In my spare time, I dabble in photography. I wouldn’t call myself a professional photographer, though I have been paid for it. (Imposter syndrome, is that you?) But one thing that I’ve experienced over the past four or five years, since I really started taking it seriously as a hobby, is what I have termed The Enthusiasm Gap. I’m sure there’s another term for this, but I haven’t researched it to find out.
So, what is the Enthusiasm Gap? It’s when you have been exposed to something enough that you have developed a taste for the high quality of a thing but are unable to recreate that level yourself. For example, if you are into baking (another of my hobbies), you have probably gone to lots of bakeries or restaurants to sample their wares. And the more into it you got, you refined your taste. You know what you like and what you don’t. What is done particularly well. Having tried to make different things at home, you know which items are easy to make well (chocolate chip cookies) and what are especially finicky (macarons).
But at some point, your taste outpaces your ability to match that quality level. You taste an especially delicious bread and when you try to make it yourself, it comes out lackluster. You didn’t knead it quite long enough or you baked it too long. Sure, you make note of it and try it again and next time it will come out.
The problem is that doubt can slip in here. When you first pick something up, you are exuberant and enthusiastic. You know you’re new to the game so any progress is positive. That first time something comes out exactly as you imagine, you’re jubilant. But as we study something more and the more time we put into it, we can face diminishing returns.
It would be really easy to start second guessing yourself here. To say that you simply don’t have the talent for this hobby. You look online and see others doing it better. No matter how much you practice or study, you don’t feel like you’re getting any better.
The picture above is one I took of my niece at a parade in 2016. She was about three and it was her first parade. It’s a nice picture. I was quite proud of it at the time. And it brings back positive memories of the day. However, from a purely technical standpoint, it’s not perfect by a long shot. And there were people using the same technology I had taking much better pictures.
This picture I took a couple of weeks ago at another parade. My nephew is about a year and a half and while this wasn’t his first parade, it was the first one he was mobile for. I can identify ways in which this picture is superior to the one above. It’s sharper, for one. The lighting is more even and skin tone warmer. The background is less distracting. It’s more on his level and less from above.
All of these are things that I’ve learned or become more cognizant of since 2016. Some of it I do without even thinking now. Of course, I have a better camera and a nice lens. Technology has advanced in three years. But I can see a difference in my ability in that time. If I had given up in 2017, after not being able to capture a “perfect” shot, I would never have gotten this picture in 2019.
I don’t really remember taking the picture above. My dad and I had gone to Savannah for something and we stopped at a state park on the way back. There was an overlook over the river and, at the time, I thought this was a pretty good shot.
Landscape photography is something I want to be good at because there are so many amazing pictures on the internet. I want to be that good. I want stunning pictures. But I’m still learning. And there isn’t much in my immediate environs that I’ve found to have enough aesthetic interest to practice on.
However, I recently went to Europe with a college friend. While in Bavaria, we took a day trip to visit Neuschwanstein Castle. This was my friend’s whole reason for coming to Bavaria, so she planned the whole day. I didn’t do any research on it, such as the fact that it was halfway up a mountain. There were several ways to get up to the castle from where the tour bus dropped us. We opted for a shuttle. However, the shuttle only takes you half the way up the mountain to the castle. That second half is entirely on foot. And boy, is it a climb.
As we topped the first crest, there was a spot that overlooked the valley below. It offered amazing views but also a chance to catch your breath. I pulled out my camera and took some shots. I honestly don’t even remember thinking much about the pictures I was taking. I could barely breathe and my calves were on fire already. And we still had more mountain to climb. That night at the hotel, I edited some pictures and posted them to Facebook as proof that I had survived the day. From the next bed, my friend pulled up the pictures and asked me if I’d taken one of them or if it was a postcard. I looked over, confused, and realized this was the picture she was talking about:
I had taken that picture. Half-dead, barely breathing, I had clicked the shutter and captured that. It’s probably one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken. I have a poster of it hanging on the wall behind me right now. I almost can’t believe I actually took it. And it could absolutely be argued that the landscape itself was so beautiful that it’s hard to take a bad picture of it, and I would likely agree. However, my friend, who also had a camera did not come away with this picture.
I’m not telling this story to brag about my mad skills. But in the time between those landscape pictures, I had internalized enough knowledge about what makes a good picture, that even when I was fully aware of it, I could still compose a good shot.
There are so many things I do now without thinking that I had to think about before. The rule of thirds, focusing on eyes, moving so that I’m not casting a shadow on the picture, etc. And this is true in other disciplines than just photography.
Writing, painting, baking, comedy, or papercrafting all have methods or skills that take time to build. Being able to feel a dough and know if it’s been kneaded enough. Knowing just how light or heavy to lay the brush on the canvas to get the desired effect. Getting the pacing of a comedy set correct.
And it all takes practice. Doing the thing over and over and over again. I got my current camera at the end of November last year. Since then, I’ve taken over 10,000 pictures. That’s a staggering amount, and why I’m especially grateful for digital. I could never afford that amount of film or photo processing. Over the past ten years, I’ve probably taken upwards of 50,000 pictures between cameras and my cell phone.
There were so many times I could have given up. When I could have looked at pictures other people have taken and thought “I’ll never get there”. And I may never be Ansel Adams or Annie Leibovitz. But I’m definitely continuing to get better and that’s enough for me. Besides, at this point, I think I derive too much enjoyment from taking pictures that I could never give it up.
I think a lot of people get caught in the Enthusiasm Gap and give up on something that gives them pleasure. They can’t see the finish line and they get self-conscious. I get it. I’ve been there too.
So, how to stop yourself from getting trapped in the Gap?
1. Document what you’re doing. Take pictures of the cake you’re decorating. Print out that story your wrote and put it in a folder.
2. Every so often, look back at where you were six months ago. A year ago. When you started.
3. Remind yourself of why you enjoy this hobby.
4. Share your passion with someone else.
The most important thing is that you keep going. You will continue to improve. You will learn new techniques or find a style that works for you. And eventually you’ll get to the other side of the valley. I’m still on the foothills, but I’ve made it across. The mountain ahead is still daunting, but I can look back and see how far I’ve come. You can do this! Don’t give up now!