The first time I saw Adi Adinayev's festival photography, I was at the mercy of my emotions.
I didn't know the words at the time, but I was in awe of their cleanliness, drama, personality, and exoticism. Then I was envious that another photographer could be so good. I had been proud of a lot of my photos from parties and concerts, but browsing through Adi's work I suddenly felt like everything I had shot up to that point was worthless. I remember the story of a man who set out to hike the entire Appalachian Trail -- after enduring countless near-death hardships and spending months hiking, he looked at a map and saw he had barely moved in relation to the whole. He quit. That's how I felt, and I had trouble getting to sleep.
I think the biggest obstacle a lot of people face in any creative pursuit is letting themselves get daunted by the difference between where they are and where they want to be. Seeing others move effortlessly where you struggle can actually make it worse. Everyone knows some version of the platitude "comparison is the thief of joy," but you can't combat emotional problems with logical wisdom.
Eventually my feelings of inferiority lightened, and gave way to a resolve to step up my game. Humbled, I reached out to Adinayev on his Facebook page and asked him about what lenses he used. To my surprise he responded. At the time I had a weekly residential at Ascend Nightclub Boston (RIP), and went to work that week determined to try some new techniques.
I didn't get the photos I wanted. I was still miles from where I wanted to be. But at least I was moving. My confidence (or arrogance) had been shattered, but after the shock subsided I was left with clarity. I stopped thinking so much about where I wanted to go, and started giving more focus on what I could do today.
I saved photos I liked and ran them through exif data viewers to reveal the camera, focal length, ISO, aperture, shutter, and flash settings that were used.
I started carving out some time during every paid gig I took to experiment with new techniques, see what worked, and what didn't.
I started binge-watching YouTube tutorials on photo editing techniques. Whenever I see an edit I like, I try to describe it to google and search until I find out how to do it.
I went to Lowe's, bought a 18"x72" plank, screwed seamless backdrop hooks to it, and nailed it to my bedroom wall. Boom, I had a mini studio for portraits. It wasn't a fancy full fledged studio with professional lighting, but it was something. It's pictured in the top photo -- designer Bre Budryk had me do a shoot of her pieces including that lingerie. She's holding up a box fan to get model Brea Marshall's hair flowing, while I had the same flash and diffuser I use at events on a tripod as the sole light source. Far from a professional setup, but with a little labor of love, everyone was thrilled with the results.
I still love and follow Adinayev's work. Now, however, I feel interested and inspired by it only in a positive way. Whenever I see any photo I love from another photographer, I deduce what specifically I like about the photo. Then I put that into English words. Then I try to translate those English words into camera settings, lighting setups, verbal directions to subjects, and an eye for composition. Rise, repeat.
"Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."
Teddy Roosevelt said that, and it's one of my favorite quotes. I think the best way to overcome anything -- a death, a breakup, or a loss of motivation -- is to just keep busy and do what you can. There will be depression, sadness, loneliness, and self-doubt. You can't make those just go away with some motivational Instagram quote.
But if you focus on what you can do, before you know it you'll realize those feelings long went away and you are suddenly ten times better at whatever it was you were doing in the meantime, surrounded by driven people who share your passion.