Lessons from a year of practicing photography every single day.
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
This is a bit of a personal one...
I recently concluded a year - 365 days - of capturing, editing, and posting at least one photo every single day. This blog entry outlines I) why I gave myself the challenge in the first place, II) what I learned during this year, III) what the daily practice did for me and my career, and IV) what I will be changing for my second year of practicing photography every single day (because I am doing it again). This blog post definitely won't be for everyone, but if you're a working creative who tends to have recurring existential crises about your craft/work, why you're doing it, and where you're going with it - perhaps there will be a few nuggets of insight for you herein.
A street shot I captured this winter as part of the challenge. © All rights reserved.
I) Why I gave myself the self-imposed challenge to practice photography every day:
September 2019: I had been working as a photographer/filmmaker/marketing consultant for a couple years now, and for 9 months it had been my full-time job (up until January 2019 I had been holding down another full-time job and had been picking away at a second Bachelor Degree in addition to doing this work on the side). For 9 months I had been saying yes to pretty much every project, grant, and opportunity that came across my desk, constantly stressed that I was a lost client or project away from failure, from not making rent or paying my bills. The result: several months of 60-80 hour workweeks glued to my desk in my tiny one-bedroom apartment (editing photos and videos, building websites, working on client SEO, and managing divergent client content calendars -not to mention scheduling and executing shoots and other projects), near-constant stress, a few months barely sleeping at all, declining mental and physical health as a result of now-chronic insomnia, burning out repeatedly, wondering how I was going to keep this going.
I sought help for the insomnia, realizing that without sleep I was soon going to be sickly, burnt-out, and of no use to anyone. After ruling out some neurological/physiological causes (*Arnold voice* "it's not a tumour") I was prescribed a few behavioural-cognitive therapy sessions to work out what was happening under the hood. In those sessions, it became clear to me that:
a) I had reached my physical and mental limit and had to work smarter if I was to work sustainably - I had to start saying no to some work that wasn't a forward/momentum-building move and I had to start charging more for the work I was doing (basic market capitalism: surplus demand was telling me that the product I was supplying to the market and was worth more than I had priced it to get a foothold) - I needed to realize that I was actually succeeding and the added stress of worrying about failure was. just. not. necessary.;
b) I am wired to require some sort of artistic/personal growth to feel fulfilled - without it I start stressing out about what I am doing with my life, and that stress will eventually manifest in sleepless nights - blame it on the 8+ years I spent at university, or on the underlying drive that kept bringing me back, that keeps me thinking, questioning, and wanting to learn. I needed to do something to give myself the feeling that I am progressing, creating, and building towards something other than financial gain or a foothold in the photographic/video/digital marketing marketplace.
I was not working on any personal projects at this point - my time, thought, and effort was completely absorbed by client projects. Photography and filmmaking had completely become work and the joy of creating had mostly receded in the wake of urgent project-completion necessity. So, to hold myself accountable for reclaiming some of this joy, and honing my craft outside of paid work, I came up with the idea to take and post a photograph every single day. Rain, shine, happy, or depressed I would create. I changed a lot about how I was living and working that fall, and I started to get a handle on sleep again.
A recent street shot I captured on a walk after a long day in the office. I really felt this guy. © All rights reserved.
II) What I have learned from practicing photography every single day:
This I can sum up pretty easily and briefly: the act of putting one foot in front of each other every day eventually takes you places. The biggest wave of momentum starts with the smallest steps today - probably cliché, but factual. Additionally, if you practice something for its own sake, you'll eventually start improving whenever you do that thing; practicing photography and reconnecting with/enjoying the process of taking photographs again has undoubtedly made me a better photographer for my clients.
My partner's amazing birthday gift for me this year included a day-trip to Yoho to shoot landscapes for the challenge (and more camera batteries). © All rights reserved.
III) What practicing photography every day has done for myself and my career:
For starters, the lost feeling of my days building on one another has returned; I think keeping the challenge going day-in-day-out, having that excuse to create every day (and so appease my annoying, omnipresent creative restlessness) has had a large role to play in this. I have been able to toy with developing a style (or styles) that I find interesting, I have discovered why so many photographers hold street photography in such high esteem as a genre and practice. I - for the most part and most nights - can sleep again.
Funnily enough, this practice I undertook for my health and sanity has paid dividends outside of personal/artistic development already. In March, as COVID-19 was tanking my ongoing film projects (commercial and personal), shifting my work away from content creation and towards crisis communication for my clients (setting up and updating new informational web bulletins, establishing curb-side pickup procedures, etc.), and forcing us all into indoor confinement, a number of "quarantine" photo contests started popping up on my social feeds. I was already seeking out interesting new perspectives in my tiny apartment for my daily photo challenge, and so I started entering these contests with the photographs I was already creating; lo and behold I won the first one I submitted to. The photo? A little shot of late-winter light leaking into my bedroom that I captured for my daily challenge:
The photograph - taken in my old apartment for the challenge during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown - played a big role in 2020 being pretty great for me. © All rights reserved.
The prize? About $13,000 CAD in photo/video gear from Fujifilm and the Moment shop. This gear has allowed me to stay creative, delve into new genres of photography and filmmaking, and offer even more value to my clients' productions. The day I found out I won, I had posted a Seinfeld meme to my Instagram Story decrying the death of the metaphorical Summer of George due to COVID; that news single handedly revived my optimism about this year, and it's been pretty huge ever since.
More important, perhaps, than the new gear, however, is the momentum that taking photos everyday - and sharing them regularly on social media - has generated for me and my career. I usually have a camera on me now and impromptu portraits I've taken - and posted to my personal Instagram account - of friends have incidentally drawn attention to the fact that I do (but haven't explicitly advertised) headshots, portraits, and weddings; this has led to new and exciting client projects being booked into 2021 already. Sharing more on social media has also brought me into the orbits of more and more people enthusiastic about photography and filmmaking, people living for and by it, who have leant me amazing perspective, conversation, inspiration, and motivation.
Some of the creatives I've had the pleasure of connecting with have been street photographers - a photographic genre I've always enjoyed in passing without practicing myself or knowing much about. I used the last 3-4 months of the challenge to really dig into street photography - the history, the photographers, the styles, and the practice - waking up early almost every day to wander the streets of Calgary's city centre looking for interesting perspectives and stories to capture and tell photographically. This practice has reshaped my new daily routine and has given me a reason to spend an hour or so away from the office daily. Developing my own street process and style has contributed a lot to the feeling of growth, of progress, and of the days building on one another crucial to a sustained sense of mental and physical wellbeing.
It has taken a while, but all the consistent work and experimentation has developed a pretty awesome wave of momentum which has lead to: a much smoother workflow, more interest in my work (both commercial and artistic), more potential clients looking to book me for creative projects, more fellow creatives wanting to connect and trade notes (sometimes even looking for help and advice), me staying creative more consistently (i.e. less "writer's block"-esque creative logjams and hold-ups), and recently Fujifilm even reached out, interested in featuring a recent challenge shot for their North American marketing efforts:
I captured this one on a recent road-trip to Vancouver Island (a trip I could take because I'm now booking enough work to not have to worry about not paying my bills), with a lens I won from the Fujifilm/Moment photography contest, and Fujifilm NA has now reached out to use it - something that will be great for my building my audience, brand, and clientele base. Now that's what I call a positive momentum feedback loop. © All rights reserved.
IV) I've decided to keep the challenge going for a second year - what I'm doing differently this year:
Deciding to keep the challenge going was pretty much a no-brainer: I'm making progress towards where I want to be as a photographer and filmmaker - as a working creative and as an artist - but I'm not there yet. I still have a lot to gain from maintaining an underlying current of momentum, experimentation, development, and creation. A year smarter, I will be doing things a little bit differently this year though.
For starters, I won't be stressing myself out about my daily photography endeavours. Yup, at a few points last year I found myself really stressing about not having something good for that day, that I hadn't captured something revelational yet. I've become much more aligned with the process: the process doesn't spit out a career-high photograph every single day; but, if you stick with it consistently, eventually those photos do happen. I've found myself enjoying my daily photography quota as an escape, a way to relax, to leave stress behind for a few minutes or hours, and haven't been stressing the days that don't turn out something I am 100% stoked about (because if today doesn't - chances are tomorrow will).
Several street photographers I've been introduced to (or whose work I have been introduced to) over the course of this summer have something similar to say about the practice of photography boiling down to 3 P's: patience, persistence, and practice. Coming from a music background, I found it interesting that so many good street photographers are also musicians - so what gives? These photographers are treating photography like learning or progressing on a musical instrument - something requiring daily practice and long-term persistence and patience. A few of these photographers also talk about approaching photography with a sense of rhythm or flow - I think this applies to many different styles and situations of photographic (and filmmaking) creation. Focusing on the rhythm of a shoot (and even post-production) has definitely made my workflow smoother, better, and more enjoyable. I stumbled upon these lessons, but now I try to lean on them daily.
Taking inspiration from those established creatives who periodically take the time to write a blog or make a vlog (I still don't think those are in my future) to reflect on what they're doing, where they are, where they've been, and where they're going, and to offer this insight to the community writ large, I am going to try to carve out some time here and there to make more entries like this over the course of this second year (this way they won't stretch onto such novel-esque lengths as well haha). So if you found anything here worth the read, stay tuned for more! Have some feedback? I'd love to hear it.
Want to follow my daily photography exploits real-time? It all goes down here:
Until next time - take care, stay healthy, and stay creative,
From the last leg of the aforementioned, recent, road-trip to Van Is. © All rights reserved.