Photography: Work or Play ?

Have you ever had a sport or hobby or activity, in which you loved to participate that resulted in you losing interest? Did you love to cook and then started cooking on the side to make some cash, only to regret getting involved? Did you enjoy woodworking but when the demand for your work at a local store increased dramatically you didn’t enjoy your hobby any more?

My son Jason started playing soccer when he was 5. He loved playing on a travel soccer team with his buddies and won a number of state championships. As a young adolescent he was chosen for the state all-star team and was invited to the Midwest All-Star soccer camp. But the third year he was invited he chose not to go to the camp because it wasn’t fun anymore; the camp had become all about making the national team. He was an all-state player in high school and his team was state runner-up, but after getting a number of scholarship offers he told me he didn’t want to play soccer anymore. What happened to his love for soccer?

I must admit that I was disappointed in his decision but after reflecting on what had happened it made sense. I was an educational psychology professor and my focus on educational motivation helped my understand Jason’s decision. It also helps me to understand what has been happening to me – and maybe can help you understand what might help you. When you engaged in an activity because you enjoy it and then “engagement” is due to an external reward, it is likely that your motivation decreases or is even negative.

Ed Deci is a psychologist who has spent his whole life studying what motivates people; particularly what motivates people to be engaged in activities without any clear external rewards. This type of motivation is called Intrinsic Motivation because the “reward” comes from engagement in the activity rather than an external reward like money or winning a competition. I find this to be extremely important for amateur photographer as pointed out in a joke I have heard a number of times in the last year: Do you know the best ways for photographers to make money? Sell their photography gear 🙂 If you are looking for a $$ reward, look again you may learn to dislike taking photographs.

Intrinsic Motivation – A Path to Improving Photography

Since it is unlikely we can make money (which is a extrinsic reward) from selling photographs, it is important we become intrinsically motivated. Deci’s theory of motivation states that people who are Intrinsic Motivated need to feel:

  • Self-Determined – Motivated people feel in control,
  • Competent – Motivated people feel they are improving their skills,
  • Connected to Others – Motivated people typically work with others,

If you have been following the story of my photography problems in 2014 and my improvement in 2015 I bet you can guess where I am going with this.

To be an intrinsically motivated photographer you need to believe that you have chosen to be engaged in photography – not because you have to, but because you want to. To be intrinsically motivated you also need to believe you are competent. That does not mean you believe you are a highly skilled photographer, but rather that you can see you are improving. And Deci’s third intrinsic variable is an unusual one – the need to feel connected with others. One of the strongest emotional supports for intrinsic motivation is to be working with others. Let’s look at how these three variables have impacted me and how they might be impacting you.

Self Determination seems rather obvious but sometimes you need to look below the surface. Is it my choice to become a photographer in my retirement? Sure. But what if I think I have to find something to do? If I feel I am forcing myself to find something to do, then I am less likely to look forward to being engaged in my “hobby.” If you think you have to go out on a photo shoot, then it is less likely that you will enjoy it. If you dread going out for photo shoots in the winter because you hate being cold and you force yourself to go, then it is less likely that you will be motivated in the future. But if you love the outdoors and the solitude of a sunrise, then you are more likely to enjoy being a photographer. “Work” is an activity you need to get paid to do: Don’t make photography work !

The foundation of Competence is recognizing that you are improving your skills, which may be the most important variable in building intrinsic motivation. Whether you are a young child learning to read, a teenager learning social skill, or a retired professor learning to become an advancing photographer, feeling that you are becoming more competent has an enormous impact on your motivation. If the young child does not believe they are improving as a reader, they will give up. If a teenager believes they have no social skills and no one likes them, they will isolate themselves from potential friends. And if this retired professor didn’t see his photography skills improving, it is likely he would have given up and returned to taking family pictures and vacations. Finding a way to actually see your improved competence is critical to continued motivation.

Being Connected to Others is an important part of intrinsic motivation for most, but not all, people. Most of us enjoy being with others, at least for some of the time we are involved in photography. That is not to say that we need to hang-out with folks for every photo shoot. But if we have peers that have similar photo interests it can have an impact on our motivation to “get out there” and then share our photos with our peers. Certainly there are photographers who take photos by themselves and only share their photos with others on-line – and they can be highly motivated. But my own experience has shown me that I feel more motivated if I can occasionally have a photo shoot with a partner, and share my photos with a community that is supportive. My journey to become a better photographer has had many valleys, but my connection to enthusiastic peers has kept me motivated to improve.

I haven’t had many problems with the Self Determination and I will be addressing the Connected to Others in my next blog post, so let’s take a look at my experience with Competence. As I drag you along on my journey, take time to reflect on how these three variables are impacting your journey as a photographer.

Boosting Photography Competence – Check out the Past

One of the most important variables in boosting my confidence as a photographer has been the time I have taken to look at old photographs. I must admit I didn’t intentionally choose to look at photographs from the last two years. I just explored some family photographs and realized my photography had changed.

One of the first things I learned from my involvement in the Teton Photography Group (TPG) was the value of Lightroom (LR). I thought LR was just for photo editing but at my first TPG meeting one of the members told me LR had many applications. He explained that LR allowed me to create a valuable organized photo library. Lightroom has become the most valuable photo gear I have ever purchased for many reason. The most important reason is LR helped build my confidence during 2015 and now in 2016.

Lightroom allowed me to categorize many years of photos by date, place, and the people I had photographed. During 2015 I added the date, place, etc. to most of my photos and in my spare time (remember, I’m retired) I began to add this information to older photos all the way back to the turn of the century and older. It is certainly fun to look at old photos of my children and grandchildren when they are easily accessible. But the impact on my confidence was unanticipated.

Every time I took photos in 2015 I entered them in LR shortly after taking them. Most of the time I looked them over and searched for photos that I thought were pretty good (a 4-star rating was like a grade of B, a 5-star a grade of A). I rarely went back and looked at them, until late 2015 when I accidently looked more carefully. I was looking for photos to use in a Christmas calendars for my family and realized all the good ones were from late in 2015. And when I started checking out the ratings from early in 2015 compared to late in 2015, I was shocked. Early in 2015 I was rating quite a few photos as 4-star that I now thought were pretty bad. My wife helped me choose the 12 photos for the calendar and she noticed how much better the later photos were compared to earlier in the year. The criteria I was using to judge my own photos had changed rather dramatically whether the photo was a landscape or a photo of our dog. My “photographic eye” had changed as I improved and so did my confidence.

There are many ways to boost someone’s confidence. But the best way for a person’s confidence to strengthen is for them to realize that their skills are improving. Telling a child they are a much better reader is not as helpful as the child recognizing they can finish reading a much harder book. Telling a young teenager they are going to make friends is not as helpful as the teenager actually making new friends. And when people comment on your photos on Facebook and tell you they are beautiful, gorgeous, or awesome it doesn’t have a long-term impact on your confidence as a photographer. But when your audience tells you that your photos have great leading lines, and you intentionally composed your photo with leading line … your confidence improves. Let’s look at how my photos changed from 2014 – 2015.

Randy’s Improving Photos from 2014 – 2016

Let’s start with something simple and really unintentional. If you are improving in your photography, even your everyday photos of your pets may be getting better. Chris and Koty (our dog) and I often go cross-country skiing in Teton Canyon on the west side of the Tetons. I often take photos of Chris and Koty.

Koty @ Teton Canyon 2014 (1 of 1)

Look at the improved composition of the winter of 2014 (to the right) to the winter of 2016 (below.) This is a photo I took in the winter of 2014.  Certainly I wasn’t looking for a good composition since I didn’t even know what a good composition looked like.  And I suspect the 2014 photo was shot on auto.

And this is a photo (below) I took this winter without really thinking about composition.  The mountains in the background were quite different and I remember thinking I should get a good foreground with those rocks as Koty ran by them.

Koty @ Teton Canyon 2016 (1 of 1)

Let’s l0ok a comparison (below) that really shows how little composition skills I had “back-in-the-day” compared to when I just got started with the Teton Photography Group.  Isn’t that sky beautiful 🙂 and what a great foreground 🙂 .  Just kidding.

Oxbow Bend 5-2014 (1 of 1)

Oxbow Bend is one of the most popular places to take photos in Grand Teton National Park. The fall colors are very popular but let’s look at a winter comparison of May 2014 to May 2015. It is very obvious that the winter of 2014 was much colder than 2015 (there was still ice in 2014) but look at the composition comparison. Neither are great photos but the May 2014 (above) was shot in JPG with bland sky and a washed out mountain. The May 2015 (below) certainly isn’t anything great but compared to the 2014 it is a huge improvement. It has some texture, much better color, and better composition.

Oxbow Bend 4-29-2015 (1 of 1)

A comparison of the Snake River Overlook 2015 (below) to Snake River Overlook 2016 may not seem like a fair comparison. Yea sure, the weather in 2015 was not good for photos compared to 2016. But in January of 2015 I didn’t really realize the impact of the weather and a sunrise on my photography.  I would never have gotten up at 5:00 am to see the sunrise in early 2015 and I didn’t have a photography partner.  By the way, showing this photo is a bit embarrassing but I’ve  embarrassed myself in this blog before.  Moving from embarrassed to more confident is part of our journey. Snake River Overloook 1-2015 (1 of 1)

But in January 2016 I got up at 5:00 am, met my photography buddy (thanks Mario) in Jackson, and drove up to the Snake River Overlook and got all set-up for a great sunrise. It didn’t turnout to be as good a photo as Ansel Adams 🙂 but the actual sunrise was beautiful and the photos were pretty good.  In case you have never been to the Grand Teton National Park, this is the place where Ansel Adams made the park famous.  It is gorgeous all year.

Snake River Overloook 1-2016 (1 of 1)

And although I don’t have a 2014 or 2015 comparison photo, I’d like to share this photo of the Grand Teton in January 2016. I took this on a cross-country ski with a couple of TPG buddies. It wasn’t intended as primarily a photo shoot but we all brought our cameras and this beautiful morning demanded some photographs.  It certainly isn’t obvious in this photo but an enjoyment of the outdoors, an increasing confidence, a better trained eye, and time with photography friends (thanks Paul and Aaron) is likely to lead to much better photographs.

Grand Snowy Fence 1-19-2016 (1 of 1)

And the Future is Bright

The next blog post will be about the third variable in Deci’s Intrinsic Motivation – Connection to Others.  I will be making a Teton Photography Group presentation on Monday March 21st at 6:00 pm in Jackson.  I will talk about some of the issues I have mentioned in my blog with an emphasis on the value of being connected to other photographers, especially through a Peer Mentor program I will be developing.  I hope to see you there.


4 thoughts on “Photography: Work or Play ?

  1. Great essay that reminded me of my college days. Motivation, prioritization, and critical review are all key elements for personal improvement in all human endeavors, photography included. Motivation and prioritization are personal and internal factors that often change over time. Critical review can be personalized, with some effort, but review from others can be priceless – when it is available. It is so great to hear that the TPG has helped with compassionate and constructive critique sessions but the acquisition of a ‘partner’ who can give more immediate and honest feedback takes the review process and value to an entirely new and higher level. I look forward to the presentation and discussion later this month and see it a something with tremendous potential value for photographers at all levels of experience. Thanks.


  2. “Growing up photography” is about as easy as growing up in adolescent – it ain’t easy. Growing up with others who have the same challenges can be very helpful, just like growing up with a big brother who is a year older than you – something I didn’t have 😦 As we “grow-up” we all need some support and some critical review, and we are much more likely to reflect on the critical review and work on addressing it when the reviewer is someone we trust. In my academic lifetime I received many critical reviews, especially in relation to writing. Some I really took to heart and others I paid little attention to – they were crushing. When I knew that the feedback was sent with my betterment in mind AND it had clear information rather that just “this is terrible” I grew from that feedback. I hope that I can help the TPG build a Peer Mentor Photography Program that will have the necessary ingredients to support and grow good Advanced Amateur and Novice Amateur photographers. Thanks for the comment.


  3. Ron Swenson

    I find your thoughts on seeing improvement as a source of motivation to be spot on. I read some place that one can define happiness as the state resulting from gaining something – knowledge, strength, influence, money, skills – and sadness as the state resulting from loosing something – friends, health, status, power, self-esteem – you can fill in the list with many others. So seeing improvement in our photographs generally reflects an improvement in our skills, which means we are gaining, and that makes us happy and motivates us to do more.

    Purchasing Lightroom, has greatly reduced the reticence I was experiencing to review my older images, sort them, rate them, and decide which were worthy of showing to others. This inertia was sufficient to prevent me from even looking at many of pictures ever again, and thereby precluding me from seeing my improvement over time. I still pitch about 90% of the images I capture, but am finding a greater percentage of those remaining to be genuinely satisfying. I am not one to indulge in self aggrandizement, but am taking this as improvement and am finding this to be a strong motivation to learn more.

    I recently joined a local photography club and entered my first image into the quarterly “Big Cookie Contest”. Members submit a single titled photograph on a prescribed theme, and it is dispassionately discussed by all present before a winner is chosen. (The winner receives a big cookie!) There are a number of professional photographers in the club, and many serious amateurs as well, so I am expecting, and looking forward to, some thoughtful feedback, particularly with respect to composition, which I see as the root from which most of my lack-lustre photographs arise. The June theme is “Rust” and my image is titled “The chain reaction of Iron, Oxygen and Water”, and the image should be viewable here:
    Any thoughts or comments would be most welcome.

    Thank you, Randy, for providing this venue. Please tell me if attaching a link to a share drive is inappropriate, or if sharing images via another vehicle is preferred.



  4. Ron, well stated. At the risk of sounding too academic, I think it is helpful for people to think about their motivation – to take time to think about why they are discouraged or excited about their photography. When someone doesn’t see any improvement in their photographs the are likely to feel discouragement or boredom or a lack of interest. But when we can see that recent photographs are a clear improvement over past photographs, it motivates us to get out there and find some good places to shoot because we are confident in ourselves and our photographic skill and knowledge. It may sound trite but getting out of bed in the morning is the first step to getting some good photographs. But if we haven’t seen any improvement lately it is really easy to turn off the alarm and roll over in bed – I’ll get up for a shoot tomorrow. No you won’t !


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