Forget About Comfort Zones

One good advice that seems to never go out of fashion is to “step out of your comfort zone!” – that doesn’t apply just to photography, of course. You know these illustrations with the three bubbles? One is labelled “you”, and it’s place inside another bubble labelled “comfort zone”. The third bubble is labelled “life” – and it’s placed outside of the comfort zone. The message: “life” happens without “you” outside of your “comfort zone.”

The photographic advice is to “shoot outside of your comfort zone” (shudder). Now, I guess it depends on how we define this “comfort zone” but to me, things outside of my comfort zone are all things that I’m uncomfortable with and that I do not want to do.

And considering that I’m passionate about photography and love it, why would I do anything related to photography that I do not want to do and that makes me uncomfortable? Things that I haven’t done before however, and really want to try when I get the chance are of course not outside of my comfort zone. How could they be? I want to do and try them.

I prefer to think that our “comfort zones” are expanding. We don’t need to step “outside” of them. We practice, we evaluate our work, we look at the mistakes we made, we learn from them, we try to not repeat them. Next time we approach the same task, we’re able to add another variable into the mix. (“Make the next step! Push the boundaries!” blah blah;-)

I’ve made (very) long exposure seascape photos. I’ve made photos in pitch-black desert caves with off-camera flash. I light-painted trees at night with an LED headlamp. Some of these exercises were more, some were less successful. :) And earlier in January, I wanted to try something new and different, and combined the experiences of these three previous “exercises” into one.

Tabletop Reef at night, Seaside State Beach, Cardiff By The Sea, CA.
Tabletop Reef at night, Seaside State Beach, Cardiff By The Sea, CA.

Did I try something new? Yes! Did I step outside of my comfort zone? No! Are these the greatest night-time light-painting photos ever? No! Did I have fun? Hell yes! Do I want to do that again? I don’t know… but if I see an opportunity, I might apply what I learned that evening at the coast, and do something else with that knowledge. Something I haven’t done before. Just another step.

I did gain more confidence. And I think that’s what we should aim for. Get confident in what you’re doing. The bad news is that, in order to really do that, you need to practice, practice, practice. Forget about comfort zones – just make photos. Did they come out as you had hoped for? No? Then what mistakes did you make? Learn from them and repeat your exercises. Simple.

And while my love and passion is strongest for landscape and nature, growing my own confidence in operating a camera has enabled me to make photos of weddings and engagements, children’s birthday parties, DJs, newborn babies, families of all kinds, high school seniors, you name it. It has also helped me to make reproduction quality photos of artwork, product photos for online shops, and make real estate photos for listing agents.

Now if someone had told me in 2007 that I’d have to do all this with the camera, I would have been very uncomfortable. Yes, you could say that all of that was “outside of my comfort zone” – and it would have been foolish and irresponsible to accept such assignments at the time. I didn’t seek them to get outside of any “comfort zone”. When the time was right they came to me – and I accepted them without (much;-) hesitation because I had grown enough confidence in the years before.

That takes time. And it’s not always convenient – but it’s the only way to actually do so without repeatedly disappointing yourself and, even worse, others who might rely on you, and how well you execute your craft. I think it’s a good thing to honestly say “sorry, I can’t do that” when you don’t feel confident enough yet. In our times, where everyone makes bold statements all the time (that no one really takes seriously anymore anyway, unless you screw up and they want to sue you of course…) it may very well be the difference that you need to make in order to establish your own integrity.

Don’t step outside of your comfort zone. Expand it.

This post originally appeared in my personal weblog, but since it is strongly related to photography, I moved it here. It’s more aimed at other photographers than my general audience though; these posts are filed into the “Philosophy” category which includes content that doesn’t just contain photos but is also about photography.

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