The Whole Truth

A have a confession to make…

(Don’t you love it when people write that? You just know there’s a juicy tidbit coming.)

I’m not a perfect photographer. My creative process isn’t always pretty. There’s a lot of work that happens before my images land here in the blog or on my Facebook page.

But I haven’t really shown you that part. I have kept it all “behind the curtain,” like the great Wizard of Oz, pulling knobs and turning dials, all the while leading you to think I poop pretty photos.

Was that gross?

Okay, all the while leading you to believe that my work is always as you see it here.

But it’s time for me to share the whole truth. I have a creative process. It’s messy. I make mistakes. I fix them. And I only show you my best work because somehow I thought that putting on this show of perfectly pretty photos would make everyone love me and hire me. Then I read something that caused me to have a change of heart.

I “randomly” came across a book that is having a profound effect on my heart and making me rethink a lot of things about my life and my art. It’s called “Untitled” by Blaine Hogan, the Creative Director at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago (long known for mingling faith and the arts.)

I could write 6 blog posts about this book (and I might, this being number one), but the first thing I wanted to share about is my creative process. Because without sharing my process, all you see is my product, and to me, that lacks the kind of authenticity I believe deeply in.

But first, a little story…

I spent the week between Christmas and New Years mentoring a small group of photographers in Christian Event Photography. Each day they would create images and I would give them feedback and ways to improve. They progressively got better and better – blowing my expectations out of the water! One day I decided to critique my photos for them. When they saw my photos, I remember someone saying, “You make mistakes too!?!”

Like this was shocking?

Okay, now I was the one shocked! OF COURSE I MAKE MISTAKES (see the opening image in this post)! I immediate felt a weight of sadness for inadvertently giving other photographers the impression I don’t make mistakes.

So when I read this quote from “Untitled”, I realized that it was time to come clean:

“When your art is only in your product and not also in your process, things will always end this way (miserable). You must understand that your art is not just what you make, but also how you make it. Your art isn’t just the ‘what’ of the end-result, but is also ‘how’ you got there.” Hogan, Blaine – Untitled: Thoughts on the Creative Process (Kindle Locations 608-610).

This blog is visited by as many photographers as potential clients (if not more) and I don’t want a single one to think that I’ve arrived at some pinnacle of excellence where I don’t make mistakes anymore.

Of course, dear potential clients, I make mostly great photos! 🙂 But there is a process involved in making the photos you see here, and it usually involves several not as great photos before getting to the great ones. 🙂

I am what they call a “heavy shooter.” I use the camera as a sketchbook. My first photo in a situation is rarely my best. I create a lot of photos because I am driven to create that one great, compelling photo.

One thing I had to keep encouraging my students at the event photography workshop was to create more images.

Every single student: Click click. Move on. Click click. Move on. Click click. It drove me a little nuts. 😉

Why? Because I will sometimes spend 5 minutes or more in one spot on one subject. Trying different compositions, exposures, waiting for that great expression, waiting…refining…waiting…refining. This is my creative process when I’m behind the camera, and out of that 5 or more minutes that yielded 30+ frames, you only see one photo, if that. This process is exhausting, but totally worth it for those moments when it all clicks. Honestly, I work hard for every photo.

So I share this to encourage my photographer friends. Every photographer makes mistakes and has a creative process that you are not usually privy to. In fact, if you don’t make mistakes, you’re probably doing it wrong. You have to fail to succeed, and if you are bound up in needing every frame to be perfect, you will never take the kind of risks necessary to become all you dream you can be or do all you have in your heart to do as an artist.

You have to work hard for it. There are no shortcuts. And there will be a lot of frustration.

One of my favorite quotes on creativity is this one by Ira Glass:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.

But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.

Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

So the whole truth is that I’m still fighting. I wish to always have a gap that motivates me to work harder to get even better at what I do. I wanted you to know that my creative process isn’t perfect; that I work hard and make mistakes and that is all part of making great images.


  1. Bob

    January 16, 2013

    If it were not for the doubt deep within us we would not keep pushing to create. I am always the most surprised when an image I created makes some one gasp…and then, of course, I want to do it again…

    Great post.

    Thanks you,

  2. Biff

    January 16, 2013

    Shelley, thank you for this entry! I have never felt like a photographer whole creates grand images. I work hard (exhaustingly hard) for every image. Your words really connected with me. Thank you!

  3. Mykou

    January 16, 2013

    “Of course, dear potential clients, I make mostly great photos!”…so silly Shelley!

    Seriously though…I loved that quote by Glass. I am such a perfectionist and in ways, it hinders me from creating in general. I’ve come to realize though, that I need to allow myself to be a beginner in order to get to where I want to be…but why does it have to take so long? Yes. I’m extremely impatient with myself and that’s why this is such a good reminder. Just keep creating stories.

    But really, thanks for being honest and vulnerable. I can respect that.

  4. Kylee

    January 16, 2013

    Thank you. That Ira Glass quote…it speaks to what i’ve been struggling with!! Thank you for being brave and posting this, it is very encouraging =)

  5. Tasha

    January 16, 2013

    Thank you, Shelley! This is perfect!! You are such an amazing mentor & friend to so many because you’re real & honest!! Love you! XOXO

  6. stacy k

    January 16, 2013

    Shelley, this was a breath of fresh air! We work very similarly and I’m relieved to know that “using the camera as a sketchbook” isn’t such a bad thing. 🙂 Even though I’ve had the honor of shooting with you once, I thought every time you clicked the shutter it was a great shot. I’m glad you’re human. I ordered the book “Untitled” after you mentioned it earlier on FB … it’s sitting on my counter and I can’t wait to dive in. Thanks for your transparency and writing this post! It’s encouraging to me. 🙂

  7. Shirley

    January 17, 2013

    The worst mistake I ever made was letting you loan me that first great lens

  8. Jennifer

    January 17, 2013

    There is a pasture with new snow, the sun is rising on it and I see footprints you have left for me. I step, and step and step and am thankful for the time you have taken to leave a path for me to follow despite the cold and uncertainty.
    I am smack 1/3 of the way through the Hogan book and am loving it, and I pull Mr. Ira out of the vault every few months to help me to press on.
    Eph 2:10 is my new years theme, and I am so very thankful for people like you who help to see how to live it.
    Thanks so much for being transparent, it is very helpful!!

  9. Artem Sapegin

    January 17, 2013

    Average pro photographer makes much more bad images than few amateurs taken together 🙂

  10. Artem Sapegin

    January 17, 2013

    I want to read this book too—can’t wait for my new Kindle!

  11. Jeannie

    January 17, 2013

    Shelley, you just have no idea, what this post meant to me. I’m Industrial Designer, but I always loved photography and last year I decided to follow my heart and start doing what I most like doing. I´ve been following your work since like 3 years ago, and YOU ARE MY FAVOURITE! there’re a looot of great photographers out-there but somehow I can see in your pics TRUE BEAUTY 🙂 is just about real life!!! and this is all that matters to me, living the real life and being humble, and that’s how you are!!! and this message you gave us represents that! HUMBLE!!!

    Thanks for sharing the best of you!
    You might never know a lot of us but you have noooo idea the impact you cause in each one!

    Have a great 2013!

  12. lina

    January 17, 2013


  13. Leann Thompson

    January 27, 2013

    Thank you for sharing this. I so appreciate it!!
    I Love your Heart 🙂

  14. Moira

    April 5, 2018

    What an encouraging post! Thank you Shelley xxx

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