Woulda ~ Shoulda ~ Coulda?

In Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons by David44 Comments

I think there are two kinds of photographers among those who are honest enough to admit they compare themselves to others. The first looks at the work of another and says, “I wish I could do that.” The second looks at the work of another and says, “I could have done that.” So because I’ve been, alternately, both of those people, and can still be so from time to time, I feel the need to preach the following sermon. I’m preaching first to myself, if you listen in that’s your choice.

I could have done that.

But you didn’t, did you? You were too busy doing something else while the other guy went and did it. Too busy comparing or procrastinating or getting distracted with gear. To busy making excuses. I could have done that if….If I had a better camera, if I had more lenses, if I had studio lights. If, if, if. I think every time my ego says “I could have done that,” someone should be allowed to say, “but you didn’t.” Much of the time these thoughts come not because I truly think I could have done that particular thing, or shot that particular shot. The thought comes because I’m too busy comparing myself to others and not busy enough working. You know what? No one cares about what you could have done but didn’t. They only care about what you’ve done. Crap or get off the pot. There is no good place in the creative soul for this kind of thinking, it’s toxic. Turn it into something better; let that enviable image or job push you to think “Hey, I’m going to try…” Because, honestly, this isn’t rocket-science. It’s photography and to one degree or another, when you say “I could have done that,” well of course you could. That we didn’t make that photograph tells us more about ourselves. I’m not being hard here, just saying what needs to be said, even if it’s only me listening sometimes. Comparisons are a waste of creative energy.

I wish I could do that.

Do it. Find a way, and do it. You won’t do it the same way but why would you want to? Still, do it. Life is incredibly short. Your time to redeem the few days we all have is now. Your time to change the world and make a mark is now. You are the one who assumes the photographer you envy has more hours in the day, more cameras in his bag, and more skill in his shutter finger than you have in your entire body. Bologna. And even if that is true, so what. I get more and more emails telling me I’m living the dream, telling me how badly they wish they were doing what I do. Great. So few of them have a plan to get there. So few of them even think it possible. I’m not saying you can do anything, I’m saying the biggest failure is not trying and these dreams – I know, I’ve said this before – are not going to chase themselves.

It’s hard enough to create a compelling image when you’re focusing all your attention on the ground glass of the focusing screen, infinitely more so when we’re also looking over our shoulder or looking around to see who is taking notice of us, what others think of our work, or what others are doing. If you must look around, do so to learn and improve your craft. For some of us this means less time on Flickr looking for affirmation. For others it means less time online and more time shooting. And for others still it means sitting down and making a plan instead of simply wishing. Just, whatever you do, don’t finish life thinking “I could have- should have – done that.”


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  2. Yea Baby; tell it like it is.

    I am reminded of a time I was at a guitar music camp and I said to an instructor about playing the upright bass, “Boy I wish I could do that” to which he said “You are not dead yet!” in a raised voice so everyone could hear.

    Dang, that comment resonated in my head for a whole year until the next camp where I signed up for bass lessons and had a ball.

    “you’re not dead yet” has become my wife’s and my phrase to each other when we catch each other whining about coulda, woulda, shoulda.

  3. If anyone makes it this far down the comments. Once again David, great advice. It reminds me of a saying I repeat to myself often “don’t ‘should’ all over yourself.”

    Just started Vision Mongers, and based on just the few pages I have read, I predict it will propbably be the most impactful of the many photo books I have read!

  4. As we are the in the midst of planning for the coming year and having just lost a family member, this was an incredibly timely post. Thanks, David.

    In his guest blog post for Scott Kelby last week, Bruce DeBoer said that comparing yourself with others is “a trap, there’s no truth found by going there.” That spoke to me in a vivid way, – as an animal should avoid a trap, so should we avoid comparing ourselves with others.

  5. Hey David, another kind of photographer thinks “If they can do that, I can do that!” Not copy, but equal or exceed in quality. It’s a way of being challenged to be better, however we see that.

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  7. thanks david for the inspiration… i just bought a nikon d5000, my first dslr and just love it… its abit intimidating now but i’m detirmined to learn all the settings and start to create some awesome images…. thanks again..
    Mike gallant

  8. Yikes! that hit a nerve. Just the other day I received a lot less ‘comments’ on Flickr than usual. What’s happening!! I asked myself. Then I realized that I was becoming a ‘comment junkie’!! And your article just named some of the dangers of doing just that. Time to shoot more for myself, keep shooting and keep shooting, etc. etc. etc.
    Thanks!! Your articles are always so valuable.

  9. Isn’t self-therapy great, and a lot cheaper than using a pro. Like most commentors above, I see myself in your comments. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out why I sometimes do, and then sometimes don’t create the photos I want. Impatience is huge for me. I expect to create the photo I visulaize on the first try every time. It rarley works like that, which get’s very discouraging. I am fairly new to photography, so I’m still a bit in the stage of copying great photographers pictures. The sooner you realize that that as well as comparing your photo’s to the great’s is also a trap, the better. But it’s scary to commit to creating your own original pictures – what if nobody likes them? It got a bit easier when I started telling myself that the only eye that matters is mine. Now I just have to learn to listen to myself…

  10. a good and (isn’t this topic always) timely post in this age of photoblogs everywhere. Two thoughts, sometimes the ‘I coulda done that’ is more of a statement of self realization, spoken to oneself, and that can a good thing. Following from that idea i realized that you can switch the titles of each paragraph and get another pair of useful insights that thouroughly compliments your post. Thanks, i really am getting to enjoy your blog.

  11. Agreed.

    Keep those fingers on the shutter releases, eyes to the viewfinder, compose, shoot repeat.

    I can’t really express how much better a photographer I am when I’m out there shooting every day. When I do a lot of shooting over a period of days my instincts are better and my senses are sharpened. The equipment becomes a part of me that I don’t have to think about or hardly even pay attention to any longer, just interpose between me and my subjects at the right moment.

    The camera is just a tool like a hammer or a rope, something to let you reach out and connect with what you see in a way that allows you to interact with it. The most important tools are your mind, eyes and gut, they do the heavy lifting, that’s what you should be paying closest attention to when shooting. And your imagination can compensate for almost any lack in the equipment department. So use that big brain of yours to get you where you want to be to get the shot you want capture, and forget about what you think you need and don’t have, everything you need is right there inside of you waiting to be released.

    Forget the rules and guidelines and the check lists, forget what others have done, and strike out on your own for the undiscovered country where no other shooters have gone before. That’s where you’ll find your image, the image that speaks to you, the image that is your truth. Find that and you’ll find what you seek.

  12. I didn’t need this – I’m still crapping!

    I’ve done this before, and do it sometimes, but I do it less often too, because I realize my vision won’t go fulfill itself.

  13. For some unknown reason, I do not tend to think in either way. I do tend to judge from the viewpoint of “I like or I don’t” like with the follow-up of determining what I like (and sometimes what I don’t like) and applying the results to my own work. Thereby, there is no envy or frustration.

  14. I think the biggest things we regret are the things we never tried… or the things we only half heartedly tried. Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game. As my dear mom always told me, if you think you can do something you can. SO instead of beating ourselves up over what we “can’t” or “won’t” do, let’s remember than each day is a new beginning and a new chance. =)

    Very good post and right on!!

  15. Yep, stepped all over my feet but I needed to hear this. Thank you for talking directly to me but without mentioning my name! This post and yesterday’s post by Austin Mann on Scott Kelby’s blog were perhaps the most informative I’ve read.

  16. Great post. I have had the “I wish” feeling before and your advice regarding that is on point. Thanks or sharing.

  17. Love the post, but as often as i look at others’ work – which I do often – I find myself saying not ‘i could have…’ or ‘I wish I could have ….’ but saying ‘What a great idea I’m going to try that in my own way.’

  18. I’m not sure it could be said any better. We all need to realize we, for the most part, are the only ones holding ourselves back.

  19. “Crap or get off the pot.” Good line! 🙂

    But once again your post strikes a nerve, and you throw some information in our faces that most other people wouldn’t dare to do… and we love you for it!

  20. Thanks! I needed that – also shared it with my photo friends. Sounds like a good New Years resolution for me that I plan to start today.

  21. Ouch! That one hurt. You cut me deep with that one my friend. It’s been a good year for learning more about my craft and my business but I need to take it to the next level. Thanks for the bucket of cold water.

  22. Yes, I heard my voice in your post. My biggest regrets in life are those things I never tried, many of them because of my wouldas, couldas and shoulds. I’m almost half way through your new book, Vision Mongers, and chewing on many of your words and ideas. Thanks, again for a good post.

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  24. Really struck a nerve in this post. I constantly sway between both viewpoints, making excuses for myself and never actually doing what I think I want to be doing.

    I am forever planning and never doing. Going to keep the second half of this post printed out and stuck on my wall to look at everytime I find myself procrastinating.

    Thanks David, brilliant post.

  25. Most useful & resonating photo blog post I’ve read in a long time. Right on.

  26. I usually say woulda-shoulda-coulda when I look at my own pictures. I would have taken a better shot if not for… I should have moved over a few feet to the right and then that distracting element wouldn’t be in the way… I could have used a different setting to get an effect that would be better.

    When I look at other people’s work, I don’t really compare mine to theirs. It’s about vision, isn’t it? And if my vision isn’t theirs, and vice versa, who besides me cares?

  27. Right on spot David.. Couldn’t agree more. I had so many I wish, I could haves myself as well previously but then I realized I didn’t and there was only one responsible reason for this, ME.. not the equipment, not the money, not the time, not the people.. just me.

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