Photography Is A Long Distance Race

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Through all the years I have been shooting, and across all the years I have been educating photographers at all stages, there is one aspect that is very difficult for me to pass on:  Motivation.  It’s not that I find it difficult to motivate people.  It’s not that the emotion is unreachable for some.  On the contrary:  I find it easy to motivate while I am working with someone.  It’s when I am not involved that things tend to slip.  Self motivation is a behavior that is very difficult to pass on.  The problem is that many of us focus so much on developing better shot taking behaviors that we forget about developing other behaviors – like self motivation.

We need to think of photography as training for a long distance race.

In the beginning, your body and mind is not at all prepared for the challenges that are before you.  The first challenge?  Surviving two or three minutes (I’m not exaggerating).  Run a quarter mile, and you’ll find yourself walking pretty quickly.  Your pacing is off, you went off too fast, your muscles aren’t used to the repetition and your joints aren’t used to the impact.  But you tell yourself that you’ll improve and you carry on.  A few days later, you’re making progress.  You’re able to do a half mile, than a mile and so on.  Then you hit your first wall:  3.5 miles.  That’s when you realize your cardiovascular endurance has improved faster than your muscle strength.  This is when shin splints start to set in and you have to stop to walk – not because you’re out of breath, but because the bottoms of your feet are in pain.  You’ll be here a while…questioning your shoes, your technique.  Maybe you’re trying too hard.  Maybe you’re not stretching enough.  You’ll get over it of course, if you’re persistent.  But not everyone is.  The 5k mark (3.1 miles) is a good settling place for many people, and many runners never train to go any farther.  But if you want to be more, you’ll set your sights on a 10k.  Then you’ll consider a half marathon.  Maybe you’ll even get your sights on the full marathon.  But that requires a lot of dedication.  That requires changes to your diet, and a specific training schedule.  You’ll need to work on your flexibility and your pacing.  You’ll find yourself dedicating training runs to intervals – flip-flopping between horribly slow paces and energy sapping sprints over the course of 40 minutes – fine tuning your run.  You’ll spend a lot more time on details and less time on just being able to do the run.  You’ll cross train with things like yoga or jump rope.  But these are the things that separate you from the 5k runners.  You have successfully motivated yourself.  But all along, you are questioning your motivation.  What are you really doing it for?  Is it really worth all this effort?  What are you really getting out of all of this?

Satisfaction. You’ve set a goal, you’ve achieved it, and there is absolutely no way to cheat.  And your’e a better person for it.

Photography is very much like that.  It has the same learning curve.  You’ll hit that 3 mile threshold and you’re stuck there for a while.  Then you’ll hit that 5k threshold and your pictures seem formulaic and uninspired, but you’ll every once in a while spike out a fantastic photo.  And that’s enough for some.  Those that move on gain experience enough to run the 10k:  They’re able to capture good photos day after day on demand.  Next is the half marathon and then the full marathon.  You’ll learn to scrutinize your lenses and learn their weaknesses.  You’ll experiment with artificial lighting and light modifiers.  Hours and several frames will be lost to experimental technique that you’re trying to perfect, yet you’ll never show those frames to anyone.  And you’ll reach that point of diminishing returns.  And for what?

Satisfaction.  And only you truly benefit from that.

The take-away here is that your goals really matter.  I cannot motivate you to be more than you want to be.  No one can.  Only you are able to set goals that you can achieve.  So you might as well be honest with yourself.  There’s nothing wrong with settling at the 5k mark.  You can thrive with a well self-curated portfolio, and you certainly aren’t doing your mind and body any harm.  What I don’t want you to do is set and share your goal to become the next Ansel Adams if you have no interest in putting in all of the extra time.  Because if you’re not dedicated and self-motivated, you don’t stand a chance.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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