The curse of comparison. One of photography’s biggest mojo killers. In this episode I’m talking tips to avoid inadequacy by changing the way you look at your work in relation to others.
Using a camera for the first few months is a truly magical experience. Everything is so fascinating and exciting and look, we created something! You photograph purely for pleasure without putting any expectations on your creative process.
But then you start to look around, keen to learn more about your new hobby and have the sinking realisation of just how far you still have to go. Yours are mere snapshots compared to other photographers! And this feeling never goes away because the truth is, there are always going to be photographers who are more skilled than you because it’s impossible to master every aspect of photography. Just a moment ago a photographer I know announced he is now offering video and my immediate thought was, I don’t offer video, how can I compete? Even though I have zero interest in the industry he works in and we’ve never once been in competition. I had to remind myself that I simply have different goals and cannot do it all and once I’d removed my ego from the equation I felt really excited and proud of his expansion.
I spent a long time beating myself up while watching photographers release new and better photos each week and going on to great achievements while I felt like my career wasn’t moving at all. But that’s because I devoted 4 years to creating a membership to help other photographers instead of spending my time building my portfolio and chasing recognition. God knows, how many photographers have looked at my achievements with either jealousy or awe. And it’s horrible to think that someone else might be beating themselves up over what I’ve achieved.
Comparison is a losing game. I know it’s difficult to look at other people’s photos and not feel disheartened sometimes, especially when they’re well executed photos of magnificent subjects. But do you know how much effort has gone into the creation of that photo? Maybe, like me, they spent every spare second over several years learning everything they could about photography. It might look like talent but it was actually hard work and lots of sacrifice. Maybe it seems they improved overnight but you can’t know how often they’ve been practicing or what courses they’ve invested in to upskill so quickly. Maybe the photographer had to get up at 2am every day for three weeks to nail the photo you’re looking at, or spend thousands of dollars travelling half way across the world? Or maybe they just got lucky and happened to be in the right place with the right gear, timing and technique to pull off something great.
There will always be a way to make yourself unhappy when you’re in comparison mode and it’s unfair to compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. The outcome of that kind of thinking can only ever lead to a loss of passion and drive. So instead, flip the switch and put yourself in inspiration mode. If you love a particular photo go out and try something similar. There’s a good chance your results won’t be anything like your inspiration and neither should they be. But you’ll have a new experience and a lesson in what it requires to take that caliber of photo. A simple change of thinking from 'I'll never be that good' to 'I WILL be that good' might be all it takes. Talent and skill aren't limited. There's enough to go around for everyone.
Another form of comparison I see is that of jealousy and it’s a really destructive and unattractive quality. I’m in a particular photography group on Facebook and many of the members contribute their photos to the contest platform, Photocrowd so I see a lot of comments along the lines of ‘why did this photo win when mine is better’ or ‘I thought this was a good photo but it ranked behind so many bad ones’ or ‘the judges don’t know what they’re talking about’.
First of all, it’s about perspective. Photocrowd is a peer voted platform where it randomly gives you, I think 30 photos to vote on, before you can opt out. You don’t know how the algorithm is designed and how regularly your photo is presented. You don’t know the experience level of the photographers who are voting or even if they have pure intentions or are just trying to win. You don’t know what the final judge was looking for. And at end of the day Photocrowd is just about vanity metrics. I’ve won a Photocrowd contest and it was a fun experience but it’s just not a credible achievement that I’d list on my resume. My approach to photography has always been about building my resume and having fun, and never about seeking validation for my skills and I think this is where so many photographers make things hard for themselves.
We have to be so careful about letting our ego control our reactions. Our ego is designed to keep us safe from perceived threats. But it was built for life in prehistoric times and hasn’t adapted to the modern world, so more often than not it actually keeps us too safe, trapped even. When we share our photos we often do so because we feel proud of them, so if they don’t rank highly or get the feedback we feel they deserve we perceive that as rejection. And at an ego level rejection is a threat to our survival. So we start lashing out looking for validation or others to blame to save face, but instead just make ourselves look like sore losers in the process.
But these reactions 9 times out of 10 are based entirely on your personal interpretation of the situation and not on any actual facts. You can’t possibly know what factors were at play. Maybe your photo is one of the most incredibly skilled photos ever taken but the algorithm didn’t let anyone vote on it. Or maybe your photo is just not as good or as interesting as you thought. And you can either let that defeat you which means you lose the joy of a hobby you love to do, or you can let it inspire you to work a bit harder next time.
Every thing in your life that feels negative, always has a positive interpretation because all situations come with a lesson, even if it’s a hard lesson to learn. And this is a conscious choice you get to make every day. Personally I choose to live with the belief that everything is always working in my favour, even when the very worst things happen, because, if nothing else, it gives me a more positive outlook and fulfilling life. A year ago I was the most cynical person you’d ever meet but that approach was a fast track to unhappiness so I decided to change it.
Because here’s what happens when you take a cynical approach. There’s a similar photographer to me who lives locally. She started several years after me and immediately grew a large following which meant she was being offered opportunities I had always dreamed of. And I felt a lot of jealousy and resentment about that until I had a really important realisation.
She created and posted new work consistently. She made a point of actively engaging with other photographers. She did reels and lives and showed up fearlessly to take advantage of everything Instagram offered to grow her engagement. Tools that weren’t around when I started out.
And what was I doing? Hiding. I posted photos haphazardly, I rarely engaged with others because I didn’t enjoy being on Instagram. And I avoided all forms of content that required being on camera. This was nothing to do with whose work was better and everything to do with the way we were showing up.
And over the years I’ve watched the rise and fall of many photographers. There are so many photographers whose work I adored but their careers just withered and died because they didn’t actively sell themselves. But then I’ve watched less skilled photographers rise to the top because they’re the one who said yes to every opportunity, who promote their work constantly, who network and make friends in the industry so that when someone is looking for a photographer guess who’s front of mind?
Confidence and a positive mindset are the biggest contributors to success, NOT the quality of your work. I’m sure you can think of at least one famous photographer whose work seems overhyped.
But I want to be really careful here and not make the shy photographers feel like your lack of confidence or self-esteem is just one more way to feel inadequate. These are learnable skills and I know this intimately because I’ve been exactly where you are making every excuse in the book to avoid feeling seen or judged. But I’ve learned to stop letting my ego rule my behavior, I’ve trained myself to use self-talk that is only positive with words like I can instead of I can’t or I am instead of I’m not, I’ve let myself accept that my words and my work are valuable to other people, and I confront my fears with courage because if I ever want to reach the success I desire I need to show up. That’s non-negotiable.
Because you can’t sell a secret. You know, in Australia we were raised with tall poppy syndrome and the belief that achieving success or celebrating our achievements is egotistical, but what a load of sh*t it is to dim your light to prevent looking bad. You need to put your work out there. You need to talk about how and why you created it. You need to build a name that people recognise by posting with consistency. It doesn’t matter where you are in your journey because there will always be someone less experienced who looks up to you, or someone more advanced who’s happy to help you up. And if you get ignored at first, that’s fine. That’s normal. Just keep going. If you want to be an admired photographer than be someone worth admiring. If you want to be a better photographer than do the things it requires to be better.
Every photographer’s journey is entirely different. Every photographer has a unique story and perspective. Every photographer has different access to opportunities and environments. And all those things make you interesting to others. This is your advantage. Don’t hide it away.
So what lessons can we learn from this?
Let’s never forget that you picked up a camera because photography is fun but somewhere along the way your priorities changed and it became about competition. Taking photos is about living in the moment, bringing something into existence and expressing our curiosity and creativity. It’s when we go seeking external validation that the magic disappears so if you find yourself making comparisons just take your camera out for the day with no expectations to remind yourself why you fell in love with photography. If you always approach your camera with pure joy you’ll naturally spend more time with it, you’ll naturally improve and you’ll naturally move closer and closer to success which is why I teach photographers how to have fun with your camera so that you stop worrying about what everyone else is doing. If we love the journey enough, the end goal doesn’t matter.
It’s time to stop looking at other people’s photos and making yourself feel bad. Feel excited by what’s possible. Feel inspired to try better. Learn the techniques they’ve executed so well. Feel pushed to go out and try something new. Comparison should light a great fire beneath us not dowse the flames.