To Create Great Photos, Be Willing To Waste Your Time

Detaching ourselves from the amount of work we’ve spent on something, and the end result, is a critical part of the creative creation process. Nobody cares how hard it was to create something unless it shows in a material way.

It’s important to not confuse effort with results. When we ascribe value to the trouble we went to, it clouds our judgment. We get attached. We start to shove square pegs in round holes because we’ve got self-imposed tunnel vision. We think just because we got up at 4 am to hike to the top of a mountain in the snow, and because there were technical issues that we overcame, and we spent a month planning it, that the mediocre result is praise-worthy.

Sometimes the best photos are the ones that took the least effort.

“Complex” does not equal “better,” or even necessarily “interesting.” The beauty (and curse) of a still photograph is that, for all the factors that went into its creation, the entire story is held in that one frame, and it has to be able to stand on its own. If your feet got cold and wet while taking the photo, it doesn’t matter if it’s not good on its own.

This is theme runs through so much of the effort spent on my business. Communication with potential clients, connecting with other creatives, updating my website, cultivating a social media presence, working on various marketing activities, getting super deep into editing one photo for hours, and trying to work on things that make me different, not just better.

It’s important to not waste time on unimportant tasks, but ultimately, there has to be a detachment from looking at every ounce of effort spent as a direct relation to a final result. Because sometimes, things just don’t work the way you think they will. It’s really hard to calculate the ROI on relationship building.

A quick anecdote. I was recently planning a trip to New York City where I had a portfolio shoot setup. I wasn’t going to be able to location scout until I was there, so I was stuck with the decision while packing: do I bring my Profoto B1 flash, even though I’m not sure if I’ll need it? Reasons not to bring it: It’s bulky and eats up about half my backpack. it weighs 8+ pounds with extra batteries. It’s fragile and expensive. It always gets me flagged by TSA for extra screening. it means having to get rental stand and beauty dish when I arrive. Reasons to bring it: I’m trying to create the best work that I can, period, and don’t want to be under-prepared.

So, I decided to bring it. To skip to the punchline, I didn’t end up using it on the shoot. Like, at all. All the effort that went into bringing it—carrying it my pack while flying, walking through NYC, biking to Adorama to rent a light stand and beauty dish, biking through the city with all of that gear strapped on my backpack—was wasted.

Model: Dani Dikeman

Well, was it wasted? Going into it, I didn’t know what I was going to need. I could have not bothered bringing it and just hoped for the best. But hoping for the best isn’t a plan. I ended up getting tons of images that were exactly what I wanted, none of which needed that light, and that’s okay.

If I’d insisted on using the light because I went to the trouble of bringing it, that would have diminished the quality of the photos that I got. A lot of effort, very little payoff. Hindsight is 20/20.

Carrying: two camera bodies, 4 lenses, 1 Profoto B1, 3x B1 batteries, light stand, 21″ beauty dish in an f-stop Gear Tilopa pack. And a basketball.

I arrived home from that trip at 11 pm on a Tuesday and had a 7 am shoot the next morning in a gym. I didn’t think I was going to need lighting but decided last minute to bring it anyway. It literally took 60 seconds to grab the lighting case, and it turned out that having those lights was absolutely critical. Very little effort, very big payoff.

It was just coincidence that these two experiences happened within 24 hours of each other, but it painted a really clear picture for me: In order to create my best work, I have to be willing to end up being over-prepared, always. I have to be willing to “waste” my time and effort because the alternative is to be underprepared. And if I’m wildly over-prepared for something simple, so be it.

Activities that can look like “wasted time” also include critically important things like spending time practicing, experimenting, and trial-and-error. Insert your favorite inspirational quote here about “don’t be afraid to fail,” or “with great risk comes great reward.”

So, be willing to go the extra mile, even when nobody will pat you on the back for it, and it might end up seeming “unnecessary” after the fact. But when it matters most, it’ll pay off in spades.

About the author: Caleb Kerr is a lifestyle, athletic, and commercial photographer based in Austin, Texas. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Follow his work on Instagram, or view his portfolio on his website. This post was also published here.