One of the most common reactions to failure is saying that you will try harder next time. It’s an easy, quite popular way of dealing with failure at one thing or another. However, simply trying harder and expecting a different result is hardly a great way to progress. Here’s why it doesn’t work, and here is what does.
Are You Insane? I Hope Not
If photography is your main or only source of income, you inevitably deal with a lot of failure in one capacity or another. If you’re trying to be commercially successful, you need to know a lot about marketing, promotion, and networking. If you manage to get a 1% success rate on email promotions, consider that a success. I can’t get this rate after every campaign. Is that a failure? Yes, under all conditions. Let’s try harder. In the most basic sense, that would mean sending more emails to more people. However, simply by casting a wider net, you are unlikely to land more clients. I tried, and trust me on this when I say that it did not yield anything other than more ignored emails and polite “nos” at best.
Trying harder is a very generic excuse that mostly beats around the bush without actually addressing the problem. Simply doing more of the thing that failed to help you achieve your goal in the first place will hardly yield a different result. They say that one of the signs of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. Are you insane? I sure hope not.
Fast Track to Burning Out
Trying harder is the easiest way to get burned out. In general, an excessive effort to produce any outcome over and over again is a fast track to feeling unmotivated and burned out. Take photographing landscapes, for example. Trying harder could mean going to a more extreme location or perhaps using different and more expensive gear to photograph the same scene. While yielding a slightly different result, it won’t make a major change if the problem is not in the tools but in the whole approach. Suppose you can’t compose an image properly, what good is changing your lens for a more expensive option? Or even worse, you can’t expose a difficult scene. Trying harder is simply taking more bad pictures? Again, I’m not sure that works. After a few rounds of trying harder, you will simply give up and accept that photography is not for you. It’s a traditional way of thinking that is imposed on Western society by the American dream: hard work yields great outcomes. Long story short: it yields moderate outcomes and a lot of burnout. Let’s see what actually works.
A Better Approach
Instead of simply trying the same thing over and over again, a better approach that worked for me was to analyze the core of the problem. If you manage to single out the big issue and then make appropriate changes, you can achieve better results. Circling back to my example with email campaigns, it is unlikely that I sent a bad email. It is more likely that my work is not good enough for the target audience, which is the real problem there. If I were to take better work and send it along with the same contents of the email, I would be far more likely to land more paying customers. To rectify the poor response rate, I need to change the work I send to the people I send it to. Either change the work or change the audience. If you’re in desperate need of money, try sending it to lower-profile clients. If you have the funds and time, spend it on making a stronger body of work that follows a unique style.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
Successful photographers work smarter, not harder. For them, it means improving skills, rather than simply shooting more or getting more expensive gear. What successful photographers do is practice and analyze rather than simply repeat. It is hard to get better if you don’t try new methods. Learning skills such as exposure, lighting, and composition can help a lot. Another thing that helped me a lot is studying the work of other photographers. Take Annie Leibovitz, for example. After studying her work, I realized where her portrait style came from. As she was a documentary photographer, she always worked with people and the spaces that surround them. This is why her portraits often capture subjects in the spaces they occupy; they're almost an extension of the person. While I did not apply this to my own work, I made sensible conclusions that helped me improve the understanding of my own style of work and preferences. By working smarter and analyzing your actions, you can seriously improve the quality of your craft.
Another aspect of being a smart photographer is to be willing to accept that you have failed and then learn from those failures. While it is discouraging and can have a negative effect on motivation, it is simply an opportunity to grow and progress. It has been proven over and over again that we learn the most from our mistakes. If you simply try harder, you won’t become better. Instead, if you accept that the last time was a failure, then analyze what went wrong, after which modify the method, you will be far more successful.
Before signing off, I would like to stress that the traditional approach of simply trying harder won’t cut it in the modern climate. It is simply not a viable success strategy. It leads to frustration, burnout, and ultimately giving up. A more effective approach to analyzing the problem and rectifying the core causes will be far more productive and fruitful. Successful photographers are constantly admitting that they're wrong and are happy to try new approaches and methods in their work. Experimenting is half of the fun in photography. Failure is not the end, it is simply a stepping stone for future success. You can’t be successful without failing at some point. Avoid comparing yourself to others and only focus on being better than yesterday. Perseverance and smart methodology have not yet failed a creative. I can relate to that deeply. Take a step back, make necessary changes, and repeat it in a different way. Then, and only then, can you expect a different outcome.
Behind the Scenes images by Brandon Sandén