How to build confidence in your photography
Thomas Schweighofer
We needed the money, but I still said no. I disappointed myself, my kids, and my wife.

When my hometown tourism bureau asked me to make marketing photos for the city, I hedged, and put it off, and finally just chickened out.

The kids needed new glasses. My wife’s shoes had holes in them. Our one car was falling apart, and soon I’d be walking to work. With my wife staying home with our young kids and my day job as a journalist paying peanuts, we seriously needed the money.

I grew up in poverty; I knew all too well that gut-wrenching feeling of not knowing how to keep the lights on for another month.

But even that wasn’t enough to overcome my deeper fears:

  • I was scared of not being good enough.
  • I was scared of screwing up the shoot, angering the client, and ruining my reputation before I really got started.
  • I was scared of failing publicly, and being laughed at by other photographers.

I was desperate to be successful as a professional photographer… So why was I still too scared to say ‘yes’?

Looking for confidence in all the wrong places

Guys, listen – I think we’ve all been there, right?

We read blogs and watch videos and buy books and get so excited by our potential.

We daydream at work, and sometimes can’t fall asleep at night because we’re so energized by the ideas and visions and possibilities.

We want to try. We want to grow. We want to succeed.

But…then we don’t take action. We don’t take real, tangible steps toward our dream. We read another blog, watch another video, buy another book.

I spent years looking for “the one…”

  • The one blog post that would make me competent, even innovative, as a photographer and business owner.
  • The one video that would make me a Photoshop wizard, able to deftly post-process like the pros.
  • The one book that would unlock a hidden well of bravery in my soul.

I wanted hints, tips, lifehacks… tactics.

We’re adults here, right? We both know “the one…” tactic to fix all our problems just doesn’t exist.

But then why do we behave the way we do?

We read one more camera review, surf one more forum thread, watch one more Lightroom tutorial on how to use a set of expensive presets we’re never really going to buy… and leave our camera on the table for another day.

It took me 17 years as a working – struggling – artist to learn the truths that make for real, tangible, lasting change. The kind of change that makes you recognize your fear for the false-trigger instinct that it is, escape the trap of reaction, and have agency over the choices you make and steps forward you take.

Let’s turn on the lights together and expose self-doubt for what it is.

Truth #1: Self-Doubt Is… a False Trigger

Admittedly, the odds are sort of stacked against us:

We’re genetically designed to be scared of damn near everything.

This ‘lizard brain’ instinct, this fight-or-flight system, came in wonderfully handy back when a rustle in the bushes could be a bear. Our survival depended on sudden blasts of adrenaline to help us literally fight to the death or run for for our lives. It’s why we’re scared of the dark, of things that go bump in the night, and what we don’t understand.

Fear is healthy when you’re face to face with a grizzly bear.

Fear is also healthy when facing banishment to the wilderness where those grizzly bears live.

Go back far enough, and rejection by your fellow human beings meant rejection from the tribe, and banishment to the wilds. Without a tribe, you faced loneliness, danger, and likely death.

But… most of us have never faced the kind of rejection that’s going to get us killed (even if it felt that way in middle and high school).

And… most of us have never seen a grizzly bear in the flesh, much less faced the threat of being dinner for one.

So why, when we think about approaching a potential client or hitting “publish” on our web site or officially launching our photography business, do we experience the same explosion of fear? The same adrenaline surge that makes our throats close and mouths go dry and gut wrench?

Self-doubt is a false trigger.

It’s a lizard brain response to a fear that is massively out of proportion to the real risk involved.

  • If back in high school I asked a girl out and she said no, I’d be disappointed and move on and by college not even remember her name… But my lizard brain made me think I’d never have another chance with any girl ever, that the entire school would laugh at how pathetic I was, and I’d surely die miserable and alone.
  • If the tourism board asked me to shoot for them and then didn’t like my work, I’d reshoot and get it right or give them a refund and part as friends… But my lizard brain made me think I’d suffer a verbal berating to crush my soul, my reputation would be ruined forever, and my wife and children would disown me for being such a wretched impostor of a photographer.

Step 1 to overcoming Self-doubt?

Recognize the man behind the curtain: self-doubt is a false trigger.

Truth #2: Self-doubt is… a Reaction Trap

You’re not good enough, and you never will be.

You’re going to make such a fool of yourself.

You’re childish for even thinking you could ever be successful.

…sound familiar?

Not really from the outside world, but from within, right?

If I had a quarter for every time I ‘spoke’ to myself in a way I would never, ever speak to another human being, I’d have a really, really freakin’ big pile of quarters. I could literally buy the world a Coke.

No plan survives contact with the enemy, and the complete unpredictability of life is our nemesis.

Again, this is Survival 101 for early humans: fear of the unknown was key to survival of our species. But here in the modern age, we suffer from chronic stress and reactionary behaviors that we’re just not evolved to handle.

We’re tired. We’re emotionally drained. We’re malnourished (you know you’re not eating right –  don’t lie).

And we’re raw.

We have zero mental or emotional margin.

We have no safety net, no internal cushion to land on when things go wrong, or don’t go as planned.

This makes us hyper averse to risk.

We feel like we can’t handle taking a punch, so we never get into the arena.

Self-doubt is a reaction trap: you dream, you get excited, your fear reacts violently to the potential risk, and you’re trapped.

This is where so much of our suffering takes place: in the thousand-year war between the dreams we so desperately want to live, and the risk we’re so desperate to avoid.

  • Affirmation: You’re a great photographer – all your friends and family have told you so. You have real blessings to give through your art! Let’s get this photography business off the ground!
  • Doubt: You’re an imposter! Your art looks nothing like the photographers you follow on Instagram! I can’t believe you seriously think anyone would pay for the crap you’re making.
  • Affirmation: Remember that big senior vacation? You worked your butt off to earn the money to go to Costa Rica with your friends. You knew that if you just kept trying you would earn it. It’s the same with becoming a professional photographer! You can do this!
  • Doubt: Remember junior prom? Gosh you were such an embarrassment. Your dress was cheap and homemade, and everyone knew it. Remember how the cool girls looked at you? You’ve always been a loser, and you always will be. PLEASE don’t embarrass us again by pretending to be a professional photographer.

First self-doubt falsely triggers your fears, and then it traps you with them.

Step 1 to overcoming self-doubt is seeing it for the false trigger that it is.

Step 2 is recognizing when your reactions to that trigger – your fear, anxiety, and negative self-talk – are trying to entrap you.

Truth #3: Self-doubt is… a Powerless Gremlin

Brought into the light, self-doubt is just an ugly, weak, powerless little gremlin.

You can see that just from our conversation here and now, right?

But kept in the dark, in the unspoken corners of your mind and heart, self-doubt can beat you down, keep you discouraged, and make you feel like there’s no hope that you’ll ever do or be more.

I’ve been there. Over and over again. Sometimes for days, sometimes for years.

If you’re reading these words, I know you’ve been there, too… That you’re probably in that space right now, feeling discouraged, and disappointed in yourself with how long you’ve spent dreaming, wishing, wanting – but not living that dream.

There’s something I desperately want you to know.

(And yes, I’m about to tell you about a course I have to offer, and yes it costs money, and yes I believe it can help you…)

But much more importantly than that, I want you to know you’re not powerless.

You’re not trapped.

And you’re not a slave to your fears.

All the anxiety, all the self-doubt, all the things that have held you back… are illusions.

You’re no different from Jarvis or Leibovitz or Prez or Taylor or Bresson or Geddes or Laforet or Karsh… You just don’t know it.

As the Williamson quote goes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Your art, your experience, your personality, your story, your business, are blessings to your community. If you knew the value you have to give your market, you wouldn’t hide it – and you would never again hold back from living your dream of being a successful professional photographer.

I’ve spent the last seven years of my life working to bring that message, that truth, to startup photographers all over the world.

This isn’t about tactics or tips or lifehacks… This is real talk.

This is what I wish I knew when I started out 17 years ago as a portrait photographer in tiny Bandera, Texas.

And whether we ever have chance to meet again, this is what I want you to hear, and know, and begin to believe in the deepest part of your soul:

  • You are good enough. Right now, today, you are good enough to begin living your dream.
  • The right people – your people – are out there, waiting to be blessed by your art.
  • Your North Star as a professional photographer is to connect the dots between the value you create and those who would be most blessed by it.

If You Would Like Some Help

You can do this.

I truly believe it, which is why I’m sitting in a Dairy Queen in Goldthwaite, Texas, writing the words you’re now reading.

But like Frodo and his Fellowship of the Ring, sometimes it’s nice to have some help along the way.

I’ve enjoyed thousands of conversations with my awesome readers at PartTimePhoto.com. I ask every single one what their biggest challenge is, and consistently their number-one answer is:

Confidence.

To help photographers like yourself held back from living your dream by the gremlins of self-doubt, I have spent the last year working on a project – a course – to help take you from a place of self-doubt to a place of self-confidence as a professional photographer.

The promise: To help you feel, act, and speak confidently as a professional photographer, craft your tools of confidence and connection, and punch Impostor Syndrome in the face.

Doubt To Confidence for Photographers is a 30-day course (affiliate) that guides you from self-doubt as a photographer to self-confidence as a professional, sure of the value you create and how to communicate it to your community… in just 30 minutes per day.

Through this course we will:

  • Prepare you for success with the coursework, including how to make the time to get it done.
  • Take you on a deep dive into the Five Values you create for your clients as a professional photographer, and exactly how to grow your value in those areas.
  • Then we walk you through a series of guided exercises to engage with the Five values, and how to make them your own.
  • Next we show you how to put it all together with your own Superhero Self and Story.
  • Now, you’re ready to reach out to your market, and we give you fire-starter recipes to craft your tools of confidence and connection, including identifying your ideal client, choosing a tight niche, naming your business, practicing your introduction, and much more.
  • Finally, we answer the question, “What do I do next?” We’ll give you a three-stage, proven system for getting booked solid with clients you love for the pay you’re worth.