How Do You Eat an Elephant?

I was speaking with a photographer friend recently, somebody with whom I have a mentorship relationship, when they said:

“Sometimes I think photography is too hard”

How often do you see or hear this sentiment in our industry, or any industry, for that matter?  I come across it frequently, often said by photographers when they are frustrated with their work.  The concerning thing to me is that this can become a barrier, something that negatively impacts their growth as artists.  To these people I would like to say this:

Photography is not hard, as long as your expectations are realistic

Thinking of something as “hard” is often just a matter of perspective.  Grade 7 math may seem impossible to a young child, but simple to a college graduate.  Early in our lives we couldn’t walk; but 16 years later, we are competing as athletes, getting our first jobs and driving cars.  When we think of something as being “too hard”, what is often happening is a simple mismatch between our current capabilities and our desired outcomes.  There is a gap.  We know what we can do now, we know what we want to be capable of doing in the future (perhaps because we see others doing it), but we don’t necessarily know how to get from point A to point B.  This lack of clarity on how to reach our destination is where the frustration tends to kicks in.  I’ve seen this perception destroy someone’s love of photography completely, which pains me to no end, because I think a simple shift in mindset is all that is needed to change these feelings.  

We grow faster when our goals are more easily achievable 

Do you remember when you first found photography?  If you are reading this I’m going to guess that you fell in love with the process of making images and telling visual stories.  You probably shot a million photos, in auto mode, of anything that caught your eye.  As you progressed further, you became more curious about how to do certain things.  Maybe you wanted to know how to blur the background in a photo, which led to new equipment and a new understanding of depth of field.  Do you remember how exciting it was when you started taking creative control of your photography, making conscious decisions about things like depth of field and shutter speed?  Maybe, at some point, you started becoming interested in portraiture which led you into the world of lighting.  All of a sudden you could meter lights to achieve a correct exposure on your subject.  Success!

There are a few notable takeaways from this trip down memory lane:

  1. It is important, so very important, to be mindful and find joy in the present.  Photography is an amazing thing and we shouldn’t take any of it for granted.  On the contrary, we should love every step of the journey.  Photography is a gift.
  2. We progress, perhaps unknowingly so, by setting small, obtainable goals.  Very few people close “the gap” in one huge leap, they usually do it step by step.  The benefit to these smaller goals is that they are easier to achieve and the rewards add up quickly.

Never forget this:

Learning to do anything well is a marathon, not a sprint

Maybe you are interested in street photography, but are frustrated that you aren’t the next Henri Cartier-Bresson yet.  Rather then compare yourself to a legend, just focus on the little things that can bring you more immediate results:

“Today I am going to learn how to zone focus.”

“Today I am going to learn how to make silhouettes in high contrast light.”

“Today I am going to be patient and only make images with layers in them.”

“Today I am going to be brave enough to interact with a stranger and make a street portrait.  Just one street portrait.”

“Today I am going to work on using framing in my compositions.”

Do you see how each of those goals is small, focused, and achievable?  That is the key!  To use an analogy:  the thought of going to medical school is overwhelming, but focusing on one course at a time isn’t so bad.

I used to train in the martial arts and I distinctly recall a conversation I had with my Sensei once, during a time when I was getting frustrated with what I perceived to be a lack of progress and also a bit overwhelmed with the amount of knowledge I needed to know for an upcoming test.  During the conversation she said something that surprised me:  she said that the only difference between a white belt and a black belt was that the black belt kept showing up for class.  Now, obviously, a black belt has put in countless hours on to the dojo floor, but what she really meant was that we just need to keep going… just keeping moving forward, step by step, and all of those little accomplishments will add up to a much greater thing.   

That’s it… that’s the secret to success.

I started this post by asking the question: “how do you eat an elephant?”  You can probably guess the answer by now, but of course it is simply this:

“One bite at a time”

If you ever find yourself getting frustrated, or having the feeling that photography is “too hard”, just slow down.  Pick one thing, just one, and work on it for a while.  Enjoy the process, have fun experimenting, learn from your mistakes and be damn sure to celebrate your successes too.  Before you know it you’ll be able to look back and see just how far you have come.

Until next time!


9 thoughts on “How Do You Eat an Elephant?

  1. Brad Bravard at The Creative Life Adventure says:

    I worked for several years in a healthcare position that involved periods of intense work, multiple high volume tasks performed on a tight deadline – when it got overwhelming, our boss would remind us about eating an elephant one bite at a time. You’ve shared some great insights that pertain not only to photography, but any creative effort.

    • Ian says:

      Thanks Brad, I appreciate your comment. I worked in health care before I was a full time creative too, so I can relate completely.



  2. Dan James says:

    Excellent approach for anything in life. I wrote a post a while back about about how to stop being disappointed in your photography, and one of the main points was essentially the same – be realistic about your expectations. Disappointment is the gap between your expectation and the reality. Reduce the gap, reduce the disappointment, then you feel more positive about it all anyway. Thanks Ian!

  3. Susie Naye says:

    Hi Ian…I continue to learn from you. Thank you for this post and I intend to work on ONE of these elements while I’m here in Paris. I have done many street portraits in the past but not in the RECENT past. Perhaps that’s a skill I need to practice? Thanks for the push.
    :-). Susie

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