In this video photographer James Quantz Jr talks about something that doesn’t get discussed very often but is an important topic that can hinder many brilliant artists and photographers. He calls it pre-shoot anxiety, but it comes under many other names: performance anxiety, or just good old fashioned nervousness. We all imagine that once we get to a certain level you won’t have this issue anymore, but it’s much more common than you think, and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. If you suffer from performance anxiety then know that you aren’t alone, and even better, that there are many practical things that you can do to reduce this feeling and help you to perform at your best during your next shoot.
I feel that I am uniquely qualified to discuss this issue, having suffered from performance anxiety myself for many years. A little background info: although I have enjoyed playing with cameras since childhood, I wasn’t always a photographer. I actually have a degree in classical music performance and spent many years performing with professional orchestras around the world. But doing that job means that you have to do auditions, and although I loved performing with other people, it was the audition arena where I became unstuck.
To cut a long story short, I didn’t deal well with it at all (like vomiting before going on stage not dealing well) and I got to the point where I needed to fix it or quit. So I read lots of books on sports psychology, did a lot of personal work, tried lots of different things and spoke to lots of people in the industry, and eventually found a way to get a hold over my nerves. Although I am no longer working in that field, these techniques have helped me so many times, particularly when doing a photo shoot. Here, combined with James’ advice are some of the things that I have learnt, and will hopefully offer some help for anyone else struggling with the same thing.
James begins with an almost confession that pre-shoot anxiety has been an issue for him in the past, but also how in being open about the subject, he has had a lot of people commenting and wanting to discuss this further. I think it’s fantastic when professionals can be transparent and honest about their struggles and I applaud his vulnerability here. He goes on to say that generally, a photoshoot is a performance. We are called upon to perform a skill in front of other people with certain expectations in a limited amount of time. The higher up the profession you go, the higher the stakes, and you have more limited opportunities for re-shoots and mistakes. This is why we feel anxious when the stakes are high and we feel the pressure to get it right in one go. We also feel more anxious when we really care about the outcome. When we want to do well we put more pressure on ourselves. But you can’t trick yourself into not caring, so what can you do?
First, I believe that it’s helpful to really understand what’s going on in your body and mind when you start to feel that familiar panic. It’s a natural physiological response that humans developed to keep themselves safe and ultimately alive. It’s known as the classic fight or flight response and is fantastic when you need to run away from a tiger, but not so helpful when you have 15 minutes to photograph some NFL players for a massive advertisement. We all know about adrenaline, but actually, there are more hormones involved: cortisol and norepinephrine that create a lot of physical and mental symptoms.
You might feel your breathing becoming more rapid and shallow, this, in turn, makes your heart beat faster causing you to rush what you’re doing and increasing the likelihood of making mistakes. You sweat, your hands and feet become cold as the blood flows to more important organs, your muscles shake, you get a dry mouth, you get stomach issues (yeah that phrase “scared s&%$less”, that’s real!). You get tunnel vision, mind fog, you can’t think clearly or process information, all you want to do is get out of there. This is the extreme end of the scale but I think you’ll agree that even a mild case of these symptoms can hinder us from doing our job well. So what can we do to reduce these effects?
- I prefer not to think about anxiety or nerves, but to reframe it as energy. We all have different energy levels, and we all have different optimal energy levels required to do a task. For example, I tend to have an overabundance of energy, so I need to focus on bringing those energy levels down to a more manageable level when I want to do a photoshoot. If you have trouble getting excited about doing a shoot and are feeling lethargic, then you might want to do the opposite and actually increase your energy. It’s very personal to each individual. Similarly, different tasks have different optimum energy levels. To do brain surgery you probably want your energy levels to be lower than say, if you were a pro-wrestler about to go into the ring.
- I have found that you can greatly influence your energy levels and even control your heart rate by your breathing. Diaphragm breathing techniques are very useful here, and with a little practice, you can quickly get a grip on yourself in seconds. Do this before a shoot if you’re feeling jittery, and even in the middle of a shoot if things are slipping away from you and you need to focus again. It’s pretty simple: breathe in slowly for 6 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, breathe out for 7 seconds. Repeat if necessary.
- James talks a little about imposter syndrome and says that it’s important to remind yourself of how far you’ve come if you begin to start doubting yourself. Generally, if someone hires you they have seen your work and want to work with you for a reason. Have a mental highlight reel of a few things that you’ve done in the past that you’re proud of, and replay it in your mind when you start to doubt yourself.
- Stop negative talk. This is a massive one and so many of us have an internal saboteur. It’s not enough, however, to just stop the negative talk, you have to replace it with something positive. Without wanting to sound all woo-woo a couple of positive affirmations really can help here. For example “I am well prepared, I know what I’m doing, I am an experienced photographer”. You don’t need to tell them to anyone or say them out loud, but they really can help change your mindset.
- Preparation is everything. This is something that James really underlines in the video. If you’ve prepped everything properly, you will have a lot less to worry about. Make set up diagrams, and plan your lighting and poses in advance if necessary. If making conversation is a source of stress for you then you can even plan a few topics to talk with your client about. Anything that stops the ‘what if?’ cycle in your mind. I find that pre-visualisation can really help a shoot flow well and I try to mentally run through everything if it’s something important. Make sure you only visualise it going well though, we don’t want to be visualising disasters, that won’t help at all! If that happens, stop, rewind the mental tape and watch it again going right.
- Always have a plan B. With the greatest will in the world, not everything will always go according to plan and photography is often about problem-solving. So without obsessing about what could go wrong, try to plan for it. Have spare batteries, extra equipment in case something malfunctions, spare wardrobe in case your client arrives with the wrong outfit. Make a list of reliable people to work with that you can call last minute in case of cancellations.
- This seems like a weird one, but it’s massive for athletes and can work for creative industries too. Cut out caffeine on the day if you need to, eat well and don’t get drunk the day before, and try to get a good night’s sleep and drink plenty of water. The British cycling team was able to achieve Olympic victory by making tiny 1% improvements on everything they did. A 1% improvement every day adds up eventually. Find ways to make small positive changes to your routine or the way you approach your shoots and it will pay off.
Ultimately, like with any type of performance, we will have good days and not so good days. The trick is to get those not so good days to a level where they are still very good days for most people. So invest time in really learning your skills and knowing your equipment and then hold onto the fact that on any given day you gave it everything you had. Your best will be different on different days, but if you commit to always doing your best then you can overcome your pre-shoot nerves, and harnessing that energy can actually become a positive asset, pushing you to explore new boundaries. Being inside your comfort zone is over-rated.