Working in Photography With Anxiety

Working in Photography With Anxiety

Most of us will have had that feeling of dread creeping up on us at some point in our lives; the racing heart, nausea, sweaty palms, and sense of impending doom. For some of us, this is just the start. And it’s not occasional. Working as a photographer with anxiety can feel very isolating and often impossible.

The majority of my work is client facing. More often than not, it is both client facing and working with a subject. Managing this while controlling anxiety has proved tricky over the years. I have tried a plethora of potions, therapies, and lifestyle choices to cope with the anxiety that I developed during my childhood (I am now 31 if that holds any relevance). Anxiety is a broad term and it goes from feeling uneasy in certain situations right through to being extremely unwell. 

Here are a few coping strategies that I have picked up along the way (often from very well known photographers) that get me through the working day.

Give Yourself Time

Always be early. If I need to be at a shoot at 9 a.m. and there’s one hour of travel, I will be leaving the house at 7 a.m. sharp. I would rather be sat in a cafe around the corner than adding any stress to my day with traffic, train delays, and general bad commuting karma. Giving myself the extra time, even at the cost of sleep, seems to keep me calm.  

Plan Meticulously 

Knowing that you have everything covered will remove a lot of worry. I often have three camera bodies, two lenses for each focal length (often a 35mm, 85mm, and then a back up of 24-70mm and 70-200mm), multiple lighting and trigger options, and enough memory cards to save my entire lifetime's memories too. Being certain that no matter what, you have it covered, can take a lot of pressure off you. This continues with backups, travel itineraries, lighting tests, and checking over my equipment the evening before the job. It’s ritualistic, but it works.

Leave Some Kit Out of the Room

When I start to feel the signs of a panic attack creeping up, I will leave for the bathroom to run cold water on my wrists. But, there are only so many times that you can do a bathroom run before people start worrying about the state of your bowels. As an additional excuse to leave the room I have started leaving some kit in the car, in the studio office space, or generally away from the main shooting space. I will nip out and collect a light stand, hard drive, or lens. Try to create a few prefabricated reasons to leave the room should you need five minutes to collect yourself. The people in the room won’t mind.

Visualization and Breathing Techniques 

I am not a hippy kinda guy, so I put this off for far too many years. But it works. It doesn’t need to involve crystals and yoga mats, for me it’s taking five minutes in the morning after my alarm goes off to sit still and make time for myself. I usually lay in bed breathing slowing, running through what I want to achieve in the day and what I am going to do well. It only lasts five to ten minutes, but that short time of peace and quiet is key to my daily well being.

Remember Why You Are There

When everyone in the room is watching you and waiting for you to pull out the shot, remember that you are the only person in that room with the skill set to do so, and that is why you are holding the camera.

What works for you? I am always up for trying new things, so if you have found anything particularly useful, please share in the comments below.

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18 Comments

As a new photographer and OEF/OIF Veteran with PTSD, this hits home for me. Thank you for the "forgetting" part of the kit tip. Its hard enough trying to get the shot right with shaking, sweating hands. I hope to get to a point, where i can focus just on the shot and not looking like I just got out of a pool! For now, I just listen to soothing music (Beethoven, Debussy, etc) for 30 mins prior and drink plenty of water.

Han Seoul-Oh's picture

i purposely try to not say anything, but maybe i'm wrong to do that. maybe speaking up and out will help others like us and reduce the stigma. it's a symptom of being raised in a "men don't talk about their feelings" household and generation with a long line of military veterans. however, my anxiety also stems from the same reasons: OPC/OSW/OJF/ODF/OIJ(OEF) combat vet.

i already forget stuff far too often, so i went as i described with being upfront with models and avoiding groups, although i prefer to keep quiet about it. if i misplaced stuff on purpose, i'd never get anything done.

oh yeah, headphones. i wear headphones a lot to try and drown out the noise of others in public.

my hope is that i'm able to contribute a different perspective with my camera, with my story of being a disabled vet with TBI and PTSD showing through in my photos. i do tell people that "what," but i don't often explain the "why" or especially the "how."

anyways, if there's anything i can do to assist, vet to vet, don't hesitate to reach out.

Withholding information, knowledge, is never a good thing, especially in the long run.

Forgetting could be due to a thyroid issue, something I bring up in my previous post. It is a common symptom, and something I experienced. I'm a career military retiree and many military jobs expose you to harmful substances. I have serious health issues today that I suspect, at least in part, are the result of being exposed to some really toxic stuff from my time in the military. Something to consider.

I don't know if this will apply to you two, but don't be too proud to take advantage of disability benefits that you both may be entitled to. That extra income could be a crucial difference in your life, if not now then maybe in the future.

Han Seoul-Oh's picture

sadly, i've had to resort to medication to control my anxiety. breathing techniques help for the times it overcomes the capacity of my medication. because of this, i mostly shoot outdoors, with few people, and for busier locales, i adjust my schedule to ensure the minimum amount of people at the location. for the times i shoot with a model, i only choose people i know and have an established rapport or try to establish one weeks in advance. if i can't get comfortable with that model after a few meetings, i choose someone else. i always explain to them my background and some experiences so they can hopefully gain even a glimpse of why i am the way i am and why i've asked them to be a subject of my shots.

further, i rely on a very small selection of friends who know my story and understand my anxiety to accompany me on shoots where i may run into issues. they're there to be a touchstone, so i know there's at least one person there i can trust, which helps calm my nerves in an uncontrollable environment.

Get your thyroid gland properly checked by a doctor that doesn't simply do a TSH test. Never in my life did I have what is described as an anxiety tack until my thyroid gland started failing on me. I would also never take any drugs associated with anxiety, and much worse anti-depressants, which are often prescribed after or alongside anti-anxiety medication, as they are known to make matters much worse. I believe such drugs should be abolished, especially anti-depressants, because I also believe they are responsible for much of the unstable and most dangerous behavior we see in society today, including suicides, murders and mass shootings.

One last thing I would suggest is making sure you are getting proper amounts of vitamins and minerals and that you are not being exposed in some way to environmental toxins.

Good article Scott. That first photo is great, by the way.

Johnny Rico's picture

I mean this with the best intentions, but leaving your gear unattended and not under your direct supervision or that of an assistant's for the hour prior to a shoot is irresponsible. Being a bit early is good though.

I think if you had a second shooter that you always works with you that would help you. I dont have the problems you list but I find that shooting with a second shooter is much more enjoyable and time flies.

Someone starting off or small probably can't afford that.

I think weddings are the most stressful job I've ever done. and yet I still do them even though I don't need the money. I don't really get a lot of anxiety and part of that is because I'm not reliant on the money, but I think most people have varying anxiety levels, especially with weddings. I try to focus on the positive stuff, arrive a little early, bring plenty of backups, and be in the moment. If you imagine all the stuff that could go wrong, I really start getting worried. something could permanently ruin my reputation and then I would be done. no more weddings. sell my gear and go find something else to do. that's about worse case scenario.

Joe Martinez's picture

I really appreciate and relate to this article. While my anxiety is not on the level as yours or some of the other commenters, I do get incredibly nervous before shoots, and for me it's much more than just "pre-shoot jitters". I'm always a wreck in the lead up to a shoot. Being prepared for every situation is key for me, and I plan meticulously for even the smallest of jobs. Getting to the location early, finding some time to relax, mentally preparing myself and BREATHING has become routine for me. The only thing I can compare it to is stage fright; Internally I'm a mess right up until that moment I step on stage, but when I finally START, I settle in, remind myself that my client wants me there for my specific style and talents, and just like you said, that I'm the only one with the skillset to get the shot. It's pretty exhausting, and by the end of a shoot I'm not only physically tired, I'm emotionally spent as well. Always looking for new ways to deal with it, so thank you for sharing your experience and for the great tips on how to cope!

I hate the wait before the event. I get up get ready and sit around..... thats the worst part. Once it begins its easy.

Phil Wright's picture

I suffer with anxiety but only since Nov last year (mine is health based, i'm convinced I have a bad heart) but I have found some coping strategies that work for me.

Firstly, be open and honest with your client. There's no shame in hiding from the fact you have a mental illness and using an 'excuse' to leave the room is only making it worse. Just calmly explain your situation to them and I can guarantee they will be more than understanding if you just need five min to do some meditative breathing, a body scan or whatever works for you.

You covered things like be there early and have a good plan of action but they are vitally important.

I think the biggest thing for me is, accepting it. Yeah you're anxious. So what? Nothing bad is going to happen, no matter how much it may feel like it. Accept that drop in the stomach, the dizziness, the lightheaded feeling. Accept it, breathe and carry on.

On a final note, and I don't want to come across as preaching to anyone these are just what worked/works for me...there are three books that have helped me hugely. 1) The Art of Breathing - Dr Danny Pennman. 2) Self-help for your nerves - Dr Claire Weekes 3) The Happiness Trap - Russ Harris. I would hugely encourage anyone suffering from any mental health issues to take a look at these books.

Great article, thank you for sharing.

Anxiety on it's own can not be reasonably classified as a mental illness since so many things can cause someone's body to react in such a way. I see it as simply a symptom of something else.

I also wouldn't reveal to clients that you suffer from bouts of anxiety, or worse that you have a "mental illness." Not the best marketing strategy.

Phil Wright's picture

If you walked in to the shoot with a cast on your leg because you'd recently had an operation, would you say that was not the best marketing strategy also?

"Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States." - taken from NAMI.org

An anxiety disorder can be crippling and can also increase the risk of physical issues like heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. It can also lead to depression, so I respectfully disagree. Anxiety is indeed a mental health issue. Whether you choose to disclose it to your client is a personal call.

That's a false equivalence even when just considering the temporary staus of the conditions. Six to eight weeks later the cast is off.

It doesn't matter how prevalent it is. Most people are going to pause and think twice about someone that admits to having an anxiety problem, and certainly if they say they have a mental condition. I would. There is no point in doing so and it can cause someone to lose work, and to the extent that they can no longer make a living.

Anxiety **can be** "a mental health issue" if by that you mean where it originates from. In the mean time , on its own, it is simply symptom. Things such as poor nutrition and exposure to environmental and food toxins, both non-mental issues, can cause a person to feel anxiety. And of course you have so many other unindentified health conditions that can also have anxiety as one of their symptoms.

I never said or suggested that anxiety couldn't lead to the things you mentioned.

"Plan meticulously"

This X1000. A process is super important when you are dealing with your own mental state (which is everyone all the time). Plan.

Create lists: Shot lists, equipment lists, to-do lists. Write down all the relevant information: Where and when, who will be involved, what you discussed, what your purpose is. Write out a schedule and check off what gets done: Day before- charge batteries (which batteries), the afternoon before- pack equipment (with a checklist), 7:00 am -pack the car, etc. Put events and deadlines on your calendar.

Process means that you only have to think about the next step rather than the outcome. Documentation means you don't have to keep 3,000 things in your head. Anxiety is exacerbated by the unknown and unpredictable. Remove as much of that stress as you can.

I don't have much anxiety about my work, but I also do pretty unstressful photography. Which leads me to an interesting idea: If the anxiety is really tough, consider whether you might gravitate to the less stressful parts of photography. As just one example, architectural/design/real estate photography is pretty straightforward and is generally not one-chance-that's-it type of work, meaning if you really messed up you could do a do-over. Now if that's just not your thing, I understand. But it's worth remembering that different genres of professional photography come with different stress levels, and you might find a good balance between your particular interests and talents and those photography specialties that have lower stress.

Very good article.

Coping with situations where you have to deal with people is not always easy. I sometimes need to speak in from of prospect and clients and it is difficult to get started.
When my anxiety or panic attacks sets in I found out listening to music (or certain sounds) would relax me and relieve me from those terrible sensations. I did lots of googling.I stumbled upon this, tried it, and I love it. Its like putting fire out with water. https://t.co/zeKXKEnuBT

Eric