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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?