In the five years that I’ve spent with my camera, I’ve come to learn how much photography can teach us about life.
Beyond beautiful images, photography has provided me with valuable insights that spared me from many pain and heartaches.
In this post is a list of life lessons I’ve taken from photography and how you can apply them to everyday life. I hope that they provide you the same whole-life benefits that I have gained from them.
1. Don’t Settle For “Good Enough”
As a travel photographer, I quickly learned how easy it can be to settle for the “good” shots.
By “good” shots, I mean compositions that have been successfully photographed before and can be captured with ease.
But, as I advanced in photography, I discovered that I missed incredible photo opportunities because I wanted to make sure I got a “good” shot I could use. A little extra time and attention allowed me to turn these good shots into memorable ones.
While “good” shots come at little risk of a marked shot, settling for them can impede your ability to excel as a photographer. Known compositions are safer, but not nearly as rewarding.
To move beyond this, you have to be willing to take shots no one has taken before. You have to start giving great compositions the time and attention they need.
Sometimes this required me to try new angles, new camera settings, and attempt new techniques I’d previously avoided.
The result wasn’t always successful. But when it was, it made up for every shot that didn’t turn out how I’d hoped.
This process applies to more than just photography, and it is something you can use to drive your entire life.
Every day we’re subjected to the opportunities of merely doing a task well.
Each of these moments also gives us a chance to drive beyond “doing well” and into “exceptional.”
Whether you’re talking about a job, a relationship, an artistic pursuit– there is ample opportunity to drive yourself further and do better.
It is also worth considering that many of those things that appear to be “good” will be filled with deficiencies.
Less than great will not replenish your passion, drive, and ambition. Often, it will leave you feeling depleted as you try to make this ‘good enough’ thing nourish your need for something greater.
Great things will challenge you, help you develop as a person, invigorate you, and help you strive to be your best self. As time goes on, these pursuits will fill you with comfort, energy, peace, and the satisfaction of personal growth.
2. Eliminate Distractions So You Can Focus On What Counts
You’ll find as you hone your skills in photography that great images are the result of dedicated reduction.
Scenes can be chaotic, using composition, you can frame them in a way that suggests order. This is done by locating a focal point and taking steps to help it stand out within the image.
While other areas of the scene may draw your eye and whisper to you to capture them, it’s your job as a photographer to ignore them.
Since I focus primarily on landscape photography, this is something I have struggled with for most of my career. Taking photos of vast, beautiful scenery makes it difficult to focus only on one object.
But, no good can come of an image with two focal points that conflict. Only by having a clear focus can an image truly be successful.
So How Is This Applicable To Life?
All too often, we find ourselves drawn in a hundred directions. Different tasks and desires keep our attention split to such a degree that we fail to cultivate what’s most important to us.
Learning how to focus our attention to the most important aspects of our lives is the key to happiness.
For those who have a well-developed sense of self-discipline, what lies ahead will not be difficult. For most of us, there’s a lot of work ahead to develop that ability.
Distractions can be compelling. They can be a movie, a new business venture, or a person that consumes the majority of our time and attention. We have to learn how to balance all of these things and focus on those we deem most important.
This is a place we have all found ourselves at one time or another. We may know that we value our relationships the most, but distractions continuously get in the way and draw away our focus. As we lose sight of what’s important, it slips away.
Getting these things back can be difficult at best, and impossible at worst. Focusing on what’s important helps us avoid ever reaching this stage, and can limit the loss in our lives.
This is why filling your life with people, hobbies, and ambitions that draw your heart is vital to a fulfilling life.
3. Find The Beauty Inherent In All Things
It is a fundamental truth of photography that not everything that looks good on camera looks good in real life. The inverse of this is also true, and that means a photographer has to look for beauty where others may miss it.
I first discovered this when my mentor insisted that I zoom in and take photos of the bushes on the side of the street. Every image revealed more hidden aspects, and within them was a subtle beauty.
This image made such an impact on my way of viewing the world that I hold on to it still.
With a little patience and the willingness to look closely at the world, you’ll discover countless occurrences of hidden beauty.
Sometimes you’ll find it in the form of spices and herbs at your local grocery store. Other times it will be the speckled shadows on a hidden stream or the play of clouds and light around a mountain top.
It’s wonderful to learn how to recognize beautiful moments like these in your life.
All too often, we find ourselves suffering through bad times without ever stepping back to find the beauty in them. Three-hours of layover at an airport doesn’t have to be a dreadful time.
You could spend that time people-watching, exploring the airport, or even watching the planes come and go off the tarmac. Taking opportunities like these to look at the world differently means you’ll find beauty everywhere you go.
Scenes like these will appear in the strangest and most unexpected places. Whether you embrace them when they happen or hunt them out, they’re sure to help you connect to the world around you.
4. Failures Teach Us More Than Successes
As you grow into photography, you’ll learn that being bad at something is the first step on the path to being good at it.
Learning that something doesn’t work is as valuable, perhaps more so, than learning that it does.
Just like it took nearly 10,000 tries for Thomas Edison to get a light-bulb that worked, it can take 10,000 photos for you to learn the perfect technique.
The only way to avoid this process is to avoid doing anything original. If you stick to those things that everyone else has done, you’ll never produce anything that’s genuinely yours.
This philosophy, like the others we’ve discussed, goes beyond photography.
Every failure brings with it a particular lesson about how you could do something better or more effectively.
To quote one of my favorite authors, J.K Rowling:
“It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default”
So, don’t let failure discourage you. Instead, let it teach and nourish you on your way to your goals.
5. The Power of Mistakes
I can’t count the number of times that some minor photographic error has transformed into a new technique that I now use as a standard part of taking photos.
When I was learning how to use the manual settings on my camera, I kept making the mistake of underexposing my images.
While I can now shoot images at the correct exposure with ease, I also found countless ways to use underexposure to create striking images.
Many of my photos today are deliberately underexposed. I found that this gives my images a beautiful, haunting feel that never fails to inspire me.
Within this unintentional innovation lies the power of mistakes.
Some of the most transformative discoveries in human history were the result of mistakes. Even our existence as humans is the result of random mutations that did or didn’t work out until we were the final result.
We cannot be aware of what we do not know, and the only way to discover it is by making a mistake and stumbling onto it. While there are obvious exceptions, discovering the unexpected is always the result of errors.
6. Find Joy In Your Journey
The world we live in encourages us to power through everything as quickly as possible. Rewards are often granted to those who can do the most in the least amount of time.
But, when it comes to photography, the reality is a bit different.
It takes a lifetime to build a body of work. No matter how much you accomplish, no matter how great your portfolio becomes, you will never be done.
So, as a photographer, you’ll learn to take every day as it comes. You’ll learn to see each new obstacle as a challenge to be explored, and an experience to savor.
Learning how to find joy in your journey towards your goals is key, not only to your success but to your happiness.
Research has revealed that the key to happiness isn’t success. Instead, happiness is the key to success.
Success itself can be detrimental to your happiness, especially when you only use it to set the bar higher. Instead, we need to learn to savor every step and revel in the experiences you have along the way.
7. Not All The World Has To Offer Can Be Found In Books
No teacher in life is quite as good as experience.
While book learning is an essential part of excelling as a photographer, it isn’t enough on its own. Real expertise comes from practical experience.
The combination of studying and experience is the only way to ensure you won’t stagnate.
Trial and error is the best teacher, and the practical application of theoretical concepts allows room for new mistakes. Through these mistakes, you’ll develop your style and learn valuable skills.
8. Let Go of Control
As we travel our road through life, we quickly come to realize that there is very little in it that we can control. And for photographers, that list is just a bit longer than most.
No matter what you bring with you or how much you prepare, there is no guarantee that you’re going to get the shot that you want.
A sudden cloud bank can ruin a magnificent sunset; the sea may be calm rather than wavy, or the streets may be busy when you want them quiet.
Nothing can guarantee that you will get that perfect sunset you want. Sometimes you have to try for days, weeks, or years to have that opportunity.
That truth can freak out even the toughest of us, but as photographers, we learn not to let that fear holds us back.
Despite not being able to bend time and space to our will, photographers learn to see what they can control in their lives. And also what they can prepare for.
So, instead of giving up, we check the weather forecast, bring an umbrella, make sure we have a couple more batteries than we think we need.
This skill is vital when it comes to handling other important things in life, like relationships, career, and health.
It’s essential to take stock of our lives and realize what personal power we do have. When we’re not reacting to problems but rationally thinking through solutions with the resources we have, fears seem less menacing.
When assessing what we can and can’t do, we should notice the difference between problem-solving and over-thinking.
Working on a solution to the big problems that confront us brings confidence. But thinking over and over again about how things are out of our control will produce paralyzing anxiety.
We need to be aware of this in ourselves, shut it down if we notice it happening, and move our thoughts along to better things.
9. Be Prepared
Preparation is the photographer’s insurance policy against the luck of any kind. Great lighting can suddenly appear, or a rare photographic moment may happen unexpectedly.
Preparation is the only way to be ready for it.
Preparation is the process of taking control of the things we know we can control.
Frequent visits to your shooting site, bringing a variety of equipment, and identifying what you want to shoot ahead of time are all examples.
By knowing what you want to shoot, you’ll be able to snag that shot before it vanishes, and exactly when the conditions are right.
With preparation and being consistent in our diligence, we can capture the shots we want.
Of course, knowing how always to be prepared is not just beneficial in photography, but in all aspects of our lives.
Patience is the key to photography.
Sometimes, the most impressive scene will unfold just after you’ve packed away your gear and entered the car.
If this has happened to you, you’d know nothing feels worse than losing such a shot you can never find again. If only you had left the camera on the tripod for a couple more minutes!
Photography is a great way to hone your ability to play down the desire for instant gratification.
It’s also a great way to remind ourselves of the importance of not stumbling near the finish line.
Give life time to happen. Stay later than you need to. You’ll never know. Your patience may reward you with that once in a lifetime opportunity you’ve been waiting for.
11. Be Critic Proof
The world of creativity can sometimes be discouraging. You’ve worked from the heart on something, and you want to share it with the world. That openness will make any criticism more harshly felt.
The sense of ownership and pride that comes with creating images is a constant bane of starting photographers.
But, anyone who’s done photography long enough will eventually learn a way to free themselves from the fear of judgment.
You’ll learn how to absorb valuable insights and block out the ones that don’t serve you.
This skill is necessary, no matter what your field or hobby.
By being able to learn from constructive criticism and deflect hurtful criticism, you’ll be able to thrive and grow in anything you do.
12. There’s Always a Better Way
Everything may have already been done before. And everything that has been done before can be improved.
Creativity and originality aren’t born without influence.
“Nothing comes from nowhere” is a quote from Austin Kleon’s book, Steal Like an Artist.
The core of the book is that “All creative work builds on what came before.”
And the longer you do photography, the more you’ll discover how true these statements are.
A photographer’s growth needs to seek inspiration from the work of others. Studying the work of others is one of the best and most efficient ways to be good at anything you do.
Knowing that there is nothing in the world that is entirely authentic brings certain freedom to the artistic method.
Many of us, photographer or not, often find ourselves struggling to produce something that isn’t derivative.
The fact is, this is an utterly impossible task. Everything we see, hear experience influences our work.
So, go out into the world and study the masters. Find new techniques, new perspectives, and new ways of telling stories through your camera by stealing like an artist.
13. It’s All About Perspective
One of the things I always do while I’m out taking photos is to think about other perspectives I can take on the shot. Whether I lay down on the grass or climb up on an outcropping, it always pays to try new angles.
Unique photos are the result of trying new perspectives. Taking pictures from nontraditional angles is one of the best ways to achieve captivating photographs.
Looking at things from different perspectives can also be extremely useful in your day to day life.
Just as we change our position to look at a subject differently, we can consider ideas from different angles.
Whether it’s a disagreement with a loved one or an approach to a project at work, looking at things from a different perspective is always beneficial.
14. Learning is Fun
In general, humans tend to take great joy from mastering a new task.
Whether we’re learning a new programming language or picking up a new hobby, we find joy as we become better at it.
This is true even when our goal is nothing more than improving our skill at a particular task.
The very act of learning enhances our lives by elevating our self-confidence and self-efficacy.
Even better, our minds gain the ability to see new perspectives and ways of doing things as we master new skills. This experience can fill us with happiness as we steadily progress at our new endeavor.
Tedious tasks become pleasant, and what others consider work becomes recreation.
The process of improving our skills can make trivial things in our lives melt away. What used to seem important may become frivolous as we focus our energies on the task at hand.
I found this happening to me as I progressed in my photography career. As time went on, I discovered that I preferred new equipment to new shoes or clothes. Everything became inconsequential in light of my new passion.
The pursuit of something you feel is worthwhile can also become an important source of contentment. Dedicating our time to cultivating our passions can provide an important sense of stability and control in our lives.
These things are all independent of anything else we may gain from our craft.
No matter what we learn, it makes us a more effective human being and improves our lives. Knowledge is the key to personal power.
15. Knowledge is Power
Gina Greenlee tells us that experience, anyone’s experience, is an incredible teacher. This is true whether it’s our own, or that we’re learning from the paths of others.
Learning from the successes and failures of others helps us take leaps ahead in our learning. We can avoid common pitfalls and learn new techniques faster.
As a travel photographer, I find learning from others critical to my work.
In travel photography, we have to make the most of their time. Mistakes are something there is little room for.
That’s why I take in as many tutorials and read as many books as I can before I leave. It’s also the main reason why I started this blog.
These things help me see what others have done, what they learned along the way, and what I can do differently.
As a result, I have managed to avoid many headaches and was able to capture photo opportunities that I may have otherwise missed.
Everything in my life is the result of learning from others.
So throughout your journey, remember to learn from your own mistakes, and pay attention to the experiences of others.
16. The Importance of Community
If you are a photographer, you’ll often find yourself engaging with other people such as your fellow photographers, subject(s), and mentors.
Such connections can develop into lasting friendships and help you become part of a community.
Through community, you will discover new inspirations and learn from the experiences of others. You’ll also benefit from the shared excitement of a love of photography.
Being a part of a community also helps us build our identities and knowledge of who we are as people. It enables us to connect with people who understand what drives us and can relate to our struggles and triumphs.
We can also benefit from the joy of serving a community of like-minded individuals. Working for something greater than ourselves can become a passion all its own.
Take the time to become a part of the photographic community.
Whether in a digital format or the flesh, you’ll experience the benefit of being among friends who know your path.