Feeling like you don’t belong?

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I received a letter from a podcast listener a few weeks ago. With his permission I made it into a podcast episode and I’ve written about it here. I’ve changed a few of the details to protect his identity (he doesn’t deserve stalkers or anything like that) but I’m grateful for his willingness to put himself out there. Helping people on their photographic journey is what I do!

He said, in short, that he feels like an imposter. He explained how he loves to go out and shoot and how he recently got in to hiking and photographing on the weekends. But he’s frustrated with his results. If you’d like to read the original message he wrote me it’s included below here on this same post.

My thoughts in response to Alex’s letter

He said that he’s “recently jumped into hiking every weekend” and that he’s “jumped feet first” into photography.

Certainly this tells me he’s very new to the art and craft that is photography and I’m not surprised he’s a bit disappointed in the results he’s getting from his image making. I am curious though, what caused this sudden excitement and lurching into this field, into this hobby? He mentioned in subsequent messages more about how his girlfriend initially got him into photography a while back but it faded, he did some things for work, but photography never really had an “interest” for him until now.

Given that this is a new thing for him I think he probably “should” feel like an imposter. It means he has a conscience and he’s at least somewhat self-aware of his abilities and his expectations. He’s also aware of what others are doing in photography and he’s falling short. 

He wants so much more in his photography and he’s not achieving it. Does this sound familiar?

I’ve been there many times. Even now I am disappointed at how little I am able to get out and shoot (nothing to do with COVID-19 restrictions, just the story of my life). But this shortcoming, for me at least, is certainly different than his where he feels like he doesn’t belong. I KNOW I belong on the trail, on the plane, wandering an ancient city… that’s where I’m most alive and productive as an artist.

How does one bridge that gap between being an imposter and…

Certainly, it’s experience. The old cliche adage of “practice makes perfect” applies here, though let’s face it, do we really ever achieve perfection in our photography? Rarely. 

With Alex though, it goes a little deeper than that. He talks about not being able to get the “grand scenics” and to me that sounds like he’s blaming his situation on a few things. Firstly, on where he lives. 

This is a struggle for me too. I am rarely inspired with anything within 75 miles of home these days. It’s been the way for several years now. I still get out locally, just not like when I first started. And now with COVID-19 restrictions I’ll be staying close to home a bit more than I’d like when shooting, but as an eternal optimist I try to find the good in these things. As my talk with Ibarionex Perello pointed out, when you place restrictions on your work creativity can blossom.

Identify excuses and find ways to overcome them

I sensed some of the “blame game” with Alex though. It wasn’t serious. It wasn’t like he’s whining or anything like that. In fact I think it was quite innocent. I’ve seen it so much with my students at the university I’m just really in tune with this whole notion. If you focus on your limitations as something that keeps you from getting your work done then you’ll never get your work done. It’s your job to find ways to get the job done in spite of these limitations.

So what if you only have a 50mm and a 70-300 lens. There’s two ways to address this. Get a different lens to match your vision or change your vision to match the gear you have. Either option can feel impossible to achieve but I always recommend the latter as I think a photographer should be able to be flexible. If you can’t be flexible then I might suggest nature photography isn’t for you.

What brings you joy?

Alex mentioned that being behind the camera brings him pure joy. That being out on the trail is a great experience. That’s good. But when you get frustrated at your inability to communicate that experience to others through your photography then you simply need more practice. And you need inspiration. You need training and good examples to go by. When you can get these things covered you’ll start to transform your art. You’ll start to create the images you envision. It takes practice and experimentation though. Figure things out and try new things.

Language is important

Just by bringing this up I know there’s many readers out there that roll their eyes. But I firmly believe that the results of our efforts is directly related to what we put in to it in the first place. And when a photographer says I “take” a picture that’s all fine and good. But inside I want you to really understand that this position of “taking” a photograph is very different than “making” a photograph. I know It’s just “semantics” and everyone knows “what you mean” when you say that you take a picture. I still encourage people to say what they mean and mean what they say. It’s this subtle shift of your mind that occurs when this happens that causes you to take yourself more seriously. However, don’t take yourself TOO seriously 🙂

My specific assignment to Alex

I recommended a few things to Alex. The first thing was to go on three hikes without the camera at all. I wanted to get some feedback from him regarding whether or not he even enjoyed the experience of hiking. If so and he missed having his camera this is good. His brain will look for and create compositions in his mind’s eye and it’ll be a good visual exercise for him.

It turns out he does have a tripod so the next thing I assigned him to do was to look up this link: https://rootsrated.com/stories/10-lesser-known-alabama-waterfalls

I told him to select any one of those and plan to get out there, BUT, i told him that he needs to sit there for 30+ minutes before he does anything. I don’t care if he lies down, twiddles his thumbs, or wanders a bit. Just leave the camera in the bag and absorb the area. And he is only allowed to take his 50mm lens with him.

I then sent him this article: https://www.webmd.com/balance/features/negative-ions-create-positive-vibes#1

It talks about the benefits of the negative ions that are prevalent in nature, especially at waterfalls. By spending 30+ minutes their first you’re allowing the mind to be affected and opened up to the compositional and creative possibilities. It sounds new-agish and I guarantee you it’s not. I’ve experienced this many times before.

Follow the process

Creativity is a process. I can’t really teach anyone to be creative. But I can teach them the creative process and help them to understand how to tap into their creativity.

Have you been on a workshop and look at the images other photographer are making? If you’re like me you’re amazed at the diversity of creativity in even a small group. It’s amazing. We each have our own language of creativity. Following the process I’ve laid out will help Alex achieve his goals. But without this willingness to stick to it nothing positive will happen. So that means dedication is also part of the recipe. 

Basic Training

It’s also good to always “up one’s game” in the post-production side of things too. By learning more about post-production you just might change how you shoot something. Maybe you can learn of some technical obstacles that can be overcome by modifying how you record an image in camera, but you won’t learn it without stretching yourself both behind the camera and in front of the computer screen.

Dedication required

I then told him that after the initial assignments are done (three initial hikes and the first trip to a waterfall) that I expect this process to take 8-12 months before he can fully realize some of his goals in photography. He’ll see results right away I’m sure, but for repeatable and consistent results it will take time.

I also recommended that he surround him self with some “photo buddies” that he can go out and shoot with. Like-minded people that aren’t named “mom” or “girlfriend” will be a huge benefit to one’s growth as an artist.

Post-script

Alex wrote me a few more times and helped me to really understand his position even better. It was great to get to know him a bit better and to really understand where he’s coming from. I’m confident he’ll do well if he sticks to the process and follows through. He’s either realize that this photography thing IS in fact for him and he’ll continue to pursue it, or he’ll realize it’s not and either way, he’ll be a better person for it. We owe it to ourselves to pursue our interests and to verify that there’s something there. We find out more about ourselves and we get those questions answered. If you sit there like a bump on a log then all you have are unanswered questions. So get out there and make some meaningful photography today!

Background info

This is the letter he sent to me.

My name is Alex. I have recently jumped fest first into this lovely pursuit we call photography. I have taken pictures for most of my life at some capacity, but within the last month or so, I have decided to try and make it something more meaningful. 

I live in Alabama near Talladega National Forest and I struggle to find things that captivate my mind for photography. I enjoy being outdoors and have recently jumped into hiking every weekend in the local national forest/state park. Considering where I live, the grand scenics are hard to come by unless it’s at sunrise or sunset and even those are somewhat limited. Small scenes are where it seems to be the best, but I struggle to see small scenes and how to photograph them. 

I am also limited on gear and income that allow me to acquire more gear. I am using a Nikon D750 with a Nikon f/1.8 50mm and Tamron 70-300mm. I have no filters at this time.

I also struggle with feeling like an imposter in a hobby to which I don’t belong. I don’t feel as though my technical skill is up to par as well as my creative skill. I feel as though I can see a good picture when looking at them, but I don’t feel as though I’m capable of taking great pictures. I struggle with this because it makes me be down on myself and feel as though it is almost a lost cause. What I do know is that every time I’m behind the camera, looking through the viewfinder, I’m at peace. When I’m looking through the camera, all I think about is what’s on the other side. I’ve never really had this happen. I’ve never had a hobby or passion that consumed my entire brain when doing it. There is no other thought except for the photo I’m trying to take. 

Thank you for your time. I know it is worth a lot and I greatly appreciate it.

This is the response I sent back to him.

Alex, thanks for writing, you’ve got a lot here and I’ll try and unpack some of it for us.

Also, this is probably more of a conversation so as we move forward with this I look forward to your continued reactions and thoughts.

There’s a few things that I’m curious about though. Most notably how you say you’ve “recently jumped into hiking every weekend.” And you’ve “jumped feet first” into photography. What precipitated this? I’m all for it, but it sounds like a sudden move of sorts. It sounds like you’re intrigued by the idea of being a photographer but  maybe you’re not comfortable calling yourself a photographer yet. Afterall, you do say you feel like “an imposter in a hobby” where you don’t belong.

If I’m right and this notion of hiking every weekend and getting out and shooting pictures with that is all new to you then I’m totally not surprised that you feel like an imposter. You probably should feel like an outsider for sure since you’re so new to it. But also, you should feel energized about the prospects and the adventures that can be had in the wilderness while creating your images.

You mention disappointment about not being able to capture the grand scenics. You “blame” it on where you live. You also don’t have the right gear for it. A 50mm lens is not really for the grand scenics, usually. Nor is the telephoto lens you have. Eventually you’ll want a wide angle lens, but for now, let’s have you focus on just the 50. And a tripod. If you don’t have a tripod you’ll need to get one. When you’re out and about, you need to slow down.

You mention that being behind the camera brings you joy. What about it brings you that joy? Focus all your efforts on that. I’m going to take a stab at a few things here and you can tell me if I’m wrong.

You experience joy because of what you see and the experience of it. You experience joy due to the beauty of the nature and you truly appreciate the natural world. 

You get frustrated when your photographic interpretation of that world is not realized. It’s not what you saw and felt at the time of being there.

This is where you’re experiencing a disconnect with your experience and your appreciation of the experience and how to convey that through the camera.

As a beginner I’d be very surprised if you had it nailed from the get go.

I see people all the time that think they’re really a “good” photographer when in reality, they totally aren’t. They’re good according to their beliefs, but when they leave their little bubble of reality and have someone else look at their images they’re not really that good. You recognize that you’re not living up to your goals and hopes and dreams and that’s good! That’s wonderful. 

So how do we get you through to making some progress with your image making?

First off I wan’t you to recognize the change in language I’m purposefully using. I’m not saying you’re taking pictures. You’re making images. But that’s just semantics. But semantics also shows a subtle (or major) shift in your thinking as well. I want you to shift your thinking. Your purpose and intent just a bit.

But in a completely opposite sense I’m going to ask you to do the opposite as well.

Here’s your assignment. It’s multi-faceted so hang tight, we’ll get to the goods in a moment.

I want you to go on three hikes where you don’t even bring your camera. You literally leave it at home. I want you to be assured of two things. First, that you truly enjoy the hiking that you’re doing. Secondly, that you know and understand that adding the camera truly does add value to your life and your experience. If you can’t verify these things then the rest will be pointless. So do this and then read on.

OK. now that you’ve taken three hikes and verified the two points above, I need you do then do the following.

Buy a tripod if you don’t already have one. You need to slow down. 

Pick any of these waterfalls on this page: https://rootsrated.com/stories/10-lesser-known-alabama-waterfalls

Hike to it and don’t get your camera out. I need you to sit there for 30+ minutes before you do anything. You can walk around, get your feet wet if you want. You can do whatever. Just leave your camera in the bag for at least 30 minutes.

After that time you should have been able to assess the area and come up with a few photographs to explore. They are there, you just need to find them. The lighting may not be right and you have to leave and come back another day. That’s fine. It may be amazing and you still fail at capturing it. Who knows what will happen?

Oh, and only take your 50mm lens. Leave the 70-300 at home. 

This article talks about how negative ions are abundant in the natural world. https://www.webmd.com/balance/features/negative-ions-create-positive-vibes#1

And it really helps us humans and our perspective on life. That’s why you need the 30+ minutes there. You need to ensure that you’re fully absorbing your fill of the negative ions. It sounds new-agish and I guarantee you it’s not. 

If you’re like most people you’ll want to jump right to the waterfall images. Please don’t. You’ll be disappointed in the results. Follow what I’m saying here and I have full confidence that after three or four outings after your waterfall experience you’ll start to see things differently. You’ll start to absorb things more internally and you’ll be more confident in what you’re able to capture and what you’re able to create.

But follow the process. 

And, once that’s done find resources for upping your post-production game. I’ll be creating a bunch of free material for Lightroom and Photoshop between now and summer. I’ll release my Latitude Photography school with a free beginner’s course. 

After your three initial hikes without the camera and the first hike to the waterfalls is done I expect this process to take you a 8–12 months to accomplish any significant goals you may have. You should be able to learn all you need with free or low cost resources. Attending the Create Photography Retreat would be great if you can do it. There’s nothing like surrounding yourself with like-minded people.

But it’s not necessary at this point. You’re still new and you have a lot that you can easily learn on your own.

But what you’ll learn is mostly about you. About how you see things and how you want to convey those things. You’ll also learn how the camera sees things and you’ll learn how to adjust for the differences in your eye vs. the camera. 

If you’re willing to put in the time and effort you’ll have success. This isn’t an instant “snap your fingers and all is good” type of event. It will take time and dedication. 

All the best and do let me know your thoughts. I’m happy to provide more nuanced detail as I learn more about you.

Thanks for allowing me to make this a podcast episode too. It should be out in less than two weeks.

Brent