What does photography do for me? It makes me happy. If it is supposed to always do so, why do I feel discontented with photography at times? This was a thought that has been at the back of my mind for many years. Recently, I thought of analyzing this. Why does photography not make me happy always?
(Nanda Kot peak in the late evening)
The day before yesterday, I captured a photograph of a woodpecker. It was pecking on an old wild apricot tree in front of my house. Very rarely do I venture out to do bird photography. In fact, the lens that I use for bird photography does not belong to me. It’s a Sigma 150-500 mm lens, a budget lens that is a bit too soft for my liking. I mounted this lens on my present favorite camera body, a Nikon Df. This is now an outdated model which was quite an out-of-the-box design and very nostalgic when it was launched. Sadly, Nikon has not yet come out with a second version of this body. When I went out to that tree, the woodpecker was still there. It was tapping out a nice rhythm. The bright orange on its head was a relief from the drab winter surroundings of frost and leafless trees. I captured a few snaps using manual mode. 1/500 sec shutter speed to avoid inadvertent hand shake and an f/8 aperture to get a good enough depth of field with such a long lens. Auto ISO set the ISO to 5600. Quite high!
Later when I sat down to post-process the image. I started feeling down. The image was too soft. There was noise. The bokeh was poor. Is that what photography was supposed to do to me? What was wrong?
(Himalayan Woodpecker on the old apricot tree of the wild variety)
It was high time for me to introspect.
The Number of Followers and Likes
Another incident. I posted a few pics on social media. Yes, I use them from time to time, more out of the necessity than out of liking. To me, my photograph was nice. Just as it is to any other photographer. The number of followers that I have is very low. The number of likes was still lower. It made me sad. Once again something was not right. Should the likes that I got not make me feel happy? Why do my photographs not give me happiness that I was supposed to have got?
Yes, it really was time to introspect.
Difference between pleasure and happiness
I read it in a book some days back and now I have started seeing this everywhere. Let me first explain the difference. You have a brand new super-expensive phone. Something that you had been longing to buy for a long time. That gives you pleasure. When your loved one calls you on that phone, it gives you happiness.
Visiting a restaurant gives me pleasure but sipping just plain water to quench my thirst gives me happiness.
The beautiful teak-wood bed in my bedroom with a thick mattress is a luxury. It gives me pleasure when I see it or lie on it. I feel happy when I get up in the morning after a long relaxing sleep.
Owning a hard-bound library edition of my favorite book will be pleasurable but reading that (even on a paperback mass-produced version) makes me happy.
I was starting to see the light. Understanding this difference between pleasure and happiness was the first step to doing away with my photography blues.
The fact that I have a lens and camera and that the woodpecker was still there are blessings. Not everyone has them. I captured photographs to my heart’s content. The music being tapped by the orange headed bird, the beautiful morning, the camera that I enjoy. The process had been pleasurable and had provided me happiness too.
Expectations and Reality
This is another cause of dissatisfaction. What we expect and what we get are quite frequently different and usually less. When a person ponders on this difference, happiness ceases to exist.
The lens was soft but then it did help me capture the woodpecker image. I was thankful for that. What I was longing for was the pleasure of owning a sharp lens that would cost a lot. I wanted a lens that would be as sharp as a 135mm prime lens that I use for portraits. I wanted a brand that was exotic. A lens that was a pleasure to possess! My expectations were high for a lens and the reality was different.
Even with the existing lens, when I sat for post-processing. I saw the softness and that made me further long for something more.
Though 5600 in that woodpecker photograph is a very high ISO for photographers like me, coming from the film era. Still, I noticed the noise. Once again, my expectation was high. (By the way, when Df was launched, it was touted as having one of the lowest high ISO noise in the market).
I was learning to see light. The happiness that was not there was due to unrealistic expectations. I expected more than what was already there. There is a difference between trying to improve myself and expectations that lead to unhappiness.
(Himalayan Bulbuls. I felt happy just seeing them singing around. Photographing them was just a plus. Same lens and same settings as the woodpecker. The ambient light was more so ISO used was 3200, still an amazingly high number for me!)
We as humans are social beings. We live in a society. We have friends and acquaintances. We also have a presence on various social media. There are followers and friends. This longing for being a part of a larger group and to shine in that group is another cause for unhappiness.
I understand that the number of likes and followers is proportional to the popularity of a person. It validates networking skills to some extent. However, it never is an endorsement of photography skills. Yet, I too am a social being and so some part of me felt sad when my number of likes was less in the second incident.
I am now trying to teach myself that photography gives me happiness but lack of likes should not be a concern to me. I may be social but I am also an introvert. I avoid photography competitions as much as I can. Some of my best photographs have not made to this site or to my Instagram. So, why should I be unhappy? I am teaching myself that I don’t need a social validation to feel happy. Coming back to the original thought. Social validation gives pleasure but it is up to me how and when to feel happy!
We as a race are growing by leaps and bounds. The population is higher than it ever was. We are competing daily with people around us. For jobs that secure our future, for money to buy things that bring pleasure, for a place to live, for an identity, and so on…
This is what causes me to evaluate myself every time I click an image. How is it faring among the works by stalwarts like Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier Bresson? Am I anywhere close to what they did? Will any of my photographs reach that height of recognition? Will fellow photographers like what I do? This is the feeling of competition and social validation that tries to suppress joy.
I am now trying to rise above this. Who am I competing with? In reality, no one. It is with my own feelings, my own efforts that I am competing, and that too on a different turf. It is different from how anyone else would click an image. I am me!
I’m trying to improve myself and I am trying to become a calmer person. That is what my quest for happiness is about. I am now trying to be happy with what I do.
(Nanda Devi peak, also photographed with the same Sigma lens. A better version is shared on my Instagram.)
In the Zone
When I am photographing, with full heart and mind in the process, I am in the realm of Ikigai. I am in the ‘zone’. Totally lost and contented with what I am doing. This is what happiness should be. The happiness in seeing the subject in front of me. The happiness in noticing the subtleties of the composition. The happiness in setting everything correct and then pressing the shutter release button. The reassuring sound of the click. A photograph well captured. That is what is happiness to the photographer in me. Being in the zone is what makes me happy. Writing this article, I am in the zone. I am happy with myself.
(Spotted this mouse munching on Chamomile flowers, last spring, when I was collecting the flowers for tea. It then went on to rest on the soft leaves of Dandelions growing not far off. I felt happy observing how it was enjoying the season.)
To sum it up
I am learning to understand how to be happy. Happiness is superior to pleasure and it comes from within. I don’t need others to validate my work to be happy. I am happy when I understand the limitations of the medium and work to get the most out of it. I am learning to be happy with what I have. A Leica (which is still too expensive for me to buy) will always give me pleasure. A Hasselblad? Something, I will always be excited to posses! But, happiness? It’ll always come from within, regardless of which camera I’ll use.
My quest for happiness has just seen a new light!