The best photographers make plenty of mistakes, but it seems less of a failure when they vlog about it because their failures help someone else.

Harnessing Artistic Highs and Lows

Artists are infamous for fits of discouragement, followed by creative breakthroughs. As Anne of Green Gables says, “I can’t help flying up on the wings of anticipation. It’s as glorious as soaring through a sunset… almost pays for the thud.”

Highs and lows are part of the the creative process — by planning for them ahead of time, you can make the lows less low and stay productive. In the editing room, my cycle is generally a few weeks of exceptional creativity, followed by a few subpar months. On a landscape photography trip, the first three days are almost guaranteed to be disappointing.

Because the cycle is semi-regular, I time parts of the photography process to coincide with my highs and lows: during the highs, I’m better shooting in the field and discovering novel editing directions. During the lows, I focus on marketing and final edits when I am naturally more critical of my work.

Journaling Turns Failures Into Stepping Stones

Even without trying to game my creative cycle, being aware of it helps me persevere. My 15-day trip to Oregon ended up being one of the best learning experiences of the last few years, and I brought back some of my favorite shots to date.

Most of those learning experiences can be credited to frequent, unfiltered journaling. Throughout each day in the field, I took notes: ironic scenes, irritating parts of travel, randomly blurted phrases, and especially “I wish I had…” moments during shoots. After three days I had plenty of notes, so the next day I took some time over coffee to:

  1. Edit a handful of photos. Especially when shooting with new equipment or new subjects, it’s critical to get daily feedback. I usually spend 5 to 10 minutes per angle just to get a rough idea.
  2. Look for recurring issues. You will easily spot trends from the photos, but don’t forget to spend time reviewing your journal for logistical issues. I ran into constant frustrations with my camera bag that I couldn’t mitigate in the field, but could address with a quick Walmart stop.
  3. Look for takeaways. My polarizing filter was causing issues, so my takeaway was pretty obvious. But some weren’t as memorable: several times I felt limited by how far and late I was willing to hike.
  4. Keep a running list. You will forget these takeaways — since we don’t spend time editing photos that were a bust, we tend to forget the lessons we should have learned from them. For example, some long exposures of fog completely ruined a shot, and I wasted valuable light. Thankfully, I reviewed the shot the next day and remembered to write down a rule of thumb for next time.
  5. Take action to address issues now. The next day I stopped off at a Walmart to pick up a headlamp and planned an evening hike. It helped provide peace of mind that encouraged me to stay out and shoot astronomical twilight.

Approaching your failures with intentionality is a powerful way to turn them into successes for yourself and others. 100 percent of my post on ultra-wide lenses came from the takeaways I journaled in the field. If I hadn’t been taking notes, I would probably have made the same mistakes longer and had nothing to show for it.

So the next time you head out for a trip, take some time to be honest with yourself about what to expect. There’s only one sunrise and sunset a day, and not all of them will be a fiery display. Set expectations so you can focus on the long-term play and not feel like a complete impostor when three days in a row don’t work out.

Do You Often Feel Like an Impostor?

Maybe I am a melodramatic fraud, and perhaps one keeper shot every day or two is ludicrous compared to my peers. Maybe with better planning, longer hikes, more stamina, a photography tour, or more coffee I’ll see that keeper rate increase. But having set expectations, I know I can only improve from here, and meantime I’ll keep searching for ways to turn failures into stepping stones for the next breakthrough.

Do you often feel like an impostor? Can you think back to a failed shoot that you turned into success?

Jonathan Lee Martin's picture

Jonathan Lee Martin is a fine art landscape photographer, educator and globetrotting digital nomad. He’s traveling the world for a year to discover unique landscapes and help fellow landscape photographers lighten their load to go further.

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When I started I thought that one would not have much control in Landscape photography regarding weather and road construction, close trails, etc..., however it turned out I could not be more wrong ( or like one of my friends says "wronger" ) Yes there is still an unknown fact that plays into it and can ruin your plans but there are so much you can do that it is not even funny, some of the top landscape photographers can read weather forecast better than most meteorologists out there, see "Marc Adamus". Attending one of his workshops can be revealing and at the same time disheartening as most of us come to realize how unprepared and untalented we are.
No, I do not feel like a fraud but I have high and lows creatively and I believe that is not only normal but it is a sign of development and growth, so my recommendation is for people to keep learning and searching their creative voice.

Ha, that is definitely both encouraging and discouraging. I'll have to check out Marc Adamus! It sounds alluring to master (or, ahem, be less at the mercy of) the elements.

Agreed on the cycle being a sign of growth — it's frustrating until I look back a year or two or revisit journals to "compare with my past self" and see just how much more I felt at the mercy of nature =)

Hey Celso Mollo , do you have any link to some good references on how to better read weather for landscape photography ? Cheers.

What do you use to journal in the field?

I've been using the built-in notes app on my iphone just because it auto syncs, but it's not ideal. Especially when journaling for a couple weeks, it tends to make duplicates and has lost changes not infrequently. It also doesn't capture rich metadata like the time or location I journaled at.

The Day 1 app might be a good fit?

Evernote works great for field notes, and it syncs.

I was using Evernote up until they started charging to sync between multiple devices, but it seems like it'd be worth the subscription, esp. since you can record audio as well.

Photologist has a nice ring =) thanks for the encouragement, Scott!

I’m a dog photographer but feel like such an imposter I don’t charge for my work. Most of what I do is shelter dogs so I volunteer anyway but I don’t seek out clients.

Your work looks great! And I don't even like dogs =D what would your next step be to find paying clients?

I suppose the logical thing to do would be to reach out to the people who have adopted the dogs I’ve photographed. I don’t want to appear to be trying to make money off the shelter though. The thing is, I don’t really need the money. It would be nice and certainly be helpful but I don’t need to work. I can do this for the pleasure it brings me and knowing I’m doing something that helps homeless dogs. And how can you not like dogs?

Makes sense. I could see it going either way — charging for your work helps others (and yourself!) value your work, but it's awesome that you see it as a volunteer opportunity. I wonder if the shelter would consider advertising some of your work, so those interested (or who have) adopted can reach out to you?

And the reason is... I'm more of a cat person =P

Life is about contrasts and creativity is no different. You should expect to have the lows as well as the highs, in order to create.

Sometimes I'd like to bump that "clarity" setting on life, HDR style =)

Wow, that's deep, lol

You hit the nail on the head. After a shoot I like very few of the shots and only slowly begin to warm to them. Eventually I do like most of them. But I look at them a week or so later thinking maybe they were flukes. I am without a doubt my biggest critic. The best way I find is to look back over more of my work. I can then see the improvements. And then I can look forward to the next shoot.

Oh man, that timeline sounds so familiar: hate everything the day after, then a week or two later I feel like "oh, this great shot was just hiding in there." Success in the longterm!