battling impostor syndrome as a photographer · gaining confidence in your art
"I feel like a fraud."
-every artist, ever. also, me.
This is going to be a long one, so buckle in.
battling impostor syndrome:
realizing you have a place in the arts, a voice to be heard, & a right to create.
If you've never heard of impostor syndrome, here's an article about what it means and just how common it actually is.
I went to a seminar on impostor syndrome recently - it was actually an event at a video game convention, of all things. The speaker had a small room reserved, and expected a small round-table discussion with maybe 15 people, and she was totally overwhelmed when something like 50 people showed up. During the workshop, hands went up all over the room with stories from literally all walks of life - creative-driven, business-driven, new to their field or very experienced, you name it - people sharing their stories and their experiences with self-doubt, fear, frustration, and impostor syndrome. The speaker even mentioned that she didn’t feel like she had “the right” or the authority to be speaking in front of this many people, because she had “no idea what she was doing”, that she just got where she was due to luck or chance, rather than hard work, talent, and qualifications. She mentioned that she had multiple degrees in psychology and years of experience under her belt, and dozens of prior speaking engagements, and still she felt like she “didn’t belong” - like, what the heck am I doing up here talking to you guys about this subject? Why me?
It seriously hit me. Knowing that there are others out there - and a LOT of them, who feel just as I do, to feel out of place, to feel like they don’t belong, like they’re like a beginner in their field surrounded by incredibly successful people who know what they’re doing, like they should just give up while they’re ahead before they get “found out” as if they’re a fraud, or an impostor - makes me feel like maybe I do have a seat at this table after all.
The more I grow up, the more I realize that no one has any idea what they're doing. And it's been one of the most reassuring realizations that I've ever had.
I have yet to meet a successful/talented/honest creative business-owner who does not feel at least a little bit like they’re out of place. Who doesn’t feel like they’re in over their head, or has no freaking clue what they’re doing, that they're just winging it and hoping for the best.
I’ve had time to ruminate over this phenomenon quite a bit - not to imply I’m an expert by any means (lol because impostor syndrome) - and just the idea of knowing and acknowledging that it’s a normal thing to feel has made me feel more secure. And we should talk about this more often, because being open about it with others and hearing stories from others has helped me try to tame and make peace with this inner demon. He’s still there, for sure, and some days are worse than others, but realizing that it’s a common experience and reading more about it and understanding the psychology behind it helps me realize that these thoughts, while they are valid, are not entirely logical, and can cause detriment to my creativity and my livelihood if I let them get the best of me.
If my peers and, more poignantly, my idols struggle with self-confidence, impostor syndrome, frustration, stress, anxiety, oh the list goes on - then it’s okay for me to feel all of those things as well. And I’ve recently come to the realization that my idols feel the same way about their idols.
I know this, because one of my biggest idols in photography education feels the exact. same. way.
so what do we do about it?
How can we start to battle this concept that we don’t belong, we aren’t good enough, we’re just a fraud?
I’m still trying to learn this every single day of my life, but here are some ideas and principles I’ve picked up along the way that help me redirect my energy away from the vicious cycle of self-doubt, fear, comparison, and impostor syndrome.
Just as much as I’m writing this for my fellow creatives, for you, I’m writing this for myself. These are constant reminders that I try to keep in mind to make myself realize that I have a right to create and to share and to inspire, and I do have a place here.
It begins when we stop comparing ourselves to others.
slam that unfollow button.
We all know that saying: Comparison is a thief of joy.
I bet there’s a person that’s coming to your mind right now. Maybe it’s the most (outwardly) successful photographer in your local area, maybe it’s a world-renowned educator you just want to become, maybe it’s the traveling wedding photographer who constantly posts those awe-inspiring mountaintop elopements and beautiful couples. It’s wonderful to be inspired by them, by all means, but if seeing their success is holding you back from creating out of fear or self-doubt, it’s time to cut those ties. If you’re having trouble unplugging from the constant comparison, this is my recommended prescription for you.
Unfollow these people on social media.
Like, right now. Go do it. If it’s eating you up every time you open Instagram, if it’s having a negative effect on your mental health and self-esteem, they don’t need your attention right now. It might sound harsh, but it’s for your own good.
It might be hard to hit that unfollow button, especially if these joy-thiefs are people in your hometown, or people you know personally. If you need to, you can make an announcement that you’re going through and unfollowing everyone so no individual person gets offended. Maybe you follow zero people on Instagram, but that takes the heat off when someone asks why you don’t follow them. Maybe you keep a personal account for following back friends & industry connections, or connect with these people on Facebook with personal friend requests. Maybe it means that you just spend less time scrolling on Instagram in general, and delete the app from your phone. (You can still post to Instagram with scheduling tools, and you can reply to comments on a web browser - so there really is no need to have the app on your phone if it’s causing you undue stress!)
You always have the option to follow them back if you ever want to, and there is always so much out there for inspiration - websites, Pinterest, Instagram explore, the list goes on and on. It’s there if you need it to be, for healthy inspiration or just checking in and seeing what they’re up to, but it’s easy enough to ignore if you don’t have notifications sent to your phone, or posts right in your homepage’s feed, or the app on your phone’s main screen to bog you down.
reframe that inner dialogue: acknowledge the highlight reel & recognize the process.
When you see a photo from another photographer and it makes you want to die a little on the inside because you just start comparing it to your own work (oh why can’t I take photos like that, oh I’m just never going to be as good as them, oh why don’t I get to book weddings or couples like that) it’s time to reframe that inner dialogue.
Every time a photographer posts a photo on social media (or anyone, really, because this is totally a universal principle of social media), they are sharing their highlight reel. They are taking the absolute best photo from that session, or from that wedding. They definitely deleted all their crap pictures, and they’ll never see the light of day. They too want the likes. They too need the business. We’re all playing the same game. But, when you start to compare your entire body of work to someone else’s highlight reel, that’s when doubt starts to creep in, and that’s when you start to lose your creative drive and your motivation. There is no sense in making a comparison like that, and it isn’t fair to you as a creator. It is not an accurate representation. My worst photo from a wedding is probably just as “bad” as the worst photo from the wedding they just shot. We all make mistakes - we all take out the trash when it comes to social media. We are not perfect human beings, and if people appear “perfect” on social media, it’s only because they have curated their feed to showcase only the best.
Another way to reframe this inner dialogue is to consider what you might have done if you were in the same scenario. If I see a photo that I love, I try to think to myself: given those same resources: that location, on that day, with that light, and that gorgeous couple, I probably could have created something of similar caliber. I do genuinely believe that, too.
In order to make amazing photographs, you have to create (or be in) amazing situations. A lot of the best photographers know this. If you have a choice between an engagement shoot in a litter-filled city park at high noon, versus an elopement on top of a mountain with a designer label wedding dress, a gorgeous couple, amazing weather and perfect golden hour light - I think there is a clear winner of what the optimal situation is for the opportunity to create amazing photographs. The images you see like this are often very intentional, too - they choose the awe-inspiring locations, they work to select the right outfit, the right flowers, etc. etc. etc. They know that they will get those jaw-dropping portfolio shots, so they create these opportunities for themselves that then start to attract similar work. Once you’ve got a mountaintop elopement, you will probably start to book more of them - and savvy photographers are very aware of this.
I’m not the biggest fan of styled shoots, but if you’re in a creative rut and you aren’t booking the kind of work that lights your soul on fire, you might want to consider setting up a styled shoot to begin showing off and attracting the kind of work you love.
Another way to reframe your inner dialogue is to recognize the process.
Your favorite photographers have all been in the game far longer than you have. You cannot compare your beginning to someone else's middle or end. It's a comparison that has no basis, and frankly it doesn't make sense. You have not seen the point they started at, the background they had, their education, their constant hustle, their 10,000 hours, the good and the bad times they've had throughout their career to get to the point they are now. You also don’t know what they’re struggling with, past or present. Because more likely than not, they probably still struggle with anxiety, frustration, impostor syndrome, and the constant pressure to continuously create amazing award-winning work and the fear of not being able to live up to your past accomplishments.
The first photos they ever took are probably total garbage, and they were probably garbage for the next few years too. No one starts out with home-run grand-slam killer portfolio shots, and if they claim to, they're probably lying and stealing someone else's photos. Or they're Ansel Adams reincarnated.
I love using the analogy of running: let's say you're just starting to run. It's January 1, you've got your brand new running shoes, a 12 minute mile, not to mention 20 pounds to lose. You can't compare yourself to someone with a 6 minute mile, who regularly runs marathons. You two are at different points in running careers - and it is not fair to compare the two. You'll just hold yourself back if you constantly focus on those who are far more experienced - it takes years of practice, blood, sweat, and tears to get to a 6 minute mile, and to think that you can just start off that way is not going to get you anywhere. You have to work as hard as they did in order to get the same kinds of results that they did. (Did I tell you you'd get a little bit of tough love today?)
View that as reassuring - because if you're serious about what you do, and you're willing to put in the work (and I think you are because you're reading this) then the results will come.
dig up your archives.
Most of the ideas I've been talking about are things that take a while and take constant work, but here's one you can do today, right now.
Go back through your old work, no matter how far along you are, whether it's a few years or a few months. Dig through your personal archives and scroll through the first photos, your earliest work, and take a visual journey from where you started to where you are now. Put some samples of your early work next to something you took recently. Notice the improvements, and maybe even considering writing about them in a journal entry. Notice if you improved in your technical skills, your lighting, your posing, everything. I guarantee you will start to feel a little better about yourself and your work.
Remember this feeling, and let it fuel you whenever you begin to feel doubt. Reflecting on your past work and your growth is crucial to being a creative entrepreneur, and allowing yourself the freedom and space to grow in the future.
You start to realize that it's a process, and that every time you create, you get a little bit better.
celebrate every win & hold onto them for the bad days.
I have a hard time dealing with perfection, and it seems that every time I reach another goal I just immediately jump to the next one. Recently, I've been trying to celebrate every win, no matter how small or trivial. I love to journal, and I have an ongoing list of my "wins". A few examples from my win list:
I booked my first destination wedding!
my friend messaged me out of the blue telling me she couldn't believe I was so good.
I got to meet and photograph Netflix star Maria Bamford!
a bride told me that she seriously freakin’ hoped I was available for her wedding and could not WAIT to meet me.
I reached my wedding booking goal for the year!
I came back from a session and feel really proud of what I made, instead of just focusing on all the things I could have done differently.
I'm really proud of all of these things, and to actually take the time to reflect on them and give them weight makes them even more powerful. I can look back and realize how much I've actually accomplished (like, oh yeah, I kinda forgot I photographed a celebrity this year!) instead of just focusing on all the things I haven't done yet.
the LOVE folder
Whenever I get a kind message from someone, whether it's an Instagram comment, a testimonial, or a really sweet email, I screenshot it and save it to a Google Photos album which I've titled Love. I think it's super important to accept compliments and acknowledge every little gesture of appreciation. On super bad days, it's really helpful and uplifting to go back through and read messages from my friends, my clients, and total strangers on the Internet who went out of their way to leave a kind comment on one of my photos or posts. The fact that I've inspired even one person with my art, or changed one couple's life with their wedding photos makes it all worth it - and it helps me remember that I'm not doing this just for me, but for my couples.
Sometimes, when you're low on fuel (internal motivation), it's incredibly helpful to remember your why (external motivation, aka my wonderful amazing clients whom I'd do anything for).
focus inward. COMPETE WITH YOURSELF. CHALLENGE YOURSELF with limitations. experiment often. learn as much as you can. outdo yourself.
Trust in the process, and rather than comparing yourself to others, keep your head down and focus on your own personal development. Don’t worry about doing better than that photographer - and just aim to do better than you did last time.
Going back to our analogy of running, the way a runner improves is by tracking their mile times and competing with their previous selves. Bit by bit, day by day, they shred a few seconds off their miles until one day they hit their goals. Instead of worrying about beating others, they first focus inward on surpassing their past selves' records. We can take that same principle and apply it in the artistic world to our gentle creative selves. We start by recognizing where we came from and where we are now - like we talked about in the previous point. Then we can start to challenge and compete with ourselves.
One way to do this is to challenge yourself with creative limitations. For example, try doing an entire shoot with a 50mm lens, or doing the whole shoot in black and white. Try going out at night without a flash or a tripod and see what you can do. Go buy a 35mm film camera and play with it. Go to a totally new place and challenge yourself to take creative abstract photos or double exposures. Go practice with that piece of gear you've been avoiding because you're a little uncertain of how it works. If you aren't shooting in manual mode yet, try going out one day and shooting entirely in manual mode.
All practice is trial and error, and once we solve a problem, we don't have to learn how to solve it a again - even if we come across it again, we know are armed with the information from when we tackled that problem the first time, and even if it’s not the same exact scenario we still have a leg up from our previous experience. So if you create a ton of problems (limitations) for yourself now, the speed in which you grow will be exponential. You'll be able to trial and error and solve problems in a safe experimental environment (like a personal project - see point 7!), before you have to solve them on the fly while you're out shooting with a client. Yikes, we don't really want that, do we?
Get inspired by artists other than photographers. Watch old movies, read poems and classic novels, go to art galleries full of paintings and contour drawings, walk through gardens, read books about art history, go see an opera or a musical. Have a folder in your phone or a Pinterest board full of things that you think are beautiful, memorable, and inspire you in any way, like a really nice floral arrangement, stills from your favorite Wes Anderson film, quotes from your favorite novels, characters from your favorite video game, concert posters that have neat typography, anything. Have a little notebook you can jot ideas down in, and carry it around with you. Use those to fuel you and inspire you in your photography journey and you’re bound to stand out and make some waves. You’ll be the one creating and sharing really groundbreaking art when everyone around you is just copying each others’ photographs, doing the same damn thing over and over again.
Educate yourself as much as you can. Read books, listen to podcasts, watch YouTube videos, take courses, go to workshops, meet other photographers, get inspired. I’ve listed some of my favorite educational/inspirational books down at the bottom of this post - they’re some of my all-time favorites and every single one holds so much value and has helped me grow so much. I always feel so invigorated after finishing up another business book or taking another course.
If you’re better than you were yesterday, that’s all you need to be.
And if you’re feeling discouraged, the best way to counteract that is to create more.
take a step back: reevaluate your business plan.
If you're feeling overwhelmed or you're stuck in a rut and just can't seem to find your creativity or your drive, it might be time to step back and ask yourself a few big important questions about your business.
When you’re the president of a company, you constantly need to assess and re-assess your goals and your business plans with your team to keep the entire company on track. When you're a solopreneur and it's your own business, especially in highly artistic and personal fields like photography and the arts, often times that manifests itself as self-reflection and introspection.
Is it time for you to raise your prices?
If you're overwhelmed with the amount of work you're doing and seem to constantly be busy, it might be time to raise your rates. Increase your demand by reducing your supply. It's easy to offer your services for inexpensive, then get a ton of clients, and not feel super invested in each one because you're busy, and you're not making a whole lot from each, and that just becomes a vicious cycle of being busy, not delivering the highest quality product, and then feeling like you need to make up for it by bringing on more work - or, you could turn that on its head. If you double your prices, you only have to get book the amount of jobs you currently book. That means you can spend more time and effort and love on each client, and feel more motivated and more invested with each one. You're able to offer a higher quality product, therefore it becomes more valuable, and your clients end up happier because of it. One of my favorite wedding photographers, India Earl, only photographs 7 weddings a year. That's it. Seven. But she spends so much of her creativity, her time, her effort, and her love on each of those 7 couples, and I'm sure every single one of them values her work immensely.
Is it time for you to start niching down? It is time for you to outsource or eliminate certain tasks?
In Tim Ferriss's book The 4-Hour Workweek, there's a chapter on the 80/20 rule: 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In other words, 80% of your desired results come from 20% of your work - maybe that means 80% of your income comes from 20% of your clients. On the flip side, 80% of your headaches are probably coming from 20% of your work. Once you know what your 80s and 20s are, you can then figure out what to focus on. Maybe it means you stop offering ___ type of session, because you aren't reaping the rewards you seek or you just don't enjoy them.
I don't agree with everything in that book, but I firmly believe in this 80/20 phenomenon and the idea of outsourcing and automating where possible. The more systems you have in place, the more time you free up for yourself to focus on the really important stuff. Maybe this pans out for you as outsourcing your editing, or hiring an intern to help you with your email inbox, or eliminating certain steps in the booking workflow to make it more efficient, or setting office hours for yourself for communication with clients.
The 80/20 rule also lends itself really well to the concept of niching down.
Nobody hires the generalist photographer. Someone searching for a newborn photographer wants to hire the expert newborn photographer, who specializes in newborn photography. The couple with the mountaintop elopement wants to hire the mountaintop elopement photographer. A lot of young businesses fail when they fail to realize that by trying to appeal to everyone, they appeal to no one. Your clients will be happier when you provide them specialized, high quality services, and you'll feel so much more motivated to create when you're working on what you love.
If you're still working to determine what your niche might be or wondering if you even need to niche down (but I'd be missing out on all those clients if I don't offer X!), check out the recommended reading at the bottom of this post, the books by Seth Godin and Donald Miller.
Do the kind of work you love, and you will start to attract the kind of client that you love and that loves your work.
take on a personal project.
If you think you're too busy for a personal project, see the previous point.
A lot of my favorite photos I've ever taken were not from my usual gigs. My favorite work includes the photos I’ve taken while traveling or at concerts, or this video I made where I somewhat-spontaneously decided to make a documentary while I was on a white-water rafting trip with some friends. Giving yourself that space to create in an environment with no expectations frees you up to create without abandon. There’s no risk, no consequences, no worry to disappoint - and that can lead to some pretty awesome stuff.
You can even infuse a little bit of your personal project into client work, too. One great example of this that I’ve come across is Eirik Halvorsen's "last photo". It worked so well for him that he had clients asking him all about the last photo, and excited to make one with him - it basically became a marketing tool for him.
For you, maybe that means you challenge yourself to take an in-camera double exposure during every session you do. If it doesn’t work, even if it’s a failed experiment and you don’t end up delivering it, that’s totally fine. Give yourself the space to experiment, the freedom to make mistakes, and let go of the notion of perfection - because it doesn’t exist.
I try pretty funky things often during my shoots, and I’ve probably delivered less than half of them, often times because they straight up just didn’t work. But every time I do break outside the box a little, I feel really rewarded and I know the more I do this, the easier it’ll get over time, and the better my work will become over time. I’m excited to see what that looks like ten years from now.
GO OUT AND CREATE. TRUST THE PROCESS.
Every time you create, you get a little bit better.
Photography is an interesting field of art, especially in this digital age, because every click is an opportunity for immediate feedback. We don't have to wait around for film to be developed - we can see what we just photographed the second we take the photo. This gives us tremendous room for growth - rapid and continuous growth.
When I'm out shooting, it's a continuous experiment of trial and error. I set up a photo, click the shutter, and then check my LCD to see if I like it (not for every single photo, but fairly often). If I don't, I make the necessary changes and then try again. That might be adjusting my settings slightly until I get the result I want (because manual mode), moving my subject over slightly, shooting from a different angle, or composing in a different way. And every time I make a little change like that, my brain is smart enough to connect the dots (err, connect the neurons) and each time I go out, I do a little less correcting and I get to just play around more. I've gotten to the point where I can guesstimate my camera settings based on the available light, because I've gone through that feedback loop so many times before.
I’ll say it again and again because it bears repeating: Every time you create, you get just a little bit better.
The more opportunities you create for yourself, the quicker this process will become.
Each little step you make might seem insignificant and small at the time, but after a year, you look behind you and realize you’ve taken 365 steps, and that’s huge.
But it has to be taken one step at a time.
Other helpful tips
Journal. I try to journal several times a week, and it really helps me put my thoughts in order, give them weight when they need it, realize if I’m thinking irrational fear-based thoughts, and notice patterns over time of how I think and feel.
Create an abundance log. Or at least, that’s what I call mine. Separate from my journal journal, I have a notepad where I write down 3 or more things I’m grateful for every single day, and celebrate my small and big wins. It isn’t always easy to come up with 3 things, especially when I’ve had an off day, but every time I do it, I feel a little better. Expressing gratitude - whether that’s in the form of writing it down, praying, telling those you love, or just being conscious of them - is the best antidote to negativity. Instead of focusing on past mistakes or fearing for the future, I find that the act of expressing gratitude forces me to reframe my inner dialogue, giving me room to reflect on the past and hope for the future.
Try meditating. Focusing on the present really helps with creating a greater sense of inner peace and getting “out of your own head”. Meditation isn’t about just sitting still with a blank mind or stopping your thoughts, it’s a way to learn to cope with your thoughts and not give them weight all the time. I recommend Headspace, a wonderful guided meditation app that has helped me a lot.
Seek out professional help if you think you need it. If this is weighing on you to the point where you cannot create or are having trouble in daily life, please seek out help from a professional. I, of course, am not a medical professional or a psychologist or a therapist or anything like that. It’s okay to ask for help, and you definitely are not alone.
Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson (seriously, every human being in the world should read this book. it’s that good.)
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (one of my all-time favorite books)
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown (also one of my all-time favorites, especially for creative entrepreneurs)
The 4 Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
Building a StoryBrand by Donald Miller
Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin
I’m Louise, a Maryland-based wedding photographer for the adventurous, free-spirited, and young at heart. I also offer mentorships and educational resources for photographers.
If you’re interested in a one-on-one mentoring workshop to give your business and your creative career a jumpstart, or to gain clarity on your goals & intentions, sign up for a session today.