Mental Health Tip for Photographers

Let’s Talk About Photographers and Mental Health

In this newsletter, I’m going to shift gears a little bit and talk about something that’s even more important than any photographic or business success … the concept of happiness

We search for it, work for it, watch TED Talks on it, read books on it, and even try to buy it with materialistic things and Instagram-worthy experiences.  But even then, many of us inevitably find ourselves in temporary (and maybe even prolonged) states of anxiety, sadness or even depression.  In this newsletter, I want to share my perspective and talk about some tools that I’ve learned in my research in hopes that it helps some of you feel better and live a happier life.

Mental health is especially important to discuss for photographers because our jobs are rife with potential triggers and challenges that can negatively impact our thoughts and feelings.

First off, we wear dozens of hats in our businesses.  We jump from being creatives to marketers to accountants to web designers and more.  When things are running smoothly, it’s manageable.  But one unreasonable, demanding client or one less-than-ideal shoot can throw a wrench in the week’s productivity and challenge our mental fortitude.  We take pride in our work and when that work is insulted, we can feel personally attacked.  In addition, it’s harder to find a work-life balance when compared to other professionals who can focus on their given roles and more easily log off and check out at the end of the work day.

The second reason addressing mental health is critical for photographers is because our work is constantly being viewed and judged by hundreds or even thousands of people.  Most professionals (like accountants or engineers) report to their immediate supervisor, who evaluates his or her overall performance.  But photographers are constantly evaluated by their clients, their families, wedding vendors, thousands of Instagram followers, and more.  The praises feel incredible and give us a high like no other, but the negative comments (or even the lack of praise) on a particular job can quickly swing those feelings in the opposite direction.  Without certifications or objective performance measures, it’s easy to fall into the bad habit of basing our own worth on feedback or social media “likes.”

This brings me to my next point.  Mental health can be a common issue among photographers because Social Media, a known source of anxiety issues in our society, is pretty much inescapable.  In this day in age, we need it for our marketing and for our communication with the local wedding groups and the photography communities. But what should be a small part of work can quickly become a rabbit hole of scrolling.  At its worst, it can even become a dark place of comparisons and envy.  “Why can’t I get that photo? Why did that client book him instead of me?  Why am I not that creative or successful?”

The list of reasons mental health is important to address is extensive and we could go on and on about it. But I’m sure you get my point by now.  So how do we combat it?  While I don’t have a simple or universal answer, I have discovered some tools that I’ve researched and implemented that may help some of you.  Let’s hone in on one in particular that I feel has been very helpful and effective for me … Identifying and challenging cognitive distortions.

Cognitive distortions are ways that our brain convinces us of something that isn’t actually true. For example, we might catastrophize a situation, thinking that it will be much worse than it actually is. Or we might personalize things, thinking that everything is happening because of us. These cognitive distortions can lead us to feel anxious, stressed, and down on ourselves. But the good news is that once we’re aware of them, we can start to challenge and change them. By doing so, we can feel better both mentally and emotionally.

What I’ve learned from studying books like Feeling Good by David D. Burns M.D., as well as the overall concepts in cognitive theory by Aaron Beck, is that by identifying and responding to our cognitive distortions, we can gain a clearer picture of reality and fight our own negative feelings.  In Dr. Burn’s book, he identifies these 10 cognitive distortions (don’t worry about trying to memorize or fully understand all of them.  Just briefly read them over):  

  1. All-or-nothing thinking
  2. Overgeneralization
  3. Mental filter
  4. Disqualifying the positive
  5. Jumping to conclusions (mind reading, the fortune teller error)
  6. Magnification & minimization
  7. Emotional reasoning
  8. “Should” statements
  9. Labeling and mislabeling
  10. Personalization and blame

You can read more about each one in the links at the end of the newsletter.  But instead of trying to memorize and understand each one, I think it’s actually more effective to just identify the overarching concept … That our thoughts are often far from reality and that we are often too hard on ourselves.  In fact, we need to actively and consciously dispute them.

Let’s dive into one of these examples and focus on the cognitive distortions called the “Mental Filter:” This is when you pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes dark, “like a drop of ink that colors the entire beaker of water,” according to Dr Burns.

Let’s apply this to some common situations photographers face. Photographers can sometimes dwell on the shots they didn’t get vs the ones they did.  They think to themselves, “I can't believe I missed that moment” or “Why didn’t I do that pose, get this angle, or use that location instead?”

Thoughts like this can eat at you after a shoot when in reality, most clients aren’t even noticing those nuances or the “missing” images you think you didn’t capture.  They are instead enjoying the hundreds of great photos that you did capture and deliver.  So while self critique is important, it’s easy to slip down into a rabbit hole of negative thoughts and dwell on your mistakes.

Cognitive distortions can also surface when you have a difficult or unsatisfied client.  This could be one out of every 20, 50, or even 100 clients, so in reality, it’s a very small percentage of your clients.  But with a negative “mental filter” it’s easy to let those rare negative experiences dominate your thoughts and affect your overall mood or even your overall worth as a photographer.

While this can all seem obvious, just identifying and acknowledging your own common cognitive distortions can help you challenge your own thoughts when you’re feeling down.  

The next step would be to physically write down your negative thoughts in one column and then, in another column, write down the reality, i.e. the challenge to that distortion.  Essentially, argue with yourself and give yourself a different, more realistic perspective.

Here’s an examples:

Negative Thought: [When scrolling social media] “XYZ photographer is so much better than me.  I’m not as good and I’ll never make it to that level.”

Reality: “XYZ photographer’s skills have nothing to do with me. I have my own style, my own clients, and my own journey to focus on.”

Identifying and challenging cognitive distortions has been a big help to me, both in my personal life and in my professional career.  I hope that it provides you with a tool to use next time you’re not feeling as happy as you’d like to be.

For more information on Cognitive Distortions, here’s a good article on the topic.  To dive in even deeper, consider reading Feeling Good by David D. Burns M.D.  

Thanks for reading!


Chris Lin

If you enjoy this type of content, I have plenty more to share on the topic.  So please reply to this email to let us know.  We’d love to continue creating more interesting and valuable content for you, so any feedback is helpful to guide our newsletter content direction.

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