10 WAYS TO NOT BECOME A SUCCESSFUL PHOTOGRAPHER

Last week, Atlanta-based music photographer and noted blogger Zack Arias posted a partly sobering and partially hilarious blog post that has received a great deal of attention (all of Zack’s posts should receive a great deal of attention). Zack described a moment of apprehension and anxiety similar to those that we all deal with as small business people, that moment when a day job sounds like a good idea and the stresses of running our own businesses can really creep up on us. Thankfully, Zack also made it very clear that he had no intention of leaving photography and that this was merely a momentary reaction to stress. We all have that little voice somewhere in the back of our head  that wants to undermine our desires and prevent us from taking chances. That unevolved chunk of animal brain cells that craves survival and an absence of risks is always telling us to play it safe. We need to make a conscious effort to stifle this ingrained self-sabotage impulse and push ourselves to be more than a mere creature concerned with nothing besides its immediate survival. The second and more entertaining part of Zack’s post was a rather comical but poignant rant about the abject pointlessness of generic “Top Ten Ways to Become a Pro Photographer” lists. Zack’s primary complaint, and agreeably so, is that these lists tend to offer advice that is so below the “should not need to be said” as to be insulting and useless. Tips like “breath”, “get a portfolio” and “think about getting some business cards” don’t really provide any benefit and are, as Zack says, an exercise in making more noise than signal.

It is true that some things do go without saying. Sadly, it is also true that some thing should go without saying. These lists of very obvious and very trite suggestions on how to better your career leave a lot to be desired in terms of usable content, but what about a list of common behaviors that can hurt you? It goes without saying that these ideas are just as basic and simple as their counterparts that angered Zack Arias so much last week, and they too should go without saying, but sadly these patterns of behavior are still exhibited by so many that they call for their own top ten list.

10. Fear Technology, Dread Change

“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.” -Stewart Brand

The ongoing evolution of technology is a constant. In fact, the rate at which technology advances is ever quickening in pace. Ray Kurzweil’s predicated technological singularity becomes more and more of a certainty with every year that goes by and every oncoming advancement of technology. Despite the saturation of technology that betters both our personal and creative lives, there are still those resistant to any type of change, warily viewing new ideas and technologies as possible threats, or outright defaming them as a cancerous blight on the industry and their old guard view of what they perceive the industry “should” be. When digital photography started to gain widespread popularity there was a division between the camps that embraced it and those who decried it as the downfall of the photographic industry, a debate that almost seems absurd now, as even those who still choose to shoot film do so as an aesthetic choice, and with an intelligent understanding of digital technology. Later, the rise of digital distribution and social media made waves with photographers to whom these concepts were foreign and frightening, while for others it was a beneficial new catalyst to creating interaction. There is no room for the reactionary Luddite in this technological world. New ideas and technologies, even if ultimately rejected, should still be examined and their beneficial content acknowledged or reworked into a form that better serves your needs. But an outright fear of change is becoming such a handicap as to be a major detriment to the industry that these purists claim to defend.  Ultimately, technology is a tool, and we should be leveraging and implementing these tools to the best of our abilities. Not everyone needs to be an early adopter, but we need to let go of these fears and embrace the fact that new technology is beneficial.

9. Don’t Edit Your Work

“There is but one art, to omit.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson

Too often I have seen artists whose portfolios sadly contain page after page of filler or suffer from Flickr syndrome, that is, ten pages showing every single frame from a single production. The art of editing is one that has somewhat suffered from the digital revolution. The changes brought about by the digital era have led to a changing view of quantity vs content. Because we are generally no longer working with physical or cost constraints there is a tendency to over publish. 12-36 frames on a roll of film has leapt up to 32 GB memory cards that can hold hundreds of images, the physical restrictions, and page counts of a traditional book have been replaced by websites with nearly unlimited abilities to store and display images. These technological capabilities, when taken on their own merit, are nothing short of awesome and revolutionary when held against the limitations of the past. But it all comes back to the old adage “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Yes, the ability to show every frame from your latest shoot is a technological marvel, but it is the ability to hone in on that one perfect frame that perfectly expresses the story you are trying to tell or the concept you are trying to illustrate that can set you apart from all the noise out there. Showing too much work dilutes your message, especially when that work does not support your vision or stand up to the rest of your book.  The need to overpopulate your portfolio shows a lack of confidence in your own work. In the world of literature there are  three-line haiku’s that have just as much profound insight and validity as a novel or epic poem, a book is not better just because it has more pages. Always strive to show amazing work, not impress people with your page count.

8. Only Make Images for Other People

“We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves to be like other people.” -Arthur Schopenhauer

How can you enjoy your successes if you don’t enjoy what you do? Success can be measured in more than just dollar signs, so never let go of the passions that drove you to become a photographer (or any other discipline of creative, for that matter) in the first place. Make sure that you always bring something of yourself to your work. Care about what you create, feed your passion into it, show your drive to excel, prove your unique vision, and make yourself an integral part of what you make. If your main niche of photography lacks a lot of creative involvement then go out and shoot personal work for yourself. Photography is a difficult career path to choose. The ones that excel are the ones with the love and desire to do this so badly that even when it seems impossible they keep moving forward and loving the act of creating images. They keep growing and learning and getting better at what they do because they care so much. If you lose your love of what you do, what you are left with is just a job you hate, and I can think of better paying jobs to hate than photography. If you don’t like the types of assignments you are getting from clients then go and shoot a new body of work for yourself, work that showcases your interests and talents, work that you can show to prospective clients to start getting the type of assignments you want to be doing.

7. Put More Importance On Your Gear Than Your Work

“A determined soul will do more with a rusty monkey wrench than a loafer will accomplish with all the tools in a machine shop. ” -Robert Hughes

If I have to read one more forum exchange on why Canon is better than Nikon or see another discussion about a great emotionally charged image where the first question is “what camera was this shot with? What f/stop was this shot at?” I will be forced to scream until my vocal cords go on strike. We cannot afford to be mere technicians. The knowledge and ability to become a great technical photographer is easily accessible to anyone willing to put in the effort to learn it. When you reduce a creative endeavor to a purely technical exercise you remove all the magic and emotion from it. Technique is important but often needs to be secondary to the intangibles of photography. Those personal creative choices that we make within each image are what makes our work stand out, these unique visions and opinions are what sets us apart from other photographers. Our creative abilities and outlooks are the true value we bring to our clients, more than being able to produce a technically perfect, but lifeless, image.

6. Play the Victim

“Self-pity is easily the most destructive of the non-pharmaceutical narcotics; it is addictive, gives momentary pleasure and separates the victim from reality.” -John W. Gardner

Nothing can rob you of momentum worse than wallowing in self-pity. I have seen photographers despairing about the state of their business and making poorly thought-out decisions based on depression with a sort of masochistic enthusiasm reminiscent of a junkie craving their next fix. I speak with people from all creative fields who seal their fate before they even try to realize it. The logic of this baffles me sometimes. I have seen photographers who won’t market their work because they are sure buyers won’t like it. I have seen people afraid to make cold calls because they are banking on rejection. I have seen creatives slash their rates to poverty levels before a potential client had even responded to the initial quote out of fear of rejection. These same creatives are the first ones to start complaining about the industry, clients, or the work of others. The fact is, being negative is easy, and addictive. Sour grapes is a bitter taste, but one that some people seem to love. Do not rob yourself of opportunities through inaction. People may very well say no to you, but if you don’t ask I can guarantee they will never say yes.

5. Don’t Share, Don’t Learn

“Talent is always conscious of its own abundance, and does not object to sharing.” -Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Chase Jarvis recently related a story during his recent Photo Expo keynote address that during his early career he developed a policy of transparency in which he began to share his creative and technical methods with others. Several of the more established photographers in his Seattle market took a great deal of offense to him sharing this type of info with amateurs, beginners, and outsiders.  Some were so bothered by this act of openness and sharing that they went so far as to physically threaten Chase. We are a community of creatives. By sharing and learning from each other we enrich the industry as a whole, increase the level of discourse about photography and business, and all benefit as a result. We are not magicians revealing a trick to outsiders. We are professionals and artists who are bettering the industry and quality of work overall by sharing information and by pushing and encouraging each other to be the absolute best that we can be. If you have such an issue with possible competition or your work relies on a single technique or trick, then you need to desperately re-examine your business plan and creative philosophy. Competition can be one of the most positive factors in pushing you to improve as an artist and person. It is a healthy influence that can stop you from stagnating or becoming lazy.

4. Undervalue Yourself

“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” -Oscar Wilde

Once again, the ugly beast of self-doubt makes itself known. It seems to me that one of the major issues plaguing this industry is the chronic behavior of photographers undervaluing their own work. Too many times I have had conversations with other photographers in which they described taking a job at a rate in which they actually lost money on under the justifications of “I need to work” and “You wouldn’t understand, I have to put food on the table”. This type of behavior is so detrimental and toxic, not just to the industry, but on a personal level. How can you expect your clients to place value on your work when you cannot even bring yourself to do so? Demonstrate the value that your creativity brings to others beyond bottom-line price. Your insight, vision, energy, quality of work, and ability to deliver consistently great images are all values that make you more than just a number on an invoice.

3. Neglect the Business Side

“To open a shop is easy, to keep it open is an art” – Chinese Proverb

Take a business course, join the ASMP or similar organization, or find a business mentor. I cannot stress enough that we are involved in a creative business. We must be equal parts artist and entrepreneur in this era. The only way to make sure that we can maintain the ability to keep creating work at a professional level and support ourselves is to be as well versed in the tactics of business as we are behind a camera. Learning how to deal with the basics of negotiation, insurance,  managing expenses and taxes, billing, contracts, and protecting your intellectual property can be daunting, but is absolutely vital to your success as a creative professional. This is one area where having a skilled support team in the form of a knowledgeable lawyer and accountant on your side can help, but there are several aspects of business that you must learn to handle on your own as a small business person. For every photography blog you read you should be reading a business one as well.

2. Stop Growing

“Change and growth take place when a person has risked himself and dares to become involved with experimenting with his own life.” -Herbert A. Otto

Creativity relies on growth. If we stagnate our work will stop evolving and we will begin to lose our passion for what we do. Can you imagine anything more boring than going though life on autopilot? Don’t allow the safety of the status quo to lull you sleep. Make it a rule to learn something new every week and push yourself to take on personal assignments that make you uncomfortable, push youself outside of the box of your day-to-day routine. Travel, eat food that grossed you out as a kid. watch films with subtitles, and always be creating something new. When we stop growing we lose so much of ourselves to apathy and become rigid, resist change, fear the future, and we become bitter about our pasts. Change rejuvenates us and provides new opportunities. It keeps us sharp, and it keeps us from being average.

1. Be An Asshole

“A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person” -Dave Barry

Seriously, don’t be an asshole, even if your work is top-notch. People want to work with people that they like working with. If you make life miserable for everyone around you, no one will want to be around you. This is a lesson that transcends photography. This is a life lesson. Help others, share information, make the world better, and create. Don’t be a pushover, but don’t be a rotten prick either.

105 comments
  1. Ashley said:

    Thank you SO much for this post Luke. It is very inspiring to me. I’m new to the photography world and have just completed my first two human photo shoots this week. I’ve photographed horses for years and LOVE it! But I want to expend and be great. It was completely nerve wrecking photographing a new born and an engaged couple. I did only get a few good shots that I feel are print worthy. But as you said, a few are better than none! Reading this blog has really helped lift me up. I’ve felt in the dumps and that maybe I can’t make it photographing people. I’m going to keep trying though. I know I can get better with more practice, it was only two shoots!! Thank you again! I’m a new follower of your blog for sure. :-)

    Like

    • Keep at it – keep shooting and practicing and getting better and better. Be tough on yourself and edit, edit, and edit some more. You’ll get there.

      Like

  2. this is great stuff. but…why is it written in the negative?

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    • Because it was meant as a reaction to the the empty and pointless advice given in over simplified internet lists like “10 simple ways to start a photography business” that have terrible and often oversimplified advice like “breath” and “get business cards”. When I wrote this I was frustrated with the negative patterns I saw a lot of my colleagues (and myself at times) caught in within the larger culture of photography. With the positive often being so empty in those cases I decided to treat the negative with some depth.

      Like

  3. Steve said:

    It seems that every few months some website, blog or facebook post offers the top 10 list on becoming a professional photographer.

    Most of these are so ridiculous that it is a wonder why anyone still bothers to read them.

    Here is how most go:

    Buy a camera, get a website, build a portfolio, and get some business cards, yada, yada, yada.

    Here’s a real list that will make you a professional photographer:

    Step 1: Choose the 80 hours per week that you are going to work.

    Now this may seem tough, but you do have 7 days to get in those hours.

    Step 2: Pick 10 days per year that you really want to have off work.

    Now you aren’t going to actually get these days off, but everyone should have a dream or goal to work towards.

    Step 3: Take a really good picture of yourself.

    This picture isn’t for you. It’s for your family and friends so that they have some idea of what you look like.

    Step 4: Choose the 30 hours per week that you complain about your decision to be a photographer.

    Trust me, this will happen all the time. It will dawn on you soon enough that professional photography has very little to do with taking pictures. It’s meetings, emails, phone calls, scheduling, and rethinking your choice.

    Step 5: It’s not about you or your pretty pictures.

    In the real world, you are delivering results that the client wants. They don’t care that you think that you can do it better or make it prettier. It’s not about you, it’s about them.

    Step 6: Stay away from amateur photographers on the internet.

    Visit any forum and you’ll read all sorts of opinions on what is the best camera, the best format, the best editing program, and the best of whatever. Then you’ll hear about how it should be done. Guess what buttercup, if these people could be doing it, they would be doing it, not just talking about it.

    Step 7: Everything breaks.

    In the world of professional photography, you will break gear. You need backups of backups and even then, you won’t have enough.

    Step 8: Clients don’t care.

    This is the hardest part for most people. They take things too personally. The client only cares about their images. If you get sick or die, they will simply move onto the next photographer.

    Step 9: It’s all business, all the time.

    Business has 1 goal. Be profitable. The moment you think it has anything to do with anything else, you will fail.

    Step 10: Rinse and repeat.

    The world of professional photography has many perks and can be quite rewarding, but it is a business and must be treated as such. It’s easy to look at those gigs the pros get that bring in 5 figures and think, I can do that. What you don’t see is the hundreds of hours in preparation, the hours of grief, and the hours away from everyone else.

    Never allow yourself to believe that photography has anything to do with taking pics. On average a pro photographer will spend 40 hours working for every 1 hour of taking pictures.

    Like

  4. Anita said:

    I think you could shorten the title to “10 Ways Not to Become Successful”.
    This can be applied to any avenue.
    Excellent read. Thanks.

    Like

    • That’s a great idea, It’s wonderful to know this post appeals to so many people outside of the photo world.

      Like

  5. I love number 9. Don’t Edit Your Work — I see too many images online, particularly landscapes, that are so over-edited they do not look natural at all. I think this is actually insulting to the actual landscape itself. Nature was intended to be just that – natural! These days its easy for anyone to buy a great camera, keep it in auto mode, snap some photos, edit like crazy and then call themselves a “photographer”.
    I still shoot in film actually (in addition to digital of course) so that I don’t loose the sense for natural light and composure. I use my digital camera in Manual mode and make the camera do the work, so that I have to edit very very little.

    Like

    • To clarify, in that section I was speaking more about editing in terms of culling your portfolio and showing only your best work rather than having an overly large collection of images with many variations or duplicates. I want to encourage people to confidently craft a direction for their body of work as a whole.

      In regards to retouching ones work I can certainly understand your sentiment in terms of wanting to maintain a natural aesthetic if that aesthetic is what works for you. However there are many accomplished artists and photographers who extensively use photoshop and pre-visualize their post production concepts as part of their comprehensive creative vision. Whatever method you choose or aesthetic works for the story you are telling is valid – regardless of the tools you use. More important is to tell your story the way you want to tell it and to share it with people in a concise manner that is thought out.

      Like

  6. Thanks Luke, there are a whole lot of things that you have shared that I really needed to hear today, what a great post, thank you!

    Like

  7. Jared said:

    I’ve experienced #1 first hand by another photographer who has demonised my business because I wasn’t official at a show where it is EXCEEDINGLY difficult to become official. This photographer being an asshole to me didn’t encourage me to be there as the next generation of coverage for events they have just greatly discouraged me from ever attending that ahow again. The photographer in question is older and will retire soon leaving the coverage to no one which ironically is their fear. If they wanted to secure the next gen of photographers for event coverage maybe they should encourage young people like me instead of encouraging their own fears to come true. Theor work may be ok but that doesn’t make it ok to be an ass hole to the next generation of photographers for horse event coverage.

    Like

    • Jared said:

      *show
      *their

      whoops I must be tired

      Like

  8. Wayne said:

    Great stuff: both the original “10” and the responses. This may be the most intelligent discussion on photography that I’ve ever witnessed.

    I’ve saved the site to my Photography Instruction folder.

    Like

  9. My english is a little bit poor, but I’m sure I would have say/write something approaching ;-)
    You’re true !

    Like

  10. Awesome article…
    People often ask why I share my knowledge and if I am afraid that others would take my clients… I am not afraid of that because I am confident of my style, my work, my approach to it, my personality, etc….

    Like

  11. LUIS TREVINO said:

    This applies to our daily lives as people and professionals. THANKS! LUIS TREVINO

    Like

  12. Greg Rodgers said:

    Great list and words of wisdom!

    Like

  13. Kool Ed said:

    Archiving this post and will keep coming back to it forever for refreshers!!

    Like

  14. Being able to offer yourself the insight is a biggie. Nearly every asshole I know has no idea he or she is being one. And won’t listen to anyone that tries to tell them.

    Like

  15. Interesting conversation. Especially #1. I can’t imagine buying anything from some of the photogs I’ve met. I wonder if they have every learned about people skills and if they realize that people buy from people they like.
    Jared…we photograph a lot of events where we are the official photographer. We have worked long and hard, invested heavily in our business and our equipment and our knowledge. Of course we resent others “showing up” hoping to gain access and sell their work..it’s money out of our pocket. I have a suggestion…..come up to our booth, introduce yourself and spend some time learning what we do and how we do it..we are always looking for new folks to mentor and learn..

    Like

  16. Antonella said:

    Grandioso e illuminante!!…impressive and enlightening!!…I’m not a photographer but It helps me in my dentist job too :)…grazie davvero..

    Like

  17. I love it, great read. There was a lot of good tips that I completely agree with, and then those lovely tips that I try to ignore. #9 is pretty good but #7.. I hate when people blame the camera, and think that all their problems will be solved if only they had a better camera. Ha!

    Like

  18. C. Yang said:

    I don’t know how old this post is but no matter, I love it! This is a good post to go back to over and over and over and over…again. A good reminder of why I set off to do what I am doing and to believe in myself and push forward. I agree with every aspect of the post in regards to the title. Thank you!

    Like

  19. Couldn’t be more accurate. Far too often we see new “photographers” try to enter the market with zero technical skills, no understanding of business and are impossible to deal with. I shake my head and wonder who would ever hire these folks to capture and preserve that one significant moment in time that cannot be redone.
    It is bad enough they have no skills but even worse when they are, as you put it, assholes.

    Like

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