I’d like to shed some light on a place I’m certain every single creative person has visited, but very few willingly admit to having been. No, I’m not talking about the island of cliché presets, or pen-tool purgatory, but rather the creative wasteland found in The Long Middle.
Whether you’re a professional, semi-pro, or hobbyist with big aspirations, the middle point of your endeavour can often feel like the single most prominent feature of your creative journey and it’s easy to get stuck there. You’ve taken the bold steps of starting, but you’re a long way from the elation of crossing the finish line. It’s a dark place, where fear, uncertainty and self-doubt reign supreme. In my experience, this creative middle exists on two separate, but related planes, which I think of as the micro and macro middles.
The Micro Middle:
The micro middle is encountered during a specific shoot, whether while capturing images or back in the office for post-production. Last year, I was hired to shoot the Canadian national slo-pitch softball championship. I love shooting sports and have nearly ten years of experience with everything from basketball to gymnastics to the heart-pounding roar of motorsport. Unfortunately, slo-pitch was completely new territory. I’d also just shifted to the Nikon D810 as my main camera body. It’s a stellar portrait and landscape camera, but not exactly the go-to choice for sports with its slower frame rate. Tucked into my camera bag was the new Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens, raising additional question marks for me. When my first few images were missing the action and blurry from not compensating sufficiently for the long glass, panic set in: “What the hell am I doing? I’m out of my depth, won’t be able to get a single good shot for my client, and I’ll never be hired again!”
The Macro Middle:
The road to the macro middle is not paved with these acute equipment or technique-related doubts or frustrations, but it is every bit as insidious. It sneaks up on you when you think your images are great, but look over your shoulder and see other photographers producing jaw-dropping images that win award after award. It sinks in when you repeatedly hear “Great work, but it’s not a good fit for us.” from magazine editors or commercial clients you’ve pitched. When even your best images don’t seem to get the recognition or traction that you thought they deserved, or you start to feel your work is not as unique or original as you’d like it to be, the macro middle causes you to question your commitment to the creative life altogether.
For both of these circumstances, the way out of the middle may not be clear, but there is always hope. During my slo-pitch shoot, practice and persistence were key to getting unstuck. I deliberately went out and shot a lower-level tournament at the same ball park a few weeks before the big show to get a feel for the game and how the new equipment would work. And when my client would have been happy with “just a few highlight shots” from each game, I put in the time and used each complete game as open photo-practice. By the time the championship games were being played, I could anticipate action on the field and confidently deliver well-framed, sharp images.
To deal with the all-encompassing macro middle despair, I highly recommend connecting with your peers and those who may be a level or two ‘above’ where you feel your career is at right now. If you’re going it alone, every ‘no’ feels like gut-wrenching rejection, but building a network of colleagues can be a real eye-opener. You’ll realize that even those you admire get bogged down from time to time, and there is always someone else whose work they are comparing themselves to as well. Having that community connection isn’t just good for commiserating. Good colleagues can open the door to collaborations and light a bit of a fire to get out there and push your creative limits with personal projects too.
Above all, it’s critical to realize that the doubt encountered when you’re stuck in the middle is actually a good sign. It never actually feels good, but fretting over the details and questioning whether you’re producing the type of work you’d like to is a sure sign that you actually care about the result. Embrace the self doubt. Those nagging questions and uncertainties help build self-awareness, which is key to personal and creative growth as well. Persistence, patience and connection can help move you beyond The Long Middle.
You can see more of Matt’s work at his website.