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Why We're Always Unhappy With Our Work and Why It's a Good Thing

No one is more critical of my work than me and I know a lot of photographers share the same sentiment. I took some time this week to reflect on this ongoing frustration and negativity, and really think about what’s behind it and why we do this to ourselves.

Us photographers have no doubt got to be the most fickle bunch out there. We go from high to low faster than a yoyo. I can’t even count how many times I’ve shoot an editorial, been filled with sheer excitement about it, and a few days later look back at it and think about all the things I should have done differently. So what drives this sort of thinking and is it detrimental or beneficial in the end?

We’re all Confused

Let’s face it, there’s no other professional out there that has more competition shoved in their face than photographers. All day, every day we are flooded with images that leave us feeling bitter, jealous and worse about ourselves. We wonder why our images don’t look the same and try to dissect the formula behind them. No matter how happy we are with our most recent creation, we always seem to find something better out there. The question we have to ask ourselves is, “is it better or just different and fresh”? If you’re like me and you retouch your own photos, you’ve likely spent hours staring at your images which no doubt contributes to the image feeling stale and unoriginal. When this happens, think back to when you first looked at the image and chose it as a select, did you feel that sense of excitement towards it? The answer in most cases is "yes", so the problem isn’t one of quality but rather emotion and reaction. Good images move us, but even the best image viewed for hours is likely to grow tiresome. Whenever you start to get down on your images by comparing to others, remember that there are others out there comparing their work to yours and having the same reactions. Inspiration from others is good but striving for sameness is a endless journey and one of perpetual dissatisfaction. We can’t be all things; we can only be ourselves and produce the work that our eyes see. This leads me to my next point.

Our Vision Changes

The biggest cause for our constant dissatisfaction is that of changing vision. A good photographer not only develops their technical abilities but also their vision. While technical skills are learned, vision develops. Vision isn’t a checklist of tools or techniques and can’t be defined. While the ultimate goal in the development of vision is style, that style still gets refined and changed throughout our lives. We’re influenced by our experiences and the way we absorb the things around us. A changing vision therefore indicates that we’re experiencing new things and evolving; both good things. Next time you look back at your work and you cringe in distaste, just smile and know that what you created isn’t wrong, it’s simply created with a different set of eyes. It’s a representation of your vision at that time and the fact that that vision has changed is a cause for celebration.

Imagine a situation where you look back at all your past work and love everything you see and you look at the work of others and always see yours as superior. In this seemingly ideal situation you’ve mastered your craft, perfected your style and stopped developing a new view on things. Is this a good place to be? I hardly think so. As frustrating as these feelings may be, they push us forward and give us a reason to keep shooting. They get us out of bed in the morning and make us demand more of ourselves. So next time you look at your image and begin nitpicking at it, give yourself a pat on the back and smile.

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11 Comments

Simon Dyjas's picture

Very good points. Let's look at our picts as benchmarks. I get like this every time after a shoot. Always thinking I could have changed this light or did this or that.

It's healthy to never be satisfied with our work. We should never aspire to get to a certain level and get comfortable. There is always room for improvement and creativity.

Jennifer Kelley's picture

There is a difference in being satisfied with work overall and being satisfied with individual pieces. One of the biggest lessons I learned in college was that I don't have to love something in order to be satisfied with it for my assignments. One of the biggest traps my former classmates have fallen into is never being satisfied enough to progress their careers.

Rubayat Habib's picture

Indeed 100% agree with you..same thing always happens with me..another great article from my great mentor :) thnx brother :)...

Robert Briggs's picture

Great word. We all develop our style in the niche market we work. Refining that signature brings about the frustration as we know where we are and where we want to be. It is that signature style which becomes our identity on paper, our photographs the legacy of who we want to be known. It is the eye for improvement which makes it hard for us to rest on the last photo but drives us forward to the next.

Matthew Odom's picture

Ha!! I was thinking about this very topic this past weekend! Good Stuff!

Dylan Patrick's picture

well said Michael. You nailed it with the "Changing Vision", all these feelings hopefully only push people to create more, and push harder.

Kristi Woody's picture

I think about this all the time, so this was great to read. Always shooting, always seeing the shortfalls, always learning.

james johnson's picture

Ira Glass talks about the dissatisfaction you experience when you start because your taste is better than your talent. I would go so far as to say that our taste gets better— it becomes more refined and subtle— so our talent will never catch up to our taste.

https://vimeo.com/24715531

Simon Dyjas's picture

This is on point

Marco Heyda's picture

Thanks Michael for organizing my messed up thoughts on the subject. Perfect timing :-)!

Carl Herbert's picture

Michael, it's reassuring in a way to read that this is part of your experience too. It suggests creative success and creative anxiety are not mutually exclusive but, in fact, might always accompany each other. I suppose the alternative is boredom, which is scary too.