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Should Photography Be Relaxing?


What’s the difference between a hobby, and a job? Ignoring money, of course, I’d say that a hobby’s primary purpose is entertainment and relaxation, whereas a job’s primary purpose is to produce value. And yet, defying common sense, photographers seem to have this reversed.

In many cases, amateur photographers are not in the hobby for enjoyment, but rather as a means to an end. So focused on improving their photography and getting perfect shots, they complete forget to sit back and savor the moment they’re trying to capture in the first place. And then when their photo inevitably fails to live up to reality, not only are they disappointed with their photo, but they’re also bitter about having squandered the opportunity to witness whatever they were photographing in full.

Yes, sharing that moment through your lens is great, but if you don’t enjoy it you can’t expect others to. Sometimes we forget to put ourselves first.

With that said, many people don’t take photos to share beautiful moments. At least, not anymore. Maybe they used to be. After all, isn’t that why we all go down this path? But now that’s secondary. Now it’s about chasing a dream. Or perhaps a nightmare, if they ever catch it. It’s no longer about sharing, and more about manipulating. Evoking envy from others to fuel your self-image. Photographing lies that bolster your reputation and perceived value.

Does that sound healthy to you? It certainly doesn’t to me. It’s tempting though, isn’t it? Harvesting popularity, power even, with photography as your scythe. Getting a thousand shares on social media, and knowing how many people wish they could be in your shoes. It’s enthralling. But it’s not relaxing. Constantly thinking about how to maximize the impact of your images is exhausting. Social media warfare isn’t a hobby, it’s an internship in marketing. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have value, but photography is no longer entertaining when you focus on this.

Of course, most people are able to avoid getting that caught up in social dynamics, and none of that applies to them. Unfortunately, I see an even more dangerous bug in good photography amateurs – the Go Pro Bug.

No, they don’t have an insatiable urge to use action cameras for everything. Actually, that might be preferable. Instead, they decide that since they enjoy photography so much they should make a career out of it. Which is a fine and honorable goal, of course. We’ll always need professional photographers, even if the market has declined a bit.

The trouble is, these budding professionals are motivated by their enjoyment of photography. Most often, this results in one of two unfortunate endings. In the first, they jump immediately into their career. While their enthusiasm and willingness to charge low prices earns them some success at first, they quickly run into headaches as they fail to book a sufficient volume of clients to stay afloat at their price, they realize that there’s a lot of business paperwork to do if you can’t afford to hire an accountant, and their style of photography and workflow does not meet the needs of clients who need consistent results.

Now, in the second case the photographer understands that they aren’t yet ready to open shop. This can happen after failing as in the first case, or without going through that. Either way, they now buckle down and put in the work to improve their skills, learn the ins and outs of business, purchase the necessary tools, and all that other boring stuff that goes into preparing a successful business.

This is all well and good, but what are we missing? That’s right, the very thing that prompted all this work – enjoyment. But our soon to be professional figures that this is just a temporary slog, and soon enough they’ll be sitting pretty with their dream job. Of course, it’s not until they actually start running the business that they find out that there’s actually MORE stress when they’re dealing with clients, MORE business matters to work out, and LESS time to do the relaxing photography that they got started with.

These photographers thought that a job in photography would be as fun as the hobby was originally, and by pursuing this goal of their dream job they ironically lose the enjoyable hobby that lead them to the career in the first place. Treating a hobby like a job, and imagining a job as a hobby is very rarely a productive mindset.

Looking at all that, it almost sounds like I’m saying that photography is a terrible hobby, and an even worse job! Might as well pack it all up, eh? That’s not the case at all, however. It’s just that we need to have the right expectations, and not get our hobbies and our jobs mixed up. To be clear, it is possible to enjoy being a professional photographer. But as we see with the churn rate in the industry, it’s not a job for everyone, and you have to go into it with the understanding that there will be a lot of work that isn’t fun at all, and it may even reduce your enjoyment of photography as a hobby.

Likewise, it’s important to note that photography is a great hobby, and it can be very relaxing. Even if we get caught up in a little bit of gear lust here and there, or bang our heads against the wall trying to perfect a shot, it doesn’t mean that we picked the wrong past time. We just have to remember that it isn’t a job, and that it’s okay to not be the best of the best as long as we’re having fun.

So no matter what kind of photographer you are, I want you to ask yourself why you’re a photographer. Is it a means to an end, or is it for your own entertainment? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Or perhaps it’s time to take a step back and re-evaluate what you’re doing. I did this several times, and it’s not always easy to do. But as with all difficult things, there’s a lot to gain from it. Each change I made, from more professional to more hobbyist or vice-versa, made me a better photographer and broadened my understanding of the business and the art.

The question “should photography be relaxing?” will have a different answer for everyone. But by answering it, perhaps you’ll find you’ve solved more than one problem.

About the author: Lauchlan Toal is a food photographer and writer based in Nova Scotia. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can get his free guide to learning photography from his new site on creative photography. You can also connect with Toal and see more of his work on his website and Twitter.