photographers: what’s holding you back?

what is holding you back as a photographer?

Over a lunchtime conversation with a photographer friend, the discussion went back to something I’ve prodded her a few times about .. her self-doubt as a photographer. In my estimation she’s a better photographer than she thinks she is, but it is as if she holds back on some decisions to advance her business. Then I asked her, “what are you afraid of?”

Ironically enough, her biggest fear is the fear of failure. The fear of not being able to cope with certain challenging photography shoots. The fear of not being ready. The fear of being embarrassed by failure.


advice from someone much wiser than me

One of my driving interests in life is music, and for a long time I took saxophone lessons. Admittedly, I wasn’t all that wonderful on the saxophone. At best I was an intermediate player. Even that’s stretching it. But still, I had fun playing the instrument.

There was one key moment when my saxophone teacher, Len, said in his good-natured but serious way, “You can’t remain a student forever.” And that hit me like a shock. I’ve been practicing and practicing … until what? What was it that I aiming for? Practicing until I get better?  When would that “better” be?

Of course, the more I practice, the better I’d get. That’s the nature of any activity. The more you do any thing, the better you’ll get at it. But in constantly practicing and taking lessons … I was delaying actually playing the instrument, and I was delaying playing with other musicians. I was deferring the time when I would actually be creating music.

With that revelation, I started seeking out other musicians, and eventually ended up with a great group of other music fans who played for the fun of it. And for that year before I emigrated to the USA, I jammed and rehearsed with the mighty Bizarre Bazaar. Rehearsal every Wednesday night was the highlight of  any week, and those evenings will remain some of the best memories of my life. But if I hadn’t had that nudge from Len, I would most likely have kept practicing on my own, aiming to just get better at playing the sax.


fear of failure

This lunchtime conversation made me consider the very things which held me back for far too long in my career as a photographer … a childhood where financial stability was unknown. I could see how a lack of money shaped my parents’ choices and how it shaped the future of myself and my sister as we grew up. Lack of money meant there was less control over our lives. Our options were limited, and our decisions were often forced decisions.

As an adult, that fear of being poor again, and fear of having no control over my life, often had me hesitating instead of making bold decisions. (Although that said, emigrating to another country after selling what we owned, was a pretty ballsy step.)

Fear of not being able to make it with my own business, kept me working as a photographer for other studios for longer than I should have. There is that. I’m aware of what holds me back, and what drives me. It is a constant reassessment whether my caution (and sometimes contradictory recklessness), is motivated by innate fear, or whether cautious decisions are the sensible direction.

But this kind of assessment of – where I am / what I’m doing /  and where am I headed / and where do I want to be – will have to be considered against whether any decision is based on fear, or whether it is sound decision based on what is real. Yet there has to be forward momentum, because I / you / we can’t keep marking time, preparing, waiting …

So here’s the bold question: what is holding you back as a photographer .. and should it?


about the photograph of the mural

The photograph above is of a mural in Dublin, Ireland, that I snapped on my iPhone while walking around the city center. The mural was like a chalkboard where people could scribble their thoughts. It seemed appropriate now.


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34 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 2Marc says

    Your point is completely right.
    However, an aside conclusion of this post is that you take far better pictures with your iPhone that me in my 550D…

  2. 4Ashley says

    Thanks for this thoughtful post! It’s exactly what I needed to hear. So much of what you have said rings true to me.

  3. 6Fred Silver says

    As always, your willingness to share and be open about yourself is your greatest asset and character trait, even greater than your photographic eye which is very considerable.

    May I offer this for consideration which helps me deal with ‘fear’ of failure which causes inactivity.
    We do NOT control the outcomes of anything in this world, we only control the effort we make towards our goals and that is our power.

    Best regards and thanks,


  4. 8James says

    Neil – Another interesting post. My experience over the years has been that far too many good photographers have insecurity issues and are hyper critical of their own work and this prevents then from being the success that they could be. I think this is possibly the only industry where confidence issues are so widespread.

  5. 9 says

    Hi Neil,
    I typically stalk your site but this topic really made me want to join in. You are absolutely right. Speaking for myself, I am very afraid of fully advertising myself. But I cannot answer what I am afraid of? I guess the answer lies in this being a combination of art + technology. At some point you can master the equipment and check off that “grade”. But it’s the art that you want to protect from scrutiny. What if no one wants or values what you photograph? It’s so subjective that there will always be someone who doesn’t like your work. And it’s that fear of how you will handle the rejections that I think keeps most of us from really putting our photographs out there. I think this is the first time I admitted it to myself. Thank you.

  6. 10 says

    Thanks for the article It is very relavant in my situation at the moment. Nandita (above ) said a lot of what I was thinking, especially “I am very afraid of fully advertising myself.” The difference for me is that I am simply unsure of what path I should be going down.

    In the last 2 years I went crazy being a wedding photog and I loved it. I feel that I am good at it and I am not really afraid of doing it, BUT I also LOVE photographing a LOT of other things (models, architecture, families, making art, etc.). What I realized was that I was afraid of being stuck ONLY doing that one type of photography since I was focusing on making wedding photography my primary work. Eventually the business side of things wore on me and I started to dislike picking up my camera for any reason. This year, I went back to shooting things for myself and fell back in love with photography. What a double edged sword.

    Now.. I am not 100% sure what I want to do. I love shoot everything, but I am finding it hard to make head way on anything being so spread out. I am not sure what the answer is or if there even is an answer. I guess I am afraid of picking the wrong path, putting a lot of time, effort, and money into it and finding it is was not the right way to go.

  7. 12Howard Owen says

    Good timing. Some thoughts on a related tangent:

    I just went out yesterday to take some photos around this year’s Super Bowl site in Indy. I’m not an event photographer, but I wanted to see how well I could do in an event environment — with an eye toward expanding my horizons (and my abilities) a bit.

    I failed miserably. Many unusable shots due to incorrect exposure, missed focus, bad composition. Thank goodness no one was paying me for what I did.

    I decided, after reviewing the shots for the third time, that I was just not cut out to do events and that my best bet would be to avoid them like the plague in the future. Now, after reading your post, I’m going to hook up with a couple of friends, go back on Monday and try it again. Yes, in a sense, it’s still a rehearsal and I’m still a student, but I’m trying to make real photos in a real situation and trying not to repeat the mistakes from the previous session.

    This is how we get better, right?


  8. 13Howard Owen says

    Oh, forgot to add, “You can’t remain a student forever” is now my desktop wallpaper. It will stay there for as long as it needs to.

  9. 14Mary-Claire says

    Wonderful article with much appreciated insight. One of my favorite quotes, which I have in my office, is “The expert in anything was once a beginner.”

    I am fortunate to have a spouse who will push me to be better at everything while encouraging me along the way. Being self employed as a photographer (or really any other business too) is not for the faint of heart. It’s far often easier to be “safe” working for others–with pay, having someone else give you direction, etc.

    And we should all remember that Albert Einstein and many others failed miserably at many things but did not let the fear of failure hold them back!

    Thanks again for the blog–it’s a great reminder to all of us who are self-doubting.

  10. 15 says

    Fear of failure…yep, that’s about right. And the uneasy feeling of stepping out of your comfort zone. Found this out when I entered my first photo contest/exhibit. It was no biggie (it was done by my workplace) but having colleagues actually view and talk about my photo(s)…very uncomfortable. Lost that first year but it was one of the best experiences. Entered again this year and placed 3rd and now I’m hoping to start a photo club. I haven’t given too much thought to failing and hope the thought does not enter my mind…at least until after the first meeting LOL! BIG thanks for this post, excellent!

  11. 16Bogdan says

    Nail on the head as per usual Neil. When we landed in Canada 17 years ago my wife and I had nothing. My highly rehearsed in advance interview at the Canadian Consulate in Bucharest was the only conversation in English I ever had thus far in my life. Very little money and very limited language knowledge, new country in a fundamentally different culture. There was no time for fear, too busy surviving… The fear you’re talking about came only later and only after I thought I have something to lose.

    Your post will stay with me for a while. Thanks!

  12. 17 says

    Oh my …how could I not join in This topic…I identify in almost every posting above.Neil thanks for the conversation or hosting this stream of community thoughts.
    “…the fear you’re talking about came only later and only after I thought I have something to lose” or
    “..we do NOT control the outcomes of anything in this world, we only control the effort we make …and actions we take …towards our goals…” Rembering this every day/moment….now THAT is power! Epowering myself… a step at a time.. See my photography actualy is getting better and I do like more and more of what I see on my screen….if only letting go of my fear of actually succeeding. The other side is only going thru that fear whatever color/shape or smell it may have day after day or hour…
    Thanks for talking /sharing about just being human. The best or the bestest is yet to come for some of us:-)

  13. 18 says

    Very good article! It is so good to know that I’m not alone with this hurdle. It doesn’t matter how many times the issue is addressed, the self-doubt continues to lurk.

    I’ve recently signed the lease on a lovely new studio. It is considerably more expensive than the last and going to be a great place to work …but ever since signing the lease I’ve not been able to just get on with my to do list. This is so unlike me – if I have something to do, I just do it.

    The thing is – because this studio is in a different league from my last, I feel like an imposter and doubt my ability to bring in and satisfy the clients I am aiming to attract. Stupid stupid stupid!

  14. 19amanda says

    great post :)

    fear of success would be ironic, fear of failure is, IMHO, very understandable! that is what holds me back for sure.

    I totally agree with the sentiment behind ‘you can’t be a student forever’ but on the other hand, I firmly believe that one should never stop learning, so in that sense I think you can :)

  15. 21 says

    The primary fear for me is the fear of not being able to feed, clothe, and shelter my son and my family. I have a day job that pays me very well, and I simply cannot envisage myself giving that up to pursue photography full time.

    The other fear I have is that were I to attempt to earn my living with a camera, I’d start to dislike taking photographs.

  16. 22 says

    As I read this it hit too close to home. I feel like life is passing by and I’m not getting any closer to my dreams. It’s difficult when you’ve taken some steps out of your comfort zone and it hasn’t worked so instead of moving forward you go back to where you started from. Ironically I’m currently reading “100 ways to motivate yourself” by Steve Chandler. I keep praying that someday something will click (lol-no pun intended)

    • 23.1Irene says

      Fear can be crippling. Thanks for sharing this Neil. I think a good bunch of us needs to hear this. As photographers and artists I find that many of us, including myself are just to self-critical and compare our work to others. Perhaps we strive for perfection and fail to realize that we will never achieve this sense of perfection because art and photography are very subjective and someone will always find something wrong with it. IN addition, we will always look at the photo and think how we could have made it better. At least this is what i find myself doing. The most important thing, I think is that our clients love our work.

  17. 25chris says

    post 23. Awesome. ^

    Just a reminder to those new to Neils tangents. His tangent posts are only half the story (as great as they are). Read the comments.

  18. 26 says

    Great post Neil, I can relate to this, and I’m a dentist… Self doubt and fear are real factors in most professions, photography has been an outlet that I’ve used to help get over this in my real job.

  19. 27Anthony says

    thanks Neil, that gave me the final bit of motivation to increase my mortgage to build a studio on the side of my house. :)

  20. 28PBD says

    Well, that’s funny… sort of. It’s something I try to break through, but I’m losing the battle.

    I’m broke, can’t find a job for some time, life is slipping away, got nothing to lose and yet I’m unable to proceed with my photography. I don’t really think I’m ready and I don’t think my photography is ready yet. I’d like to try, but instead taking a step forward, I take two back…

    What if you have a feeling that you are not ready? There are millions talented photographers out there, but I don’t think I’m one of them. Sad, I know…

  21. 30Graham Eariss Photography says

    Great article Neil, what you said about shooting for other studios for too long really resonated with me, I’m still shooting for other studios but I do take my own bookings now. I will commit dates well in advance for other studios though leaving fewer and fewer dates available for my own business. Photography is my only source of income and I guess the fear being totally dependent on my own business is holding me back from what I really want.

  22. 32Jelle says

    I (and i believe many others) recognize ourselves in this post.
    Good to see that nothing is what it seems to be. And that everything is
    possible in live, but that hard work is not everything that counts.
    I love the variety in subjects. It hasn’t always to be about photography.

  23. 33 says

    As for me I want to be a wedding photographer. First thing which holding me back is lack of experience. Yes, I want to start as a second shooter but it is so hard to find photographer who is willing to help me.
    Second thing – equipment. Yes, I can take some loan, but it is so risky.
    And so life goes on …

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