In the age of increased mental health awareness, it is important to address some mental health issues that photographers may have to cope with. For many, that is primarily anxiety. In this article, I will break down a few ways you can be less anxious before and during a shoot.
How I Shot Events at 17
Let me start with a personal story. At the joyfully stupid age of 17, through some connection of events, I was asked to come and shoot an event with 500 people. Some of them were CEOs and one of them was a minister. At that time, it was my biggest job ever — in fact, it was much bigger than anything before.
To say that it was a challenge would be an understatement.
In my arsenal, I had: a camera that took 1 CF card, a working lens, a semi-working lens, a poorly working Speedlite, a laptop from 2010, and a single hard drive. To add to the trouble, I was going to be in a different city without a camera store nearby to help should things go south.
I was incredibly stressed, but I couldn’t refuse a job I had wanted to do for some time. I didn’t know if I could pull it off, and I would describe the two days of shooting as being extremely stressful. In hindsight, that job was probably more than I could handle. However, the client has since hired me over and over again.
Ever since that experience, I’ve been trying to reduce stress as much as I can. I think over the years I’ve managed to distill shoot anxiety and figure out how to combat it.
Less Anxiety Translates Into More Fun
We’ve all been there: a shoot is coming up soon, you’re sweating, having a headache, and not having fun at all. I’ve been there, and I still go there sometimes. That’s completely normal. Each shoot is a huge commitment, the pre-production is often quite extensive, and failing on shoot day would be the worst thing imaginable.
While pre-shoot stress and anxiety can be quite normal, it is best to go on set feeling positive instead of stressed. I’ve found the environment to be a lot more fun and the resulting pictures better when the photographer is rather relaxed.
Sometimes the origin of pre-shoot anxiety is simply lack of preparation. Winging a shoot rarely works, and it’s safe to assume that it won’t. If a major detail is up in the air on shoot day, I strongly suggest moving it to a later date. Some of the worst cases of anxiety stem from a lack of readiness.
One of the simplest ways to reduce anxiety is packing up for shooting the day before. For me that means going through a checklist of things:
Cameras and Lenses
Ask yourself: “What am I taking, and does it all work? Should one item die, can I still make do?”
If you’re in business, I suggest bringing a backup camera to all shoots. Even if it is significantly worse, it is still a backup that can take pictures. Ideally, you’ll want to own two copies of the same camera.
Lights and Grip
Pack them in cases and don’t leave loose lights or stands for the last minute. Check that all tubes work and that everything syncs properly. Stands should work as they did on day one, and make sure nothing is odd about your grip. It can get ugly expensive fast.
Don’t store your batteries in the camera — I found that they deteriorate a bit faster. You want to make sure that everything is charged the day before. Labeling batteries helps you keep track of which ones are charged and ones that are not.
Have multiple storage locations. Although I’m tethering most of the time, a few memory cards never leave my bag. I have two cards permanently in my go-to bag. In case I forget something at home, I have a place to shoot on.
If you’re going to be on location, designate a corner for stuff that’s packed. It is a very easy way to check everything you have and don’t have.
Physical preparation is as important as mental preparation. One of the most stressful shooting experiences I had so far was a portrait right after sunset with only five minutes available for the subject. I visited the shoot location the day before and planned out everything. Mentally, I pictured the shots in my head, as well as I imagined myself shooting in the place tomorrow. While that may be stressful for some, it helps me be calm and reassured that I know what’s happening.
One of the best ways to prepare mentally for the situation is to grab a friend and give yourself 5 minutes to shoot a killer portrait of them. This mock session will give you practice when running against the clock and you won’t be as nervous about the real thing.
Care For Yourself
For me, caring for myself means having a nice breakfast with lots of coffee. Taking a long shower or just listening to music before the shoot can be relaxing and put you in the right place for shooting. I find it best to come to the studio as early as I can and just sit down sip on coffee before everyone arrives.
This is when nerves can kick in quite badly. When everyone arrived and you’re setting up, things may not go as planned and you may go back to feeling anxious. It is important to know that it may happen.
Assistants Are Your Best Friends
I truly believe that assistants are your best friends. You spend lots of time with them, and they are the people who know your process inside out. They often know everyone on the shoot and sometimes even know more than you do.
Chatting with an assistant can be very helpful when you’re bouncing ideas back and forth. If Plan A doesn’t work, the assistant knows what Plan B is, and can execute it in a second. I discuss what I will be doing in detail before each shoot, and if something is a bit dodgy I talk it through with the assistants.
I like to think that the universe never gives you more than you can handle. If something changes, it is probably because you’ve got it. Like me and the big event job, it was just on the brink of what I could handle, and for that reason the opportunity presented itself. I probably can’t handle a Nike campaign just yet, so I’m not shooting something on that level. Regardless of what is happening, chances are you’ve got it — otherwise, it wouldn’t happen. Being grateful for what’s happening is a great trick up your sleeve to reduce stress.
Gratitude is a great thing. While that sounds like the most obvious sentence in this article, it is probably the most important one. You can’t be prepared for everything materially, but you can be grateful for your team, for the world, and for the past to align so that you are able to shoot.
Being grateful and expressing that gratitude over and over again is creating positive energy and a positive shooting environment. This comes down to saying thank you, but also to feeling grateful.
People are putting their hands to work so that you can shoot pictures. I find that incredibly kind, and I’m grateful for my team and everyone involved. Part of feeling grateful is being approachable. A team member should not be afraid to ask you something, even if it is the craziest idea they’ve ever had. Being kind and grateful goes a long way in feeling comfortable and reducing anxiety in photography.
I’d like to conclude by saying that reducing anxiety in photography is not a quick fix. It took me a few years to get to where I am now. Starting to be more prepared is easier, but feeling grateful takes some time and even courage. Being courageous enough to say ideas out loud and being grateful for others and yourself is crucial to feeling “home” when shooting. Think back to when you first picked up a camera; did you have fun? If yes, why not have fun now?
About the author: Illya Ovchar is a fashion photographer based in Budapest, Hungary. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Ovchar’s work on his website.
Image credits: Stock photos licensed from Depositphotos