Being Competent At Photography

posted in Psychology of Photography

Being Competent At Photography

How do you define success in your photography?

This is a simple question but an important one. A fundamental psychological need we all have is to feel a sense of competence in activities that are meaningful to us. To be clear, competence is the perception that we are able to perform effectively and achieve success. Feeling competent allows us to fully engage in an activity, focus more effectively, take risks, be creative, gain greater well-being and so on. 

Ruin Milkyway mjgholland photography

You have to get out there for stars

As I noted, competence is based a on a perception that you can be effective and achieve success. Therefore, how we define success will determine whether we are able feel competent and where we get competence from. For example, if I think a successful photographer is based solely on winning awards and prizes then I am unlikely ever to feel competent. 

 Different sources of confidence

Here are some ways in which people feel successful in photography (these could be considered sources of competence);  

  • Winning photography competitions
  • Likes on Facebook, Instagram, flickr, etc
  • Friends and family saying they like your images
  • You liking your images
  • Being able to make the images you pre-visualised
  • Engaging meaningfully in your photography
  • Enjoying your photography
Cromer Beach MJGHolland Photography

I like this image because I was there

Gaining competence

It is worth noting that you will rely on numerous sources at any time. Which source(s) influences your competence the most are important for two reasons. First, they promote different behaviours in your photography. Second, they have different psychological outcomes (e.g., enjoyment, well-being, etc).  Let’s look at a couple of examples

Winning competitions or likes on Facebook 

This is based on the views of others, which is out of your control. What if those people have different tastes to you, different reasons for taking pictures, or are just in a bad mood? They are not going to provide you with “success”. Does this mean you are incompetent? No! It means they are judging with a different agenda.

Conclusion: if you get likes on Facebook, great! But relying on this for success  and a sense competence leaves you very vulnerable. Your competence is not in your control or even based on your values. People who need this source of competence and do not get it are unlikely to push boundaries, take risks, and be creative.

Minehead Steps mjgholland photography

I waited 3 months for this image, I like that

Creating images you like

Setting goals and pre-visualising an image gives you criteria with which to judge yourself. Importantly, this is not based on the whim of others. For example, when learning a new technique my personal goal is to execute the technique accurately; I am not overly concerned about getting a perfect image first time. Even if I execute the skill precisely someone else might not like it… that is fine by me. 

Conclusion: you are in control of your competence by making your images meaningful to you.

Engaging meaningfully in photography

Laig beach mjgholland

Photographing on Laig beach, Eigg.

We can all choose how we do photography. So does your photography reflect what is important to you? For example, I love landscape photography because it gets me up before sunrise, walking in the hills, and sitting patiently waiting for the view; I love portrait photography because I get to be creative with interesting people. In my experience few people use this as criteria for success. Why not?! As a hobbyist I do photography to get outside, be creative, and be with others. If I achieve this then surely it is a success – I am living how I wish to live.

Conclusion: you do not even need to produce quality images to be successful, you just need to get involved! 

So what…

Having your sense competence contingent on the opinions of others can leave you very vulnerable. This does not mean you should ignore everything people say about your images, but it should not be your main criteria for success. The main point here is that you are able to take control your own competence by deciding what is important to you and setting goals to match. I set goals about getting there – if I am outside with my camera I am successful (see my ‘Isle of Eigg‘ portfolio). I appreciate this criteria will not be for everyone.

My last word

Ultimately, I hope you do feel competent in your photography. It is a happier and more effective state to be in. Understanding your own criteria for success will allow you to determine how you feel in your photography.

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