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News & Insight

How to Succeed in Photography… and Everything Else

By Lauchlan Toal on February 2nd 2016

Let me ask you a question. What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?

Groundhog Day

Maybe you recognize that as a quote from Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, in Groundhog Day, or maybe you need to stop reading this article right now and go watch the best film ever made – I’ll wait.

Now, think about that question. It paints a depressing picture, and hits too close to home for too many of us, as we all know the feeling of waking up feeling as though every morning is the same as the one before. Especially with things like photography, it’s hard to see any improvements from one day to the next, and it makes you wonder if you’ve hit a plateau, where the only escape is retreat.

A lot of things are like this; my favorite example being fitness. If you’re trying to put on muscle, you can spend hours lifting weights with no noticeable difference in strength or size the next day, but does that mean that time was wasted? Of course not, we know our bodies take time to develop, and every effort we make pays off in the long run, just as Phil proved in Groundhog Day.

Grinding through a project, one piece at a time.

Grinding through a project, one piece at a time.

We don’t have the luxury of pausing time and reliving a single day, but we are able to harness that same power of incremental change.

Everything You Do Matters

Internalize the idea that everything you do matters. I don’t mean that in the “you are special, and everyone cares about you” way, simply that every action you take will affect your life. Maybe not in a major way, and maybe not in a good way, but it inexorably will. And this is terrifying.

We like to follow the status quo, avoid risks, and imagine that some of the things we do don’t matter; that piece of chocolate cake won’t affect our weight; spending an hour watching TV isn’t hurting anyone; skipping a day at the gym isn’t a big deal. Of course, we know that if we do this all the time, it really will become a problem. But, we’re willing to sacrifice a little health or a little time for something easy or immediately rewarding, and make up for it later. But with photography, it’s not so easy to understand. Who can quantify what an hour of practice does for your artistic abilities? How?

The Peril Of Photography’s Nebulous Nature

Since it’s so hard to put your finger on how your actions affect your photographic skills, motivation can be a challenge. With fitness, you know that if you spend an hour in the gym every day you’ll inevitably get stronger. But what happens when you take a photo every day, read a blog post every day, or critique an image every day? There’s no science that tells us what to expect, no formulae to make our creative growth predictable. It’s all too easy to give up when every day paints the same bleak picture of artistic stagnation.

Moose GoPro

What if you knew exactly how much any given action would benefit your photography? If you learned that two hours of practice, plus 30 minutes of reading about new techniques, plus an hour of giving critiques would make you an award winning photographer in two years? Wouldn’t it make everything so much easier? Unfortunately, measuring that as data is tough, as there are just so many variables that you could never create an accurate formula. So what, then, do you do?”

Set yourself up for success with incremental change

Like in everything, incremental change is the force that drives your photography to new heights. It’s difficult, even impossible, to observe in the short term. Given time, however, and soon you’ll start to realize just how powerful it is. The hours you spend perfecting a single shot won’t just make that one photo better – they carry over into all your future work as well. The new technique you learn may seem like a waste of time at first, but one day it’ll be the perfect solution for a challenging subject.

So, what can you do every day?

  • Take a photo! Practice makes perfect, and every photo you take builds your abilities.
  • Read a blog post or article. Everyone needs inspiration sometimes, and learning from other photographers is great for this.
  • Critique someone’s work. You don’t have to share the critique with them, but write down your thoughts about an image. What you like, why you like it, and how you could improve it. Flex your brain.
  • Look at another photographer’s website. Immerse yourself in their photos. You don’t have to critique them, just let their vision wash over you for a few minutes.
  • Doodle, paint or do another creative art. Every now and then, it helps to pull some creativity from another art and apply it to your photography. Just a short time spent in another medium can invigorate your photographic mind.

None of these activities take much time, and if you do them regularly, and you’ll see the difference. Maybe you won’t notice immediately, or even soon, but I can guarantee that you will.

People just don’t understand what is involved in this. This is an art-form! You know, I think that most people just think that I hold a camera and point at stuff, but there is a *heck* of a lot more to it than just that.” – Larry, the cameraman in Groundhog Day

[REWIND: Up Your Creative Game with a Photo-a-Day Practice]

So don’t shortchange yourself, and stop saying that your efforts don’t matter because they do. Push yourself to succeed even when it seems pointless because everything you do counts. Photography really is a complicated art form. You can’t master anything in a single day, so don’t be discouraged if it seems like you’re not getting anywhere. Keep working at it, and enjoy the journey.

One day, your future self will thank you for it.

Lauchlan Toal is a food photographer in Halifax, Nova Scotia. When not playing with his dinner, he can be found chasing bugs, shooting sports, or otherwise having fun with photography. You can follow his work online, or hunt him down on the blogs and forums that he frequents.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ralph Hightower

    I have been lax during my commute to work and home. I’ve kept my camera in the Subzero lunch bag, if it’s a film SLR. I don’t know if I got a shot of the “A Team” van or not.
    But, there are five blogs that I read on a daily basis: japancamerahunter.com, petapixel.com, fstoppers.com, diyphotography.net and slrlounge.com. The first Tuesday of the month always sets me back since I stay in town for the local camera club meeting.
    Towards the end of 2011, I decided to shake things up. Actually, using a three pack of Kodak BW400CN film, I rediscovered the classic look of B&W. I would photograph the year 2012 exclusively using B&W film. It would be a year of growth for me to use different B&W contrast filters and B&W film.
    One camera, multiple lenses: 28mm 50mm 80-205mm, and 400mm. Two projects: Sunrise on the equinoxes and solstices and photographing the Full Moons.
    It was probably about March before I started visualizing in B&W. I think that I was probably more creative in 2012 by limiting myself to B&W film.

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