Fear and Self-Loathing in the Photography World

Fear and Self-Loathing in the Photography World

I was standing in a camera shop in the centre of Brisbane when the anxiety began to take hold. Lizzie and I have a shoot this afternoon, and from all accounts it should be awesome: rockin’ couple, engagement party, private boat, emerald green dress, and the big city lights of Brisbane as the backdrop. I have the tools, and I have the talent. So, why am I so nervous, and why do I love this feeling so much?

There are so many things that can go wrong today, from accidentally shooting the whole day two stops underexposed in JPEG, to getting on the wrong boat, shooting someone else's party, and then dropping all my gear overboard, before being bitten by a mosquito and contracting Ross River Fever. Wedding photography is a dangerous business.

What if I get caught in another dance floor feeding frenzy?

Only a couple of hours to go now. What should I be doing? The nerves are really kicking in. I can’t just continue walking in ever smaller circles, listening to the Cure. I do this to myself every time. When I woke this morning, I was feeling fine. Lizzie cooked me an awesome birthday breakfast, because it’s my birthday. I took a couple of well-wishing phone calls, but all too soon, it was time to get prepared.

I’ve checked my gear again and again. Counted my bodies: 2, that’s the correct number of bodies. My batteries are charged, camera, flash, and triggers. My cards are formatted, loaded, and there’re eight spares in my Pocket Rocket; that should last me the next few hours. All lenses cleaned and in their correct slots. Run sheet saved to my iPhone lock screen (thank you Pye). Check. Right, check again, just in case.

I'm as ready as I’ll ever be. I’m not going to check my gear again for at least half an hour, so it’s time to really let my mind run free on the fear. Who do I think I am, what right do I have calling myself a professional photographer? I tried at least one new thing on the last shoot that didn’t work out as well as I wanted. What if this time nothing I try works? What am I going to do if the music stops and someone points at me and yells, “he’s a fraud!”? What if I split my pants? Do I remember my exposure triangle? Do I know all my rules? Could I even draw a golden spiral freehand, I don't think so.

What if everyone's clothes start falling off?

I know this feeling well. I get it before every shoot, I get it before I go onstage with my band, and I get it before I hit post on one of these blogs. I don’t consider myself an adrenaline junkie; I’ve never even owned a GoPro, but I do love this nervous anticipation. With the band, nerves are easier to deal with; it’s all about me. Any music made since the 70s is basically punk, and chaos is beautiful, but with photography, there’s a duty of care. Today isn’t about me. I get to paint it with my chaos, but there are limits, and there are expectations.

I know that as soon as I take that first image all of these cares will drift away. Lost in a sea of laughter, tears, beautiful moments, and wild dancing. I’ll surrender to the flow, and my camera will know just what to do. What was I so worried about? Wedding photography is totally punk rock.

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Rob Mynard's picture

A check list would just give me another thing to check :-)
and thankfully I've never split my pants at a wedding but there was a whole thread on a facebook group recently about it so that's just joined the rest of my unfounded fears.

Stephen Kampff's picture

Oh god I know this feeling! The best thing that helps me along is bringing an assistant with me - but there's gotta be a better cure.

user-88324's picture

Rob, thanks for another thought-provoking thread.

One of the things I noticed over the years was that a nervous photographer can make the subject nervous too and vice versa. The only way I know this is because I've seen the calming effect I've had on the subject when I've been calm myself.

The best advice I can give people about getting rid of nervousness is that it tends to come with worrying about what other people are going to think about the work. We all should theoretically worry about the audience's opinion and wedding photographers have no choice but to be concerned about pleasing their customers. But there comes a point when a photographer just KNOWS his work is good in a certain way and doesn't worry too much about what other people think anymore. When that point comes, then the nerves go away too. Surprisingly, the benefit is that clients start to have more confidence in the work even if they don't understand it themselves at first. In other words, it becomes possible to sell them a different perspective easier even if they don't quite see it on their own.

Just some thoughts, I hope it helps some people to deal with their nerves. Also, they shouldn't feel bad about getting nervous because usually it goes away with time and greater experience. Personally, I don't even trust a photographer that hasn't had a good dose of nervousness at some point because that's how to tell that he's not too cocky and self-absorbed.

Emma Grigoryan's picture

one perfect comment - all said !
I have noticed that self training of being calm and confident, even when you are all out of your perfect state, really does work. It might take some time, but it eventually comes. In my experience talking directly to people I shoot and telling how great they look etc. does a great impact on their behavior as well as mine. Situation can change basically in a moment.

Rob Mynard's picture

I'm not nervous at all when I get to the shoot, I'm in my groove and the world can throw what it wants at me. I don't know if I actually want to get rid of the pre-shoot nerves, I think they help me focus and the adrenaline is wonderful.

user-88324's picture

Come to think of it...I definitely still get the pre-shoot nerves. It's usually because I get anxious wondering if people will be on time. Good point, Rob

David Moore's picture

I don't get it bad when I am shooting, I lock up when I try to do anything marketing wise. KIND of kills all business for me lol.

user-75500's picture

I know that feeling, business and the money aspect tend to cause the blocks, Marketing less so. Shooting is the most relaxing aspect of the whole game.. It's a funny buisness sometimes.

Phil Newton's picture

Good article Rob. I personally only get a dose of the nerves if I'm charging someone money for the shoot. It's awful!!

Rob Mynard's picture

Don't hate it, embrace the nerves, the adrenaline can be a great boost to your ego when you need it.

Lorri Adams's picture

How I feel every single time, yet once I start shooting, I have so much fun. I'm trying to get used to the couple of days of stress followed by the actual day being less stressful, nice to know I'm not the only one, and I can guarantee you've been shooting longer than I have.

Rob Mynard's picture

If you're not nervous beforehand then you're not taking it seriously enough.

Jacques Cornell's picture

I get the same agitation (minus self-loathing), and I feel no need to resist or change it. It stems from the tension between wanting a 100% assurance of success, happy clients, no disasters, and knowing that the best photos will be unexpected and all I can do is try to be ready for them and ride the wave. When I stop feeling this excitement before a no-do-overs shoot, I know I've slipped into a too-comfortable routine and need a fresh approach.

Rob Mynard's picture

Exactly, imagine if you woke up the day of a shoot and it just felt like you were off to work... what would be the point.

I know this feeling well.

I get the "jitters" every time before a photo shoot. I prepare as best I can but still get the jitters.

Last Monday I had an engagement session with a same sex couple. One of the ladies hired me for her surprise engagement. Since I have never shot this style before I was nervous about missing the moments etc. After carefully planning the location and how she was going to spring the surprise, we had all our details planned out.

What we didn't plan for was Tropical Storm Colin. Upon arriving at the location, it was CLOSED! Ack. I texted her to see where we should go instead of the park. After back and forth, we agreed to go to International Mall (in Tampa FL). After a quick look around I found an ok spot with a decent background. Between the change up, the anxiety of a Tropical storm and the nervousness of the shoot (along with feeling it for the client as well) we proceeded.

What turned out was unexpected.

She proposed.

Then her girlfriend surprised both of us and proposed to her.

Despite all that happened to our planning everything went off great and the client was super happy with the results.

Rob Mynard's picture

Excellent result. I think that some people see nerves as a sign of not being prepared but that's not the case.

Jim Milliken's picture

At most weddings ive been, the photographer is treated more like an intruder instead of a professional at work. The phone camera snappers all think its an easy job, just point and shoot! Rob certainly knows different. I wouldnt know where to start! Quick question; im a really rank amateur. Should i even be on this site? Oh,good article,sir. I never really considered that nerves in respect to pros. They ooze calm. Good actors as well then!

Rob Mynard's picture

Haha it's not about acting, by the time anyone see's me I'm in work mode and the nerves have gone. And never question whether you should be on this site, if you have a passion for photography and you wanna learn new stuff then that's what this site is all about.

Ryan Graham's picture

I'm just a landscape photography hobbyist. So, the event photography part of things, I don't understand so well. But your anxieties, those I understand very well. I'm a licensed clinical psychologist. What you experience is called Impostor Syndrome. Google it. It's very common in high achieving professionals of all stripes, and has no connection with actual ability. It's not really a mental illness; just a manifestation of some inner fears.

There are plenty of relaxation exercises that could be helpful for you when this hits you. But, for some people, just knowing what it is that they're experiencing, is sufficient to substantially reduce the anxiety. Best of luck.

Rob Mynard's picture

I'll have to look that up, I like the sound of Imposter Syndrome, but I wouldn't want to get rid of the nerves, I actually love the feeling.