Beating My Cycle of Photo-frustration

by Lucas Westcoat January. 04, 2017 2939 views




"Ugh. Nope."


"I used to be better at this."

I've been taking pictures for 15 years. Some of my earliest photos were admittedly terrible. Worse yet, the post-processing was WAY overdone. There's a saying that comes to mind about the law of the instrument. It's something like "when you have a hammer it's tempting to treat everything like a nail." Well I beat the hell out of my early photos with Photoshop.

Over time, I began to take it easy on the post processing. I focused (no pun intended) on the scenes and subjects vs. Photoshop. I was still new to photography and it showed. But when I look back at some of these photos today I'm impressed with myself for a moment before my self-indulgent awe quickly gives way to frustration. Why am I unable to take photos like that again? What have I lost? How do I get that back?

This has created a perpetual cycle for me. It begins after a hiatus from my camera (brought on by the aforementioned frustration). I begin looking back through my old work for inspiration. Inevitably I run across a photo that makes me think "hmmm, not too shabby, but if only I had edited a little differently."

Old edit

Old photo that made me wish I had edited differently. Model: Annie Jantzer

I then begin to revert to original images and retouch them based on my current understanding and skill set. I'll run through a hand full of photos like this. Finally, I reach a point where I wish I had new photos to work on. So I return to the camera.

It goes on from there.

It seems this time of year (early January) there's no shortage of pithy statements and fortune cookie advice for anyone and everyone regardless of their area of interest or their stated goal. Normally I write this off as just another attempt by marketers and people who live off of mouse clicks to capitalize on a time of year when people are making vows of self improvement. It's the same phenomenon that causes Weight Watchers and the like to blow through 80% of their annual advertising budgets by March.  

Rather than buy in to the wisdom of "365 projects" and the like, I'm simply going to say this: I wish to break the cycle. I will continue taking pictures and not allow myself to get frustrated. I will learn more about the conventional "rules" of the craft so that I can break them. It's not like I'm burning through expensive film. I'm all digital these days. So what's the harm? I have a day job, so it's not like I'll walk through life with my finger on the shutter release, but I will make more of an effort to experiment. My photography website has a section that I've named "the test kitchen" and it holds the fewest photos of all the sections of my portfolio. No more. Some experiments are failures, and that's fine. Then again, I suppose it's possible that in several years, I'll dig back through old photos and think "hmmm, not too shabby."

New Edit

After applying new techniques to an old photo I took. Model: Annie Jantzer

To see more of my portrait work as well as photos of places and things, check out my website

Join the conversation
There are 17 comments , add yours!
Helen Hooker 4 years, 5 months ago

I love your story and I'm pleased you've found some inspiration in revisiting older work. I recently looked back through my old film photos and was disappointed how bad they virtually all were. I, looking forward to following your photographic journey.

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Cherish-Joe Graff 4 years, 5 months ago

Same. I've been combing through older and older photos I took and was proud of "back in the day". Learning new skills helps. Seeing the work of others helps. Maturing helps. My shooting and editing style are completely different now than they were even 2 years ago, so when I go back 10 years worth of photos I see the scene in front of me and think how differently I would have changed the settings to capture the light better, the different angle would have shot from, or even where I would have had my subjects stand - then the post processing UGH! I used to think blue tint looked 'cool' - okay, so it is technically 'cool' but now I see how awful it looks and want more realness, more warmth, more life in my subjects. It's a learning process and I think we are all better for going through it over the years. I'm always impressed to see people half my age with as much wisdom and insight. Alas, it took me (and many others) much longer to get here.
And that's okay.
Good on you for finding this out for yourself and creating a plan to keep shooting and less beating yourself up over the 'mistakes.'

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Lucas Westcoat Replied to Cherish-Joe Graff 4 years, 5 months ago

Appreciate it, Joe. If the reaction to this post has taught me anything it's that I'm clearly not alone. The consensus seems to be that nearly everyone hits a similar (if not this exact) wall at some point. No direction to go but through it.

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Tiffany Mueller 4 years, 5 months ago

Aloha Lucas, welcome to PhotoBlog! I too find myself in the same cycle of re-editing old photos. For me, it can be frustrating at times, but overall I think this is actually a pretty healthy process. It means we are evolving and improving our skills--that's a good thing! Anyways, good to hear I'm not the only one who goes through this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here! :)

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Lucas Westcoat Replied to Tiffany Mueller 4 years, 5 months ago

Thanks Tiffany. I suppose anybody that dabbles in artistic pursuits eventually finds themselves in a similar pattern. If what you're saying is to just embrace the cycle as a creative process, then that's actually a VERY interesting way to look at it. Thanks for the perspective.

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Amy Daniels 4 years, 5 months ago


4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Aidan Parisian 4 years, 5 months ago

I love looking through older stuff, oftentimes discovering something I didn't know was good at the time based on my contemporary point-of-view. Great retouch, wonderful post!

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Lucas Westcoat Replied to Aidan Parisian 4 years, 5 months ago

Thanks Aidan. Maybe that's just part of the process and the lesson is to save everything.

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Cherish-Joe Graff Replied to Aidan Parisian 4 years, 5 months ago

That's also a good point, sometimes what we think looks good in the moment is different and it's fun to go back and find gems we overlooked in the past.

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Kaeyla Mcgee 4 years, 5 months ago

Well, at least you know that you're part of a club even if it's just three! I've started (again) a 365 in the hope of breathing some life into my photography. Have also been shooting for about 15 years and oh, can I so relate to the cycles. I spent the last couple of years seriously learning Photoshop, and making composites and trying to turn my photos into complex images, to the point that I started forgetting how to just take a decent picture, and inspiration for such had vanished, So . . . Hopefully some cycles will be broken this year, and more experimenting will be done, and some not-too-shabby photographs will emerge. Yes? Btw, the latest edit is really lovely. . . . there's definitely hope 😊

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Lucas Westcoat Replied to Kaeyla Mcgee 4 years, 5 months ago

Thanks Kaeyla, and good for you! The Photoshop trap is real. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Photoshop, but I fully understand how easy it is to begin "building" a photo as opposed to "enhancing" a photo. Stay strong! I look forward to seeing what you accomplish with your 365. Best of luck!

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Wendy Knefelkamp 4 years, 5 months ago

This captures the last 20 years of my photography journey well. It's nice to know we've all been there. I did a 365 in 2007 and a 365 self portrait project in 2009, in what I consider the height of my passion for photography. My passion is currently simmering under a heavy weight of frustration and self-doubt. Hoping a 365 ten years after the first one reignites the fire and inspiration while also breaking that frustration/hiatus cycle.

Glad we're all apparently rowing along in the same boat. *sploosh sploosh sploosh*

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Lucas Westcoat Replied to Wendy Knefelkamp 4 years, 5 months ago

I hope it does the trick, Wendy. Best of luck.

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Katie R 4 years, 5 months ago

I have felt exactly this way before re: the frustration > hiatus cycle. I'm doing a 365 but it's a tool as a forced brush up due to post hiatus frustration and I'm liking the way the 1 image a day is making me feel more free to experiment, bc it's just one picture (though for me it's a bit more in my camera). I think it's awesome to say it's just a test, no pressure if it doesn't work. Love the freckles in your new method!

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Lucas Westcoat Replied to Katie R 4 years, 5 months ago

Thanks for the encouragement, Katie. Glad to know I'm not the first to feel this frustration. I look forward to seeing how your 365 goes. Perhaps you'r example will get me to come around. 😉

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Ben Mckechnie 4 years, 5 months ago

Hi Lucas! Welcome to PhotoBlog. I totally hear what you're saying about
returning to older images to re-edit with your current skill set. I think it is
worth doing. In the two examples above, your latest edit is clearly far
superior in my opinion. Now you're drawing attention to the model's
freckles as part of her beauty, whereas before they were faded out. I've
followed you... looking forward to seeing your photographic journey here
on PhotoBlog throughout 2017. Best of luck!

4 years, 5 months ago Edited
Lucas Westcoat Replied to Ben Mckechnie 4 years, 5 months ago

Thanks Ben. Appreciate the follow and the support. Glad to be a part of the community!

4 years, 5 months ago Edited