5 Mindset Questions That Transform Your Photography
How you photograph a scene or a story matters for you and for your audience. And the number one thing that matters most is your mindset.
As photographers, it can be frustratingly easy to get so far into our head when we're shooting.
We're thinking about expectations.
We're thinking about judgment.
We're thinking about perfection.
We're holding ourselves to certain standards – standards we may have set for ourselves, but more likely were set by others – that we think that we must adhere to.
And we get so wrapped up in all that muck…
that we forget to shoot with our heart. We forget to look for essential things, like the story of this moment, this scene, this subject we're capturing.
We forget about the creativity, the craft, the joy of process.
We forget to ask certain questions of ourselves as we're shooting, that guide us to images that reflect what we want to say, that reflect our style.
So today we are exploring five powerful questions that will radically transform you as a photographer, and the quality of the images you produce.
- Why mindset is so important in how you approach your scene or subject
- Five questions that recenter, reframe, and reconnect you to your photography
- How questioning yourself can free you from frustration in the middle of a shoot
- The biggest myth we tell ourselves in conservation photography and how to break free from it
Resources & Links Mentioned
There are many photographers focused on conservation, environment, and the overlaps of humans and nature, who I believe embody these mindsets and are shooting in ways that break the mold. I am listing a small handful of them here. May they inspire you to embrace your own personal style as well.
- Annie Marie Musselman
- Evgenia Arbugaeva
- Traer Scott
- Marzena Skubatz
- Mette Lampcov
- Shin Sirachai Arunrugstichai
This episode is sponsored by:
Conservation Visual Storytellers Academy trains photographers and filmmakers who are passionate about conservation and science.
We are the only online education platform designed specifically for conservation photographers and filmmakers. Our ever-growing selection of robust online courses, in-person workshops, mentorship programs, and membership community are designed specifically to address the unique skills and resources you need as you focus on documenting environment, science communication, and conservation issues. We help you follow your passion to be an effective, successful, and joyful conservation visual storyteller.
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Episode 061: 5 Mindset Questions That Transform Your Photography
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
As photographers, it can be frustratingly easy to get so far into our head. When we're shooting, we're thinking about expectations. We're thinking about judgment. We're thinking about perfection. We're holding ourselves to certain standards that may be set by ourselves, but may more likely be set by other people that we think that we need to adhere to. And we get so wrapped up in that so far inside of our head, that we forget to shoot with our heart. And we forget about the creativity and the craft and the joy of process. And we forget to ask certain questions of ourselves as we're shooting, that guides us to images that reflect what we want to say, images that reflect our style. So today I want to talk about five questions that when you ask yourself these questions, while you're holding a camera, it can radically transform how you're photographing. Let's dive in.
Welcome to impact the conservation photography podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch. And if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place from conservation to creativity, from business to marketing and everything in between this podcast is for you. The conservation visual storyteller, who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in.
When you're looking through images, whether it's in a photo story or, you know, Instagram or Facebook, wherever it may be, when you're looking through images, what images make you really stop and pause? What images kind of stop the scroll as they say, and makes you really want to dig in and look closer more than likely they're images that are beautiful. That spark emotion that have really intriguing composition that are surprising for all kinds of different reasons. Those are the images that really draw viewers in and make a really important long lasting impression and more than likely. That's something that you're striving for in your imagery as well. Now what happens to every single one of us? I don't care if you have been shooting for 80 years, or you just picked up a camera. What happens to all of us at some point is we can get wrapped up in all sorts of other thoughts that actually pull us away from the place we need to be in, in order to create images like that.
Because images like that are crafted out of a mindset they're crafted out of being in a space where the artist in you, the empathetic witness, the creative in you has room to exist and explore. So today I want to talk about five questions that when you pause, whether you're in the field or you're reviewing your images, or you're strategizing a shot list, when you pause and you ask yourself these five questions, it's going to completely change the way that you not only approach your images, but also how you feel about capturing images. These are questions that I have to ask myself constantly and search for the answers constantly. And sometimes it's a battle to get to the answer, to get into the mindset, but the questions will guide you into that mindset. So let's get into what they are. The first question is, am I worrying about quality or content?
Now, if you have followed me for very long, you know, I'm constantly saying content over quality content, over quality content, over quality, because the thing is, nobody really cares about technical precision. If the image doesn't make them feel anything, if the image is pixel perfect, every single element about it is tack sharp and the dynamic range is perfect and the color is spot on and blah, blah, blah. That's great. But if you aren't drawn in, if it doesn't spark something in you, if it doesn't make you feel something, then that technical precision is basically worthless. Meanwhile, there's other images out there that have all kinds of flaws, but they, they speak to you, right? So content is more important than quality. And yet, because we know that we are being judged on our imagery because we know that technical precision is important, mastering technique and getting images sharp, uh, making sure that they're composed well, making sure that they're really technically strong images is important, but so too is that content.
And when we get so focused in, on the technical quality, it actually blinds you a little bit to the content. It's harder to see the scene in front of you. And if you're not really seeing, if you're not sort of emotionally invested in the scene, that's in front of you because you're so worried about what it is that you're doing with your camera, then you're going to miss the critical moments that will make those images, that create feelings that cause emotional reaction in viewers. Now, the thing is when it comes to technical quality, I'm not saying, don't worry about mastering your camera. That's a super important, right? You need to know what the settings do. You need to know how to handle it. You need to do everything right, but quality technical quality will follow. When you care about the content that you're creating, because when you care about the content that you're creating, when you care about the content of the image that you're striving for, then you will try so hard to capture that that technical precision will follow.
So for example, if you know that there's a certain shot that you want to get, because it evokes a certain feeling, or maybe it captures a behavior, you know what you want to create, and you will push yourself to make sure that you are creating an image that reflects that. And so that means that you're going to try different strategies and for apertures or shutter speeds or techniques. And so your focus on content will actually pull your technical mastery along behind it. But focusing only on technical mastery, making that your priority, it does not necessarily allow content to come with it. You really need to come at this from a creative space first and then allow the skills that you need to have in order to create that vision as an artist or as a witness or as a documentarian, those will come forward. So when you find yourself totally wrapped up in the technical quality of what you're shooting, stepped back for a second and say, okay, am I worrying about quality?
Or am I worrying about content? And if you recognize that you're worrying far more about technical quality than about content, you can pause for a moment and kind of reassess the situation and you can decide, okay, I have to worry about technical quality right now because I'm striving for a certain thing. Or you can take a step back and say, I'm worrying so much about technical quality that I've lost sight of the heart of what it is that I'm trying to create. This is going to let you kind of pause reassess and ensure that you are pursuing the right balance of quality and content. Okay. So am I worrying about quality or content? The second question is what's the story here. See, there's a big difference between a picture of something versus a photograph about something. And every single moment has a story to it.
And when you pick up a camera, what you're seeking is those moments you're seeking to craft a photograph about something, whether it's a person or a place or a moment or a scene or a species or an interaction or a conflict or a something, every photograph is about something. It's about a story. So asking what's the story here can help you pause again and take a breath and think, okay, am I just snapping photos of something? There's a really cool bird in front of me. Am I just taking pictures of that bird? Or can I dig a little deeper? Can I create a photograph about this bird? And the second that you start to ask yourself, what's the story here. Now you're noticing maybe the behaviors of that bird. Maybe you're noticing the way that it interacts with its environment or with other birds in the flock.
Maybe you're noticing the way that an entire flock behaves. Maybe it leads you into a whole other line of thought about the way that you could photograph something that breaks into new creative realms for how you can approach the scene or how you want to illustrate something. So simply by asking the question, what's the story here. You open a door into a line of thought that can completely alter how it is that you are approaching what you're photographing and how you actually photograph it. You're going to notice so much more about what's going on because you're trying to get at the story. You're not just snapping off pictures. You're trying to get to a story. And this is true. Even in our own family lives. Another example is let's say you're taking pictures of your spouse, making dinner. Well, ask yourself, what's the story here?
Is it about your spouse making dinner or is it actually about photographing the way that your family gathers together every evening for a meal and that this is a moment of connecting and bonding among your family? Well, the second day you ask yourself, what's the story here. You're going to stop just firing off shots of your spouse, standing at the stove. And instead, you're going to be thinking about the scene. If you have other family members in the room, maybe your kids are there in the room. And maybe there's a moment in between your spouse and the kid is you guys are planning your dinner or sharing this moment together. You're thinking about what your moment is about what the story is inside of the situation. So it's definitely something that we can use every single time we pick up a camera, regardless of what's going on in front of us, regardless of if we're working on, you know, wildlife conservation photography, or we're out photographing the nature in our backyard, or we're photographing our own families at home.
What's the story here. Now the third question is, why am I taking this image? Now, we've talked about your core. Why on this podcast before finding your why is so incredibly important because it's the driving force in your photography. It is something that can keep you motivated and inspired a can be your compass and your guide. And that's kind of like your big core, why as a conservation photographer, but you can also have a why behind each and every image that you're attempting to create. So asking, why am I taking this image can actually help you address what you want to get out of that moment and then avoid frustrations in the process of trying to create. And actually I have a perfect example of this Uplay. So a couple of years ago, I was in Costa Rica, photographing leaf cutter ants. And I knew that I wanted to pull off a certain shot and I was just getting so frustrated with myself because I couldn't seem to make everything work the way that I wanted it to work.
Um, I knew that I wanted to capture kind of the speed of these ants. I wanted to balance the foreground with the light in the background and so that I could show them in their environment. And it was really hard to do between macro lens and lighting and trying to get my shutter speed just right. And everything balanced out. I was so frustrated that I wasn't getting the image the way that I wanted. And in fact, my friend, who I was with kind of paused, and I was like, Jamie, I think it's lunchtime. And he totally nailed it. I wasn't deed feeling pretty hangry at that point, but really what I wished that I'd have done is to sit back and think, okay, I'm getting frustrated. Well, why am I taking this image? Is it about churning out an image for social media? No, it's not.
Is it about having a better leaf cutter ant photo than anyone else out there? No, it's not. Is it really about learning the skill? Yeah. That's what, that's why I'm doing this. I want to learn the skill, this lighting technique, this way of being able to show the scene, how I'm seeing it. And I want to learn the skills that can help me to do that. The technical skills that can help me to do that. Okay. Well, if I really want to learn how to balance ambient light and flash to capture the speed of these ants, moving along this log, then I can go ahead and sink into the exploration of that. And every failed attempt at that is really just a learning moment. It's really just being like, okay, that didn't work. What would I like to adjust now? Oh, that didn't quite work either.
Okay. What else can I adjust? And it becomes kind of a joyful exploration of that technical skill. So stepping back and saying, why am I taking this image can protect you in a lot of ways from frustration. I mean, it's not going to be a cure all from frustration, that's for sure, but it can definitely help. It helps the end result ultimately because the end result is simply a product of the journey of the exploration. When you stopped to really think, why am I taking this image? Then things can unfold for you as a photographer. Now this question, why am I taking this image can help you when you're shooting solo. So for an instance, like what I experienced Nikos Eureka, where I needed to step back and say, okay, well, why are you taking this image? It's about the journey. Okay, well then settle into that, settle into learning and exploring that technical skill.
But this question also serves you really well when you're photographing moments with animals, moments with people when you're intense situations or delicate situations, when you're in those moments, sitting back and thinking, why am I taking this image? Then you can approach it from a frame of mind that has a little more empathy, a little more structure, a little more patience, a little more self-forgiveness stepping back, allows space for what really needs to come forward. So why am I taking this image? So many beautiful things can happen inside of your head when you're asking yourself this particular question, the fourth question is what emotions do I want to express? So this actually came up recently in a mentor session in wild ideal app. Clay bowl is one of our wonderful mentors and he has been doing a beautiful series of monochrome images that it's a lot more experimental, a bit more abstract.
And he's really exploring sort of his artistry inside of the series. And this was something that another member asked him about. So we do these mentor Q and a sessions and members can ask their mentors questions and we all learn from what these answers are. And so a student asks like, how do you really get into the frame of mind? Or what's your process for creating this more abstract imagery and clay sat back and he said, well, I'm really trying to think about how am I going to photograph this in a way that shows what I'm feeling in this moment and inside of really thinking about, I want to express a certain emotion. Now, whether it's your own as the photographer, or you really want to capture the emotion of your subject, when you're thinking about what emotions do I want to express, then it removes you a little bit from that.
Like I said before, that sort of sterile way of shooting, and it puts you into a creative flow. You're thinking more about, do you want to express this, this quietness of this moment? Do you want to express the tension that you're feeling right now? Do you want to express how you are feeling about this moment that you're witnessing in front of you? Like maybe there's a moment in nature, maybe it's, I don't know, a predator and prey moment or a really surprising behavior and maybe you're feeling, um, tension or you're feeling maybe there's joy inside of the sunrise that you're photographing. Well, when you can start to let's actually, let's go with that example really quickly. Maybe there's a sunrise that you're photographing. And inside of that sunrise, you are feeling just elated, joy, right? Of this beautiful sunrise happening in front of you. It will, that might completely affect the approach that you have toward your landscape shot, how you're going to frame it, what lens you're going to use, all kinds of things, because you want to celebrate the joy that you're feeling.
You don't want it to be this quiet, calm, serene moment. You want it to be an elevated, joyful, energetic moment. So when you're stepping back and you're saying, what emotions do I want to express? Then it allows you to open up that creativity and think a lot more about what you're crafting. And what I think is really important inside of this question is it allows you to start to blend yourself into your images. And that means that you're exploring your style. You're experimenting more. You are exploring who you are as someone who is part of this moment, just as much as what it is that you capture with your camera and your emotions as a photographer, matter, being aware of them, being aware of how they affect the way that you approach something that you're documenting or aware of the way that you're framing something aware of the way that you are creating images that other people are gonna look at and therefore understand the world a certain way, because of the way that you framed them.
When you ask yourself, what emotions do I want to express, then you're digging into that and becoming aware of the fact that you do indeed craft this, that the way you feel matters to the way that you tell stories. So with what emotions do I want to express, and you're digging into yourself and you're digging into how you watch the light, how you watch for behaviors, how you watch for in-between moments, all of this stuff, factors into everything about you as a photographer. The fifth question is, am I holding myself back based on what I think others expect to see now, this is a really, really important question to be asking. It's one that I've struggled with. I know there are many, many people out there who have, and are struggling with this exact question. And there's many people who are indeed holding themselves back based on what they think.
Other people are expecting to see an inside of conservation photography. It's really true because we're constantly thinking that conservation photography has to look like photo journalism, like documentary photography. It has to look like what we're used to seeing on the pages of national geographic, but it doesn't conservation photography is really about what you do with images to make a positive conservation impact. And therefore the photography itself can look like anything. It can be anything, any way that you see the world any way that you want to express something any way that you know that by documenting some near photographing, something in a certain way is going to spark change. That's all that matters. Ultimately conservation photography is any style. It can be fine art. It can be documentary. It can be anything you want. But I think that a lot of conservation photographers, and this was the case for me for quite a while as well is we think that we have to be photojournalistic and therefore we are trying to shoot in a way that we think others expect to see.
And that's the only way that we're ever going to get our work in front of people. The only way that we can be an impactful conservation photographer is to shoot in that same standard way. So I want you to always ask yourself and ask yourself this frequently. Even if you think that you are in stride as a photographer, continue to ask yourself this question, because it's easy to get wrapped up in it. Am I holding myself back as a photographer based on what I think others expect to see? Am I shooting right now? Am I shooting this scene? This moment based on what I think other people are going to expect to see out of it, and this can happen in any place, whether you're shooting the little bugs in your backyard for fun. And you're already thinking about how you're going to post it on social media and how people are going to respond, or whether you're photographing an entire story that you hope to pitch to a magazine or to a publication.
And you're worried that they're only going to look at something that's shot in a certain way, right? Well then that's not the ideal publication for that story. What's more important is that you shoot the way that feels right for you and for what it is that you're photographing. How do you want to shoot this moment? Embrace your own view of this world. If you're holding yourself back, because you think that you're supposed to shoot in a certain way, then I really want you to hear this right now, how you see this world is unique. And we, as your audience all want to see the world in a way that we've never seen it before. So show us how you see it, show us how you see this world, because we want to see something different. And you're the only one who has your own unique view.
So own it go forth with it, be known for the way that you shoot you, do the whole world, a disservice by trying to fit into a stereotypical mold that you'll never really be comfortable in. If you find yourself holding back on experimenting or even on getting comfortable inside of a moment in order to photograph it all because of expectations from others, then instead think I will shoot this, how I see it, how I experience it. And in that I will surprise and delight viewers and I will do right by me. I will do right by my subject. And I will do right by any potential audience by photographing this moment by photographing the story, the way that I see it. So own that, ask yourself, am I holding myself back based on what I think others expect to see? And if the answer is yes, then you know that there is a much more powerful photographer inside of you waiting to come out.
And the rest of the world wants to see that photographer come out too. By embracing that unique view, the conservation story that you hope to get in front of people might actually make a much bigger impression, have a much bigger impact. All because you decided to be unique. You decided to experiment. You decided to show it in a way that made the most sense. Now I am thinking right now of quite a few photographers conservation photographers who embrace this, they shoot the way that they want to shoot. They bring their artistry. They bring really just stunning vision to the world of the way that they photograph. And I'm going to link to a bunch of photographers who I find inspiring in this way in the show notes. So you can go to JaymiH.com/61, the number 61 for this episode, J a Y M I h.com forward slash 61.
And you'll be able to find links to who I think are some truly inspiring photographers who are conservation photographers, who are shooting in ways that I think break the mold. And they may inspire you to break the mold and really embrace your own personal style as well. So again, the five questions that when you pause and you ask yourself these questions, they can radically transform the way that you photograph are the following one. Am I worrying about quality or content right now and asking yourself this question, and simply being honest can readjust and rebalance how you're shooting so that content stays a top priority and technical quality follows right along behind it and builds right along behind it. As you keep content as a priority, am I worrying about quality or content too? What's the story here. If you catch yourself taking pictures of, rather than photographs about ask what's the story here, and then think about the way that you are composing the scene or the moments that you're looking for in order to show that story three, why am I taking this image?
When you pause and ask yourself why you're taking an image, then suddenly there's going to be so much more space for patients for thought for creativity. And there's going to be the ability to sink into the journey of creating something. Why am I taking this image? What emotions do I want to express the emotions that you hold and what you want to show, both your own emotions and those of your subjects matter. And so as you're shooting, pause and think what emotions do I want to express, and that will free you to be creative in the way that you express that inside of your photography. And finally, am I holding myself back based on what I think others expect to see? And if you ever catch yourself doing that, remember you do the world a favor by photographing exactly how you, as an artist, want to photograph, you're doing conservation a favor, you're doing all of your viewers a favor.
And of course, you're doing yourself a favor by embracing the fact that your unique view of this world and the way that you want to photograph the way that you want to express what you see, that's all you, and it has a place inside of conservation visual storytelling. All right. Thank you so much for listening. I hope that this inspires you the next time you pick up a camera and remembered a head over to JaymiH.com/61 to check out the websites of who I think are some pretty amazing conservation photographers who embrace these lines of thought these mindsets, these questions, and photograph in some truly beautiful and surprising ways. All right. And in the meantime, I'll talk to you next.
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