A Photographer's Guide to a Rewarding Career
The self help section of my local library is overflowing with titles dedicated to leading a happy life. A few aisles over in the photography area however, the topics are mostly limited to ways to control your camera and process digital files. There's little on the practical skills needed to sustain a career and maintain one's joy of photography. Photography is a rewarding profession, but it's also abundant in potential traps and pitfalls. To avoid falling victim to these, it helps to have a code of values to lean on. Over the last decade, these are the methods which have consistently guided me in times of uncertainty.
1) Don’t waste your energies comparing yourself harshly against other photographers. Instead, focus on creating your best work and making it original. If you see a particularly spectacular photo, use it as an educational tool. What techniques did the photographer use that you might be able to adopt in your own unique way? Their success is likely the result of a long sustained effort. With patience and persistence, you too will create head-turning work.
2) Accept jobs not solely for the money, but agree to only those that are artistically stimulating or provide an opportunity for creative growth. This is easier said than done, especially when we all have bills and pressing responsibilities. Yet, as the writer Anais Nin noted in 1941, “There is an ugliness in being paid for work one does not like.” By filling the calendar with unfulfilling tasks, we lose the opportunity to nurture more rewarding projects. Sometimes, we have to walk away from one job in order to find something even more rewarding.
3) Avoid categorizing yourself with labels, or engaging in debates that seek to define terms such as “professional” and “amateur”. A good photographer is not concerned with these phrases, but rather focuses on their craft. The word amateur is often does not imply a lack of skill. The actual definition is "to do something for the love of". This is the spirit that all professionals should strive to retain throughout their career.
4) Do not profess to have all the answers. Those with true knowledge understand how much more there is to learn. This path to learning is not limited solely to photography content. Inspiration can come from any number of disciplines including science, literature, and music. Today, there is so much information available at our fingertips. The challenge is not where to find it, but how to save it. I use a service called "Pocket" to save intriguing articles for future reference. Synced with their app, one can even read offline on a phone or tablet. This simple solution provides the ability to tune out all of the social noise, and focus on more thoughtful content.
5) Face issues head on, putting fear and uncertainty in their proper place. When I'm asked if photographing strangers on the streets is intimidating, the answer is "YES - and that's why I do it." Rarely is the path to success found along the unobstructed road. When we overcome obstacles, it makes us stronger. This kind of growth benefits us personally and professionally. Dale Carnegie said "Inaction breeds doubt and fear, action breeds confidence and courage."
6) Act not in haste, but with thoughtful deliberation, never quick to draw conclusions or join pessimistic company whether online or in person. The internet has given everyone an equal voice. In many cases, this has extremely beneficial. Yet, there are countless forum threads and blog posts that are sharing misinformation. For example, I've seen dozens of people claim a high quality camera or lens was producing blurry images. When pressed for more factual details, their technique was clearly at the root of the issue. Photographing a moving subject with a shutter speed of 1/15 without a tripod will make blurry photos every time, even with vibration reduction or image stabilization. With proper technique, the same products are capable of professional quality results. Always check the source and cross reference with independent research.
7) Take all constructive criticism thankfully, as it holds greater value than superfluous compliments. At a time when many business owners are paying for more "likes", it's easy to lose sight of this. Yet as author Anna Quindlen notes, “If you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.” To truly stand apart, seek real engagement with your audience. Their feedback may contain the kind of insight that we, as the creator of the work, can't see. As the artist, you have the option to embrace or ignore it.
8) Recognize that shortcuts will only cause you to miss important mile markers, ultimately postponing your arrival at the desired destination. If one wants to enjoy long term success, a strong foundation is key. This starts with a solid knowledge of manual exposure, the important camera features, and the language of photography. Buying more expensive gear won't result in leapfrogging the competition. No matter what piano an untrained musician sits at, they still can't play it. The effort you put in now will be rewarded later. This is echoed by writer Henry Miller who said "In this age, which believes that there is a shortcut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest."
9) Many photographers fall victim to "GAS" (gear acquisition syndrome). The truth is, your success has very little to do with what tool you're using, and more to do with your unique vision. Great images can be made from a phone to a DSLR and everything in between. Statistically speaking it's actually rather simple. By carrying a camera at all times, your photo opportunities increase, and with it, your success ratio soars. Remember, a camera's image quality is only as good as the person controlling it.
10) Before reaching any breathtaking vista, you must first climb, sweat, and navigate around thickets. This type of persistence is equally important on the path to good photography. Even the greatest photographers of all time had outings that were less than ideal. Perhaps no finer example than this story from Ansel Adams. He just spent a frustrating day with "several exasperating trials." Yet Adams wasn't discouraged, noting that "defeat comes occasionally to all photographers, as to all politicians, and there is no use moaning about it." He got back in the car, started driving, and soon found a majestic scene that would become one of his most famous works, Moonrise, Hernandez. Whether you're just starting your photography pursuit, or are exploring new creative avenues, you never know what treasures will greet you around the next bend.