Monday, May 21, 2007

State Of Mind

I left off the last entry with a comment that failure probably had more to do with my mood than lack of subject matter so I'd like to discuss state of mind, how it affects us and what we can do about it.

First let me describe some states of mind before reflecting on how that might affect our photography. One doesn't have to have a mental illness to find oneself in any of the following mood states.

How about:

- bored
- frustrated
- angry
- sad
- tired
- sleepy
- insecure
- anxious
- pessimistic
- discouraged
- lazy

I thought some of those might ring a bell. Anyone doubt that each and every one of those mood states can have a significant impact on how well a shoot goes?

As solutions to these mood states vary with the mood, I'll discuss them individually.

Bored - is both a frustration with the current situation combined with a lack of drive to change it. Simply recognizing when you are bored and choosing to do something, anything rather than staying in the current situation is likely to be an improvement. You could make yourself a list of assignments for when you are bored, letting yourself choose one from the list, but acknowledging that you do in fact have to pick one - rejecting all is not an option. If already out on a shoot and feeling bored, it seems self evident that any photographs you do take are likely to reflect this boredom and whether understood by viewers or not, great photographs are unikely to be made. Options include getting the hell out of there - move on, go somewhere else, or possibly trying something different in the present location.

Frustrated - we can be frustrated with other aspects of our lives or it can be our photography. if it's other things, it might prevent us from being creative in coming up with an idea for a shoot, but there's a good chance that once out shooting, our frustrations will be temporarily forgotten and the process of photographing will help us make better photographs.

If instead it is our photography that is frustrating us, then we need to isolate what it is that is frustrating us and either fix it if that can be done in a reasonable length of time, or work around it. This might mean putting aside our current equipment and going back to something more reliable - eg. temporarily putting aside the 4X5 and going back to a 6X6 tlr for a little while, or 35 mm. or digicam instead of dslr, or even a Holga.

Angry - Regardless of what we are angry about, going out photographing is likely to help. Returning to an area of previous success and fertile grounds can be a good strategy. Turning some of that anger energy into determination could be both theraputic and photographically effective.

Sad - is a mood often reflecting our lives in general rather than our photography in particular. Sadness is often associated with a general lack of energy and some of the other mood states listed above - like being bored. Getting out photographing, especially in the outdoors, is a great way to help ones sadness, if only we can persuade ourselves to get off the sofa in the first place. It's necessary to remind ourselves of previous occasions in which this was an effective antidote.

Tired - is a problem I confront on a daily basis as a physician. The patient is complaining of being tired and it's my job to figure out why and what to do about it. I find it helpful to break tiredness into physical and mental. The former causes us to stop doing things part way through, and we can clearly identify that we are more tired during the activities than either before or after. Mental tiredness prevents us from getting off the sofa in the first place and while actually doing the activity, we don't notice the tiredness to the same degree (or at all).

Should the tiredness be physical ( you dug ditches all day), then a simple photographic exercise might be a good choice - how about sitting at an outdoor cafe and photographing people going by - or doing some still lifes - or seeing what you can make out of the back yard.

Should the fatigue appear to be mental, then getting off one's duff is the solution. Simply going for a walk is a good first step, then return home to grab the camera and head out to shoot.

Sleepy - rather than feeling like someone drained your energy (the iron in your blood turned to lead in your rear), you simply keep yawning and can't focus for any length. Time to reflect on life style - are you in fact getting enough sleep? Maybe a brief nap in the car will help before you open the trunk and take out the camera. Computers cause more late nights than just about anything else. You might even have to set an alarm clock or how about a timer that cuts the power to the computer at 11 PM, or mabe you just need to take control of your life, starting with bed time.

Insecure - one may be this way by general temperament, or perhaps it's a temporary state (hopefully) brought about by a recent failure or rejection. What's needed here is some success. That means both putting ourselves in a place where success is likely and just as importantly redefining what success looks like. When a rider repeatedly can't make it over a 3 foot jump, the instructor lowers the jump to 2 feet, and over time (perhaps minutes, maybe weeks), the jumps get higher and before you know it, the rider is flying over 3 foot 6 jumps and it's hard to even rememeber what the problem was with that 3 foot jump. We need to apply the same strategy to photographing. Temporarily we have to lower our goal - simply getting a sharp, tonally rich image of just about anything might be a reasonable 'jump' to hop over.

Anxious - insecurity is about thinking we're not good enough - anxiety is about fearing failure. The best remedy is to embrace failure by reminding yourself that the only path to success is to fail and repeatedly fail, but hopefully coming up with new failures rather than fallining into the same old potholes. One can be forgiven for hiting a pothole once, but after the third time it's like 'oh, come on!'. Failure is never as bad as the fear of failing so the solution to anxiety is trying!

Pessimistic - one can reasonably be pessimistic if the last several attempts all failed. In that case, we need to change tacks - find a way round the repeated failures. Can't hand hold - get a tripod - can't find 'grand landscapes' near your house, then don't try - find intimate landscapes instead.

If instead one finds oneself more pervasively pessimistic - about all aspects of our lives photography may still be what's needed to break out of this funk, but it might take some outside help. A weekend workshop can be a great way to fix it. Sometimes we buy new equipment to help us - often without success - if you do decide that new equipment will be helpful - try to make sure it's equipment that will increase the chances off success - more pixels is very unlikely to be helpful - a macro lens though might just be the thing to open a whole new landscape to photograph.

Discouraged - can happen after a particularly painful failure or rejection, or simply because you have been struggling for a long time and are not where you want to be. I wrote previously about 'dealing with disappointment' which answers the first of the two issues but the second is also a common phenomenon. I can remember working for months, excited about my photography, busy making images, only to come to actually printing and realizing I had nothing of value, despite all my excitement at the time of photographing.

Tacking this kind of discouragement requires a careful battle plan.

1) determine what is the problem. This sounds simple but isn't. What if the problem is that 'I take lousy photographs'? W are going to have to be more specific than that.

Problems include:
a) unrealistic expectations - this can happen after getting lucky - and one or two good shots now set the bar for all future images, perhaps unrealistically.
b) technical problems - generally once isolated, they are quite amenable to a determined effort to fix them - from more careful exposure, consistently using a tripod, filling the frame etc.
c) aesthetic problems - here you might need some outside help to figure out why your images don't match your vision.
d) lack 'vision' in the first place.

Solutions are problem dependent. My articles on 'Taking Your Photography To The Next Level' might be useful.

Lack of 'Vision', that's to say not seeing anything exciting worth putting into an image has also been addressed previously in 'There's Nothing Here To Photograph'.

Lazy - sometimes we lack the motivation to get out there and create. In that case and assuming you are unhappy about being lazy, then you need to do a 'cost benifit analysis'. Yes, I could watch TV this evening - benefits include entertainment, relaxations, a sens of I deserve it after working hard, winding down etc. Costs though vary - some people find that TV doesn't in fact relax them and that their jobs are mentally demanding but not physical and therefore an activity that is exactly that - active, is what is needed. The benefits of getting off one's duff include fresh air, nature, the possibily of creating good images, etc. If after a quick analysis, TV wins, well that's just fine, enjoy it free of guilt, knowing it was the best choice under the circumstances. If, on the other hand; you suspect that the next day or even later the same evening you are going to be frustrated at not having created anything or made any progress in your photography, well you know what you can do about it.

So, there's some moods and a few suggestions for what to do about them. I do think they significantly impact one's photography and there are practical solutions, sometimes requiring nothing more than the recognition of the cost of doing nothing.


inside my head said...

I found your blog through "The Online Photographer" blog a week ago.

I enjoyed particulary this post for personal reasons and I think that it will help me a lot.
I have not yet read all your previous posts, but one thing I can for sure say is that you have a "personal voice" that makes you unique, which I believe is one of the best compliments a photographer can hear.

Best wishes from a new and avid reader.
Jose Rola
Lisbon, Portugal

George Barr said...


many thanks for your kind comments. Have fun exploring.


Chris Sheppard said...

I think many of the states of mind you mention are really getting done to one thing; the inability (at least temporarily) to see the creative potential in the scene/object/event you're viewing. These 'mental distractions' simply overwhelm our minds. Personally, I find the mental drags much more damaging than physical; the physical ones pass with a good nap, whereas the mental ones linger much longer. Oh course, I am inherently lazy as well ...

I find one way of dealing with photographic frustration, boredom and discouragement is to choose just one subject and force myself to photograph it as many different ways as possible. I find that every time I will get at least one fine shot that helps bring back the photographic rhythm.

Mark said...

Excellent post George. This is worthwhile for anyone to print out and keep in their camera bag.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I like the analysis and agree with conslusions.
I find it much more interesting that post about new digital camera. That one wouldn't be outdated in a log run.
Thank You!