How to Conquer Your Fear of People as a Photographer

How to Conquer Your Fear of People as a Photographer

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You know the feeling; shyness around strangers, dreading new situations, sleepless nights worrying, completely self-conscious in a crowd, thinking that everyone is judging you. In short, a fear of people.

Your fear and inhibition are like having “stage fright” in everyday life. All of this leads to you suppressing your personality, your creativity, and any chance to share your gift of photography with your culture and the world. All of this fear is dangerous because it blocks your creativity, making you become miserable and anxious.

But there is hope for you because many folks have overcome their fear of people and gone on to thrive as photographers. Below are five exercises that will help you to conquer your fear of people too.

Climbing child on playground equipment - How Conquer Your Fear of People as a Photographer

My son used to be afraid of heights at the playground. But I knew he could overcome it. So every time we were at the playground I would encourage him to try something with heights. He’d go just a little bit higher each time until he had completely overcome his fear.

How to Overcome Self-Consciousness and Fear

“If you want to conquer fear, don’t sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” – Dale Carnegie

The way to overcome self-consciousness, fear, and shyness is to practice the healthy opposite.

What is the healthy opposite of fear and inhibition? Having a healthy confidence, the ability to enjoy other people, and the courage to try your best and accept constructive criticism. Here’s how you can work toward that.

Window light portrait. - How Conquer Your Fear of People as a Photographer

It used to be extremely intimidating to ask friends if I could take a portrait of them. At a favorite coffee shop of ours, I asked my friend if I could snap a few photos while we were talking. I was really intimidated by this, but it becomes much easier once you do it a few times, trust me.

1. Begin with a Healthy Goal

Without healthy goals to aspire to, your life will be stagnant. You need a goal or you have nothing to move toward. Here’s a good goal for you if you’re a fearful photographer. Aim to become a creative photographer who is comfortable and confident with people.

Setting a goal doesn’t help you much unless you’ve got some steps to achieve it. Let’s see how to practice the healthy opposite of fear so that you can become “a creative photographer who is comfortable and confident with people.”

Begin with the smallest steps possible, and gradually improve from there.

Walking the dog. How Conquer Your Fear of People as a Photographer

When I was a kid I was afraid of dogs. I didn’t want my kids to be afraid of dogs so I made sure that they were around dogs from the time they were infants. Whenever they showed fear I helped them to be brave and get comfortable with the dog.

2. Use Your Voice

If you’re afraid of people, you probably don’t speak much. You’re likely afraid of having your ideas rejected, giving damaging advice, or being locked in a heated debate. But as long as you’re a kind and thoughtful person, these things aren’t likely to happen often.

The worst part about speaking up is the nervousness you feel just before saying something. Ignore that “stage fright.” Overcome it by saying something small. Don’t go big, just practice by making small talk.

Portrait in a coffee shop - How Conquer Your Fear of People as a Photographer

I’ve challenged myself to try street photography or photographing people while out and about. I was sitting in a coffee shop reading about photography when I saw this gentleman quietly having coffee on his own. I couldn’t resist taking a picture, waiting for the moment that he brought the coffee cup up to drink.

Baby Steps

Perhaps you’re interested in street photography, but you’re so afraid of people that you could never ask for a portrait of them. You could practice getting comfortable by making small talk with strangers. Don’t even bring your camera along, that’s too much pressure. Just practice small talk.

Once you get over that initial discomfort of striking up a little conversation, asking strangers to take their picture won’t be as scary.

Mayfly - How Conquer Your Fear of People as a Photographer

Add bugs to the list of things I’ve been afraid of! One summer I took a macro lens around and photographed bugs. The time I spend photographing them and editing the photos seemed to make me much more comfortable with bugs! Slowly exposing yourself to the things that cause fear will help you to overcome them.

lady bug macro shot - How Conquer Your Fear of People as a Photographer

On the Job Training

Another way to become comfortable working with people is to get a job working at a department store portrait studio. If you work during the Christmas rush you’ll have the opportunity to photograph hundreds of families.

Because it’s your job, you’ll be forced to talk with them. This repetition will help you get over your fear of talking with people. Remember, you’re not there for the photography itself. You’re there to practice talking with people so that you can get over your fear and move toward your goal of being a creative photographer who is comfortable and confident with people.

First hair cut. How Conquer Your Fear of People as a Photographer

My little girl tends to be shy of new people and new situations. It takes a little while but she will become comfortable with friendly people. She was very shy for her first haircut but now loves a day out to get her hair done.

3. Offer Compliments

If you’re not sure how to start a conversation, start by noticing something that you can sincerely compliment a person about. Self-consciousness and fear paralyze you by keeping you focused on yourself in negative ways. If you’re always self-conscious, then you need to just take the spotlight off yourself by focusing on other people instead.

When you focus on offering people compliments two things will likely happen. First your attention is turned away from yourself and on to them. Second, your mind is turned away from negative thoughts (about yourself) and toward positive thoughts (about them) instead.

When I was a senior portrait photographer I would always find some little thing to compliment students about. If it was obvious that they spent a lot of time on their hair, that’s the compliment I gave. Maybe they had a great smile, or were funny, or we had something in common.

Focusing on the other person and having something nice to say will build bridges and help you to overcome your fear and discomfort around people.

Riding the escalator. How Conquer Your Fear of People as a Photographer

Escalators can be intimidating the first time you step on one. Kids are afraid they’ll get swallowed up in the moving steps. Once my kids figured out how to ride one, they treated the escalator like a ride at an amusement park! Overcoming your fear can lead to exciting things in life.

4. Visualize Criticism

You may quickly get over the fear of talking to people or the anxiety you feel over negative thoughts about yourself. But how about receiving criticism of your photographs? This is one of the worst things imaginable for some photographers.

If you panic or become consumed with anxiety and want to “just give up” over the slightest criticism of your photos, then you need to learn to take criticism better. It’s not comfortable at first, but it can be done.

Here are some steps

First, admit that you are not perfect and that you should always focus on improvement. Be humble and admit that some healthy criticism could actually help you.

Second, seek it out. That’s right, go looking for critiques! Look for people who are better than you who can show you how to improve. You want to grow as a person and a photographer don’t you? Ask successful people how you can be better.

Journal writing - How Conquer Your Fear of People as a Photographer

You can document your journey of overcoming the fear of people by journalism. Get it all out on paper. What you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, and all the successes you have.

Third, visualize criticism. You can practice receiving the image critique comfortably before actually receiving it. Close your eyes and imagine someone saying, “These photos are terrible” or “That’s not your best work.” Just imagine hearing those words. Get over the shock and uncomfortable feelings. How could you respond to their harshness in a positive way?

Do you think it seems weird to use your imagination this way? Yes, it may seem strange at first. But it’s exactly how you’re already using your imagination.

Your self-conscious fear is leading you to imagine what people are thinking and saying about you. Your imagination is causing you to fear criticism and be paralyzed instead of receiving it graciously, improving, and moving forward toward your goal of being a creative photographer who is confident and comfortable with people.

Chopping wood. How Conquer Your Fear of People as a Photographer

I’ve embarrassed myself a few times trying to chop wood with people watching me. I needed to learn to do it well. So one summer I decided to chop a massive pile of wood. It wasn’t easy to learn and some pieces ended up a mess before I could get them to split. But by the end, I was now showing other people how to chop wood. Constantly try things that intimidate you. The little successes will keep you moving forward and ignoring fear.

Consider who you are receiving the criticism or critique from. If you post photos online, you’re eventually going to receive harsh criticism from someone, solicited or not. The internet is an easy place for people to be mean and remain anonymous.

Please feel free to ignore people who are harsh and cruel. But always listen to the constructive criticism by other photographers who actually care about you and want to help. Their insights can be very valuable, making you a better photographer.

5. Open up, be vulnerable, and make friends

Your fear and shyness of people may come from your honest desire not to bother anyone. You avoid saying or doing the wrong thing. But are you also avoiding friendship and positive interaction too?

Begin with small talk and offer compliments. Become comfortable with conversation and criticism. Once you’ve done this then opening up and going deeper with people won’t be so hard.

Do you know what you might discover? You’re not alone in your fears. Other people (and especially photographers) are afraid too. And they’ll be thankful that you spoke up, and shared your ideas and your creativity. Courage is contagious.

Paddle boarding - How Conquer Your Fear of People as a Photographer

This is our friend who is terrified of water. It used to be almost unthinkable for her to get out into the water.

two girls paddle boarding - How Conquer Your Fear of People as a Photographer

However, she was determined to overcome her fear – or at least ignore it. Fear can be paralyzing, but finding the strength to overcome it can open new doors in life.

Go Forward Toward Your Goals

I used to be terrible with people, especially with kids. But I used all of the ideas above to break out of my shyness and conquer my fear of people. I still feel uncomfortable at times. But now I run my own photography business specializing in people! Whether it’s families or individual portraits, I’m able to connect with people and help them to feel comfortable in front of the camera.

If your goal is to become a creative photographer who is comfortable and confident with people, follow the steps above. It’ll take time, but start small and soon you’ll be thriving among people.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mat Coker is a family photographer from Ontario, Canada. He teaches photography to parents and families, showing them how to document their life and adventures. You can get his free photography ebook, and learn more about taking creative photos.

  • Watchman

    Thanks for this….
    I really learn lot….

  • Mat

    You are very welcome!

  • Kathy Curry

    Now I understand why I prefer to take pictures of flowers instead of people!

  • graeme stewart

    Boring photographs.

  • graeme stewart

    You said: “I’ve embarrassed myself by chopping wood with people watching me”. What? Great picture of a piece of wood. I have seen some very good pictures of trees/forests/plants. Your isn’t one of them. Seriously man, just give up if this is the best you can do. When do your photography classes start because I will have to make sure to avoid them?

  • graeme stewart

    Really, these are just bad pictures. Visualise your criticism 🙂 What!!!! Really, this is bad. Find a new vocation.

  • graeme stewart

    There is just no getting away from the fact that these are just boring photographs. The subject matter is boring. The canoe with the trees in the background is even more boring than the log which is not quite as boring as your explanation of why you were embarrassed about people seeing you chop wood. Again. Find something else to do because you are not very good at photography.

  • graeme stewart

    And, if this is the best of your work I would hate to see the worst.

  • graeme stewart

    I mean, a 5 year old could take that canoe with trees photo. The horizon is not straight. This is your best work?

  • graeme stewart

    Such a boring picture. Give up, man. You are not very good at photographs.

  • Mat

    Yes, Kathy! Perhaps you could work the gardener into some of those photos 🙂

  • graeme stewart

    It is like you deliberately went out to take the most boring pictures possible.

    Old man at deli.

    Log.

    Boring lake.

    Ugly friend with silly haircut.

    Black and White. Yes, that’s arty.

  • Mat

    Hi Graeme,
    You’re so right… that horizon line is terrible!
    When I took the picture the camera was level (I’ve got a digital level in my Fuji camera).
    But the photo didn’t appear level when I looked at it on my computer.

    There were several things throwing me off when I looked at the photo.
    1) The trees lean to the right.
    2) The waves move along on an angle
    3) The paddle board doesn’t sit level in the water – or doesn’t appear level because of the way the front curves up.

    Every once in a while I really struggle with the “perceptual horizon” of my photo.
    I’ve attached the level version 🙂

    Here is a really helpful article on the psychology of horizon lines. It’s titled, “Why Leveling the Horizon in Photos Isn’t Easy.” https://petapixel.com/2017/11/13/leveling-horizon-photos-isnt-easy

    The next time I get stuck on a horizon line I’ll ask a few people to look at the photo for before I post it 😉

    Just a quick note on my photographs, Graeme. I didn’t include them as samples of my best work. I included them because they are all about moments of overcoming fear and embarrassment.

    I did not snap those photos of my friend to be works of fine art, but to document a moment in her life when she overcame something terribly difficult for her.

    The point of this article is not about improving your photographs. It’s about overcoming the things in life that hold you back from taking photos.

    Thanks for helping me with this Graeme!

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2ec0670cbdf425653022765def117814dc19796cbdecb19a8299065ab3d32745.jpg

  • graeme stewart

    The pictures of bugs are just some of the worst pictures of bugs I have ever seen. Totally out of focus and about as interesting as a spam sandwich.

  • graeme stewart

    The bug ones are the worst. Why didn’t you put them in “arty” black and white Ansel. The log. You were scared about chopping logs?????????????????

  • graeme stewart

    I have read a quite a few of the articles on here and this is by far the worst, with the worst pictures. Just give up.

  • graeme stewart

    It sort of annoyed me that someone so inept could possibly think of offering advice.

  • graeme stewart

    It wasn’t just the horizon. It was how boring a picture it is and how you want this to represent an example of your work. Unbelievable.

  • graeme stewart

    Hopefully, you are “comfortable” with my criticism because this is really the stupidest article I have ever read and you really need to get a different job.

  • @disqus_gDyVPRl3E2:disqus – I am the Managing Editor of dPS and moderator of comments here as well. Your barrage of insults on this article are uncalled for, unnecessary, and rude. You perfectly are welcome to have your opinion and to state it. But do so once, and once only please. There is no need for 15 separate comments, all saying the same thing.

    We get it, you don’t like the images – just state that and leave it alone please. We do not allow rude, insulting, or comments which hurt another person – including our writers. All of your other comments have been deleted – this is a warning not to do so again. If you repeat this, you will be banned from commenting on our site.

  • graeme stewart

    Thanks Darlene. He openly asked for criticism of his photos so I gave him my opinion. Maybe you should edit better and not put weird narratives like Mats and his bad photos of a log and out of focus bugs. Ban me if you want, but this was a bad article with bad photos.

  • Sorry no, he didn’t and your harsh criticism is the perfect example of what he’s told people to ignore. Now you insult me and my skills and choices as the editor. I felt the article had merit and value so I ran it and I stand by it. It’s not about his images (like them or not) it’s about the message. So I suggest you read it and if you have nothing further to add in the way of “constructive” criticism that you move on. Good day to you.

  • @Geoffn – thanks for that. Yes that was my feeling as well, and posting it 15 times was also unnecessary.

  • graeme stewart

    Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade. If someone keeps giving you raw chicken, then maybe they should not be a chef. If someone takes bad photographs, then maybe they should find something else to do. If an editor cannot identify a terrible article, then maybe the editor should be a bit more discerning.

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