What is it that makes a photographer great?  Is it stunning use of light?  Is it great composition?  Is it pure creativity that makes you scratch your head and wonder how he or she thinks these things up?

Is it the ability to relate to people, or to gain a subject’s trust?  Or simply the ability to get access to people and places that are off limits to the rest of us?  Is it crazy processing skills?

These things are all important.  They’re concepts and skills that you, the professional photographer, have to master in order to fulfill the expectations set by both your client and yourself.  But there is one more thing that is at least as important that often goes overlooked.

It’s confidence.

Confidence is what allows you the ability to try and fail and then learn from the experience.  It lets you explore concepts and techniques, not because you’ve seen them elsewhere, but because you haven’t.  It lets you embrace emotions and experiences and build them into your work without fear of what people will think.  It allows you to listen to critique, process it, and disagree with it when it makes sense to do so.  It keeps you from second-guessing your photographs when they don’t get the rave reviews you expected.

And so often, confidence is the difference between being a photographer, and being an artist.

Confidence is a habit.  It’s a balance between believing you’re great, but accepting that you’re not perfect.  It’s trusting your instincts, while understanding that sometimes our instincts are wrong.  Confidence isn’t loud and confrontational; that’s arrogance, and it’s usually masking a cracked foundation of insecurity.  Rather, confidence quietly tells the viewer, or the subject, that you know yourself, that you know your technique, and that you will stand proudly behind your art.

So how do you get confidence?  If you’re very lucky, you might have been born with it.  Some people are naturally self-assured in everything they do, which the rest of us usually find both irritating and enviable.  For most of us, though, confidence is a skill we have to learn, just like lighting and composition.

The key to learning confidence is letting go.  When you can truly let go of what other people think, and accept that what you love and value is in every way as valid as what other people do, you’ll find it much easier.  And then you can stop comparing yourself.  If you’re truly guided by your own unique voice, comparing your photographs to someone else’s is like comparing apples and sardines.  They simply have no bearing on each other.

And then comes the really fun part: learning not to nitpick every last thing you do.  It is one thing to have high standards.  It’s an entirely different thing to be such a perfectionist that you can never appreciate your own art.  Look up sometimes.  Step back and view your work from ten feet away instead of from inches away with a magnifying glass.  Literally, enjoy the big picture.  When you do that, you give other people, both viewers and clients, the permission to do the same.

Confidence is, to a great degree, the one area of photography in which you really can “fake it ‘til you make it.”  You must take the time to learn your craft, to understand focus and composition and light, all things we’ll be talking more about.  But confidence is a habit, and good habits are formed by intentional, conscious choice.  Develop confidence in your work, and you’ll find it spilling over into the other areas of your life.  Consider it “art therapy.”

Enjoy the process.

Deb Schwedhelm on the other side of the lens

Deb Schwedhelm on the other side of the lens