On motivation in photography

Motivation is a very hard and deep topic to understand. Authors, thinkers, scientists, psychologist and philosophers have been investigating the aspects of people’s drive and motivation for centuries. It goes without saying that this humble article only tries to address the challenges of motivation from a very personal and uneducated angle. So if you are looking for scientific paper on motivation, this is not it. It’s rather a personal investigation on what are the motivators that drive my photographic passion, which can possibly apply to you and others.

What is motivation

First, let’s look at how motivation is defined by authors on Wikipedia. Motivation is the reason for people’s actions, willingness and goals. Motivation is derived from the word motive which is defined as a need that requires satisfaction.” The article then goes on to say “Motivation is one’s direction to behavior, or what causes a person to want to repeat a behavior, a set of force that acts behind the motives.”
I specifically like the part “…a set of force that acts behind the motives” So let’s look at what the forces are that drive our photographic motives.

Forces of motivation

Dan Pink in his book Drive names three key forces behind intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within the individual because it is naturally satisfying to you.
Those three forces are autonomy, mastery & purpose. As Dan points in his book, in order for people to be fully engaged, motivated and satisfied in their job, these three attributes have to be present in a job. For many, photography is not just a hobby but a job as well. For some, it is a career, for others their true calling, the purpose of being. Regardless, having autonomy, mastery and purpose makes it easier staying motivated and creating art.
In short, autonomy, mastery & purpose mean:


Autonomy is the need to direct your own life and work. To be fully motivated, you must be able to control what you do, when you do it, and who you do it with. It motivates us to think creatively without needing to confirm the rules. It is fine to follow photographic rules, but it is even finer not to.


Mastery is the desire to improve. If you are motivated by mastery, you’ll likely see your potential as being unlimited, and you’ll constantly seek to improve your skills through learning and practice. Someone who seeks mastery needs to attain it for its own sake. Have you noticed how the greatest masters, in any field, will tell you they are still learning? That’s mastery! The road is the goal.


People may become disengaged and demotivated at work if they don’t understand, or can’t invest in, the “bigger picture.” But those who believe that they are working toward something larger and more important than themselves are often the most hard-working, productive and engaged. Same applies to creative endeavours. If you believe in the work you do, in its purpose, it will be easier to continue doing it.
There is much more to the whole topic on intrinsic motivation and the forces that drive people to act. In case you don’t have time for the book, which I recommend you find, at least check out Dan’s TED talk. You will really want to read the book after.
Further are some tips on where to find motivation and how to keep it.

Where to find motivation

There’s a ton of resources, publications and accessible ways to look for motivation. I put them into three categories:

Photographic Books

Go ahead and research any of the following: Robert Capa, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Elliott Erwitt, Vivian Maier. The list goes on, better check out this list if you don’t know them by now. Next step, check out if there are any photographic books by them at your local bookstore, or get it online. Final step – read it. But not just read it, but really read it. You will find what I mean by reading this great article on contemplative reading of photography by Federico Alegría on Medium. Simply, it means to read with understanding, to look at a photograph for more than the time it takes you to scroll through it. Look at it for several minutes. Try to understand it. What did the author mean? Analyze the composition, colors, shapes, depth, intention, etc. It is a completely different consumption of photography and completely different level of motivation.  

Social Media

Ever present, ever accessible. PCs, tablets, iMacs, smartphones. Anywhere, anytime. During morning commute, during lunch break, just now while typing this, before coffee, during coffee, after coffee. You get it. Be aware though not to fall into comparison trap, as this will do the exact opposite of motivation – checking out all the great work all the time can make you feel less adequate and successful. Get inspired, don’t compare. Again, spend time on each post. Limit the amount of images you see. Look at it. Read it contemplatively. Analyze and understand it. Most importantly, learn from it. How was it taken? Why? How is the light? Is it staged or canid?

As inspiration, I often go to these accounts on Instagram:

Alan Schaller

Six Street Under

Florian Winter

Bas Hordijk

…just to name a few.

Non-photography resources

Alternative to looking at photography, motivation and inspiration often comes from different sources. Books, movies, art. Those come to mind as first alternates. But have you ever tried finding inspiration in conversations? Stories people tell you? Could you capture them, recreate them? How challenging would that be? Putting someone’s story into a single frame? Or a photo essay?
Could you perhaps find motivation in a different craft/hobby? Writing? Running? Meditation? Painting? Photography is painting with light after all. How about making a movie for a change, even if thirty seconds long…
Just a food for thought.. Explore outside your domain, is what I am trying to say.

Here‘s an interesting read, a bit different angle on motivation and its triggers. 

How to keep motivation

With motivation, it can be a two way street. You will look at the photography “Greats”, the Masters of Henry Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank or Annie Liebovitz and be inspired by their work. You will want to go out and shoot. You will want to be like them. But soon you will realize that you are not really like them. You start to question your skills and suddenly realize the once powerful motivation is now weaker or gone. Then you move on to check out your Instagram feed, but again, similar process repeats itself. As mentioned above, getting inspired and motivated can suddenly turn into feelings of lower self-esteem, doubt and fear. Where is the motivation in that? A short advice here would be to look at and compare only to yourself. Get inspired by others, compare to yourself.

Later, you might want to check this blog out – Being happy about own work.

the row boat

How? I periodically review my work and see what on earth was I doing before. This activity in itself makes me feel better about myself. I recently reviewed and updated my catalogue in Lightroom. I checked all my photos from past 3 years. I tagged the best ones with a specific keyword. Afterwards, I created three Smart Collections for each year – 2016, 2017 and 2018 using the keyword. And then I reviewed the pictures there. I realized that gradually, my images have been getting better and better and I started to see how my work is developing.


Most importantly, in order for me to be able to see where I am going, I need to understand where I’ve been. This helps a great deal, because it gives my work direction and purpose. Analyzing my past work tells me about how my future could look like. I can see I am able to improve my skills over time. For years! I am confident I can continue improving and taking on harder projects.

Understand this: Masters have become Masters because they were motivated by autonomy, purpose and MASTERY. Continuous improvement. Step by step. Years. The road is the goal.

What motivates you? Did this article?

Or maybe this one will make you happy about your own work:

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black and white minimalist photography