A few years ago, Greg McKeown wrote a book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, in which he argues that to be successful, you have to focus on a few important things and ignore everything else. His ideas and strategies are useful in many different areas of life, including photography. In this post, we’ll explore what it means to be an essentialist photographer and how you can use essentialism to improve your photography.
McKeown breaks up essentialism into three activities: exploring, eliminating, and executing. First, you decide what is essential to you; then, you determine what is not essential and should be eliminated; and finally, you only do the things that are essential. This seems straightforward. The tricky part is, of course, figuring out what is important to you and what is not.
To help you figure out what’s essential to your photography, we’ve put together a list of questions grouped by the three parts of essentialism:
- Explore: What is important to you as a photographer?
- Eliminate: What should you edit from your life?
- Execute: How can you (only) do the few important things?
Because no one (not even a stranger on the Internet) can tell you what is important to you, you’ll have to answer these questions yourself. We hope your answers will inspire you to become the photographer you’d like to be in the New Year!
Explore: What is important to you?
What excites you the most about photography?
A goal can be important in theory, but it’s useless if you’re not excited and motivated by it. Figuring out what drives you might give you an idea of what you should focus on in the new year.
So what is the one thing in photography that keeps you going? Pay attention to the things that excite you, and you can get an idea of what matters to you.
There are of course plenty of things to get excited about in photography. Here are a few examples to get you going: capturing beautiful moments, going out and seeing new places and meeting new people, the gear and technology behind cameras, the intricacies of light and lenses, sharing your art, being part of a community, etc.
How would you like to create value with your photography?
Images can have immense value. They can make people laugh, cry, remember, celebrate, and think. Remembering this value can be helpful when you’re trying to choose what’s important. How do you want to create value with your work? What should your photos add to the world that we didn’t have before? What should they be about?
Another way you could think about value is to consider what makes your photography unique. Is it the subjects you focus on? Do you have a signature style? Have you mastered a vintage soviet film camera? In other words, what makes your approach to photography different, and is that worth focusing on?
It’s also good to keep in mind who will find your work valuable. This can be anyone, but not everyone. You can take photos for yourself, for friends and family, or for people who are into ski photography. By having an idea of what will make your work valuable and who it will be for, you get to know what is important to you.
What would you like to achieve one/three/five/ten years from now?
Visualizing who you want to become and where you want to be in the future is a great way of figuring out what’s important to you. If you set your mind to it, you can accomplish a lot in the span of ten years. So what are your long-term goals as a photographer?
For example, if you’re a travel photographer, which countries will you photograph in the next decade? If you’re a fine art photographer, what aesthetics will you explore? If you’re a photojournalist, what stories will you tell? If you own a business, what will it look like in ten years?
Eliminate: What should you edit from your life?
What are the distractions in your life?
Distractions make us lose track of our goals and waste our time. The first step to overcoming distractions is to be aware of them in the first place. Living in a world of smartphones, social media, and unlimited entertainment, you probably already know about the worst distractions you face. Still, it’s useful to look at, say, the past week and identify what took up a lot of your time, but wasn’t actually important to you. Similarly, at the end of the day, you can analyze how you’ve spent your time and decide if those activities were in line with your goals.
What is good but not great?
There are plenty of activities that are good, but still distractions to you depending on your goals. For example, you can watch hours of excellent photography tutorials and learn a ton, but it’s a distraction if your goal is to go out and do an outdoor shoot. Or you get carried away by a hobby project, when your real goal is to set up a portfolio website.
We all realize at some level that binge watching series is probably not the best use of our time, but it’s the things that are good in theory that sneak up on us. So what good distractions are keeping you from doing great things?
What limits can you put into place?
You eliminate the unimportant things from your life by setting up limitations. Limitations can take different forms. It could mean saying no to certain commitments, restraining the amount of time you spend on distracting activities, or isolating yourself to focus on just one thing. The more specific you can make these limitations, the easier it will be to follow through on them.
Limitations can also help you focus on doing your best work, as doing more work is not necessarily better. A good wedding photographer is overbooked for the entire wedding season. A great wedding photographer will limit the number of wedding slots they accept for the season beforehand. Then, they’ll interview clients and reject (or refer to colleagues) the weddings that are not a good match.
With this limitation, the great wedding photographer will have more time to prepare for and post-process each batch of wedding photos. Quality (limits) over quantity (no limits). How can you set up a similar limitation that will help you eliminate the unimportant and focus on what matters?
Execute: How can you (only) do the few important things?
How can you focus on the most important thing to you right now?
The hardest part of being an essentialist photographer might be staying focused moment-to-moment on what’s important. It’s in the everyday moments that you have to do the essential things and ignore the unessential.
This raises the question: what can you do to stay mindful of the things that matter to you as a photographer? You’ll have to figure out what works for you, but here are a few suggestions: you could put up reminders in your house and on your devices; revisit your list of goals on a regular basis; write down deadlines on a calendar; or break down bigger goals into daily to-do lists.
What disciplines and habits will get you closer to your goal?
Disciplines and habits make up the autopilot of your life. If they’re aligned with your goals, they work in your favor. But if your (lack of) disciplines and habits are in conflict with your goals, you’re fighting against yourself. This is why it’s useful to spend time on fostering useful disciplines and habits.
So ask yourself, what you can do on a daily/weekly/monthly basis to accomplish your goals? What habits are holding you back and with what should you replace them? If you were the photographer you’d like to be, what disciplines would you have?
What is the smallest possible step you can take right now?
It may take a long time before you’re the amazing photographer you’d like to be, but all you need to do is take the first step towards your goals and keep going. Small wins and continuous progress keep you motivated, so make sure you always have something to celebrate.
Right now, you only need to do the smallest action that will help you get the important things done. Depending on your goals, you could just grab your camera and go outside. At the very least, you should block out time for the important things on your calendar.
Do it! And have an excellent New Year!