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The Mental Game of Photography

Outdoor photography isn’t just about deep pockets and an arms race over lenses

By Amethyst QuPublished 2 years ago 9 min read
River Kayaker, Reno 2005 / photo by the author Amethyst Qu

If you seek to catch magic in a bottle, know that magic doesn't feel obliged to make it easy.

A few years ago, I was on a tour with a wealthy man in his seventies who was trying to take up the sport of photographing birds in flight. At first glance, he had everything he needed. Money for the best equipment and guides. The time and health to travel anywhere in the world.

Many older people have time, health, and money. But he had one more precious gift given to those few chosen to be athletes — impressively fast reflexes. He claimed to be a former professional athlete in a rich man’s sport, a claim I had no way of checking but which I came to believe was true. If you’re that fast at 75, what were you at 25?

And yet, within days — if not hours — I could see this man would never make a bird photographer.

The only quality he lacked was grit. And yet, without grit, he might as well lack everything.

Collared Towhee thinks I don't see him / photo by the author

Physical Versus Mental Toughness

I lack physical toughness. On a basic level, I lack the physical strength to handle the long, heavy lenses needed to capture a flyby of a migrating bird. In recent years, an arthritic knee means I move even more slowly than I did before, and I wasn’t Speed Racer to begin with.

Others I’ve known lack some other key resource. Money for the costly lenses or flights to the locations. Free time to practice and to chase.

Lacking physical resources doesn’t seem like such a tragedy to me. We’re not going to be famous names in bird photography. We’re not going to win grants from National Geographic. We’re still out bumbling around to the best of our ability.

Sure, we miss more images than we get, but so what? We’re not there for fame or money. That’s off the table.

We’re there for something else. That magic moment of beauty. And even if we can’t catch it in a bottle, we were there.

We’re doing the work anyway — the work of chasing magic.

How far are you willing to go to chase magic once money, fame, and yelling bosses are out of the equation? When something inside of you is the only motor? Your photos may be good or bad, the birds cooperative or invisible, but you learn something about yourself either way.

What comforts will you scorn? What risks will you take? You don’t know until you’re out there. You think you’re wise, you’re cautious, but you’re not. You think you’ll pull back before you do something to risk mind or body, but you don’t.

Or maybe you’re the opposite. Maybe you’re too quick to act on pain. Or pain’s early warning signal — discomfort.

Maybe you think you’re being smart. Hell, maybe you are.

Milky Eagle-Owl / photo by the author Amethyst Qu

The high cost of being self-care aware

The rich former athlete I met was quick to identify any potential source of mental or physical discomfort. He was equally quick to sound off about it.

The mountaintop was cold. The booze was bad. You had to climb a hill to phone home, and usually somebody else was already standing there because a whole village had to use the same spot. The wind was blowing in the wrong direction for days on end, so the birds were coming slowly, one by one and two by two, instead of in huge spectacular waves…

Blah, blah, blah.

He wanted to pack up and hike down. He’d put up with enough. We’d come all this way, and now he didn’t want to wait a few days more for the wind to change direction so migration could begin.

Why not? I couldn’t figure it out. We had a great spot. On every side, you could hike down a little way to find trees dripping with little birds all the colors of the flowers. With his equipment and reflexes, he could have been building an amazing portfolio of the resident species.

What’s your problem, dude? I kept thinking. You’ve got everything.

Then, one night, two words suddenly flashed across my brain, and I knew. He didn’t have everything. He lacked the one thing you really need.

Mental toughness.

As he droned on over dinner, this thought came to me: If you lack mental toughness, nothing else matters.

Owl in a Hollow Log, Madagascar / photo by the author Amethyst Qu

Grit versus the comfort zone

All this rich man’s worldly resources and all his physical gifts meant nothing because he lacked grit — that intangible combination of patience and determination you need to carry you through the hard moments in a practice. Sometimes, the wind doesn’t blow in your preferred direction. Sometimes, the temperature drops. Sometimes, the shower is putting out ice cubes.

And here’s where you make your choice.

I’m not quitting until I get what I came for. I came too far to give up now.


Eff it, I’m hiking down to the bar.

And, yes, I know Door #1 is how people leave their bodies behind on Everest.

And yet.

Upon watching his final retreat into the fancy hotel back in the city, I wasn’t thinking, “I could learn something from that guy about how to take better care of myself.”

Here’s what I’m thinking:

“Crikey, how do you get to be that old, and you’re still a whiny, crying baby?”

Puffin, Machias Sea Island / photo by the author Amethyst Qu

When Self-Care is the Booby Prize

As I write, in an arena far away from outdoor photography, the whole concept of mental toughness is being called into question. Mental health is all. Self-care is the highest virtue.

Eh, maybe. I don’t know.

Does anyone else feel patronized — even gaslit — when quitting is called courage?

A second-rate courage. Good enough for women.

Oh, that part of it goes unsaid, of course. I can’t help hearing it anyway. When you’re a woman, you can’t help hearing the unspoken parts.

“Folding is for quitters,” the poker players’ tee-shirt used to say. You see, folding is often wise, but it’s still losing. We don’t celebrate our wisdom when we fold. We may even grumble about it.

Broken pottery, Kathmandu, Nepal / photo by the author Amethyst Qy

What do you value as greatness?

A poker player doesn’t style herself the greatest of all time — she’s not even the greatest at this table of nine players — until she actually sticks around long enough to stack everybody else’s chips in her tray.

If somebody else calls us the greatest of all time because we make a hero fold, we hear exactly what they’re saying:

Ha, ha, you’re so smart but I’m stacking your chips right now, you loser.

The climb doesn’t reward wisdom — not the wisdom of recognizing pain as a warning sign. Wouldn’t it be nice if it did?

What would life be like if we didn’t have to make hard choices? If art was always easy?

If we risked nothing to get the shot. If we could always protect ourselves. If we could always play it safe.

Would it even be art?

Would it even be living?

Is wisdom even wise?

See, I keep thinking of the rich man who fell apart at the top of the mountain for no better reason than the wind was blowing the wrong way and the shower was snow-melt and the 3G was over on that hill somewhere and the angry younger girlfriend had to hike down three villages to find a bottle of wine and then hike back up again and there were cows in the path and…

Self-care is something we should do — something we have to do to survive. Of course, it is. But you can have only one top priority. When you choose self-care to be your number one, what do you push down into second, third, sixteenth place?

Right or wrong, I believe this: People who center self-care miss much of life. If self-care is your priority, you may be wise, but doesn’t it seem to be a sad and cautious “what if I’d only” sort of wisdom?

Fall Creek Falls, Tennessee / photo by the author Amethyst Qu

Self-care is not a substitute for purpose

For me, I don’t care if the mountaintop is cold. If the shower is cold. If the wi-fi is down. If the wind steals my hat. If the tight curves on the road make me stumble out to vomit in a ditch.

If my knee goes wonky. If I’m too clumsy to manage a walking stick at the same time I’m wrangling the cameras and binoculars slung around my neck. If as a consequence I must crawl up portions of the ascent on all-fours.

Which is, actually, how I did ascend portions of the peak I visited with the whiny guy.

And whiny guy, as one of only four of us in the group, knew that. He saw me. Commented on it too.

“We gonna end up stuck up there?”

“Not my first rodeo with a bad knee. Going down will take longer, but it’ll all work out. I can always leave a bit earlier on the morning of. They haven’t left me out on a mountaintop for the vultures yet.”

Sure, I felt self-conscious. Who would not? And sure, if I died up there, I guess I would look pretty silly.

But the fear of looking silly is a kind of cowardice. Yielding too easily to that fear is comfortable. It can feel like wisdom: You did the right thing, honey. You could’ve gotten hurt.

Courage isn't comfortable.

If you prize comfort and self-protectiveness above all other virtues-- if you never risk pushing too hard-- when will you ever push beyond your small mortal self to do something you never thought possible for the likes of you?

You can say you always know how far is too far, that you’re wise enough to be certain, but you don’t and you’re not. Or maybe you are.

But I’m not.

And so I sometimes leave "self-care" behind. Even if the going gets tough, I keep going.

And if one day, going too far, I provide a laugh for somebody who thinks I should have known better?

Well, it’s the circle of life. In the end, we all serve as somebody’s cautionary tale.

Swallowtail Kite / photo by the author Amethyst Qu

What We Remember

Right or wrong, wise or foolish, I believe this too: At the end of it all, if you survive, you don’t recall pain very well except as a sort of entertaining blur you laugh about later.

What you remember is the view from the top. The way the bird lifts up over the ridge, and those piercing orange eyes meet your eyes.

Ah, so you’re here too, you made it.

Self-care — self itself — doesn’t matter then. Only transcendence.

Author's Note

An earlier version of this story originally appeared in Illumination, a publication hosted on the Medium platform. In addition to revising the text, I have added an expanded selection of photographs.

If you enjoyed this story, please gently tap the <3 button to let me know. I gratefully accept tips.

You might also enjoy my photo stories from Bolivia:


About the Creator

Amethyst Qu

Seeker, traveler, birder, crystal collector, photographer. I sometimes visit the mysterious side of life. Author of "The Moldavite Message" and "Crystal Magick, Meditation, and Manifestation."

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