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Redefining Confidence

“I have no confidence, what should I do?” he asks.

“Can you give me a specific example of when you feel this way?”

“I freeze up when I speak in front of large groups of people” the young professional replies.

“You mean you cannot finish? You walk away?”

“No, no, I do finish. But I hate how I feel throughout. My stomach’s in knots and I worry about all the mistakes I’m making. I worry about the words coming out of my mouth and I never do as well as I know I should! I hate that I feel this way despite having done this sort of thing for some years now. Shouldn’t I be better, more confident by now? ”

In an attempt to ease his mind, I share my perspective about how even the all-time-great public speakers tend to be nervous wrecks before going on stage. Many great speakers I know have all shared stories of how they prepare the content and delivery of their speeches, days in advance. It is this intentional preparation that kicks in and delivers after the first few moments of stage fright. I say this and watch closely for his reaction. He doesn’t look too convinced. So I move on and tell another tale.

An old tale of an ancient warrior. His skills as an archer were unparalleled and he was the undisputed champion with his bow and arrow. But his journey did not begin that way. When he was a young boy, studying archery at school, he struggled with his craft. He was plenty talented. And as keen as the others in his group. And yet, at every test their tutor set them, he failed. This made him frustrated, so he practised longer and harder. And yet, when it was time to test his skills, he would fail.

One day, his tutor, who had been observing all this, called out to him. He pointed a long finger at the boy and told him :”You! Your need to win is so excessive that it is causing you to fail“. The young archer was perplexed and requested the tutor to explain further. “You pay too much attention to what others are doing, more than you do to your own posture, focus and speed. You let every mistake derail you because you care too much about winning. That’s a lot of attention in a lot of wrong places. Pay attention to the task at hand and let the winning and losing come as it will”. The young archer understood. He went on and did just that.

I don’t know how much this young professional I am speaking with takes away from this ancient story. After all it is just a story and I don’t know if I’ve told it well enough. Still, when I heard this story years ago, I remember feeling stunned. I remember thinking – “That’s it. My excessive need to succeed is making me fail at everything I do!”. Ever since, this story has helped me manage my own old (and very ineffective) trait of perfectionism. It has helped me understand that perfectionism has very little to do with becoming better at anything.

I still don’t win prizes or succeed at most things. But I always finish. And I tend to learn a lot more from finished tasks. Especially from the mistakes and missteps. Over time, most tasks have begun to feel lighter. And it’s becoming easier to have fun with what I do. I now think of the ability to recover and redirect attention to the right things as confidence.

Confidence has almost nothing to do with the ability to avoid mistakes and missteps. It has almost everything to do with the ability to pay more attention to the task at hand without constantly looking over your shoulder. Making mistakes and recovering quickly from them become a part of the process instead of show stoppers.

When I’m trying to get back to riding a bicycle in my forties, just so I can go sit in that quiet, green spot in the outskirts of the city, my attention should and will be on that task. The more fully absorbed in it, the harder it will be to get distracted or embarrassed (for too long) by every wobble, misstep and eye-roll on the way.

And when I finally reach that place, spread a mat, open a book under the cool shade of that massive tree, it won’t matter much how wobbly or breathless I got, getting there. I now know how to get here in one piece. That’s the beginning of confidence. 

redefining confidence

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Working with artificial light: first impressions and 9 lessons.

After years of shooting in natural light, I’ve finally taken the plunge. Last week, I bought a flash light, a wireless flash trigger, a mounting bracket and some batteries. I’m repurposing an old, unused soft box. I’m bringing a light stand (also old). But I’m bringing a new attitude. I feel ready. In this post I am sharing my first impressions working with artificial light.

white bread - working-with-artificial-light

Why now?

In the past, I’ve been hesitant to transition to artificial light for my food photography. My excuses have ranged the entire spectrum of “but constraints aid creativity. I can manage fine with natural light” right up to “but artificial light is a huge time/money commitment“. There was even a “but do I really need artificial light for my work ?” somewhere in between. (Notice how they all start with “but“? Who was I arguing with? I don’t know!)

Anyway, last week, I felt ready to explore the world of artificial light. Just like that. No other reason except curiosity and willingness. I like when that happens because then I know that the impulse is natural and is coming from the right place in my head. So I went ahead and committed to a long period of self-learning, making lighting mistakes, and getting inconsistent outcomes with my images – all over again. Just like when I was first learning to shoot with natural light.

Someone once told me that being able to shoot with artificial light is the “right of passage” in a photographer’s journey. Maybe it is. Maybe it is not. It’s too early to tell so ask me again after a year or so. Until then, I’ll keep sharing what I learn, just in case it’s useful to any of you.

[Disclaimer: This isn’t a sponsored post or a product review so I won’t mention brand names. I’ll leave those sorts of things to people that do it well. This post is about my initial experience with choosing and using artificial light. Make of it what you will. As always, I’ll keep it as jargon-free as possible.]

As always, you are welcome to write to me at “boiledbeanstudio-at-gmail-dot-com” and share your thoughts and comments. (By personal preference I always disable the comments section on this blog).

What type of artificial light to buy?

Like most people buying new gear, I usually consider ease-of-use, space(or size), cost, utility and quality. Unlike most people though, my first concern these days has become “space”. As time goes by, I increasingly prefer a more minimalistic and effort-efficient type of living – that means more empty space and less clutter. So any new purchase has to be “really necessary”, “low maintenance” and “compact“.

Also, since I’m just beginning to test the waters with artificial light, it wouldn’t make sense to spend huge monies before I know what’s what. So I wanted something that is at least somewhat inexpensive if not cheap. As you can see, these two constraints already limit the options.

Next, the tech considerations. I did some research and below is a brief description of the key points I considered.

When it comes to artificial light, there are two major distinctions: Continuous and Flash. Some photographers further classify flash lights as studio strobes and camera flash units, but for the sake of simplicity, I like to think of strobes as more powerful, more complex and more expensive flash lights. And anyways, both give out short, powerful bursts of light when triggered. While flash lights output flashes of light when fired, continuous lights are sources of light that is …well, continuous.

I mostly shoot indoors, in my make-shift home studio, with large windows and plenty of light all round the year. That’s also partly why I enjoyed shooting in natural light all these years. At this point, I don’t do on-site photo shoots, so I don’t have to lug all the equipment around. So portability and ease-of-setup were not my primary considerations. You may have a different set of priorities, based on how you work.

While continuous lighting is great for supplementing the available natural light in your workspace, it also comes with the extra effort of learning how to handle mixed lighting. It could be potentially problematic to manage light coming from different types of sources (artificial and natural) especially at different colour temperatures. In my case, I wasn’t very keen on dealing with these types of problems right away.

You could, of course, avoid this problem by killing all the ambient natural light, and only use continuous light to light your scene. That way, there is just one kind of light to manage. But it also means making your workspace completely dark using dark blinds/screens/curtains. I don’t have a dedicated space for photography, so I cannot (and also do not like to!) cover up the large windows and cut off all the lovely natural light in our home for hours and days. So I decided to go with flash lighting.

Going further down the “flash” path, I learnt that studio strobes while more powerful, are also more complex to understand and manage. They are also more expensive and outside of my current budget.

Considering all of this, I decided to buy a camera flash unit. And as I do with most other gadgets and gear in my life, I went with the mid-range equipment/brand – not much of a compromise on quality, yet not too pricey. Maybe you’d choose differently.

[If you’d like the specifics of the setup I own, feel free to ask me and I’ll send you the details]

Also, checkout the videos I’ve referenced at the bottom of this post if you’d like more information about the different types of artificial light. If you are new to artificial lights, these videos would be a good place to start.

9 lessons I learned from the first few hours photographing with my flash light

Because I am not a big fan of jargon, I’ll do my best to keep this simple.

  1. Flash lights are still lights. All laws of physics/optics governing light in general, will apply to flash lights as well. For example, Shadows will fall behind the object, away from the light source. Sometimes, based on the relative height of the light source, “behind” the object can mean on the ground below (or the backdrop) – just like our own afternoon shadow.
  2. There are two ways to use most flash units: on-camera and off-camera. I am using mine as an off-camera unit. This simply means the flash unit will be off the camera body, away from it – mine’s perched on a light stand. I had to buy a mounting bracket to fix the light on the stand.
  3. And because the flash unit is away from the camera, I’d need a “go-between” unit that would tell the flash to fire when the camera shutter button is pressed. That’s a wireless trigger/transmitter. It sits on the camera body, and when the shutter button is pressed, it will “tell” the flash unit to let out a flash of light. Simplicity itself. Right? 🙂 (I won’t be discussing the many ways this triggering can be accomplished in this post.)
  4. I am using my flash unit off-camera because I like having the lighting angle separate from the camera angle. (No front lighting). I also like to be able to light the scene from any direction/distance I want, without affecting the camera settings or the overall composition. It gives me finer control to set it up this way. Also, since I mainly photograph food and still life, my scenes are pre-planned and don’t move unless I make them move, so it makes a lot of sense to set up this way for more control.
  5. Since the flash light drowns out all the ambient natural light, I don’t have to worry about ambient light from my windows at all. This makes it faster to set up the scene – I just do the same set as I would for natural light, take a few shots first, then set up the flash unit and shoot again with artificial light. Two for the price of one!
  6. Shadows, oh the shadows. Flash light is meant to be used close to the scene (there is a definite limit to how far away they can be positioned to light the scene). Also, the light has a definite direction. So, the shadows are harsher, sharper, darker (Especially if you are using just one unit, like me). This is not a problem per se. It’s just something to think about before the shoot. Also the shadows will be invisible until after the shot is taken. What you see before the flash/camera goes off, is very different from what you see in the flash-lit shot. So if you don’t want the shadows where and how they are, you’ll have to modify the light in the usual way – diffusers, reflectors or fill cards. Or even more flash units.
  7. Compose with the shadows. When you pre-visualize the scene, you’ll have to take into account each shadow cast by each element – every cup, spoon and fabric. This will have a strong bearing on where you position each element in our frame. You’ll have to look for overlapping of shadows, merging of shadows and also loss of definition/shape/texture because of shadows from other elements in the frame – unless you plan to always diffuse the flash light and make it soft and uniform. In which case the process will be the nearly the same as composing with natural light.
  8. Colours and textures show up differently in harsh lighting. If you want to make use of the shadows stylistically and for a specific effect, you’ll have to be mindful of the colour and texture of the backdrops so they don’t get lost in them. For example, a dark/black backdrop will not show the shadows at all, nor will backdrops with too much texture. There is no right or wrong way, these are just some things to consider beforehand so you can get the photographic mood and effect you are going for. Otherwise the outcomes will be unexpected and inconsistent.
  9. Play with different angles and intensity and distances. There is no better way to understand artificial light than to actually work with it and see what happens. In the beginning, it’s best to choose a single subject and minimal composition and build from there.

That’s all I have for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story so far. As I learn more, I’ll be sure to make improvements/corrections in my understanding and share those as well.

As always, you are welcome to write to me at “boiledbeanstudio-at-gmail-dot-com” or use the contact form. By personal preference, I disable the comments here on the blog.

Extra info & references:

I found the videos below very good places to start. There is a lot of information out there, but like me, if you get exhausted reading or watching lots of things before hitting the mark, just start with these. They cover all the basics to get you started without the overwhelm. You can always build more understanding as you go.

What artificial light is the best for food photography? (Joanie Simon)

Flash Vs Strobe Vs Continuous light (Skyler)


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How to get started with image editing (post processing)


Prepare (written material) for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it.

Choose material for (a film or radio or television programme) and arrange it to form a coherent whole.

Remove unnecessary or inappropriate material from a text, film, or radio or television programme.

All of these definitions also apply to image post processing. But in this post, I will be looking primarily into the “form a coherent whole” part of the editing process. I’ll explain why.

Correction is so subjective. It can mean totally different things to different photographers, based on their style, end goal and audience. If you are a photographer whose style is muted/desaturated colours, then for you, “correction” for would mean taking the RAW image towards that specific goal. If you are the kind that prefers organic and natural feel to your scenes, you would likely prefer a feather touch with the editing tools. To you altering colours or erasing may even feel “wrong“. Of course there is really no right or wrong in editing. It all totally depends on your style and preference besides what your client or project expects and needs.

So for my use, I’ll redefine image editing in this way:

Post-processing or editing is the process of modifying various aspects and overall mood of your image so it matches your style, preference and intended use.

If you are in the earlier stages of your photographic journey, it’s possible that you are still struggling to find your style/preference. Your ideas are likely dictated by popular trends and/or your favourite photographers. That’s okay. You may be having a hard time figuring out what kind of editing style would work best for your project or subject. That’s okay too. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to get you started. By no means are these going to give you all the answers you need, but at least this exercise will give you a set of goals to which you can align your editing process.

Who is the client for this image? (yourself? an agent? a paying client?)

I usually start here because it informs me of the level of creative freedom I have and the approach I need to take for the post processing of any image. If the image is for personal use, I would think further on whether it is for a fun personal project or for a formal portfolio representing my work. If it is just for fun, then sky is the limit. Do whatever floats your boat. Have fun and learn a lot with it. Make multiple copies, edit each copy differently, compare and contrast. This is a great way to learn and keep in touch with tech/tools and also to review how you’ve changed over time. (Don’t be surprised if you totally surprise yourself with that last one!)

If the image is for a portfolio, then I’d recommend you first take a look at what’s already on your portfolio. Then ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does my portfolio accurately reflect and represent my current experience/preference/style and photography skills? If not, what can I do to close the gaps?
  2. What is the overall tone of the portfolio gallery? What sort of images do I not see in the gallery? What might I like to include?
  3. What kind of audience/client am I interested in attracting? Are my current images likely to be of interest to them?

And if it is for a paying client, then obviously their preference and the overall requirement of the project will determine the type of editing you have to do.

In the above Venn diagram, at the intersection of three key considerations lies the clue to the creative choices you need to make while editing. As you can see, there is more to editing than just twiddling a few sliders in Lightroom to adjust the contrast, sharpness or hue.

What are the no-go areas for this image?

Once there is some general idea on how to manage the edit, it’s useful to set some limits or constraints. Some constraints may already be imposed by the project/client (orientation, cropping, mood etc.,) and some may be self-imposed driven by your own style and preference (high-contrast/low-contrast, vibrant/muted, soft/sharp and so on). Setting these limits will help determine what your framework for editing would be.

You could even get started with those constraints first – so you don’t forget about them. Once you have a boundary for further edits, it’s easier to play around with the tools and fine tune the adjustments to achieve the best look and feel possible for your image.

What is the vision for this image?

What does vision even mean in practical terms? This was the question that stumped me for very long in the earlier stages of my journey. I think it is the most intangible and changeable aspect of creative learning. But to make it less vague and offer a more practical way get you started, I’ll write down some questions here that help me clarify my “vision” for my own work. Remember that these terms are just what I use for my own clarity of purpose and may not necessarily be “industry standard” classifications of images.

  1. What is the overall feel I want in this image? (clean/crisp, organic/natural, fine art, surreal, stylized and so on)
  2. What is the overall intent of this image? (illustrative, journalistic/narrative, stand-alone art, brand, social media, advertising, snapshot, portraiture and so on)
  3. What is the overall mood/emotion I want to achieve in this image? (Dark/sombre, bright/cheery, thought-provoking, fantasy, and so on)

As you can see, after you answer these questions, you can think about your tool-specific choices more easily and naturally.

It’s funny how we tend to do the opposite in the early stages of our creative journey. In the beginning we tend to jump into the editing software and start tweaking any and every value without thinking of the image as a “whole”. It’s important to realize that the software can only help us achieve our vision if we have one in the first place. Otherwise it will be a whole bunch of inconsistent edits which won’t take our image to its maximum impact potential.

I hope to write more on my experience with each adjustment tool and what specific effect each of them has on the overall vision for an image – hopefully really soon. But for now, I’ll leave you with a fun screen capture of my own editing process for one of my images. I hope it gives you some idea about the many little iterations of adjustments that go into post processing an image to achieve the desired look and feel. And if you’d like to share your own process or add to this discussion, feel free to email me via the simple contact form here.

A brand new workshop here at Boiledbeanstudio!


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Photocue – online Photography practice app by Boiledbeanstudio

Concept, video creation and editing by Jay at Created with Canva.

Over 1500 unique set of constraints for you to practice!! And it’s free.

Try our free online app Photocue today. A constraint-based intentional practice tool designed with love at Boiledbeanstudio. For photographers like you.

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How to give feedback effectively

A while ago, at a challenging point in my creative journey, I approached a handful of food photographers for feedback on my work. I knew them from social media and admired their work as well their general approach to creativity and work. I figured they’d be able to give me some useful insights on my own work. I wrote to them with my request and while each of them was generous enough to respond, I noticed that each of the responses fell within the framework of social media success and visibility. While this would have been useful if I was looking for that sort of thing, the fact was, I wasn’t. I was looking for a purely objective, technical feedback so that I could chalk out my own route from that point onwards, armed with grounding awareness about my craft.

Even though I was unable to apply much of the well-meaning feedback to my own work, there was an intangible benefit to the whole experience. It made me think about the way we understand the process of feedback on creative work. It also gave me valuable insights into the various ways in which people approach (or avoid) the process. I became aware of the unconscious assumptions and attitudes of feedback providers as well as seekers.

Over time, I’ve come to conclude that Feedback, to be really effective, must be a very conscious and objective process. Feedback must be mindful of individual goals and context of the feedback seeker. And to be really useful, feedback must be grounded in empathy on the part of the feedback provider, and willingness on the part of the feedback seeker.

My own observations as a feedback provider as well as experience as a feedback seeker, have together led to some interesting insights about this process and how it could be made more effective and beneficial to all of us who do creative work in isolated freelance mode. In this post, I’ve attempted to share a few of my insights as a feedback provider. I’ve also shared some tips for feedback seekers in another post – here.

To read more of my thoughts on objective feedback head to this post: Why is objective feedback important for creative work?

Stay grounded

Firstly, as a feedback provider, acknowledge the fact that the effectiveness of any kind of feedback partly depends on those who receive it. Of course you must do your best to create a conducive and useful interaction, but how much weightage a feedback seeker attaches to your comments and how much they are willing to or able to apply them is up to them.

Remembering this keeps you grounded, and in turn helps avoid heavy-handedness in your feedback methods. Feedback, especially on creative work, is most effective when approached in an empathetic, non-hierarchical and non-authoritative manner. There are many ways to reach creative fulfilment and there isn’t one single formula that works for everyone. By staying flexible and open, you might even find new ways of looking at things. And that’s always useful.

Are you the right person to give feedback?

Before you even start, make sure that you are the right person for the task at hand. If you don’t know the feedback seeker or their work already, ask for preliminary information about them and their work, before you even begin. Get a sense of their skill level and expectations. You can then evaluate if you are up for the task of providing feedback to them. It is okay to gently say No, if you find that you are not the right fit. It would save time and effort to both of you. Being clear and honest in your interaction builds credibility and trust.

Prepare in advance to ensure that your feedback is effective

Study their work well in advance. Look for patterns if any. Gauge strengths and weaknesses in the work and ask for more details and samples if necessary. It is important to justify the trust that the feedback seeker places in you.

Feedback is not just a feel-good or validation session

Even though it might actually end up being that, in many cases, it can never be the primary purpose of the interaction. It is important to keep growth as the primary purpose.

Feedback is not criticism.

Even when you analyse the limitations in someone’s craft, do it from a place of empathy and understanding. It is never useful to sound patronising.

Be specific in your feedback comments

Vague and overly generic comments will not be useful to anyone. Provide examples and actionable tips where possible. Most people (including me) find actionable advice more useful.

Follow-up on feedback

Consider offering to follow-up via formal sessions and/or informal chats, depending on your own mindset and convenience. In-depth evaluation and effective assistance require continuity. Creativity and mindset are complex and interdependent subjects and most of us benefit from longer collaborations.

A well-rounded feedback session should neither leave the individual dispirited, nor completely content. It should set them up for a period of analysis and action. It should open the person’s mind to “possibilities” and connections they hadn’t been able to see previously.

The goal of every feedback must be growth. The tone of every feedback must be empathy.

More like this:

Why is objective feedback important for creative work?

Helpful tips for feedback seekers

1-on-1 personalized image feedback package for food photographers

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How to “really” use Instagram Photography challenges to improve your skills : A Strategy Guide :

– 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?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. If there is a BTS (behind the scenes) or camera settings along with the images, save those for later.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.