It’s not supposed to be easy!

It’s not supposed to be easy.

I wish I could end this blog post right there, but I can’t.  This is something that’s been on my mind for awhile.  I need to put it out there for you all to digest and consider and act on (or not).  Before I do, though, I want to be very clear that this isn’t directed toward anyone or motivated by any single person.  I absolutely love teaching, mentoring, and critiquing; this post is meant to be part tough love and part reality-based encouragement.

If there’s one thing I hear in almost every critique and every workshop I conduct, it’s frustration.  Now, frustration can be a fantastic motivator.  It can force you to keep trying new approaches until you break through your block.  It can force you to go back and learn something that maybe you glossed over the first time.  It can push you up from a plateau when your work gets stale.  That’s not the kind of frustration I’m talking about.  The kind of frustration I’m addressing here is this:

“I’ve been serious about photography for two whole years.  I should be producing art by now!”


Or “I should be in business by now.”  Or “I shouldn’t still be having problems with focus / composition / tones / processing / what-have-you by now.”  And my favorite, “It shouldn’t be this hard.”

Well, people, yes it should be.  It should take a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to become good at this.  This is not a simple process.  There are no shortcuts — and I’m here to tell you that when you think you’ve found a shortcut, all you’re accomplishing is depriving yourself of the opportunity to create a strong foundation on which to build.  I know there are lots of ways to appear to have progressed quickly, more now than ever in the history of photography.  There are actions, presets, cameras with every function imaginable; push enough buttons, and “art” appears.  Even easier if you spray-and-pray, shoot hundreds or thousands of frames, and pull out the one successful image, and then subject it to pixel torture.  Voila, masterpiece.

And I’m not just picking on the digital folks, although there are far more tricks and save-your-ass techniques in the digital world.  If I had a dollar for every film shooter I’ve met who considered B&W film the perfect way to avoid having to get their exposure correct, I’d be a rich woman.  It is one thing, whether you’re film or digital, to know all the options available for your use and understanding how to use them — and relying on them to create work that hides the fact that you do not fully understand technique.

The same goes for developing your style.  If you are constantly looking for the next workshop to teach you how to make your work look like so-and-so’s, you’re missing the point.  The goal should NEVER be how to imitate or emulate someone else.  The goal should be learning what your own voice is, exploring how to speak with that voice, and learning the tools with which you can speak.  In other words, asking another photographer how to duplicate their look (“step by step, please, and don’t leave out a single thing”) is not magically going to make your work unique and special.  You’re not going to imitate yourself into being an artist.  Obviously I’m not telling you not to take workshops or learn from others; I’m a huge believer in learning from others, and I adore teaching workshops and facilitating “aha!” moments.  I’m telling you not to be spoon fed.  Figure out what your questions are.  Try to answer them on your own before you look for the easy answer.  When you can’t figure out the question it’s probably time for a critique from an artist you trust to steer you correctly and honestly.  Blindly taking every workshop, course, or webinar out there without knowing how it applies to you is as much a waste of money as buying the same lens as so-and-so because you like their pictures.  Throwing money at the problem will not fix anything.  There are no magic bullets.

It takes time.  There is simply no substitute for time and dedication.  Expect to be frustrated, and don’t whine about it.  All of those well-established, well-rounded artistic photographers you admire so much?  They’ve all gone through the same process.  They’ve banged their head into a wall, they’ve felt like a fraud, they’ve stumbled around in the dark, they’ve literally suffered for their art, and they’ve gradually shaped themselves into the artist they are today.  (But don’t be fooled: many of those people you admire are relying on the same plug-ins, presets, and actions that you are.  They’re just not saying so.  Eventually they will either become stale, or they will have to go back to the beginning and learn properly.  But be aware that many of those people are the ones offering workshops right now.  Do your homework!)

Listen, I’ve been through it.  It’s a lot like giving birth, only sometimes more painful.  It’s hard, it requires incredible dedication and resilience, and it can be humbling at times.  THAT is why not everyone is an artist.  It’s not enough to have some natural ability.  You have to work hard for it and you have to give it time.  You can get past any roadblock in your way if you don’t give up and if you refuse to spend time feeling sorry for yourself when you get stuck.

blind CJ

My little roadblock? I’m blind.

This is me attempting to see my monitor without my contacts.  Sure, my vision is much better with my contacts — but I’m still lucky if I’m at 20/60 with them in on any given day.  I shoot all manual focus medium format cameras.  There’s no point whining about it — I had to figure out how to make it work.  No amount of complaining or hand-wringing is going to make anything better.  If I can do it, so can you.

It’s not supposed to be easy.  But it is possible, and it’s so much sweeter when you work and struggle for it.  As is the case in nearly every aspect of life.

52 thoughts on “It’s not supposed to be easy!

  1. I love this blog and what it is saying to me personally as a struggling photographer. I am striving to find my balance in art. I am struggling to make it work daily. I know the dedication it takes to find my voice in my photographs. I also know that there is no other photographer that sees my images the way I do. And that my vision for my work is mine alone. Thanks for these words. I REALLY needed to hear them tonight. Grateful!

  2. Amen CJ! I have shed more tears than I would like to admit on my path, but I pick myself up the next day and keep going. It’s so damn hard, very hard, especially when you cross that line and your work becomes a direct extension of yourself.

  3. You have NOOOOO idea how timely this post is for me right now. I was praying about how frustrated I’m feeling with the $50.00 photog willing to give all the copyrights to the photo session and discount our blood sweat and tears. Thank you for saving me:)

  4. Weird question… but your post kind of touched on it and it was something I was thinking about today. My son is a sophomore in high school. He is in a beginning photography class at school. He is near-sighted and wears glasses. Can he accurately manually focus when he is not wearing his glasses?

    • Diane, how strong is your son’s prescription, and what kind of camera is he using? Some cameras have adjustable diopters, so you can compensate in the viewfinder to accommodate nearsightedness.

      • The class is a film class, and they are expected to manually focus. He is using my old camera — a Canon Elan 2e. He does not wear his glasses all the time (although he probably should). He wears them in class, to drive, and to play xbox. His rx is -1 in one eye and -1.25 in the other (so not horrible). I told him he should wear his glasses when he is taking pictues as I am not sure if he can accurately focus without him. What I am wondering is if someone who is nearsighted can accurately manually focus when they are not wearing their glasses.

  5. Very humbling. it keeps me from becoming stale myself. at the same time it convicts me of times where I thought the shortcut is better but its not! Thank you for your honesty. let the hard work begin:)

  6. this is true for all art forms, for painting, for dancing, for parenting. I have worked at them all, and 90 years have not been enough.

  7. I needed this SO very much this morning. I feel like I am still learning, changing, and growing after 3 1/2 yrs of being serious about learning more concerning photography…sometimes I get frustrated and think “well this must not be for me, why am I having such a hard time with this?! Why is this so hard for me to grasp?!” I, in fact, was having one of those moments late last night, thinking “if I could just afford this set of actions, if I could just buy this or that.” when in reality I just need to buckle down, grit my teeth and WORK at it.
    This is the first time I have read your blog, found a link to this post from someone on facebook, but I will be back for sure. I needed this “tough love” moment! I don’t want to be like “everyone else” because, in my opinion, “EVERYONE” is a “photographer” with a “photography business” and quite honestly most of the time I remind myself that is not who I want to be (just someone with a camera who takes a bunch of shots, throws them on a disc & calls myself a photographer). I know that we all start somewhere and I am still in the starting process, but I want to create photographs that will still be beautiful 100 yrs from now, not just something that people will see 10 yrs from now and go “oh yeah, that was back in 2012” because of the trendy edit. Thank you!

  8. Totally agree with this. Especially this part;

    “If you are constantly looking for the next workshop to teach you how to make your work look like so-and-so’s, you’re missing the point.”

    So many people ask the wrong questions when looking for help. It’s always something like, “What lens did you use for that shot?” or “was that photoshopped?” or “can I tag along with you?”

    Most people don’t seem to know what they want to achieve for themselves or where they want their businesses to be in a few years time. Too many people want what others have, and they want it RIGHT NOW!

  9. Love this post, and it’s good to now that we are not creasy and alone. In the FB world when everything looks the same, and people are doing the same…. so much to say that you resume perfectly,
    Cheers from France

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s