Five Thoughts on Being a Photographer
During the summer of 2013, I spent a lot of time walking. I walked almost every day, making my way south through Europe as part of my attempt to walk from Stockholm to Sydney.
Walking every day left me with a lot of time to think and a lot of time to listen to audio books and podcasts.
Somewhere along the French Atlantic coast I started reflecting on a lot of what I was listening to and comparing it to what I had been helping teach in different photography schools during the last 10 or so years. I came to the conclusion that there were a few thoughts about being a photographer that were often not explored as much as they could be.
Some are more or less taken for granted and others are lost amongst all the other subjects that need to be covered.
This article is meant to highlight five thoughts that I think are important for photographers to consider.
I originally started writing this with the intention that it would become a book but after much back and forth I have decided to adopt a much more minimalistic approach and present it as a short article. It is meant to be a starting point for discussion.
In fact, I think it is a good starting point for a one-day workshop where students can discuss and explore these different aspects of their future trade.
I wish I could say that the ideas are all mine and new, but they are a mixture of ideas and concepts from many different sources. A few of them are:
Seth Godin’s books on marketing (they are all recommended reading).
The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss.
The title is a homage to the book “On being a Photographer” by David Hurn and Bill Jay. I originally found it through The Online Photographer website and it came to influence my approach to photography a great deal.
As I have already said, this is a starting point for discussion. It is not offered as any sort of absolute truth and I look forward to hearing a lot of thoughts and feedback from you all.
Why are you here?
I don’t mean the big existential question, I’ll leave that to others, but why are you here, wanting to be, or become, a photographer?
There are probably going to be as many reasons and motivations as photographers in the world. From just wanting to live the, supposedly, glamorous lifestyle, to trying to communicate your deepest thoughts in an attempt to help humanity.
Maybe you just want to be able to hang around in the local bar, wearing a worn leather jacket, with a battered Leica hanging off your shoulder, and talk about the good old days. Back when the only important question was how to develop your Pan-X film. (Hint, overexpose and under develop).
Your greatest ambition might be to rub shoulders with celebrities or tell the world about a great injustice. Share the beauty of nature or inspire people to explore the world.
There is no doubt that we all have different drives and ambitions, and because a photographer can be so many different things, in so many different fields, that variety is not only unavoidable, it is necessary.
But back to the question, why are you here?
Have you honestly sat down and tried to discern what drives you? What your ambitions are?
Are you here because of the people you might meet, or the places you might get to explore?
Or because of the story you could tell, because there seems to be no other way to express your inner art?
Does it even matter?
Well, yes and no.
There is no “correct” reason. I have seen photographers and students with all of these, and many, many other, different ambitions and drives, and there really is no right or wrong.
Why then bother with why?
If the ambitions themselves are all valid, why is it important to try to define them?
The reason is that if you are clear about what motivates you, you are in a much better place to draw on your strengths and work on your weaknesses.
A central theme in this article is going to be striving for excellence, and if you are clear about your motivations, then you will be in a much better position to decide your future.
Achieving excellence demands that you are able to focus your energies in the right places, at the right times, in order to improve and learn.
One of the biggest problems though, is that we humans are extremely good at fooling ourselves. We are masters of self deception, of explaining away our behaviour in the most plausible sounding ways.
My suggestion is that you talk this through with someone that knows you well and can help cut through the bullshit. Someone honest enough to help you focus on your true motivations and what they might entail.
If you know why you are here, you can start to map your future path with at least some precision. Know what to do or learn in order to realise your ambitions, without spending unnecessary time and energy on the wrong priorities.
Be as honest as possible.
There is even a chance that taking honest stock of what drives you and what you really want to achieve might lead you to choose a path that does not revolve around photography.
One final note. Everything changes with time. It is inevitable that your reasons for being a photographer will change and mature with time. It might be a good idea to revisit the why question every now and again to make sure you really understand why you are here.
Now that you know why you are here, it is time to consider what it is you want to share with the world. Sounds easy, but in practise, this can cause more dilemmas than you would expect.
A professional photographer will often be asked to photograph a wide range of different subjects, and some of them will probably not be what they find to be the most inspiring subjects in the world. But what I want to discuss here is your art, what you are interested in and find inspiring. The subject that makes you exceptional.
As a general rule, I have found that people do their best work when photographing a subject they find intriguing, something that inspires, excites and motivates them.
This usually means that they are either knowledgeable about it or fascinated enough to explore and discover everything about it.
They want to tell the world about it and how they feel about it. They need to expose the beauty, or possibly, the horror.
What fascinates you?
What do you want to explain to the world?
What is the most important story to share, right now?
This probably all sounds rather melodramatic, but it doesn’t have to be earth shattering. It only has to be what you are interested in exploring and sharing.
What ever it is, from the the beauty of tiny insects to the inside story on trafficking.
Even so, some students find it difficult to decide what they want to photograph.
So how do you get started?
It’s easier than you might think:
Just pick something that intrigues you and get started.
It’s is an ongoing process, let your interests and curiosity show the way and don’t be afraid to follow them.
As I will probably need to repeat in other sections:
Nothing generates more new ideas and gets you thinking about what to photograph more than the act of photography itself….
Even if you feel that you have only “bad” ideas, list them, write them down and think about them.
Talk about them.
It’s not uncommon for seemingly crazy ideas, explored through brainstorming and idle chatter to lead to insights, new ways to look at old subjects and maybe, just maybe, your personal vision. Ideas lead to ideas. Explore them, no matter how crazy they may seem in the beginning.
An extra benefit of following your curiosity is that you will be spending your time exploring something that is interesting to you.
We don’t have an unlimited amount of time here on earth. Wouldn’t you rather spend your time working of something you find important rather than something you are doing just to make money?
How do you become a world class piano player? Or lead dancer in a ballet company?
It’s exceedingly simple, you practise. A lot. A hell of a lot…
Like any other skill set, to become a great photographer you need to practise. To photograph a lot, in all the different types of situations that you will encounter. To be able to master your particular set of tools and bend them to your will.
A surprising number of photographers talk, or possibly think, about what they are going to photograph and how they are going to do it, but rarely just get out there and start pressing the shutter button.
It’s all good and well to consider and plan before you embark on a photographic project but please remember that there is a distinct possibility that the reality will turn out to be completely different.
That piece of equipment that is going to enable you to capture a unique moment might just not work the way you planned and the only way to discover that is to try.
With more experience it is easier to predict what is going to happen and the results that will be produced.
(Let me) Read part of that last sentence again…
“With more experience….”
How do you get experience?. Not by sitting around thinking about it, you need to get out there and do it.
There is a “rule” called the 10,000 hour rule which states that you need to spend 10,000 hours working at a specific skill set to become an expert. Not everybody agrees with this and it is certainly possible to attain a high proficiency with less time, but you do need to practice. Even so called child prodigies have, when examined closely, hours and hours of practice behind them before they magically get discovered.
So get out there and produce. Work on projects, try new ideas and equipment. Expose yourself to challenging situations.
Explore your craft and vision.
There are other benefits to producing as well.
You are going to generate a body of work that you might be able to draw from for your portfolio. You will have material and ideas to show potential clients, work that shows who you are and what interests you.
You will meet people and create contacts. The sort of contacts that now know that you are a photographer and one that is serious and working on her art.
Contacts in the fields that fascinate you. Contacts that discover that you care about their interests and have, or would like to acquire, inside knowledge that will help tell their story more clearly.
You will hopefully find the subjects that inspire you, and in doing so, deepen your understanding of them and how you can portray them.
Lesser but equally important benefits are that you will have material to fine tune your post production with, get your workflow functioning as smoothly as possible and sort out your backup requirements. Among other things….
As I have already stated:
Nothing generates more new ideas and gets you thinking about how to photograph more than the act of photography itself….
Photography is a medium of communication. It involves showing images in order to elicit a response from a viewer.
Everything I have ever read or listened to about productivity, marketing, self improvement or changing the world, always involves shipping. Actually sharing your ideas or the result of all your hard work.
In fact one of the common character traits I find when I read the biographies of famous, successful people is how driven they always seem to be to share their work and ideas.
A quote from Steve Jobs:
“If it hasn’t shipped, it hasn’t happened”
For your work to have any meaning at all, it has to impact somebody. If you don’t share it you not only lose the opportunity for it to have effect, you also lose the opportunity of learning and advancing your craft.
Not only do you need to stop only talking about what you plan to do and start producing, you then have to work it into something presentable and let it loose on the world.
This is often much more difficult than it seems. The temptation to never finish, forever polishing or finding new pieces to work on can be very strong.
The wish to just make this a little better, that a little clearer and make the whole package more complete can be never ending.
Although this document is all about achieving excellence in your work, if you refuse to share it, how can you ever know if it is exceptional?
If it impacts anyone?
If it reaches its target audience?
If it tells the story the way you want to?
The biggest reason most photographers feel disinclined to share their work is fear of failure.
Nobody likes to fail or to miss the mark but you will learn nothing by hiding your art from fear of failure.
The reactions, feedback and comments you get from sharing your work are essential tools to making it better.
It only takes a small shift in how you perceive not being 100% successful to understand that the reactions to your work is a chance to learn.
The more you “fail”, the more you increase your chance of learning.
No matter how much time you spend polishing a turd, being afraid to show it to the world, it is still just a turd. It might be better to “fail” and learn how you can change your approach to maximize your intended impact.
If you fail 10 times, you have learned at least 10 new things.
In one of his books, Seth Godin recites a list of his failures. It’s a long list!
But he learned something from each one and took that knowledge with him to become very successful. Not despite of his failures, but because of what he learned from them.
If you are trying to polish your story telling and are passionate about sharing your ideas with the world, don’t you think that a little feedback on how you are managing that is essential? If everybody misses the point, might there be another, potentially better way to do it? If nobody sees the beauty in your subject, the grandeur of your vision or the horror behind your story, are you doing something wrong?
More importantly, what can you do to improve and close in on your intended reaction?
The feedback from your “failures” will help you.
Although slightly beside the point, one important point to remember is that critic of your work is just that. Critic of your work, not of you. I might very well love you as a person and hate your photography, in the same way that a person I find obnoxious produces work that fascinates me.
Seek out critic and feedback in order to hone your skills and the only way to do that is to share your work.
What I want to discuss here is not the market per se.
If you should consider getting started in stock or concentrate on shooting weddings.
What I want you to consider is how you approach the market.
The so called “digital revolution” has in many ways democratised the field of professional photography. With all the thousands of advanced amateurs out there, all very capable of producing reasonably “good” work, why should the market choose you?
What do you bring to the table that makes you exceptional?
It’s important that understand that the opposite of exceptional is not bad, it’s good. Strive to be exceptional.
I am going to assume; with all the risks that entails, that you have all the basics covered. You have a professional demeanour, deliver high quality material, and do it on time.
What else can you do?
Chase Jarvis, amongst many others, suggests that you always, in every job, strive to deliver something extra.
Extraodinary service or maybe an extra shot or two that shows a different, perspective.
Be involved and care about what you do. Infuse it with your vision and make it exceptional.
But in order to be able to do that, to have the energy and time needed, you have to get paid for your work. Don’t undervalue your work, make sure you are paid reasonable rates.
Don’t work for by-lines or the promise of future work. Especially from established companies or media outlets. If you do good, I mean exceptional, work and they are using it to make money, then there is no reason at all for you to work for free.
In fact, I would much rather do one job, and do it as well as I possible can, rather than try to do two jobs for the same money. Guess which one I have the best chance delivering exceptional images for?
If, though I don’t recommend it, you find yourself working at a discount, make sure the invoice reflects this. You don’t want your customers to think that is your usual rate!
That said, is there any situation that warrants working for free?
I think there is, but only under some very special circumstances. Donating your services, or images, to a charity is one. As long as it is a charity that you support, then I am all for working for free. That is a completely different situation from being used by a company that is making money from your work.
Another situation might be if one of your good friends is starting her own fashion label and has absolutely no money for marketing. If it is a real friend, see it as an opportunity to put your touch on the company image and as an investment in the future.
Don’t forget that you should always be working on your own material as well. Expanding your visions and exploring your interests. Unfortunately, this personal work is often unpaid, especially in the beginning. But do not let that stop you producing and sharing!
The point is that the market does not owe you anything. To succeed you need to deliver more than expected.
Approach the market not with a sense of entitlement, but with an ambition to make a difference, to always be exceptional.
I hope this starts some spirited discussions.
I’m going to borrow a marketing tip from Seth Godin and ask that if you found this interesting, then share it with ten of your friends and ask them to do the same.
If you found it very interesting and you would like to donate something to enable me to keep walking and thinking new thoughts, you can do so through my web site, www.the-walk.se.
Just click on the go fund me link.
Whatever you do, keep following my adventures as I continue trying to become a minimalist vagabond while I walk from Stockholm to Sydney.
Remember, keep walking!