Are You Smart Enough to Know the Difference Between These Two? And How Both Can Hugely Impact Your Photography

Are You Smart Enough to Know the Difference Between These Two? And How Both Can Hugely Impact Your Photography

There are many things that can make or break your photography. But if you can identify the difference between these two things, and use them both to your advantage, then all facets of your photography will continue to develop exponentially. 

It may well go down in Fstoppers folklore as one of the most frightening cover images of all time, but in these pandemic days of self-isolation, all bets are off. With movement restricted and opportunities to take photographs for pleasure or payment very slim, motivation for many among us is becoming a problem. But if you understand the different types of motivation and how they can impact your mood and your mindset, then I'm pretty sure you can get through this unproductive period relatively unscathed. Unfortunately, you can't unsee my mug in the cover image, so I apologize wholeheartedly for that.

Motivation has been studied in psychology for centuries. Why do we do the things we do? Why do we take up hobbies and give others away? And why do we commit thousands of hours to something that might not necessarily be good for our lives, yet throw by the wayside something that our parents think we should put more effort into? Basically, motivation may be broadly placed into two main categories: extrinsic and intrinsic. But what’s the difference between the two and how do they both impact your photography? Let’s look a little bit more deeply, shall we?


Intrinsic motivation is when you do something for yourself because it’s a passion and it brings you great internal joy. You don’t do it because you expect any kind of given reward, be it cash or something else. It’s a purely personal experience that engenders happiness simply from doing the task itself. When we bring that into the realms of photography we might use an example of a landscape photographer who wakes up two hours before sunrise and drives to a location in the dark to prepare for a photo, all the while expecting nothing in return except for the joy in the activity itself.

In the photo above, I planned it for a few weeks because I knew the tide had to be right for the snaking water to appear like that. Then in the days preceding this, it was overcast and rainy so I had to wait until the weather was right and the tides aligned. I also had to decide on which fin to use and which board I thought would be best. However, with a self-portrait like this, in my experience they seldom sell well commercially because buyers typically don't want an image of someone else plastered all over their walls at home. So all of the planning and preparation and early morning execution was for my internal happiness. That was reward in itself, which typifies intrinsic motivations. Typically, when most of us start on our photographic journeys, we do so with a large dose of intrinsic motivation.


Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is when you do something for a specific reward, or to avoid some kind of punishment. In the context of photography, it's the former. Most of the time that reward comes by way of money, but it can also come in the form of fame, notoriety, free goods, contest prizes, and many other things that you might want to insert. When you hear someone say “what’s in it for me?”, or "what do I get out of it?", for example, you can take a pretty fair guess that they are extrinsically motivated to do something. Whether we admit it or not, most of our actions in life are extrinsically motivated.

It begins young, and carries throughout our lives. I have a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old daughter and even they know at this very young age that they will be rewarded with something if they perform a certain action. Or they will avoid punishment if they perform a certain action. Rest assured, there is no sugar in our house or junk food or anything that could land me in the naughty parental trouble corner, but they instinctively know, for example, that if they eat all their vegetables they will get some fruit. Or if they take a bath without complaining too loudly, they might get a little Peppa Pig to watch. They don’t take that bath because they particularly love getting in the water and splashing about, it’s simply a means to an end to get something else.

And so it often is with our photography. Obviously, if it’s your job then that is why you’re doing it – to put food on the table, or to pay off the mortgage, or to fund your child’s education. It’s what you do and how you get paid. But there are other extrinsically motivating factors that drive people on. You might be an ambassador for a certain photographic company where your work gets you free gear, like tripods, or filters, or access to software. Or you might be a serial contest entrant who sends images to countless photo competitions around the world and then posts the results on social media. Such people are often not getting a monetary reward per se, but they are getting a nice little massage to the ego and perhaps a few extra lines on their CV, which might help them get work in the future should they apply to something that requires verification of contest results.

The Problem With Being Exclusively One or the Other

So when we apply that to photography, we have to think about where our motivations lie. Do you do it purely because you love it and expect nothing in return? Or do you do it because it’s your primary source of income, or a second job, or because you are looking for something tangible for your efforts? In my experience with myself and my peers, I've found if you are exclusively motivated by one or the other, it often leads to motivational problems down the road.

When you are solely motivated for intrinsic reasons, it is noble, but how long can you maintain the rage when you are getting barely anything in return? If we think about most hobby photographers and those who do it for the sheer joy, the majority of them I would say confidently do little more than post to social media, be it Facebook, or Instagram, or somewhere else. Now, depending on how big a social media following you have, you might not get more than a handful of people seeing your images. And when that happens over a period of time, it’s only natural that you will start to lose motivation, especially if you’ve put time, practice, and patience into taking your images and editing them in post-production.

On any given Instagram post, I'm lucky if the Instagram algorithm shows it to 10% of my followers. Here's an example - less than 10% of my followers saw this (excluding hashtags). Honestly, that is massively demotivating when you're trying to get your name out there.

As I’ve touched on before here on Fstoppers, one way I think you can intrinsically maintain your motivation for photography is to print your work and hang it up on the walls at home or in your office. By doing so, you are getting a constant reminder of the effort you’ve put in and a motivational prod to keep going and keep improving. The problem with exclusively using social media to share your work is that it is so disposable and instantly consumed, chewed up, spat out, and forgotten. By printing your work, whether it be in large format print in or in small frames to put on your office desk, you are given constant visual access to your work, which can ensure that your passion and dedication doesn’t just become a distant, digital memory.

Alternatively, if your photography is purely motivated by extrinsic factors, then it is similarly hard to maintain your passion. I’m sure every single one of us knows portrait photographers, or wedding photographers, or studio photographers who simply don’t want to deal with people any more. Likewise, those photographers who follow the competition circuit around the world entering their images in every contest they can find often get frustrated at the subjectivity of judging results. And often go on social media rants insisting that they’re done with the whole thing and they will never enter another competition again. On such occasions, I think people who have become so inextricably entwined with extrinsic rewards have forgotten why they started photography in the first place, which I’m sure was most likely for enjoyment.

Summing Up

In order to sustain your passion and enjoyment for photography, I think you really need to have a combination of the two motivating factors. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivational issues will push and pull at our emotions at different times but if we understand what they are and what impact they can have on us, then we can deal with them a little bit more effectively and not throw that camera against the wall in frustration and potentially walk away from something we all loved when we first started.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below as well as how you deal with motivational issues that might sometimes arise.

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Alex Yakimov's picture

Nice article, Iain!
Dichotomies are usually attractive due to perceived simplicity, which makes them narratively convincing, because too many options usually confuse our minds.
So such internal/external arrangement could be an illusion of sorts.
Nevertheless I believe our perception of motivation could indeed fit nicely in two aforementioned categories, but could not be explained by them or be readily modifiable. Each o them is more like a collection of routine behaviours acquired over the years.
So it is not possible simply to decide which pattern of motivation you are and simply change it at will - you have to slowly build up new routines and that takes time…

Iain Stanley's picture

True. It’s more about understanding what might be making you feel so blehhhh. Some days I can’t be bothered, but if I ask myself why, I can usually find the answer in one of the two. If not, I just eat chocolate

Ben Harris's picture

Currently working on a block of Dairy Milk. I guess today is one of the latter.

Iain Stanley's picture

Shooting? Or eating?

Ben Harris's picture

Eating, never thought of shooting it 😶

Iain Stanley's picture

Could make it hard to eat....

Michael Comeau's picture

Printing your work could be another extrinsic motivator, because the need to see one's work in a fancy format is just another source of validation.

I think the ultimate motivation is enjoying the act of creating.

Iain Stanley's picture

This is true. But if it’s primarily only you seeing it, then it might fall in a grey area between the two. Plus, I’m not sure a $10 frame is a “fancy format” in my case haha

Catherine Bowlene's picture

Couldn't agree more, the whole process of creating something or later on editing it (or even learning through some photoshop or photoworks tutorials) is also interesting. I think if you enjoy the process, you will not burn out as much as you could if enjoyed the result only.

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

Intrinsic motivation, ever dream of the Milky Way capture at the end of January where you only have an hour before the blue hour. Once you see it on the back of your camera you will forever be aware of weather, the new moon and views to the south wherever you are. You will awaken an hour before it rises without an alarm and walk outside to see if there is a clear sky with stars. Always with a preplanned location and camera/lens at the ready along with warm clothing for the winter cold/summer/fall night chill. For a two week span you listen to weather forecasts. All for a quiet time with the roof removed to see out beyond to the stars and that astro cloud the eye can barely see but the camera can only capture the form and color of what ancients called the shepherd and his staff looking over a moonless night giving light to the night. Pegasus was seen long ago as well as the cow jumping over the crescent moon stories when there were truly dark skies. Just you and the camera recording what is missed by those watching the tube or sleeping.

Iain Stanley's picture

Perfectly described. I’m a weather chaser myself, more because of waves and surfing. Wonderful images :)