I wanted to write you this letter on having creative confidence.
The sad thing in today’s world (and I guess always) is that artists (especially photographers) don’t have creative confidence in themselves.
It makes sense, after all. To show your art with the world is an act of vulnerability. You open yourself to criticism, haters, and words that can put you down.
But friend, have confidence in your work and photography. Know that whenever you take a photograph, you find something interesting and unique about that moment. It is a special moment to you (who cares what other people think about your photos anyway?)
Why do we lack creative confidence?
I wanted to write why I think a lot of photographers lack creative confidence (using myself as an example):
1. We want to be liked by others
For me, I want everyone to like me. Now I know this isn’t possible, but it is an ideal I hope to achieve.
The biggest mistake I make is when someone says that they don’t like my photos, I think that they don’t like me (as a human being).
However in reality, just because someone doesn’t like your photos doesn’t mean they don’t like you as a person. Not only that, but if someone doesn’t like your photos— you are not a “bad” person.
I know that a lot of photographers who take negative criticism personally.
The secret is to detach yourself emotionally from your photos. You are not your photos.
2. We spend too much time on social media
We all know this moment: we have a long day of work, we’re tired and exhausted, we go home, microwave some dinner, sit at our dinner table (alone), take out our smartphone, and inhale our food while checking our Facebook or Instagram feed.
Inevitably we see that everyone else is living a fantastic and amazing life. They’re in the Caribbean’s, at Vegas, or having a cappuccino while shooting with their Leica in Paris. You are there in your apartment, alone, miserable (hating your job), and wishing you were more creative.
The problem I have found with social media is that we create these unrealistic expectations for ourselves (because we are constantly comparing ourselves with others).
This also happens with photography. We are constantly comparing the amazing photos we see online to the boring photos we shoot.
The reality is that we have a false view of reality. Most (good) photographers only share their best work. And the photos they share might have “marinated” for months or even years before they decided to share them. So they are only sharing their “creme de la crop” (best of the best).
However it is rare we make a good photo. If you can make 1 decent photo a month, and 1 great photo a year— you’re doing a fantastic job. There is this (probably untrue) story of Josef Koudelka asking Henri Cartier-Bresson how many good photos he made a year. Apparently HCB says, “If I am lucky, maybe 1-2 a month.” Josef Koudelka then exclaims: “Me too! I thought it was only me.”
Remember friend, photography is like chess— you can learn how to play in a minute, but it takes a lifetime to master.
If you want to be less miserable and less confident in your work, spend less time online. Still find inspiration in other photographers, but see them as your guides— rather than comparing yourself to them.
3. We don’t know why we take photos
This is a big one— people will ask me whether I think their photos are good or not. But honestly— why should anybody care what I think— or what anybody thinks?
The more important thing: ask yourself why you take photos. If you take family snapshots to preserve memories and share them with your loved ones— why do you need to make “good” photos? You need to make personally meaningful photos.
Furthermore, if you shoot street photography as a way to get out of the office, release stress, and just relax, do you really need to make “good” photos?
If you do indeed want to improve your photos, ask yourself: “Why do I want to improve my photography?” Do you want to improve your photography to get your work exhibited? Do you want to improve your photography because self-improvement brings you happiness? Do you want to improve your photography to get more followers on Instagram, or more likes? This is a question only you can answer.
Everybody lacks confidence
I am very insecure about my photography. I never want to share any “bad” photos because I am in a precarious situation— if I share bad work, then people will think I am a poor photographer, and therefore nobody will ever attend my workshops (because I suck), I will become homeless, I will lose Cindy, and I will die on some gutter somewhere.
Okay this is a very extreme example— but remember, you are not alone in lacking confidence.
Even some of the most accomplished Magnum photographers are insecure about their work, and envious of one another. I hear all these stories of Magnum photographers talking shit about one another all the time. And it all comes from jealousy. Even when you’re on top of the game, the taller up you go, the higher you can fall.
So what are some practical ways how you can have more creative confidence?
How to have more creative confidence
1. Don’t share your photos
To start off, gauge yourself: “Do I really take photos to please myself, or do I do it to please others?”
As a test, start off by taking a break from sharing photos online (or offline). Take a week, a month, a year, however long you want.
The first week of not sharing photos online is like having a severe nicotine or caffeine withdraw. It sucks. You feel sick, alone, and you get nervous tics. Then after the second week, you no longer have any “cravings” — and I can guarantee you; you will have a lot more peace of mind.
Personally, I uninstalled all social media apps from my smartphone and man— I have a lot less anxiety whether my photos get a lot of likes/comments.
I am keeping most of my photos for myself, synced on my laptop over Dropbox. And for the photos I happen to like, I share them on this blog. And ever since I removed comments, I don’t feel any anxiety whether anyone likes the photos or not. After all, if I like the photos, why do I care whether others like the shots?
I think as a practical tip— it is better to make photos that you like and wait until you find others who like you work. Don’t make photos that you think others will like. That is like artistic prostitution.
2. Don’t put any pressure on yourself
Life is stressful; why add additional pressure on your artistic work?
We all have shitty jobs, shitty commutes, shitty bosses, not enough money in the bank, worries about finances and healthcare, concerns about our kids, our spouses, and whether our friends are talking shit behind our backs.
Photography should be self-therapy— a chance for us to be creative, happy, and a chance for us to express ourselves.
If you don’t enjoy photography, and if photography is adding stress to your life, why do it?
I know a lot of photographers who put too much pressure and stress on themselves. They think that every photo they make has to be a great shot, and every photo they upload online needs at least 100 likes/favorites. If they don’t have external validation from their photos, they feel depressed, and feel like they failed.
But fuck it— don’t “try” so hard.
There is a Taoist philosophy called “wu-wei” (passive achievement). The concept is that if you want to create great art, you shouldn’t force yourself. Rather, you remove distractions from your life, and you let your intuition and subconscious create art.
So even when you’re out taking photos, let your guts and intuition follow you. Don’t think too much when you’re shooting.
One thing that Anders Petersen says is that when he’s out shooting, he shoots from the gut, and when he goes home and edits (selects) his best work, then he uses his brain.
You need to take a lot of shitty photos to make a few good ones. For me, I know that every 100 rolls of film I shoot I will end up making around 10 photos that I like (at least that is my “hit rate” in my last batch of film that I processed). So that is 1 “decent” photo per 10 rolls of film. With digital times that by 10.
So to reiterate; when you’re out shooting, follow your gut and don’t discriminate. Take a lot of photos, and give yourself permission to take “bad” photos.
However when you’re selecting your best photos, try to be brutally hard on yourself and choose what you think is your “personal best”.
3. Don’t play it safe
To have creative confidence, you need to take risks. In-fact, you need to learn how to love risk.
One of the biggest reasons why I love street photography is that it is risky. It is scary. There is nothing that gets my blood pumping more than the chance that a stranger might get upset of me of taking their photo. Not to say that I take photos to piss people off, but I am attracted to taking photos that are difficult.
I still have a fear of shooting street photography. However, it is a lot less than it was several years ago. But I have a personal rule: if I see a scene that I’m afraid to photograph, I must photograph it.
I sometimes walk all day and don’t see any good photo opportunities. But if I see a scene that gets my heart pumping, sweat pouring down my back— it means that it might be a potentially good photo. So in these circumstances, I usually go up to the person and just ask for permission (if I’m afraid).
The worst is having regrets. The regret of not having taken the photo. Personally, I feel a lot more happy if I asked someone to take their photo (and getting rejected) rather than never asking at all.
Sometimes when I get too nervous and I chicken out, I lie in bed in the evening, and kick myself in the face for not even “trying” to take that photo.
No regrets friend. Have creative confidence. Take chances, take risks.
I’ll end this letter from a quote from a wise ancient:
“The braver one is, the happier one is.”
Farewell, and be strong.
3:30pm, Monday, Jan 18, 2016 — with a lovely almond-milk cappuccino @ “Ink & Bean” in Anaheim listening to Pusha T’s “Darkest before Dawn”.
New batch of “Henri” neck straps available soon!
Cindy and I are pretty excited to share the news that we have a new batch of “Henri” neck straps. This is version 2, the color is slightly darker (like a lovely walnut-brown), is more refined, and sexier. This limited run is for 100 units. We will sell US orders on Amazon. Furthermore, we will start shipping internationally as well via Paypal.
If you don’t want to miss out on the new “Henri” neck strap (Mark II), register your intent via this Google form. If you want to learn more about the “Henri” neck strap, my good friend Josh White wrote a “first impressions review.”
If you don’t like neck straps, and you prefer a more minimalist strap, pick up a “Henri” wrist-strap on Amazon.
Conquer your fear of shooting street photography
If you want to gain more creative confidence in your photography, join me at my last American workshops (before I move to Vietnam for a year). And join me in Asia (if you’ve never been), make a lovely trip out of it (bring your loved one), and join me in an adventure you will never forget:
– Jan 9-10: SF / Introduction to Composition
– Feb 5-12: Dubai / Gulf Photo Plus 2016
– Mar 19-20: NYC / Introduction to Composition
– Mar 26-27: NYC / Conquer Your Fears
– April 16-17: SF / Conquer Your Fears
– April 23-24: SF / Discover Your Unique Voice
– Oct 1-2: Melbourne / Conquer Your Fears
– Oct 8-9: Sydney / Conquer Your Fears
– Nov 5-6: Singapore / Conquer Your Fears
– Nov 12-13: Tokyo / Discover Your Unique Voice
– Nov 19-20: Kyoto / Introduction to Composition
2017 Street Photography Workshops
- Feb 8-12: Hanoi to Sapa / Travel
- Mar 11-12: Saigon / Conquer Your Fears
For any questions regarding upcoming workshops, contact firstname.lastname@example.org