Is Your Photography Suffering From the Region-Beta Paradox?

Has your improvement trajectory in photography begun to level off? Do you find yourself feeling a little jaded and uninspired? There is a paradox that might resonate with your current situation and if it does, it holds the keys to propelling yourself forward.

In a talk I was watching recently, the speaker began discussing how often people coast when it comes to the working world. Many of us don’t want to risk our current position in an effort to secure something better and that can lead to stagnation and many other woes. To explain the problem, the speaker brought up the Region-beta paradox, and from the moment it was explained to me, I realized that it had applied perfectly to my photography in periods, and it’s likely I’m not alone.

What Is the Region-beta Paradox?

The Region-beta paradox is the phenomenon where sometimes the worse situation in the short term is better in the long term. Honestly, there is no succinct way to summarize this paradox without it being at least a little confusing! I’ll give an example: if a person was fairly unhealthy — a little overweight, lacking a little in sleep, not drinking enough water — they may be displeased with the situation, but it’s not a disaster. If, however, they had become very unhealthy — obese, rarely getting enough sleep, often dehydrated — they are more likely to come to the realization that something has to change. The working example was useful in explaining this paradox: If somebody is in a job they don’t love, they are more likely to stay in it and not seek a job they do love. Whereas, if a person’s job is awful, they are more likely to quit and look for something better.

What do these situations have in common? Sometimes the worse situation is better. It is, of course, paradoxical, but it makes so much sense. If something isn’t bad enough to warrant action, it is likely more damaging than a worse situation that does effect change. I can think of many times in my life this has been the case, including in the working world. I had a low-average-paying job in my early twenties and while I didn’t loathe the position, it wasn’t what I wanted for myself. It took three-and-a-half years for the job to begin to impact my health with how unhappy it was making me and so I figured out how to leave and pursue something I wanted. Why? Because it wasn’t quite uncomfortable enough before that point.

So, how does this apply to photography?

The Region-Beta Paradox and Photography

At first glance, this concept doesn’t marry up all that well with photography; if photography is making you uncomfortable or unhappy, don’t do it. However, this paradox also applies situations that aren’t inherently negative. In fact, the example given in Daniel Gilbert’s paper that introduced the paradox used the following: “…consider a commuter who has the habit of walking to destinations within a mile of their origin, and biking to more distant destinations. Since the bike is faster, the commuter will reach some distant locations more quickly than nearer destinations (region beta in their diagram), reversing the normal tendency to arrive later at more distant locations.” The paradox was then applied to health and many other situations.

As for photography, it applies to how the photographer is progressing in their craft. When anyone starts photography, there is that typical, exciting state we all experience when finding something new and interesting. You know you’re a complete amateur and you’re learning an awful lot very quickly, which is rewarding. This tails off naturally and then you can stagnate without conscious effort to counteract it. It is around then that the first instance of the Region-beta paradox might rear its head. For example, you might have been trying lots of new techniques and learning because you felt as if you didn’t know anything about the subject, but as your knowledge grows, you become more complacent with that, so you make less of an effort to learn. If you were trying to hit new and difficult heights with your skill level, you would push to improve, but if you’re not uncomfortable enough with your lack of knowledge, you might not. Therefore, it would be better if you were less content with your work.

My Experience of the Paradox

When I first heard of the phenomenon, I thought of two times in my own life it applied. The first was with the full-time job I wasn’t happy in, and the second was as a professional photographer, but for a completely different reason. Some readers may be aware that I have photographed watches for adverts and magazines. I have always enjoyed macro photography, and so, one day, rather out of the blue, I had the idea to look for paid work photographing watches as horology is a passion of mine. My early work was fine, albeit dull and with lots of niche mistakes, but I wanted to produce great images of these timepieces.

I could not stop in this pursuit to create memorable images. I had someone fire a flamethrower at a watch while I photographed it (pictured above), I took a watch to the edge of a glacier in a blizzard in Iceland, and I created a macro stack of a watch’s movement that consisted of over 100 images. I was desperate to show watches in a way that had rarely been done, whether that meant in a ridiculous and frankly dangerous setting, or pushing photographic techniques to see what was possible.

Honestly, looking back, this paid dividends. It wasn’t hard to find more work when I was creating the most interesting work I could possibly create and I think the reason is twofold: the images were “rare” and so more eye-catching, even if they weren’t perfect, and I was confident and proud of my work. Then, somewhere along the line, I started to plateau. Companies would send me their watches and I could create strong images of them without pushing myself. The client was happy and I — and this is the key here — wasn’t unhappy. That is, I wasn’t happy as I felt I had more to give, but I wasn’t unhappy because I was being paid to create these images consistently.

As a result, what would have been better is if either the work had dried up, leaving me stressed about replacing that income stream, or I had grown unhappy with the work I was producing. Either situation would have been worse in the short term, but ultimately better for my work. Instead, I coasted for a while until I reached the point where I was sick of the work I was creating and needed to push myself forward. Although I was eventually motivated enough to make a change, waiting for the breaking point is not the best outcome by a long chalk.

So, as photographers, we need to ask ourselves: is our photography in the Region-beta zone? Are you content with the photographs you are taking and, if you’re being honest, are you pushing yourself to create great images? If you are, then rather than waiting until you get to the point of unhappiness with the craft (which could even lead to you quitting altogether), correct your course now and act.

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