– A Counter-intuitive guide on how to use photography challenges for skill development (for beginners in food photography)
Do you like taking part in food photography challenges or does it leave you scared/stressed/overwhelmed/demotivated/angry/deflated?
If you are one of the many creative people who feel like hiding from Instagram challenges, or one of the others who find that they haven’t “really” improved on their skills after participating in a number of them, then this post is for you. This guide is a product of my own experiences and I hope it will help provide you with a few strategies for optimal learning.
Fair warning: This guide is not about food photography techniques. It is not about Instagram or how to improve your Instagram following. It is also not about how to develop/improve your social media personality or connections. This is a strategy guide, purely on how to optimize skill development using Instagram food photography challenges. These are the practical mental strategies that have worked for me in my own learning process and will hopefully help some of you as well. Also, this is a long post and will take up long minutes of your short lifespan. So. You have now been warned. Ready?
Easy reading links – click on the specific topic you want to read, or just pitch headlong – your call, your time:
Instagram Photography Challenges – why even bother?
In the beginning, one of the best things I did was to participate in several excellent Instagram photography challenges hosted by well-established professional food photographers. And while I did so, I learnt both the useful and the not so useful reasons and ways to participate. Here is why you should participate in challenges:
To learn: Firstly, it is easy to fall into the comparison trap and think that your skills are not good enough to participate in challenges. This is normal for most of us. But if you pick the right kind of challenge (and by that I mean right for you, not for your friends, not even for some other creative you really admire), your starting skill level will never be a barrier. In fact, most of the accomplished photographers welcome diverse skill levels in the challenges they craft and host. Pick one of those welcoming ones. Also, by simply being a part of such challenges, you will anyway learn a lot. And that’s a very good reason to sign up. Don’t worry about your starting level. At all.
To hone: Constraints aid creativity, someone said. And I think it’s true. Good instagram challenges are designed to exercise your creative muscles. It is very hard t o think up constraints when you are practicing alone, especially when your knowledge/exposure is limited in the beginning. A good photographer who has already reached an expert level can help with this, because they’ve already struggled with this before you.
To strengthen your backbone: In the beginning it will feel like death – I promise you. To show your work, which you think is so inadequate, is a really really horrible ordeal for most of us. But that is exactly why we have to do it. And this is why I emphasize on picking a solid challenge host. Not all of the challenge hosts will have the time or the intent to grow communities or encourage learners. Challenges are created for various reasons, and if your focus is on the learning bit, it will be your job to look for the one that helps you focus on that. It will get easier after a while – I promise you that too! Good challenges are designed to help you put your work out in the world, no matter how scared you are. They also motivate you to virtually connect with like minded creatives and look at their interpretations, their work and styles. Most creatives are kind people and that will re-ally help with the nervousness and loneliness. That’s yet another promise 🙂
To shine: When you progress even a little bit, other creatives will notice. And if they have the time, they’ll write and let you know about it. And if you have really progressed, they will re-ally let you know. And there is nothing more validating for a creative than hearing from another creative that their work has improved, and is worth noticing. And this is not just to boost your ego. It really helps to keep you going. It also develops a sense of community which really helps in keeping up the lonely creative journey you undertake everyday to who knows where, right? 🙂
How to pick a challenge that is right for you?
Not all challenges are right for you. Every challenge has a definite purpose – to serve as an advertisement, to increase visibility for the host(s), to help build community/collaboration, to build community skills and so on. So how to know which ones are useful for you?
Goal matching: Unless your aim is to just have some fun and not worry about any specific goals, it is important to pick a challenge whose aim matches yours. For example, if your aim is to increase visibility on instagram, pick a challenge that is doing just that for the host(s). If your aim to belong to a community, pick a challenge whose host is trying to build a community.
Avoiding over-participation : If your aim is to purely improve skills in food photography, then pick a challenge that is designed to do just that. You may be thinking now – Well. That’s obvious. What’s to think? You’d be surprised how many times we all fall into the trap of over-participating. So many great challenges, so many temptations, all my peers are doing it, FOMO (fear of missing out!) are some of the excuses we will be giving ourselves – so watch out. You may need to even be a bit ruthless in this regard, otherwise, you’ll be straining and scattering yourself all over the place, without much useful progress.
How to pick a challenge host? (Yes. Really!)
Now you may think, why would I want to choose? Isn’t the fact that someone’s creating a challenge good enough ? Well, no. Not all challenges are created equal. In the beginning, since your intent is to learn more effectively, pick a challenge hosted by a well established photographer whose work you like and respect. Often they will be photographers who are already experts in their field, have a great body of work and are generally sensitive to learners’ needs. They usually share their expertise generously and have a keen interest in helping the creative community with their knowledge. Why is this important? Because, such hosts know how to craft a good instagram challenge that can stretch your skills gently. They also know where the shoe pinches, so in all likelihood they would be sharing suggestions, tips and tricks to help practice difficult aspects of the topic.
How many challenges?
In the beginning, I recommend you pick just one challenge to participate in, at any given time. It is so tempting to do ALL of the challenges out there, many overlapping on your calendar. Especially if all your peers and co-creatives seem to participating. But it doesn’t really help with your skills. Better to pick one challenge and commit to doing it really well.
How often to participate?
I recommend doing one challenge once every 2-3 months. But if you do take on more, schedule a gap of at least a couple of weeks in between challenges. Even if you think you can take on more, creativity is an exhaustible resource. It needs time to replenish itself after intense challenge constraints. So if you are doing it right, a good challenge will tire you out just enough at the end of it. That’s a great time to take a break. Pushing too hard will make you hate the things you once loved doing. Besides, it takes time for the lessons learnt and information absorbed during a challenge to sink in and really take effect.
What to do in between challenges?
Schedule at least one non-challenge photo shoot between two challenges. It could be a personal project, a client shoot (if you have clients already), a fun collaboration, whatever. This is where you can put to practice all that you have learnt during the challenge. It is easy to forget new information so applying the new learning into practice roots them more firmly in your mind.
How to approach a challenge?
Read: Once you have signed up for a challenge, make sure you read ALL the instructions. I cannot emphasize enough on the importance of this. Usually there is a lot of information in these challenge instructions/rules. Reading them all well in advance not only helps you think about your own submission better, but also research on the themes and topics that are new. Great learning, woohoo!
Read more, look, watch: And If you haven’t already, make sure you visit the website/portfolio of the challenge host. Read their posts. Watch videos they’ve created if any. Follow their Instagram feed and stories for inspiration, tips and updates. Basically, pretend you are a big blob of sponge and absorb everything related to this challenge. A lot of information can be imbibed this way. More absorption means even more learning…woo-double-hoo!!
OK! I am done being a “sponge” …. What next?
Small bites everyday: So now you know the rules & constraints of the challenge. You know the themes and the dates and how long you have for your preparation. Now what? Set aside a few minutes over the days/weeks prior to the date of submission. Think about the topic(s) a little bit everyday, and jot down your thoughts and ideas. What is the theme? How to approach it? Do you know about the photography topic/tool that will be required for the theme? (If not, google it!)….Learn a little bit to familiarize yourself. Don’t overdo…. Easy does it! Then create a mood board for each image you want to produce. If you need detailed help on this, watch this space – I am working on a guide on mood boarding for food photographers.
Planning to avoid overwhelm: Decide beforehand how many images you think you can submit overall. My rule of thumb here is “less is more”. (I know! So uncool of me giving you uncool advice like that! But that’s what helps me usually, doing less and doing it well)… In the beginning, we all get a bit overambitious. That’s fine, but it usually doesn’t help with the learning. Do not compare or compete with others. Everyone’s capacity, skill level, time constraints, enthusiasm, habits, lifestyle and approach is different. Do not stress if someone else you know is doing more and better. THIS fear is really the enemy of effective learning. Let’s nip it in the bud. Otherwise it just grows and kills all enthusiasm for learning!
Scheduling: Once you have planned the number of entries you want to submit and have a mood board for each of those images, plan and schedule the actual subject, layout, style, color palette, setting for each image. Make a rough plan for the shoot day and time. Don’t be too rigid but having a rough time schedule really helps to plan your day and other activities around it. I also recommend splitting the task into chunks of time. Visualization time, food prep time, shooting time, postproduction/editing time, submitting/interaction time. This way, you can keep it all manageable without spending the entire day on one thing and falling overwhelmed in a crushed heap the next day!
Do not submit for the “likes”
Say no to the numbers game: What? Yes, do not submit for the “likes”. While this might feel counterintuitive at first glance and also not what the Instagram experts might advocate, for true learning and skill building to happen effectively, it is extremely important to learn to just “submit” – likes or no likes. Nothing can kill your creativity than this expectation of others’ approval. Especially in the beginning of your skill building journey, when your confidence is still somewhat shaky, if you bank on receiving a huge number of “likes” and if they don’t come, it may send you back scurrying into a shell and stop creating altogether. You need to remind yourself that you can think about all such metrics later on if necessary, when your skills are a bit better honed but for now, you need to just learn to show your work. Just learn to play first and take what goodwill you get in the process.
Submit for yourself: There is another danger in submitting for the likes – you may start creating for others too early in your journey and not fully explore your own skills, potential and style. This sort of distraction especially in the beginning is so detrimental for your learning. While you do need a little bit of supportive approval in the form of likes, you have to learn not do everything for those alone. This balance is not easy. But it can be done. If you keep your bottomline clear on learning, it will be easier to keep going to back to the act of creating without getting too caught up in trend-chasing and comparisons. Its like learning to speak a language. You have to first learn the alphabets, the sentence structures , the semantics. The accents, the idioms, the slangs can come later.
Submit your best: Submit your best work – with a proper caption and hashtags. That way, whether it does well on the algorithm or bombs, at least you know you did your best. At least you won’t keep thinking if you could have done better.
Staying sane during submission: In a good instagram challenge, there are bound to be many entries. Many creative people having many many ways of interpreting the same theme will be submitting their best work. So it’s a good idea to look at as many entries as you can after you submit. I suggest “after” rather than “before” – that way, you can avoid getting too influenced by other ideas. You can also avoid imitating someone else unconsciously. It also prevents you from being too critical of your own work and avoid submitting altogether. Most times we are our own worst critics. If you don’t feel like submitting, that’s cool, but that decision must be based on your own gut and not on other entries in the challenge.
Staying sane “after” submission: It pays to stay connected on instagram for at least an hour after you submit – so you can interact with other participants, acknowledge their comments and look at their feed/interpretation/work. This is not just helpful socially, but also creatively. It helps to keep things objective and to “see” others’ talents as “inspiring” rather than “competing” . It also helps to know the humans behind the pictures. It may help feel less “isolated”. And there is no need to stress if their work is better than yours. There are a LOT of skilled people out there, so in the beginning most likely everyone’s work always looks better than yours. So what? It does not mean you can’t get better. Also remind yourself gently on why you are participating – it is not to be “better than others’ but to be “better than yourself” …only think about the learning. Nothing else.
Practical ways to be inspired by others’ (better?) work:
- Instead of bellyaching on other peoples “better” images and losing confidence, make notes on what exactly you like about them. That way you start learning objectively about your own taste, skill limitations and interests.
- If there is a BTS (behind the scenes) or camera settings along with the images, save those for later.
- Take note of what they have done better than you, so you can work on those aspects next time. Is it the styling? The colours? The lighting? The subject? What could you have done better? This is a great way to learn and improve continuously without getting emotionally drained. I find that collecting hard data on why someone’s work is better quality moves us from inaction/sadness about ourselves to action/inspiration.
- Save your favorite images. Compliment and connect with the photographers who created them. Check their website/portfolio if any. Seeing their entire body of work helps to get a perspective on how much work they’ve done before they got to where they are now. It also reduces your sense of entitlement.
- Note down all the lessons learnt as you go along. You can later choose to apply (or not) whatever you feel like. Don’t worry about being far behind the “talented photographers”. Good photographers practise their skills. A lot. We can do that too. No one made much out of mere talent. It takes a lot of hard work to make talent get to expertise. There are no shortcuts. Really.
- I once read somewhere that “perfectionism” is just an inverted egotism. Such a useful perspective! It’s just a way the negative part of our ego trips us up into thinking we are too good to be “ordinary” and must always produce fantastic work or else nothing. Well. We may have accept being “ordinary” before we get anywhere close to extraordinary. Extraordinary takes work. A lot of work.
PS: One tiny additional note from a very good place in my heart. Never compare other people’s comment sections to your own. It’s a road to hell. Stay away. 🙂
How to avoid Instagram exhaustion?
It is usually counterproductive to look at too many images, read too many posts, save too many ideas. How do we know how much is too much? So long as you are enjoying looking around, getting clear ideas for your next image, and ACTUALLY making the images, you are golden. But if you are caught in the incessant loop of looking at other people’s work and not really doing much of your own, then you are headed toward a downward spiral. If instead of getting inspiration, you are getting overwhelmed, tired and dispirited, then it’s time to take a break. It’s not just you, it’s all of us humans. We are wired to compare and compete, in order to survive. But when this instinct gets out of hand, it’s actually counterproductive.
What to do if you cannot finish the challenge?
Make yourself a cuppa. Sit down and drink it. It’s okay. You can do it another time 🙂 . If you feel like, look at the challenge entries from others. If that makes you feel worse, don’t. You reserve the right to do and feel what works for you and you alone. Your wellbeing counts more than any trend you think you need to follow.
Let me quote a cliche. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. So if you are in this for the long haul, you have to take care of yourself first. Yet another cliche about trees and forests comes to mind. But I’ll spare you.
Ciao friend 🙂 Keep learning.
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