Creative anxiety

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You’ve just spent a ton of money on a large, shiny new lens. The one youtube and the rumours sites have been on fire about for the last few months, proclaiming it better than caviar on truffle on foie gras. Gilded. You managed to actually get one in your hands, ahead of most of the mere hoi polloi. You found an ideal location by trawling instagram and looking at the number of amazing images that came out of that particular geotag. You booked a flight to the ends of the earth with a company specialising in adventure photography travel, endorsed by the gurus themselves. And just in case that wasn’t enough, there was a whole bunch of other ancillary support gear you had your eye on that you added – new SSDs, a kickass backpack that’s bulletproof, that compact tripod that folds to the size of a stick of gum but can hold an elephant, raised twenty million dollars on kickstarter in two minutes AND managed to save a schoolroom full of burning children whilst winning miss universe.

Yet when you step off the van into that sunrise…you can’t make a picture worth spit. Why?

Whilst I’ve used a generic-but-landscape-or-wildlife-centric example, it’s also entirely possible that you did the same thing with all of your studio gear only to find that your images look worse than before. Or you hired the model the decade and somehow everything looks wooden and there’s no chemistry. It’s the same situation: on paper, everything should be awesome, but it isn’t. Let’s back up for a minute to try and figure out the cause.

Firstly, a good chunk of the problem can be put down to expectations: your own, your client’s, other people’s foisted upon you by social media*. You bought the lens because of the hype and the promise of making some interesting pictures like the pros who were paid to do so for the sample reel, or who shoot subjects under situations you almost certainly won’t have access to. They already have one big advantage in seeing something you can’t; on top of that, know that most of the pros who are hired to shoot sample images are engaged because they have the skill to make anything with anything: I know this because I’ve been in that situation before. Next is the biggest problem though: you did the same thing as everybody else told you to do/ thinks you should do without any assessment of self: do you want to go there and shoot that subject, or are you doing so because you think it might be cool because you see everybody else thinking its cool but in reality they think it’s cool because other people do? Have you even asked yourself at any point, “What kind of photographer am I? What kind of pictures do I want to make?”

*Read: paid advertising. Unless the perpetrator has skin in the game, preferably in the form of investment or at very least reputation, there’s a good chance that ‘expert opinion’ is pretty much useless.

The vast majority of people never ask these questions because it’s simply easier not to. I don’t know if it would be more depressing to need ask and simply be a lemming, or to ask and find the answer to be a complete blank. On one hand, I feel fortunate that I’ve always known what I want to create – but on the other hand I also feel stymied when trying to do so in the face of unnecessary limitations. I feel envious that I can’t just let somebody else do the thinking sometimes; the frustration often just isn’t worth it. We do it because we have to, and because deep down – we wouldn’t really be happy otherwise. I’m sure there’s a sort of liberation in being able to fit in and find satisfaction from simply replicating what you’re told is already good; but I’m equally sure I’d miss the satisfaction from trying to do the creative equivalent of walking up an escalator the wrong way whilst trying to squeeze blood out of a boulder. With your toes.

But even those of us with generally indefatigable creative drive often draw blanks, and large ones – there are days we set aside to experiment and create and get excited and then produce…absolutely nothing. Or days when we have commissions or clients or things we want to do, but aren’t happy with the results. Once again, I think it boils down to expectations again: you expect to knock it out of the park and make something truly exceptional the first time because you remember the times you’ve done it in the past, and conveniently forgotten all of the experimental failures. You expect to be just as satisfied by your latest work as your previous ones, not realising that a lot of that satisfaction comes from having broken new ground – and it’s simply impossible to do that all the time. We in turn get a little frustrated and depressed, and just as in the opening scenario – fundamentally disappointed that expectations are not met – even if they are our own in this case. I know for a fact that the anxiety caused by this does nothing to help the creative process, and at this point it’s necessary (but very difficult) to walk away and mentally reset. What makes us creative is often also what makes us emotionally stuck.

The example image in this post is a watch we launched (and I shot) back in June. It was something that had a long, difficult and expensive gestation; and the only product where we went through three prototyping stages before settling on the final configuration – only to decide not to put it into mass production because by that point it no longer fitted in with the long term strategy for the company. In the end we converted the remaining prototype cases and made a very small run of concept watches – but I digress. Long story short, expectations for the watch were high; I think we mostly met them, but that also meant the photographs had to be commensurate. Photographing for yourself as the end client is perhaps both the most liberating and frustrating thing possible, because whilst you have complete freedom, you also have (ideally) an increasingly high threshold your images have to pass. If this expectation sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same creative anxiety in the first situation. I won’t even go into how much worse it is for product design because the level of investment in a single output is so much higher than

That particular image came with a lot of baggage. I wanted to have several elements in play: our ‘signature’ floating (unsupported) watch; some liquid elements because it’s a dive watch; sufficient visibility of key design features to be considered essential, good lighting. I didn’t have a tank or time to get one before launch; I didn’t have a frozen dummy watch with no movement so the watch would be running (you can’t pull out the crown to hack underwater, for obvious reasons) and not easy to reset the hands and reposition. To reset the hands, I’d have to remove the watch, dry everything off, and reposition it again – and readjust camera, composition and lighting since there are a lot of small reflective elements in play. And to top it off, I’d only get one shot at the bubbles before the sparkling water lost its fizz – all 12 litres of it in the makeshift large glass bowl.

I stood in the studio mentally going through the setup for the tenth time and decided to take a coffee break because I couldn’t see the shot. In the end, I decided to relax one big constraint: the hero image wouldn’t involve water. This could be a purely creative bonus. Thus it didn’t matter if the bubbles blocked a lot of the key design features; but the would also remove the time pressure to work while the hands were in the right position. We wouldn’t have to move and refill the tank etc. I would start the hands 15min before the required time (an estimate that proved off by about 5min) and use that to experiment with lighting. I wouldn’t try to maximise everything and go for multiple compositions. In the end – I got a shot I wanted and liked but didn’t see before starting. But I couldn’t have made the image either had I gone in holding on to my (flawed) expectations – and the same has proven true so many times in the past (though admittedly with documentary-style/uncontrolled subjects) that I should probably have seen it going in. Moral of the story: having vision (read: expectations) is a good starting point, but having some fluidity is required to not just make the most of a situation, but take the final image that bit further. MT


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  1. I am curious Ming. And don’t shoot me for asking this question. And I ask this because I am complete newbie to product photography.

    Now the question. Isn’t it many times easier to “complete” the picture in photoshop after you have done the base work? I know it is not a purist approach but as long as your final image is honest to the product, does it matter how you get there? It is not photo journalism for God’s sake!

    I ask because much of the creating anxiety will be lessened if we know that we can “fix” few things later, like unwanted reflection, bubble pattern, even position of hands (copied from other pictures in the set).

    Am I smoking something!

    • No, it isn’t…because unless your alignment is perfect, it will be very obvious the perspective is off – not to mention shadows not matching up, impossible lighting because of conflicting directionality/ lack of reflections etc. It might not look wrong at first glance, but you can tell something doesn’t look quite right because it can’t occur in real life.

  2. Thoughtful and valuable insights here, Ming. Thanks for posting. I often find that the hardest expectations to fulfill are my own – others may be way more lenient. But if there are shallow or unsatisfactory objectives declared, that’s the worst – it means whatever you achieve will either be insignificant or boring or both. Sadly, that’s generally the case when the uninitiated, the ambitious but clueless call the shots (pun intended).

  3. Very nice photograph Ming. Some magic in it. Not a litteral (boring) reproduction of an object, but a visualisation of the concept, inviting the observer for an exploration. I also like the small bubbles surrounding the watch. They add depth. Still wondering how you managed to float the watch.

  4. Ha! Are you channelling Roger Cicala? Or was he channeling you?

    “Disappointment is the sole purpose of expectations.” — Roger Cicala


  1. […] a consequence of circumstance. It does also have the happy coincidence of forcing one to break creative anxiety – every situation is constant reminder that your expectations are probably invalid, and to […]

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