Stop Judging Yourself

Who is usually your worst critic? Am I terribly wrong to think it is maybe you? At least talking for myself; I sure don’t get as harsh critique from anybody but myself. When I am out there shooting, I usually get that great feeling of being completely present in the moment, and get sucked into whatever I am photographing. It’s what I call entering the tunnel – which I wrote about in the post Tunnel Vision some time ago. If things work out alright while shooting – when I actually enter that tunnel of creativity and concentration – I know after the session is over, that I haven gotten some pictures that will work out fine and might even be quite good.

But no matter how inspired I feel out in the field, whenever I come back and look at the pictures for the first time, I always get disappointed. Fortunately enough I know that with time, usually if I put the pictures aside for a couple of days or even weeks so that I get disconnect from the moment of shooting (and if I have the luxury of time), I will start looking at them differently – and I might start to see the potential in some of them. Still, sometimes, even after having been in the creative tunnel while shooting, I end up with a result that I am really unhappy about. None of the pictures captured the moment or the mood or the emotional context of whatever I was shooting. It’s always very disappointing to have to say to yourself; you did a lousy job.

When I am on assignment I cannot be in this place, and I know enough about photography to make things work so that a client will be satisfied. But it’s usually not during assignments I push myself beyond the limits of myself – at least not without playing some of the shots on the safe side, but it’s with my own projects things can really go completely wrong. And that’s when I become most disappointed with myself. It’s so easy then to backtrack and do the safe thing, save yourself from your own harsh critique. Why go there, when it doesn’t work anyway? I know now that I need to overcome that feeling. It’s almost exactly when things go wrong that I might be on the break of something completely new in my way of shooting. We are all so eager to dismiss ourselves. If the result isn’t perfect we love to give ourselves slaps in the face. Stay away! Do what you know will work! Or even; stop doing this, because you aren’t good enough!

I say (to myself): Stop judging yourself. Things go wrong from time to time – in all aspects of life. Instead of coming down hard on yourself, try to learn from the experience, and if there is nothing to learn because it was all just a very wrong turn, then step back and give yourself some space. You don’t need to judge yourself so hard. You can’t always expect to please yourself as a creator. The fact is that some of your creations you will like – others not. But don’t stop doing what you are doing for that reason. It’s just like people; you don’t stop meeting people because there are those you don’t like.


107 thoughts on “Stop Judging Yourself

  1. So true! Sometimes it’s hard to stop being hard on yourself. Especially if you come from a family that expects the best out of you, and no less than that.

  2. So true! I think all of us photographers tend to be our own harshest critics. This can be both good and bad…it depends on how we approach things, and on our attitudes. Thanks for writing this post, Otto, and for articulating these issues so well! 🙂

    1. You are absolutely right Tod. Of course we need to be critical of our own work, but when it becomes judgemental it’s no good any more. It’s such a fine balance.

    1. What a great approach. As artist we find joy in the creation, not necessarily the result, although of course we still want our creative statements to be heard or seen.

  3. Love the photo of you and your gal (I think)., that it is black and white, diagonal lines, her smile.It all fits.Your comments hit the nail on the head. Comments about getting out of self and being in the moment resonated with me. .Also I realize my mistakes are opportunities for growth and keep me humble although sometimes after a lashing from my ego. your last line-wow-so true.Thanks.

  4. Okay mind reader. You are reading my mail………the mail of my mind. Well written and timely….for me. Thanks again for always painting such a truthful picture. I especially relate to the “tunnel”.

  5. So true Otto … that slap in the face and the call from the back of one’s mind that all you’re doing is selfish folly. I often leave pictures for a time to mature in the darkness before bringing them back up for processing and viewing … sometimes the result is a happy one … sometimes not. I have a similar attitude to exhibiting … that the organising of a show is often so far into the future (often 12 months or so) that I feel my work has moved on in the interim and (for me at least) my work will feel stale and ‘yesterday’. Of course it is still ‘fresh’ for people who have never seen the work just not for me … there is a real knack to preparing for showing. I will blog about this I think!

    1. I think your response when making exhibits is a good sign, In that you are constantly developing so that pictures even only 12 months old seem outdated for you.

  6. Great post subject Otto.
    I am one of those people who falls into that trap every time.
    I am my own worst critic partly because I got criticised all my life from a family member, but also because I am a perfectionist. I have spoilt many a watercolour painting years ago by trying to improve a ‘little’ bit that I didn’t like. Friends used to say I could have made money as a painter, but I never thought my paintings were good enough.
    Now that I’ve taken up photography as a hobby, I’m just the same. I’m always striving for perfect sharp focus and it rarely happens.
    Perhaps Geoffrey, in his comment above, has the right idea – leave pictures to mature (before viewing and processing).

    1. Perfectionism can be good, but it can also be devastating. Again it’s a balance, between getting as good a result as possible and letting go. Remember perfect sharpness isn’t the only criterion for a good picture. Sometimes it’s even downright wrong.

  7. discouraging thoughts that bring us so down…down to where we almost abandon projects, talk our way out for auditions etc…thanks for another pep talk, Otto. 😉
    my fave line here:
    ‘It’s just like people; you don’t stop meeting people because there are those you don’t like.’
    ~have a great week!

      1. With weekends to dream about…the week does not seem so bad. Great to hear from you and sending you power energy rays so you can finish all your work and come back pal around in the neighborhood…hehe 🙂
        See ya!

  8. Si, it’s very disappointing when your image falls short of what you hoped to capture. Luckily an artist gets a second shot – if so desired – to transform the moment with pencil or paint.
    Today I thought I captured a great moment with an old fisherman on the beach, but the image fell short. As you noted, the image might look better in a few weeks! Z

    1. Yes, it is disappointing when a creation falls short. But it doesn’t mean our creativity is bad, does it? We can still work on the result, as you point our, or just move on to the next project.

      1. Hey!
        A few artists and I discussed this last night at the opening reception of “The Mola Series #2.” in Portoviejo Ecuador. A younger-but-very talented artist was talking about his difficulty in finding subject matter. I smiled and said that with time, he would find himself being blasted with visual opportunities every where he looked. I compared it to a basketball player nailing the 3 pointers consistently, or a champion soccer player making impossible goals. Excellence comes from hours and hours of practice – no shortcuts- and before reaching that point, we have all had our moments of self doubt and disappointments. It’s part of the process of finding one’s own unique style. Z

  9. I think it is very hard to turn off the self-critical voice, and so I appreciate the encouragement to do more of that, Otto. I admire friends of mine who exhibit a great deal of freedom because they are satisfied with the results of effort, not only with high levels of success. I not only admire them, I enjoy being around them! So I know what you’re saying is indeed true, and shifting a mindset may take just as much practice as achieving quality creative results. Lots to think about. Thank you. Debra

    1. The inner critical voice is not only bad, but it does prevent us from some options that could have become great experiences. It’s as with everything in life, too much self-esteem is not good either. (I guess I am turning into a Buddhist here, preaching the middle way….)

  10. Otto, please know how long it takes me to comment here if only because you provide so much food for thought. Not to mention a very touching and tender b & w to begin with!

  11. It’s all part of the experience, and if we were easily satisfied, we wouldn’t break new ground. It’s important to take time to make mistakes. Great post!

    1. Mistakes are important in that they make us grow. And, yes, as artist we need to break new ground all the time, otherwise we stall our creativity.

  12. Like you, Otto, I am my harshest critic. It is refreshing to know that someone of your high caliber of talent still has doubts. Often, with success, the ego gets in the way and we get blinded to our flaws. I think this your ability to critique yourself so strongly is what keeps you at the top of your game.

    1. Thank you for the words of wisdom. I certainly hope my ego doesn’t get in the way, but at the same time I wish I could go a little easier on myself every so often. Again, it’s the same balance I have written about a couple of times now.

  13. This seems to be a universal theme in whatever we choose to do. The good/excellent/outstanding moments are happy surprises, moments of relief, or when we’re on a roll–an expectation. We must keep striving for that ineffable, unique interaction with our subjects.

  14. People who tend to be the toughest critics of themselves tend to be the perfectionists. Like you, I’m guilty as charged. I am like this at work, how I like my house to look, etc., and not long ago, when I started posting on my blog, I used to keep tweaking my posts. Then I would hesitate before publishing it, sometimes for days on end. One day, I talked to my daughter about it, she encouraged me to “just do it.” And keep on doing it until I get better at it. I gave the matter some thought. Then I decided that my posts would be where I don’t have to be perfect. I would just speak my imperfect mind, my work-in-process opinions.

    Yes, we can be very hard on ourselves. But, as they say, our reach should always be beyond our grasp, right?

    1. The “just do it” attitude is great. I think sometimes when we don’t think too hard and reconsider too much, we are actually able to better express our inner vision or inner thoughts.

  15. You know you always have a knack for writing posts that speak to me in such a big way. You’ve really described what I feel. I’m always in the moment when I’m out photographing. The excitment of being out making images that I can see clearly in my minds eye in how I want them to come out and then usual disappointment when I’m sitting in front of my computer. I definitely am my own worst critic but that’s probably because I’m always trying to set the bar higher for myself each time. Is that a bad thing? Yes and No I guess. Great post Otto. You always make me think.

    1. I don’t think it’s bad that you set the bar higher for yourself each time. But you also need to give yourself some slack in between. Try to give yourself positive feedback when it’s appropriate – and not feeling guilty about it…

  16. Thanks for writing this Otto. You always give me food for thought. And you are so right. At the moment I am in the doldrums, thinking that none of my work is good enough. Photography wise and blogging wise. Reading this has perhaps given me a shove to snap out of it. Thank you!

    1. I know you photography is good enough and I know your blog is good enough. But every artist experiences moments of stagnation or doldrums. The only way out is to keep working – against one’s own judgement.

  17. Thanks a lot for this post Otto. It was a great read. I am really hard on myself sometimes. Now I need to stop that, after reading this post. It may be in personal or professional life we all need some space to be better with the experience; does not matter if it’s a good one or bad one. As always very thoughtful post from you.

    1. Being critical of one’s own work is one thing, and being hard on yourself is different. But I think we would all be better off giving ourselves some more space. I think you are right.

  18. If you always do “what works” and “what’s safe” you have stopped being creative. A baby didn’t walk perfectly the first time he/she tried. We are human, whether we’re just beginning or we’ve been around a while. The new idea will always take time to nurture and develop. Criticism,in the sense of “how can I change/improve this to get closer to what I want” is valid. Criticism which says simply “this is no good” gets us nowhere without an intention to play with and transform the “no good” into something more appealing and satisfying.

    1. Your clarification of what is meaningful criticism is excellent. It’s basically the same for all kinds of feedback, not only directed towards yourself.

  19. Interesting idea Otto. I’m sometimes too difficult, sometimes too enthusiast, sometimes too indulgent, sometimes too…the Balance, this is what I’m looking for. But sometimes to be unbalanced helps in the creative process.

    1. Here I have been writing about balance to most of the responses in this post, and here you pull unbalance out of the has as a creative tool. I actually think you are right, but I need to think it over a little bit more. You know, I like anything that breaks with stated rules…

  20. “It’s almost exactly when things go wrong that I might be on the break of something completely new…” – This is so true, sir. Hello, it’s been a while. I pretended I’ve been busy, ahaha. 😉

    1. Giving yourself a hard time for deleting the video, isn’t gonna bring it back as sad as it is. Instead, what can you do to prevent something like this to happen again? For most photographers this is almost philosophy. But mistakes do happen. On my trip to Western Sahara a few weeks ago, I accidentally deleted a CF-card before it was downloaded – even if I have a “full proof” system to prevent exactly this. I even kept shooting with the card, so it was impossible to retrieve the pictures. Luckily enough I was able to reshoot the pictures, so I was a little better off than you.

      As you know I have already noticed what you have in store for me on your blog. Thanks again, though.

  21. I think that if we don’t judge ourselves we lose incentive to expand our own creativity.
    Regarding photo shoots for hire; have you ever noticed that it is either the first or last shots that make the grade and everything in the middle is where we become disappointed with what we have captured?

    1. Of course you are right, we need to be critical of our work, but not judgemental. There is a delicate line between the two. As to photo shoots for hire, it’s not the way it works for me. Not completely. It’s more like I either get into the session right away or I have to work my way around it before something happens. So for me the ones that make it aren’t necessarily among the first nor the last shots,.

  22. I think it’s true that we are most harsh on ourselves and I think the harshness mostly comes when we step out and do something creative. ]I have to tell myself that I shouldn’t aim to be perfect, just my best! xx

  23. Otto, I think we all can relate to the tunnel, in fact the last three weeks of shooting I have deleted almost every shot. I keep chasing a better photo than the last or its just not good enough. WE must remember a camera takes in the whole scene in a split second, the human eyes take several moments to compose a scene! : )

    1. It almost hurts me when you tell me you delete your shots. I never do, even the worst pictures I take. I do chase better pictures, but what is better now, might not be in 10 years from now and visa verse.

  24. wonderful words, thank you so much! i almost gave up my blog because i´m always so harshly judging myself but your post and comment made me change my mind! moreover, it´s good to know that even great photographers like you struggle with similar problems, doubts etc.

  25. Great post my friend. I agree, we can be our worst critic. A lot of times we try to be perfect when we know that would be too hard or we will end up finding a tiny flaw which we just need to correct. Giving ourselves more space to breathe and make mistakes takes time but pursuing it is worth it all . They say, “Love youself first. Forgive yourself first. Give yourself a room to make mistakes and grow from it.” So true. This is awesome, “I say (to myself): Stop judging yourself. Things go wrong from time to time – in all aspects of life. Instead of coming down hard on yourself, try to learn from the experience, and if there is nothing to learn because it was all just a very wrong turn, then step back and give yourself some space. ” Best wishes to you and your family.

    1. I’ll buy that: Give yourself a room to make mistakes and grow from it. I return the best wishes to you and your family. Always an inspiration.

    1. It’s very encouraging to know that which I write may be helpful for others. Good luck on being less harsh on yourself. We all need to.

  26. Blessing and Happiness for you both, you both seem so beautiful… This is (as always) so nicely written post and I agree with you too dear Otto. Thank you for remind us how precious these thoughts… Love, nia

  27. Its good to be your own worst critic sometimes … i wish i could be more like that .. i tend to tell myself *everything is gonna be okay lol* … Btw thanks for the blog comment

  28. Well written Otto. There is a fine line between being constructively self-critical and destructively self-critical to the point where all belief in one’s own ability is lost and enjoyment in art making ceases.

  29. I’m going through that period right now in my painting. so true. will have to go back to it. But today I’m playing with a new little canon S100 photographing artist’s work celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate bridge. New camera so will try it out!

  30. I think with writing I can be a harsh critic to myself it is often out of my comfort zone and brings up my insecurities. WIth photo’s some times I take several photos and think I have a lot of good photo’s and get back and I am disapointed feeling the time was wasted. Sometimes there are several I like and I am surprised. Other times I take photo’s for the joy and not expecting the photos to be that great, because if’s the experience of enjoying the creative process. Those seem to be the photos that really help me expand my way of seeing and expand my creative process they may not be great photo”s. but they help me in the long run. I wish I could take that idea and put it towards writing. I may have to give that idea some thought. :+)

  31. All so true and sage advice. As a photographer, I can relate. btw, thanks for the like on my blog. I’ve signed up to follow yours. And coincidentally, I just returned from Norway. Beautiful country. I will post my own photos once they are sorted.

  32. I think it’s a good thing we can be hard on ourselves. It’s up to others to appreciate or to critique what we’ve done, and it’s up to us to keep our standards up to the best of our abilities:-). Great post! Thanks.

    1. As said before there is a balance between being self-critical in a discouraging way and in a encouraging way. But yes, we should definitely try to do our best at all times. Thanks for the stopping by and leaving the comment.

  33. Thanks for writing on this subject as it is nice to know that one is not alone in struggling with excessive self-criticism even to the point of becoming frozen in place, unable to create at all. I also find it helpful not to get in too big a hurry to delete photos that were disappointing upon first view and let them sit for awhile before taking another look. Usually I am more pleased with them after the whole awesomeness of the original scene has dimmed in my memory. After all, it is hard to match a 3-D view with its other auditory and other stimuli with a 2-D photo. I experience the same frustrations when I have a favorite photo printed and then am disappointed when I compare it to the one viewed on the computer screen which of course has the advantage of luminosity and the almost limitless color palette. Please keep writing !! It provides much reassurance that one is “normal”.

    1. I think it’s always good to give yourself time before deleting any original work. And yes it’s hard to transform a 3D vision into a 2D picture, but there are some graphical and compositional ways to do so. Even so I think it’s necessary to look at the picture as something totally different than the original vista. If you do so you will start to look for different qualities – and it doesn’t necessarily matter that the picture doesn’t match the origin any longer. Thanks for the encouraging words.

  34. Oh this is so very true! I’ve been so critical lately that I’ve stopped uploading any new images. Sometimes if I leave enough time, eg 2 days or more I will start looking at my images again thinking that they are actually not bad at all. We can really be our worst enemy 😦
    Great post!

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