One of the things that I see most photographers of all levels struggling with has nothing to do with f-stops, mastering lighting, seeing, creating, competition, making a living, or any of the countless other “stress” factors that photographers seem to worry about. Rather, a trend that I notice time and time again—and I’ve admittedly fell victim to this trend myself frequently throughout my career—is the failure to simply recognize that things, in this moment—right now—are actually far better than you give the present moment credit for.
What do I mean by this? Let me give you an example.
Let’s take a fictional photographer—a fictional photographer that many of you may see bits and pieces of yourself in. I see parts of myself in this photographer as well. Let’s call this photographer Apollo.
Apollo wasn’t born a photographer. He was born a person who grew up with diverse interests and friends and a great deal of uncertainty about his place on this planet. At some point he discovered that he enjoyed photography and that made him happy. He liked the feeling of clicking the shutter and seeing his creations appear on the screen. They weren’t all winners—he had far more duds than masterpieces but he didn’t really care. He simply enjoyed the process of using this piece of technology to express a little sliver of his soul in a completed image. Those images brought out an artistic side in him that he never knew he had; he felt like they gave him some degree of purpose and the moments in which he was behind the camera and lens, creating, he felt more peaceful than most other times in his life.
But then something happened. He looked around and saw other photographers doing their own photography thing. These other photographers were creating their own images and sharing their own little slices of their souls. He saw that his images that he was creating didn’t really measure up to theirs: the other photographer’s images were clearly stronger. This made Apollo feel bad and his self-worth went down.
Not one to quit, he used this fact—that others were better than him—to push him to try to better himself. He said to himself “if I spend 20 hours a week on my photography instead of 10 hours a week” I’ll definitely get better and then I’ll be happy. So he did: he shifted around his life and found an extra ten hours a week and pretty quickly, he started seeing the fruits of his labour: his photography skills improved vastly and he got better and better.
A funny thing happened, however. Even as others were recognizing that Apollo’s photographs were getting stronger and stronger, Apollo still wasn’t happy. Sure his photographs were stronger, he thought, but when he looked around and saw that other photographers were getting in magazines and having exhibitions of their work and he wasn’t…well, that made him sad. “If only I could have my work published and have that big exhibition, then I will be happy!”, Apollo mused.
Fast forward a year. Apollo sent out countless portfolios to countless magazines and made meetings with various art venues. It took a lot of doing….a lot of frustration and cursing all the rejection notices that arrived monthly…but Apollo finally got his break. A magazine agreed to publish a small photo essay of his (and even gave him the cover!). The next month one of the most prestigious galleries in his city agreed to a weekend showing of his work: his first major exhibition!
At the exhibition, people sang his accolades. His work looked beautiful hung up and behind glass. At one point on opening night, someone approached him with the magazine that he was just in: they wanted him to sign the cover that he photographed.
Apollo signed the cover, but he was distracted. He was a little upset, truth be told, because he had just heard that his camera manufacturer choose a photographer he knew to be part of their sponsored team. He didn’t have a sponsor, and this made him sad.
A year later, after thousands and thousands more images that he crafted to perfection and through a lot of grim determination, Apollo got sponsored. He wasn’t enjoying creating these images as much any more because he wasn’t getting as many Facebook likes as he once did because social media algorithms kept changing, but he finally got a free lens in the mail, so that was something. His friends in the photography world were so proud of him but still Apollo wasn’t happy: he’d be happy, he thought, if he could just get onto National Geographic’s team. “They’re obviously flawed if they don’t choose me…look at the work I create!”.
The point of the above is pretty obvious. We, as humans, tend to live in states of being stuck in the past (“I could have been happy in life but I never had the money to go to photography school, so now I’ll suffer the rest of my life saying ‘what if’”), or looking ahead to the future as the elusive cure to being happy (“I’ll be satisfied when xyz happens”.).
Neither mindset—living buried in the past or placing happiness as a conditional future state objective—is a healthy way to live, generally, or to approach your photography.
Why? Because all you have is NOW.
What is now and why is important to recognize that you have it better than you think you do? Because you do. All we have is now: life is a series of moments that unfold one after another after another after another and if you constantly tell yourself that you’ll never be satisfied with the current moment unless something in the future happens? Well…you’ll never find happiness. You’ll never be satisfied. You’ll never find peace. You’ll never appreciate just how much you’ve accomplished and how talented you really are. How FORTUNATE you are (imagine how many people in the world would love to simply afford to own a camera, let only worry about whether you get 250 likes on an image on Facebook opposed to 10).
If you’re always looking to the “next big thing” as that magical place where happiness and contentment resides, you’ll never find happiness and contentment, because as soon as you hit that place—that goal—you won’t recognize the moment for what it is (beautiful) ad you’ll be looking for the next thing as the magical place where happiness and content resides. It’s “all retch and no vomit” as the great Alan Watts preached.
Truth be told, you’re doing pretty damn well. Right now. In this moment. You truly are. You’ve accomplished, I’m sure, a lot in this life already. No matter where you are on your photographic journey, you’ve made some pretty incredible gains. Maybe you finally understand the exposure triangle. Or maybe you’ve sold your first print. Or maybe you simply enjoy being outdoors and photographing images that make you happy. Lock onto and appreciate that—all of that—because that’s what it’s all about.
Appreciate the power of NOW. That’s not to say don’t have goals, of course. Goals are a great thing: they motivate us and keep us moving forward. But please don’t attach your happiness to a future state: happiness and contentment is here, right now, in this moment. You just have to recognize it.
People often ask me something to the effect of “what is your ultimate dream in photography….cover of National Geographic?”. My answer is pretty much always the same: “to be able to do ten years from now what I do now…and to just enjoy the ride”. And that’s the God-honest truth. I have goals, but I don’t feel a pressing need to do anything in particular with my photography other than enjoy it. To not only not hate it, but to always have the same satisfaction being behind the camera as I did when I first started out. I picked up the camera because I loved creating. I loved knowing that I had an artistic side and that this was my medium. I want to hold onto that feeling. Forever.
End note: for some great reading on this subject, I highly recommend Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”. I read this book about a decade ago and I can emphatically state this book has changed my life like no other book I’ve ever read.