How Fear Holds Your Photography Back

As a photographer, there are many things that we feel may be holding us back. For some, it’s gear. For many, it might be limited free time. For others, there might be a lack of interesting locations to shoot.

While I have felt the same in the past, that is no longer the case as I’m lucky to live in a pretty darn beautiful part of Japan, and I’ve managed to buy most of my dream gear. However, that isn’t to say that I don’t feel like anything is holding me back.

While I felt a lot of external forces were holding me back in the past, I’ve recently come to notice that the biggest thing that holds me back is more internal. As you may have guessed from the title, that thing is fear.

You might be asking yourself, ‘fear of what? Spiders?”. Well, no… but also maybe, depending on the size of the spider, but mostly no. Fear of judgment, fear of taking risks, fear of embarrassment, and fear of failure are all things that I have and, to some extent, still struggle with. Today, I’d like to talk about these common fears, how they can hold you back, and what you can do to overcome these fears.

Fear of Judgement

I want to start with this because I feel it is the first real fear I had after deciding to get serious about photography. Fear of judgment can be related to a few things, so to keep things as concise as possible, I’ll break everything down.

Fear of criticism

When I think back to my first days with a camera, I’m almost jealous of how blissfully ignorant I was. Back in those days, literally everything was a work of art. I took pictures of anything and everything without any regard for technical perfection or light.

However, when I decided I wanted to switch from taking pictures in auto-mode to doing photography, things changed. I went from sharing everything on social media to lurking on the photography side of the internet. What I saw shocked me to my very core. For the first time ever, I wasn’t the best photographer in the world. I was just some schmuck with a 7-year-old camera, kit lenses, and no idea what aperture even was.

In the following months, I binged photography content and tried to learn as much as I could. I saw my photos getting better, but I was still just a lurker, not a poster. I read the comments left on the work of others — they were harsh. I watched professionals critique work that looked immaculate — it was even harsher.

I was terrified of what people would say about my work. This continued for some time before I finally started sharing my work with other photographers and I was pleasantly surprised. They were critiquing my work, but my head hadn’t been completely removed from my shoulders. Over the following months, I shared more work, made some online buddies, and even gained enough confidence to share my own opinions on the work of others.

I now feel confident to share my work on any platform, regardless of the audience, and I’m more than happy to give detailed criticism to others (when they ask for it).

How to overcome this fear: As the old saying goes, “sticks and stones” and all that. While there are some people out there who fancy themselves the Gordon Ramsay of photography criticism, it’s important to remember, they’re just words. Sometimes those words are objective criticisms, but more often than not they’re subjective opinions.

I recommend finding a place where you can share your work that has some sort of moderation to avoid personal attacks or unhelpful negativity. I’ve come to find that in the right places, genuine individuals tend to outnumber the trolls. Remember, when someone gives an honest good-faith critique, they’re trying to lift you up, not knock you down.

Fear of how you’re perceived

Basically, when you’re out with your camera, you’re usually in a public space, and public spaces usually have people. Those people might look at you funny, which can impact your willingness to do what you need to to get the perfect shot. Whether it be hovering with your jacket around your camera to protect it from the wind, or lying on the ground to get the best angle, sometimes the fear of how others perceive us can hold us back.

Once we remove this fear, however, we’re more open to getting the shot, regardless of how bonkers we look. I would also connect this to a fear of coming across as braggadocios when talking about your work in a positive way or even sharing your successes.

How to overcome this fear: I’m not entirely sure there is a silver bullet for this one, but there are a few options.

You can listen to music or a podcast to take your mind off of others. You can shoot with a friend, I always feel more comfortable looking weird when I’m with someone else willing to look weird. However, at the end of the day, no one is going to remember the weirdo they saw two weeks ago, so just do what you need to do, so long as it doesn’t break the law or disrupt others.

When it comes to sharing your work, it’s a good idea to share what you’re proud of while remaining humble. It’s important to remember that not everyone will share your feelings, and understanding that is an important step towards overcoming the fear that you’re coming across as “look at me, aren’t I amazing” to an audience who seems indifferent.

I’ve come to accept that my friends respond better to a blurry phone snap of my daughter than to a photo I’m really proud of, but it’s important to share the small victories.

Fear of Taking Risks

The fear of taking risks can come in many forms. However, for me, there are two that come to mind: leaving my comfort zone and financial risks. I think the best way to explain this, is to highlight two of the big ones I’ve had along the way.

Fear of leaving your comfort zone

Apologies in advance, but I’m going to take the scenic route on this one, but just stay with me.

When I was in my late teens, I decided to try getting my driver’s license. I won’t get into the details, but the system in my hometown is bananas and requires no formal education or practice with an instructor. I passed the written exam with no problem and felt pretty good about myself. However, the second time I got behind the wheel of a car I almost got t-boned by a taxi driver who ran a stop sign. I can’t quite put into words how much this shook me up. For all of my years being a passenger, I’d never realized how it could all turn sideways in a blink of an eye.

I tried driving a few more times after that, but I could never get that thought out of my head. I ultimately decided to give up on getting my license, and things remained that way for a number of years. For my first few years in Japan, I was satisfied with the reliable public transportation, so the thought of getting a license never even crossed my mind. However, as I continued to focus more on photography, I began to realize that I was limited in the number of places and times I could shoot. It became abundantly clear that this lack of free movement was holding me back.

My fear of getting behind the wheel of a car was holding me back. In the summer of 2018, I finally decided to enroll in a driving school in Tokyo and take a big step toward improving my photography. Long story short, I got my license and now enjoy the freedom that has opened up parts of Japan that I never even knew existed prior to 2018. I was lucky to have the support of a driving instructor to help me overcome my almost paralyzing fear of driving, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made for my photography. Had I not overcome this fear, a large chunk of my portfolio wouldn’t exist.

How to overcome this fear: While I’m not going to advocate for doing anything dangerous, reckless, or illegal, it’s apparent that those who are unwilling to take risks usually find themselves in fewer positions to succeed. It can be hard to step out of your comfort zone, but try to do it, even if the first step is a tiny one.

Now, I know that this was a very personal anecdote, but it can be applied to other fears one might have when it comes to leaving their comfort zone. Nervous about traveling alone: start local and work your way outward. Worried about taking a leap forward: start with a small step. Terrified of getting behind the wheel of a 1,450lb (650kg) death machine: yeah, me too, but think of it as a photography tool, akin to a tripod. Getting comfortable outside of your comfort zone won’t happen in one day, but it starts with day one.

Fear of financial risk

Anyone who knows me can attest to one thing: I am one of the most frugal people you’ll ever meet. I have a list of different items that are cheaper at different supermarkets around my house, I always sort my hotels by ‘lowest price’, and I always check the menu prices before going to a restaurant.

One of the biggest issues with being a frugal person while also being a photographer is that they are usually diametrically opposite lifestyles. For years I would browse the web looking at photos by photographers using gear I could only dream of having in locations I had neither the time nor money to go to. Only the thing was I did have the money — I was just too afraid to spend it.

I grew up in a family that didn’t spend much money, so the idea of dropping a chunk of cash on a camera, lenses, or trips was something I’d built up in my mind as a fantasy. Things remained that way until one day when it was like a switch was suddenly flipped and I bought my current camera and lenses. Clicking that ‘confirm order’ button felt like a monumental task, but it’s one I’m glad I finally followed through with.

Since then, I’ve become more open about spending money when I need to. I still save money where I can, but the fear of spending money no longer stops me from doing something I can afford to do. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to capture many of my favorite images if I’d continued being too afraid to spend money when I needed to, including the aforementioned driving school I enrolled in.

How to overcome this fear: Again, I am not recommending anyone make reckless financial decisions, and none of this is financial advice. There was a long period of time when the gear I currently own cost more than my entire net worth, kidneys and all. However, for those who do have disposable income they’re worried about spending, think of it as less of a cost and more of an investment.

My camera and lenses were an investment in my photography, one that helped me take my work to the next level. That being said, you should still invest in yourself within reason and only spend what you’re comfortable with. Buy only what you need, when you need it, and try to save money where you can.

Personally, I recommend buying some used camera gear. I saved over ¥200,000 (~$1,500) on my camera and lenses by buying from a used camera shop in Tokyo while they happened to be running a sale. If you’re worried about travel costs, try to travel outside of peak travel seasons, if possible. Whether it’s a trip or gear, if you invest in yourself wisely, you’ll see improvement.

Fear of Embarrassment

We now arrive at the fears that I am in the middle of actively trying to overcome. The fear of embarrassment is a bit of a strange one, because in my years as a stage actor, I was more than happy to play the fool. Again, I won’t go into the details, but I once played a character who wore a pair of shorts so revealing, I’m surprised nobody fainted. However, for whatever reason, this fearlessness has never translated to photography.

Perhaps it’s because I’m not playing a character, but the fear of looking like an idiot is one that has held me back. This fear of embarrassment can hinder your output, your willingness to take chances, and even your openness to engage in social situations.

Fear of looking like an idiot

I’ll discuss this one first because it’s the one I’ve most recently come closest to overcoming. When it came to looking like an idiot, my biggest fear was that someone would see a mistake I made in a photo. Whether it be a fear of bad editing choices or a distraction in the image that somehow evaded me, I had a habit of sitting on images for days, sometimes even weeks, before publishing them.

However, the fear of looking like an idiot goes beyond your photography. It also extends into your willingness to give criticism, discuss photography with others, or even make incredibly verbose write-ups.

As previously mentioned, before becoming an active member of the photography parts of the internet, I was a long-time lurker. I’d type up some constructive criticism, a thoughtful response, or a lengthy post only for it to be left in the ‘draft’ pile or deleted altogether. Not only did this waste my time, but it was also preventing me from interacting with others and, to some extent, getting my name out there.

Whether it be a thoughtful critique or a wordy write-up, sometimes it’s the non-photography parts of photography that help you take a step closer to where you want to be. Regardless of what it is, the fear of embarrassment can hold you back from reaching a wider audience.

How to overcome this fear: As I mentioned before, this is one that I’m still battling, in some regards, but have mostly overcome. I no long hover over the ‘post’ or ‘submit’ buttons when posting images online. However, I do still hold off on posting my lengthy write-ups from time to time, but that has more to do with my writing process than anything else.

When posting online, it’s important to remember that art is a process, so you’re going to make mistakes along the way. Likewise, with critiques or write-ups, you’re going to get your share of snide comments, but it’s best not to let them get to you.

Go into every situation with an open mind and try to remember that everyone makes silly mistakes. I guarantee your favorite successful photographer has had a forehead slapper or two along the way. Embrace them as learning experiences, and use them to inspire self-improvement, rather than a reason to hold back.

Fear of looking desperate

In photography, like most forms of art, success often comes down to who you know – or rather, who knows you. With the advent of social media, interacting with other photographers and viewers has never been easier. However, while I am present on social media, I’ve always had a habit of neglecting the most important part of it – the ‘social’ part.

Over the years, I’ve always been hesitant to comment on posts I come across, especially if that person had a bigger following than me (which is most people). I’ve never been a big fan of leaving short comments like ‘nice’ because I don’t really feel like doing so adds anything. Likewise, I’ve avoided leaving longer comments because I don’t want to seem like I’m begging for attention. On top of that, the idea of commenting on the same person with a large following’s work over and over always felt akin to me saying “notice me senpai.”

To make things worse, on the occasions that I did try to genuinely interact or reach out, I was usually met with a pretty cookie-cutter response, if I even got one. I know it’s likely because they are busy and get more comments and messages than have time to respond to, but I’ve always imagined them looking at my comment, DM, or email and saying ‘pathetic’ before adding me to some kind of blacklist.

The cherry on top of all of that is that I’m, at the best of times, incredibly socially awkward, so I tend to overthink my responses and over-analyze the responses, or lack of responses, of others.

All that being said, through social media and photography sites, I’ve also connected with smaller artists and have built what I would call “genuine human connections” despite the incredible distances between us. This, I feel, is where the true power of social media can be utilized, and it’s something I’ve recently been trying to enjoy by overcoming this fear.

How to overcome this fear: As I mentioned, this is one that I’m actively working on, so I haven’t quite worked out all the kinks yet. I suppose the way I’ve been trying to overcome this is by reminding myself that it’s social media.

I also try to keep my comments meaningful but not over the top. I do this by pointing out specific things I like about the image without completely fawning over it. I have also reached out to a couple of photographers with much bigger followings who happen to visit Japan on occasion. I’ve yet to receive a response, but I wasn’t really expecting one because it was less about the response and more about coming out of my shell when it comes to socializing.

While I’m not going to advise you to flood your favorite photographer’s inbox or comments, I do recommend trying to connect with local photographers with smaller followings. It could lead to a collaboration, a new friendship, or a nice conversation. There’s a chance it could lead to nothing, but if you don’t try, it will lead to nothing.

The Fear of Failure

When it comes to failure, I’m very successful. There’s a reason I “used to be” an actor. There’s a reason I “used to” make YouTube videos. And there’s a reason I “used to” own a sketchbook. These are all things I’ve tried and, at some point, came to realize I just wasn’t cut out for.

However, there’s something different about photography. Despite all the ups and downs, the stress, the frustration, and the self-doubt, I’ve never reached a point where I’m able to just drop it. It’s quite the opposite, actually. Photography is so much a part of who I am that the thought of not doing it is soul-crushing.

To be honest, I don’t know if it’s the fear of failing, so much as it’s the fear of being known as a failure. To me, the fear of failure is a combination of all the previous fears I’ve highlighted. Being judged as a failure, having wasted time and money on something you’ve failed at, and all the embarrassment that comes along with conversations about why you never “made it.”

This fear of failure has held me back from both promoting my work and from trying to take the next step. In the past, I’ve tried my best to avoid failure by not taking the steps required to succeed. I’d taken an “I can’t really fail if I don’t really try” approach. However, that’s one that I’ve recently been trying to get away from. I’ve come to realize that if I fail to reach my goals it will be, in part, due to my fear of failure.

How I’m trying to overcome this fear: No past tenses on this one, as it’s a fear I’m very much still struggling with. However, it’s important to realize that if you don’t try, failure isn’t a possibility, it’s an inevitability. Once I realized this, I had a sort of “I’m tired of wondering what if” moment. It’s better to try and fail than to continue running hypothetical situations through your head until the sun comes up.

Overcoming the fear of failure isn’t a singular decision, rather it’s a culmination of overcoming the roadblocks that prevent you from moving forward. Most recently, I’ve taken the biggest step I’ve ever taken. After years of planning, and fear-based procrastination, I’ve finally decided I’m going to at least try running a workshop in a part of Japan that I often photograph.

All of the fears I’ve highlighted have previously held me back from actually trying to go through with it in the past. The fear of judgment, “why would anyone book this?” The fear of taking chances, “how much money do I have to spend on marketing?” The fear of embarrassment, “what if no one books?” All of which leads to my fear of failure, “why do I even try?”

All of these are questions that still rattle around in my head, but I’ve decided if I fail, I at least want to know that I actually tried. Worst case scenario, I’ll try again next year. It’s important to remember that success in photography isn’t linear. It can happen in bursts and you can take steps backward and forwards as you fail and succeed at various points. What’s important is how you face adversity and self-doubt to overcome these fears. You’re more likely to fail if you don’t try than if you do.

The Wrap-up

I just want to wrap this up by acknowledging a few things. First, I understand that this entire article was about personal experiences and how I personally overcame them, but I’ve come to find that there are a lot of people out there who may be facing similar fears. My hope is that by reading this, you can become more aware of your own fears and take a step toward overcoming them.

Second, this entire write-up has been focused on internal factors holding me back. I’m well aware that for many people, there are external forces that hold their photography back. I understand that for some there are financial restraints, a limitation of free time, and a lack of access to inspiring locations. I have had and still do have some of these myself.

Again, my hope is for aspiring photographers to focus on the things they can change, rather than dwelling on the things they may have no control over.

Finally, I have no delusions that anyone, myself included, is owed success. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing photography. It doesn’t matter how many skills you mastered. It doesn’t matter how nice your gear is. It doesn’t matter how much of an expert you are. For many of us, success will be from a combination of quality work, good marketing, networking skills, and of course, luck.

Overcoming these fears won’t guarantee success, but it’s a step in the right direction.

About the author: Jordan McChesney is a landscape, cityscape, and abstract Canadian photographer living in Chigasaki, Japan. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of McChesney’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram.

Image credits: Photos from 123RF